Political deadlock ended: hopes it will ease ethnic tensions

On 17th May 2017, VMRO-DPMNE, a political party who had held power for over a decade, finally agreed to a peaceful transfer of power to end the political deadlock which has engulfed Macedonia since elections in December 2016. The former ruling party had previously blocked the Social Democrats from forming a coalition government with parties representing the interests of ethnic Albanians. Nationalists belonging to VMRO-DPMNE claimed that a coalition government, including parties representing ethnic Albanians, was a threat to national sovereignty. Countering this allegation, opposition groups claimed that VMRO-DPMNE's attempts to cling to power were in an effort to prevent criminal investigations into allegations of corruption within the party.

As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, the storming of Macedonia's parliament by groups affiliated with VMRO-DPMNE has been viewed as a turning point in the political crisis. The violent protest in the parliament took place after an ethnic Albanian was elected as speaker, prompting nationalist groups to mobilise. Another key driver behind the heightened ethnic tensions is the coalition's pledge to make Albanian an official second language in Macedonia.

New Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was sworn in on the 31st May 2017 and on 1st June, Macedonia's parliament passed a vote of confidence in the new coalition government. Many civil society groups hope that the change in leadership will end the harassment of independent civic groups in receipt of funds from abroad. 

Expression

The wave of aggression against civil society and independent media has continued in Macedonia. As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, the storming of Macedonia's parliament by activists affiliated with VMRO-DPMNE in April left several journalists injured. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) documented at least ten journalists and media workers who were attacked during the violent protest, with two individuals seriously injured. In a press release shortly after the incident, EFJ commented on the worrying prevalence of attacks against journalists in Macedonia, stating that: 

"We hereby express our deep concerns about the yesterday‘s violent attacks against journalists in the parliament of the Republic of Macedonia. From the beginning of 2016 until yesterday at least 21 attacks against journalists in Macedonia have been registered by the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM), out of a total of several dozens within the last years. All this clearly demonstrates a rising trend in violence against journalists".

In the context of the heightened ethnic tensions in Macedonia, attacks against ethnic Albanians remains a key area of concern for civil society groups. On 7th March 2017, masked men threw Molotov cocktails at the Museum of the Albanian Alphabet in Bitola City. Although the attack on the museum was broadly condemned by political parties and government officials in Macedonia, representatives from the European Union urged political parties in Macedonia to avoid using ethnically divisive rhetoric. 

While no one was injured in the museum, the attack represents a situation in which freedom of expression in the Albanian language is becoming increasingly politicised and at times, dangerous. 

In a separate incident, on 6th April 2017 a journalist from Plusinfo was followed and verbally threatened in Skopje by members of Pere Toshev, a new organisation associated with the former ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE. Journalist Bozidar Barlakovski was accosted by around twenty unidentified individuals who called him a "traitorous bastard" and chased after his taxi. Barlakovski was reportedly targeted after openly criticising the government.

Similarly, on 15th May 2017 a regional broadcaster in Strumica received a threatening letter. Camera footage captured unidentified individuals delivering a letter Telekanal A1 containing the following message:

“You will see what will happen to all of you in a few weeks".

While the broadcaster claims it regularly receives threats from anonymous individuals, this particular threat demanded money from the broadcaster or its employees or they would face physical violence. In a statement, the broadcaster asserted that no media outlet should face unwarranted pressure or threats for simply carrying out its work. It also reaffirmed its commitment to editorial independence.

Association

On 2nd May 2017, a national civil society organisation - CIVIL: Centre for Freedom - was the victim of a burglary when its headquarters in Skopje were looted. The organisation is well-known for exposing electoral fraud and promoting human rights. During the burglary, several computers, cameras and other pieces of equipment were stolen. While both the motive and perpetrators behind the theft remain unknown, the group has vowed to continue its work

As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, the conditions for civil society groups in receipt of international funds has been a cause for serious concern. The targeted inspections and harassment of 21 organisations by authorities have continued since November 2016. 

The ongoing harassment of groups affiliated with Open Society Foundations has led many to believe authorities are attempting to sanitise and manipulate civil society. The recent surge in nationalist groups calling themselves Patriotic NGOs (PONGOs), has caused many to question whether civil society is being used as a proxy agent by political parties. On 5th April 2017, twenty of these newly-formed PONGOs signed a strategic cooperation agreement, pledging to use all possible means and methods to combat threats to the Republic of Macedonia. In the context of the ongoing cases of harassment and intimidation faced by progressive civic groups, many claim that the authorities are proactively targeting critical voices and independent groups, while allowing those with political ties to operate without interference. 

Peaceful Assembly

A number of protests and demonstration have taken place in recent months, and the majority of them have taken place peacefully. Although protest organisers are not required to obtain prior approval for demonstrations, due to the large number of protesters, many have notified Macedonian authorities prior to the planned protests. While no request for protest has been denied, on 20th April 2017 a protest held by the parents of children with disabilities was interrupted by the authorities. The parents had been camping in tents opposite Macedonia's parliament to draw attention to the difficult circumstances they face on a daily basis. The protest was interrupted after representatives from the city of Skopje claimed the protesters had broken regulations by placing banners on monuments. While the protesters were distracted, an unidentified individual attempted to forcibly remove the tents from the premises.

One of the participants, Zoran Mijalkov from the Association of Bonded Hearts: The Association of Parents of Children and Adults with Autism and Related Illnesses commented on their demonstration, stating: 

"Camped before the conscience of all who can do something for our children, the eyes to see and ears to hear, if you want to come to see us. We are not against anyone, this is not politics".

Other protests taking place recently in Macedonia are as follows:

  • The pro-government movement Ilinden 4: Civic Initiative for Common Macedonia continued the protest they started on 24th February 2017 through 15th May, when they stopped to file a motion with the Constitutional Court opposing the elected Chairman of the Parliament;
  • Textile workers in factories in two cities went on strikes demanding yet unpaid wages;
  • Media Print Macedonia employees (MPM) protested against the requirements to send job applications to MPM’s new sister company;
  • Animal rights activists protested in front of a man who slaughtered a dog in front of several eye witnesses;
  • Civil society organisation - Anima Mundi - mobilised citizens to demand a ban on poison being used to kill animals; and
  • Citizens led by O2 Coalition for Clean Air protested against pollution and demanded an improvement in Skopje's air quality.