Condensed history of Eurovilification and Eurofundamentalism in North Macedonia (2005-2020)

North Macedonia first became an EU candidate member in 2005, and ever since, its accession process has been hindered by a multitude of factors instigating Eurovilifying discourses in the country. The most relevant factors include

  • a) the proliferation of ethno-nationalist narratives during the decade long rule (from 2006 to 2017) by the party Внатрешна Македонска Револуционерна Организации-ДемократскаПартща за Македонско Национално Единство (VMRO-DPMNE, ‘The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization’);
  • b) a stabilitocracy-tolerating EU which has also failed to achieve consensus regarding further enlargement among its member states (Vangeli, 2011; International Republican Institute, 2018); and c) the prolonged name dispute with Greece (Fidanovski, 2018), resolved by the Prespa Agreement (2018), which resulted in the country’s current name ‘Republic of North Macedonia’.

Domestic and foreign actors alike have often exploited these factors to amplify existing Eurosceptic attitudes in this predominantly pro-EU country and to develop and promote Eurovilifying conspiracy theories. These conspiracy theories were most prominent during periods in which political elites sought to divert public attention from their failures in local or foreign policy, such as in the final years of the ten-year rule of right-wing VMRO-DPMNE (see Gjoneska, Fidanovski & Krouwel, 2020).

The flourishing of Eurovilifying conspiracy theories in this period was largely in response to developments regarding the country’s EU integration process and the name-issue with Greece. Our analysis focuses on the aftermath of a large-scale wiretapping scandal in 2015 (revealing that the government had tapped the phone conversations of around 20,000 public figures), after which VMRO-DPMNE leadership adopted increasingly hostile rhetoric towards the EU and other Western actors, and significantly shifted the EU outlook among its core voters (Damjanovski & Kirchner, 2019; International Republican Institute, 2018: 48).

One illustrative example of Eurovilifying conspiracy theories developed in this period involved an unexpected combination of actors, including Republican Senators, Russian officials, former PM Nikola Gruevski, VMRO-DPMNE supporters and an ad-hoc Macedonian organisation called Стоп за операци)ата Сорос (SOS, ‘Stop Operation Soros’). These actors were united by a common goal: (in)advertently promoting false and conspiratorial narratives regarding the influence of George Soros and the Open Society Foundation in North Macedonia - portrayed as colluding with left-wing forces in the country - as part of a broader narrative regarding the country’s relationship to the EU and the ‘West’ (Belford & Cvetkovska, 2017; Arnsdorf, Hanna & Vogel, 2017; Stronski & Himes, 2019; see Langer in this volume). Soon after the 2015 wiretapping scandal, former PM Gruevski began calling for the ‘desorosisation’ of the country, a familiar and integral sentiment in right-wing CEE and Western Balkan discourse and one that was quickly echoed by Russian officials in the country (Arnsdorf, Hanna & Vogel, 2017; Stronski & Himes, 2019). PM Gruevski and Russian media portrayed the work of the Open Society Foundation as ‘foreign interference’ aimed at empowering left-oriented and pro-EU political forces in the country. Both in North Macedonia and abroad, networks of bots ensured that these stories reached a wide audience (Denkovski, 2021; Arnsdorf, Hanna & Vogel, 2017; Zafeiropoulos, 2019; Karan, 2018). The reach of these conspiracy theories became clear when a number of US senators began spreading false allegations regarding the Open Society Foundation’s activity in North Macedonia, based on a pamphlet distributed to Congress by the SOS organisation (Buldioski, 2017).

