Photo: Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2016

Creative Destruction in Macedonia

Viewpoint by Paul Mikov*

NEW YORK (IDN | INPS) – Bombs**, irrespective of the domains in which they are triggered, are always associated with and accompanied by destruction. This is so in theatres of military campaigns, as is in economics or politics. The only differentiation is in the nature of destruction and the possibilities that might be envisioned following, or out of, the destruction itself.

The concept of “creative destruction” that was coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 seems to increasingly have correspondence with and applicability for the political situation that has been developing and emerging in Macedonia over the past year or two.

Creative destruction refers to the constant product and process innovation that occurs in capitalist macroeconomics by which new production units replace outdated ones; in other words the constant building of the new out of the dismantling of the old.

Not quite inadvertently, the ruling elites in Macedonia have engaged in perennial back-and-forth domestic politicking that have by now resulted in a situation of social and political destruction that comes with some potential for creative social and political engineering, and, hopefully, the emergence of some newness.

Macedonia finds itself today in a state of political flux, complexity and uncertainty of a magnitude unseen before in its modern history. Naturally, such a political and social environment has created a profound sense of anxiety among ordinary people in Macedonia. No one seems to know what comes next and how the political deadlock and complexities might be resolved.

Following the astonishing achievement by the Social Democratic opposition SDSM, under the leadership of Zoran Zaev, to seriously throw off-balance the ruling nationalist Christian Democratic VMRO-DPMNE party, which had constructed over the years of being in power a largely self-serving, asymmetrical socio-political “unipolar equilibrium”, the general populace in Macedonia is suddenly faced with not only a major uncertainty but also an even greater dilemma.

Retrospectively, for many the dilemma is along the lines of “Could it be that our ruling elites had indeed engaged in and done corruptive and illegitimate things?” Prospectively, people’s dilemma is along the lines of “Could it be that change is possible and may be good for us and Macedonia?”

Related to the first part of the dilemma, at the most fundamental level it is a matter of simple probability. As Lord Acton stated back in the 19th century, power corrupts. It is an undeniable fact that whenever political environments are created where the ruling party (or parties) has almost universal and absolute power within most if not all domains of society (politics, economics, media, academia, social affairs, etc.), the temptation to misuse, or even abuse, such power is enormous.

In the light of human imperfection and our inherent fascination with power and vanity, very few are those who would withstand such a profound temptation. In a situation of holding almost absolute power (both formal and informal) in Macedonia for close to a decade, the ruling parties have been subject and liable to the temptation of misusing and/or abusing power. And the “bombs” have indicated that much, for all to see and hear.

Related to the prospective second part of the dilemma, it is a more complicated and nuanced matter, yet equally straightforward when the time comes for the citizens of Macedonia to have their say about a preferred future by casting their votes in a general election.

Before I highlight a number of considerations in relation to this part of people’s dilemma, my point of departure must be to underscore the fact that what follows is in no way to suggest that one should negate whatever good that been done under the leadership of the current ruling parties. Quite the opposite!

One should celebrate the fact that, for instance, the VMRO-DPMNE led government has helped improve the overall business environment in Macedonia, making it easier for entrepreneurs and investors to do business, by robustly streamlining the regulatory requirements in the economy. The World Bank and others have recognized and commended this improvement.

Additionally, the government of Nikola Gruevski has made notable investments in building and expanding the infrastructure in the country (although, disappointingly, the modus operandi continues to be insufficiently professional and even amateurish.

For instance, the other day, while driving to the Alexander the Great Airport in the vicinity of Stip, the largest town in the eastern part of the Republic of Macedonia, I almost demolished a relatively new Toyota and endangered three lives, including my own, simply because the workers who seemed to be building a new highway had placed a sign alerting traffic off the end of asphalted road and the beginning of dirt road after the transition and not ahead of the transition from paved to unpaved road; reminiscent of the stuff we used to watch as kids in the popular comical cartoons “Lolek i Bolek”.

Nonetheless, I believe a credible argument could be made that there are reasons of sufficient magnitude and consequence that warrant and even dictate that change in the political leadership should happen at the next general election. Although such reasons are more numerous, I would like to reflect on four in particular, which I consider to be especially serious and grievous that demand holding those who have governed over the past decade fully accountable:

1) The polarization of society;

2) The youth exodus and the decimation of Macedonia’s human capital;

3) The lowest well-being score in all of Europe;

4) The failed foreign policy and diplomacy.

The sociology of power in Macedonia would make for a fascinating research or academic piece of work. Because, the penetration of politics into the social domain has been so thorough and complete that it may well border with the unprecedented; my 80-year old mother is as tuned into and emotionally devoted to the political affairs as is perhaps the random ten-year old boy on the street. It is as profound as it is astonishing. The result has been division and polarization.

