Republic of Macedonia Gets First New Ruling Party in a Decade

  • Zaev pledges to redouble efforts toward joining EU, NATO
  • Government pledges to try to solve name dispute with Greece

The Republic of Macedonia’s new prime minister took office, ushering in the country’s first change in leadership in more than a decade and ending a political standoff that threatened the country’s efforts to join NATO and the European Union.

Zoran Zaev took the post Thursday following his approval by lawmakers a day earlier. Joining forces with two parties representing ethnic Albanians, the Social Democratic Union assumed power for the first time in 11 years, pushing aside former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party, which won snap elections last year but was unable to secure a majority.

Zoran Zaev outside Parliament in Skopje on May 31.

Photographer: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

Zaev’s triumph comes after he led protests against Gruevski’s government by opposition forces that led to a bloody clash in parliament in May. The demonstrations began in 2015 when Zaev, then an opposition leader, leaked recordings alleging that the previous administration had illegally wiretapped about 20,000 people, including police, judges and politicians. Gruevski denied wrongdoing but resigned under pressure from the European Union, which has continuously criticized the Balkan country for its weak rule of law, citing the state capture of the judiciary, regulatory agencies and media outlets.

“The state of the country isn’t spectacular, but not too dramatic either,” Zaev told reporters in Skopje as he took office. “Today marks the start of reforms. The most serious overhaul will be in the justice system to ensure its independence. Our priority is to guarantee security for all people. I trust we’ll be able to manage the country’s finances and to raise the needed revenue.”

Parliament Clash

The new prime minister, a 42-year-old former mayor, was blocked for months from forming a government by Gruevski’s ally, President Gjorge Ivanov. The president relented under pressure from the EU and the U.S. after demonstrators stormed the former Yugoslav republic’s parliament and attacked dozens of opposition figures, including Zaev, sending some to hospital.

“Both the president and I agreed that our two institutions need to cooperate well to ensure the well being of Macedonia,” Zaev said. “I’ll sincerely work for cooperation with all, including the opposition. Macedonia needs optimism to turn the page to a positive future.”

The yield on the country’s euro-denominated bonds maturing in July 2023 fell 12 basis points to 4.180 percent at 4:36 p.m. in Skopje, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The country is at the center of a tussle between Russia and its Cold War adversaries for influence in former communist Europe, with Moscow trying to prevent more countries from joining western alliances and accusing Zaev of trying to undermine the Balkan state’s Slavic majority by teaming up with ethnic-Albanian parties.

Gruevski has accused Zaev of accepting Albanian parties’ proposals to introduce Albanian as a second official language, which Gruevski says is a threat to the country’s sovereignty. Tension has risen over the issue of the ethnic-Albanian minority, which makes up about a quarter of the population, after a 2015 clash with Albanian rebels near the border with Kosovo that killed 22 people.

EU, NATO

The U.S. is looking forward to working with Zaev’s cabinet “as it strives to fulfill the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations by implementing urgent reforms that strengthen rule of law and judicial independence, media freedom, and government accountability,” the State Department said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

Along with the political standoff, the country’s ambitions to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have been thwarted by lagging reforms and a dispute with Greece over the name “Macedonia,” which it shares with a Greek region.

Speaking in parliament, Zaev vowed to work on solving the country’s name issue and hold a referendum on the matter.

The coalition, which includes the Democratic Union for Integration and the Alliance of Albanians, has promised to fight corruption, human rights violations and organized crime.

“A lot will now depend on the institutions of the EU and key member states, whether they will be willing to push for both a NATO and EU perspective for Macedonia to both encourage domestic reforms and unblock the process,” Florian Bieber, the director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, said in an email.

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