Macedonia is a small country. A quarter of the two million citizens are Albanian-Macedonian, while the majority consists of people who today identify as ethnic Macedonians, an identity contested or denied by successive Greek and Bulgarian governments. Roma, Vlachs and Bosniaks add more ethnic layers to Macedonia, which declared its independence in 1991.
Perhaps you’ve visited Skopje in the last four years and seen the bright new kitsch neo-classical and baroque behemoth buildings and monuments looming over the beautiful old city, the billion-euro-dollar signature of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s nine-year (thus far) rule. Perhaps you saw the brief flashes of news from Macedonia in the last month and thought, ‘Ah, people are killing each other in the Balkans again.’ Or perhaps, like me, you phoned a friend one morning to find them upset about another friend in Skopje having been beaten by plain clothes police while walking home through the city. Until a friend of a friend has their jaw shattered and ribs broken by boots because he works for an LGBT NGO, it isn’t difficult to think, ‘Macedonia’s just like Australia, really.’
The corruption in Macedonia, however, is almost dystopian. This is not just a government where ministers seem to be appointed entirely due to their personal/political connections rather than expertise. Take the Prime Minister who, when confronted with evidence he has tapped 20,000 phones of ‘opponents’ says he will ‘face down the attack’ because to do otherwise would be weak. And what about the police who go unpunished for beating someone to death during an interrogation? (Though perhaps that is a little too close to home in Australia, too.)
In a population of just two million, a violent authoritarian government targets a very high percentage of the population. The Macedonian government coalition consists of two strange bedfellows: VMRO-DPMNE is a right-wing ethnic Macedonian nationalist party and BDI is a party consisting of former Albanian rebels who fought the Macedonian security forces in the brief civil inter-ethnic conflict in 2001, when the president of the Macedonian republic was from VMRO-DPMNE. Despite their vehemently anti-Albanian electoral base, VMRO-DPMNE and the BDI have built strong and loyal clientelist networks by rewarding members and voters with jobs, filling every position from ministry secretaries to drivers. In turn, these employees enable state corruption and abuse of power at an epic scale.
The pervasiveness of the corruption emerged in 2015 when the leader of the Social Democrat opposition, Zoran Zaev, publicly broadcasted some of the 670,000 taped conversations which he claims he obtained from whistleblowers within the government’s phone tapping networks. Macedonians cannot rely on their legal system to deal with the allegations contained in the wiretapped conversations because the judiciary is filled with government loyalists shown in the very same wiretapped conversations to be completely under the influence of the Macedonian PM, Nikola Gruevski.
The wiretapped conversations, particularly the revelation about the cover up of the murder of twenty-one-year-old Martin Neshkoski by the PM’s own security detail in 2011, sparked a mass political movement of resistance and protest. This movement, for the first time in modern Macedonian history, engages in a true intersectional politics of democratic citizenship that cuts across multiple identities (ethnic, religious, political, gender, class, and sexual) and also across multiple axes of oppression, discrimination, and marginalization. Tens of thousands of protesting citizens filled the streets of Skopje and other Macedonian cities within two weeks of the tapes exposing the cover up of Neshkoski’s murder on May 5. Some commentators have been quick to reduce the current crisis to the usual clichés one reads about Balkan crises (‘eternal’ ethnic hatreds, Islamic terrorism and geopolitical jockeying for power between the West and Russia). However, most Macedonian citizens see the current crisis as about the complete loss of legitimacy of the Macedonian government, the suspension of the democratic Macedonian constitution, the catastrophic effects of the neoliberal restructuring of the Macedonian economy and the criminally corrupt and undemocratic political system set up by a few people around the Macedonian PM and his family. Most Macedonians see themselves as hostages to a capricious government, where all avenues for institutional solution of the crisis are closed since the judiciary, the whole state apparatus, most of the media, the election process and the parliament are apparently controlled by the Macedonian PM.
While Western diplomats to Macedonia anonymously admitted that the government had lost all public trust and should resign, the EU, the US and political commentators continue to argue for some institutional solution to the crisis. Given the nature, size and intensity of the anti-government protest, it was not a surprise that the government attempted to deflect attention from its own corrupt actions. Just a few days before mass anti-government demonstrations were scheduled to be held in Skopje, the Macedonian government raided an ethnic Albanian urban area forty kilometres from Skopje, Kumanovo. The forty-eight-hour armed siege killed fourteen people, of whom eight were police officers and the other six were alleged terrorists, with an undisclosed number of alleged ‘Albanian terrorists’ taken prisoner. Fred Abrahams Special Advisor for the Albanian office of Human Rights Watch stated on 25 May that HRW and the Macedonian Ombudsman have been denied access to the prisoners.
Gruevski said the raid was against an armed Albanian insurgency sponsored by the Kosova Liberation Army, invoking old (and stale) fears of Albanian expansionism. Albanian residents of Kumanovo described being shocked by heavily armed SWAT teams, and civilians were not given a chance to leave the area. Everyone, including children, women and elderly people, hid in their own homes, as rockets, bombs and bullets were used against them. The photographs show closely built red brick homes in the community of 15,000 totally destroyed, possessions and buildings barely recognizable smouldering rubble. Some people found their former homes literally awash with blood, and they didn’t know whose blood it was. Many people left immediately for the bordering Kosovo. In one interview in the Albanian and the independent Macedonian press, a middle aged man said that if there had been a paramilitary insurgency group active in their homes, they would have known, and they wouldn’t have been living there with their children and elderly parents.
Gruevski argues that ‘foreigners’ support the political opposition, and he invoked all the spectres of foreign invasion in the form of Albanian nationalism (as Islamic terrorism), which had been so effective in 2001. However, this time most people saw it as a desperate attempt by the government to retain power. Protesters took to the streets wearing and carrying symbols of all the ethnic groups in order to carve a public space for political dialogue around a civic platform that unites people regardless of their ethnic identity.
Photographs of the mass anti-government rally held in Skopje on 17 May 2015, show men and women wearing Albanian traditional hats, carrying Macedonian and Albanian flags. There were also Bulgarian, Romani, Bosnian and the LGBT rainbow flags flying. Public servants were allegedly ordered, under threat of losing their jobs, to attend a pro-government protest in front of the parliament building, 800 metres away from where anti-government protests are continuing. The anti-government protesters, consisting of disparate political groups, are now camping out in front of the building of the Macedonian government, debating future actions.
It is interesting to imagine what courage it would take for tens of thousands of non-Indigenous Australians to carry the Aboriginal flag in such large protests against the Australian government’s actions. Such large-scale willingness to open ourselves to the discussions which have to happen – about what it means to live on, purchase and profit from stolen country – would certainly lead to a change in how we witness and engage in governance. I wonder if Australian journalists have missed the significance of the Macedonian Spring precisely because while recent protests against the forced closure of Aboriginal communities have brought impressive numbers of people to the streets and to dialogue, such large numbers of non-Indigenous Australians cannot yet imagine an Australia (and an Australian media) where divide and rule tactics reliant on dispossession and violence are rendered implausible.
In Skopje, Gruevski still refuses to quit, and the protesters continue to demand his resignation, but this is not simply another story of protest power versus the institutional strength. Explicit rejection of attacks against ethnic groups has created a new solidarity in Macedonian society, and it throws into sharp relief how Australians might also successfully unite for political change.