As Zaev exits, Orban’s specter lurks

As Zaev exits, Orban’s specter lurks

North Macedonia was thrust into the post-Zaev era on December 22. In a short statement, Zoran Zaev announced that he had submitted his resignation as prime minister to the country’s parliamentary speaker, Talat Xhaferi. The decision took his party, the opposition and Zaev’s international allies by surprise. Analysts were not convinced that the real reason behind his resignation was, as Zaev suggested, his Social Democrat party’s heavy defeat in October’s local elections.

In democracies, local polls are not meant to elect governments and prime ministers. After all, skeptics say, Zaev had more than two years ahead of him to fix the problems with his administration. Many observers agree that Zaev simply could not take the pressure anymore, an interpretation that was also suggested by the country’s president, Stevo Pendarovski. People in the know say that Zaev had long felt that nothing was going his way.

More importantly, he felt abandoned by the governments of Europe, which he rightly thought had deprived him of the solid narrative he needed for the rest of his term – namely, North Macedonia’s integration in the European Union. Zaev may go down in history as a fainthearted leader who did not see through key policy decisions. However, he was unquestionably the most pro-European and (as far as Athens is concerned) the most pro-Greek leader in the history of North Macedonia.

Zaev may even be the most significant leader after Kiro Gligorov, the first president of what was then called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). He was the prime minister who had the courage to pursue until-then unthinkable policies, such as changing the country’s constitutional name (under the Prespes accord), the recognition of Albanian as an official language across the country, and the 2017 Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation with Bulgaria.

Now that Zaev has left, what will follow? The ruling socialist SDSM party picked a young technocrat, former deputy finance minister Dimitar Kovachevski, to take his place for the rest of the term. After two months of uncertainty, he was elected to lead a coalition cabinet by 62 MPs in the 120-seat House on Sunday.

However, the Balkan specter of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban lurks in the background. Despite pledges by the government coalition that it intends to see out the rest of its tenure, speculation of early elections is growing. And given the rapid decline of the SDSM’s popularity, the momentum seems to be in favor of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which is leading the polls.

Analysts in Skopje and Brussels say that the Europeans and the Americans will support Kovachevski’s politically fragile government as a transitional (and expendable) administration until the necessary backstage diplomatic pressure has been exerted on the VMRO-DPMNE to ensure that the party will tone down its nationalist rhetoric should it climb to power, rethinking on balance of power and border stability issues.

North Macedonia is bound by the agreements signed by Zaev, which are seen as fundamental pillars of the existing geopolitical map in the Balkan peninsula. Any attempt to undo them would generate a reaction from Europe and (more importantly) the United States. They would not allow the VMRO-DPMNE, or anyone else for that matter, let the genie of nationalism out of the bottle or question North Macedonia’s geopolitical orientation. This has been made clear to VMRO-DPMNE Chairman Hristijan Mickoski, who has started to soften the edges of his rhetoric.

However, pulling the VMRO-DPMNE in a moderate direction will not be easy given that national issues are the party’s raison d’etre. It called Zaev a traitor for signing the name deal with Greece. Meanwhile, the party is supported by Hungary’s nationalist leader, Orban. Rumor has it that it is also funded by him.

For many, the VMRO-DPMNE is the pinnacle of Orbanism in the Western Balkans. A potential victory for the VMRO would render Orban a strong player in the region (extending his influence beyond Visegrad), much to the displeasure of Brussels and Washington. Hungarian diplomatic officials helped Orban’s ideological kin, Nikola Gruevski (an ex-prime minister of FYROM), flee a prison sentence for corruption. The regime is now harboring the convicted fugitive in Budapest, from where he appears to be machinating a way to be cleared of the charges should the VMRO-DPMNE be elected to government.

Ahead of the last elections in North Macedonia, meanwhile, the Hungarian leader sent a message of support to his protege, Mickoski, in which he said, “Here in Hungary, we would want to see a VMRO-DPMNE win as during the fight against migration, we built a partnership based on national pride in order to defend our families and the freedom which gives us confidence over future issues.”

By exiting the political stage, Zaev effectively left the negotiations with Bulgaria over Sofia’s veto of North Macedonia’s EU membership and several outstanding aspects of the Prespes name deal unfinished. Now these will either have to be settled by a weak Kovachevski government – which is very unlikely as its political legitimacy will be put to question – or they will have to be handled by the VMRO-DPMNE if it comes to power.

In that event, the good (and most likely) scenario would be a U-turn from the VMRO-DPMNE that would enable negotiations with Sofia. Otherwise, Bulgaria will continue to block North Macedonia’s European ambitions, while officials in Athens will be frustrated every time Mickoski opens a parliamentary speech declaring “Long live Macedonia.”

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