This article originally appeared on 15 April in BalkanInsight

I would for once love to be able to write about the late, but hopefully final arrival of spring in Skopje, about the city’s Japanese cherry trees being in full bloom, about the magnolia promising all the delight that comes with the awakening of the body and spirit.

But then again, this is Skopje. You cannot have an unpolluted look at the Japanese cherry trees – construction fences and the humming noise of trucks and excavators are the overlaying and acoustically dominant elements. You cannot really enjoy magnolia flowers when they are covered in thick layers of construction dust.

The city is and has been for a while now subjected to a construction frenzy only comparable to post-cataclysmic places, where speed is needed to create housing for those affected. Not so here. The cataclysm is created by the construction frenzy. It is an architectonic and environmental cataclysm. Both have already been described at length, so I won’t bother here.

What is astonishing in this possibly most surreal situation I have ever lived in is the mental cataclysm that has hit the Macedonian society. It looks to me like sitting in a cinema watching the deer that is stunned by the pair of head-lights approaching it. Deep down inside it must know that this is bad, but it cannot move. We, the authoritative audience, know that the deer will die, but we are in a cinema. There is no possible way to warn the deer, other than becoming part of the narration. And that is not something that the script writer has foreseen. But the director might still want to – no, no. It is not possible. Full stop.

Last week, Macedonia prepared a triumphal and triumphant welcome to its returning hero. No, it was not someone who earned glory in athletics, or in some science competition. It was not one of the hundreds, if not thousands of highly qualified Macedonian citizens, who achieve big things in their fields of work and research all over the world. It was not one of the many Macedonian artists living, working and succeeding abroad because the conditions at home are substandard.

None of that. Of all possible categories of people it had to be a war criminal. The only person convicted by the ICTY, a person found guilty of the summary execution of people was welcomed home like a hero, after having served eight years of prison. He was given state honours, he was picked up at the airport by half the government, was received by the president of the state, was offered a concert on the city square. 250 buses were made available throughout the country, paid from tax payers’ money, to transport people for free to the airport and to the concert.

To make it even more surreal, his man was received by the same people who agreed in a political coup and in blatant disregard of international conventions not to open the five cases of alleged war crimes that had been returned to them by the ICTY, thus allowing the alleged perpetrators of atrocities committed by the UCK in 2001 to continue to enjoy their political privileges.

And the reaction? A newspaper column here and there, virtual eyebrows going up. Silence. A society has stopped acting. A society has stopped. A society?

This act of cynical disregard of basic human values can just happen without creating an uproar, few days after the end of a local election, which in internationally accepted euphemisms were called “highly competitive”. Is it possible that all energy was swallowed up by the “competitiveness” in the electoral process?

Or is it rather that there is no real political win in opposing this act, in holding up human values? It is not related to the control of any specific municipality, it is not related to securing a clientele. No profit, no action, right?

Macedonia’s opposition has again stopped to exist, after the recent devastating defeat in the local elections. Maybe, just maybe this is the real situation it is in. And maybe, just maybe it is time to give it a wake-up call. Just maybe.

But then again, maybe it is much more comfortable to sit back in the cinema seat, dive into the XXL package of popcorn, tale a slurp of soda, and watch the car hit the deer. After, the film critic will detect a major hole in the script: instead of being actors or at least extras in the deer and car drama, Macedonia’s actual and potential opposition leaders were sitting in the cinema, writing text messages. When the lights went on and the doors opened, I felt the frowsty breeze of history. A history of missed opportunities.

 

Vision? You smell…

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A reminder on where flirts with totalitarian ideas can lead. I have lived through this once and have no intention of watching it happen again. The documentary centres around the decree 770 from 1966 in Romania, which reduced women to birth-giving slaves by banning abortion, unless a woman had already given birth to four children (and a few health-related exceptions). This was followed by a total ban of contraceptives and a “celibacy tax”, all in order to raise the Romanian population and thus increase and control its labour force.

Roma and handicapped persons were of course exempt from this rule. And handicapped children exterminated.

The ordeal of tens of thousands of women apart, the “unwanted” generation ultimately contributed to the fall of the regime, despite the international support it enjoyed…

 

Vision? Sure, at any price…

Political campaigning and debating about the role and impact of arts in a politicised society need not be located in parallel universes.

