Simonida Kacarska: The EU integration of the Western Balkans is a belated but not lost cause

A Macedonian political analyst and NGO person offers her perspective on the reasons for the huge failure of the left-wing SDSM party at the May 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections in North Macedonia, as well as what should we expect as national and foreign policies from a government between VMRO-DPMNE and VLEN parties

Vladimir Mitev

Interview with the director and co-founder of the European Policy Institute, a leading think tank in Skopje. She has two decades of experience working on the EU accession of North Macedonia and the Western Balkans as a civil servant and a researcher. She holds a PhD from the University of Leeds in the UK.  

Ms Kacarska, VMRO-DPMNE won the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections with quite good results. How do you explain this defeat of the SDSM, which ruled for the last seven years with the ambition to remove the stableocracy regime of the previous leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Gruevski?

The result of SDSM at the May 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections can be linked to several factors – SDSM’s weak delivery on domestic issues linked to rule of law as well as the difficult process of opening up the EU accession negotiations for the country. If we recall that the key slogan that brought the SDSM to govern in 2017 was No Justice, No Peace (it refers to times of stabilocracy of Nikola Gruevski – note of the editor). Now, there is a general sense among the public that this was not achieved. On the contrary, one of the last legislative changes in the mandate of the outgoing parliament was an abrupt amendment to the Criminal Code that made getting away with high level corruption easier. 

The second point on which the outgoing government built its own agenda was the opening up of the EU accession path of the country. While a major step was taken with the Prespa Agreement, the Bulgarian blockade and the lengthy process of continuous negotiations between 2019 and 2022 significantly affected the public trust in the likelihood of a breakthrough. Of course, there are also many other factors such as backtracking on gender equality which distanced the SDSM from its supporters and natural allies. 

What will be the domestic and international policies on which the VMRO-DPMNE and the Albanian VLEN party will reach agreement so that they can govern together?

This coalition will be a new development in national politics in North Macedonia, although the actors themselves are not. While VMRO-DPMNE has been known to be a rather disciplined political entity, with all the risks that this may bring, the VLEN coalition consists of several parties with particularistic interests making it hard for the coalition to govern. At the moment, it seems the major binding factor is their opposition to DUI as the party that has been in  government for almost two decades. 

What do you expect to happen to the European course of North Macedonia under a VMRO-DPMNE and VLEN government? Is it possible for Albania to be separated from North Macedonia on the road to EU accession and how would a possible separation affect North Macedonia?

While VMRO-DPMNE and VLEN both on a discursive level are committed to the process of European integration, the stumbling block in this process remains the constitutional changes, in addition to the uncertainties in the EU itself. At the same time, the beginning of the government mandate overlaps with the setting up of the new College of EU commissioners and the Hungarian presidency of the EU. In these circumstances, not much immediate external pressure is to be expected. 

On the other hand, observers in Skopje  note that constitutional changes in 2025 might also be difficult to foresee as the country will hold local elections making things look rather uncertain. The major opportunity for delivery of reforms for the EU accession path remains the Growth Plan and the corresponding Reform Agenda. Unlike the outgoing government, the new one will have a stable majority making it easy to deliver on legislation requiring 2/3 majority in the Parliament which is a major opportunity should there be political will. 

As for Albania, at the moment the country is facing its own quieter veto from Greece and posting the mayor of Himara to the European Parliament might also complicate matters further in the Albanian case. The issue of de-coupling in recent years seems in this respect is generally less discussed. 

What do you expect to happen in Macedonian-Greek and Macedonian-Bulgarian relations in the near future? How could the EU member states of South Eastern Europe play a positive role in the development of North Macedonia in the current circumstances?

The track record of these relations since independence has had its ups and downs (mostly) as both North Macedonia and its EU member state neighbors have had their share of faults. Our relations will depend on the behavior of each and every government which will take place in Skopje, Sofia or Athens for the foreseeable future. We saw this most clearly in the recent hurdles between North Macedonia and Greece. Due to the difficult issues discussed with Bulgaria in my view it would probably be wise to draw on experiences of other relatable processes in Europe, which almost always had international support focusing on methodology of work and recognizing different perspectives to the past for the sake of our joint future. Viewing the EU accession process of all of the Western Balkans as a belated, but not lost, joint cause is the best way for the EU member states to play a positive role not only in the development of North Macedonia, but Europe overall in the current circumstances.

Photo: Simonida Kacarska (source: Simonida Kacarska)

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