Tensions run high amid name change debate

Macedonia's name has stirred controversy in 2018. In a long-running dispute with Greece, Macedonian authorities have been locked in discussions with their neighbour over the country's name. The proposals would see Macedonia renamed as Northern Macedonia. If unresolved, the dispute will block Macedonia's accession to the European Union (EU) and NATO. In this context, tensions have been running high with a variety of protests taking place both for and against the name change. On 30th September 2018, a referendum on the issue was marred by low turnout of 34.7%. In an illustration of the polarised political climate, many Macedonians choose to stay away from the polls to express their discontent with the situation. As such, the referendum failed to pass the threshold of 50% participation leaving the decision up to Parliament. On 20th October 2018, the Macedonian Parliament voted in favour of renaming the country. The move effectively opens Macedonia's pathway to joining the EU and NATO. In this update, we detail the key civic space developments related to these and other events in recent months in Macedonia. 

Association

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, space for civil society organisations in Macedonia has been improving in recent months. Our latest update from the country indicates that this trend is continuing. Civil society organisations are now being actively included by the government in working groups on a variety of policies. For example, CSOs have been consulted in amending Macedonia's new abortion law, after the current law sparked criticism. CSOs have also assisted the government's fight against corruption. Comments from civil society were incorporated in the new set of judiciary laws and CSOs have also been invited to monitor the tender procedures and to participate in the committees that decide on public procurement. Moreover, the government supported the active contribution of civil society in the development of Macedonia's Open Government Partnership (OGP) Action Plan. In fact, the Action Plan emphasised the crucial role of civil society in making the OGP's ambitions for members states to be inclusive, responsive and accountable a reality. The Action Plan also includes regular dialogue between the government and civil society, as well as involving CSOs in Macedonia's NATO and European Union (EU) accession talks

In keeping with the positive trajectory, on 9th October 2018, the Government of the Republic of Macedonia adopted a strategy for cooperation and development of civil society. The Action Plan runs from 2018-2020 and is the product of an extensive consultation process involving 68 civil society organisations.

Despite the progress, civil society groups have called on the government to expedite reforms. A year after the adoption of the government’s 3-6-9 reform plan - developed by 73 CSO representatives, scholars, and independent experts to reform democracy in Macedonia - questions remain over its implementation. CSO representatives claimed that the government to reduce the pace of new policy-making and instead focus on implementation of the 3-6-9 reform plan.

Despite the government’s positive attitude towards civil society, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE continued to slander civic groups by alleging their involvement in money laundering schemes involving the ruling party and unlawful tender procedures. Other smears have connected politicians to NGOs involved in alleged scandals. Having faced a negative campaign for such a long period, civil society has struggled to gain the public’s trust. Recent research showed that 60% of Macedonians view civil society negatively. This is compounded by the fact that citizens do not recognise the role of civil society, even in cases where CSOs have demonstrably spearheaded positive societal change.

Peaceful Assembly

Macedonia's name change spurred protests throughout May and June 2018. Tensions reached a boiling point after an agreement was signed between Macedonia and Greece on 17th June 2018. The proposed change in Macedonia's name did not sit well with many members of the public. A protest outside the Macedonian Parliament on 17th June 2018 took place in a heated atmosphere. In the ensuing clashes, nine policemen and four protesters were injured. The police used tear gas and detained 26 people after masked protesters threw stones and fireworks objects at the building. The video below captures the incident. 

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights strongly condemned the turn of events, stressing that although the right to assembly is legally guaranteed, it does not justify the use of violence. The Ombudsman's office opened a procedure following the reactions of participants who complained of police brutality.

Protests in front of the Parliament continued for weeks. While they mostly took place in a peaceful atmosphere, a strong police presence was noted. Often conducted in conjunction with patriotic songs, signs and Macedonian flags, protesters voiced their anger and demanded the government's resignation. Protesters also called for a boycott against Macedonia's name change and announced a boycott of the upcoming referendum on the name change.

Protests reignited in September during the referendum. While some were led by the slogan “ Bojkotiram” (I boycott), others marched in support of a move to change the country’s name. The opposition party VMRO DPMNE also organised several rallies around the country in September, urging its supporters to reject the name change, saying that the Government’s agenda is against “our state and national interests". Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev recognised the protestor's right to freedom of assembly, but urged protests to be peaceful and organisers to be careful with ethnically divisive rhetoric.

