A new wave of protests has spread across Macedonia, in reaction to Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov's pardon shielding government officials accused of corruption and abuses of power from prosecution.
The president's actions, which provide legal impunity to former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, among others, sparked outrage among citizens. The pardon covers more than 50 top politicians and their associates who were under investigation from the Special Prosecutor's Office for suspected corruption, election fraud, misuse of power and even the cover-up of murder. All these alleged crimes were discussed in conversations that were illegally wiretapped on the order of Gruevski, and which the political opposition published last year for the public to hear. Zoran Zaev, the leader of the opposition, is also included in the pardon.
Macedonians took to the streets in the capital Skopje on April 12, the day the pardon was announced. Protesters gathered in front of the office of the Special Prosecutor to show support for their work, and then moved through the city center to the so-called People's Office of the Macedonian president. Some participants threw eggs at it and then marched through the streets, shouting slogans demanding justice and end of ‘mafia rule.’ After police blocked their way to the headquarters of the ruling right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE, they visited the seat of the government and dispersed.
On the second day of protests, several thousand citizens gathered in front of the Special Prosecutor's Office and marched towards the president's People's Office. Several people were injured and about a dozen arrested after the crowd there destroyed the People's Office and set the furniture on fire, calling for the resignation of the president. The Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers demanded responsibility from the police for injuring two journalists covering the event.
Afterwards, the protests continued moving towards the Parliament and clashed with the police on their way towards the VMRO-DPMNE headquarters.
Before the president announced the pardon, a group of 85 NGOs had scheduled a protest for April 14 demanding that elections be postponed until all conditions for fair and democratic elections are met. The demonstration in front of the Parliament attracted a large turnout following the news, but the peaceful gathering took a violent turn later in front of the headquarters of the ruling party about 0.6 kilometers away. A group of hooded and masked men threw stones, firecrackers and flares at the police forces guarding the building, protesters suspect to provoke a violent reaction. The majority of protesters went to the government building and then peacefully dispersed. In total five police officers were injured and one protester was arrested.
Masked provocateurs at protests in Macedonia are nothing new. In early 2015 during demonstrations demanding justice in the alleged cover-up of a murder by a police officer, a group of woman managed to prevent an escalation of violence by forming human shield to protect the police from projectiles thrown at them by groups of hooded and masked men.
In parallel, VMRO-DPMNE has been organizing counter-protests, using buses to bring in their supporters from other cities in Macedonia, such as Bitola, Prilep, Ohrid, or Shtip. The formal organizer of the counter-protests is a group called GDOM, the Citizen Movement for Defense of Macedonia, and its members include public officials appointed by the ruling party such as directors of state theaters. The demonstrations in the last two days have started near the Parliament, and then moved towards the headquarters of the opposition. Pro-government media have claimed that attendance at the counter-protests is higher. On social media, however, some photos circulating purportedly of leaked text messages sent to civil servants by local party bosses, seem to imply public administration employees are being blackmailed into attending.
Occupation, hunger strikes and a lawsuit
At a press conference on April 14, Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva and her team said that although the main suspects were pardoned, the amnesty does not include the option for the suspects to retain any property gained through illegal means, and so if they find any such cases the property will be seized. She said her office will continue its work and wondered how the president knew all the names of the public figures under investigation to pardon them, when they never gave him that information nor released it to the public.
She also announced a new investigation against the mayor of the municipality of Bitola in southern Macedonia for allegedly misusing more than 300,000 euros on student transportation contracts.
The pardon earned the condemnation of various organizations. Macedonian Helsinki Committee, an NGO providing free legal aid to citizens in case of violations of human rights, announced that they've filed a lawsuit against Ivanov for obstruction of justice.
European integration expert Andreja Stojkovski summed up the legal arguments about the case in a blog post, indicating that the president's amnesty decree is illegal and should be treated as null and void. Macedonia is a candidate for the European Union, and EU officials expressed concern over the pardon.
Students of the Law Faculty in Skopje have started an occupation of the main state university in protest of impunity for criminals, demanding that the president resign.
Citizens of Bitola also held massive protests in the last two days. Thousands marched through the streets with the same demands as their counterparts in Skopje, but in particular they asked for accountability of their mayor.
— Aleksandar (@seljaksotapija) April 14, 2016
“I am proud for being from Bitola!”
Leaked information alleges that 150 prisoners have started a hunger strike in largest penal facility in the country.
Over social media, Macedonians are calling for the immediate resignation of Ivanov and showing their support for the Special Public Prosecutor using the hashtags #протестирам (I Protest!), #ПоддршкаЗаСЈО (“Support for the Special Public Prosecutor”) and #Macedonia. Investigative journalism project Prizma is also maintaining a live blog documenting the events during each protest.