Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonia: Nationalists Face Internal Revolution

The main opposition party VMRO is riven by a damaging conflict that threatens to cause a schism.
By Tamara Causidis

Macedonia's largest nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE, faces radical changes at the helm and even the prospect of break-up after clashes between its current and former party leaders.

The leadership split publicly after followers of VMRO's hard-line former leader Ljupco Georgievski demanded that Nikola Gruevski resign as chairman after the party’s presidential candidate suffered a crushing defeat in the April 28 election.

VMRO candidate Sasko Kedev won 330,000 votes, compared with 550,000 for the left-of-centre victor Branko Crvenkovski.

Top officials demanding Gruevski's head included 21 of VMRO's 28 parliamentary deputies, who on May 19 demanded Gruevski resign for having “plunged the party into crisis and caused an internal split”.

Analysts say the crisis is likely to end in a change of leadership as Georgievski fights to wrest control from his successor, but the conflict is so serious some fear it could cause the party to break up.

“The way the situation looks now, the party is moving towards disintegration,” Dosta Dimovska, a former VMRO interior minister, warned local media.

Georgievski was Macedonia’s prime minister in a coalition government led by VMRO- DPMNE – the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity – which was voted out of office in September 2002.

Since then it has been the main opposition party, and Gruevski – elected as party leader in May 2003 after Georgievski resigned – has tried to steer it in a more moderate policy direction.

A victory by Georgievski over Gruevski's wing could now force the party back into a more hard-line agenda.

VMRO's internal crisis started when Georgievski called for a boycott of the presidential poll, hoping enough people would abstain to render the election invalid and deny the front-runner Crvenkovski his expected win.

Party leaders rejected the call but it was heeded by many VMRO members who stayed away from the polling stations, although not in sufficient numbers to thwart Crvenkovski 's victory.

Gruevski then accused Georgievski and his supporters of sabotaging his party's prospects. “I felt like a man walking around with a knife in my back," he complained on television, " stabbed by someone I thought was a friend.”

Gruevski said his predecessor had broken his promise not to interfere in party policy after stepping down as leader.

Georgievski resigned under a cloud. Under his stewardship, VMRO’s reputation had been tarnished by corruption scandals, and increasingly isolated by the international community for its hard-line attitudes during the civil conflict involving Macedonia’s Albanian minority in 2001. Though a signatory to the internationally-brokered Ohrid peace deal that ended the strife, Georgievski never accepted the terms as a solution and has repeatedly called for the country to be formally partitioned along ethnic lines.

Analysts say the ongoing turmoil within VMRO shows that despite Georgievski’s official withdrawal from top-level party politics, he never intended to relinquish control. For example, he remains honorary president of the party and still effectively runs the party machine.

“Ljupco Georgievski never planned to give up the party," political analyst Ferid Muhic told IWPR. "He had to leave amid accusations of corruption and he appointed Gruevski as a manoeuvre to retain power while escaping responsibility.”

Muhic added, “The moment Georgievski saw that Gruevski was escaping from his control he decided to sacrifice him.”

Gjorgi Ivanov, a political analyst at Skopje University, commended Gruevski for the positive changes he had made. “For the first time VMRO showed it could be moderate, cooperative and supportive of the Ohrid peace deal," he said.

Ivanov added that Gruevski bolstered the party's poor profile abroad and regained the international support that VMRO had lost under Georgievski’s leadership.

Gruevski himself says VMRO faces a clear choice about its future – either to embrace Europe, or accept the domination of a backward-looking faction.

“VMRO will either be taken over by bullies or will become a truly modern European party," he said, after armed supporters of Georgievski interrupted a May 14 meeting of the party central committee to demand his, Gruevski’s, resignation.

Some diplomats say that despite the praise Gruevski won for his moderate policies, he has failed to make his mark as a strong leader.

“Gruevski showed a lack of leadership. He failed to integrate the old and new structures of the party and does not seem to have the capacity to re-invent the party,” said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.

But while some predict that that Georgievski will easily outmaneouvre the inexperienced Gruevski, others fear an internal coup may have severe consequences for VMRO. Public rowing between old and new leadership factions could divide rank-and-file members and jeopardise the party's survival.

“The replacement of Gruevski by the former president or someone from his faction would be absurd - and even fatal,” veteran VMRO member Dimitar Dimitrov wrote in the daily Dnevnik.

“The situation within VMRO has to be resolved, as it has inflicted huge damage on the party," added Dimovska. "Macedonia needs a strong opposition and VMRO is not that at the moment."

Tamara Causidis is a journalist with Radio Free Europe in Skopje.