Zaev’s resignation: does it open the room for malign influences?
Disappointed with the outcome of the October local elections in North Macedonia, the pro-Western politician and reformist, Zoran Zaev has resigned, both as a Prime Minister and the chairman of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDUM). Although these were not national elections, the result were disappointing for his party, which lost close to 210 thousand votes compared to the previous 2017 elections. As a consequence the party lost 41 municipalities, including capital Skopje. The election debacle was announced in the first round, after which Zaev publicly said that in the second round he goes “all in”. “The second round is a referendum on the legitimacy of this government,” he said.
With his resignation, the entire government falls, while the opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE immediately started to form a new parliamentary majority.
Zaev’s departure from the political scene, among other things, opens the dilemma of the position of North Macedonia in the geopolitical plane. Could Zaev’s political retirement be good news for Russia and China, whose influence has shrunk since he came to power in 2017?
The Knight of the West
Zaev took over the SDUM leadership in 2013, at a time when the party was facing a deep crisis after suffering more than ten consecutive defeats by the right-wing rival, VMRO-DPMNE. During this period, the government was led by the strong hand of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. He brought VMRO-DPMNE to power in 2006, with an ambitious reform plan and a strong will to integrate the country into Euro-Atlantic structures. Greece’s veto at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest prompted Gruevski to abandon those plans. North Macedonia together with Albania were prevented to join NATO, and this veto blocked the country from starting membership negotiations with the EU. Therefore, Gruevski decided to seek other alternatives to Euro-Atlantic integration, which was a partnership with the East – mainly Russia and China. As of 2008, North Macedonia started to look like an attractive country for the oligarchs of the Eastern countries. With this, the influence from those countries gradually increased.
Zaev and SDUM came to power through a dangerous security operation – the publication of wiretaps, revealing high-level corruption. He was tasked to turn the country back to EU and NATO integration, from which his predecessor had deviated. This attempt significantly increased the role of Russia in the political developments in North Macedonia, fueling the worsening of the political crisis in the country. Zaev’s wiretappings publication sparked civil protests against the corrupt government. It was the time when the country had just entered the map of the Russian pipeline project “South Stream”, with Gruevski’s government signing an agreement with Gazprom in 2013. The deal gave the Russian state-owned company a monopoly on gas supplies, making North Macedonia dependent to Kremlin. Therefore, to finalize this project, Moscow was very interested in keeping former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE in power.
North Macedonia was just one of several countries involved in the South Stream project. The pipelines were planned to pass from Russia through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Serbia, from where they would penetrate further to the EU. Moscow’s goal was to bypass Ukraine in Europe’s gas supply in order to make the continent directly dependent on its energy. For this intention, since 2008, when Skopje faced a Greek veto on NATO, there had been an increase in human capacities at the Russian Embassy in North Macedonia.
Zaev came to power with the strong support of the West. He had agreed to take the name’s issue with Greece seriously, which had been the reason for the veto used by the government in Athens against the integration of North Macedonia into Euro-Atlantic structures. This also meant the country’s rapid membership in NATO, at the same time, an alarm for Russia. In June 2018, in Prespa, Zaev and former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras signed the Agreement that resolved the three-decade name issue. Two years later, the flag of North Macedonia was raised up at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels as the 30th member of the Alliance.
Possible return of the Russian influence
Since North Macedonia’s NATO membership, Russian influence in the country marked a significant decline. The staff at the Embassy in Skopje was reduced, and the country’s institutions expelled some Russian diplomats for violating the Vienna Convention with their espionage actions.
Moscow’s interest now is to strike at NATO where it is most vulnerable – to the new members. Thus, North Macedonia but also Montenegro continue to remain in the sphere of interest of Russian influence, as the weakest part of the Alliance. This presence shows that the Balkans continue to be attractive to Russia for its strategic position – access to warm waters in the Mediterranean Sea and the construction of the “South Stream” pipeline.
The success that happened with NATO did not happen also with the EU. Instead of opening the negotiations, as promised, Skopje received two more vetoes in a row: in 2019 from Greece due to the methodology of conducting membership negotiations, and the last from Bulgaria – the cause of disagreements over Macedonian history and language.
This Bulgarian veto stalled Skopje for more than a year from starting EU-promised negotiations. Meanwhile, this blockade has ruined Zaev’s positions on the domestic area, as he is increasingly accused of making compromises for nothing. This, among other things, was the reason for the loss of the October local elections.
Will Zaev’s resignation mark a fade out of Western influence and a return to Russia?
Now it’s hard to say. VMRO-DPMNE, a as party claims to have secured the new parliamentary majority, has gone through a process of reforms in the meantime, and has elected a new pro-European chairman. We are talking about the 44-year-old electrical engineer, Hristijan Mickovski. During Gruevski’s period, he was the party’s secretary general. After the election, he said that pro-Russian ambitions would have no place in VMRO-DPMNE, which has been profiled as pro-Western since its inception. “I can not allow a drop of feces to contaminate a barrel of clean water,” he said, alluding to a small group within VMRO-DPMNE that has pro-Russian sentiments.
In the last local elections, Mickovski formed a pre-election coalition with Zijadin Sela’s Alliance for Albanians (AA) and Afrim Gashi’s Alternative. His openness towards Albanians and change of course towards internationals has increased coalition capacities with Albanian parties. Ali Ahmeti’s DUI, AA, Bilall Kasami’s BESA, Menduh Thaçi’s Alternativa and DPA together have 36 deputies and are crucial when it comes to forming the government. All Albanian parties have one condition for cooperation – Euro-Atlantic integration. It seems that Mickovski had no problems in accepting that.
However, Zaev’s profile is hard to be repeated. The political courage he has showed with the bilateral agreements signed with Athens and Sofia, but also with the Albanian parties for the Albanian language, makes him unique. This will cause trouble for the West when a final agreement with Bulgaria is on the agenda. The deal would pave the way for the country to join the EU, while delaying integration creates a dangerous geopolitical vacuum. Mickovski, however, does not seem to have that courage.
Xhelal NEZIRI, The Geopost contributor from North Macedonia