Escalation of protests and violence: Macedonia awakening or going toward an abyss?

7 May, 2015

Written by:
  • Dane Taleski
Escalation of protests and violence: Macedonia awakening or going toward an abyss?

On 5 May 2015, peaceful protests escalated into clashes between protesters and police in Macedonia. For several hours, protesters rallied peacefully in front of the government, occasionally throwing eggs at the newly-made baroque facade. However, before midnight the police moved to disperse the protesters, which resulted in violence.

What is happening in Macedonia?

The protests followed the “29th bomb,” the opposition’s release of wiretapped materials, which revealed an attempt to cover up the murder of a young man celebrating the VMRO-DPMNE's victory on election night in 2011; the murder was committed by a member of the special police unit and part of the Prime Minister's bodyguard's entourage. The materials show that Nikola Gruevski, key members of his Cabinet and other public officials were well informed of all the details and involved in the cover-up attempt. A series of protests against police brutality followed in 2011, but Gruevski and other officials denied responsibility.

In previous “bombs,” details surfaced about corrupt practices of Gruevski, members of his cabinet and Sasho Mijalkov, cousin of Gruevski and head of civil intelligence. These corrupt practices included negotiating provisions from foreign companies (Chinese and Israeli). Other “bombs” showed how government officials tried to rig the elections in the Centar municipality and how they were the puppet masters behind the violent protests in 2013. Furthermore, a series of locally announced “bombs” exposed electoral rigging, such as pressuring the private sector and using the police to create para-police formations that would act as the  “muscle.”

These previous “bombs” did not have as strong of a public reaction as the one released on 5 May, even though the opposition organized protest marches after wiretapped materials were presented locally. On the one hand, the opposition's social mobilization has been countered by local public events of the “Citizen's Movement to Defend Macedonia,” a group of pro-government journalists and pundits. They echo the government's talking point that the opposition is colluding with a foreign secret service in an attempt to destabilize the country and topple the government.

In line with that, pro-government media were quick to blame the opposition and the Soros foundation in Skopje for instigating violent protests on 5 May. Some government-controlled media did not even report about the protests. In general, government-controlled media, including the public broadcaster, do not report about the opposition’s activities and the wiretapped materials.

On the other hand, the ruling VMRO-DPMNE organized weekly rallies to show support for the government. At the rallies, Nikola Gruevski has blamed the opposition for working against the country, and he has announced new investments and jobs. The government even kick-started a project titled “Macedonia Employs,” which resembles an episode from the “House of Cards.” At the party congress on 3 May, Gruevski was re-elected as the party president with 528 votes out of 529. Even though Gruevski wants to appear unaltered and strong, he hinted that the government could be restructured and called the opposition to come to a consensus on some non-issues (e.g. quality of education, more jobs, foreign investments, improvement of public services), but also on a resolution for the name dispute. However, Gruevski maintains that the court will resolve the case of the wiretapped materials.

The judiciary seems to be working in his favor. The public prosecutor raised criminal charges against Zoran Zaev, the leader of the SDSM, and his alleged accomplices, who are currently in detention, for espionage and for trying to stage a coup d’état. The status of the convictions raised by the SDSM against Gruevski and Mijalkov is unclear. They have been charged with abuse of office and with ordering surveillance of over 20,000 citizens, charges that are supported with evidence from transcripts of over 100,000 phone conversations and 18,000 messages.

The crisis in Macedonia has implications for interethnic stability. Wiretapped materials showed that the DUI, the Albanian junior coalition partner in government, was aware of and complicit in corrupt and authoritarian practices. A growing disillusionment and disappointment of Albanians with the DUI have increased demands that it leave the government. On the other hand, the government building was shelled twice with RPGs, and a new phantom UÇK has claimed responsibility. In an incident on the border with Kosovo, an alleged group of about 40 armed persons took control of a border post for several hours.

At the same time, high-level representatives from the DUI (Musa Xhaferi, the deputy prime minister in charge of the Ohrid Framework Agreement implementation, and Artan Grubi, a member of parliament and head of Ahmeti's party cabinet) are having meetings in Brussels. They are most likely attempting to become part of the solution in the future, and they do not want to be perceived as part of the problem. However, the headquarter of the DUI was recently bombed, which shows that frustrations toward the party are mounting.

It all goes to show that the situation in Macedonia is becoming more complex and unstable. The released wiretapped conversations show that there is systematic abuse and manipulation of institutions.

