The Most Paranoid Country in Europe

Image: Nikola Gruevski speaking. European People’s Party, CC BY 2.0.

Macedonia’s democracy has been hardwired to keep Nikola Gruevski in power.

September-October 2016

THE REPUBLIC of Macedonia may be the most perplexing country in Europe. Crossing the border, you are informed via text message that you have entered the “cradle of civilization.” Billboards lining major highways are defiant: “This is Macedonia!” It is the only part of Yugoslavia that did not experience significant bloodshed. It is also the only country in Europe, apart from Romania, where every ethnic minority is guaranteed parliamentary representation. And yet Macedonia is not a success story, but one of how a country the size of Vermont has navigated its way back from the shoals of one disaster after another. In 1992, its economy was devastated by an embargo from Greece in the south and a UN-led blockade on Serbia in the north. Three years later, President Kiro Gligorov was nearly assassinated by suspects who remain at large. Then, in 1999, 360,000 refugees—a fifth of the Macedonian population—descended on the country from Kosovo. By 2001, ethnic Albanians of the National Liberation Army were beating the drums of insurgency, and in 2004 President Boris Trajkovski died in a plane crash on the day the country’s EU application was presented in Dublin.

Most of Macedonia’s neighbors treat it as a pariah state. Serbia considers Macedonians “south Serbs” and Skopje the seat of an apostate patriarchate. Bulgaria takes the curious view that Macedonia is a state, but not a nation. But the most intractable critic has always been Greece, which claims that “Macedonia” is already the name of a Greek province and that Macedonia can only receive international recognition with a cumbersome qualifying name: “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”; “Slavic Macedonia”; “Vardar Macedonia.” Athens is single-handedly responsible for denying Macedonia entry into both the EU and NATO—institutions that Macedonia was qualified to enter a decade ago. Greece’s veto of Macedonia’s accession technically runs in violation of a 1995 bilateral treaty allowing Macedonia to enter international institutions as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” so long as Macedonia does nothing to “provoke” Greece—a treaty that has resulted in Macedonia changing its first national flag as well as several denominations of its currency in order to show that is has no intention of appropriating the culture of “Greek Macedonia.” “We have gotten used to the impression that we are some sort of threat,” Nikola Poposki, the Macedonian foreign minister, told me in Skopje. “We have gotten used to nearly three decades of unfair treatment. The average Macedonian lives with this reality. He will be highly surprised if, in any context, he gets a fair treatment.”

Nikola Gruevski, the descendent of Egejtsi, Greece’s Slavic minority, took control of the country in 2006. After the 1946–49 Greek Civil War, Nadežda Gruia, the widow of a partisan killed on the Greek-Albanian front, fled her northern Greek village with her three children, including Gruevski’s father, Talo. She settled in Yugoslavia and changed the family’s name to “Gruevski.” Born in 1970, Nikola grew up wanting to be a film actor. He opted for banking after a failed stint in professional boxing. During the privatization of the 1990s, he entered politics, but kept one hand in telecommunications and construction; he was among the first private individuals to trade on the Skopje stock exchange when it opened in 1996. From 1998 to 2002, he was finance minister in the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) government.

In April, I watched Gruevski deliver a press conference at VMRO’s headquarters in Skopje. He was doing so in the capacity of a private individual; last June, under pressure from the EU, Gruevski stepped down from power in the midst of a vast wiretapping scandal that has marred Macedonia in political chaos for over a year now.

He struck me as a rather buffoonish man—a Balkan politician sodden with a power whose source, geography, he misattributed to his own abilities. His small frame bobbed around the podium as a phalanx of state-approved media jostled their hands in the air. What did he think about the refugee crisis? Macedonia was defending the EU from itself. What about the EU forcing him out of power? It was a NATO ploy to undermine Macedonia. Did he worry about the prospects of losing at the polls? No, the opposition was bankrolled by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Gruevski spoke unhurriedly and with no great attempt at conviction. As he saw it, it was merely the banal truth.


IN 2003, Gruevski became the head of VMRO. “He was just a technocrat. Unconfrontational, uninterested in history or politics,” the party’s founder, Ljubčo Georgievski, the former Macedonian prime minister, told me. By the time Gruevski became prime minister three years later, Georgievski and the old Yugoslav generation within VMRO had been cleared out. Gruevski brought in Macedonians from the diaspora who grasped how to build the rudiments of a market economy. The Ministry of Foreign Investment went to Vele Samak, a former Microsoft executive from Seattle, and Gligor Tashkovich, the former manager of an oil pipeline in Bulgaria. Information Technology went to Ivo Ivanovski, a former IT manager of a Plexiglas company in Ohio. Immediately surrounding Gruevski is a small circle of advisers known throughout Macedonia as the Familija. His best man, Zoran Stavreski, a six-year veteran of the World Bank, runs Macedonia’s economy. His cousin, Sašo Mijalkov, a security consultant who allegedly oversaw a labyrinth of criminal enterprises in the Czech Republic throughout the 1990s, is his spy chief. No one has accused Gruevski of shirking duties toward clan and kin.