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Macedonia: Reformer Takes Charge of VMRO

Western diplomats are quietly confident that the country’s most strident nationalist party is about to change its tune.
By Todor Stojcevski

Hopes are high that the VMRO-DPMNE party’s choice of new leader will tone down, if not end, its “divisive” nationalism.


Nikola Gruevski was elected at the former ruling party’s annual congress in Ohrid last week. He takes over from Ljupco Georgievski, who resigned after 13 years in the post following last year’s disastrous election result.


Gruevski – an influential economist who twice served as a Macedonian government minister – will now be expected to help his party regain lost ground before the next poll.


To do so, the 33-year-old leader will also have to improve VMRO’s image, which has been tarnished by corruption scandals and western criticism.


“This party is still important as a major opposition force in Macedonia. But to take action, we need smart reconstruction," Gruevski said, predicting that VMRO could win the next election.


Commenting on the new leader’s selection, one western diplomat told IWPR, “We very much hope that this means a change in party policy. But it is still too early to say.”


VMRO became extremely unpopular with the international community mainly because of Georgievski’s hard line nationalist policy. The actions of the hawkish interior minister Ljube Boskovski – seen by many as encouraging a return to ethnic violence – were also criticised.


The party has espoused right-wing nationalist policies throughout its 13-year history.


Georgievski and his former government coalition partner Arben Xhaferi from the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, recently advocated the ethnic division of Macedonia, and dismissed the western-brokered Ohrid peace deal that ended the 2001 conflict as “unworkable”.


This stance was immediately opposed by the new governing coalition and the international community as "a call for war”.


Unlike his predecessor, who has repeatedly said that the Ohrid peace deal was a mistake, Gruevski said that under his leadership VMRO would act carefully and demand its full implementation, “which means return of the displaced, security guarantees, peace and sovereignty of the territory”.


During its history, the party has gone through several splits - a number of senior figures left to found new parties such as VMRO Makedonska and VMRO Vistinska.


Georgievski had described his decision to step down as party leader as “pragmatic”, stating, "The international community does not like me, journalists do not like me, Yugo-nostalgics do not like me, and [none of them] understand my concept of solving the Albanian question in Macedonia."


The former leader, who had openly supported Gruevski’s efforts to win the top job, was criticised by Marjan Gorcev, who also contested the leadership. “Georgievski supported Gruevski openly, meaning there was in fact a favoured and non-favoured candidate,” Gorcev claimed, adding, “Democracy was not fully in place in that regard. Still, the campaign was fair.”


Gruevski gained a reputation as a reformer while in government. He introduced a VAT system in 1998, and was instrumental in the sale of loss-making public enterprises such as the smelting companies FENI and JUGOHROM. He also pushed parliament into adopting legislation designed to tackle corruption and money laundering, and began negotiations for Macedonia to enter the World Trade Organisation.


But Gruevski’s reforming legacy has been undermined by a series of corruption scandals involving other members of the then ruling coalition.


After last year’s parliamentary election defeat, many high profile party functionaries were arrested. Among them were former economy minister Besnik Fetai – extradited from Croatia last week - and ex-customs director Dragan Daravelski, who had abuse of power charges brought against him in absentia two weeks ago. An international warrant for his arrest was issued on June 2.


Unlike other prominent members of VMRO, Gruevski has not been linked to any financial scandals during his four years as minister of trade and later finance.


With the leadership now in the hands of a pro-European, centre-right moderate, a softening of VMRO policy is predicted – a development that may lead to party splits. “VMRO is a nationalist party, and now its leader is a man who has no idea what that means,” Vladimir Jovanovski, a commentator at Forum magazine, told IWPR.


Todor Stojcevski is a journalist at the weekly political magazine Denes.


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