These Eurovilifying narratives emerged despite the largely pro-European orientation of all major parties and the consistently high support for EU-integration from more than 65 per cent of polled citizens in polls ranging back to 2005. Regardless of this pro-EU environment, in the period between 2014 and 2019, support for EU membership among VMRO-DPMNE voters decreased from 77 to 49 per cent, with identity and value-based concerns (e.g., opposition to LGBTQ rights or cosmopolitanism) cited as dominant predictors of Euroscepticism in North Macedonia at the time (Damjanovski & Kichner, 2019; Damjanovski, Lavric & Naterer, 2020). In contrast, Соцщалдемократски cojy3 на Македонца (SDSM, ‘Social Democratic Union of Macedonia’, the major centre-left party) and Bashkimi Demokratik per Integrim (abbreviated DU I in Macedonian, ‘Democratic Union for Integration’, the largest ethnic Albanian party) expressed near-unanimous support for EU integration throughout this period with eighty-nine and 99 per cent in favour in 2018, respectively (ibid).

Russia’s role in spreading Eurovilifying narratives in this period was also substantial, as it has been in most Western Balkan countries in recent years through the activity of state-funded outlets such as Serbian Sputnik (Denkovski & Trilling, 2020). For instance, in 2015 Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a statement that Albania and Bulgaria sought to dismember North Macedonia, a statement quickly characterised as irresponsible by Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister.16 In 2017, the Russian MFA once again issued conspiratorial statements that Albania, supported by the EU and other Western powers, was harbouring territorial claims against its neighbours and developing an ‘Albanian Platform’ (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, 2017). Russian officials played on existing ethnic divides in Macedonian society to generate Eurovilifying discourse that incited ethnic tensions within the country and pushed public sentiment towards extreme Euroscepticism. With former PM Gruevski’s explicit validation and reproduction of these narratives, Russia’s rhetoric had a sizeable impact. The situation in Macedonia is thus a perfect example of the increasing dissemination of the Russian narrative of European decline (see Molder in this volume).

Perhaps the most striking set of Eurovilifying conspiracy theories, developed in the period leading up to the country’s non-binding referendum on its name change on 30 September 2018. In this period, a Twitter user known as ‘Cheese’ began encouraging his 10,000 followers to boycott the referendum, accompanied by the hashtag #bojkotiram (‘I am boycotting’) - a campaign that would prove to be extremely effective, prompting street protesters and gathering substantial donations from North Macedonia’s nationalist diaspora (Zafeiropoulos, 2019; Denkovski, 2021; Karan, 2018). With the help of a small team and computational propaganda methods, ‘Cheese’ promoted fake stories and conspiracy theories that aimed at undermining the referendum, significantly contributing to the popularity of the protests against the name change (Woolley & Howard, 2016; Karan, 2018). One of the stories spread by this network of automated and real accounts stated that people living near the country’s largest army base would be poisoned by depleted uranium brought in for NATO military training if the government ratified the name-change deal - a story ultimately traced to an American-Macedonian Sputnik columnist (Zafeiropoulos, 2019). Other fake stories flaunted false information such as the prosecution of those who disagree with the Prespa agreement (with Greece), as well as massive inflation of the local currency as a result of the name change to North Macedonia. This network did not disappear after the referendum and remained active as late as the July 2020 parliamentary election, promoting anti-Western, Eurovilifying and pro-VMRO-DPMNE narratives (Denkovski, 2021). As the name-change referendum was directly tied to the country’s integration in the EU and NATO, Cheese’s worldview neatly summarised the impact of Eurovilification in North Macedonia. In an interview with BIRN he stated that ‘we live in the middle of a digital war’ with ‘nationalists and patriots on one side, while internationalists, communists, former communists and social democrats on the other’ - strongly echoing sentiments of alt-right groups in the US and EU (Zafeiropoulos, 2019).

Eurovilifying conspiracies have frequently entered mainstream public discourse in North Macedonia. However, those which developed in the period following the 2015 wiretapping scandal proved to be most effective, instigating collaboration between various local and domestic actors interested in discrediting the EU and the ‘West’ in North Macedonia. These conspiracies largely targeted VMRO-DPMNE supporters, as party leadership turned increasingly hostile towards the EU in an attempt to remain in power (Gjoneska, Fidanovski & Krouwel, 2020). Our analysis demonstrates how these Eurovilifying narratives can flourish in a largely pro-European population, as a result of public disillusionment with the EU accession process and a plethora of self-serving considerations by political elites. The flourishing of these narratives can partially be explained by the fact that progress with EU accession in North Macedonia (as in the rest of the Western Balkans) does not always result in democratic consolidation of the country.

