How North Macedonia’s Promising New Left Became a Hateful Chauvinist Party

Dzejlan Veliu

North Macedonia’s Levica party looked like a new hope for the Left in the former Yugoslav state. But a controversial takeover of the party has split its original leadership group — and taken it toward hateful chauvinism against the country’s Albanian minority.

Opposition supporters protest against the proposal to end the conflict between North Macedonia and Bulgaria and open EU accession negotiations, as they gather outside of the parliament in Skopje, North Macedonia on July 16, 2022. (Robert Atanasovski / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Elena Gagovska

Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Left has long been a weak force in North Macedonia’s politics. The newly independent state was dominated by the center-right Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) and the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). But in the 2020 parliamentary elections there was a breakthrough for Levica (the Left), a party born five years previously, which elected its first two MPs — Dimitar Apasiev and Borislav Krmov. The news seemed hopeful. Yet all is not as it seems.

Apasiev’s public interventions in recent years have often used a profanity-filled rhetoric starkly different from mainstream Macedonian politicians — appealing to some voters precisely because of its perceived edginess. One vulgar interaction owed to disagreements with President Stevo Pendarovski over the so-called French Proposal — a move to unblock Bulgarian grievances and allow North Macedonia to begin talks on joining the European Union. Apasiev, a vocal opponent of the proposal, wrote “Pendarovski, fuck your mother” on his Facebook page — even though the president’s mother has been dead for ten years. In turn, the president said in a press conference that only “a person who has something missing in his head or is high could say something like that”, and proceeded to call Apasiev a “psychopath.”

Yet Apasiev’s vulgarity also has a deeper political significance. Today, such nationalist posturing feeds wider allegations of racism against Apasiev, who has often directed his attacks against ethnically Albanian politicians. Albanians are the largest minority group in North Macedonia, estimated to make up almost one-quarter of the population. Apasiev urged ethnic Macedonians to boycott the long-awaited 2021 census — the first in nearly two decadesclaiming that “This is a census that every patriot MUST boycott — in order for it not to pass. All previous censuses were boycotted by Albanians, now it is Macedonians’ turn to boycott it.”

This is just part of Levica’s nationalist thrust. In its 2020 election program, it vowed to annul the 2018 Prespa Agreement by which the country’s name was changed to the Republic of North Macedonia in an effort to ease relations with Greece. The party also advocated the revocation of North Macedonia’s official recognition of Kosovo (a majority-Albanian country) and opposed the Law on Languages — a bill passed in 2018 which expanded the use of Albanian and other minority languages by government institutions.

One of Levica’s latest controversies involves the Russia-Ukraine war: This March 16, its MPs Apasiev and Krmov had an official meeting with Sergey Bazdnikin, the Russian ambassador to North Macedonia, to discuss the “special military operation in Ukraine” and “the denazification process,” echoing the rhetoric used by Vladimir Putin and his supporters. Levica’s Facebook post also expressed concern over the alleged “Russophobic statements” of Bujar Osmani, the ethnically Albanian foreign minister.

But also in dispute is the manner of Apasiev’s takeover of the party. Some former comrades have alleged that this was done illegally, and entered into long court battles with him. A group of ex-Levica members allege that Apasiev and his supporters engineered a coup which illegally removed several members of the party’s democratically elected presidium. A document, provided to this author, claims that he was in possession of the party seal which allowed him to falsify documents, such as meeting minutes and even central committee meetings that allegedly never happened. This, it is claimed, allowed him to suspend rivals from party ranks. Yet, courts have repeatedly struck down these allegations, leaving dissidents angered at the direction Apasiev has taken the party.