This article originally appeared on 18 March in BalkanInsight

It is electoral campaign time in Macedonia. It is the time of hollow speeches, of absurd political appearances and of odd campaign slogans. It is the time of a last minute frenzy of inaugurations of half ready building projects.

It is the time when public space is contaminated by hypocrisy to an unbearably higher degree than it has become the rule anyway. It is the time when the political scene consists only of winners and successes. As if there were no reality out there. And maybe there isn’t.

Reality is what we choose to believe, anyway.

It is a period of intellectual black-out, of moral used cars salesmanship. Kooperacija, an independent arts initiative active in the extra-institutional space in Skopje and dedicated to an independent exchange of ideas, decided to choose this period for an exhibition and a debate.

The exhibition, bearing the title “Where is Everyone?” set out to explore “the possibilities of defining the role of the artistic act as a critical step towards the deconstruction of power systems, but also as an attempt to create parallel, alternative spaces for activity.”

Set in an unrented private business space, which holds some institutional memory, having been the seat of one of Macedonia’s larger daily newspapers, the exhibition started from the physical premise of darkness, or rather the lack of electricity and constructed the exhibition around that reality.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the meantime, in the darkness of the political arena, Macedonia is confronted with the revival of ethnic policy making. In a reaction to an Albanian strive to “take” the municipality of Kicevo and to “defend” Struga at any cost, including flying in the diaspora voting sheep herd, the Macedonian political sworn enemies, PM Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE and Crvenkovski’s SDSM formed ethnic coalitions in the two municipalities.

The battle for power between the two parties rages in the rest of the country, while Kicevo and Struga have mutated to ethnic paradises, where sworn enemies organise rallies arm in arm. Democratic progress, they claim. And we believe them. Right. Right?

The artists of Kooperacija took the physical situation and developed a variety of approaches to “enlighten” the visitors.

While some of the work was explicitly political, other artists tried more subtly to address issues of communication, of inter-action in a context, which is occupied and contaminated by the predominance of the political, trying to develop an artistic language to escape populism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlmost at the same time came the announcement of the social-democratic candidate for one of the Skopje municipalities that his party would initiate the building of an additional church. Yes, a church and a social-democrat.

Or whatever passes for a social-democrat these days. The amount of amusement parks, swimming pools and sports centres being promised in this campaign would probably equal the surface of a mid-sized municipality.

Debating on Sunday noon, we tried to find possible beginnings to an artistic answer to the pseudo-political contamination of society.

In a context of a changing notion of arts and its impact, in a context, in which contemporary art is marginalised at the expense of megalomaniac projects, the artists’ work is political, it aims at the deconstruction of power systems, at exposing them, at raising the stakes of aesthetic, moral ethical thresholds for what is acceptable political behaviour.

Meanwhile the ethnic campaign rhetoric, especially in Kicevo and Struga, is hardening. One of the Albanian candidates for mayor poses on his Facebook profile in full UÇK gear, including his AK47, claiming that it is not something to be ashamed of, but rather something that fills him with pride.

In reply, PM Gruevski’s ethnically militant speech sounded like it addressed an enemy, not a coalition partner. Decency and politics in the Balkans. An impossible couple.

One of the questions that artists find themselves confronted with is that their impact stands in no relation to their wish to induce change. All the more is it important to communicate with the audience, to use spaces accessible to everybody, to engage in self-reflection.

The only valid answer that we have so far to totalitarian post-democratic reflexes is a democratic culture that lives off exchange of ideas and concepts, off the ability and willingness to a participative concept of society. And off a political subject that takes these issues seriously.

At an event this week, I was approached by a young Roma politician who blamed the government’s ignorance for the misery, in which virtually all Roma settlements in Macedonia find themselves.

I could not but remind him of the fact that most Roma political parties and their leaders have been part of this very governing coalition for more than seven years. He had little to say to that.

Vision! You’ve been framed…

It was bound to happen. And it did. I can’t really say finally, but here I am, perplexed and unsurprised.

This article originally appeared on 11 March in BalkanInsight

This weekend, I was driving through the very busy streets of Thessaloniki, in a car with Skopje license plates. After more than fifteen years of regularly visiting the city, fifteen years of dreading this moment, knowing it would happen, I was verbally and physically assaulted for what the assailant thought I was: a Macedonian.

