The Most Paranoid Country in Europe

The Most Paranoid Country in Europe

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

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.

For Gruevski, 2008 was the annus horribilis. The financial crisis stalled the motors of his economic agenda—namely, foreign investment. More importantly, Macedonia was vetoed a place in NATO by the Greeks. The move shocked the George W. Bush administration as much as it did Gruevski, the young, English-speaking technocrat who had staked his political future on bringing Macedonia into the West. With access to the international community barred for the indefinite future, Gruevski’s calculus changed. For two years he had pushed reforms with the purpose of joining Western institutions that would ultimately only curtail his personal power; now he turned to expanding his political power at the expense of jettisoning Macedonia’s qualifications to enter Western institutions.

He pivoted to identity politics. This was an odd decision in a country where one in three Macedonians identified as ethnically Albanian and the other two-thirds had little idea of what identifying as Macedonian actually meant. But for Gruevski, this malleability was an opportunity. He instructed Macedonians to rally around a brazen new past: not the nineteenth-century anti-Ottomanism pushed by the VMRO of the 1990s, nor the antifascist mythology of Yugoslav Macedonia, nor a Slavic Orthodox identity, but a Greek imperial one. Foreign archaeologists were flown to Skopje to hunt for linear descent from the Macedonians of Alexander the Great. A delegation was invited from a village in Pakistan purporting to be the home of ancestors of his army. The Skopje airport and the highway leading to Greece were renamed “Alexander of Macedon.” The national soccer stadium was rechristened “Philip II Arena.” The Macedonian Church began publishing radio broadcasts referring to Macedonia as the “oldest nation on earth.” In doing all this, Gruevski changed the terms of the debate. Macedonia calling itself “Macedonia” was one thing; Macedonia feverishly grasping the crown of three millennia of Hellenic civilization was another.

To his overwhelmingly pro-EU electorate, Gruevski now had an enraged target to blame for derailed accession. Starvation wages, limited imports, restricted travel rights: Greek politicians were responsible for them all. And while historically this was in no small part true, Gruevski’s new policy of antikvizacija, or antiquization, turned twenty-five years of Macedonia’s paranoia about its place in the international community into a self-fulfilling threat. Internally, with no incentive to make progress on two decades of uninterrupted democratic reforms, Gruevski dismantled them altogether. His product-management cabinet turned to stage management. Antigovernment media was silenced through an astonishing string of jail sentences that in six years drove Macedonia’s standing on the World Freedom Index from 34th to 118th—just above Afghanistan, significantly below any other European country. Political opposition has been neutralized with a series of character assassinations and humiliating arrests, many aired on prime-time state television.

The last eight years of Gruevski’s rule have been a jumble of contradictory policies. The neoliberal who ran on a platform of privatization has bloated the public sector on a steady diet of cheap foreign credit. One in three Macedonians now works in a public administration that has been ruthlessly colonized by VMRO; from the university faculties to the judiciary to the police forces, the extension of public contracts are contingent upon loyalty to Gruevski at the polls. In nearly every Macedonian village, you can spot a VMRO-owned building emblazoned with the party’s signature roaring lion; there are more party offices than hospitals in Macedonia. The reformist who pledged to eradicate construction racketeering has institutionalized state money laundering on an unprecedented scale. When I asked analysts in Skopje to explain the state of Macedonia’s finances to me, they couldn’t; VMRO party finances and Macedonia’s GDP are too deeply intertwined. In Washington, the party spends $1.7 million a year on lobbying firms to push party interests it insists are consistent with Macedonia’s. Approximately 5 billion euros—half of Macedonia’s GDP—have allegedly left Macedonia for offshore accounts since Gruevski took power. His successor Gjorge Ivanov is denying revelations in the Panama Papers linking him to offshore accounts.


