Freedom in the World
In early elections held in June 2011, the center-right ruling coalition led by Nikola Gruevski won its third consecutive victory. The year also saw the closure of the opposition-oriented A1 Television amid growing concerns of political pressure on Macedonia’s independent media. In September, the ongoing dispute with Greece was agitated after Macedonia erected a statue of Greek hero Alexander the Great to mark the 20th anniversary of its independence.
Macedonia, a republic in the communist-era Yugoslav federation, gained independence in 1991 as the federation dissolved. The country’s legitimacy has since been threatened on several levels. Greece objects to the name “Macedonia,” arguing that it implies a territorial and cultural claim to the Greek region of the same name. Bulgaria contends that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian. The Serbian Orthodox Church does not recognize the separation of the self-proclaimed Macedonian Orthodox Church. Internally, poor relations between the Macedonian Slav majority and the ethnic Albanian minority have raised doubts about the country’s long-term viability.
Since independence, power has alternated between center-left and center-right governments, though an ethnic Albanian party has sat in each ruling coalition. In 2000–01, Albanians mounted an armed insurgency, demanding better political representation. Unofficially, however, the insurgents also wanted control of lucrative smuggling routes in northwestern Macedonia. The August 2001 negotiations known as the Ohrid Accords prevented civil war, but violent incidents continued to erupt periodically.
Parliamentary elections in 2002 returned the Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM) to power after a period of rule by the center-right Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). The ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) joined the SDSM governing coalition.
VMRO-DPMNE won parliamentary elections in July 2006, with Nikola Gruevski becoming prime minister. The polls were marred by pre-election violence and significant irregularities on election day. DUI supporters protested the VMRO-DPMNE’s decision to form a coalition with a rival group, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). The DUI subsequently organized intermittent parliamentary boycotts, sometimes blocking key legislation related to the Ohrid Accords and Macedonia’s European Union (EU) candidacy.
The VMRO-DPMNE won a majority of seats in early parliamentary elections held in 2008; the polls were widely seen as the worst since independence. Irregularities—mainly in Albanian areas—included attacks on party offices and ballot box stuffing.
University professor Gjorge Ivanov, running for the VMRO-DPMNE, won a 2009 presidential runoff against the SDSM’s Ljubomir Frckoski. International observers noted an improvement over the 2008 polls. The VMRO-DPMNE also performed well in the concurrent municipal elections, capturing 55 of the 84 municipalities outright.
In November 2010, police raided the headquarters of the opposition-oriented A1 Television to investigate alleged financial irregularities at companies controlled by the station’s owner, Velija Ramkovski. In late December, Ramkovski and more than a dozen associates were charged with crimes including money laundering and tax evasion.
The opposition SDSM subsequently boycotted the parliament in January 2011. Parliament was dissolved in April, and early elections held in June led to a third consecutive victory for the VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition, which took 56 seats. The SDSM-led coalition followed with 42 seats; the DUI took 15 seats, the DPA captured 8, and the National Democratic Revival (NDR) won 2. Gruevski secured a third term as prime minister. International observers called the polls competitive and transparent but noted some problems, including a progovernment bias from the public broadcaster.
August 2011 marked the 10th anniversary of the Ohrid Accords, which the International Crisis Group said were being well implemented despite lingering interethnic tensions. A month later, Macedonia celebrated the 20th anniversary of its declaration of independence, which the government marked by inaugurating a massive statue of Alexander the Great in downtown Skopje as part of the Skopje 2014 urban development plan. The statue exacerbated tension with Greece, where Alexander is seen as a national hero. The dispute between the two countries over Macedonia’s name remained unresolved in 2011, obstructing Macedonia’s efforts to join NATO and the EU. In 2008, Greece blocked an invitation for Macedonia to join NATO.
Macedonia is an electoral democracy. Most post-independence elections have been deemed satisfactory by international standards, though the 2008 polls were marked by irregularities. Members of the unicameral, 123-seat Sobranie (Assembly) are elected to four-year terms by proportional representation. Parliament added three seats in 2011 for representatives of Macedonians living abroad. The president is elected to a five-year term through a direct popular vote, but the prime minister holds most executive power. Certain types of legislation must pass by a “double majority,” or a majority of legislators from both main ethnic groups.
Corruption remains a serious problem. Despite some legislative progress in 2011, including measures to clarify party funding sources, the transparency of general public expenditures is weak. In the 2011 elections, the governing coalition parties’ expenditures exceeded their declared incomes. The judiciary lacks a track record of handling high-level corruption cases, and greater cooperation is needed between the Ministry of Justice, the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, and law enforcement, according to the European Commission’s (EC) 2011 Progress Report. Macedonia ranked 69 out of 173 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, but political tensions have increased pressure on the media. The A1 Television investigation saw the station and three of its newspapers–Vreme, Spic, and Koha E Re—close in 2011. All had criticized the government, and Amnesty International called the closures politically motivated. Moreover, many journalism watchdogs argue that the government—which is among Macedonia’s largest advertisers—has shifted ad dollars to friendly outlets to stifle the country’s independent press. Though 2011 saw the creation of a new independent media union, amendments made to the Law on the Broadcasting Council increased seats for government-related appointees, further raising concerns about declining independence. Increasingly, journalists face political pressure and harassment, resulting in self-censorship. The public broadcaster, Macedonian Radio and Television, lacks sustainable funding. Macedonian media outlets, like society at large, are strongly divided along ethnic lines. Internet access is unrestricted.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. A long-standing dispute between the breakaway Macedonian Orthodox Church and the canonically recognized Serbian Orthodox Church remained unresolved in 2011. In February, the predominantly Muslim Albanians protested construction of a church-shaped museum in Skopje’s Kale Fortress, located in an Albanian neighborhood. Hard-line Islamists reportedly control several mosques with financing from Middle Eastern countries.
Academic freedom is generally not restricted, and the government continued education reforms in 2011, including the new Integrated Education Strategy to introduce native language instruction for ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, the country’s ethnic divisions affect education, and schools are becoming increasingly segregated.
Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. In 2011, Macedonians protested after a police officer killed a youth at a June post-election rally. Nongovernmental organizations play an increasingly important role in policy formulation. Workers may organize and bargain collectively, though the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2010 report for Macedonia stated that strikes are difficult to organize, union activities can be easily terminated, and antiunion dismissals are common. Over 50 percent of the legal workforce is unionized, but unions lack stable finances and management capacity.
The EC noted progress on Macedonia’s judiciary in 2011. The Minister of Justice’s voting rights on the Judicial Council were removed to increase independence. To improve efficiency, the High Administrative Court became operational in July; it hears appeals of Administrative Court decisions that were formerly transferred to the Supreme Court. The EC noted weaknesses in the evaluation of judges, however, and called for tougher recruitment requirements. It also emphasized that more graduates of the Academy for Training of Judges and Prosecutors should be recruited for professional postings. Though the judicial budget is increasing, courts remain underfunded, and more progress is needed on reducing court backlogs and processing cases expeditiously. Prison conditions are generally unsatisfactory, with overcrowding and poor health care.
An April 2010 law prohibits discrimination on various grounds, though not on the basis of sexual orientation. Along with Roma and other vulnerable groups, homosexuals face discrimination. Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians also complain of discrimination. The Skopje 2014 project has heightened interethnic tensions, with minority groups saying the plans ignore their heritage. The Kale Fortress dispute culminated with an interethnic clash between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. In October, a census was cancelled following months of infighting between the Macedonian and Albanian members of the National Census Commission on how to conduct the headcount.