How Macedonia found itself at the centre of Europe’s refugee crisis

A Macedonian armed vehicle patrols the fence along the border with Greece. EPA/Georgi Licovski

Distressing scenes have been unfolding on Macedonia’s border with Greece, where police have been using tear gas on refugees attempting to break through a razor wire fence designed to keep them out.

Given the recent tone of the debate about the migrant crisis, it is all too easy to dismiss this response as heavy handed. But Macedonia is a small state caught up in a domestic crisis of its own. It aspires to join Europe but has seen many of its would-be partners turn their backs on this shared burden.

Trouble at home

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was forced to step down in January after a series of recorded telephone conversations was released by the opposition Social Democratic Party, which alleged widespread wiretapping and grave abuses of power by senior government officials. It confirmed widespread suspicions that the national security service had no real oversight and was overstretching its surveillance powers.

With the help of the EU and the US, Macedonia’s main political parties have negotiated early parliamentary elections in June. The ruling party’s secretary general Emil Dimitriev is acting as prime minister for the interim government until the elections.

There is often a desire to blame the legacy of socialism when problems like these arise in countries like Macedonia. But the politicians implicated in this scandal have embraced a bold anti-communist, anti-Yugoslav discourse.

However the entire region, made up of the former Yugoslavia – and indeed some Eastern European states such as Hungary and Poland – has actually witnessed a perpetuation of the worst practices from the socialist period and the abandonment of the positives – many of which could be seen as European values.

So we see a lack of media freedom and a blurring between political parties and the state but also weakening welfare states and a loss of social justice, workers’ rights and emancipatory values.

Nikola Gruevski resigns. EPA/Georgi Licovski

The Macedonian scandal also revealed electoral fraud and has soured relations somewhat with the EU – not least because the ruling party recently broke off cooperation with EU facilitator Peter Vanhoutte. Hence, the government is increasingly seen as lacking legitimacy by its EU and American partners.

So much for solidarity

Then comes the international crisis. Hungary, an EU member state widely criticised for its own type of hybrid authoritarianism, was the first to erect barbed wire fences to stem the inflow of migrants and refugees.

This led to a diversion in the migrant route. People trying to reach western Europe trudged through Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. Now Macedonia has erected its own in an attempt to keep out the people trying to cross its border with Greece after travelling across the sea.

The recent distressing scenes from the border came after Austria announced that it is introducing new rules that would allow no more than 3,200 migrants and refugees onto its territory per day and impose a daily limit of 80 on the number of asylum claims that can be made.

Macedonian foreign minister Nikola Popovski echoed an often repeated concern when he said that these scenes were a consequence of Europe’s fragmented response to the refugee crisis – and, for that matter, the Syrian civil war.

While Macedonia, a land-locked country of 2m people, is an EU candidate country, it is not an official member of the Union or the Schengen Area. It is undergoing its own internal political crisis and happens to be on the migrant route.

Geographically, this small nation finds itself caught between Greece, the main arrival point for refugees seeking shelter in Europe, and a vast area of countries unwilling to help them.

The Visegrad Group of EU countries – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia – pioneered an anti-Islamic approach to talking about the migrant crisis, warning that the people fleeing Syria could not be culturally accommodated in their lands. They came up with the idea of sealing off their borders with Balkan countries to prevent migrants from coming in. That left the Balkan countries to deal with the situation. They tend to see themselves as victims of a highly incoherent EU approach to the refugee crisis.

Although it is not practically possible for Macedonia to play a leading role in handling this crisis, some Balkan governments – including the Macedonian administration – do share some of the fears about the “islamisation” of their countries and of Europe. Some are indeed ideologically close to Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who vocally opposes taking in refugees from Syria for these reasons.

At least the general public are striking out on their own. In spite of their corrupt and populist governments, ordinary citizens of Macedonia and of the other countries on the Balkan migrant route have mobilised to help the refugees. These could be seen as acts of solidarity but also as acts of protest against their own government.

The disturbing scenes on the Macedonian-Greek border must be viewed as a symptom of a larger European problem. EU member states such as Austria are being allowed to act unilaterally by closing down borders. The group as a whole is failing to forge a unified, humanitarian response that would reflect Europe’s original values.

Macedonia aspires to be a member of the European Union. The existing members are hardly setting a good example.