TODAY, THERE are three nexuses of power in Macedonia: the state, VMRO and Gruevski. The distinction between the three has slowly collapsed over the last decade. Anyone who protests against Gruevski or refuses to vote for VMRO cannot be a true Macedonian; they are by definition a fifth column for those who plot against Macedonia on the outside—a vast category of conspirators that ranges from Greece to the Red Cross to the CIA. In Gruevski’s worldview, these groups are in league with one another against him. The Social Democratic opposition? A “traitorous structure working against Macedonia’s national interests.” NATO? “The North Atlantic Terrorist Organization.” America? A front for Albanian interests. The EU? Happily blackmailed by Greece. Russia? In thrall to the Serbs.

Heavy state control of the media has convinced many Macedonians of this picture. “Gruevski understands how to control the modern nation-state better than Milošević ever could have,” Ljubomir Frčkoski, one of three men who authored Macedonia’s 1991 constitution, told me. “His authoritarianism is technocratic, often sui generis. He knows things Putin does not.” Towards the end of 2010, Mijalkov began giving Gruevski daily briefings on the opposition. Together, they implemented the largest illegal surveillance program conducted in Europe since the dismantling of the Stasi. Over the course of four years, the phones of at least twenty thousand handpicked Macedonians—in addition to six ambassadors and at least one U.S. official—were wiretapped. In its Nixonian rage for surveillance, the Gruevski administration also recorded itself. Last May, the transcripts of 675,000 recorded conversations—known throughout Macedonia as the bombi, the “bombs”—were made available to the public by Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democratic opposition who claims he received the recordings from an antigovernment whistleblower. Gruevski says a foreign power handed them to Zaev, who was charged with attempting to coup the state shortly after made the tapes public. Zaev told me that he believes at least two million more conversations are still in Gruevski’s possession. Those that have been released reveal, in extraordinary detail, the depth of corruption and cronyism, not to mention the cover-up of murder and police brutality, committed by VMRO apparatchiks. Macedonians will go to the polls this autumn to decide Gruevski’s fate.

And yet the difficulty with turning Gruevski out of power electorally is that Macedonia’s democracy has been hardwired to keep him there. VMRO has developed an elaborate system of bussing voters to districts where it struggles to obtain a majority. It is something out of Gogol: Of the 480,000 Macedonians who vote for Gruevski, as many as one hundred thousand aren’t living ones—they are the so-called fantomski glasači, the “phantoms.” Ethnic Macedonians from the Albanian border are caravanned into Skopje on election days and given government-issued ID cards with VMRO-owned addresses. “We have to be careful because we are under observation. I fear that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe might start barking,” Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska tells Gruevski in one tape. “I mean, you can’t have 40 new people in a village with a population of five.” Civic opposition to Gruevski’s rule has been an unmitigated failure. Antigovernment protests? Gruevski immediately shuts down the Internet and busses in counterprotestors from around the country, typically incentivized with free ice cream. Foreign NGOs? A parallel world of VMRO-funded QUANGOs—“quasi-NGOs”—has been established to counter the findings of each and every one. The cottage industry of anti-Gruevski blogs and YouTube channels? An army of VMRO-funded Internet trolls raids comments sections with government propaganda.

“We’d kill for a government like that in Bosnia,” one EU official remarked in 2011, referring to Gruevski’s regime. Nearly every NGO president I met in Skopje believes that Gruevski has been allowed to dismantle an already pseudodemocracy in exchange for providing an alleged bastion of stability in the heart of the Balkans. Most of these NGO leaders added that Brussels, in its desperation to show that it does something in the way of implementing democratic reform, often does nothing at all. For the last ten years, policy reports have been skewed to show that Macedonia’s democracy works. As late as April 2014, European observers were claiming that Macedonia’s electoral process—the one operating with some one hundred thousand fake voters—was “efficiently administered.” This has now left the EU in the awkward position of trying to do damage control through the very state apparatuses that Gruevski himself controls—namely, by prosecuting Gruevski through a judiciary, four-fifths of whose members are VMRO loyalists. In preferring stability over democracy in Macedonia, the EU today has neither. Gruevski, who is in regular communication with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán, has perfected the blueprint of how to create an illiberal democracy on a smaller, Balkan scale. Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić is one man following Gruevski’s lead. The more dangerous figure is Milorad Dodik, a Bosnian Serb from Banja Luka and the author of the upcoming Republika Srpska referendum, which will almost certainly trigger Greater Serbia aspirations and throw much of the Balkan Peninsula into political discord.


