The iron fists in Poland and Macedonia: too similar but too bad!

Posted on 8. March 2016

by Ivan Stefanovski

ivan-stefanovskiIn the aftermath of the elections, which took place in October 2015, Polish voters swung even further to the right on the ideological scale. Although many had expected that Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party would opt for strong conservative values, few had predicted the speed with which the new establishment would tighten its grip on society, infringing on rights and freedoms and undermining European values. At the same time, there are hardly illusions in Brussels regarding the autocratic capacities of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. “The Little Dictator”, as the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung called Gruevski, has systematically subverted the country’s institutions, blurring all lines between his ruling VMRO-DPMNE party and the state. There are very few people following southeast European politics who have not personally heard excerpts of the wiretapped conversations (the so-called “political bombs”) that the Macedonian opposition aired on multiple press conferences and directly incriminate Gruevski and his loyal entourage, with crimes ranging from forging elections to cover-ups of murders and massive human rights violations. Given these trends, is it possible to say that we might be witnessing a Balkanisation of Europe, instead of Europeanization of the Balkans? Following the strong and autocratic ruling by Hungary’s Prime Minister Orbán, as well as the last example with the path which Kaczyński decided to take, it seems that Europe is becoming lost in its own values upon which the Union had been founded. On the other hand, tolerating candidates for membership in the EU which have become detached from de facto Europeanization, indeed sends an opposite signal rather than integration of the Balkans.

The Last Mazur of Polish Democracy

The new Viktor Orbán of the European Union did not waste a lot of time to put into motion the action plan of getting things “under control”. The freshly established Law and Justice Government started two almost parallel processes of constitutional amendments and media reforms that were very disputable from a rule of law and human rights perspective.

On 23 December, the Sejm (the Polish lower house of parliament) passed a law that affected the composition and the basic rules of procedure of the constitutional court. In just several days, the new law was approved by the Senate and signed by the President. The amendments foresee a mandatory presence of at least 13 judges out of 15 for the court to convene, as well as a two-thirds qualified majority for the court to decide upon a large number of its competencies. One of the biggest concerns is that these amendments are in direct contradiction with Article 190, Paragraph 5 of the Polish Constitution, which clearly states that the constitutional court decides by a majority of votes. Preceded by five new appointments to the court, it is more than obvious that the ruling party is doing its best to marginalise the role and functioning of this important institution, paving the way for unchallenged policy-making. The amendments also provide possibilities for judges of the court to be dismissed upon request of the Sejm, the President, or the Department of Justice. This legal and political attitude has already let off an alarm in European institutions in Brussels, but also among foreign investors and international partners who consider these actions as a violation of the principle of ‘checks and balances’, a conditio sine qua non for a functioning European democracy. History has frequently shown that only dictatorship-prone establishments fear external control of their policy-making. It is more than obvious that a new autocracy is on the rise in Europe, and that EU institutions cannot do much to prevent it.

Regimes in expansion, if allowed, almost by the book, first try to hamper media freedoms and occupy the media sphere as much as possible. Just several days following the constitutional court events, the Polish Parliament passed a law enabling the government to appoint the leading personnel of the public TV and radio stations. The events have stirred both the domestic and the international community; both have raised their voices and pointed out the threats that arise from these legislative solutions. In Poland, a grass-roots mobilisation urged thousands of people to take to the streets across the largest cities in the country, sending a signal that independent media should be safeguarded. The European Commission, on the other hand, clearly pointed out that the legislation violates fundamental principles of the EU, and that Polish voting rights in Brussels might be suspended. However, these reactions have so far not done much good in persuading Kaczyński that his party has taken a wrong turn.

Substituting Democracy with Fake Baroque

Just like the new Polish government, the Macedonian government proposed a package of constitutional changes now almost two years ago, to try and cement several ideological strands at the highest legal level. The proposal included the definition of marriage as a unity between only one man and one woman, the creation of a free economic (trade) zone, organisational reforms of the Court Council (the body that elects and dismisses judges) as well as changes in the scope of the constitutional court’s decision making. In the end, the package failed to pass through Parliament due to a lack of support from DUI – the minor coalition partner of the government. Still, before his party obtained the absolute majority of judges in the court, Gruevski put a lot of effort into pressuring the court and marginalising its role in society; he even failed to implement some of the court’s decisions, directly in violation of the Constitution. Both legal experts dealing with constitutional law and representatives from civil society frequently underlined the unlawful conduct of the Macedonian PM. Unfortunately, not much can be read in the European Commission’s progress reports for Macedonia regarding the increasing pressure on the constitutional court. We can freely say that the lack of direct and clear actions on behalf of Brussels contributed to Macedonia’s transformation from electoral to non-electoral democracy in the last Freedom House report.

Media problems in Macedonia are a well-known issue. Since 2009, Macedonia has been frequently sliding in the rankings of both the Reporters without Borders and Freedom House reports. With the exception of Montenegro, Macedonia was the only country in Europe that had imprisoned journalists, unlawfully shut down one of the largest private TV stations, initiated numerous defamation cases against journalists, and made frequent changes to the law on audio and audiovisual media services. Furthermore, businessmen and close allies of Gruevski own five out of seven of the largest private TV stations in Macedonia, while the public broadcaster has been transformed into a government mouthpiece.  But still the Commission continued to stress the importance of amendments. Once again, the lack of concrete actions, the overwhelming problems inside the EU itself, as well as the degradation of the quality and engagement of the EU delegation representatives sent to the country, seriously contributed towards the status quo. Currently, the EU is brokering the implementation of the previously negotiated and signed Przhino Agreement, which is supposed to stabilise the country after the political and legal crisis following the wiretapping scandal which seriously incriminated the ruling majority. Although no one questions the EU’s commitment to resolve the political crises, it seems like too much credit and “second chances” have been given to the political establishment, which has seriously violated fundamental rule of law principles and hampered European values. This creates the impression that Europe favours stability over democracy.

A Balkanisation of Europe?

At the beginning of the year, President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker was very sincere when he pointed out that 2016 was going to be very difficult for the Union as a whole. Regarding the emergence and strengthening of autocratic governments, the EU currently faces one established autocracy in Hungary, another one on the rise in Poland, and a third established hybrid regime ante portas, stuck in the Euro-Atlantic integration processes for almost a decade. Here, it is fair to pose the question: are we facing a Balkanisation of Europe, instead of Europeanisation of the Balkans? It seems that a lack of decisiveness and dissonancy in the Union are bad news for democracy and human rights, neither in nor outside the Union. It is about time that Brussels shouts out loud NO PASARAN to autocracy and human rights violations of any kind. We must turn towards the restauration of European values.

The European Policy Centre and FutureLab Europe follow the EU and UN decision concerning reference to this country: the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (UN Security Council Resolutions 817/93 and 845/93). However, the author of this blog may have chosen to use a different wording.