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Macedonia's long year: scandal, protest and revolution in the Balkans

One of the co-ordinators of the protests in Macedonia gives us a personal insight into the country's dysfunctional political and social life, how the protests started, and why he thinks Macedonia has changed - for the better.

Macedonian band Foltin coming to support the student occupation, February 2015. Photo supplied by supplied by Student Plenum.

Alex Sakalis: David, please introduce yourself.

David Stefanoski: My name is David Stefanoski. I am 21 and from Prilep, Macedonia. I’m a third year student at the Institute for Security, Defence and Peace at the University of Skopje.

AS: What prompted this latest round of protests in Macedonia which began this May?

DS: Right, well there are a lot of causes. One is that the government just won’t go away when it’s been caught red handed in the crimes it’s been committing for the past 9 years. The opposition is publishing recordings of government officials which have been confirmed to be true. And everyone in power is denying that these recordings are true.

The protests started on May 5 after a recording was released from 2011 when a boy was killed by a police officer and the people in power tried to cover it up. They tried to make it look like someone else did it, and there are lots of people who now believe that the guy in prison for the murder is actually innocent; that he was put there to cover up for someone bigger who we suspect is in the president’s security detail.

AS: Why was the boy in trouble?

DS: He was actually a supporter of the party in power. The killing happened on the night when they were celebrating. So they won the elections and the boy was there to celebrate and he was killed. His name was Martin Neskovski and the police said he was intoxicated and that they had to subdue him. But the police officer who was blamed was later convicted of murder and sentenced to 14 years.

AS: How did you get involved in the student protests?

DS: Well in October 2014, there was this announcement that there was going to be a state exam that would evaluate students’ abilities through a series of tests where you just circle one answer, scratch another one etc. and they expected that tick-box process to work as a form of assessment, for some reason, like it does with people at high school, except it doesn’t even work there - right now the high school exam system is a complete disaster.

That was the last straw. Up until then we had been through all sorts of forms of repression. We had been the last priority on every list. And we had to pay for stuff we didn’t even know existed. We have completely corrupted student representatives who are all supporters of the party in power. So it had to boil over sometime and it did when they announced this state exam.

So a colleague of mine decided to start a movement to fight for student rights. They made a webpage, they announced the first plenary, and I went, but nobody really expected anyone to come.

In the end, around 200 people came, which was really impressive for a first plenary. Everyone was equal. Everyone had the right to say whatever they wanted. How do we proceed? What do we do? How do we beat this state exam?

And we had three of these at different universities. After the second one, we decided to have a protest. It was about 400 people, which was very surprising again, as we didn’t expect anyone to show up with just one day’s notice and our cause wasn’t popular yet anyway. But it was a great success. On the third plenary we also announced a student march, having voted on it.

On November 17, we had the largest student protest up until then in the history of the country. About 3,300 people. I got actively involved on November 19, becoming a co-ordinator for the faculty of philosophy and for my department at the Institute for Security, Defence and Peace. It was a cause I could get behind. I was there and I saw there were no corrupted people. Everyone was honest in their desires and their expressions. I can get behind that.

AS: So this was the genesis of the protests in Macedonia?

DS: Yes.

AS: When did the revelation about the spying scandal emerge – with opposition claims that the government and the security and counterintelligence agency, the UKB, had been running a massive wiretapping programme on more people than had been bugged under communism ?

DS: After we had the massive student march, about 12,000 people in two cities, certain groups started coming out of the woodwork, like the temp workers. They had marches of their own, and civil initiatives and a lot of unions started coming out.

The spying scandal was in February but it had been announced for a long time before then – 4 or 5 months maybe – and during this time opposition began to build against the government, from syndicates, trade unions, small businesses, students, professors, high school teachers. The government portrayed them all as ‘they’re the opposition, don’t listen to them, they just want to take power’.

So when the full scale of the spying scandal was finally revealed in all its horror, people got angrier and angrier. By May 5, it had erupted into a mass protest. It was supposed to be a peaceful protest until we were infiltrated and then what happened, happened.