ALMOST EVERYWHERE in the western Balkans the arrangement of the post-Yugoslav space—NATO would provide security, the EU would institute democratic reforms—has broken down owing to the inability of the latter to effectively carrot-and-stick local political elites. Fifteen years ago, however, Macedonia was the first great success of EU intervention. In February 2001, the National Liberation Army (NLA), a heavily armed force of some six thousand Kosovo veterans, jihadists, and drug and arms traffickers, nearly unleashed the “Fifth War of Balkan Succession” on Macedonia. Some NLA fighters wanted a Greater Albania; most just wanted equal representation in a Macedonian society that had only ever given them minimal say in public affairs. And yet within six months, the commander of the NLA, Ali Ahmeti, a one-time Marxist-Leninist with a steady place on the CIA’s blacklist, had disbanded his guerillas, descended from the Šar foothills and upended the old adage that an Albanian never gives up his guns. The EU-brokered Ohrid Agreement was responsible for this. By merely posturing towards insurgency, Ahmeti secured more political rights for Macedonia’s Albanian community in half a year than had a decade of parliamentary politics. The lesson hasn’t been forgotten by either side—not least of all the hard-line nationalist Gruevski, who now rules in a coalition with none other than Commander Ahmeti himself. “Today, Ahmeti commits worse atrocities against the Albanian community today than any Macedonian ever could have,” Georgievski, the prime minister who conducted the six-month war on Ahmeti in 2001, told me.

Gruevski’s most stunning achievement has been the hijacking of the Ohrid Agreement by institutionalizing two parallel societies instead of integrating two equal ones. In Macedonia today, Slavic Macedonians and Albanians have limited interaction. They live on opposite banks of the Vardar River. They rarely attend one another’s protests. Each is represented by twin strata of political elites that mirror one another’s corruption and cronyism. Gruevski is indisputably more powerful than Ahmeti; but only through the one-time rebel in the hills has he been able to puppet control over some five hundred thousand Albanians who hardly needed Zaev’s wiretaps to ascertain the depth of VMRO racism against their community. (“How about making a war on the Albanians?” a VMRO minister proposes to another in one recording. “If it’s about showing who is stronger, we will crush them in an hour,” comes the reply.)

In Macedonia today, political elites in both the Slavic and Albanian communities exploit ethnic tensions to distract from the narrative of corruption. The most salient example of this is what happened on Europe Day last May, while mass protests against Gruevski’s wiretapping program paralyzed Skopje’s city center. Forty kilometers northeast of the capital, in the city of Kumanovo, Kosovar gunmen entered the city, allegedly under orders from Albanian mafia bosses. At the same time, (ethnically Slavic) national police were dispatched from Skopje to Kumanovo to conduct a bust of a local drug ring. The two groups collided; a street battle ensued; twenty-two were gunned down. A trial is currently being held, though the defense has argued that shortly after the clash four of the surviving gunmen were executed in a nearby police station to prevent them from testifying against the state. Photographers I met who went to Kumanovo shortly after the shootings said that their memory cards were confiscated by police. Almost immediately Gruevski took to state TV with claims of a renewed Greater Albania insurgency, a new 2001, this one fomented by “participants from several countries, some in the Middle East, which points to their great experience in guerilla fighting.” But most freethinking individuals I met in Macedonia, both ethnic Slavs and Albanians, were convinced that Kumanovo—the deadliest outbreak of violence in the Balkans in a decade—could only have been jointly masterminded by Gruevski and Ahmeti.


