Wednesday

8th Feb 2023

Tens of thousands urge Macedonia PM to go

  • Zaev told EUobserver he expects the PM to go in the next few days (Photo: sdsm.org.mk)

A small rave was held on the four-lane road that runs in front of the Macedonian government on Sunday (17 May) night.

The street was filled with tents, a DJ was pumping out dance music from a scaffold stage and young people milled about with beer in plastic cups. The unofficial patron of all this merriment was the leader of the Macedonian opposition - Zoran Zaev.

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Earlier on Sunday, a crowd estimated to be in the region of 30,000 to 60,000 people had gathered in a protest called by Zaev on the same spot. The protesters were demanding the resignation of prime minister Nikola Gruevski. The size of the protest was unprecedented in Macedonia’s 24 years of independence.

Dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition has been building steadily since the end of January when Zaev claimed he had been handed proof of illegal government surveillance.

The opposition leader said “patriots” within the government had passed him recordings of phone conversations made as part of the wiretapping programme. He alleges more than 24,000 Macedonian citizens had their communications harvested.

Among those who are said to have had their calls recorded are senior government officials. Over the last four months Zaev has been drip-feeding tapes of ministers’ calls in dramatic press conferences.

If genuine, the tapes expose a litany of corruption and rights abuses, ranging through electoral fraud, graft and state-sanctioned murder. The government says the tapes are doctored and has denounced Zaev’s revelations as a foreign-backed coup.

Human rights group the Helsinki Committee’s Macedonian branch has aligned itself with Zaev in calling for Gruevski to resign. The committee’s executive director in Skopje, Uranija Pirovska, said much of what the tapes reveal came as little surprise to her.

“Many of our conclusions about the work of institutions and the predominant power of the government over our judiciary have been confirmed," she told EUobserver

Two weeks ago the already tense situation was exacerbated by a police operation against alleged Albanian nationalist “terrorists” in the town of Kumanovo.

The incident left eight police officers and 14 suspects dead. Speculation has abounded since as to whether the two days of gun battles were orchestrated to bolster calls for national unity in the face of Zaev’s “coup”, something the government denies.

The events in Kumanovo carried strong echoes of 2001, when an armed conflict between members of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority and state security forces threatened to escalate into a civil war.

The government has been keen to promote a narrative of ethnic tension to stoke fears of a repeat of events 14 years ago. But the sight of Sunday’s protest coloured red, yellow, and black by Albanian and Macedonian flags flying side by side would seem to refute this.

Protesters have vowed to camp outside the government until Gruevski resigns. Zaev, who stayed in the tent city until 5am on Monday morning, told EUobserver late on Sunday that he expected the prime minister to go within seven days.

On Friday afternoon the Helsinki Committee’s Pirovska also thought Gruevski will eventually have to go: “I don’t think it is possible Gruevski will hold on to power. He will face the people if he doesn’t resign.”

Two senior cabinet members along with Gruevski’s cousin and head of the Macedonian secret services, Sasho Mijalkov, resigned last Tuesday. In a public resignation letter Mijalkov said that he hoped by leaving office he would help alleviate the political crisis.

Gruevski, for his part, remains reluctant to quit. A pro-government counter demonstration has been called for Monday evening and attendance is expected to be in the thousands.

If removed from power, Gruevski and his cohorts are almost certain to face prosecution over the activities detailed in Zaev’s tapes. The opposition leader was charged earlier this month over his involvement in the release of the wiretap recordings.

Foreign ambassadors are currently mediating talks between Gruevski and Zaev in the hope of resolving the deadlock. Zaev told this website that he would consider no deal that involves amnesty for members of the current government.

He did, however, promise to tender his resignation if the prime minister makes it a condition for his own stepping down.

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