AS: You were arrested?

DS: Yes.

AS: How?

DS: We were at a protest in front of the government building. A few days later, I got a call from the police station, went down there and was promptly handcuffed and transported to the Skopje court. By that time I’d been organising and participating in protests for four months.

AS: How long did you spend in prison?

DS: 14 days.

AS: How was it?

DS: Horrible. I was placed in a 4x4m room, with one window of 80x50cm. The food was inedible (we had to have relatives bring us packages) and visits last three minutes twice per month (and only the closest family is allowed).

The guys there tried their damndest every day to keep it clean, but the wooden floor was falling apart, the walls were falling apart, the beds had spikes sticking out of them, the sheets are ripped and covered in everything that had spilled on them over the last years: blood, vomit, shit, piss, you name it. They don't allow you to change them or to have family bring you new sheets. To get a metal spoon you are supposed to request one from the director of the prison in person and wait a week to get it.

I had five roommates at first, four Albanians and one Macedonian - all convicted. I was the only one imprisoned without a conviction. They were all in there for murders, robberies and human trafficking. After a few days they brought in a guy accused of terrorism, captured in Kumanovo, and took out all the other Albanian convicts. Later they brought in two more. The inmates aren't always friendly, and neither are the "commanders" (everyone calls the cops commanders).

AS: How was the trial?

DS: I pleaded guilty. There were threats made towards my family's lives, and I wasn't gonna take that chance with these lunatics. The charge I confessed to is, "Participation in a mob that stops an officer of the law in the execution of his duties".

I was contacted through my lawyer by some people that helped us during the protests. They are part of large organizations (UN, EU, OSCE, NATO, HRW) as well as the Macedonian Helsinki Committee of Human Rights and civilian NGOs and they all sent observers to the trial. They had no evidence except a single photo someone took of me, and there were international observers, something our government is very afraid of. The judge was practically forced to let me out on parole/probation. So one year on parole for which the sentence is three months to three years of imprisonment.

AS: Was it a fair trial in your opinion?

DS: The trial was fair in the sense that they said that if I admitted guilt then I would get parole and that’s exactly what happened. But those who pleaded not guilty were punished very harshly by the judge. One of the people in jail with me for the May 5 protests pleaded not guilty and was sentenced to 2 years and 4 months in prison. Those that did admit guilt, that’s me and about 15 others, were given parole.

AS: What are the consequences of your conviction?

DS: I can never get a job in government, and especially the security sector. I'm a good student in my Institute, so they basically crippled my future. Also, if I commit any felonies in the next year, whatever they sentence me will be extended by three months. 

AS: Do you think your conviction will deter students from coming out to protest?

DS: No. Although they used my arrest (along with a dozen others paraded through the government media) to scare people into not going on the streets. But it backfired on them and even more people came out the following days.

David leading a 12,000 strong march, 23 April 2015. Credit: Anja Ilieva

LIFE IN MACEDONIA

AS: Though the recordings released by the opposition seem to have inspired these protests, there seem to be many more dimensions to these protests: the economic and social situation, the corruption, the government system of patronage where it’s difficult to progress in society without being a supporter of the ruling party. Can you give us a picture of what Macedonia is actually like from an ordinary citizen’s perspective?

DS: Let’s start from the beginning of the reign of the ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE. For the first couple of years after it came to power in 2006, they actually did some good. The country prospered, lots of new jobs were created, but afterwards they started getting a little insane because you had either to be a member of the party or actively involved in helping the party or a relative of someone to get one of those positions that were opening up. So while the economic situation was improving back then, the social aspect was going to hell.

It’s difficult, if not damn near impossible, to get a good job if you’re not a member of the party or a strong supporter that actually helps the party in practical terms. So that’s one of the reasons. The other I think is the growing unity of different ethnic communities. We have not had a war in 14 years. In these 14 years, well speaking for myself and for a lot of people that I know, we have united with the Albanian community, we have no problem with them.

