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Feature 10 Mar 17

Fears Grow that Macedonia's 'Patriot' Protests May Turn Violent

Thursday's rallies against the announced formation of an opposition-led government passed off peacefully - but many wonder what will happen if the opposition acts on threats to form a government without the President's permission.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
People during a protest in front of the parliament building in Skopje: Photo: MIA

Chanting patriotic songs and waving Macedonian flags, thousands of protesters marched through Skopje on Thursday before ending their rally at their usual spot, in front of the parliament.

Some chanted overtly racist slogans like "Clean Macedonia", before the protest organizers warned them to stop.

"We have stood as Macedonians for thousands of years and we are not going to lose our country now that we have it," 40-year-old Zaneta from Skopje, one of the participants, said.

"We are not against the Albanians but making Albanian [language] official is out of the question; they have Albania for that," she said.

Zaneta erupted in anger as soon as she heard the name of the opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, who has assembled a majority in parliament thanks to a deal he has struck with the the key ethnic Albanian parties.

Last Wednesday, President Gjorge Ivanov refused to give him a mandate to form a government, claiming the concessions he had agreed with the Albanian parties endangered the country's survival.

"Zaev] is wrong if he thinks he can trade national interests just for the sake of power! What he did, accepting bilingualism and all of their [Albanian] demands was treason and he should be held accountable. This country has a constitution!" Zaneta said.

"We are here to raise our voice against the federalization of the country, bilingualism and changes to the name [of Macedonia]," 61-year-old Stole told BIRN, referring to Greek demands that Macedonia change its name.

People fly balloons in the colors of the national flag. Photo: MIA

He said he was from the town of Stip but came to Skopje by bus "voluntarily as a patriot", he said, "because there was a free ride".

The protest organizers insist they have nothing to do with the former ruling VMRO DPMNE party, led by Nikola Gruevski.

However, the rallies started immediately after Gruevski called on supporters to "mobilize" in defence of the country, or as he more recently put it, "not to sit idle around house in slippers."
Protest organizers deny political ties:

Like VMRO DPMNE, the protesters say a potential coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Albanian parties would endanger Macedonia's sovereignty as a result of Zaev's alleged acceptance of their "joint platform".

Among other things, the platform calls for greater official use of the Albanian language and a fairer distribution of the national budget along ethnic lines.

The protesters and VMRO DPMNE call on Zaev to publicly reject the platform of the Albanian parties, which they say was cooked up in Albania and does not have the support of the voters.

One of the protest group’s organisers, the blogger Bogdan Ilievski, told BIRN they were just an informal civic initiative, comprising people who "realize that someone must articulate the dissatisfaction with what has been going on [in Macedonia] for quite some time".

In April 24, 2016, in a column published in the pro-VMRO DPMNE news outlet Telegraf, Ilievski argued that the then daily protests against the President's move to pardon 56 top politicians were not authentic civic demonstration but a cover for the opposition.

Protesters deny political ties with right-wing VMRO DPMNE party. Photo: MIA

"Whenever political parties want to simulate a wide civil support around some of their ideas, thinking we are dumb and blind, they put a scenario under our noses under which a 'spontaneous' civil initiative suddenly emerges from nowhere," he wrote.

However, he insists the initiative he leads today is something else.

"The difference is that the people who form the core of this initiative trust each other and won't let anyone else misuse our goals," Ilievski said, adding that "maybe the time for authentic civil initiatives has finally come."

Authentic or not, many prominent members of VMRO DPMNE , as well as heads of public enterprises and institutions, have been frequent attendants at the protests.

Among them is VMRO DPMNE central committee member Aleksandar Florovski and the head of the national archive, Filip Petrovski.

The Social Democrats insist that the President's refusal to allow them to form a government and the street protests have all been coordinated in order to heighten tension in the country, so that VMRO DPMNE can cling on to power, and its leaders escape justice for the many crimes they are accused of.

Gruevski and his closest associates in the party, which has held power since 2006, are under investigation by the Special Prosecution, SJO, which was formed with the help of EU mediation to probe high-level crimes after the opposition released wiretaps of official conversations in 2015 that it said implicated many VMRO DPMNE officials in various offences.

Fear of possible violence:

Coincidating with the start of protests, a series of incidents, including physical and verbal attacks on journalists, NGO members and other critics of VMRO DPMNE, have heightened fears of tension and even violence.

People during a protest in front of the parliament building in Skopje: Photo: MIA

Last week, a reporter and a cameraman from A1on media outlet were attacked while following the protests in Skopje. After the protest organizers failed to condemn the incident, many media outlets, apart from state-run and pro-government outlets, stopped following the rallies in a sign of protest.

While the protest organizers at Thursday's rally in Skopje announced that their rallies will only gain in strength and size, the big question is whether these largely peaceful protests could turn violent if the new opposition-led majority in parliament acts on threats to elect a new speaker and a new government without the President's permission.

Ilievski insists he will not be drawn on that possibility.

"Hypothetically speaking, no one can prevent anyone from electing a new speaker of parliament ... I would not comment on 'what if' scenarios. I would only appeal once more to the politicians to be up to their task," he said.

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