I won’t give the bigot the credit of recounting the entire story. And in the end real life rarely makes for a good story anyway. No, I will use the incident as an introduction to my text. And this is as far as this kind of people will make it into my world: an intro, and at the utmost a coda. The festering appendix that needs to be cut out.

The thing is that his action was aimed at someone who in reality is not at all or very little different from him, a Greek. Here we have two nations competing for age and exclusive rights to physically and mentally possess a territory and its history, unloading uncounted amounts of poison at each other, while happily doing business together, especially the good, old, pre-national cross-border stuff that fills pockets and leaves state budgets empty. And the result? Lots of poisoned minds, full pockets. Well, some pockets.

Greek, top-down nation-making always set its priorities on forming a compact and uniform nation by negating ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. Of course it went beyond negation, and enforced a policy of at times violent assimilation, even of its “own” population, for instance the refugees from Asia Minor.

While they were forced to speak Greek and only Greek, the actual refugee camps continued to exist for decades. I have reasons to believe that to those people it mattered very little whether they were of ancient descent or not. Many of them faced discrimination until the end of their lives for not speaking Greek properly.

Macedonia is trying to impose a state view on descendence, according to which now all of a sudden Macedonians are to ignore their Slavic identity and feel the ancient vibrations rippling through time from Alexander and his men. Oh, and women, sure, yes, sure.

Given the energy and resources allocated, and given a level of education not different to the Greek one, it might turn out to work. National engineering with a century and a bit of a retard effect. Sure, it might just work. Why not? Is there anyone holding reason against it? Not really strongly, no. And what about the quarter or so of the population that doesn’t see itself in this picture? Well, they claim to have the rights on Alexander’s mother, so there we go. Equitable representation, as guaranteed by the book.

In both cases the results are relatively irrelevant to the wellbeing of the people. Nation-making in the ethnic sense in a globalised world is as relevant as the proverbial sack of rice falling off a truck in China. It is much more challenging and important to find an answer to the burning economic and social problems of the population. And here neither Greece nor Macedonia seem to have found an answer.

Greece though has profited from the naïve and romantic sympathy of a Western European bourgeois and classically educated class, which until very recently and in the tradition of Byron and others equated the modern Greek Balkan type of state with the grandeur of Hellenic civilisation. That and of course the country’s geo-strategic position in the cold war earned it a membership in the European Community at the time.

Only in the current crisis has this sympathy received a serious blow when it became more than obvious even to the most benevolent that at the core of the modern Greek state there is little space for Hellenist ideas. This space is taken by a political, religious and economic oligarchy, managing the system in the good, old traditional cynical ways of clientelist systems.

The revolting and saddening result is to be witnessed every day in the streets of Greek cities. Personalised politics, dynasties leading the country to ruin and a church that had managed to establish itself above the law. That is the reality, and there it matters not whether the impoverished former member of a frail middle class in the street is a descendant of an antique civilisation or merely an offspring of people who happened to be in a certain place at a certain period.

What matters is that this middle class was created by people living off the almighty state administration, a machinery that at a certain stage got out of hand and only reproduced itself, producing a crisis. A simple story, and it happened in front of everybody’s eyes, with EU subventions feeding the monster.

To anyone in the know about Macedonia’s reality, the description above does not sound unfamiliar at all. A hypertrophic state sector, being fed both by political power groups and the requirements of equitable representation of minority communities, is failing on a daily basis to produce a social and economic reality that would ensure a decent living to a vast majority of the population. And so does an identity imposed top-down, especially when it implies wasting valuable resources on projects like “Skopje 2014”.

Economic failure and national hubris are the ingredients that spawn movements like the Greek “Golden Dawn”, which feed on hatred and envy, the classic values of the anti-urban low-life. The recent clashes in Skopje should be a warning that inciting hatred and violence can very easily become the spirits one can’t recall.

As for the piece of human filth that inspired this text, well, I stick to my promise. I would have liked to see the look on his face had he found out that I am German. Coda & end.

Vision? Hmmm…

Stones were flying through the streets of Skopje, people were molested and beaten to bits because they are what they are, a wave of destruction was left behind by hooligans. It must be election time again in Macedonia.

