“French” proposal sparks mass protest, disinformation and Euro scepticism
Protests against the French proposal
A proposal by the French government sent to North Macedonia, which called for the removal of the Bulgarian veto to speed up accession negotiations, supported by the EU, resulted in mass months-long protests during June and July 2022. The proposal encountered strong resistance from the Macedonian opposition, and from some of the population, academic public and non-governmental organisations, and led to a heightened political crisis in the country.
On 18th June 2022, the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE organised a big protest gathering, strongly opposing the French proposal, among other issues, while announcingtheir mobilisation and blocking of the parliament and all public institutions unless early parliamentary elections were held.
At the beginning of July 2022, citizens started to gather spontaneously to protest the French proposal and the government’s actions. For two weeks, citizens protested daily in front of the government and parliament buildings in Skopje, saying that the proposal is harmful for the Macedonian language and identity and should not be accepted as it presents an ultimatum to Macedonian citizens. Under the moto “Ultimatum – no, thanks”, protests were also organised in other cities such as Kumanovo and Bitola, while several regional roads in the central and eastern parts of the country were blocked on one occasion. Some citizens were allegedly fined for blocking the roads, while the Ministry of Interior warned that blocking main roads is against the law.
Although most of the protests were peaceful, on several occasions the demonstrations turned violent, with many incidents including gun shots being fired while opposing groups of ethnic Macedonian and Albanian protesters collided. Although the person firing the empty shells was detained and later charged, the inter-ethnic incident sparked a heated exchange between the political parties. In an interview for TV21, President Pendarovski was alarmed about intensified hybrid attacks on the country, saying that "the Russian Federation is abusing the protests" and speculated that people from other countries came to cause incidents.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in total, 54 police officers were injured during the protest,13 with severe injuries. Minister Oliver Spasovski stated that the police did not use excessive force or measures to disperse the crowds. More than 40 persons were detained over the two weeks for throwing hard objects toward the police, attacking police officers and damaging public property.
In a joint reaction, CSOs in the country condemned the violence and hate speech at the protests, and called for calming of tensions, noting that the violence threatened to take the place of peaceful protest and debate. They also called for wide consultations and a comprehensive analysis of the proposal in an open and transparent way, while holding off the negotiations with the EU until a solution is found that is widely supported by the public. Several CSOs raised concerns a the speculations about stopping EU funds for organisations that were critical of the French proposal, seeing it as a mild attempt to intimidate those that do not agree with the foreign policy of the government. The targeted 11 CSOs claimed that, while they are pro-European oriented, they demand a real public debate, without “labelling anyone as traitor or patriot”. According to the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities, the “French proposal” further incited growing polarisation in society, as well as “euro-scepticism” among Macedonian citizens.
In the aftermath of the protests, the Public Prosecutor Office in Skopje filed indictments against 12 people, nine of whom are accused of participating in a mob with intention to commit a crime, and three for causing a public hazard. A one-year prison sentence was given to a 26-year-old male for throwing a Molotov cocktail at the police officers, and a conditional sentence of two years was given to eight other demonstrators. The person who fired gunshots only received four months in prison, despite the Criminal Code providing for a sentence of one, two or five years for such a crime.
On 16th July 2022, after days of tense debate within the parliament, and continuous protests outside of it, the parliament adopted the French proposal, with 66 votes from the ruling party and the Albanian party bloc. Two days later, the first inter-governmental conference between the EU and North Macedonia was organised, opening the accession talks. In response, the main opposition VMRO DPMNE party insisted on a referendum on what it deemed a bad deal. Smaller protests were held in the following period, such as the peaceful protest in front of the Bulgarian embassy on 28th July 2022, against the signing of the Protocol between the Macedonian and Bulgarian Ministries for Foreign affairs.
Several protests on workers’ rights took place in the reporting period.
- The Federation of Trade Unions protested for over a month, including with a general strike disrupting the work of the public sector, demanding higher wages in accordance with the increase in the minimum wage. Public sector employees also demanded a new collective agreement and return of the annual vacation pay. Increased wages and better working conditions in the public sector were also demanded by the judicial police, prison officers and shopkeepers in the Skopje City Shopping Centre.
- Employees of the Kolska factory for railway vehicles protested by blocking the railway traffic in Veles, due to the Public Revenue Administration forcefully collecting the debt owed by the state factory by selling part of the factory's property. The problem with the "Kolska" railway vehicle factory has been going on for 20 years.
- The association of private health dental facilities and private doctors of dental medicine protested due to the worrying working conditions, demanding a new payment model in dental healthcare.
