Sotir Gabeloski: Macedonian voters punished the unfulfilled expectations with regards to SDSM and revolted against the Albanian party DUI

An interview with the Macedonian youth leader about his interpretation of the Macedonian parliamentary and presidential elections results and his prognosis what might follow

Vladimir Mitev

Sotir Gabeloski is an Aromanian living in Krushevo, North Macedonia. He is currently the Vice President of the National Youth Council of Macedonia and was part of the election campaign of presidential candidate Stevo Pendarovski. 

Sotir Gabeloski has a Master’s degree in International Law, EU Law and Diplomacy, and participated in the creation of the National Youth Strategy. He was a member of the team that, with the support of the International Republican Institute in North Macedonia, prepared the document “Youth Officers – Bridge Between Youth and Institutions” and implemented the initiative “By the Youth For the Youth”.

Mr. Gabeloski, what are the reasons for the great electoral success of the VMRO-DPMNE in Macedonian politics? – 7 years ago, after many scandals and protests, the left-wing party SDSM came to power with the ambition to dismantle the stabilocracy of the former VMRO-DPMNE ruler Gruevski. How much did the SDSM achieve?

These elections proved once again that Macedonian citizens vote against rather than for. This great success of the VMRO-DPMNE happened because of the unfulfilled expectations of the SDSM and the revolt against the DUI. VMRO DPMNE and its leader Hristijan Mickoski have shown that they are the only political side that can put an end to the rule of DUI and this has made them real winners in the eyes of the citizens, not only among Macedonians but also among Albanians. The former SDSM leader Zoran Zaev saw something similar in 2020, but it did not work out as expected. 

SDSM brought so many good things to the country. From international politics to internal reforms in favour of all citizens.  At the same time, the representatives of SDSM became an identification of corruption, something that is high on people’s minds. The SDSM did not manage to lead the narrative and dominate public communication to promote or effectively communicate what the party had achieved as a governing party. We can talk about 6 financial packages for citizens and companies since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the success with NATO, the establishment of a procedure for the long-term increase of salaries and pensions, the first law on youth has been brought during the 7 years of SDSM. However, in the last year the issue with the Bulgarian minority occupied the public narrative and we have seen that the question of constitutional changes is low on the needs and interest of Macedonian citizens, according to all research. And everything related to the EU integration process has lost its essence and importance, while at the same time the opinion of the government’s failure to deliver has increased.

In 2017, the SDSM came to power with high expectations from citizens. The rule of law, the improvement of democracy, the fight against emigration and functioning institutions were the priorities of Macedonian citizens. Today, it seems that SDSM did not meet these expectations, except for the democracy part, or it did not manage to effectively communicate the work done, and it did not meet the expectations of the Color Revolution. In the end, the Bulgarian question took up so much space and occupied the rhetoric. In the end, the SDSM was also punished for drunk driving. 

How favourable was the international context for Macedonia’s reforms, modernization and Europeanization? 

Thank you for the question, but I have to admit that it is a difficult one. Why is that? Because the citizens of Macedonia lost faith and were disappointed with the EU integration process. After the Prespa Agreement, there was a high level of expectations and positive energy, and many people realised that it was time to move forward, except for the fact that the then opposition VMRO DPMNE boycotted the referendum. As we moved forward, we got another condition to start the accession process with the request from our neighbour Bulgaria. And that felt like the end of all dreams for Macedonian citizens. It is too much to receive two unjustified requests in just a few years. The result can be seen today, with the last elections. The party that was against the inclusion of the Bulgarian minority in the constitution won the elections.

But, of course, we cannot blame the circumstances on the European and bilateral level only. Let us not forget that the last report of the EU Commission had many conclusions that showed no improvement in many areas. 

The future of North Macedonia is, of course, Europe and the European Union. With the planned constitutional changes, the country will get more and it will become an example for many other European countries. However, in the eyes of the citizens this is another lie of the European Union and people are losing faith in the so-called European dream.

Now it is crucial that the country stays on the EU path and respects all international agreements.

You are the leader of a youth movement in North Macedonia. What are the most important issues for Macedonian youth, how did young people from different ethnic communities vote and what is the motivation for the political preferences of young people in your country? 