This article originally appeared on 5 March in BalkanInsight

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit one of the centre-pieces of the “Skopje 2014” project, the “Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Self-Determination/Museum of VMRO and Museum for the Victims of the Communist Regime”, as the official and exhausting name goes.

I knew I was in for a ride, but what I witnessed surpassed my worst expectations: the content is just as exhausting and uninspired as the name.

The architectural display of a nouveau-riche dream of lushness is in stark and inappropriate contrast to the actual thematic focus of the museum, which dwells on issues of oppression, poverty, sacrifice, struggle, and the likes. Entering the museum one feels as out of place as a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah.

An entrance hall looking cheap in attempting to imitate a palace hall is dominated by a glass cupola in vivid colours symbolising the unfinished [sic!] Macedonian struggle.

It harbours hand-written copies of the declaration of independence and the constitution in Macedonian and English, trying to create that “We, the People…” feeling, but with only one percent of the American pathos. Even ignoring that the copies are not in the same hand-writing, the entire display looks pretty modest. Yet another small nation trying to create circumstances to earn the qualificative “grand” is giving itself a shrine. So be it.

The first experience is that of shackles. No individual visits are possible, only groups and only with a guide. God forbid anyone would want to move along individually and draw their own conclusions! The individual is nothing. It is the group that has to digest the collective information transferred by an authorised medium.

And indeed, the entire setting complies with this logic. At no moment in the entire museum is there an explanatory note, other than title and author of the paintings and the characters depicted by the more than one hundred wax figures.

All information has to come censored through the guide’s filter. Critical approach? Wrong place for that. The history of the national struggle is presented in a linear way, one phase leading logically to the next, until statehood and democracy are established.

And of course the struggle of VMRO is the national struggle. Period. Alternative views? Not in here.

It would have been interesting to find sentences like this in the museum: “IMRO exhibited a particularly odd twist on the age-old tendency of revolutionary commitment to devolve into nihilistic violence for the sake of violence when its agents became terrorists for hire” (Randall D. Law: Terrorism. A History, p. 157). It would have been interesting to see space dedicated to debate, to interpretation, to a critical view on facts.

Instead, all one sees in the museum are heroes. And sometimes the odd anti-hero, depending on the guide’s mood and political orientation. The wax figures look like the offspring of Madame Tussaud and a Viennese horror cabinet, and the mass-scene paintings produced by Russian and Ukrainian painters have the aura of Soviet-style socialist realism without the socialism.

And there are more than eighty of them, about seventy nine more than someone with a feeling for aesthetics can bear. It was interesting to see how many Macedonian contemporary painters, many of which would describe themselves as avant-gardist, contributed to the museum with paintings of modest value. And that is putting it mildly.

Leaving the museum onto the centre of the “Skopje 2014” project left the entire group baffled and harmoniously expressing the wish for vast amounts of alcohol to wash down the experience.

Only few days later, the next bomb goes down. The national, public television is hit by a furor of epic proportions. A video for the Macedonian contribution for the most outdated of all contests, the “Grand Prix de l’Eurovision” provokes massive criticism, especially on social networks, to the point that the video is withdrawn.

The video to the song called “Imperija” (empire) was conceived around the key buildings of the “Skopje 2014” project, giving the impression that the title refers to them and that we are witnessing the revival or creation or reanimation or whatever of an empire.

Even though the connotation is not correct, since the empire is supposed to be music itself, the impression remains. The criticism was ruthless and left the Macedonian Television look like the proverbial pizza in the rain.

The third event I want to mention is the hacking of the website of the governing VMRO-DPME by a group calling itself “Anonymous”, but which in their explanation provided religious hatred and extreme nationalist views as motives, as a retaliation for the appointment of a former commander of the ethnic Albanian insurgent NLA as Macedonian minister of defence.

As far as I know, Macedonia is the only place where the “Anonymous” label is misused for fascist propaganda. And this was not the first time.

Ok, and what does all this have to do with the instances of hooliganism on the streets of Skopje? It is about values. The Macedonian society has plummeted well out of compass and humanist values do not seem to count much anymore.

In the museum for the national cause all one is presented is a one-sided, ready-digested view of history, which en passant glorifies the use of violence for political motives, well in the terrorist tradition of VMRO. No critical space, no deviation.

