Macedonian protests grow as president refuses to back down

Macedonian protests grow as president refuses to back down
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje April 16, 2016

Protests in the Macedonian capital Skopje entered their fourth day on April 15, with increasing numbers taking to the streets to protest against president Gjorge Ivanov’s decision to halt all criminal proceedings against politicians.

The government seems to have panicked after the special prosecutors’ office, set up at end-2015, launched investigations into several high-ranking former officials based on evidence revealed in illegally wiretapped conversations. However, Ivanov’s attempt to resolve the situation by halting proceedings against both government and opposition figures in a decision announced on April 12 has backfired and resulted in mass public protests.

The president appears to be deaf to growing popular revolt sparked by his controversial decision, as protests are growing in size with several thousand Macedonians from all age groups taking to the streets of Skopje on April 15, to express their concerns about the undermining of the country’s democracy.

Several thousand people took part in the April 15 protest, which started outside the special prosecutor’s office in a show of support for its work. The protest continued peacefully towards the nearby parliament, but protestors were prevented by a cordon of special police units from approaching the parliament building.

People shouted “Resignation for the president” and “No justice, no peace”.

The protestors then continued their march to the government building, where they were also stopped by police officers and only a few dozen were allowed through. The demonstration ended peacefully with no clashes or other incidents, except for a few protesters who threw eggs at the Macedonian version of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, Porta Makedonija, near the assembly.

NGO members and ordinary citizens without any political background, workers, the unemployed and pensioners took part in the peaceful march with the aim of restoring democracy in deeply divided Macedonia.

There was a party atmosphere, intensified by the sounds of protestors’ whistles, which were mixed with the guitars and accordions of street musicians playing to entertain passersby. The smiles on the faces of many protestors indicated their belief that some changes in this tiny, suffering country are really possible.

As protesters marched through the streets, in nearby bars and clubs young people were dancing and drinking coffee and cocktails in the usual Friday after work celebrations. "We are just having a party," one said.

Although the protesters were a diverse mix, the majority were young people disappointed by the president’s move to pardon officials incriminated in the wiretapping scandal. Criminal activities including election fraud, corruption and abuse of prisoners were revealed in a series of recorded conversations, made public by the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), Zoran Zaev. He claimed the recordings were ordered by top government officials.

Macedonians who joined the protest said they were fighting to restore democracy in the country and for the resignation of the current government and president Ivanov.

SDSM said the party is not organising the protests, but just supports them.

Radmila Sekerinska, a top SDSM official and former leader of the party, who appeared at the rally, told bne IntelliNews that the aim of the protest was to restore order and peace in the country, and called for all criminals to be held responsible for their wrongdoings.

“This is a protest to restore democracy and to enable people to have better life,” Ilinka Mitreva, an ex-foreign minister also from the SDSM’s ranks, told bne IntelliNews.

“The people are humiliated as a result of the president’s decision for abolition [of the investigations], which was orchestrated by the governing VMRO-DPMNE’s top leadership, Macedonian actor Petar Arsovski, who observed the protest from the sidelines, told bne IntelliNews.

He added that even if elections take place in June as planned, they will be “meaningless”, as the vote will be in the interest of the “mafia-style government”. “They are ruling with the power of money and their end is certain,” Arsovski added.

Filip, 28, from Skopje said he was protesting because the conditions set in the Przino agreement, which ended a lengthy stand-off between government and opposition in mid-2015, have not been met, and because the president is placing himself above the law.

The EU-brokered Przino agreement reached in July 2015 by the four main political parties in Macedonia was aimed at overcoming the political crisis in the country fuelled by the wiretapping scandal.

A woman from Skopje who took part in the rally said she expects the election to be delayed and the “humiliation of the people” to stop, adding that she will continue to participate in protests.

Establishing a technical government, clearing the voters’ registry and the resignation of the president were other demands from protestors.

Ivanov’s decision seriously undermines the work of the special prosecution office amid the deepening political crisis in Macedonia. However, he has continued to defend his move despite the protests.

“I think that the only aim of this decision is to protect the state interests and want to let you know that the decision remains,” Ivanov said in a statement on April 15.

In spite of the growing unrest, the speaker of the Macedonian parliament Trajko Veljanovski has called a snap general election for June 5.

Biljana Bejkova from NGO Ajde told bne IntelliNews earlier on April 15 that the organisation would participate in the protest following the parliament speaker’s decision.

The vote in June should not take place as conditions have not been met, she said, adding that citizens also expect Ivanov and the government to resign following the latest developments.

The first case launched by the special prosecutor, Titanik, concerned election fraud and involved former ministers of interior and transport Gordana Jankulovska and Mile Janakieski. Since then, several other investigations, including a probe into Saso Mijalkov, a cousin of ex-prime minister and VMRO-DPMNE party leader Nikola Gruevski, have been launched.

Macedonia also faces other serious long-term problems, including ethnic divisions between Macedonians and the Albanian minority, the two decade-long conflict with Greece which objects to the use of the name “Macedonia” as this is shared by a Greek province, and Macedonia’s lengthy wait before the doors of the European Union and Nato, even though it was among first ex-Yugoslavian countries to launch preparations for membership.