In healthy and mature democracies, political power is dispersed in such a way that it results in a natural separation of the instruments and means of power. That is not so in Macedonia, where particularly in the past decade there has been an immense, and utterly hierarchical, concentration of political power. VMRO-DPMNE and its allies have presided over a period in modern Macedonian history that has resulted in perhaps the greatest polarization, “toxification”, and the tearing of the fabric of society.

They seem to have intentionally dreamed of and worked towards an absolutist domination and homogenization of the political system and society as a whole, rather than towards an ever-greater harmonization and maturation of the political culture, resulting in enhanced stability and socio-political-economic advancement of the Macedonian state and society.

This state of affairs is not confined to the political environment. It inevitably translates into the every-day and mundane affairs, which broadly speaking range along the continuum between apathy and despair. Most alarmingly, Macedonia is faced with an enormous exodus and emigration of its youth. The other day I was walking around the neighborhoods of the township where I grew up, and was told by the locals that almost every other house was empty; people had left their homeland in pursuit of a livelihood elsewhere.

Over the past weeks, all media aligned with the ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, have been reporting about various opening ceremonies of newly built or recently renovated sports halls and recreational complexes in different towns and villages across Macedonia.

Of course, the guest of honour cutting the ribbon is, in each case, the President of the VMRO-DPMNE and former long-standing Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who praises and celebrates the successes and community development apparently happening in the respective towns and villages.

Yet, the sad backdrop to this picture is the fact that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of young people have left Macedonia over the past decade and scattered across the European Union and beyond in search of jobs and a more decent existence. The question that begs is: “How many youth are left to enjoy these new or renovated sports and recreational facilities?”

The ruling elites cannot any longer have the luxury of the argument that the state of affairs in Macedonia can somehow be blamed on others, perhaps even on previous SDSM governments. Rather, the current state of affairs must all be claimed and accepted by the ruling parties who have wielded complete power over the past decade.

They are responsible. They are to be held accountable; for building sports halls and recreational complexes, but having no youth left in the country; for perennially announcing and opening economic zones, yet presiding over staggeringly high percentages of unemployment and underemployment, and over vast numbers of the population having been entirely impoverished.

Just a few days ago, one of the most reputable consulting firms in the world, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), reported that Macedonia is at the very bottom in its “well-being score” as compared to the rest of Europe. Simply stated, according to this BCG assessment, Macedonia is the worst European country to live in; worse than Albania, Moldova, and all others.

This is the state of affairs in Macedonia in 2016, after a decade of rule by the current ruling parties. They must be held accountable. To vote them back into power would amount to allowing impunity and rewarding them for having led Macedonia over the past ten years to the present position of having the lowest “well-being score” in all of Europe. How would that be fair, reasonable or wise?

Finally, Macedonia’s standing on the external stage*. Irrespective of the fact that there have been powerful forces and factors outside of its control, which have often mitigated against success, it is an undeniable fact that Macedonia’s foreign policy and diplomacy have largely failed and been by and large ineffective. So much so that from the perspective of EU and U.S. interlocutors, Macedonia has by now become a pariah state of sorts; a problem and really a “banana republic” at the heart of Europe.

Although it was the first country in the region to become a candidate for membership in the EU, Macedonia is today behind Serbia, Albania, certainly behind Montenegro, and may even be behind Bosnia & Herzegovina in that EU membership process.

The dispute surrounding the name issue with Greece is today exceedingly more complicated and less likely to be resolved in the foreseeable future, despite, shockingly, the fact that Greece has for the past several years been in utter social, economic, political and reputational disarray. And today, it is foreign diplomats who are driving and navigating the endeavours to get out of the current political crisis in Macedonia, since domestic policy makers who continue to rule have brought themselves to an unenviable position of weakness.

Change is, therefore, necessary in Macedonia, and it is entirely possible. Allowing change to happen, a change intentionally aimed at the healing of society, would perhaps amount to a most marvellous thing VMRO-DPMNE could do for Macedonia and its people. Much more so than its insistent slogans: “Ljubov kon Makedonija (Love for Macedonia),” and “Makedonija se saka so dela (Macedonia is loved through deeds).”

Nonetheless, I realize that Macedonia is still in the formative phase towards an authentically civil politics and liberal democracy.

Among other things, this means that the challenge of a search for political definition is not the exclusive challenge of VMRO-DPMNE, but also of SDSM and the other parties in the country. Simply switching from one ruling elite (today and for the past ten years, it’s been the axis of VMRO-DPMNE and DUI) to another ruling elite (that of SDSM and its allies) at the next general election will not amount to a real change in and of itself.

And if the switch does happen, as I believe it must, and SDSM and its coalition comes to power, it will be imperative for SDSM to model a qualitatively different political ethos and a transformative style of governing. Their venture will be as enormous as it will be serious, since it’s a venture towards a radically different grammar of politics.

