Macedonia: a captured society

Macedonian police forces during a demonstration in Skopje

The hostile environment created by the government makes the work of civil society actors practically impossible. To be a human rights activist in Macedonia is to be a person that is constantly threatened, attacked, and demonized.

The country  has been in a deep political crisis for over eight years now [1], since the pre-term parliamentary elections in 2008 turned violent. The crisis escalated in February 2015, after the opposition revealed wiretaps that indicate serious crimes, abuses, corruption and electoral fraud committed by the country's government and political establishment.

The political agreement, mediated by the international community, started a complicated and turbulent political process, marked by numerous drastic changes in the political situation, multiple postponements of the elections, serious security challenges, and other political and societal distractions. The ruling party has invested hundreds of millions to cop society and public space in the process. Whether it is virtual or physical, public space is controlled by the ruling party, just as the ruling party controls the state.

In April 2016, the Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov announced his decision to pardon politicians charged with crimes or under investigation in the aftermath of the previously mentioned wiretapping scandal. This led to anti-government protests – the "Colorful Revolution" was born.

Capturing the virtual space and creation of a hostile environment

Before the Colorful Revolution started, there were a handful of beacons of truth about Macedonia – some online media, a few print outlets, a very small number of artists and public figures, several CSOs conducting public events… But that was about it.

The ruling party started the substitution of the civil society since the very beginning of its rule. This process became particularly forceful since 2009, when the new legal regulations for civil society came into place. The ruling party gave way to the formation of pro-government and para-political structures registered as CSOs, movements and initiatives that are defending and promoting the ruling party only. Some of them have also been laundering money for the ruling party. Moreover, their task is to professionally display and multiply the voice of the leader and build the myth of Gruevski as a messiah of the country and of the ancient Macedonians.

All in all, there is a hostile legal framework and an even more hostile legal practice and non-implementation of existing legislative provisions that are still friendly on CSOs. Moreover, revenue services, inspections and financial police are turned into a tool for exerting pressure on the whole society, including CSOs.

Capturing media and substitution of civil society

The media are under complete control of the ruling party, and yet another tool for the creation of a hostile environment for civil society actors. Furthermore, they are blind to most of what civil society is doing. The ruling party occupies most of the airtime, whilst opposition and civil society are practically invisible or, if present, they are continuously targeted as treacherous and evil elements in the society.
The ruling party’s attitude towards CSOs is in line with the continuous demonization, public pressure and isolation of civil society organizations. Dozens of violent attacks on CSOs and human rights activists took place in the past few years, without any legal or public disclosure.

There were several violent acts of vandalism in the Old Town of Skopje, in which masked attackers demolished a coffee bar where LGBTI activists were gathered. Employees in public administration attacked a human rights activist, who held a banner at the Skopje Marathon in May, 2016. An activist of the ruling party attacked a female activist at a protest against president Ivanov’s pardon of politicians under investigation of the Special Public Prosecutor in April, 2016. These incidents were documented and publicized, but authorities did not take any action against them.

To be a human rights activist in Macedonia these years is to be a person that is constantly threatened, attacked, discredited, and demonized. Traitors, foreign spies, dark forces, sorosoids, poofs, creeps, freaks – are only a small fraction of the terms used for human rights activists in public speeches and social media, as well as in the traditional media.

Civic engagement is practically impossible

The physical limitations of civil society actors and limiting public spaces for civic engagement are a daily reality in Macedonia. Absurd bureaucratic attitude of the administration at local and central level, prevents citizens from using what they should actually possess, according to the Constitution – public space. Also banning events of CSOs is a regular practice. CIVIL – Center for Freedom was forbidden to hold events in public space four times in Bitola only. Sometimes, authorities act as if they are worried for the wellbeing of activists, so they send a dozen of police officers to obstruct the work of a small info-stand. The aim of this is to scare people off, since, if the aim of the authorities was to protect human rights activists and independent journalists and intellectuals, they would have taken measures to investigate and raise charges against attackers in numerous incidents in the past few years. At least.

Sustainability of CSOs in a hostile environment created by the ruling party, politicized institutions and media, is practically impossible. No business entity would dare to sponsor a public event of the demonized civil society organizations, because inspections and financial police will be the immediate consequence.

Ruling party-directed bogus civil society organizations have misused EU and other international donors’ funds, as well. This only adds to the decade-long practice of enormously well elaborated and practiced abuse of public funds. The preposterous Skopje 2014 project, a government-funded project with the aim to varnish the Macedonian capital, far exceeding the initially announced figure of €80 million with an alarming lack of transparency of the financial outgoings and construction contracts, is only the most visible and the most unsophisticated form of violations, corruption, and theft, as well as occupation of public space.

The struggle continues

The way-out of this situation is certainly not going to be easy and short-term. The fear that has been implanted in the society is widespread and political corruption and clientelism have become an integral part of the lives of Macedonian citizens. Public space is also occupied by shady businesses conducted by investors close to the ruling party, as we could hear from the wiretaps, revealed by the opposition in February 2015. The private security agency has been watching and guarding every square inch of public space, including public buildings and institutions.

A special police force is guarding the government’s headquarters, banning anyone from approaching it, not to speak of throwing color on it, which became the trademark of the Colorful Revolution in Macedonia. Gruevski’s security guards, employed by the Ministry of the Interior, paid by citizens, broke into the private TV 21 station, running after a journalist who took pictures of Gruevski demanding to delete them. No law in the country allows such behavior.

Civil society needs to get more active

Despite all hazard, citizen journalism, independent online news production, and regular online activism provides civil society with resources to mobilize and act in the public space. Police arrests and persecution of civil society leaders did not stop the demands for freedom, democracy and justice in the country. Frequent public events, protests, guerilla actions and online activism are the main combat tools for civil society to tackle the crude occupation of public space in the country. Parallel to that, civil society needs to improve its constituency building and gain credibility. Elitism, conformism, and arrogance do not help.

A few civil society organizations have developed a dynamic and multifaceted online production that provides comprehensive content to serve as an independent informative resource, but also as a civic education and mobilization tool, even though the ruling party guards the online space, attacking every online outlet that is not in line with the party’s pronounced views. Civil society needs to get more active and organizations and civic initiatives need to overcome their mutual rivalries and unprincipled competitiveness.

When we speak of public events, we have to think of providing a safe space for socially responsible artists and intellectuals to express and share opinions and expertise. Education through creativity is an excellent tool for younger generations, as well. These actions need to be conducted in a manner of solidarity and understanding between civil society actors.

We have a long and heavy struggle ahead, in order to re-claim public space, freedom, and democracy. Defiance is the first step only.

This article is a shorter version of a case study from the publication "Shrinking Spaces in the Western Balkans", published by our foreign office for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The article ist part of our dossier: Squeezed – Space for Civil Society.

[1] The largest ethnic Macedonian right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE, led by Nikola Gruevski, has been in power for ten years now. Gruevski resigned from his position of Prime Minister in January 2016, but only formally, since he still holds all the strings of power in the government. The ruling party has been in an eight-year-long coalition with the Democratic Union for Integration, a political party of the ethnic Albanians, led by Ali Ahmeti, former leader of the UCK in Macedonia.