Anti-government protesters and police clash in Skopje

By bne IntelliNews May 6, 2015

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More than a dozen police and anti-government demonstrators were injured in clashes in front of the government building in Skopje on May 5. Demonstrators demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski after opposition leader Zoran Zaev claimed he had tried to cover up the death of Martin Neskovski in June 2011 - the latest revelation from the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) dossier dubbed “the bomb”.

The year-long stand-off between Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM appears to be worsening, and Zaev has threatened more protests this summer.

Around 2,000 people participated in the May protest which lasted for two hours, according to Reuters. Protesters damaged police cars, set rubbish bins on fire and threw eggs and stones at government offices.

Police moved in to break up the demonstration when the crowd started to thin out at around 9pm local time. According to the interior ministry, 13 police officers and several demonstrators were taken to hospital, Macedonian news agency MIA reported. An undisclosed number of demonstrators were taken into police custody.

The demonstration started shortly after Zaev held a press conference to reveal a new batch of incriminating audio files.

The tapes played by Zaev feature discussions between Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska and other officials on their response to the killing of 21-year-old Neskovski, who was beaten to death by a policeman when VMRO-DPMNE supporters were celebrating the party’s victory in the June 2011 parliament election. The police officer responsible for Neskovski’s death subsequently received a 14-year jail sentence.

Zaev claimed the tapes show that both Gruevski and Jankulovska were aware of the circumstances of Neskovski’s death.

Jankuloska said in a statement quoted by local media that the audio files are fake, and accused Zaev of exploiting a tragic death for political goals.

Zaev has been gradually leaking taped telephone conversations between senior government officials for several months, in an attempt to force Gruevski’s government to resign.

In February, Zaev accused Gruevski of ordering a massive wiretapping campaign that targeted more than 20,000 Macedonian citizens. Since then, the opposition leader has made close to 30 more allegations, including on government involvement in the judiciary and appointments. He also claims that Gruevski took a €20mn bribe from Chinese firms in return for awarding them two highway construction concessions worth around €570mn.

Gruevski has dismissed the claims, saying the scandal is a plot by foreign intelligence services. The revelations have not so far harmed Gruevski’s standing within the VMRO-DPMNE, which almost unanimously re-elected him as its leader on May 3.

On April 30, the Macedonian prosecutor’s office announced it had formally indicted Zaev for his involvement in the surveillance scandal. Zaev was charged with “violence against representatives of the highest state bodies”. The prosecutors indicted four more people, already in pre-trial detention, on charges including espionage and illegal wiretapping.

Most MPs from the SDSM have boycotted the parliament since the April 2014 general elections. The SDSM claims the elections, which resulted in a victory for VMRO-DPMNE, were rigged. Since then, the opposition party has been calling for Gruevski to step down, and a technocratic government to be put in place pending snap elections.

Two rounds of talks between VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM have already taken place under the aegis of European Parliament members, but with little progress.

Meanwhile, VMRO-DPMNE’s junior coalition party the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which represents ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, has come under pressure since the April attack on a checkpoint on the Macedonia-Kosovo border by a group of around 40 armed men wearing the insignia of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). It is not yet clear whether the group was from Kosovo or from within Macedonia.

The political crisis has not so far had a negative effect on the economy. The Spring Forecast published by the European Commission on May 5 forecasts that at 3.8% Macedonia’s GDP growth will be the highest in Europe this year, rising to 3.9% in 2016.

However, an increase in domestic political instability would be a setback for Gruevski’s policy of stimulating the economy by attracting foreign investment. The government hopes this will help reduce unemployment, which according to the State Statistical Office was around 28% in 2014.

The opposition’s “attempts to compromise the government and create a picture of us as people with the worst intentions and motives, as well as its threats of a violent takeover of power, have created a little concern and anxiety about potential instability among investors, but fortunately so far there have not yet been more serious problems,” Gruevski told party members after his re-election, according to a VMRO-DPMNE statement.

“However, we can not completely keep the peace among investors if Zaev continues in this way to harm his own country,” he added.

There are also fears that the political crisis could thwart Skopje’s ambitions for EU accession. The country once appeared to be a frontrunner among the Western Balkans countries, achieving candidate country status in 2005, but since then its integration path has been blocked by the unresolved name dispute with Greece.

Internationally, concerns about the deteriorating political situation in Macedonia and increased restrictions to press freedom are growing.

In an April 21 statement, the EU General Affairs Council called for a resumption of political dialogue in Macedonia and expressed concerns about the rule of law, fundamental rights and media freedom, “which are core democratic values at the heart of the EU and its enlargement policy”. The statement hints that the ongoing crisis could damage Macedonia’s accession prospects.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has observed an alarming slump in press freedom in Macedonia, which slumped from 35th place on RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index in 2009 to 117th place in 2015.  Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2015 report, published on April 28, draws similar conclusions, putting Macedonia in 125th place, which again made it the lowest ranked country in Southeast Europe. 

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