“The Battle of Stalingrad” for Skopje led to the resignation of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev

Bulgaria actively supported the processes that led to Zaev’s downfall and the expected coming to power in Skopje of a new majority

Northern Macedonia continues to pass through tests in its attempts to affirm itself in international relations (source: Pixabay, CC0)

Bulgaria actively supported the processes that led to Zaev’s downfall and the expected coming to power in Skopje of a new majority

Nikolai Krastev

Cross-border Talks: In the recent years Macedonian politics has been marked by the country’s attempt to receive a green light for the start for accession negotiations witht the EU. While previously the obstacle to that process of admittance at a European level was Greece, in the last two years Bulgaria has been blocking the start of these negotiations. Sofia has grievances with regard to what it calls the ideology of “Macedonism”, a political tendency which negates the Bulgarian essence of a large number of Macedonian historical figures or of the Macedonian cultural heritage until the moment when a Macedonian identity emerged or was imposed. Bulgaria tends to put that tipping point at 1944, but it is probably more just to view the emergence of this new identity as a process which has started before that and continued long after it. To resolve such historical dispute a Bulgarian-Macedonian historical comission was established. However, in the absence of political will on both sides to view as common or shared the heritage, which they tend to see exclusively as yours, the commission hasn’t achieved any result.

Under Zoran Zaev there was expectation that Northern Macedonia’s Western partners would pressure Sofia to give up on its pretentions. However, the international situation after the Brexit led to developments in which some European countries are also not quite interested in a rapid EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. At the same time, the clash between pro-Biden and pro-Trump forces in Bulgaria led to a situation in which on 14 November 2021 Bulgarians would vote for a third time for Parliament in this year. Also, president Rumen Radev seeks reelection in conditions of intensified and heightened emotions in Bulgarian society. The Macedonian issue is one of the talking points in media, with a number of Trump-leaning voices criticising even the hint of a possible Bulgarian-Macedonian detente that doesn’t represent Macedonian capitulation. In October 2021 Radev organised a first-in-time meeting with Bulgarian organisations from Northern Macedonia, that could be read also in the context of the forthcoming presidential election. As we see from Nikolay Krastev’s report, Bulgaria also became a controversial issue in Macedonian local elections.

This article was published on The Foreign Insider on 1 November 2021. 

The Social Democratic Union of neighbouring Macedonia, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, lost the race for mayor of the capital Skopje.

Skopje’s incumbent mayor, Petre Shilegov, trailed significantly behind Danela Arsovska, who was backed by the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party. VMRO-DPMNE candidates also won in other key North Macedonian cities such as Ohrid, Bitola, Resen, Gevgelija and Kratovo.

In Ohrid and Bitola, voter turnout reached over 60%. The battle for Skopje became a kind of “Stalingrad” for both North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and the leader of the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE – Christian Mitskoski.

In the end, Arsovska won by 28,000 votes over Shilegov. She will also be the first woman mayor of Skopje, 30 years after North Macedonia broke away from the former Yugoslavia and embarked on the road to independence.

The run-off was the most hotly contested part of the local elections.

The main mistake of Prime Minister Zaev and the ruling SDSM party was to play the Bulgarian card and announce that Danela Arsovska has Bulgarian citizenship.

Zaev said on Utrinski Briefing (Morning Briefing) that “in Skopje, after all, they elect “a city governor” (gradonachalnik), not “a mayor” (kmet) – that’s what you can run for in Bulgaria. Thus Zaev played with the history of the period 1941-1944 during the Bulgarian administration in Macedonia, when the term “mayor” was used and only afterwards the name “city governor” was imposed.

Although he said he did not think there was anything wrong with Arsovska being a Bulgarian citizen, he added that it was not politically, ethically and morally correct for her to hide this fact and try to manipulate the citizens of Skopje.

This has led to hysteria over whether Arsovska has Bulgarian citizenship and the issue has become central to all actors in the Macedonian political bloc.

The existence of Arsovska’s identity card and Bulgarian citizenship was confirmed by the Bulgarian Interior Ministry website.

Finally, after losing the local elections and the capital Skopje, the country’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, as promised, resigned as Prime Minister of Northern Macedonia and leader of the SDSM after congratulating the VMRO-DPMNE on their victory in the second round of local elections. 

Zaev said there should be no early parliamentary elections and added that he would remain at the head of the government until a new government is formed and there is the necessary parliamentary majority, which he said could increase in parliament.

He recalled that he was proud to have brought North Macedonia into NATO, that his country had been recommended for EU membership in 2020 and that the census that was being realised was almost 20 years in the making.

Zaev did not fail to note his disappointment that these elections showed strange alliances between victims and perpetrators, formed by the same people who four years ago tried to almost kill the former in parliament, recalling the events of 27 April 2017, which became known as “Bloody Thursday”. (then in an attack on the Macedonian parliament more than 100 people were beaten including Zoran Zaev – translator’s note)

Zaev said he had restored freedom and democracy after years of authoritarian rule by former VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski, saying that he took responsibility for the election result.

