Clouds over North Macedonia’s EU ambitions, as nationalists sweep to power

Clouds over North Macedonia’s EU ambitions, as nationalists sweep to power

North Macedonia’s nationalist opposition achieved sweeping gains in parliamentary and presidential elections on Wednesday. Voters expressed their frustration over the country’s sluggish advance bid to join the European Union, but also prevailing corruption and the slow pace of reforms.

The outcome is expected to further complicate the country’s longtime ambition of joining the EU, as well as its relations with neighboring Bulgaria and Greece.

The socialist SDSM, which has ruled the country for the last seven years, was crushed and came third, losing the position of main opposition to the ethnic Albanian political party DUI.

“The results confirm the expectations from the polls, but the low number of votes for SDSM is striking,” said Simonida Kacarska from the European Policy Institute in Skopje.

“This is partly due to the country’s electroral system, but SDSM’s performance is rather underwhelming and we have already heard resignations from part of its leadership.”

VMRO leader Hristijan Mickoski won over 43% of the votes and 58 of the country’s 120 parliamentary seats, three fewer than an outright majority. He has already started talks to form a coalition. Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, backed by VMRO, was elected the country’s first female president – a largely ceremonial position – having won 65.1% support.

Analysts say that VMRO will not have an issue forming a majority government, but the biggest issue is the potential turnover of power. DUI, which has been taking part in coalition government for the last 20 years, will now most likely move into the opposition.

Athens closely monitoring developments

Although the newly elected VMRO supports EU integration, it says it will not agree to the constitutional changes demanded by Bulgaria, recognizing a Bulgarian ethnic minority. The constitutional changes are a pre-condition for the country’s EU accession process.

Marko Trosanovski, president of the Institute for Democracy IDSCS in Skopje noted that there was reservation on the side of the EU representatives and US to congratulate VMRO and the congratulations went only to the presidential candidate, which implies that they are still hesitant over VMRO’s commitment to the European agenda.

“The pressure to deliver something will be very strong and with an absence in progress in the EU path the support for VMRO will soon decrease. Voters have very high expectations in terms of the country’s EU path,” Trosanovski said.

During his campaign, Mickoski accused SDSM of making humiliating compromises in trying to settle disputes with the country’s neighbors.

He hinted he might seek to renegotiate the conditions on membership talks and seek guaranties from the EU that this will be Bulgaria’s last demand for lifting its veto on North Macedonia. He is already calling the country “Macedonia” inside the country, ignoring the international Prespa Agreement signed with Greece in 2018. 

“VMRO recognizes the overall EU orientation of the public and the pressure on delivering an EU path,” Kacarska said. “There was not much talk yesterday about how, whether and when the constitutional changes will be put on the agenda, but it’s also very early.”

Athens has opted for a wait-and-see attitude.

“I hope that there will be no change in North Macedonia’s foreign policy,” Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis said in an interview on Thursday.

“We are all obliged to stick to what has been agreed. Although there have indeed been some electoral outbursts, I feel that the climate will not be disturbed for the additional reason that the Prespa Agreement is a formal precondition for North Macedonia’s accession path to the EU, which is not disputed by the [new] leadership of the neighboring country.” 

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