Sounds of hip hop music echoed in downtown Skopje on May 25, marking the start of the Colourful Revolution protest party. Despite the seriousness of the country’s problems, which have sparked almost daily rallies in the capital, some demonstrators danced on the streets while others - including opposition leader Zoran Zaev - splattered paint on monuments and government buildings.
A month and a half has passed since the mass rallies started in Skopje, before spreading to other cities in Macedonia, after President Gjorge Ivanov took the infamous decision to pardon over 50 politicians, most of them from the governing VMRO-DPMNE party. The decision undermined the work of the Special Prosecution office, which was set up to probe allegations based on illegally wiretapped conversations between senior officials that were released by Zaev’s Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) in 2015.
The presidential decision was “the last straw”, Blaga, an older woman participating in the protest told bne IntelliNews. However, she said there were deeper roots for the current crisis, including social injustice, corruption in all segments of life, particularly in the health and education systems, as well as the lack of prospects for young people in the country.
"We are protesting against the injustice, to have a normal country and regular elections and we also want the will of the people to be heard," she said.
The gathering started at 18.00 CET with several hundred people gathering in front of the Special Prosecution office building to express their support for its work, but then got much bigger with several thousand marching through Skopje’s main street.
Equipped with whistles, plastic guns and paint-filled balloons, protestors shouted “Resignation, resignation!”
A line of people holding a white cloth banner with the slogan “I’m a hooligan” led the march. They included Mirjana Najcevska, a human rights activist and university professor. On May 24, local media reported that Najcevska and Uranija Pirovska from the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (HCHR) had been summoned by the police and fined €50 for throwing paint at buildings as part of the protests.
"I have not accepted the fine. I will not pay until I receive something from the court by mail," Najcevska told bne Intellinews, adding that she will continue to participate in the protests, and to throw paint.
"We use colours instead of violence to make buildings more artistic and we do so because people were not consulted about the costly Skopje 2014 project," Najcevska said. The project involved the revamping of the capital with baroque-style facades and many monuments which overcrowded the city. Many Macedonians objected to the high cost of the project, considering the money could be better spent elsewhere.
The first stop of the march was at the monument to former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito in downtown Skopje, where protestors laid flowers to mark Youth Day, a national holiday in the former Yugoslavia.
Then, to the sounds of the Macedonian version of Italian revolutionary song Bella Ciao, the protestors pushed forward. The next stop was the justice ministry building, 200 meters away from Tito’s monument. The building was also a target for paint throwers, including Zaev.
Zaev seemed to be enjoying himself when he splattered colour on the façade of the ministry’s building, to thunderous applause, even when he was hit by the rain of coloured paints from fellow protesters.
Zaev said he was throwing paint in solidarity with those who had received court summons for their participation in the Colourful Revolution.
Policemen in front of the justice ministry building stood still, despite being splashed with coloured paint.
One young man apologised when he threw a paint balloon at the building and unintentionally splattered one of the policemen.
“No problem,” replied the policeman, calmly continuing to perform his duty. The protest was held in a festive atmosphere.
“No Justice No Peace”, shouted the protestors. Old revolutionary songs, which were sung when Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia, echoed from the white van which led protestors.
The protests continued to the parliament building, which was also splattered with paint.
Jagoda, a pensioner from Skopje, said she had been protesting since the beginning to express her discontent with the president’s decision to pardon politicians, as well as with the government and the ineffectiveness of the courts. “The middle class has been destroyed by the regime,” said Jagoda, who was visibly upset, adding she will continue to protest until the fall of the government.
The Macedonian parliament recently adopted changes to the law that will enable Ivanov to revoke pardons he granted to 56 people, but only selectively as the amendment states that the president will be able to revoke the pardons only upon the request of the people pardoned.
A 23-year old unemployed man from Skopje, who left university for financial reasons, said he wanted the pardons to be revoked entirely, for politicians including prime minister Gruevski to be held responsible for criminal acts, and for the establishment of a new expert government.
He wants an election to be held as soon as proper conditions are met, which means clearing the voters’ registry, even though he admits this will be very difficult. "We saw that the electoral roll was chaotic," he said.
Jove Kekenovski, a university professor and former member of Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, who took part in the rally, told bne IntelliNews that the protests should be radicalised in order to achieve their goals.
"I don’t expect much from these protests. The tactics should be changed, to be more revolutionary," Kekenovski said.
The main goals of the protestors are for the pardons to be fully scraped and an expert government to be established, but people are generally dissatisfied with the situation in the country.
"The health system is catastrophic. There are no drugs for people with cancer," a young cancer patient told bne IntelliNews.
Fijat Canoski, a businessman, politician and former Gruevski ally turned opposition activist, also threw paint at the justice ministry building.
Canoski is one of the victims of the regime, as a residential complex he built was demolished before its completion after he allied himself with the opposition. Recently the Special Prosecution launched an investigation into the case, which also involves Gruevski and former Transport Minister Mile Janakieski, who allegedly ordered the demolition. However, this took place after the president issued pardons to Gruevski and Janakieski, making the whole process meaningless.
Asked about the case, Canoski said he did not expect much from the courts, adding that his loss when the building was demolished was €58mn.
Protests so far have yielded some results, most importantly the cancellation of early elections planned for June 5. The election would have been a farce as only the ruling VMRO-DPMNE was willing to stand, with other parties saying conditions for free and fair elections had not been met.
The crisis in Macedonia first started in 2015 when Zaev stated that VMRO-DPMNE had ordered illegal wiretapping of some 20,000 people, including politicians, foreign diplomats and journalists. Information from the tapes, leaked by Zaev, showed corruption at the highest level.
Zaev claimed he obtained the recordings from a whistleblower, but Gruevski said that Zaev got the recorded materials from foreign secret services.