First, SDSM and its coalition must respect and safeguard the dignity of all citizens in Macedonia, irrespective of any differentiation, including their party association or political orientation. SDSM must not repeat the dehumanizing practice of immediately laying off from employment in the public sector all those who are members of VMRO-DPMNE or have been their sympathizers.

Of course, changes at the leadership and more significant levels are to be expected as normal, and it is something that happens even in the most advanced and mature democracies, post elections.

However, there is absolutely no reason why the maintenance and cleaning lady at an elementary school should be in perennial trepidation and existential angst as to which party will win in the election and whether she will be without work if she has been perceived to be a sympathizer of the party that loses the election. That is totally inhumane and has absolutely no place in a democracy.

Second, real change for the better in Macedonia would also entail working towards greater social harmony and specifically doing away with the notion that the political opponent is the enemy, a notion that has fuelled the radical polarization and division within society.

Furthermore, SDSM and its partners will have to become anew the party of the working classes; it has to reclaim its rightful ideological place. Social democracy, which should be the natural philosophical habitat of SDSM, has always been for the middle class, for the working class, for the broadest and inclusive constituencies of society.

Intriguingly enough, the ruling elites have managed over the past decade to co-opt that brand and recast themselves into what they may be only partially and pragmatically, both in terms of ideology and function.

SDSM’s task will have to be to transform a socio-economic system that has been for too long moulded by clientelism, cronyism and political patronage into an equitable meritocracy informed by social justice, qualification and competence.

If SDSM and its coalition really want to bring about genuine change in Macedonia, they must justify in real terms their insistence that VMRO-DPMNE does not have monopoly on good ideas and strong leadership.

Third, SDSM and partners will have to formulate and implement a much more sophisticated, strategic and effective foreign policy and diplomacy so that Macedonia is not the pariah state on the old and sophisticated continent.

I am convinced that the axiom, which states that a small country is inevitably inconsequential, should not at all automatically apply to Macedonia in its external milieu, both regional and global.

Four, SDSM must cast a compelling vision of a future that Macedonians can believe in and be proud of; a vision of a future where in Macedonia education will, finally, be superior in quality and paramount in importance, a future where innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity will be stimulated and rewarded, where responsibility, hard as well as smart work will be definitive of who and what Macedonia is becoming; a future when emigrating abroad will no longer be an existential necessity, and a future when the prospect of Macedonia ever again being at the bottom of European wellbeing scales will be excluded.

The winds of change are blowing. But, what is more, not only would change be good for Macedonia and its populace, but ironically it would also be good for VMRO-DPMNE, in that it would give it an opportunity for deep reflection and introspection, internal detox, and possibly party renewal and reinvention, thus making the party better prepared for operating in the future in constructive and even transformative ways.

Not by complete fragmentation and dominance of society in general and the political system in particular, but rather by creative and compelling leadership that would dynamically capture and trigger the imagination of Macedonia for what its present and future could be.

VMRO-DPMNE should desire a change in Macedonian politics perhaps more than any other party, for if it remains in power it may well be led to an internal implosion whose result could be a totally incapacitated and irrelevant VMRO-DPMNE.

When the next general election comes, there should be no dilemma for those who will vote in Macedonia. Choosing the status quo will clearly mean choosing to turn Macedonia’s “tomorrow” into “yesterday,” turning Macedonia’s future into the past; a past that has not been great.

Choosing the continuance of the status quo will mean knowingly choosing the continuation of the fragmentation and polarization of the people of Macedonia, the continued toxification of the nation, and who knows, perhaps even the creation of more future “bombs.” No responsible and self-respecting citizen of Macedonia should entertain such continuation of the status quo as a choice at all.

When the next general election comes, there should be no dilemma for those who will vote, because change simply imposes itself upon the conscience of the people of Macedonia. There should be no alternative to change; a change to a fresh start, a new beginning towards a more inclusive, more wholesome, more harmonious, more prosperous future. Macedonia and its people deserve such a new, creative and preferred future.

The next article will primarily be about Macedonia’s foreign policy and diplomacy over the past decade.

* Paul Mikov is Vice President of Institutional Partnerships in the global health sector based in New York, and an Adjunct Professor in the department of Political Science at Fordham University in New York. Previously, he was the United Nations Representative and Director of the New York Office for World Vision International, a $2.8 billion global non-governmental organization. Paul Mikov is not a member of any political party in Macedonia.

** ‘Bombs’ is an allusion to the disclosures by the leader of the main opposition party in Macedonia of alleged abuse of power, illegal activities and criminal acts by the ruling government which has been in power for almost ten years. [IDN-INPS – 06 September 2016]

Photo: Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.

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