Macedonia's Elections: Lustration+Antiquization=Ochlocracy

VMRO-DPMNE campaign poster 2008: original photograph by Hans Poldoja


VMRO-DPMNE election poster featuring Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, Ohrid, 2008. Original photograph by Hans Poldoja.

For several months, opposition parties in Macedonia have been calling for parliamentary elections. Now, following a mid-February visit to Washington DC, and a meeting with Vice-President Biden, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has agreed. Parliament will dissolve on March 30 and elections will be held within the next two months.   So far, so good. Apart from the long-running feud with Greece over the name “Macedonia,” the news out of Macedonia has been mostly encouraging for Western audiences in recent years. The country has a record of solid economic performance (qualifying for a new IMF instrument, a precautionary credit line), and of reliable service in the international military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  After an Albanian insurgency in 2001 threatened to wreak havoc, political elites have cooperated to manage intercommunal tensions, keeping Macedonia off the front pages and on track for EU accession.  Prime Minister Gruevski entered politics as a technocrat and a pragmatist: he rebranded VMRO-DPMNE, a self-avowedly nationalist party, as center-right, without disillusioning the party’s strong local organization.  After the party formed coalitions with two Albanian parties, drew in non-partisan experts from the Macedonia diaspora, and backed Gjorge Ivanov, a civil society activist, as its presidential candidate in 2009, it was easy to conclude that democracy had finally taken root.

Why, then, are so many smart people in Macedonia so vehemently opposed to Gruevski? Because they see his methods and core beliefs as a profound threat to the country’s democratic future.  This goes beyond the kind of party and family favoritism, disregard for transparency, and corruption, that citizens have come to expect from Macedonian politicians. So accusations of nepotism, (especially when Gruevski appointed his first cousin Saso Mijalkov, as chief of internal security), and criticisms of the threat that obsessive party discipline poses to parliamentarian ideals, could be read as business as usual. 

What is far more alarming is the direct assaults that Gruevski has orchestrated over the past two and a half years on the institutions which provide the checks and balances in a democracy. Gruevski announced his intentions in a letter to VMRO-DPMNE party members in November 2008, in which he called for a national battle against those he termed “traitors.” This was followed in December  2008 by legal attacks against two prominent former government ministers, Vlado Buckovski (accused of illicitly profiting from a defense deal)  and Ljubomir Frckoski, (sued by Gruevski, personally, for libel).   January 2009 saw the formation of a highly politicized lustration commission, to examine the records of today’s public officials.

Spring 2009 saw Gruevski focus his energies on presidential and local elections, in which VMRO-DPMNE, along with its coalition partners, gained control of 56 of Macedonia’s 84 municipalities.  Gjorge Ivanov, the former civil society activist and VMRO-DPMNE presidential candidate, also won, and has subsequently paid his dues by sticking closely to VMRO-DPMNE positions.  With his political supremacy affirmed, Gruevski then returned to the offensive.  In October 2010 the president of the constitutional court, Trendafil Ivanovski, was accused of collaboration with state secret service during the Yugoslav period. Following a series of government-supported denunciations of media bias, in November 2010, police raided the offices of the TV network, A1; the owner, Velja Ramkovski, was arrested in late December, and the station’s assets frozen in January 2011.  Also in January 2011, it was announced that the lustration commission would extend its inquiries to NGO leaders, lawyers, journalists, and clerics. This was followed by passage of a new law on higher education, which increased state control over the university system.  Following protests by faculty at the main University in Skopje, the law was passed in emergency parliamentary session.

As others have noted, these actions suggest a clear pattern; the current regime is systematically deploying its power to destroy or hollow out all the constitutional systems of checks and balances. Having instilled loyalty within the party, they next went after the political opposition, discrediting potential leaders and plausible candidates for the presidency.  The next target was the judiciary branch, specifically the head of the constitutional court which had challenged government decision-making. Currently, the third sector (civil society) and the fourth estate (media) are under direct assault; A1 has been consistently critical of VMRO-DPMNE’s policies and tactics, while professors at the University have been central figures in organizing public forums like those convened by GEM (Citizens for European Macedonia) in which a wide range of citizens have voiced concerns over the country’s direction, and called out for change.