The Byzantine approach – it comes from the top, so it is right. This approach is perpetuated in the entire education system, which fails bitterly in promoting critical thinking, but excels in the industrial production of diplomas.

Streamlined and uncritical citizens are the result, people who easily fall for myths, for manipulation and for the wish to be part of something meaningful – the petit-bourgeois essence of the “Skopje 2014” project, the reason for some fascist idiots using the label of “Anonymous”.

Manipulation and ruthless fight for power are behind the events on the last weekend, too. Pre-election violence is the rule rather than the exception in recent years.

Political-economic power groups entertain their own private militias of hooligans, who are activated whenever needed. And there is always a mass of young people ready to join in, ready to be fooled, because they have never learned to think independently.

All you need is to invoke an imminent danger to the tribe, and these fake patriots will come running, often sent or accompanied by their parents. It is the material martyrs are made of. And they will create other martyrs and so on and on and on.

For as long as violence is not banned as a legitimate means of reaching political goals. I say legitimate and not legal. And by violence I mean the structural violence exercised to force people and their families to guarantee their vote for the patron as well as the violence exercised in the name of religious phantasms, or the violence exercised by a father beating his child into buying a beer for him, or a husband locking away his wife in the name of tradition.

The “Imperija” video was a perfect depiction of how far this hollow and fake patriotism can go. In fact it is merely unreflected, cheap populism, a gullibly uninspired attempt at internationally legitimising the aberrations of “Skopje 2014”. Fortunately, there seem to be limits to the idiocy people are ready to buy. Hence this.

Vision? Imperial vision, nothing less…

Global impact is what international organisations strive for. Just as their successes, their mess-ups tend to have epic proportions. Here we have a clickable world map with the international human development indicators. Since a large number of countries are misplaced, the map is totally unusable. It is funny, though. Or rather it would be funny, if we didn’t finance these things ourselves. Knowing the UN system to a certain degree, I can only guess what sums of money went into the development and implementation of this tool. As I know that, unlike in the private sector, where heads would roll, the information will have no consequences. I am ready to take bets if even the map will ever be changed. But in the meantime, let us have some fun. Here’s a little slideshow for you. Should you want to have real-time enjoyment, click on the link

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A system of politics based on competing interests groups of patrons and clients – without common goals and now beset by an economic crisis – is heading towards collapse.

This article originally appeared on 28 December in BalkanInsight

Macedonia is experiencing yet another of the many crises that have afflicted it during its little more than two decades of existence as a state.

Like all the others, this crisis has been provoked by a political class that has always been willing to subordinate its ethical values, and even legal standards, to one goal: that its leaders should prevail.

As a result, not only the political system but society itself is held hostage to the egos of a few leaders who consider the country their property and its people as a manoeuvrable mass, easy to manipulate and instrumentalise. And, unfortunately, this is the case. Macedonian society is too weak, fragmented and polarised to resist this behaviour.

When one talks of “leaders”, one should say groups, clusters of influential people, often well planted on both sides of the thin line that separates legality from crime.

As in all countries emerging from the collapse of Communism, a large percentage of Macedonia’s political class has emerged from the structures of the former regime, formed by people who possessed inside knowledge and access to large, often illicit, funds.

A second layer immediately formed beyond them, a larger group of less exposed and less charismatic persons, willing to enter the political game and profit from the power, influence and access to funds of the core group.

At the intersection of these two groups with the emerging market economy, which in turn is dominated by people who mostly made their fortunes by diverting public or state funds into their own pockets – theft, as it were – networks of interest-driven alliances formed across ideological differences. Serious crises in Eastern and Southeast Europe happen when these networks of interests clash, as in Romania this year.

Macedonian society has been organised around a few such networks and so have political parties. The reality is that there is neither a left nor a right on the political stage. The only differences should be over the pace and ways of financing government, as well as over degrees of cooperation with international political, economic and financial structures and mechanisms.

Logically, this should mean a national consensus about Macedonia’s priorities as it continues on its way towards European integration, following the model pursued by the Baltic states during their accession period. But in Macedonia the opposite is the case.

No consensus exists on any issues across the political and ethnic divides. Instead, what is characteristic is the fierce character of the political controversy, which often degenerates into real battle, even costing lives.