- Several peaceful protests of workers in the local agriculture sector also took place, such as the protest by agriculture workers in Stip due to a new road construction blocking the access to their vineyards, orchards and grain fields; in Strumica where protesters demanded subsidies for the low price of cabbage and in Kocaniregarding the low purchase price of rice.
- In Skopje, residents of the Karpos Municipality demanded a new urban plan that will allow the continuation of the planned construction work, while residents of the Zelezara Municipality protested for better road safety measures. In Kichevo, residents of the Ivandol Municipality protested against the building of social housing for families in a difficult economic situation in their neighbourhood, and in Bogovinje, residents of the Palchishte village protested not having access to drinking water. Citizens in Bogdanci and Gevgelija, organised by the political party Levica, blocked the regional road in protest at the bad road conditions, demanding urgent realisation of the promised road reconstruction.
Separately, on 25th June 2022, the third Pride Parade was organised in Skopje. Under the motto "Come out for love, dignity, equality and justice", hundreds of participants in the protest march demanded that their rights be respected, including the right to processes of legal gender recognition, and that there be no discrimination on any basis. Opponents of the Pride Parade organised a counter-protest in Skopje the following day, calling for the preservation of family values, but with a much lower attendance compared to the parade the day before.
Other smaller peaceful protest actions also took place. The Kumanovo citizens protested against air pollution in the city. The Association of Ukrainians in North Macedonia protested in front of the Russian Embassy against Russia’s war on Ukraine. An action under the motto “Riding bikes for refugees” was organised by UNHCR, bringing together organisations, institutions, asylum seekers and refugees in celebration of World Refugee Day.
On 12th July 2022, the new Law on Anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism entered into force. In relation to entries in the register of real owners, the law foresees changes to the deadlines for registration, the subjects who are obliged to carry out registration, as well as a new approach in determining the real owners of foundations. Foundations have the obligation to record the beneficial owner in the register of beneficial owners. Failing to report a beneficial owner can result in heavy fines.
Allegations of corrupt practices involving the NGO sector were spread in the media by a journalist claiming that two NGOs led by the spouses of high officials received 600,000 EUR for their projects from foreign funds aimed at countering violent extremism and terrorism. Although the corruption claims were directed at specific high officials who disproved the claims, the allegations spread by the media negatively affected the views of the public and their trust in the NGO sector.
Disinformation, attacks against journalists
The events surrounding the “French Proposal” also gave rise to hate speech, disinformation and propaganda aimed at destabilisation. According to the National Coordinator for inter-culturalism, Robert Alagozovski, the protests were “tainted by a nationalist narrative” and their “anti-democratic and anti-European characteristics” also ignited inter-ethnic tensions in the country. Journalist associations raised concerns about the frequent attacks and continuous degradation of the position of journalists and media teams during the protests. Additionally, they also flagged the stigmatizing and vulgar language used by the MP Dimitar Apasiev and the degrading labels used by opposition party leader Hristijan Mickovski against journalists reporting from the intergovernmental conference in Brussels and on the bilateral conflict with Bulgaria.
Separately, SSNM and ZNM also reacted to two incidents involving journalists, including the insults and curses directed at TV Telma correspondent Emilia Misirlievski by councillor Nefi Useini, in the Ohrid municipality, and the death threat against journalist Furkan Saliu in a Twitter post. Demanding appropriate response from the authorities in both cases, SSNM and ZNM stated that threats to the safety of journalists leads to self-censorship and increased hate crimes against media workers.
Changes to the criminal code and other amendments
At the end of June, the Ministry of Justice announced changes to the country’s Criminal Code aimed to criminalise the violation of freedom of opinion and expression. The proposed changes have been part of the new version of the criminal code, published in the National Electronic Register of Regulations for public consultation. For the first time in the criminal legislation of North Macedonia, Article 193 proposes a prison sentence ranging from six months to five years for anyone who orders or implements censorship, or who illegally prevents or restricts a journalist’s freedom of reporting. The Minister of Internal Affairs also announced intense measures against hate speech as part of the implementation of the Cyber Security Strategy, especially towards excluded groups, with a special focus on the hate speech towards people from the LGBTQI+ community.
In mid-July 2022, an anonymous proposal to amend and supplement the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services was being considered by parliamentary groups. In addition to the non-transparent and non-inclusive process behind its drafting, according to the Independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM) and the Macedonian Association of Journalists (ZNM), the proposal is problematic as it deletes the active ban on government advertising in the private media and foresees large amounts of money allocated for public broadcasters from the citizens' budget, not only at the central but also at the local level. SSNM have warned of the disastrous effects of state money in private media for both the media market and journalism, as it violates editorial and journalistic independence.