Macedonia: pay attention to the Balkans' early-warning system

Straddling the fault-line between Islam and Christianity, this country's changing fortunes are important.

In the past three years the capital of the republic of Macedonia has undergone a major building programme that has enlivened the drab concrete of its 1960s, post-earthquake centre. The Skopje 2014 project includes a series of reconstructed neoclassical civic buildings, new bridges and, at either end of the medieval Stone Bridge, statues of sandalled Greek warriors commonly thought to be Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great.
 
The simplified, doll-like features and gigantism of these figures imply an unfamiliarity with the very western culture that, paradoxically, they celebrate. Said to cost up to €500m ($670m), Skopje 2014 is closely identified with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party, who were re-elected in 2011. The party is pro-Europe and pro-Nato and describes itself as Christian democratic. As that implies, it is usually seen as sidelining the country’s Muslim citizens, even though the Democratic Party of Turks is a member of its coalition government. The new Skopje looks backwards, in a manner known locally as antiquisation, to a resolutely western classical antiquity that the government of today claims as the country’s own. This claim is exacerbating already difficult relations with Greece, Bulgaria and, to a certain extent, Macedonia’s Albanian community.
 
As so often in the Balkans, the difficulties are with narrative. The country is termed Fyrom – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – within the UN at the insistence of Greece, which, under the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest, gained a region of about 13,000 square miles that is also known as Macedonia. The treaty also granted territory to the modern republic’s other neighbours, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. Greece claims that for today’s state to call itself Macedonia implies territorial ambition. Bulgaria, though unfazed by the name, claims that the present government is spreading anti- Bulgarian propaganda.
 
Balkan narratives are notoriously dangerous. Roughly two-thirds of the republic’s population of just over two million is Orthodox Christian and the remaining third Muslim. Approximately two-thirds is ethnic Macedonian and a quarter is ethnic Albanian; it also has substantial Turkish and Serbian communities, and at least 54,000 Roma inhabitants. In other words, Macedonia, which managed to emerge from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s without drastic ethnic cleansing, straddles the region’s fault line between Islam and Christianity, making it a significant early-warning system.
 
In 2012, the EU enlargement commissioner recommended for the fourth time that the republic, an official candidate since December 2005, should start accession negotiations. For the fourth time, the EU turned down this recommendation, rather giving the Macedonian government some months’ grace to resolve its issues with Greece and Bulgaria.
 
As its neighbours join the EU and Macedonia is left behind, its economic position and stability can only deteriorate. In 2012 the IMF ranked the republic 133rd out of 185 countries by GDP, at $9.7bn.
 
In the light of all this, Skopje 2014 seems not so much folie de grandeur as common insanity. This summer there have been mass demonstrations against a government viewed by all sections of the population as out of touch and out of control. The possibility of real change in what is still a young democracy has receded for now. But this peculiarly vulnerable – and very beautiful – country remains the Balkan canary. We should pay attention when it sings.
A statue of Alexander is lowered into the central square in Skopje, 2011. Photograph: Ognen Teofilovsky/Reuters.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times