Since it cannot be about ideas, this controversy must be about something else. And this something is easily identified as influence. Exercising influence is costly, so it is about resources as well. And to secure the necessary resources and the influence, it helps to be in power.

And those in power are expected to share their resources, at least a small percentage of them. The essence of clientelism is to keep people dependent, with lots of promises, partially fulfilled. For the rest, blame the enemy and produce more promises. But ask for services in exchange. Some of these services consist in being the troops needed for the battles.

Clientelism-based systems are conservative, striving to preserve the status quo as long as possible. To this end, almost any means are legitimate. Macedonia’s system is genuinely anti-reform oriented on all levels. A top-down chain of command rests on an inert, hyper-inflated state administration, in which belonging to a network is much more important than qualifications, since the network is the only job guarantee.

The only revolutionary act, in terms of trying to overthrow an existing strong patronage group occurred in the conflict of 2001.

The most tangible effect was the violent replacement of the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, as the leading patron among the ethnic Albanian community in Macedonia by a new formation, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.

The Ohrid Framework Agreement proved to be the perfect instrument to cement the DUI’s hold on power, as it entailed the opportunity to employ thousands of people in the state administration, thus creating an unprecedented network of intertwined interdependences.

A decade on, this network still works in favour of a small group around the party leader, Ahmeti, and the opposition has almost been annihilated by exclusion.

Following the clientelist logic, the DUI leadership has turned into a conservative patron, seeking to preserve the support from its clientele at any cost. The current dysfunctional coalition with VMRO-DPMNE is one indicator of this attitude. The other indicator is the desperate attempt to create a discourse in which the DUI is identified with the Albanian nation.

Through an absurd symbiosis of Skenderbeg and Adem Jashari, this patronage group attempts to monopolise the Albanian national narrative in Macedonia in order to legitimise and cement its network and the activities emerging from it, by tying a majority of the Albanian population into its network.

So far, this has worked, although the ideological construction is pretty shaky, especially because it has no real local anchorage.

What we are witnessing in Macedonia is the beginning of the decay of one group in power, because it cannot sustain the level of resources needed to satisfy its clientele. The main problem is an ambitious project, driven by personal hubris and the wish to make history.

Both the redefinition of Macedonian identity as an allegedly Antique one and the closely linked “Skopje 2014” project, redefining the look of the Macedonian capital to fit this ideology, have produced dependencies and worked in favour of the patrons and the clientele. But the cost is too high to be sustained in times of recession.

It is thus not surprising that there is nervousness on the horizon. While the government has to seek short-term loans from private banks, the economic crisis is worsening. Feeble attempts to disguise the crisis by calling it a “positive recession”, as the director of the national bank did not long ago, are bound to fail. A recession is a recession.

The group in power has mobilised a large part of the population and alienated and polarised the rest with three items: national paranoia, delusions of national grandeur and an economic bubble based on construction and employment in the state administration.

The national paranoia element, making people believe that Macedonia is surrounded by enemies, takes the “name” conflict with Greece and the incapacity and unwillingness of the international factor to end it, and turns it into a discourse of “us against the world”.

But only great nations can take on this fight. The second element of the construction kicks in here: the creation of a “grand nation” narrative. It is not enough to be a Slavic nation among many others, especially when small in numbers.

The symbiosis of a biblical nation with Antique roots is the result. Simple, compelling, adding the transcendent, religious element to a long pedigree, it is the perfect mix for the creation of a myth of a chosen people.

If one adds in the massive construction drive, conducted with state subsidies or direct financing, and the large numbers of persons of questionable qualification who have found a safe seat in the state administration, this should do to keep the masses content for a while. It is dangerous, though, when the bubble bursts. Hence the nervousness of the leading group.

On the other side of the barricade is an opposition that has never functioned as such. They have the attitude of rightful landlords who have been kicked out by ungrateful tenants.

There is a certain logic to their attitude. During the first almost entire decade of its rule, the now oppositional patronage group around the Social Democrat leader, Branko Crvenkovski, laid the foundations of the prevalent governing style in Macedonia.

Large parts of social property were privatised into the hands and pockets of a few, creating a legal basis for the power groups that emerged from the collapse of Yugoslavia and a permanent financial basis for the newly formed party.

