Insights on the current protests in Macedonia: An interview with two leading civil society activists

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Emina Nuredinoska (left) of the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation and Tanja Hafner Ademi (right) of the Balkan Civil Society Development Network speak to CIVICUS about ongoing protests against the Government and the current state of civil society in Macedonia.

Tens of thousand of people have joined anti-government protests in Macedonian. Can you tell us about the main drivers of the protests? 

The current protest movement in Macedonia has been catalyzed both by persistent State malfeasance and the recent disclosure of wiretapped conversations implicating the Government in a number of unlawful practices including its systematic campaign to suppress and persecute critical voices in the county. Since the autumn of 2014, there has been broad public discontent when wide-scale protests led by students, cultural workers and journalists emerged in response to ill-conceived, long-term reforms initiated by the State. 

More recently, at the political level, the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), has boycotted parliament since national elections were held on 27 April 2014. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODHIR) declared that the elections, while affectively administered, lacked separation of state institutions and party and suffered from credible reports of voter intimidation and vague campaigning rule. Since 9 February 2015, SDSM, under the auspices of party's leader, Zoran Zaev, has released wiretapped phone conversations of high-ranking officials discussing persecution of government critics, control of the media, dubious business deals and voter fraud. The wiretapping, which allegedly began in 2011, has affected over 20,000 people including state officials, members of the opposition, media and civil society activists. In reaction to the leaks, Zoran Zaev has been charged with organizing a coup. While the opposition has responded by filing charges alleging abuse of power by state intelligence services, the State Prosecutor has reported initiating several investigative processes but has yet to charge any of the government official implicated in the leaks.

On 5 May 2015, a recorded conversation detailing the political cover-up of the murder of 22-year-old Martin Neskovski by police officers in June 2011 was released sparking spontaneous and peaceful protests by citizens and civil society activists in front of the main Government building under the slogan #протеситрам (I protest). In an atmosphere thick with tension (protestors breached barriers erected by police officers, yet remained peaceful), provocateurs began throwing objects towards the police, an act the police interpreted as an invitation to crackdown violently on the protests. Since May 5th, protests have been held every day with police forces preventing protestors from coming within 100 meters of all public buildings excluding the parliament. As a result of these restrictions, some of the protests have evolved into mobile marches around the city. 

Moreover, in response to violent clashes in the ethnically diverse city of Kumanovo, which saw the death of 8 police officers and 10 predominantly Albanian militants, opposition and citizen protests arose on May 17th. These protests, which are some of the largest in the country’s history), have brought together citizens from diverse ethnic, religious and socio-political backgrounds. The following day on May 18th the ruling party staged its own large-scale gathering, while opposition-led protestors established a fixed camp in front of the main Government building and civic activists protested in front of the Basic Court in Skopje calling for release of detained peaceful protests. 

How have state security forces and the Government responded to the protests? 

On the evening of May 5th, after three hours of mostly peaceful protests, a group of provocateurs entered the demonstration and attacked police forces protecting the main Government building. In response to both the peaceful protests and acts of provocations committed by isolated groups, the police used disproportionate force including violently pursuing protestors, harassing students in Brakja Miladinovci library, and indiscriminately detaining protestors. At least 42 protestors remain detained, while several others were released on the condition that they refrain from attending all further protests. On May 22nd, the first group of nine protestors detained was given parole and one received a ten-month prison sentence. It is expected that the rest of will be processed in court by early June.

Protestors have made every effort to ensure that potential provocateurs are not able to enter the protest site or incite violence, including by forming a “life shield” in front of police forces to protect them from attacks by provocateurs. However, to date, the government has failed to publically commit to investigate the excessive use of force by police, disclose the identity of provocateurs or provide a clear justification for the imposition of physical limits on the protests. 

Can you discuss the overall operating environment for civil society in Macedonia?

Generally, civil society in Macedonia continues to operate in a relatively enabling environment. The legal framework that supports and enables the functioning of civil society is solid, guaranteeing the freedoms of association, assembly and expression. Positive change in the legal framework observed in 2014 includes the exclusion of CSOs from obligations imposed under the Law on Prevention of Money Laundering and Other Proceeds from Crime and Financing Terrorism. In practice, direct interference by the State in the work of the CSOs is not recorded, but CSOs point to cases of indirect pressure and restrictions. 

