Protesters in black berets and the traditional costumes of the revolutionaries that fought against the Ottoman empire joined the daily demonstration in Skopje on March 17, looking as they had arrived in a time machine from the turn of the 20th century.
Around 10,000 people have turned out in Skopje every day since February 27, and up to 150,000 across the country. The protests started when the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) announced it had struck a deal with three ethnic Albanian parties, which will support its government in exchange for the adoption of a platform giving additional rights to ethnic Albanians. The protestors are against what they call “the Tirana platform”, which they fear threatens the country’s sovereignty and integrity.
The young people in black berets introduced themselves not by their real names, but by the names of Ottoman era Macedonian revolutionaries.
“I am Andon Kjoseto,” one of the black berets introduced himself.
Kjoseto, known as The Butcher, was a Macedonian revolutionary, and a controversial figure because of his executions of the movement’s adversaries. Despite his dubious record, his statue was placed in front of the Skopje basic court as part of the costly Skopje 2014 project to revamp the capital.
Another black beret introduced himself as Todor Aleksandrov, also an Ottoman era revolutionary. Musicians with folk drums, another symbol of traditional Macedonian culture, entertained the protestors.
The resistance against the Ottoman empire at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries is a potent symbol of Macedonian statehood. The VMRO-DPMNE party, which is strongly opposed to the creation of an SDSM-led government or concessions to the Albanian parties, is a modern day version of the old revolutionary organisation VMRO.
Since the protests started nearly three weeks ago, the landscape has been different every single evening, but the message remains the same.
Three ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia have used the political uncertainty since the December 11 snap election to push for their demands to be adopted. In the election the ex-governing conservative VMRO-DPMNE took only two more seats than the Social Democrats, meaning that either party would need the support of the Albanians to form a government.
In January, the Albanian parties adopted a platform, which among other things envisages making the Albanian language official on the whole territory of the country. Their demands also include equal representation for ethnic Albanians in the army, police, intelligence service, judiciary, public agencies and state-owned enterprises.
Many Macedonians were alarmed by these ultimatums, and they triggered mass protests across the country.
In addition, the platform was announced following consultations with Albanian and Kosovan leaders in Tirana, which has led many Macedonians to believe that it was masterminded by the Albanian authorities. Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who is close to VMRO-DPMNE, warned on March 1 that Macedonia will not accept a platform drafted in a foreign country. Ivanov fears that the ethnic Albanian demands will lead to the federalisation of the country.
On March 17, the protesters renewed their calls for rejection of the platform and for Macedonia to remain a unitary country. They want to ensure that Ivanov, who has so far refused to give Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev a mandate to form a government, stands firm.
Zaev, who recently presented his governing programme despite not having a mandate, denied that the government will work against the country’s interests or that the conditions he accepted will destroy the unitary character of the country. His party gained a lot of support from ethnic Albanians in the last election.
Revolutionaries among protestors
The black berets say they expect new elections to be the solution to the crisis. They also want a new census, which they say would reveal the actual size of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority.
“The latest census was fallacious and it’s time for a real census to be conducted, so we can know the real figures about the number of minorities,” said one of them.
There are suspicions especially among VMRO supporters that the number of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, which is said to be about a quarter of the population, may be be lower than currently reported. Many Kosovans reportedly have Macedonian passports and come to the country only to vote.
Asked whether the protests could radicalise after the SDSM filed an initiative on convening the parliament, the black berets said “We don’t know.” The initiative was submitted by the SDSM on March 17.
It is unclear how long the protests against the ethnic Albanian platform will continue. The protestors are determined to stay on streets as long as they feel is needed to protect the country’s integrity, which in practice means preventing the SDSM from forming a new government.
Last year, the SDSM led the daily Colourful Revolution protests to topple the then VMRO-DPMNE-led government.
The new protests are organised by the civil association For United Macedonia and are supported by many artists, actors, musicians and other public figures.
“We want what’s ours, we are not craving for someone else’s possession, we want to safeguard Macedonia,” renowned actor Vlado Jovanovski, who attended the protest, told bne IntelliNews.
Asked whether the protests are being held against the ethnic Albanian platform he said “not the ethnic Albanian platform, but we are against the Tirana platform, which divides Macedonia in every aspect”.
“We are protesting for the rejection of the Tirana platform, for new snap elections and keeping the unitary character of Macedonia,” Jovanovski stressed.
He believes Macedonia can only hold together if it has a single official language.
However, Albanian is already an official language in municipalities where ethnic Albanians make up over 20% of the population, including in the capital.
“If need be, we will eat only beans here [in the downtown park], and will stay and protest as long as needed,” Jovanovski said.
The Ohrid framework agreement, which gave ethnic Albanians many rights, ended a major ethnic conflict in Macedonia in 2001, and was thought to have resolved issues between the two ethnic groups, but they have now resurfaced.
The rights granted to ethnic Albanians under the agreement included the Albanian language being made official in the parliament, in municipalities where Albanians make up over 20% of the population, opening universities and reserving jobs in the public administration for Albanians - to the detriment of educated ethnic Macedonians. However, most ethnic Albanians consider these concessions are not enough.
Albania’s president recently weighed in on the latest developments in Macedonia. On March 16, Bujar Nishani met Ivanov during a visit to Azerbaijan, and warned "that attempts to turn the political into an ethnic crisis could have serious consequences for all".
Nishani also stressed in a statement that Albania has never interfered in the internal affairs of another country, even less in neighbouring countries’ affairs.
Regarding ethnic Albanians living in Macedonia, Nishani stressed that "they are a constituent factor and Albania will support their legitimate demands for the full implementation of the Ohrid Agreement."
Macedonia has been mired in deep political crisis since 2015 following the wiretapping scandal, which revealed high-level crimes when VMRO-DPMNE was in power.
The EU and Nato-aspiring country is now in a political vacuum as it has been without a government for more than three months. EU officials are constantly urging Ivanov to accept the new parliament majority and give the mandate to Zaev. However, many within Macedonia fear that if the SDSM enters the parliament to form a new government, the crisis will escalate.
Aside from the Albanian platform, one of the most contentious issues is whether to prolong the Special Prosecution Office (SPO) mandate. The SPO is tasked to probe high-level crimes revealed by the wiretaps. It is opposed by VMRO-DPMNE, but supported by the SDSM and the ethnic Albanian parties.
SPO has a deadline to launch all investigations by mid-June 2017, and if the mandate is not prolonged many political scandals will remain un-investigated.
According to the latest poll, VMRO-DPMNE still leads in the first post-election opinion survey conducted by the local Institute for Policy Research (IPIS), with an upturn in support following the announcement of the ethnic Albanian platform.