The patronage group underwent a few processes of erosion and had to make the party undergo a facelift, but in essence the inner circle has persisted, waiting for its chance to regain power. This explains the arrogance and cynicism of this self-styled elite as well as its refusal to reform itself.

In six years of opposition in splendid isolation, the group around the SDSM leadership has allowed the topics and pace of the political race to be dictated by the governing group, acting only as a corrective to government policies.

The opposition has failed to come up with its own narrative, opposing the government’s strong, populist discourse. While the governing patronage group has created and imposed a new national narrative, based on exclusion, confrontation and an invented past, the opposition has taken refuge in denial.

This is not surprising, when we look at political parties as a constitutive part of conservative clientelist patronage groups. A new discourse would put existing dependencies in danger, shaking up existing and functioning ties.

From this perspective, and ignoring several subgroups as well as regional inter-dependencies, Macedonian society looks like being held hostage by three large clientelist and conservative patronage groups, without a system of checks and balances.

Thus it is no surprise that the political system is marked by structural decay, or that the political confrontation is between leaders and their troops rather than between opposing ideas competing for the common good. When the political fight is left to warlords, it is not surprising that there is no respect for laws or civil liberties. Rules are made for those who are under them, not for the rulers.

The present parliamentary system was created about a decade ago in perfect harmony of the dominant political parties and an ignorant international community. Changing from a mixed system to a proportional system of closed party lists dealt parliamentary democracy a blow.

Instead of investing citizens with the power to control their MPs and their work in specific constituencies, it created a parliament in which issues are not debated, but in which party soldiers carry out tasks set by their leaders. Though elected by the people, they do not report to them. There is no structural communication between the sovereign, i.e. the citizens and their legislative.

Today, parliament is merely a machine producing the web needed to sustain the clientele groups and to keep them loyal to their patrons.

Recent events in and around the parliament in Skopje illustrate this situation. The highest institution of democracy, sometimes referred to as a temple, has been desecrated several times in the last 20 years but never to this degree.

Neither action that occurred there can be morally, ethically or legally justified: trying to prevent parliamentarians from entering the main hall; police using force to remove parliamentarians and journalists from parliament; sitting passively or even applauding instead of trying to stop the violence. The conduct of parliamentarians over the last decade has often been beyond any standards of decency or professionalism, but these events were without precedent.

One should not present a fake balance here: government institutions, in this case the President of the Parliament and the Minister of Interior are responsible for the proper implementation of laws and are to be held responsible when laws are broken under their command.

But the point is that the Macedonian democracy has been trampled upon again by two of the three power centres, while representatives of the third, who were not stakeholders in the confrontation, participated in the trampling exercise through passivity.

Regardless of who is in power or in opposition, mobilising the mob and encouraging a physical confrontation with an uncertain outcome point not only to irresponsibility but to a deep disrespect for the highest authority in a democracy: the citizens. Again, following the logic of the patronage groups, this is hardly surprising.

And since the new role model for ambitious leaders in East and Southeast Europe seems to be Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his autocratic style, it come as no surprise that his KGB-era tactics find an application here as well.

Organising fake parties and associations and mobilising the state administration and the other clientele groups to demonstrate against the opposition from a position of power is against all principles of democracy.

Protests are the tool of the powerless, the only tool of those who cannot make their voice heard in the institutional setup. Usurping this democratic right is usurping the democratic system. This is what Putin’s style is about and this is unacceptable in a country that claims to be part of the European family.

The question is how and whether Macedonia can extricate itself from this decay of democratic values and stop itself from becoming a failing structure, slowly sliding into an unmanageable situation.

For one, the political space has to be opened for new forces. Society has to find the strength to do away with the patronage groups, overcome ethnic division and think of politics as a competition of ideas if not ideologies.

It has to find the strength to tolerate competing and alternative narratives and create a real opposition to this ransacking of the country by patronage and clientelism. It has to take the initiative from the patronage groups and bring it to the centre of society, to the people.

It has to start a genuine discussion about the core values of Macedonian democracy and the state, and about a nation-making process beyond boundaries of ethnicity or provenience. It has to turn into an open society. To do all that, it needs to educate itself properly.

For all this it needs international friends by its side – not with money for projects that only go into the clientele system, but providing genuine advice and assistance – not to those who think they are the elite, but to the whole of Macedonian society.

Vision? Wake up…