The right to freedom of assembly continues to be significantly practiced. However, in 2014 daily political abuses and isolated cases of restricting gathering venues and excessive and disproportionate presence of police forces at peaceful assemblies were recorded. In March 2015, potentially troubling amendments to the Law on Police  were made in two articles. Under the amendments new means of coercion were added including electric paralyzers, rubber bullets, special vehicles for maintaining public order and peace and pyrotechnical-explosive means. Additionally, another section was added allowing the police to use technical means for video recording to provide video material of police actions, including arrests.

Legal solutions are still lacking to ensure a fully enabling legal framework for the development of civil society in Macedonia that would stimulate long-term, financial sustainability of civil society. The provisions of the tax laws relating to CSOs are not supportive enough. In general, CSOs are equal to other legal entities, such as profit generating entities. State funding, including funds generated from games of chance and entertainment (lotteries), has not been reformed. There is also a lack of institutional support from the state to CSOs, as well as co-financing of EU and international projects. The state allocates approximately 4 million EUR annually, but they do not suit the needs of CSOs considering that they include trade unions, religious communities, and political parties. Also, the amount of money is small and incomparable with the support given to organizations in other countries in the region (e.g. Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, etc.). The procedure for granting funds is insufficiently transparent in practice to allow for fair distribution of funding for civil society by the state. 

The legal framework also provides mechanisms for cooperation and dialogue between the government and civil society, and ensures the involvement of civil society in policy making and law drafting. Essential civic dialogue on issues of importance to the development of civil society in Macedonia is still absent in practice. There is a basis for development of civil dialogue, but there is also a need for institutional upgrading and practicing of public policy. At the end of November 2014, a draft decision on the establishment of the council for promotion of cooperation, dialogue and stimulating the civil society development was released for consultation, which is a step forward and indicates the possibility of building partnerships and dialogue between representatives of the Government and civil society organizations. Modest progress in practice has been observed among existing institutions and mechanisms for cooperation between Government and CSOs. CSOs are insufficiently involved in the policy making and law drafting by the state administration bodies. The standards set for the involvement of civil society organizations are not entirely respected by the state administration on one side, while the interest and initiative of civil society organizations is still low on the other side.

How can regional and international civil society groups offer support to civil society in Macedonia?

Several petitions have been started by activists and citizens such as “Support for free and democratic Macedonia” and “Call for solidarity with Macedonian protestors” which are open to public support from citizens, academics and civil society from across the world. 

To ensure that citizens and civil society are able to freely exercise their right to freedom of assembly, national institutions should:

  • Undertake an immediate investigation into the use of excessive force against demonstrators during the May 5th protests;
  • End all unwarranted restrictions on assemblies and at a minimum ensure the realization of the principle of “in sight and sound”;
  • Immediately cease the unlawful and indiscriminate detention of peaceful protestors and release all protestors who have been unjustifiably imprisoned. 

All interested citizens and civil society can provide support and solidarity by expressing the above concerns to Macedonian embassies and consulates in their countries. Since Macedonia is a candidate country for membership in the European Union, support from civil society and citizens from EU Member States and EU institutions will help to ensure that national authorities act upon the above concerns.

About the organisations:

Macedonian Center for International Cooperation

MCIC is a civil society organization from Macedonia established in 1993 that strives to facilitate and introduce changes for solution of the societal challenges, by means of innovation and establishment of alternative models and their mainstreaming. MCIC implemented more than 70 programs with 1,589 projects and budget of approx. 51 million EUR in 20 years of its existence. It recorded a series of remarkable achievements in several fields of work: organizational and institutional development of civil society and municipalities; development of local communities; and promotion and practice of tolerance and inter-ethnic dialogue.

Balkan Civil Society Development Network

BCSDN is a network of 15 civil society organizations from 10 countries and territories in South East Europe (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia and Turkey). Its mission is to empower civil society and influence European and national policies towards more enabling environment for civil society development in order to ensure sustainable and functioning democracies in the Balkans. Formed into a network in 2003 and registered as of 2009, it focuses mainly on monitoring and advocating for improved European and Enlargement countries’ policies and support to civil society via the Monitoring Matrix on Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development. BCSDN Executive Office is based in Skopje, Macedonia.