Therefore, the crisis in Macedonia is not only a polarization between the government and the opposition. It is a struggle to regain democracy. On the one side, the VMRO-DPMNE, under the current leadership, personifies the authoritarian regime, while on the other side, the SDSM happens to present the most credible political leadership of a wider front of democratic forces.

Toward a resolution

Reactions of the West have been in line with each other. Representatives of the US and Germany demanded resignations and an institutional resolution of the crisis, while the UK ambassador in Skopje suggested that the option of a caretaker government should be considered. On the other hand, Russia seems to support Gruevski's regime. For example, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sided with the Macedonian MoI in an official reaction concerning the border incident; however, Russia also requested international assistance to clear the incidents and blamed Kosovo.

On the other hand, Members of the European Parliament facilitated several rounds of meetings between the government and the opposition in Brussels. It is good that such meetings avoid media attention; however, there are no signs of a breakthrough that would resolve the crisis. The parties seem entrenched in their own positions.

At the same time, there is a growing anti-government sentiment expressed in a variety of protest movements, which include high school students, journalists and contract workers. The leader of a smaller, non-parliamentary opposition party has organized regular protests in front of the public broadcaster and the Public Prosecutor's office. Criticism is mounting from within the VMRO-DPMNE. Party renegades, organized in the “Patriotic Forum” and the “Amsterdam Three,” demand resignation of Gruevski, as well as intra-party democratic changes in the VMRO-DPMNE. Also, the students' plenum is actively supporting the anti-government social movements.

The political leadership of the opposition has regained credibility, but should not rely only  on moral superiority. There is sufficient critical mass for the SDSM to facilitate a citizens’ platform for democratic change and to welcome all supporters, regardless of ethnicity, religion and political affiliation. More appeals should be made to unwilling partners of the regime to join the democratic platform, such as some smaller parties that are considering withdrawing from the ruling coalition, parties of smaller ethnic communities, and public administration officials entrapped in the regime. Also, the SDSM needs to show that it has a credible plan for the future, aside from a lump sum of electoral promises that “we will be better.”

At the moment, the regime seems unwilling to change. On the contrary, officials show that they are willing to use force to suppress the protests. Their instruments for brutality should not be underestimated and they pose a security threat. One should not underestimate that, for several years, there has been party recruitment in the police and that there is a large number of people employed in private security agencies. Also, the judiciary remains under political control, and there is no crack in the pro-government's media blockade.

Protests against police brutality will continue. Daily protests have been announced in Skopje and several other cities. The opposition announced that it will release wiretapped conversations on other sensitive issues (e.g. death of journalist Nikola Mladenov, killing of 5 fishermen near Smilkovsko Lake and negotiations on the name dispute). The key date to watch for is 17 May. The opposition announced a massive protest on this date, which will not stop until the government resigns. However, rumors of counter-protests and the distribution of weapons have surfaced, and it is not clear if the idea is to frighten the opposition protesters or to prepare a recipe for an explosive social cocktail.

Now is the moment for the EU to step in, before it's too late. There is a short window of opportunity for high-level international political involvement to bring a peaceful resolution to an escalating crisis. One suggestion is for Commissioner Hahn and the EU High Representative Mogherini to jointly appoint a mediator. Also, a caretaker government, with a reasonable length of mandate, seems to be an appropriate instrument to deescalate tensions and to control political polarization. In the long term, the EU should reinvigorate the accession process and closely monitor democracy in the region, as suggested by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

It is crucial for the public and civil society to be informed and included. The unfolding of events should not only be an elite bargaining process. Much more is at stake. The future of the country is at a crossroads, between the Euro-Atlantic family of values and a system of feudal overlords. Macedonian citizens are aware that the main question centers on which direction the country is heading in: toward improving democracy or toward a spiral of violence?

Written by:
  • Dane Taleski Dane Taleski received his PhD in Political Science from the Central European University in Budapest. His research interests are post-conflict democratization, transformation of rebel groups, political parties, ethnic politics, regional cooperation, EU integration and Southeast Europe. His work has been published in Democratization, Ethnopolitics, Suedosteuropa and New Balkan Politics, and various edited volumes. In 2014, he received a Civil Society Scholar Award from Open Society Institute in New York. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz (October 2015 – June 2016), and a Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies of South East Europe at the University of Rijeka (March – July, 2016). He was Visiting Lecturer at the University of Fribourg in fall 2016.
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