Apasiev did not come from nowhere. Part of the anti-capitalist organization Lenka, he was a prominent activist during North Macedonia’s so called Colorful Revolution, the 2016 protest movement considered crucial to ending eleven years of authoritarian rule by the VMRO-DPMNE. The protests were triggered by the pardons which President Gjorge Ivanov issued for fifty-six figures facing corruption investigations, many of them figures in the government then led by the right-wing party. Still today, some former Levica members face severe legal backlash for their role in the protests. On March 18, 2022 ex-Levica members Zdravko Saveski and Vladimir Kunovski were given six-month conditional jail sentences and a fine of half a million denars (8,500 euros) for alleged material damage of President Ivanov’s office, on the day when he announced the pardons.

But legal challenges have also riven Levica itself. Dzejlan Veliu, one of the initial founders of the party, lost a court battle of her own over her accusations of workplace harassment and what she alleges to be her illegal firing. After taking her case through several courts, Veliu was forced to pay 87,000 denars (1,400 euros) to Levica — a huge sum in a country where the minimum wage is 300 euros a month. On April 6, 2022 Apasiev dismissed the relevance of ex-Levica members’ lawsuits against him on Janko Jadi Burek, a right-wing talk show hosted by infamous conspiracy theorist Janko Ilkovski.

Jacobin’s Elena Gagovska interviewed Dzejlan Veliu about Levica’s founding, Apasiev’s takeover, and what the Left can learn from the party’s short but sad history.

Elena Gagovska

When and why was Levica formed? Why did you decide to be one of its founders?

Dzejlan Veliu

A few years before the formation of Levica, there were protests against police brutality and against the increase of electricity prices (in 2011–12). There were also initiatives to help refugees (in 2014), student protests, and the temporary occupation of several faculties in Skopje and Bitola (in 2013—14). These events were followed by smaller but more frequent displays of rebellion among different groups.

However, these protests’ demands came up against а wall, so the idea of forming a real left-wing party started to spread in activist circles. The idea was that this party would articulate the demands of the protest movements, but at the same time it would create space for the spread of internationalist and socialist positions in Macedonia. We believed that the fragmented struggles up until that point would not be fruitful if people did not unite around a clear political program. As a participant in the abovementioned initiatives and protests, I was already part of a broader leftist circle. When the initiative board for the formation of a left-wing party was formed in 2015, I became part of it and actively started working to register the party. In less than three months, that was achieved.

Elena Gagovska

When and how did the alleged coup happen? What did Dimitar Apasiev do?

Dzejlan Veliu

The coup, or judicial takeover of Levica, took place in February 2019, and was the culmination of months of squabbling within the party. The coup itself began that February 3, when the last legal session of the central committee was held, where the upcoming presidential election was discussed. Apasiev came up with a proposal for Levica to support the presidential candidate of VMRO-DPMNE, the dominant right-wing party. It is important to note that for several months, Apasiev had been clearly inclined toward and openly supported various right-wing initiatives without any consultation within the party, which increased [our] distrust of him, as well as the tension within the party itself. Just like the previous foolish proposals, this one did not pass in the central committee, primarily because Levica was not formed to run after coalitions with the bourgeois parties, but to offer a healthy Marxist program around which workers could unite.

That was the moment from which the coup began: when, against the will of the majority of members of the central committee and the presidium, and by abusing the party seal and stamp, Apasiev prepared dozens of falsified documents (decisions and minutes) from meetings that were never held, with people as signatories who were not elected as members of those party bodies. Practically excommunicated from above, without any statutory or legal basis, he falsified the composition of the party structure and submitted it to the court. Thus, four members, including myself, were expelled from the seven-member presidium with forged resignations.

Then, in the late evening on February 15, they changed the lock on the party office in Skopje [from where I performed my duties as the party’s secretary], and took over the party website and its social media pages. A few days earlier they had hijacked the party bank account, in which 90,000 euros of state funding had just been deposited — a result of the success Levica had in the previous parliamentary elections. From this moment, all contact was lost with Apasiev and the small group of supporters who, unable to impose their ideas democratically on the majority in the party, decided on a forcible takeover of the party through forgeries.

Elena Gagovska

Do you see some state institutions as indirectly complicit in the destruction of Levica in the form that you and your comrades imagined it?

