The EU enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, has undertaken an ambitious task to inject new energy into the enlargement process towards the Western Balkans, introducing some new initiatives which, however, risk creating parallel worlds. The biggest risk this to happen is with the extremely difficult case of Macedonia (the former Yugoslav republic). Difficult because, since its very creation, the small, two million, country has been searching for its path and place, often crossing over the boundaries of good behaviour or the reasonable. But the European Commission is determined not to leave Macedonia on its own because this for sure would lead to its absorption by the twilight zone.
As this website wrote in March, Mr Fule has undertaken a very ambitious initiative, which he himself calls "a bridge towards accession negotiations" - the High Level Accession Dialogue. The aim of the dialogue is to maintain with Macedonia and with the Commission a commitment toward the European integration of the country, implementation of the main membership criteria while awaiting the outcome from the dispute between Skopje and Athens for the name of the former Yugoslav republic, which is the main obstacle for Macedonia to start real accession talks. The dialogue, with the sound abbreviation HLAD (sound as in Bulgarian language it means 'cool'), consists of five points that practically outline the five problematic areas for the country: the situation with media; rule of law and fundamental rights; reform of the public administration; election reform; and establishing market economy.
The media situation: even during communism it was not that bad
Right before the August vacation of the EU, on July 24th, there was a session of the EU-Macedonia Association Council, which sounded much more optimistically than the assessments of journalists to whom euinside turned for opinion in the country. In the conclusions from the meeting, spreading on four pages, it is pointed out that the EU appreciates the government's readiness to tackle the main problems, as laid out in HLAD. Regarding freedom of media, it is said that a review was made of the situation of freedom of expression and media and that the continuation of the dialogue between the government and the main stakeholders is noted. Also noted is the preparation of aa draft legislation on civil liability for insult and defamation, saying that this "will be a good step forward once adopted by parliament".
Not so optimistically sound the opinions of two journalists from Macedonia. According to Dushko Arsovski, the country is dominated by media who defend the policies of the government. This, he explains, is especially clearly embodied in the closure of the A1 TV station last year with the motive that it owes taxes to the treasury. Another colleague, Enisa Bajrami, adds that media close to the government were never financially audited. Apart from A1, Dushko Arsovski writes, in Macedonia three newspapers were closed, which were owned by the same man - Velia Ramkovski, who is in jail now for tax evasion. "Thus, space opened for Sitel and Channel 5 - two TV stations which are led by sons of members or leaders of the parties that take part in the ruling coalition of [Prime Minister] Gruevski. This is in violation of the law, which forbids leaders of parties or their relatives to own media. These media often provide greater space for government's activities, while the opposition is most often presented in a negative perspective".
Similar is the situation with the three most circulating dailies in Macedonia - Dnevnik, Utrinski Vesnik and Vest. Before, the three newspapers were owned by the German WAZ concern which, however, withdrew from the Balkans and at the moment the dailies are owned by the ORKA holding of Orce Kamchev, a businessman considered to be close to the government, Dushko Arsovski further explains. Lately, he adds, on the front pages of Dnevnik entire series of texts are being published, presenting Nikola Gruevski, the premier, in positive light.
My colleague, Enisa Bajrami, who is founder of the news web portal in Albanian language, Shqipmedia, wrote to me that, practically, she is afraid of speaking openly about the media situation in Macedonia because she fears that she might be arrested without a reason or her media be closed only because she thinks differently or dares to speak the truth. "The situation is worse than it was in the communist period", she says. The tipping point in the media saga was after the elections in 2011. Then, Bajrami writes, a new broadcasting law was introduced, without preliminary consultations, which added 6 new members to the broadcasting council - all of whom from the coalition group of the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE. And what is worse in Enisa Bajrami's story is that the Macedonian government is the largest spender on advertising in the country, thus, practically, ruining the media market as, she writes, most media depend financially on government advertising.
A ray of hope comes from the Macedonian National TV (MTV), of which Dushko Arsovski thinks that under pressure from Brussels it could be reformed. At the moment it is technically outdated and presents mainly the government's points of view, not allowing opposition positions. The TV is financially dependent on the state budget. But now, some changes are making there way through, allowing the TV to be financed by fees, advertisement and the state budget. "A spark of hope for some change comes from the new management [of the TV], who promise by the end of September to change the current vision of the TV and the news to be made according to the professional standards", Arsovski writes. New equipment is bought. "The reform of MTV is mentioned in every annual report of the European Commission on Macedonia and if there is any change, it would have to be perceived as a result of Brussels's pressure", the journalist says.
But Enisa Bajrami sounds more pessimistically. She asks, "how can the media situation improve in Macedonia with these current happenings?"
Cold or Hlad?
