Civil Society - Government relations continue to improve

Association

Positive government-civil society relations

Government and civil society relations have continued to move in the right direction in Macedonia, a trend illustrated by a series of joint meetings and working groups held recently. Senior government officials have also issued positive statements encouraging cooperation with civil society. Speaking at a regional conference on 21st March, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, called on youth-focussed civil society organisations (CSOs) to take the initiative and be ‘vigilant correctors’ of the government, stressing the importance of civil society cooperation with state institutions.

In practice, such cooperation with parliament has not been easy in the past because of conservative attitudes on the part of lawmakers and the limited ability of CSOs to articulate their proposals through concrete legislative proposals. In one example of a change in these trends, an inter-party parliamentary group to promote LGBTI rights in the National Assembly has been formed. It includes 13 members of parliament from different political parties and its aim is to cooperate with CSOs working on LGBTI issues in building a society where sexual and gender identity will not constitute an obstacle to the full enjoyment of human rights and freedoms.

End of 'de-Sorosization' investigations

March 2018 marked the long-awaited end of the political persecution and financial inspections of at least twenty CSOs. A year and a half after the investigations started, on 1st March the Minister of Internal Affairs publicly announced that the investigations had been completed, suspicions against the organisations were unfounded, and that there was no evidence found to warrant continued investigation. The investigation, known to the public as "de-Sorosoization", was launched by the previous government, to target local organisations associated with the philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundation. For several months in 2017, these NGOs were subjected to daily inspections on suspicion of engaging in organised crime using donor funding. The Ministry noted that CSOs considered the investigation process to be a means of silencing and intimidating critical civil society and demanded that the instigators of the investigations bear criminal responsibility.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests against changing Macedonia's name and law on languages

On 27th February, around 10,000 people rallied in the capital Skopje, against a possible compromise with Greece in the UN-sponsored "name talks", which have gathered pace after the formation of a new government in Macedonia. The talks are aimed at finding a breakthrough in the decades-long dispute over Macedonia's name. The protesters argued that changing the country's name is not in the national interest and demanded an “unconditional stop” to the talks. The rally was organised by right-wing and diaspora groups but with no official support from any major political party in the country. In conjunction with the protests, several non-government organisations issued a statement accusing Greece of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide against the “Macedonian minority” of 1913, referring to the name-talks as a "continuance of the negation of the ethnic identity of the Macedonian minority".

Macedonia and Greece have since signed an agreement on 17th June, ending the 27 year dispute over the name of the former Yugoslav republic. Further protests were held following the signing of the agreement. Macedonians will get the chance to vote on the deal with Greece during a referendum in the autumn of 2018.

On 14th March, protestors rallied against the recently-adopted Law on Languages which extends the language rights of ethnic Albanians across the country and aims to ease communication in Albanian institutions like municipalities, hospitals and courts. Macedonia's parliament adopted the government-backed law at the second attempt, after the President vetoed the first adoption in January 2018. Inside the parliament a tense atmosphere prevailed as the opposition submitted 34,000 amendments in an attempt to block the vote. The President was expected to sign the law as a constitutional obligation, since he could only veto once. 

The adoption of the law has drawn praise from neighboring Albania and Kosovo – but also fury from nationalists at home, who have savaged the change as unconstitutional and endangering national unity.

Protests following child's death

On 21st March, amid ethnically-charged tensions, more than a thousand people, mostly ethnic Albanians, protested in front of Government buildings in Skopje. They were outraged by the prosecution’s decision to drop charges of premeditated murder against an ethnic Macedonian who slammed his car into a four-year-old ethnic Albanian child in 2016, killing him. This prompted harsh public criticism by ethnic Albanians who suspected the decision was ethnically motivated. The public outcry over the case also prompted the resignation of the Justice Minister Bilen Saliji. The peaceful protest ended with an incident involving a bus, which was driving near the protest, was stoned and one person was detained.

Terrorism charges for parliament rampage

Charges of “terrorist endangerment of the constitutional order and security”, over the rampage in parliament on April 27 last year,  were filed on 27th March against 28 people. Those charged included a former interior minister and several opposition right-wing MPs, police employees and activists, and two other individuals for assisting in the alleged criminal activity. The attack on parliament began when supporters of the former ruling party Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO DPMNE) stormed the buildings in an attempt to stop the Social Democrats from forming a government. About 100 people were reportedly injured in the violence.

Those accused of the terrorism charges face a minimum jail sentence of 10 years if convicted.

Expression

Improvement in media independence

In its Nations in Transit 2018 report, Freedom House noted Macedonia’s significant improvement in democratic governance and media independence, after seven straight years of decline in democratic liberties. Under the title “Freeing the Captured State”, Macedonia is presented as having the biggest opportunity for a democratic breakthrough, after the change of government last year. Another report, however, warned that countries in the Balkans are most vulnerable to fake news. In Macedonia's case, the report says, this is due to low education levels, one of several media literacy indicators. Low levels of media literacy affects resilience to post truth, fake news and their social consequences.

Protest against threats to journalist

On 12th March, about a hundred journalists from almost all media outlets in Macedonia, NGO representatives and (unlike other protests in the past) several government representatives, protested in front of the government buildings in Skopje, demanding tough sanctions against a politician who recently threatened Naser Selmani, the head of the journalists' union, ZNM. Selmani received the threatening messages after posting on Facebook that the rule of law “had succumbed to a bully”. He was referring to an incident in which  a senior official from the ethnic Albanian junior ruling party, DUI, abused a female police officer as the police attempted to remove his illegally parked car. 

The controversy began after some media outlets reported that the police officer was physically attacked, which she later denied and stated that she was only verbally attacked and had hurt herself by accidentally bumping into the tow truck. This sparked widespread suspicion that the police officer might have been forced to downplay the attack against her. 

While the case of threats against Selmani has been sent to the Prosecutor’s Office for further processing, journalists insist that the government should become tougher on these kinds of attacks and threats.