GOP senators, don't side with Russia on Macedonia
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A group of Republican senators have called on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to investigate the State Department's alleged meddling in Macedonia party politics. They warn against diplomats playing political favorites and using U.S. Agency for International Development funds in support of left-leaning groups and policies, such as the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundation.

The problem, however, is that Macedonia is not in a political battle between the right and the left. The small nation in the heart of the Balkans is in an epic battle to hold politicians to account.

For many citizens of Macedonia, partaking in this struggle is a moral duty, not a political choice.

What makes Macedonia scream out is that the government led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski dismantled checks and balances to the point where Brussels now refers to "state capture" and Freedom House lists Macedonia's press as "not free," putting it in a group with Russia, Belarus and Turkey.

The State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2016 points out that "most significant human rights problems stemmed from pervasive corruption and from the government's failure to respect fully the rule of law."

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Illegally wiretapped conversations of up to 20,000 people, partially leaked by the Macedonian opposition in 2015, exposed pervasive government wrongdoing: high-level corruption, pressure on the judiciary and media, extortion, electoral fraud, and massive abuse of office. The tapes triggered mass protests demanding accountability and justice.

 

A special prosecutor's office, brokered by the United States and the European Union, was established to investigate — but President Gjorge Ivanov issued blanket pardons to 56 alleged perpetrators. Intensified protests and international condemnation forced him to retract the pardons. 

Gruevski was forced to formally step down as prime minister in January 2016; however, he remained president of the VMRO-DPMNE party and de-facto continued to govern through his party.

Now, VMRO-DPMNE is on a brink of losing power after 11 years. Painted into a corner, Gruevski has lashed out against imaginary enemies, both foreign and domestic, with no concern about the consequences. He blamed foreign diplomats for interference, unidentified centers of power for conspiring to topple his regime, and started a witch-hunt against George Soros-backed nongovernmental organizations.

After early parliamentary elections in December 2016, Gruevski failed to form a majority in Parliament with the biggest ethnic Albanian party and called upon the citizens to defend the unitary character of the country against purported federalization plans, turning the impunity crisis into an interethnic one.

Ivanov in turn, refused to give the mandate to form a government to the newly formed parliamentary majority, led by Zoran Zaev, president of the SDSM opposition party in coalition with two Albanian parties, thus ignoring the will of the people. He was met with a chorus of international voices and one message: Don't play with fire.

There has been one important and consistent exception. Russia accused the West of interference and warned against another Macedonia become another Ukraine. Moscow sees an opportunity to challenge the weakened European narrative in support of the growing autocratic rule in Macedonia.

But this is not surprising: Russia has never been a beacon of hope, democracy, the rule of law and equal opportunities. That has always been the United States, regardless of whether the president was Republican or Democratic, and regardless of individual ambassadors. That was true back in 1999, when one of the authors worked with the Clinton administration during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, as it was when he served as Macedonian ambassador to Washington, working closely with the George W. Bush administration.

It will, we hope, remain at the heart of U.S. leadership in the world under President Trump, as well.

The fight against oppression should unite us all, both conservative and progressives, regardless of how it is wrapped. Dear Senators, when democracy and freedom are at stake, don't ask your ambassadors to be silent. On the contrary, ask them to speak up for the values for which America has always stood.

Nikola Dimitrov is the former Macedonian ambassador to the United States and a distinguished fellow at the Hague Institute for Global Justice. Dane Taleski is an adjunct professor at the South East European University.


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