For the past few months we have been witnessing an abundant expression of resistance in Macedonia, manifested by the dissent of different social groups from students, professors, part-time workers, journalists, teachers to high-school students. All of them, for different reasons, and organized under different Plenums, have displayed their resentment against the authoritarian practices of the regime of Nikola Gruevski, the current Prime Minister of Macedonia. This blog post aims to dispel the persisting myth in Macedonia which holds that the citizens are passive and not very keen to express revolt against social and political injustices. The recent rallies accompanied by practices of civil disobedience (for example the teachers refused to conduct the external exam while the students have occupied the faculties and proclaimed the university as an ‘Autonomous Area’) have proved the opposite.
What I would like to emphasize in this analysis is that the politics of resistance is a process in the making, it is an event which is dependent upon different, but mutually connected, social, political, economic and contingent actions, and as such it has the potential to create a powerful political culture. To better understand why the politics of resistance, after 25 years of independence and 9 years of Gruevski’s regime, represent a new social quality in Macedonia, I suggest looking at a series of possible factors that might both mobilize and immobilize different social groups, such as the (ethnic) nationalism, character of the political system, socio-economic stagnation, as well as the temporal dimension.
Nationalism and Skopje 2014 – Tools of Immobilization
One may claim that a retroactive nationalism can trigger an all-comprehensive resistance against those in power, and in this way posing a serious challenge to the respective regime. However, as we have learned from Chip Gagnon, the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, which were underpinned by the ethno-nationalists ideologies, had the opposite effect in Serbia and Croatia, through being used by the elites as strategies for the immobilization of the populations.
Similarly, the omnipresence of nationalism(s) in Macedonia today, where the main representation is the massive urban project Skopje 2014, in my view serves as a tool of immobilization of the population as well. Promoted as an urban undertaking of national significance, one which should defend the disputed ‘identity’ from the neighbours, the project, or precisely the ideology that it promotes, managed to resist serious resistance. Apart from the minor occasional displays of revolt, Skopje 2014, which according to the opposition costs over 500 million Euros, had not seriously been challenged by the citizens despite changing, in an utterly arbitrary manner, the complete urban setting of the city centre in a very disputable architectural fashion. One might have expected a massive defiance against this extremely expensive urban monster, yet the power of nationalism displayed under present (geo) political conditions had prevailed over the possibility for opposing the Project. It is important to remember that this is all happening in a country with the second highest unemployment in Europe with the costs of this Project having reached more than a half of billion Euros.
Speaking of unemployment, since the fall of Yugoslavia most of the countries of the former federation have suffered from high unemployment rates, with the situation in Serbia being the most alarming due to the high inflation and foreign sanctions. As for Macedonia, although the country did not encounter high inflation and sanctions like Serbia (except for a 19 month economic embargo from Greece), the economic situation was not much better. Today it is the same, if not worse. Interestingly, if we look at the content of protests in Macedonia, the poor economic situation is not the single mobilizing factor. While the part-time workers are protesting against the new measures that will reduce their already low incomes, the students are in turn expressing revolt against the passed law on higher education. Something similar can be argued for Serbia, where a trigger for the three-month protest during the winter 1996/97 was the election fraud and disbelief in the institutions, rather than the poor standard of living.
Democracy, authoritarianism, students
Unlike other ex-Yugoslav countries (Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia) Macedonia in the 1990s was depicted as an example of democratic transition, a so called ‘oasis of peace’. However, today the situation is rather different. The ruling elite made an unexpected shift towards authoritarianism having under control most of the mainstream media, the judiciary, and the state and cultural institutions generally. All these institutions are not merely instruments of the ruling elite; I would say that they mirror, the way in which the regime leads the country since 2006. Gruevski succeed in making Macedonia one of the most undemocratic regimes in Eastern Europe, being now close to establishing a full authoritarian system (especially after having recently accused the opposition of attempting a coup).
These nine years are characterized by a gradual abandonment of democracy to the point where 20,000 citizens have been wire-tapped, including high members of the government, opposition, journalists and so forth. Moreover, in these nine years we have witnessed arrests of political opponents and journalists; the persecution of the opposition leader for alleged espionage and violence against the state representatives; almost complete control of the media space and state institutions; a massive intervention in the public space for the purpose of building a nationalist/party ideology; an amalgamation of party and state (the state seems to serve those who are politically and ideologically affiliated with the ruling VMRO-DPMNE); the violent ejection of opposition MPs and journalists from the Parliament; and lastly attempts of the government to gain control of the education by imposing state exams without any prior democratic procedure, experts or public debate.
Indeed, the shift towards authoritarianism can tell us a lot for the recent ‘awakening’ of the citizens. Only after nine (the temporal dimension is an important element in this context) years of Gruevski’s ruling – a period marked by the gradual diminishing of democracy – we are witnessing a resistance that can become a significant element in shaping further socio-political developments in the country.
The arbitrary intervention in the higher education was that event which provoked a chain of protests and marked a new stage in Macedonian society. Moreover, all these events (protests, ‘bombs’ and ‘coup’) have pushed the government to the wall, forcing it to show first signs of confusion, fear and compliance with the demands of the citizens.
The students, as mentioned earlier, have been occupying the university in Skopje from Wednesday on. They have proclaimed it an autonomous area and are as such a case in point for the growing culture of resistance in Macedonia. They demand a new law on higher education and a series of new dialogues. Through not allowing classes to be held as long as their demands are not accepted they represent the best example against those thinking that the population does not have a capacity to stand up for freedom and justice.