Zaev hinted that in his view part of the VMRO-DPMNE victory was the result of money pouring in “from outside”, without specifying which countries he was talking about.

But for observers of the events in the country, there is no doubt that the money came from Budapest, where Nikola Gruevski is hiding, and that the campaign was organised by media financed by Hungary and Slovenia, whose prime ministers, Viktor Orban and Janez Jansa, are close friends of the former VMRO-DPMNE leader.

The second round of local elections in northern Macedonia also produced a serious reshuffle of the local Albanian political bloc. Zoran Zaev’s partner in the governing coalition, Ali Ahmeti’s Democratic Union for Integration, lost in both Tetovo and Gostivar.

Tetovo carries the same weight for local Albanians as the capital Skopje does for the ruling parties of the Macedonian political bloc in our Bulgaria’s south-western neighbour.

After a fierce campaign, Tetovo switched for the first time from Ali Ahmeti’s party to Bilal Kasami’s small Albanian Besa party, which is also part of the ruling coalition. Ahmeti’s candidate, Teuta Arifi, lost to Bilal Kasami by almost 14%.

The intra-Albanian battles for supremacy have left Zoran Zaev facing a difficult choice for support before the run-offs between his two partners, Ali Ahmeti or Bilal Kasami.

A similar battle for supremacy within the Albanian bloc took place in the second largest city dominated by local Albanians – Gostivar, where opposition Albanians and Alternative Alliance candidate Arben Tavarari defeated Democratic Union for Integration candidate Nevzat Beita by a huge 17% margin.

And with the election in Debar still undecided between the Albanian Alliance and the Democratic Union for Integration, a new round of elections for mayor will be held on 14 November. The local elections in northern Macedonia have gone beyond their local character and have become the second half of the parliamentary elections in the summer of 2020 for the country’s government and opposition.

They have become a stake for the political future of neighbouring Macedonia. In them, one can see both internal factors related to unfinished political and economic reforms and regional relations that have caused discontent among North Macedonians due to the delay in negotiations between Skopje and the EU and, not least, the Bulgarian veto, which has become the driving force.

Now the VMRO-DPMNE, which has opposed reaching a solution with Bulgaria and Greece and held the country hostage to its isolationist policy, not only for the last four years, but also before that, under its former leader and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, is moving towards power in North Macedonia with active Bulgarian help.

There is no doubt that it was Gruevski who chose Arsovska as his candidate for mayor of Skopje, especially since, in addition to supporting the DPMNE’s anti-Bulgarian course, he is honorary consul of Hungary, the country that sheltered him when he fled in a Hungarian diplomatic car, passing through Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and arriving in Budapest three years ago.

For 14 years, the DPMNE has been waging a negative campaign against negotiations with Bulgaria, and a few months ago succeeded in forcing all parliamentary forces in the assembly to create their own document tying the government’s hands on negotiations with Sofia, through establishing red-line in negotiations over the 2017 Friendship Agreement  with Sofia (Bulgarian parliament has already established its own framework for negotiations, which also stipulate red lines – note of the translator). 

The leader of the opposition Albanian Alliance, Ziadin Sela, who four years ago almost took his own life under attack by VMRO-DPMNE activists, is now their partner in the overthrow of Zoran Zaev. He foresees that starting from 1 November 2021 there will be a new parliamentary majority in North Macedonia, which will probably be joined by five MPs from Ali Ahmeti’s party, as many as the opposition needs to replace Zoran Zaev’s governing coalition.

It remains to be seen whether this is a political bluff. However, one thing is clear from now on: local elections have significantly shifted the layers in our south-western neighbour at a complicated time for the Western Balkans, when it is uncertain whether the region will remain part of the EU because of unresolved relations between Serbia and Kosovo, the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and political instability in Montenegro.

Should the pro-Putin VMRO-DPMNE come to power in our south-western neighbour, the future of Corridor 8, which should redraw the trade and economic map of the Western Balkans and link the Black Sea to the Adriatic and the region to the EU, remains unknown.

All these elements make the Balkan domino complicated to resolve, because behind this instability in the region are external and regional powers that do not want to see it part of the EU.

Nikolai Krastev is a professional journalist who follows regional processes in the Balkans and the Black Sea region. He covered the conflicts in Kosovo in 1999 and Northern Macedonia in 2001.

He worked as the correspondent of the Bulgarian National Radio in Belgrade for the Western Balkans from 2003 to early 2012, and from 2015 to 2017 he was its Moscow correspondent for Russia and the post-Soviet space. 

Photo: Zoran Zaev has taken responsability for his party defeat at the local elections, by resigning from the position of prime minister and leader of the Macedonian social-democrats (source: YouTube)

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