A Brexit Lesson From the Cradle of Democracy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Macedonian parliament’s vote to rename the country and thus remove the biggest obstacle to its integration into Western institutions is evidence that intractable political issues are best resolved through the traditional backroom dealings of representative democracy rather than through the direct expression of popular will. Brexit Britain could learn something from this.

In June, 2018, Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev made a deal with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to rename his country North Macedonia and thus differentiate it from Greece’s northern province from which Alexander the Great hailed. In exchange, Tsipras promised to drop Greece’s long-standing opposition to Macedonia’s membership of NATO and its efforts to join the European Union. The deal hinged on both leaders’ overcoming strong domestic opposition.

In Macedonia, objections to the compromise are rooted in the 10-year-old nationalist project run by the former governing party, VMRO-DPMNE, which studded the capital, Skopje, with pseudo-antique statues including one implicitly portraying Alexander. The “antiquization” was part of a VMRO attempt to build a national identity almost from scratch for the country’s Slavic ethnic majority. The nationalist government, however, became mired in corruption (VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski is now hiding out in Hungary after Prime Minister Viktor Orban granted him asylum). That, plus VMRO-DPMNE leaders’ arrogance toward the country’s large Albanian minority, prompted the Albanian parties to switch their allegiance to Zaev’s pro-European Social Democrats.

Last September, Zaev held a referendum on renaming Macedonia. I was there just before the vote, and I saw a country weakened by years of a population outflow and confused by a decade of clumsy “nation-building.” The nationalists boycotted the plebiscite and the many Macedonians who’d left the country couldn’t be bothered to come back and cast their ballots. The vote failed because of a  low turnout. 

This wasn’t the end of the matter for Zaev, though, who resolved to push the change through parliament. He needed a two-thirds majority in the 120-member body and didn’t have it despite continuously courting the Albanian parties. So he went to work on lawmakers one by one until he had 81 votes, constantly rescheduling the decisive vote as he bargained and made sure supporters were in attendance. On Jan. 11, he finally had the votes.

Objectively, it’s probably best for Macedonia that Zaev has pushed so hard to keep his end of the bargain with Tsipras. Outside the EU, the prospects of a tiny, landlocked country aren’t great. No amount of nationalist propaganda can conceal the obvious need for economic integration with Europe. Russia, the only alternative to the EU and NATO, is too far away and too weak economically to be of much help.

As many Brits understand after two-and-a-half years of Brexit struggles, asking the people isn’t always the best way to resolve a divisive issue. Good old political bargaining can sometimes lead to better results. The British remainers might wish they’d had a Zaev of their own, willing to keep pushing for what they believed was right even after losing the referendum.

If not their own Zaev, a canny Alexis Tsipras would do. The leftist Prime Minister was weakened by the resignation on Sunday of his junior coalition partner Panos Kammenos, a Greek nationalist, who quit in protest against the New Macedonia deal. But Tsipras, by now highly experienced in precarious parliamentary maneuvering, may well have enough votes to win a vote of confidence this week, and even if that fails, to get the deal with Zaev ratified before early elections are held. If the math works out for Tsipras, he’ll have given Greece a more peaceful neighborhood and the prospect of much-needed economic expansion in the Western Balkans.

If Tsipras can deliver as Zaev did, the duo will present an important example to the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo. In the end, it’s up to them to achieve a breakthrough in relations between the last two Balkan states locked in intractable conflict. A deal was briefly in sight last year but has become complicated by, among other things, popular opposition in both Kosovo and Serbia to a compromise based on a land swap.

Going directly to the people can be a flawed idea given the emotional poison and mis-information that often swirls around a polarizing referendum. The public may well change its mind once the economic benefits (or costs) start to kick in. In some cases – especially when voters are clearly confused – electoral democracy works better than the plebiscite. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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