Wiretapping, Police Brutality, and Growing Security Fears in Macedonia

11207792_906223276108058_1222046354_oEchoes of Baltimore and Ukraine in Skopje.

Experts have assessed that Macedonia is facing the most serious challenge to its security since the violent military conflict there in 2001. They expressed concern that recent protests might lead to an escalation of violence throughout the country. Thousands of citizens have been on the streets in the capital of Skopje, demonstrating in front of government buildings to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his government. Protests have unfolded in since Tuesday, with increasingly violent clashes between protestors and police.

This comes as a response to a wiretapping scandal surrounding the ruling government. The opposition has released eavesdropped audio of conversations between senior government officials. The largest opposition party, SDSM, claims that the audio reveals that the government attempted to cover up the murder of 22-year-old Martin Neshkovski four years ago in Skopje. The man was beaten to death by a policeman during the celebration of the victory of the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE on its parliamentary elections. Recordings seem to indicate that the party attempted to escape the blame for this incident.

The protesters in Skopje chanted “No justice, no peace” and “killers,” echoing continued protests against policy brutality in U.S. cities such as Baltimore. Protesters threw eggs, rocks, and bottles at government buildings before being chased away by police with water cannons and tear gas. Dozens of citizens and police were injured, dumpsters set alight, and government windows broken. Protests have since spread to several other cities in the country.

Amidst the growing violence, commenters warned against going down the same road as Ukraine, a worrying thought given that Macedonia’s 2001 conflict involved enmities between its ethnic groups.

Blagoja Markovski, president of Balkan Security Forum for Radio Free Europe, said that “in the Republic of Macedonia, something very serious is going on in terms of security. In that sense, I think that all the protests may cause a serious problem for the internal security plan in the country and we expect serious security threats.”

“If we talk about civil unrest, it can only be between the left and right in Macedonia,” said Rubin Zemon, a professor at the Euro Balkan Institute. “There is also political party turmoil. It is clear that the anger of citizens towards this government is growing, and that the government prefers to remain deaf to this. Perhaps the ruling government should learn a lesson from the experience not only of Ukraine, but also from Serbia and Bulgaria. Everyone is concerned about the state of security in Macedonia. Party representatives believe that situation here cannot be equated with developments in Ukraine, which escalated into a civil war, but they should be very cautious.”

Samoil Malcevski is a university professor and member of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party. However, he opposes the current policies of the authorities. In his view, the only solution to the present situation is the formation of a transitional government that will primarily be tasked with the creation of independent institutions that abide by the law.

“Then you need to conduct a census, to abolish any bad legislation, and to organize elections,” he explained. “I think that soon there will be a political agreement and the formation of a transitional government. The sooner it is done, the better it will be for all of us. I think the situation will not lead to a Ukraine in the Balkans, because I believe in a political solution for the crisis. ”

Malcevski emphasized that help from the international community would be helpful in overcoming the crisis.

“It is obvious that trust between the government and the opposition in Macedonia has been grossly distorted, hence I think that mediation by the EU and the United States is needed,” he said.

In protests in front of the government buildings, people from all ethnic communities were represented, waving both Macedonian and Albanian flags.

Edmond Ademi, a leading member of the opposition SDSM party, was not concerned about a potential flare-up in ethnic tensions.

“We cannot have a civil war in Macedonia because all ethnic communities – Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, and others – are united in asking for the current government to step down. They are all together in the fight against a group of people who they deem have kidnapped their country. PM Nikola Gruevski has two options in the next three months: the first is to go like Ivo Sanader and the second like Slobodan Milosevic. As things stand, the first option is not an option anymore,” said Ademi.

Biljana Spasevska Georgievska, a former journalist with the BBC World Service in London, agrees that the situation in Macedonia is worrying.

“The level of democracy in Macedonia has been drastically scaled back. Freedom of speech is suppressed completely, most media [outlets] are under government control, and more recently people have become convinced that they are being massively eavesdropped on. These elements of dictatorships are appearing in a country which, before Prime Minister Gruevski came to power, was on the verge of joining NATO and far ahead of other countries in the region in the process of accession to the European Union,” said Georgievska.

