The Macedonian government’s political manoeuvres in applying the deal with Greece have eroded people’s faith in democracy – and it must act fast to restore it.

By Harald Schenker BIRN
Two steps forward, three steps back, the traditional dance of democracy. We have come to internalise that democracy is on the defensive, that it is under threat from all kinds of new enemies: illiberal regimes, fake news, and the like.

Like the proverbial deer caught in the car headlights, we seem frozen and to be staring into them, unsure whether a car or a high-speed train is going to hit us. And while we remain frozen, others are forging big plans to take over.

It is quite a start for a new year. But is the picture truly real? According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index, while the participation, especially of women, in decision-making is on the rise, trust in democracy is still falling.

What this means is that democracy remains a complex process. It means that simple answers won’t do the job, regardless of how powerful the current populist wave seems.

Macedonia has just fulfilled its part of the Prespa agreement with Greece. It has agreed to change its name in exchange for NATO membership and for Greece ceasing to block its EU accession negotiations.

Undoubtedly, this has been the most traumatic period for Macedonia since the short-lived conflict with ethnic Albanian rebels in 2001.

But there is a decisive difference with the events of 2001: this was a political process, and violence was never part of it. It was also initiated and finalised in a sovereign fashion, without third-party brokerage. For this, Macedonia’s society deserves praise. And I say society, not political class, for a reason. But back to that a bit later.

The government’s efforts to get to this moment deserve kudos. This is not to say it was a good process: time will tell that the aim does not always justify the means.

For now, it remains difficult to quantify the damage that has been done to Macedonia’s society, but the wounds are obvious.

The process was fast, but not transparent. It became obvious that, in the worst tradition, political and individual interests and greed were an integral part of it behind the scenes.

Many of these interests seem to have been satisfied in the name of reaching a majority in parliament for the deal.

To reach this majority, decisions had to be made that touched the sensitive fabric of social cohesion. Amnesty versus impunity; further ethnicisation versus civic society; these dichotomies were stretched.

Decisions were made in the good old traditional way, behind closed doors, in secret meetings, and so on. Despite Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s refreshing way of explaining his decisions, going down this road perpetuates the type of politician that this country needs to do without – the crisis profiteer.

All this was done in the name of a better future. The problem is that the EU and NATO mantra convinces fewer and fewer people that this was the sole purpose of these dramatic changes.

It may be time to talk about a new society, based on values, not on ethnic clans. Maybe it is time to talk about a society of emancipated citizens and not of loyal members of clientele networks.

People need a real voice. They need to see that they are more than voting machines. The current discussion about possible early elections in spring continues to send the wrong signal.

There is no time to waste on short-term political tactics. This will alienate people even more, and perpetuate the image of dirty, self-serving politics.

I wish there were more areas of government activity working with the same commitment as the on social policy sector does.  This is where real reforms are happening at high speed, impacting on the day-to-day life of people.

And it is good  to finally witness authentic attempts to really integrate marginalised people.

Zaev has announced the government’s return to home turf, and to the reform process. About time.

But while this is to be greeted, the question remains whether the Prespa process really needed the entire government’s attention.

With some unpopular decisions now out of his way, and while the rest of the government must now more zealously implement the reform agenda, it is time to seriously address the one issue connected to everything else – corruption.

If, until now, going lightly on this issue in the name of a higher goal could be understood, that obstacle is out of the way.

A new anti-corruption commission can only be the beginning. It is not only the EU that expects serious progress here; the credibility of the entire reform process is at stake.

The government needs to show convincingly that it is taking on this Hydra. This will demand leadership and commitment. And it is a long process. But people need to regain trust in institutions, or they will turn further away from democracy.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister had better concentrate on two things. He must be serious about reconciliation, and take the lead. Either way you look at it, this is a complex undertaking, which calls for credibility.

Ideally, the country’s next president will also understand this need. It will demand joint leadership, hopefully with her (yes, it is time for that change, too), and must be backed by serious expertise.

Second, the Prime Minister must start to impose merit-based sanctions and rewards on the government itself.

The performance of parts of the government is less than visible. It is time to show vision and impose what Germans condense into one word: Richtlinienkompetenz.

This means the power to impose policy guidelines, but also the power to demand their implementation. Ending the impunity of underperformance should be a priority.

Yes, Macedonia has a coalition government, but it must be made clear that performance is more important than party appetites.

In achieving the first, people will be involved in healing wounds and defining a new baseline for society.

Doing the second might restore some credibility to politics, and earn back people’s trust. Both are needed if we are to combat the real danger presented by populism: the constant erosion of democratic values.

Three steps forward, two steps back. The traditional dance of democracy. Or was it the other way around?