The murder of a young man in Macedonia's capital Skopje on the night of the electoral victory of ruling party VMRO-DPMNE in June 2011 has come back to haunt the Macedonian government with a vengeance.
In the late afternoon of May 5, 2015, over 5,000 people took to the streets in Skopje to protest after audio recordings leaked by opposition leaders appeared to show that Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, among other officials, tried to cover up details in the investigation into 22-year-old Martin Neshkovski's death.
Within hours, the peaceful protests turned violent as police began going after protesters to disperse the crowds with water cannons, smoke bombs, and batons.
In recent years, the country's government has been accused of ineptitude and corruption and the country, among the poorest in Europe, has struggled with social inequality. Protests have become a normal sight in large cities, Skopje in particular, but such violence is something disturbingly new.
Neshkovski died from injuries in an altercation with an on-duty police officer in a downtown city square on June 5, 2011. At the time, people also took to the streets over several months and called for the resignation of the Interior Minister Jankuloska. The officer was eventually arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for the murder, and protests eventually died down.
Blogger Dona Kosturanova calls it the irony of “protests against police brutality being stifled by police brutality.” Thousands of people poured into the streets of downtown Skopje, infuriated by what the recordings allegedly reveal. As Kosturanova reports:
Citizens took down the flags in front of the building to half-mast, in grief for the life lost in 2011 and the situation today. People started throwing eggs, tomatoes and potatoes at the recently unveiled new plaster faux-baroque façade of the building, quickly turning parts of it yellow. Multicultural unity was seen, as people raised different national flags (Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian), holding, rising and even bounding them together. Protesters often stood with hands raised as a sign of non-violence.
People were chanting: “No justice – no peace”, “Common state”, “Together we are stronger”, “Murderes”, “Resignation”, “Come with us”, “Put down your shields”, “Do you have any children?”. One policeman took down his equipment and left positions, which was greeted with applause and hugs by protesters.
Five hours into the protests, however, riot police cracked down on the crowds to disperse them. Many protesters sat down and covered their heads, shouting that they were there peacefully and had no intention of doing harm or rioting. Police ignored their pleas and beat the sitting protesters along with those trying to flee the scene.
The crowd was soon dispersed and the number of injured is still uncertain as media in Macedonia are giving different accounts of the story altogether. Reports have stated, however, that 38 police officers were injured during the protests and 30 protesters were taken into police custody. The Ministry of Interior also reported that “several violent attacks on police and government building were initiated” between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. and that “protesters threw metal bars, eggs, bottles and potatoes” at police and government buildings.
Many online sources, such as Independent Balkan News Agency, have reported a drastic dissonance in coverage of the protests:
The protests have been shown in different versions by pro government media and the opposition media. While pro government media called these protests as scenarios of the opposition to cause unrest in the country, some opposition portals have said that the citizens are raising their voice against this government that they call totalitarian.
Several amateur videos of the protests and police crackdown on protesters are available online. Protesters can be heard in the video below shouting at the police cordons in front of the main government building in Skopje, “Who are you protecting?” before the police charge to disperse the crowd.
Riot police reportedly continued to patrol the streets well into the night after the protesters fled. On the morning after the May 5 protest, Prime Minister Gruevski held a press conference stating that the “police reacted professionally” during the protest.
The protests in the streets were matched by people online demanding answers and resignations from government officials. The hashtag #протестирам (#Iprotest) has become increasingly popular overnight on the Macdonian-language web to list their grievances with the government.
If social networks are any indicator, protesters have promised to continue gathering every evening at 6 p.m. in major cities until there is a change in government.
— Ognen (@Ognen_K) May 6, 2015
— Ognen (@Ognen_K) May 6, 2015
Macedonian blogger Maya Balsha and others have reported from the new protest gathering on May 6 that water cannons have already been positioned in front of the main government building in Skopje to ward off protesters.
— Balsha (@MayaBalsha) May 6, 2015
Police have already blocked access to the Macedonian Government, water cannons are in position, there are plainclothes police officers, certainly still with carte blanche [to do as they wish] #протестирам