Since May 2023, I have been the Vice President of the National Youth Council of Macedonia (NMSM), the largest representative body of youth in North Macedonia. I have recently returned from Molina, Spain, where at the General Assembly of the European Youth Forum a great focus was put on the decline of youth involvement and participation at the European level. We see a similar situation in North Macedonia. Regarding the outgoing government, we can say that some ministries and other governmental bodies showed a great understanding of the needs of the youth sector, such as the adoption of the National Mental Health Strategy by the Ministry of Labor, but we cannot say that every governmental body really understood and worked to implement policies to improve the lives of young people. 

Even though the unemployment rate under the government of SDSM has been reduced, still the biggest challenge for youth in North Macedonia is to find decent work and be able to improve professionally. So many young people work outside the area they had been studying for. Also, youth say that they do not have an adequate access to services they need. Although the unemployment rate has been reduced under the SDSM government, the biggest challenge for young people in northern Macedonia is to find decent work and to be able to advance professionally. Many young people are working outside the field for which they studied. In addition, young people say that they do not have adequate access to the services they need, do not feel involved in the political decision-making process, and do not have the information they need about job opportunities and education. And, of course, so many young people are leaving North Macedonia.

Regarding the electoral context, the Levica (Left) party is considered the most popular among the youth. They got 6 mandates in the Macedonian Assembly, but also ZNAM is considered to attract some of the youth votes. The youth felt disappointment and a low turnout of young people was noted. 

I must point out that political parties still consider young people less important. At least this is what we feel as young people. Only SDSM had a separate program/document about what they want to implement for the youth. And from a project implemented by UNICEF and NMSM, we were shown that the parties are not responsive regarding the youth. Only a few parties responded to our request to present their vision and program for youth in the context of the parliamentary and presidential elections. 

As for the ethnic context, we must return to the concept of one society for all and not become a bi-national country. What was really beneficial in the elections was that we saw new coalitions of parties being formed. The Albanian DUI put forward a coalition with Roma and Turkish representatives, and GROM also cooperated with another Roma party. However, we need to see more work with all nationalities, such as Albanians, Bosniaks and all those who live in North Macedonia. The constitutional changes, which include 6 new nationalities and not only Bulgarian, can be a good start. North Macedonia is a country with many minorities.

What domestic and foreign policies do you expect the VMRO-DPMNE and the Albanian party VLEN to agree on for a coalition government? 

Nobody is sure. On election night, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE did not mention anything about foreign policy. He talked about everything, but not about the country’s foreign policy position. Later, in an interview, Mickoski said that they plan to ask for an annex to the treaty signed by Zoran Zaev and Bojko Borissov. This means that considering the position of Bulgaria, the political situation in the country and the clear message from the EU that there will be no changes in the negotiating framework, we are stuck. Again. Moreover, when we put together everything that happened with the new President, there are so many question marks and the citizens do not have a clear vision of what to expect. So, North Macedonia is in a situation where its citizens are lost and have no information about the medium-term vision of the new ruling party. VMRO DPMNE also seems to be lost. Now they do not know how to avoid the constitutional name of North Macedonia in foreign relations, but at the same time they use all the advantages of the country called North Macedonia. Let us not forget that already in 2020 they did not hesitate to change their statute with the constitutional name of the country. 

When it comes to VLEN, it is clear that their focus is on the constitutional changes, but I am not sure if they will really be that persistent. I would not be surprised if they just talk about it, ask for constitutional changes and try to get more time while the question remains open, taking into account the position of VMRO-DPMNE. After several years of stability in foreign relations, today we are facing a not so clear future as to how the country would position itself. 

What will be the attitude of the future Macedonian government towards the Open Balkans mini-Schengen initiative, given that VLEN is said to have good relations with Kosovo, which is opposed to the Open Balkans?

The Open Balkans project will be a secondary process, which I do not expect to be completely abandoned, but I also do not think that its implementation has anything to do with Kurti and Kosovo. The role of Kurti in the last months was to influence the elections and they achieved their goal of marginalizing DUI. There is no such big interest in the initiative, even though it has so many benefits for the countries involved, especially in the area of trade. The main question would be how VLEN will position itself regarding constitutional changes and how Kurti will respond to North Macedonia’s EU aspirations. North Macedonia is now basically in the same group as Kosovo if the VMRO-DPMNE continues to neglect the Prespa Agreement. And in the next 6 or 9 months we will see how VLEN will act and that will give the answer to the interest of Kurti with North Macedonia.

Photo: Sorit Gabeloski (source: personal archive)

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