bne IntelliNews -
Macedonian opposition leader Zoran Zaev was charged on January 31 with plotting to overthrow the government after he threatened to release taped conversations he claims will discredit Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s administration.
Zaev, the leader of Macedonia’s main opposition party, the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), and three others including former intelligence chief Zoran Verusevski were charged with "espionage" and "violence against representatives of the highest state authorities”. Zaev has since been released after surrendering his passport, but Verusevski, his wife and a local official from Strumica, an east Macedonian town where Zaev is mayor, remain in police custody.
The Macedonian interior ministry confirmed on January 31 that it had prevented a coup attempt. “For the first time in the history of independent Macedonia [the authorities had uncovered an] attempt to endanger the constitutional order and undemocratic takeover or suspension of the will of the citizens,” the ministry said.
On January 26 local media reported that Verusevski had been detained for possession of child pornography and illegal weapons. However, it now appears his arrest was in connection to the alleged coup attempt.
Gruevski told a press conference on January 31 that he had held four meetings with Zaev between September and November 2014, during which the opposition leader threatened to publish compromising material from taped telephone conversations unless Gruevski agreed to the establishment of a technocratic government.
Opposition leaders have been calling for Gruevski to step down and a technocratic government to be put in place pending snap elections ever since Macedonia’s April 2014 parliamentary elections. The SDSM claims the elections, which resulted in a victory for Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party, were rigged. Most SDSM MPs have boycotted the parliament since the election.
Zaev told the prime minister that he had obtained recorded conversations of Gruevski and other top government officials in cooperation with an unnamed foreign intelligence service.
“He told me about parts of the conversations, some of which were authentic, others partially true, and some incorrect... Even though the conversations were not entirely accurate, the fact that some of them were, showed the seriousness of the situation," Gruevski told journalists.
According to Macedonian news agency MIA, for several months Zaev and other SDSM leaders have claimed to hold files - dubbed “the bomb” - that they say could bring down Gruevski’s government.
Gruevski is one of several South East European leaders, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to be accused of “Putinisation” as they tighten their grip on power.
The 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections were a double victory for VMRO-DPMNE, which is the senior partner in Macedonia’s ruling coalition, alongside the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration. The vote, which gave VMRO-DPMNE a clear lead over Zaev’s SDSM, enabled Gruevski to return to office for a fourth term.
Freedom House has reported a fall in political freedom in Macedonia. The latest Freedom in the World report, released by the NGO in January, rates Macedonia as only “partly free”, while most European countries are considered “free”. On a scale of 1 (highest) to 5 (lowest), “Macedonia’s political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to serious shortcomings in the April general elections and a related legislative boycott by the opposition", the report says.
At the same time, VMRO–DPMNE has taken an increasingly conservative stance on social issues. In January, the parliament approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. This follows the rushed adoption of a controversial abortion law at a parliamentary session in 2013. Most opposition members boycotted both votes.
Zaev’s arrest has caused concern among international observers, who fear potential unrest or at least an increase in tensions within Macedonia’s already troubled political environment.
A January 31 statement from the European Union calls for “an independent and transparent investigation ... with full respect of the rights of the defendants in accordance with the law and international standards, including the principle of presumption of innocence.
“The EU also reiterates its concern about the deterioration in political dialogue in the country. Political parties must refrain from actions which would further undermine the situation,” it adds.
Meanwhile, a January 31 statement from the Russian foreign ministry says it hopes that a thorough investigation will be carried out “in order to ensure stability and security in Macedonia”.
“Loosening of the situation in friendly Macedonia may cause the danger of exacerbation of existing ethnic tensions,” the statement warns.
Ethnically fuelled protests are a frequent occurrence in Macedonia. The latest threat to stability came in July and August 2014, when violent protests broke out in Skopje and other Macedonian towns after six ethnic Albanians were sentenced in connection to the execution-style killings of five ethnic Macedonian fishermen in 2012.
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