In a separate incident, activists, citizens groups and CSOs protested for months against the decision of the Government to build a gas pipeline across the Vodno mountain near Skopje. In particular, the activists were concerned with the ecological effects of mass deforestation. On 17th April 2018, 12 civic initiatives demanded CSOs be involved in the working group and demanded that the construction work stop immediately. Over the course of more than 4 months, civil society and concerned citizens urged the government to preserve the forest. On 15th August 2018, a letter was sent on the EU delegation in Skopje raising the alarm about the ecological impact that this project would cause. The letter stated: 

"In recent months, environmental organisations and initiatives have been waging a battle with the institutions to preserve the only large piece of greenery left to the city of Skopje. The route through the forest park Vodno passes through important plant areas with rare and endangered herbs, and it is unclear what the impact of the construction of the route and the construction activities on Matka, Cave Ubavica and Bukovo, which is the same significant vegetation area..."

Numerous protests have been organised under the slogan “Go sakam Vodno” (I love Vodno). One of the protests included a “live shield” of protesters who assembled to “defend” the mountain by blocking the construction work. This protest led to a dangerous incident. On 29th August 2018, one of the workers received an order to go through the “live shield” with a digger, endangering the lives of the protesters. The incident stirred tensions causing further conflict between the activists and the workers. Footage of the confrontation was captured in the video below. 

After the incident, the Prime Minister announced the beginning of a dialogue with civil society, and halted all work until a mutually agreed solution is reached. Debates between government and CSO representatives and activists began in September.

Expression

Although Reporters Without Borders noted a slight improvement in the level of media freedom in Macedonia, recent changes in the electoral law have raised concerns. In particular, the European Journalists Federation and the Council of Europe highlighted that the amendments enable political propaganda and state interference in the freedom of media. The changes are said to pose a threat to the independence of editorial policies during election campaigns. The amendments were further criticised in light of Macedonia's name referendum, as media groups warned that the changes left news outlets open to manipulation from the state.

While the government claims that media workers are free from political pressure, the behaviour of some officials and the everyday experiences of journalists calls this into question. According to the Platform for Investigative Journalism and Analysis (PINA), threats, pressures, insults, and influences are still part of daily life for independent journalists. The situation was captured by recent research on the state of journalism in Macedonia and the region. The report found that journalists are afraid to speak out with 70% claiming they would leave the profession for other work. This high percentage was attributed to journalists' low wages and increasing editorial censorship. In a statement, a spokesperson for PINA elaborated on the finding: 

"The main question in the survey was whether journalists can deal with their work. The issue is complex and there are two reasons, primarily political pressures, pressures in editorial offices by editors, media owners, and at press conferences by politicians." 

Fears over the safety of journalists also continue. According to the The Association of Journalists in Macedonia (ZNM), a worrying culture of impunity for attacks on journalists persists. Out of the sixty attacks that have taken place over the past six years, 13 have not been investigated and too many remain unsolved. Despite this, some prosecutions have occurred. For example, the cycle of impunity was broken on 6th September 2018, with the first ever court verdict sentencing the attacker of the A1ON journalist crew during last year’s protests. The perpetrator was sentenced to 6 months in prison.

Fears over foreign interference in Macedonia's media have increased. This has been partly blamed on Macedonia's accession plans to join the EU and NATO, with growing concerns over Russian meddling in Macedonia. Western officials have repeatedly warned of Russian interference to discourage EU and NATO ambitions, including through Internet trolling and other tools of "hybrid warfare."

In this context, the Macedonian Council for Ethics in the Media (CEMM) sounded the  alarm over frequent untruths from some media outlets. In particular, they expressed concern over media outlets who called for mobilisation in violent actions that endanger public order. The Helsinki Committee also strongly condemned the provocative inter-ethnic rhetoric and calls for violence surrounding the protests after the ratification between Macedonia and Greece. In addition, the Macedonian Journalists Association (ZNM) condemned the physical assaults on journalists and cameramen, as well as the arbitrary detainment of a journalist by the police. As the role is media comes under the spotlight, the issue of journalistic integrity and dissemination of disinformation have come to the fore.  

According to recent research on the state of media in the region, Macedonia is the leading country in terms of citing anonymous sources in the news articles. Yet, in this context reforms which could improve the situation have stalled. The adoption of amendments to the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services which will launch media reforms, is still being blocked in the Parliament.