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Deciphering the oath: What would the new executive duo bring in Skopje

The presidential and parliamentary elections which took place last week in North Macedonia shook the country’s inert political scene. The country got its first female President, who assumed office by omitting “North” when swearing to protect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of (North) Macedonia. There will be a new government led by the centre-right, conservative party VMRO DPMNE who also nominated the aforementioned President, Gordana Siljanovska – Davkova.

If we look into the background of the previous SDSM-led ruling coalition, the results and the landslide win for VMRO DPMNE in the presidential and parliamentary elections will make sense. It would be a bold statement, but not far from the truth that a part of the responsibility for the failure of the “most pro-European government in the Western Balkans” is to be found in the EU’s failure to deliver on its promises to a candidate for membership for already 20 years. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen immediately reacted to the “hiccup” at the inauguration of Siljanovska-Davkova, reminding of the importance of full respect of the Prespa agreement on the country’s successful path to the EU. But in fact, that path has been far from successful. It hasn’t even started yet, as the country has not even begun negotiations.

The SDSM-led government came to power in 2017, heavily supported by the USA and the EU, and quickly managed to conclude negotiations with Greece for the settlement of the dispute about the country’s name, after which North Macedonia rapidly became a member of NATO.

As there were no obstacles for the beginning of accession negotiations with the EU, it was France that decided to block the beginning of this process for North Macedonia and Albania as there was a need to revise the methodology. Bulgaria decided to use its veto power and since then, North Macedonia has yet to amend its Constitution and add the Bulgarian minority (and other requests adopted in the negotiation framework).

Meanwhile, the pro-European ruling coalition of SDSM and DUI (Social Democrats and the Democratic Union for Integration) was putting everything on the EU card, only declaratively. The lack of reforms in the judiciary, public administration, economy, the failure for justice to be served in the cases of the former public officials charged with breach of duty and corruption, was omnipresent and noted also in the Annual Progress reports by the EU. In the most important clusters, there was limited, or no progress noted, or the progress was assessed as moderate. The fight against corruption was further undermined with the changes of the Criminal Code where sentences for criminal enterprise and misuse of public office were lowered.

The frustration of the citizens peaked with the delay in issuing new personal documents (IDs, passports, driver’s licences) with the new constitutional name (the deadline in accordance with the Prespa agreement was 12 February 2024). The latest polls of IRI for the countries of the Western Balkans show that Macedonians/now citizens of North Macedonia put the cost of living (25%) and corruption (22%) as the top two priorities for the government. In 2020, only 5% of the population found corruption as the top priority issue for the ruling government.

The case of North Macedonia can be copied in all candidate states for EU membership. Reforms are painful and they do not yield immediate benefits at the ballot box or more power. No prospects for membership give no incentive for pro-European parties and citizens because there is, among other things, a lack of understanding that the end consumers of the reformed institutions, judiciary, economy are the citizens and the state itself. That it is not the EU that needs these reforms, but us citizens and the state. After all, Chinese investors don’t demand constitutional changes nor transparent procurement processes. Russian media propagandists are not big fans of freedom of the media either. The further isolation and frustration with the impasse gives a great excuse to the ruling elites to not engage thoroughly in the reform processes.

The question is therefore what will this new duo at the helm mean for North Macedonia’s EU prospects?

It’s fair to give a chance to the new government and see which course VMRO DPMNE will take. The inauguration of President Siljanovska – Davkova and her version of the Oath of office immediately caused many reactions by all strategic partners of the country, firstly from Greece, the EU, and the USA. It seems like all eyes were on Skopje, waiting for a reason to reprimand the once again troubled child of the region.

For VMRO DPMNE it will be challenging but not impossible to open the Constitution and adopt the changes related to the Bulgarian minority, as they cast themselves as protectors of Macedonian identity and its national interests. During the campaign, VMRO DPMNE mentioned the possibility for amendments to the so-called French proposal, which would give some guarantees for no further demands/blockades from Bulgaria’s side and a bigger focus on the opening and closing chapters with the EU.

On the other hand, adding Skopje to the Budapest-Belgrade Axis (meaning, more Russia and China and autocracy, and less EU and USA) would probably bring some mid-term appeasement, but it would be far from a viable alternative to the EU. Prespa Agreement played a crucial role in securing the country’s stability and its road towards NATO and EU membership. Even flirting with its reversion would bring further uncertainty and waste of precious time (and patience). The utmost priority of the new government should be an uncompromising fight against corruption and working at full speed on the necessary reforms that would make the country an eligible aspirant to EU membership.

In turn, it is up to the EU to acknowledge and reward that.

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