THE CULMINATION of Gruevski’s unstable mixture of paranoia and hypernationalism is something called “Skopje 2014,” an Olympian-scale building project that has demolished Skopje’s Communist city center and replaced it with a ruthlessly kitsch classical theme park. It is theatrically provocative. Hundreds of bronze and clay statues of muses and Hellenistic kings and Byzantine saints have been mounted on dozens of new bridges, museums, government buildings, fountains and pirate ships. Some have speakers that blare Wagner and John Williams; others monitor passersby with small cameras; hardly any depict ethnic Albanians. Elaborate statuary is devoted to Alexander the Great being breast-fed and coddled by Olympia, his mother. It’s used as evidence by some Macedonians that “Skopje 2014” has a Freudian underbelly: Gruevski, who allegedly solicits political counsel from his mother, is straining to replicate his lost motherland. At the very least, he’s attempting to show that if Macedonia can’t join the EU, it will become the EU. Walk around Skopje today, and you find concrete-plaster reconstructions of the Arc de Triomphe, the London Eye, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon and the Brandenburg Gate. (There is also a glitzy reproduction of the White House, made out of waterproof plaster mixed with small pieces of glass that enable the building to twinkle when lit at night.)

The wiretaps have revealed that the principle designer of “Skopje 2014” was of course Gruevski himself. “Baroque is one thing, Classicism is another,” he lectures a minister in one recording. “These buildings we saw on our trip to Washington were Classical and the pillars we will have at the Constitutional Court, those are baroque.” Nearly three years past deadline, “Skopje 2014” will cost the average Macedonian two months’ salary by its completion. It doubles as a massive kickback program for VMRO. Construction contracts were tendered to chief party contacts. Gruevski exploited the subjectivity of art to enrich himself. “The point of art is that you can’t put a price on it,” a student activist named Ivana told me at an anti-Gruevski rally in May. “Nation building is your tool for money laundering!” was emblazoned on her poster. “VMRO can charge the state 2 million euros for a 500-thousand-euro fountain and pocket the discrepancy.” The wiretaps have revealed that Gruevski typically solicits 5 percent in kickbacks from construction projects, which would put his profits from “Skopje 2014” at approximately 50 million euros.

Quo vadis, Macedonia? Over the last ten years, the decisionmaking and revenue of the state has become overwhelmingly centralized in Skopje. Several kilometers to the north and west, hills of ethnic Albanians boast little more than crime and roads the state has never bothered to pave; their tax dollars go instead to a capital that has been extravagantly architected to make them feel like strangers in their own country. Many Albanians I met—not just peasants, but activists, journalists and professors in cities like Tetovo and Gostivar—quietly recalled 2001, when they could have destroyed Macedonia. By 2025 the Albanian population is expected to surpass that of the Slavic Macedonians. One wonders what settling of scores may be in order.

On the international scene, today Macedonia really is isolated. The balance in sympathy on the name issue, which had generally been on Skopje’s side for twenty years, now tilts unquestionably towards Athens. Reversing this will require redemolishing central Skopje, even as construction of “Skopje 2014” remains ongoing; there are Macedonians who talk openly of doing this. As far as the EU is concerned, Brussels has been curiously disengaged ever since it forced Gruevski from power last June: as thousands of protestors continue to march nightly in Skopje pleading for the EU to help fix the democratic apparatuses it watched Gruevski disable, they are met with blunt statements about Macedonians’ need to sort out their crises themselves. Some civic activists I met blamed the refugee crisis and the “stability argument” for this. Why else has Gruevski been allowed to run the state for the last year as a private citizen? Others thought that the EU had lost the political will to be the caretaker of a country that will soon have the finances of Greece. In July, Brussels abruptly withdrew 30 million euros it had previously allocated to reforming Macedonia’s ministries of justice and public finance. This seemed less an indictment of Macedonian political elites than a rebuff to the tens of thousands of Macedonians who see the EU as the only solution to their crisis. Still, the most telling sign about Macedonia’s place in the world today may yet be Vladimir Putin, who has shown little interest in scoring even a thin propaganda victory by shepherding Macedonia, however disingenuously, towards the Eurasian Customs Union. Whereas Moldova is worth a high degree of plotting and subterfuge on the part of Moscow, Macedonia was determined long ago not worth the trouble.

Alexander Clapp is a journalist who lives in Kiev. His work has appeared in the Balkanist and the Times Literary Supplement.

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