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News 17 May 15

Macedonians Stage Mass Protest for PM’s Resignation

Tens of thousands of people rallied in Skopje for the resignation of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski amid a political crisis sparked by a mass surveillance scandal.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
People carried placards calling for Gruevski to step down, while some waved Macedonian and Albanian flags. | Photo by Robert Atanasovski

Around 60,000 people gathered in front of the government building in Skopje on Sunday at a mass rally against Gruevski's administration, which they accuse of widespread corruption, undemocratic practices and large-scale illegal surveillance.

“I’m sending a specific and clear message on behalf of us all: Gruevski, do not stall. You can see for yourself. Your time is up. Leave!” opposition Social Democrats leader Zoran Zaev told the protesters.

Zaev also accused Gruevski and his government of stealing public funds while posturing as great patriots.

“We now hear Gruevski saying that it would be cowardly if he leaves. Isn't it cowardly to keep Macedonia a hostage? This gathering here says one thing - with or without his agreement, he will leave,” he said.

Opposition Social Democrats leader Zoran Zaev. | Photo by BIRN
Up to 40,000 people gathered in front of the government building in Skopje. | Photo by BIRN
Tens of thousands of people rallied in Skopje for the resignation of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevsk. | Photo by BIRN

The protesters were calling for the formation of a transitional government that will prepare the country for what they call free and fair elections.

Their anger has been fuelled in recent months by the opposition’s release of wire-tapped recordings allegedly showing how top officials including Gruevski were involved in corruption, vote-rigging, and the cover-up of a murder.

"I came here hoping that something will change, that we will manage to return democracy to Macedonia. I hope it is not too late for that,” one protester, Julija Krsteva, told BIRN.

“This government should finally leave,” said another protestor, Jana Kocevska.

As the rally came to an end, Social Democrat party supporters started setting up tents in front of the government building in preparation for a long-term sit-in protest camp.

Zaev has vowed to maintain the sit-in until Gruevski steps down. But Gruevski’s ruling VMRO DPMNE party has scheduled its own counter-rally for Monday, causing fears of clashes.

People protesting in front of the Government building in Skopje. | Photo by BIRN
Protesters in Skopje. | Photo by BIRN
Protesters in Skopje. | Photo by BIRN

Addressing Sunday's protest, former Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev also accused the government of squandering public funds on personal enrichment: “In Macedonia, lots of money was spent on luxury instead of health,” he said.

Former Macedonian diplomat Nikola Dimitrov, who served as deputy minister of health in Gruevski’s government from 2006 to 2008, accused the prime minister of wasting money on an expensive makeover of the capital while the country remained poor and undeveloped.

“Of the many facade projects, Gruevski forgot the main one - Macedonia,” Dimitrov said.

Gruevski insisted the day before the protest however that he would not step down,  and warned if there was unrest, the police would "respond accordingly".

Protesters holding a Macedonian flags and banners reading "Resignation" and "Goodbye Nikola" protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski as they march towards the offices of Macedonia's conservative government, in capital Skopje. | Photo by BIRN

“This government should finally leave,” another protestor, Jana Kocevska, told BIRN. | Photo by BIRN

Thousands of Albanians, who make up one quarter of the country's population, also joined the protest. Four smaller ethnic Albanian parties and one ethnic Albanian political movement had called on their supporters to join in.

People carried placards calling for Gruevski to step down, while some waved Macedonian and Albanian flags – an attempt to show that ethnic Macedonians and the country’s minority Albanian population are united in their demand for change.

The rally was organised by opposition parties and backed by many non-government organisations and rights movements. Macedonian students who started gathering around noon in front of Skopje’s university also joined the rally.

Different nationalities in Macedonia protest against Gruevski's government. | Photo by BIRN
Banner "Goodbye, Nikola." | Photo by BIRN
Protests in front of Macedonian government building. | Photo by BIRN
Girl holds a banner taht writes "Resignation." | Photo by BIRN

Gatherings in support of the protesting Macedonians are also being staged in Amsterdam, London, Ljubljana, Sofia and Sarajevo.

 

Gatherings in support of the protesting Macedonians are also being staged in Amsterdam.

