Global Independent Analytics
Radostina Schivatcheva
Radostina Schivatcheva

Location: Bulgaria

Specialization: Sustainable development, International relations, Comparative European politics, European integration, Eastern European politics and EU-Russia relations

Mass unrest in Macedonia – no justice, no peace

Macedonia is angry.

Macedonia[i] was rocked by 5-day long protests, starting on the 12th of April, and the passions have not yet cooled. "Resignation, resignation", "No justice, no peace", "Prison for the fascists"," Support for the Prosecution"; these calls have fuelled the mass protests, which were provoked by the decision of the President Gjorgi Ivanov to cancel the judicial investigation of 56 people, accused of criminal behaviour.  The list of the accused includes former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, former Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska, former intelligence chief Sasho Mijalkov and former Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) President Branko Crvenkovski. The leader of the current main opposition party SDSM, Zoran Zaev, is also amongst the accused and has been subsequently pardoned by the president; he is also the person who called for the protests.  President Ivanov defends his decision to call off the investigation, stating that he has acted in the national interest to "put an end to the agony" ahead of the early elections in June. Evidently, the president’s conception of "national interest" excludes the administration of justice, and the attendant fair, just and impartial upholding of rights, and punishment of wrongs, according to the rule of law.

"You idiots! You are like sheep", shouted one young female protester at the riot policemen, "let the people enter the [national] assembly and re-take their country". But would re-taking the country by the people be as simple as just entering the national assembly and changing the president?

The angry political face of the protests

The protests have taken place mainly in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. Recently renovated, according to the government’s vision to give it a more ’classical appearance’, Skopje’s architectural scene now abounds with grand marble and bronze statues of horsemen and statesmen. This grandeur sharply contrasts with the poverty of the ordinary citizens and at a price tag of half a billion euros, it has become a monument to corruption and failure of government.  At the time of this mega-construction, sour realists cautioned, that a relatively poor country should spend its resources more prudently and that the new construction is an attempt to distract people from the country’s real problems, such as its high unemployment (about 30%) and poverty.

Now, in response to Zaev’s call, the classicist splendor of Skopje has become the setting for protest marches. As part of the physical expression of their discontent, the protesters expressed their anger by pelting the iconic ‘Macedonian Arc de Triomphe’ with eggs and tomatoes. The arc was the darling child of the ex-Prime Minister Gruevski. Meant to demonstrate ‘the new face of Macedonia,' the arc faced criticism for its high cost, estimated at €500 million.

The passions escalated on Friday, the 15th of April, when protesters destroyed the office of the president, burning office furniture on the street, and clashing violently with the riot police. Then thousands walked in protest from the building of the Public Prosecutor towards the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia. The demonstrators not only demanded the resignation of the president, but of the entire government, which seemingly tolerates his actions.

Although elections are to be held on the 5th of June, the opposition, led by Zaev already contests the upcoming vote. According to Zaev, the elections will not guarantee the democratic participation of all citizens. Consequently, the Civil Movement "Protest" continues to demand the resignation of the president, the formation of an expert government and the postponement of the elections.

The political fabric of the protest

In spite of the scandals, protests, and potential political changes, Macedonian foreign and domestic policy is set to remain much the same, even if changes of the figures at the helm are to occur. As the following discussion of the events leading to the protest will illustrate, Macedonia has aligned itself continuously (and will continue to do so) with the priorities of those across the Atlantic, rather than seeking to develop domestic policies that best correspond to its development goals. Macedonia has a large Albanian ethnic minority and membership in the EU and NATO is seen as an important tool for achieving and maintaining national unity.

Macedonia is a semi-presidential system, in which the preponderance of authority is vested in the prime minister and cabinet.  At the kernel of the current protest is the revelation that the now ex-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski had ordered the mass wiretapping of more than 20,000 people, including journalists, judges, and clerks. Since Macedonia has only about 2 million citizens, that means that almost the whole political elite has been wiretapped. Gruevski is also accused of manipulating the 2014 elections results. In spite of the serious implications of this scandal, the current president Ivanov has decided to clear from criminal charges Gruevski, as well as the rest of the politicians involved in the wiretapping scandal.