The EU-Macedonia Association Council, after its meeting on July 24th, noted progress in the economic area. According to the Council, there is progress towards implementation of the economic criteria and the functioning of market economy. "It welcomed the country’s appropriate macroeconomic policy in the context of the global crisis". But it calls, given the accession perspective, the country to improve efficiency and effectiveness of labour market, to enhance administrative capacity and the regulatory and supervisory bodies, as well as to improve the rule of law and contract enforcement. "The EU welcomed the steps undertaken to reduce unemployment", is another positively sounding sentence in the conclusions after the end of the Associations Council. Words, that are in contrast to the impressions of my colleagues Dushko Arsovski and Enisa Bajrami.
Enisa quotes calculations of big international media (as there are no official data), according to which the government is spending 500 million euros on the Skopje 2014 project, which is a gigantic sum for the size of the economy of the small Balkan nation. The project, apart from being expensive, is also causing tensions with neighbours as it envisages the building of 20 high statues and over 100 smaller ones, depicting "ancient Macedonia", among which the 22-meter high statue, called "A Warrior on a Horse", but in fact everyone is aware that it symbolises Alexander the Great.
The EU's conclusions differ from the data of the International Monetary Fund about the economic situation in the country, from June this year. There, precisely regarding fiscal policy, it is said that indeed the authorities had achieved their goal for 2011 to reduce the budget deficit but on a cash basis - a trick the Bulgarian government also used before the EU two years ago. The IMF underscores, that "the deficit would have been somewhat larger if arrears on government payments and VAT refunds were included". For 2012 the government announced a budget deficit of 2.5% of GDP but [this] "was based on highly optimistic growth and revenue assumptions", is the assessment of the Fund. And despite the small tricks, the IMF reports that Macedonia has a good history of achieving its budget deficit goals by cutting spending when necessary. Although the country scored 3% economic growth last year, the IMF says that the economic recovery is slowing down, mainly due to external factors.
The main question right now is whether the HLAD initiative, which radiates so much optimism and hope, would not prove in fact a real cold in the attempts of reforming Macedonia. Dushko Arsovski answers this question saying that the government presents this new initiative as a huge success for Macedonia. Moreover, the government even boasted that it had implemented all its commitments and it waited now for the verification of Brussels. The dialogue is presented as an opportunity Macedonia to progress in its European integration. Some officials, quoted by Arsovski, even think that by the time Macedonia starts accession negotiations, it would have completed the work on most of its commitments.
Enisa Bajrami, for her part, does not see how the dialogue can be of use since the main issues of integration are blocked. "The country’s name has been a roadblock to EU membership since 2005; the EC reports are more 'stagnation reports' rather than 'progress reports'; there is an obvious decline of the economy and unemployment; raising nationalistic feelings with introducing Skopje 2014 project [...]; ethnic-disputes between Macedonia and Albanians are in continues issues; the Albanian partner (DUI party) is ignored in serious issues by the Macedonian ruling party VMRO-DPMNE, and the DUI party actually failed to protect the basic rights of the Albanian minorities", she writes and concludes that the EU in general is "quite 'blind and deaf' when it comes to Macedonia situation, since all they do is talking in a diplomatic method claiming: Macedonia is doing well only it needs more reforms. I do not know what that 'is doing well' actually means".
In June, in the margins of the Sofia Forum for the Balkans, Macedonia's Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Teuta Arifi said, responding to a question by euinside, that for Macedonia HLAD was a particularly important instrument which would not reduce pressure over Macedonia to implement reforms. On the contrary - it the dialogue would keep the dynamics of administration and society.
"Overall we see that a lot of work has been launched and that some results are starting to be achieved. It is now time to continue on the good path, and follow up on the commitments which have been made. This is the way to achieve a positive climate later this year when the Member States will take decisions about the enlargement process", said during the Association Council Commissioner Fule. His words provide a broad space for interpretations, which is obviously what Enisa Bajrami means, because on the one hand these words say that a lot work has been launched but makes it clear that it could be said there are results but there is a lack of confidence in this diplomatic tone. In the end comes the threat that the big assessment will be given by the member states themselves. Among them Bulgaria and Greece, who constantly feel under attack by the small former Yugoslav republic, which was most clearly evident during the debates in the European Parliament earlier this year.
But again, as Dushko Arsovski and Enisa Bajrami said - there is hope. It can be enhanced when the name issue with Greece stops being the only obstacle for the European integration of Macedonia. The country must understand, especially against the backdrop of the democratic problems and pressure over media in some EU member states, such as Hungary, Romania, but also Bulgaria, that without freedom of expression and independent media all attempts for reforms are doomed. In this regard, it is indeed worth praising that for the Commission the first, out of the five, points in HLAD is precisely the media situation, because the devil is in the details, which can very clearly be seen in the media situation in Bulgaria - where quietly and gently the market has been merged and is now almost entirely in the hands of a single owner. The result is showing the prime minister from dusk till dawn on TVs, radios and newspapers - uncritically and unregeneratingly.