Ahead of the demonstration, Zaev said it would be "the biggest ever protest rally in Macedonia" and that directly afterwards, a non-stop sit-in protest would maintain the pressure on Gruevski and his government.

"Some 4,600 activists have decided on their own initiative to sleep out in front of the government building and to continue the protest," he said.

Before the rally, social media were full of messages suggesting that the authorities had tried to stop protesters arriving from other Macedonian towns. The opposition said frequent police checks on buses and cars were aimed at stopping protesters going to the capital and a photo was posted of a truck allegedly blocking the highway from Veles to Skopje.

The opposition also said that transport companies cancelled buses that were booked to carry protesters to Skopje. "They said they are doing this because of the threat that their buses will be burned," Zaev told a press conference on Saturday.

Sunday’s rally came after another smaller protest in Skopje on May 5 saw police targeting protesters in the streets after a small group of people - who the peaceful protesters called provocateurs - attacked officers on duty at the demonstration.

The Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights said that more than 40 protesters, including students, have since been arrested, and that 14 are still in detention.

The committee accused the police of detaining peaceful people in order to scare others out of attending anti-government protests.

Zaev said that he and his supporters would try to stop any clashes on Sunday: "We will do everything in our power to make the protest pass off peacefully. Our young activists will form a barrier between the police and the protestors. Activists are also being instructed to react and take photos of even the slightest signs of provocateurs."

The European Parliament is informally monitoring the protests with the aid of the former rapporteur on Macedonia Richard Howitt. Several other MEPs from Germany, Sweden and Finland are also expected to attend the rally and its follow-up as observers.

Photo by: AP / Boris Grdanoski

On Thursday and Friday, the OSCE special representative for the Western Balkans, Ambassador Gerard Stoudmann, the OSCE high commissioner on minorities, Astrid Thors, and Germany's diplomat in charge of Southeast Europe, Ernst Reichel, called for restraint on all sides.

On Wednesday, leaders of all main political parties, with the mediation of the US ambassador Jess Baily and EU ambassador Aivo Orav, signed a declaration on non-violence and agreed to meet again on Monday.

Since February, the opposition has been releasing taped conversations that appear to show that the government has been involved in a wide range of anti-democratic practices.

They include election fraud, abuse of the justice system and covering up the murder of a young man by a police officer.

Gruevski has insisted that the opposition's tapes of official conversations were "created" by unnamed "foreign [intelligence] services" and given to the opposition in order to destabilise the country.

Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Grievski | Photo by: AP / Boris Grdanoski

Sunday's protest follows a recent two-day shootout between police and gunmen in the northern town of Kumanovo. Eight police officers died and 37 were injured in the fighting.

The crisis briefly interrupted the anti-government protests and diverted attention from the wiretapping scandal facing Gruevski.

But the timing of the events in Kumanovo prompted many opponents of the government, including Social Democrats leader Zaev, to accuse the authorities of attempting to distract the public from the crisis by orchestrating ethnic unrest.

Protests in front of Macedonian government building. | Photo by BIRN

Two days after calling the police action in Kumanovo a success, Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska, the chief of the secret police, Saso Mijalkov, and Transportation Minister Mile Janakieski - all heavily implicated in the illegal surveillance scandal - resigned.

But government opponents said that the resignations were too little, too late, and that only the resignation of the entire government would bring an end to the protests.

People with Macedonian and Albanian flags dance while protesting in front of the Government building in Skopje. | Photo by Boris Grdanoski/AP
People carrying banners, national flags and flags of the ethnic communities protest in front of the Government building in Skopje. | Photo by Boris Grdanoski/AP
Protester waving Macedonian flag in front of the offices of Macedonia's conservative government during a protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. | Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP
Thousands gather at protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. | Photo by Robert Atanasovski
Thousands gather at protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. | Photo by Robert Atanasovski
Thousands gather at protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. | Photo by Robert Atanasovski
Zoran Zaev arrives at the protest.| Photo by Robert Atanasovski
Thousands gather at protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. | Photo by Robert Atanasovski
Thousands gather at protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. | Photo by Robert Atanasovski
Thousands gather at protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. | Photo by Robert Atanasovski
Thousands gather at protest against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. | Photo by Robert Atanasovski

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