All of these efforts on the part of progressive-minded Macedonians collapsed, said Georgievska, after it become clear that the government had other priorities.

Georgievska considers that the potential destabilization of Macedonia will not bring anything good for the Balkan region.

“I do not expect the development of events such as in Ukraine because there is currently no major conflict of world powers over Macedonia. But certainly the destabilization of Macedonia would be an unwelcome threat to the fragile stability of the region, given the turmoil the Balkans have been through in the past decades.  I expect a greater commitment by the international community for a peaceful solution to the political crisis in Macedonia and to somehow repair the mistakes diplomats have made in tolerating PM Gruevski too long,” said Georgievska.

The crisis in Macedonia began more than two months ago, when the opposition began to publish audio conversations in which claims are heard about the illegal operations of the current government in Macedonia. The authorities maintain that these conversations were faked. Opposition leader Zoran Zaev claimed that more than 20,000 Macedonian citizens were subject to wiretapping by the government.

Journalist Georgievska said that so far, the Prime Minister has not demonstrated whether or not he intends to step down peacefully.

“Given the way the Prime Minister handled it, the situation may still escalate. He and his closest associates argued almost impossibly that the recorded conversations that last for hours are mounted, glued and created. This is a message that he has no intention of peacefully stepping down,” said Georgievska.

In an interview on TV Sitel, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski called for calm and caution.

“We have to react calmly and in a way that would be wise and democratic and by the rules of democratic states in Europe. We are a democratically elected party. I appeal to citizens to be wise and to listen to the recordings published by Zaev and put aside his opinion. I also appeal to citizens to seek information from media without a political agenda,” said Gruevski.

The point of view of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party is that opposition leader Zoran Zaev deliberately incited a scenario to destabilize Macedonia.

According to VMRO-DPMNE, “SDSM wants to create civil conflict. SDSM wants to create a situation in which they blame others for the violence they are doing.”

“Gruevski chose how he will go. With brutal police action, Nikola Gruevski chose the path of beating his own citizens, following the example of dictators like Milosevic, Ceausescu, and Lukashenko,” said Petre Schilegov, spokesman of SDSM.

On May 17th, major anti-government protests have been announced in Skopje. The media reported alleged planned counter-protests as well.

Policy experts warned that Macedonia’s candidate status for EU membership may be revoked if a resolution to the political crisis is not found. European diplomats, for their part, have expressed concern about what is happening in the country.

“Every citizen should be able to express their opinion through a peaceful and responsible manner. Security forces should be able to do their work and to maintain public order and safety. The police should act in a professional and appropriate way,” said a statement by the OSCE.

“No stone palace, no matter how thick the walls, can protect those who have lost the credibility and legitimacy to remain in power from the will of the people. Now is the time for change,” wrote Erwan Fouere, former EU Ambassador to Macedonia on Facebook.

“With positive management and responsible leadership, the country can be developed. As far as I’ve heard, the Macedonian citizens are fed up with negativity,” said Simone Filippini, former Ambassador of Netherlands to Macedonia.

Citizens are also worried about the current situation in Macedonia and fearful of an escalation of the conflict.

“There is no worse than this,” said Xhemal Arslan, a 50-year-old resident of Struga. “I and my generation have only seen worse during the time of Milosevic. And it is the same story repeating again.”

“I am frightened of what is happening in Macedonia. We don’t want a repeat of the conflict of 2001, when a number of Macedonian and Albanian citizens died. Political parties should sit together and find a solution for this crisis so that what happened in Ukraine doesn’t happen here,” said Marjan Kostoski, a 27-year-old resident of Skopje.

 Cover photo credit: Vlatko Chalovski, with permission.

 

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Miki Trajkovski

Miki Trajkovski is a professional journalist in Macedonia. He graduated from the State University for journalism in Skopje. For more than nine years he has worked as a journalist for domestic and foreign media, including the BBC program in Macedonia, Radio Free Europe, and Setimes in Washington. He also works for the national television station Alsat M.