Macedonia goes after Soros-funded civil society

Association

Threats against Macedonian civil society organisations intensified in the run up to parliamentary elections on 11th December. Many fear that the environment for independent dissent has now worsened, following an election marred by slurs against the political opposition and civil society. The seriousness of the situation was underlined during the run up to the elections, when one party leader drew international condemnation for appearing to encourage the assassination of political opposition. As the integrity of the electoral process was called into question, political opposition and civic groups were increasingly targetted after they lodged complaints to the State Election Commission.

Shortly after the elections, on 20th December the Public Revenue Office sent financial inspectors to the Open Society Foundation (OSF), an organisation run by American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, and 20 civil society organisations who receive funds from the philanthropic organisation. The formal investigation comes as a result of anti-civil society rhetoric from VMRO-DPMNE politicians, who claim that foreign funded CSOs are attempting to destabilise the country.

On 17th December, VMRO-DPMNE’s leader Nikola Gruevski had called for the 'desorosoization' of Macedonian civil society, a move which signalled the start of an intensified crackdown on civic groups affiliated to OSF. A citizen movement aligned to the ruling party called Stop Operation Soros sprang up to attack the perceived monopolisation of the civil society sector by OSF-funded CSOs. Many view this clampdown as a thinly veiled attempt to smear any organisation who is openly critical of the government. Head of OSF Macedonia, Fani Karanfilovska said

'There is a clear tendency to begin with this long announced purge of differently thinking people who criticise the Government using facts. This will happen if the current Prime Minister designate forms the next Government, who began using the term de-­sorosoization, which I believe will mean abolishing FOOM and civil society institutions who were vocal in criticism.'

The threat of physical violence or harassment against civic activists who work with OSF has also risen in recent months. On December 9th, the pro-government Civil Movement for Defense of Macedonia (GDOM) distributed flyers in the capital listing the names of dozens of civil society representatives and activists, in particular those that have worked with OSF. 

As discussed in the the video below, the situation currently facing civil society in Macedonia is part of a wider trend in the Balkans region. 

Many fear the animosity directed at OSF and affiliated CSOs will soon extend to independent civil society writ large and that ultimately only CSOs aligned to the government will be able to function without hindrance. In an illustration of the complex pro- and anti-government currents within civil society, in December a group of government-supporting students registered an association under the name Studentski Plenum, in an apparent attempt to mimic an organisation previously set up by students who fought against government policies on protests.

In a separate incident, the premises of Arts and Culture Centre “Tekstil” (“Textile”) were attacked on 2nd December. The group's offices were attacked after the group voiced concerns over the poor conditions for workers' rights in Macedonia's state-owned garment factories. In an attack that many have viewed as emblematic of the increasingly hostile environment for civil society, the CSO and its staff were repeatedly targetted and harassed by unknown assailants. In a statement, 74 Macedonian civil society organisations called on the government to protect workers' rights.

Expression

In the context of heightened attacks on civil society, freedom of expression was also curtailed during and after Macedonia's recent election. A worrying increase in hate speech and incitement of racial hatred was on display during a VMRO-DPMNE protest in front of the State Election Commission. Journalists and activists have also experienced interference, harassment, and physical attacks. In one incident, on 5th December, a dozen opposition supporters disrupted the news crew from TV Nova from doing their work. For four consecutive weeks in the run up to the elections, several news websites were targetted in DDoS attacks which were designed to prevent the news portals from operating. 

Other press freedom violations were also documented in early January. On 4th January, the Mayor of Berovo municipality defamed a female journalist on Facebook using slurs and sexual comments. On 10th January, a crew from news organisation 24 Vesti was barred from recording at highway toll plaza after Macedonian authorities prevented them from covering poorly maintained roads, which cause chaos on a highway between Skopje and Veles. 

The state has also used the legal system to target those who express critical opinions in public, and thousands of misdemeanor charges have been issued to participants in the Colorful Revolution protests. As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the colourful revolution was a protest movement which sought to oppose corruption and increase accountability and citizen voice in public life in Macedonia. 

Peaceful Assembly

Macedonia witnessed a wide range of public protests in recent months: 

  • Thousands protested several times in Skopje and Bitola against air pollution which is 20 times above normal levels. Demonstrators demanded relevant measures be undertaken by authorities; 
  • Citizens protested against a 60% cut in funding for HIV therapy from the state budget for 2017; 
  • Macedonia ruling party backers protested against a vote challenge by two other political parties in Skopje and Bitola
  • Ethnic Albanians protested to demand the release of Kosovo's former PM Haradinaj detained by French police on a Serbian arrest warrant;
  • Approximately 700 trainee policemen who passed initial trainings protested to demand urgent employment; 
  • Sex workers protested against their discrimination; 
  • 4 branch unions protested against their exclusion from the Union of Syndicates; 
  • Backers of both major political parties gathered on public places to celebrate their electoral victory
  • A symbolic protest performance with textile workers' coats was held in Stip Municipality on a national holiday, while the workers were behind the machines in the factory halls.