On 27 April, 2017, after the parliamentary majority elected a speaker in Macedonia, the parliament was stormed by a mob. Some were wearing ski masks. Members of parliament who had voted to elect the new speaker were attacked. The attackers injured several MPs: Zoran Zaev (SDSM), Radmila Sekerinska (SDSM), Zijadin Sela (Alliance for Albanians), Oliver Spasovski (SDSM), Damjan Manchevski (SDSM), and many others. Zoran Zaev, the president of SDSM, was badly injured, but appears to be all right; it seems that Zijadin Sela sustained the worst injuries. When the mob stormed parliament, some MPs from VMRO-DPMNE were socialising with the attackers, whilst others were trying to calm the situation and prevent an escalation of violence.
Initially, the police blatantly failed to react: some of the police sent to protect the parliament and MPs did not appear to be interested in the task, whilst some seemed downright friendly towards the attackers. The police acted to disperse the mob with shock bombs and tear gas after they had held MPs and journalists hostage inside the parliament for two hours. In the course of action, some protesters were injured as well as police officers.
What are the reasons for the violence?
The mob came from a group that has been protesting for couple of months under the label “For A United Macedonia”. The protests began after the call by Nikola Gruevski, leader of VMRO-DPMNE, for the people to take the street and “protect” the country. Many see the protests as organised efforts by VMRO-DPMNE to instigate unrest and incite political polarisation, potentially culminating in violence. The protests made use of the declaration by all Albanian parties (the Tirana Platform) as a pretext to claim that the sovereignty and the unitary character of Macedonia is in danger. The president of Macedonia has justified their position by refusing to grant a mandate for the newly-formed parliamentary majority (consisting of SDSM, DUI, BESA and the Alliance for Albanians – bringing together 67 MPs out of 120 in total) to form a government, also citing the declaration of all Albanian parties as his justification. The protests were organised in Skopje and several other cities, and they have incited inter-ethnic hostility and empowered radical groups to threaten society with paramilitary formations and the use of violence.
Some believe that the real motivation behind the protests is to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. The leadership of VMRO-DPMNE is under investigation by the Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) for gross abuse of power, high level corruption, electoral fraud and many other alleged criminal wrongdoings. The political leadership of VMRO-DPMNE wants to stop the investigations, continue with impunity and impede all legal action taken against them. They have consistently discredited and attacked the SPP and harassed the courts to impede and slow-down the legal processes.
The attack on MPs is a direct attack on democracy. The MPs have full legitimacy, as they were elected in the elections that took place on 11 December, 2016. No one contested or objected the results of those elections. The MPs bear the sovereignty of Macedonia. This is the second time that MPs opposing VMRO-DPMNE have been attacked in parliament. The first attack was on 24 December 2012, when the police threw out MPs from SDSM. The organiser of these attacks seems to be same as that time, and with the same goal: silencing and violently repressing the political alternative. However, the major difference between the attacks is that VMRO-DPMNE controlled the parliamentary majority in 2012, whereas now they are acting against the parliamentary majority. The latest violent actions were a direct confrontation with the parliamentary majority. It is an act of terror and violence against legitimately elected MPs who represent the majority in parliament and the majority of the electorate.
Political violence must be condemned and resisted. Political violence is not acceptable in Macedonia, in the Western Balkans, or any other place in Europe in the 21st century. These violent acts must be fully investigated, the attackers and organisers must be clearly identified, and they must suffer the legal consequences for their individual actions. If the acts are not investigated, and legal and political processes are put on hold, then democracy will be terminated in Macedonia. We will see the full reawakening of authoritarian practices, bordering on dictatorship, that we witnessed across the Balkans in the 1990s and that we thought have been long forgotten. In Macedonia, this would mean reopening the spiral of inter-ethnic violence and conflict.
What is the way out?
The highest priority is to prevent the escalation of violence. The police must stay away from political instrumentalisation and manipulation. The police need to secure peace, order and stability and act against all perpetrators, regardless of their political affiliation. In particular, it is essential to prevent inter-ethnic violence. Agim Nuhiu (DUI) must remain Minister of the Interior. All operational structures set-up to follow the protests in the past couple of months should be fully under his control. It is of primary importance to investigate the violent actions, and to identify the perpetrators and organisers. There must be a swift reaction to deter the use of political violence in future.
It is of the highest importance to protect the functioning of parliament. The new speaker must take over the office and assume full competences. The president of the country, Gjorgje Ivanov (who called for a meeting of party leaders after the violence, without denouncing or condemning it) must be given a last and final chance to grant a mandate to the parliamentary majority to form a government. If he still refuses to give a mandate, the parliamentary majority should elect a new government and complete the political process of the turnover of power.
The EU should forcefully call for the situation to be defused, and use all available instruments to prevent the escalation of violence. All responsible political leaders across the Balkans, Europe and the US must condemn the use of political violence and give utmost support for the restoration of democracy, rule of law and political accountability in Macedonia. The EU, or individual member states, and the US should move from threats to actions in regards to imposing personal and targeted sanctions against individuals who obstruct democracy and ignite political instability in Macedonia. The EU should explore all possible legal means and international instruments to help all actors in Macedonia who want democracy to prevail in a peaceful and dignified manner. We must all act together, now and today, for it is high-time, before it is too late.