Now we’re united like we’ve never been before and that’s a problem for the people in power, because you can no longer play the ethnic card when they want to take your attention away from something.

AS: What about media freedom in Macedonia?

DS: Until 2010-11, there was relative balance in the media because there were government TV stations and opposition TV stations. But that changed when the A1 TV station was shut down, which was a prominent supporter of the opposition. The pro-opposition newspapers Vreme and Koha also got packed in. So that created a strong imbalance. And ever since then, there have been no TV stations that go against the government. The newest thing we have is about 3 TV stations that try to keep it neutral, and I think they’re succeeding, but the rest are strongly pro-government. Everything they say makes it seem like we’re living in a paradise here in Macedonia.

AS: And the newspapers?

DS: The newspapers are completely pro-government except for a free newspaper called Sloboden Pechat. That one is pro-opposition party. It tries to portray itself as neutral, but that’s not the case.

AS: What’s your opinion on Skopje 2014 – a project designed by the government to give the capital a more ‘classical appeal’ by the year 2014 ?

DS: It’s a disaster. An economic failure. They spent over 600 million euros on it. Money that would have been better spent in any other public department – social services, welfare, health, even military. Everybody needed that money and he just made a bunch of statues with it. It’s insane. The city looks like a Disneyland park. We need to take them down and relocate them, maybe to other cities in the country. There are over 200 of them in one square kilometre, and that’s a conservative estimate. They’re putting more and more up every day. The whole thing is a disaster.

AS: Do Macedonians actually support this project, or do they find it as ridiculous as people outside of Macedonia find it?

DS: Some of them, most of the supporters of the project are party officials and supporters. But also there are some people who support it who aren’t – they just find the statues beautiful. But I don’t think anyone believes that the money could not have been better spent somewhere else. I think we all realise that it’s a bit of a waste and that we need to fix it somehow. Although, we can’t since it’s already been paid for.

THE OPPOSITION

AS: What role has the opposition party played? There’s a perception that (opposition leader) Zoran Zaev has co-opted these protests for his own political aims.

DS: It’s not so straight forward. His uncovering of the spy scandal has helped greatly in the civil protests that were going on before. But lately we have discovered that he is being economical with the truth. He is not uncovering everything because he wants his own agenda fulfilled and his agenda dictates that he doesn’t uncover all the truth at once, but that he just keeps dropping bombs. A lot of people wish that he would just release everything and not just filter it out in a way which suits his agenda.

AS: So he’s part of the same political system?

DS: Absolutely. We don’t need to change the politicians, we need to change the system.

AS: Do you think the system could be changed by the ballot box? Is there a Macedonian Syriza or Podemos waiting to emerge from these protests? Or do you think the electoral system is too corrupt?

DS: First we need to establish a system of voting that isn’t corrupt, because right now the electoral observers in the country are fully pro-party in power, whichever one it is, and the parties in the opposition and in power use the same methods and we don’t like that.

About forming a Macedonian Syriza or Podemos, I really don’t know. I think there’s a party getting ready, made out of several civil society organisations, but I don’t think they will get wide support from the civil society. Because it will be a leftist party and not everyone unhappy with the government is a leftist.

SOCIAL CHANGES

AS: One of the defining images of the protests has been Macedonians and Albanians marching together, holding their respective flags. Is that a positive step?

DS: Absolutely. That’s the greatest advance in ethnic relations so far. This was impossible a few years ago. You couldn’t even dream about it.

AS: Since the Ohrid agreement, every government has to effectively be a coalition between a Macedonian party and an Albanian party. Is this system sustainable?

DS: I think it’s bringing more harm with it than good, because if you want to live in a country without ethnic boundaries, you don’t set ethnic boundaries. You don’t set 25.7% of employees to be Albanian. You must make everyone equal and make the system meritocratic. In a way, the government doesn’t like seeing Macedonians and Albanians marching together because such ethnic indifference is a huge threat to the system.