In the remaining part of this section, we will focus on other segments of the Macedonian population who were in parallel swayed by Eurofundamentalist discourses regarding the EU and EU membership as a result of uncritical pro-EU attitudes and misleading cues from political elites, more interested in entering the EU than establishing durable reforms at home. Richter and Wunsch (2019) have already shown that compliance with EU membership criteria across the region has been inversely correlated to démocratisation at least since 2008 (ibid, 44). This paradox can partly be explained by the notion of ‘stabilitoc-racy’, which we argue has had an equally significant impact on the development of both Eurovilifying and Eurofundamentalist discourses. As elaborated earlier, the EU repeatedly legitimised former PM Gruevski’s less-than-democratic regime through multiple positive progress reports on the country (European Commission Progress Report, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014). By implicitly endorsing Gruevski, the EU was enabling his government to (ab)use its alleged pro-EU credentials to score political points among North Macedonia’s largely Europhilic electorate, and deflect attention from its gradual democratic backsliding (Bieber, 2018).

However, it appears that this cautionary tale has failed to dissuade the EU from initiating another ‘stabilitocratic’ relationship in the aftermath of the change of government in July 2017. Between Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s rise to power, and the establishment of an interim government in January 2020 tasked with organising an early parliamentary election, North Macedonia achieved minimal progress on the rule-of-law front, with at least half of the legal cases prompted by the 2015 wiretapping scandal still awaiting legal resolution as of November 2019.17 Nonetheless, this was not reflected in the EU’s February 2020 progress update, which noted ‘significant steps taken to strengthen the independence of the judiciary’ (European Commission Progress Report, 2020). Thus, the legitimising effect that this unsubstantiated endorsement from Brussels had on Prime Minister Zaev between 2017 and 2019 began to resemble Gruevski’s own political instrumentalisation of Brussels’ stabilitocratic approach before 2015.

As will be shown below, this makes the EU a major and rather consistent external driver of Eurofundamentalism in North Macedonia, but this phenomenon is further reinforced by several domestic causes. One of these causes is the strong ideological homogenisation of Macedonian politics. To name but one example, various governments of ostensibly opposed orientations have over the years adopted some of the same ideologically incoherent policies, such as maintaining a sizable public sector and flat taxation at the same time.18 In the absence of any consistent ideological thinking, different incumbents have resorted to flaunting their (sometimes merely alleged) support from Brussels in the hope that their pro-EU credentials will deflect attention from their programmatic shortcomings. In North Macedonia, Eurofundamentalism often serves as a substitute for a coherent policy platform, as progress in the EU accession process tends to overshadow inconvenient discussions about domestic governance. Moreover, while Eurofundamentalism is fuelled by the ruling elites, it would not be possible without the existence of a strongly Europhilic population, which just like its government(s), puts an absolute premium on EU accession. As of the spring of 2020, no less than 74 per cent of Macedonian citizens desire EU membership (International Republican Institute, 2020: 79). Somewhat paradoxically, however, only 25 per cent (more precisely 25.7 per cent) believe the country is moving in the right direction (Eurothink, 2019: 4). The negative relationship between trust in the EU and trust in domestic governments in Eastern Europe has already been captured by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes (2020). Albeit with regards to Hungary and Poland’s accession process in the 1990s, their observation that ‘the more confidence that imitators have in those they imitate, the less confidence they have in themselves’ (ibid, 11) is visibly corroborated in North Macedonia. Thus, Eurofundamentalism erodes whatever little confidence is left in national politicians and misrepresents the promise of EU membership as a panacea for anything from poverty to corruption.