Gruevski, a once popular politician at home and abroad, has slid down the ladder of public popularity and international acclaim remarkably fast. Previously he won three Macedonian elections in a row and not so long ago, only in 2011, The Economist admired him as the "man who began deregulating Macedonia’s economy, introduced VAT, flat tax, and restituted property taken by the communists". Or in other words: Gruevski championed neoliberal reforms in Macedonia, which eventually led to 30% unemployment.

Gruevski resigned recently, in January 2016, shortly after he met with the US vice president Joe Biden in the White House. The meeting, and respectively the external geopolitical orientation of Macedonia, have been met with approval. Gruevski reiterated that: "The US is our partner with which we signed a Declaration on strategic partnership in 2008." Then the former first man of Macedonian politics expressed gratitude for the "tremendous support" of the US. He shared that the discussion had focused on “the political agreement, the reforms in several spheres, about the economy and economic support, the security challenges and Macedonia's NATO and EU membership". At that time, Gruevski received a firm promise that: "We will continue our cooperation in the future, especially on matters such as NATO and EU membership".  The emphasis on NATO that the meeting has made, places into question to what extent the economic necessities and priorities for economic development of Macedonia, have been discussed, if at all.

During the 2009 Macedonian presidential elections the strongest party in the Macedonian parliament, VMRO-DPMNE (center-right, pro-NATO) appointed Gjorge Ivanov as the party's presidential candidate. On the day Ivanov officially became president of his country, he sent a letter to the president of the United States Barack Obama in which he affirmed Macedonia's aim to join NATO and the EU.  On the 12th of April 2016 Ivanov halted judicial inquiries into officials suspected of involvement in a wiretapping scandal. Macedonia’s ruling VMRO DPMNE party expressed “deep disagreement" with President Ivanov's sudden decision to pardon all politicians facing crime investigations. Ivanov stated that he had done so in the best interest of the country, and to end the political crisis. The opposition leader Zoran Zaev subsequently called for protests.

But what about Zaev? Is he concerned with Macedonia’s development as a prosperous and independent country? SDSM (which is a member of the Party of European Socialist - PES) lays claim that it can bring Macedonia into NATO and the EU faster than the VMRO-DPMNE. Thus, the inter-elite competition in Macedonia is only about the speed of the membership accession.

The hidden economic face of the protest

In January, 2016 the US Congressman Pete Sessions underscored that: the "United States are glad to see the progress Macedonia is making, especially in growing the economy." Surely, to make such remark Congressman Sessions must have been wearing pink glasses! Macedonia has a GDP of only 12 bln. Thirty percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the GINI coefficient is 43. While nationally the average unemployment is between 32% and 36%, the regional unemployment rates can vary from 11.5% in the Southeast region to 62.8% in the Northeast region. In the end of March 2016, the State Statistical Office of the Republic of Macedonia reported a decrease in the average monthly gross wage, as compared to the previous month, in important sectors such as: Professional, scientific and technical activities (13.4%), Information and communication (11.3%) and Manufacturing (7.4%). In January 2016, 1.0% of the employees in the Republic of Macedonia did not receive any payment. Turkey’s Anadolu Agency gives a bleak estimate of the average monthly gross wage at 350 euros.

An angry Macedonia

Macedonia is angry. The opposition mounts an attack on the conduct of the president, but the future of the country hardly depends on the staying power of the current President Ivanov, and even on the staying power of the current government. Even if the opposition is to come to power, the political winds in Macedonia will continue to blow from across the Atlantic. None of the political elites envisions a path that would allow the country to develop its potential as an independent state. The Macedonian journalists admit that the country is ‘yet to be governed by individuals that would take care of our national interests.'

Domestic instability and international insecurity have worked together to propel Macedonia on a course towards NATO accession. The small state sees NATO as a security guarantor, but the Macedonian elites apparently forget that a military alliance is not a substitute for economic development and good diplomatic relations with the neighbors. Since 2002 Macedonia has been sending soldiers abroad, in support of NATO’s missions around the world.  Now unrest has arrived home.

 


[i] While appreciating the sensibilities, surrounding the name of the small Balkan state - Macedonia, Republic of Macedonia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – the author does not have any intention to take sides on this issue, as it is not the focus of this discussion. The exposition mentions ‘Macedonia’ throughout the article, providing the most succinct reference to the state.

 

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