Discontent is bubbling away in Macedonia, where opposition politicians have disclosed secret audio recordings that suggest the country's intelligence services illegally wiretapped government employees, politicians, journalists, editors, and foreign diplomatic representatives.
Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social-Democrat Party, brought the tapes to the public’s attention in early February 2015. He alleges that the spying was done on the order of conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and members of his family.
The leaked tapes allegedly span a four-year period and seem to confirm, among other things, suspicions of election fraud during the 2014 vote (in which Prime Minister Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE party claimed victory) and of an official cover-up in the 2011 murder of Martin Neshkovski at the hands of a police officer.
Spurred by the revelations of alleged injustice in the Neshkovski case, Macedonians around the country took to the streets beginning in early May. On May 5, what began as peaceful protests in Macedonia's capital Skopje turned violent as police began dispersing the crowds with water cannons, smoke bombs and batons.
Demonstrations have become a normal sight in large cities of the country, one of the poorest in Europe. Macedonia, which was once part of Yugoslavia, grapples with social inequality, and the government has certainly been accused of ineptitude and corruption before. But such violence was a disturbing new development.
During a second day of protests, a group of women formed a human shield around police in an effort to keep the peace in light of “football fans” wearing hoods and masks who were throwing objects at the parliament and the police cordon.
Journalist Vlado Apostolov (@apostolov80) posted a video of the event:
On the first day of protests, one particular participant caught the world's attention after a Reuters photographer captured her reapplying her red lipstick using one of the riot police officer's shields to view her reflection.
This woman is everything pic.twitter.com/XKySELebVT
— Molly Crabapple (@mollycrabapple) Mayo 6, 2015
“Lipstick protester” Jasmina Golubovska, a rights activist and a representative of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Macedonia, explained in an interview with Global Voices what Macedonians in the streets were hoping to achieve:
There is too much speculation via media outlets building on the political crisis. However, what civil society is demanding is a new beginning, a start from scratch. I like to associate that start with the formatting of our computers. You press “format disk” and start all over again, this time including the demands of the movements and interest of the citizens mentioned in the first question. Our people deserve a country based on the principles of peace, justice, and social solidarity. They need a new chance to live freely and in prosperity. In regards to escalation of the protests, no one can know for sure due to the fast development of the political and security crisis. Things are changing as we speak, but the people need to stand behind their demands for government resignation and accountability of all.
Media under threat
The Social-Democrat Party, which has boycotted parliament since elections in 2014, claims that the surveillance targeted tens of thousands of opposition members, journalists, NGO workers, and unaffiliated political activists, as well as some of their own workers, who were unofficially labeled by the current government as “traitors.”
Freedom of the press has long been under pressure in Macedonia. The Interior Ministry's top intelligence official Sasho Mijalkov, who is accused of heading the illegal wiretapping, was instrumental in implementing financial pressure on a critical Macedonian weekly magazine in a defamation lawsuit in 2014, which ultimately led to the magazine’s shutter and large fines for its editor and journalists.
In April 2015, Borjan Jovanovski, a prominent Macedonian news anchor, received a funeral wreath at his home with the message “Final Farewell.” Jovanovski works for the independent news website Nova TV and is a well-known critic of Prime Minister Gruevski's government.
In an op-ed on Balkan Insight in March, investigative journalist Meri Jordanovska described what it felt like receiving evidence that she was one of the reporters being wiretapped:
I can clearly see that someone knew in advance what story I was working on. Enough for me to conclude that my sources of information were endangered. Enough for the centers of power to be able to react preventively before the story was published. Enough to become aware, even though I had always suspected this, that some people know the problems of those closest to me – people who had shared personal matters with me over the phone.
One week before the tapes were revealed, Prime Minister Gruevski charged Zaev and others with conspiring with a foreign intelligence service to topple the government. Since protests began, Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska, Transport Minister Mile Janakieski and intelligence chief Mijalkov have all resigned.
Following a deadly gun battle between an armed ethnic Albanian and police in May, in which 22 people were killed, European Union officials mediated talks between Gruevski and Zaev to resolve the political crisis in the EU candidate country. But negotiations have so far failed to achieve a resolution.
Macedonia's constitution explicitly protects the right to privacy, but under recent reforms, authorities have required telecommunications operators to build “back doors” into their technologies so that the Security and Counterintelligence Service, known as UBK, can listen to the conversations of just about anyone it chooses.
Although the Constitution requires that the UBK obtain a court order before doing so, the new policy and practice disregards this requirement altogether. A European Commission review committee has urged Macedonia to urgently fix this “considerable gap between legislation and practice.”
For more coverage, check out:
- Meta.mk (available in Albanian, English and Macedonian)
- NovaTV (in Macedonian)
- Balkan Insight (in English)
- Macedonia in English (@Macedonia_en) Twitter handle
- A tongue-in-cheek explanation of the situation in Macedonia as compared to the US, written by a BuzzFeed community member: Imagine this happening on Obama’s Reelection!