Among the top priorities for a majority of Macedonia’s citizens, as expressed in polls, is EU membership, which seems more remote now than it did when VMRO-DPMNE came to power.  The reason is opposition from Greece, on the grounds that the name “Macedonia” is part of the Greek national brand. Negotiations between the two countries broke down when Gruevski’s government renamed Skopje’s airport “Alexander the Great” in December 2006 and also, in early 2009, rechristened a stretch of highway “Alexander of Macedon.”  Neighborly relations have been further damaged by VMRO-DPMNE’s ambitious project to remake Skopje’s city center with a set of monuments to historical figures and neo-classical public buildings that will culminate in the erection of a giant statue of Alexander the Great in the city’s main square.

30 Democracy's facade: the new, neo-classical home of the Constitutional Court


VMRO-DPMNE calls all this “renaissance;” critics dub it “antiquization.” Combined with Macedonian government-funded TV commercials and film trailers that trace continuity between ancient and modern-day Macedonians, and which question Greece’s status as a modern democracy, the effect is to erode the basis for any kind of negotiation.

Gruevski’s policies as premier, then, operate precisely against what Macedonia’s citizens say that they want: accession to the European Union.   Yet Gruevski, his party and their allies continue to dominate the polls. They do so because antiquization works as handmaiden to the politics of institutional destruction.  VMRO-DPMNE’s conjuring of a glorious, ancestral past brilliantly taps into, and offers a common-sense solution for, the uncertainties of nation that many Macedonians feel as a form of personal lack.  The campaign has a feel-good, flattering quality, offering Macedonia’s citizens (or at least those who identify themselves as members of the Macedonian nation) the illusion of deep roots to a world-figure in place of straight talk about the demands of the present and future. 

This two-pronged strategy of destroying potential foci of opposition or criticism, while stoking up national pride through populism, is hardly new.  The pattern was diagnosed by the 2nd century BC Greek historian and political philosopher Polybius, whose idea of the mixed constitution has informed republican theorists to this day.  When populist politicians blame earlier leaders for current problems (lustration) and puff up ordinary citizens to believe in their own innate greatness (antiquization), they subvert democracy, and engineer what Polybius, drawing on his own studies of classical Greek history, termed ochlocracy.  Usually translated as “mob-rule,” ochlocracy is a form of government in which the expertise, institutional structure and spaces of legitimate criticism that are vital to democratic debate over real issues have been destroyed by unscrupulous leaders.  Unless a state can maintain a mixed constitution, Polybius argues, they follow a predetermined evolution, in which ochlocracy marks a transition from democracy to dictatorship.  

Macedonia’s antiquization, then, is not just about laying claim to a contested past, provoking Greece, or self-delusion.  It goes much deeper.  VMRO-DPMNE’s tactics and behavior over the past two years, wittingly or no, have taken the country down an anti-democratic path foreseen by a conservative Greek theorist, over two millennia ago.  Now, with a compliant president and parliament, a fractured political opposition, and a beleaguered third sector and fourth estate, Gruevski is poised to win another five-year term. Perhaps concerned at the prospects of a colored revolution, though, he is leaving nothing to chance.  Macedonia’s government has cashed in on international approval of their economic policy to date and drawn $317 million from its IMF credit-line to fill its election war chest.

A VMRO-DPMNE victory will ensure that Alexander the Great takes his triumphant place in Skopje’s main square.  For students of ancient history and contemporary politics, this will be strangely fitting.  When  Macedon’s monarchy rose to prominence, it dealt the final death blow to Athenian democracy, exemplified in the career of Philip and Alexander’s most tenacious critic, Demosthenes.   Although he outlived them both, Demosthenes was hounded to his death by their successors after his final, unsuccessful attempt to lead a democratic revolution against Macedonian domination.   By choosing to fetishize Alexander, and thereby celebrate the virtues of relentless persecution of anti-authoritarian opposition, VMRO-DPMNE seem curiously determined to make their own anti-democratic intentions abundantly clear.