Dzejlan Veliu

Absolutely, yes. We are socialists and certainly do not trust the “rule of law” of the capitalist state. But we naively thought that when things were too obvious, the judiciary would have no room for maneuver despite external influence. Apasiev’s forgeries were so clumsy that they could be noticed by ordinary laypeople, let alone by judges and public prosecutors. We certainly took all the necessary legal actions: we filed a lawsuit before the lower registration court for political parties with an expert reconstruction from the entire chronology of events, filed criminal charges before the public prosecutor’s office and the prosecutor’s office for organized crime, and even went to the Constitutional Court, but everything was in vain. A lot of evidence such as notarized statements was deemed irrelevant to the court, which in turn accepted the forgeries as relevant (i.e. the underground engineering from the person who was in possession of the stamp and presented blank sheets of stamped paper).

This cannot be interpreted other than as the institutions receiving an order how to “close” this case, regardless of the disastrous legal precedent that was set. This marked the beginning of the rule of the stamp in the hands of self-proclaimed party leaders, rather than the rule of law, the law on political parties and the party statute.

Now we know why the party, in the form in which we imagined and built it, was destroyed. A strong Left was not convenient for the centers of power in Macedonia. By giving Levica to Apasiev, [these centers] protected themselves, because they knew that he would turn the party into a mere reformist and opportunist party that speaks, in a populist way, on behalf of the working people as a whole, but essentially divides the people on ethnic and religious grounds. Such parties do not pose a threat to capitalism — on the contrary, they maintain it!

Elena Gagovska

What does Apasiev claim regarding the takeover of the party? How do the party’s current values differ from what Levica was supposed to stand for?

Dzejlan Veliu

Apasiev’s claims depend on the daily political needs of the voting “market.” If we analyze these claims on their own terms, it is easy to see that they lack any basis in reality. That is, through the social media pages of the party that he took over, he constructed a narrative that in fact he saved the party from the alleged coup that was being prepared by SDSM, and that I and a few other comrades were their instruments. Over time, this turned out to be a complete lie, and in fact, the opposite happened.

First, no matter how much we want to believe in the independence of the judiciary from the government, the fact remains that he managed to escape without any consequences for his crimes [the alleged forgeries] during the rule of SDSM. Second, under his leadership, Levica ceased to be a party of socially humiliated workers, but became a party of Macedonians who felt nationally humiliated after the state changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. With this change in the political course, Levica ceased to be a competitor of SDSM in the left-wing political space, but instead became a competitor of VMRO-DPMNE in the right-wing political space.

Levica today is a party without a clear ideology or political program. It is no different from other bourgeois parties. It does not represent the interests of the working people, but is part of the very system that oppresses workers. The party can now be classified as a national-romantic or a national–social democratic [force], whose goal is not to bring ethnically divided people together, but rather to permanently disrupt relations between workers of different ethnicities. Presenting itself as the only party fighting for the national interests of the Macedonians, the new leadership often uses national-chauvinist views. As a result, this iteration of Levica has forever lost the support of Muslim workers and those of Albanian or Turkish nationality.

Elena Gagovska

Do you believe that Apasiev’s takeover of Levica is significant for the international left?

Dzejlan Veliu

The takeover of Levica is certainly a blow and a setback for the development of anti-capitalist and socialist movements in Macedonia. At first glance, this party may create a false impression that in Macedonia there is a leftist party that stands for workers’ rights and systemic socioeconomic change, but behind the stated phrases there is no real content or more serious political mobilization of workers. Thus, currently Levica is a party that has no internationalist character and does not work to get closer to other parties and organizations in the region and beyond.

On the other hand, the international left can learn a lesson from our experience, about the danger of infiltration and judicial-state takeover of the party, and how in the end a party could be deformed into something that is its essential opposite. This is a sobering lesson for us about the power of the enemy of the working class — the capitalist state.