AS: Your protests were met with counter-protests by pro-government supporters...

DS: That’s an old measure. While this party has been in power, counter-protests have been a common tactic. I don’t really understand the logic behind them: you’re protesting someone else who’s protesting because they don’t like something. What is that?

AS: Who are these people?

DS: They are party members and supporters of the party in power. People who have gotten jobs and now have to show up to these protests. They were bussed in from other cities, which in of itself is not a huge problem because everyone does that, but the way they were treated was dreadful. They were careened like cattle in the buses and then people made sure they didn’t leave the buses and go shopping in Skopje or whatever. They put a line around them and made sure they went to the protests.

Students march on 23 March 2015. Credit: Joki Bee.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE

AS: How do you feel the EU responded?

DS: Not very well to be honest. The guy they sent here – Johannes Hann – has not been very objective in this situation. He’s a rightist and a strong supporter of the party in power. But the others – I think Richard Howitt and a few others – have been quite objective.

AS: Do you think (Macedonian prime minister) Nikola Gruevski is still interested in joining the EU?

DS: No. I think he lost interest in 2008.

AS: But you’re a supporter of joining the EU?

DS: Actually no. But I am a supporter of joining NATO. The EU is falling to pieces and I believe we should keep our distance while we have that opportunity.

AS: What’s your feeling about Russia’s intervention in the Macedonian crisis?

DS: It’s all staged. We’ve never really been friend with Russia. I don’t believe their interest is genuine. When Putin says he supports Gruevski and that the protests are a western conspiracy, that’s all hot air. He doesn’t really care. Also, I know the protests are not a western conspiracy because I’ve organised some of them and I am certainly not part of any western conspiracy.

THE DEAL

AS: What’s your opinion of the EU-brokered deal which has just been agreed between the main party and opposition?

DS: I feel that a lot of people are disappointed about what happened with the political resolution in Macedonia. The fight started by the opposition is not finished, but it has been set on pause by a piece of paper with some signatures on it. The whole truth is not out yet. We need the "Monstrum" case. We need every word on those tapes published. We need to finally have everything so we can know and present to the nation (which should have figured it out by now) that we are dealing with a corrupt, sadist political elite that will not quit until it is all-powerful.

The deal offers the opposition party a few seats in the government and a special independent prosecutor (agreed upon by all signatories) for the wiretapping scandal, and in return it asks that the opposition returns to parliament. Also, it says that on the first few days of 2016, Gruevski will appoint a temporary prime minister and resign, leaving the organization of elections to whomever he deems appropriate. 

As I said, the problem is not the politician sitting in the chair, but the system that allows him to be corrupt. In this deal, we only see a switch of personnel in a corrupt system. Not a deep rooted change, or one that can be maintained. I refuse to believe that everything we have done was for nothing, to just replace one corrupt politician with another. If fighting for freedom, justice and truth means going against both of the political powerhouses in the country, so be it.  We didn't come out on the streets for this and we will not stand for it. They even divided the sectors between one another, where the ministries of interior affairs (police), transport and finance are the keys to ruling.

However, the prime minister's promised resignation is a good step forward because now even his most loyal subjects know that he is falling apart at the seams. Some of them have become so nervous, they physically assaulted a journalist for asking them questions. Also, if we are going to conduct elections, I personally believe we should have open lists and one electoral unit, independent elections coordinators and a census, right away.

As always, nobody even mentions education and once again they are making a great mistake. However, this time we know our strength. This time, the students are aware of the corrupt powers that rule, and know that choosing the lesser evil is still evil. 

And if the new government continues to treat its future like the soon-to-be previous one, they will find that we are not afraid. Not any more. Not for a long time.

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About the authors

Alex Sakalis is associate editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @alexsakalis.

David Stefanoski is a student at the Institute for Security, Defense and Peace at the University of Skopje. He was a co-ordinator of the original student protests in Macedonia and active in protests and plenums in the country.

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