But how does this Eurofundamentalist portrayal of the EU as a proverbial magic wand operate in practice? One particularly explicit illustration has been provided by former Prime Minister Zaev, in 2018: ‘What we need is a whip. Someone from the EU or NATO who will get over here and put us all - not least myself - in our place’.19 Rather than seeking to alter citizens’ perceptions of domestic politicians as incompetent, Zaev is merely reaffirming his status as a single-issue leader, whose sole task is to bring the country into the EU. As has been observed by Maldini (2016: 26) in the Croatian context, rhetoric like this serves to advance a mythologised narrative of EU accession as an independent policy objective, rather than being the ‘main instrument for the achievement of development goals and national interests’ (ibid). Apart from creating unrealistic long-term expectations about the benefits of EU accession, Eurofundamentalism is posing even greater immediate damage to popular support for EU accession. No less than 51.6 per cent of Macedonian citizens expect EU membership within ten years, while 29.7 per cent expect it in five years (Eurothink, 2019: 11—2). Judging by Croatia’s accession talks, which lasted for six years, as well as the fact that accession talks have been becoming progressively longer over time, even the less optimistic scenario seems unlikely. Such misconceptions among Macedonian citizens demonstrate the informational deficits in EU-related public discourse, which is dominated by Eurofundamentalist rhetoric that focuses on the benefits of EU accession over facts pertaining to the accession process (Damjanovski, Lavric & Naterer, 2020). If pro-EU sentiment in North Macedonia during the upcoming accession talks ends up following a similar dip to the one observed in our Croatian case study, unrealistic expectations about the length of the talks could only deepen this dip, thus exemplifying one of the biggest potential harms from Eurofundamentalism.

Moreover, Eurofundamentalist rhetoric in North Macedonia is often accompanied by Eurofundamentalist governance. One of the most important examples of this phenomenon pertains to the main mechanism ofEU integration: the adoption of the EU’s Acquis Communautaire. In order to facilitate the incorporation of thousands of EU laws into existing Macedonian legislation, the Macedonian parliament often invokes the notion of‘laws with a European prefix’ (literally: ‘laws with a European flag’/‘закони co европско знаменце’).20 With this practice, any new laws that are deemed essential components of the Acquis Communautaire are fast-tracked in the name of accelerating the country’s EU integration. While the option of fast-tracking certain laws is a standard parliamentary mechanism in many countries, North Macedonia has over the years triggered the ‘European prefix’ in a myriad of legislative areas as diverse as anti-corruption and cannabis legalisation. This legislative manifestation of Eurofundamentalism is also peculiar in that it does not presuppose the active participation of the EU. In fact, on at least one occasion, key European actors have - somewhat counterintuitively - objected to the labelling of laws in this fashion.

For instance, ahead of North Macedonia’s fast-tracked passage of a controversial language law in March 2018, French ambassador Christian Timonier explicitly challenged - to no avail - the ‘Europeanisation’ of the law, arguing that this particular piece of legislation was not part of the EU’s conditionality for North Macedonia in the realm of minority rights.21 Clearly, while the EU has often served as a major external driver of Eurofundamentalism, this example suggests that the phenomenon can also surface despite - rather than because of - signals from Brussels. The attachment of the ‘European’ label to national legislation procedures, instrumentalises strong pro-EU sentiment among Macedonian citizens, under the mythical premise of accession-driven reform to pass legislation that is not necessarily mandated - and is sometimes even explicitly discouraged - by Brussels.

Finally, what is arguably North Macedonia’s most consequential manifestation of Eurofundamentalism to date occurred in October 2019. Following a decision by the European Council (EC) to indefinitely postpone the opening of accession talks with the country, former Prime Minister Zaev decided to call a snap election halfway through his four-year term in office.22 The EC’s decision was based on France’s dissenting opinion (accession talks can only be green-lighted with unanimous agreement among all member states), not the reform performance of Zaev’s government. If anything, North Macedonia had by this point received two largely positive EU progress reports since Zaev’s rise to power in 2017 (European Commission Progress Report, 2018; 2019). Since elections are the cornerstone of any country’s democracy, Zaev’s decision to ‘sacrifice’ his government based on a Eurofundamentalist rationale has provided the strongest confirmation to date of the superior importance of formal EU accession progress over government performance in North Macedonia.

 
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