June 5th, 2011 in Skopje, Macedonia: 23 year-old Martin Neskovski was beaten to death by an officer of the special police forces during the celebration after the election victory of VMRO-DPMNE, Macedonia’s ruling political party. Eyewitnesses confirmed seeing a police officer brutally beating the boy and dragging the body away from the crowd. In its initial reports during the two days following the boy’s death, the Ministry of Interior stated that there were no signs of violence on the victim’s body. The event immediately triggered series of peaceful street protests by thousands of young people in Macedonia and eventually lead to the conviction of one police officer.
However, not everyone knew the whole story. May 5th, almost five years later, the opposition released a series of wiretapped conversations that reveal that the head of the Prime minister’s personal security gave commands to the officer who murdered Neskovski, implying responsibility for his actions on the side of authorities, as well. In gruesome detail, the public could hear the minister of interior Gordana Jankulovska, the ministry’s spokesperson Ivo Kotevski, the Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, PM’s chief of staff Martin Protugjer and the head of the national intelligence agency Sasho Mijalkov plotting to assign the murder on the police officer alone and avoid responsibility on their side.
The conversations revealing the scenario are a part of a major wiretapping scandal published by the opposition. Ever since February this year, 29 rounds of leaked conversations, popularly dubbed as ‘bombs’ have been revealed before the public, revealing major abuse of powers and criminal activities on the side of high-ranking officials in the Macedonian Government. According to the opposition and domestic security experts, the wiretapping was administered by the national Intelligence Agency, run by the prime minister’s first cousin Sasho Mijalkov and the materials were subsequently leaked by employees of the organization. The reaction of government officials involved in regards to the latest round of leaked conversations has been the same as to all 28 released before: the tapes were cut, edited and created as a part of the opposition’s collaboration with ‘foreign secret services’ in order to destabilize the country.
Whereas all rounds of the leaked conversations were received with resentment by the critical mass in the country, the latest conversations spurred genuine anger against the system which is increasingly seen as corrupt, unjust and totalitarian. Thousands of citizens from different nationality, age and gender gathered in front of the government, determined to push for the resignation of the minister of interior and almost made their way inside the building. They were chanting against the government and calling for the police deployed in front of the building to join them. The new façade of the government building, redesigned in neo-baroque style against popular support, was covered in eggs by the end of the day. Facing with rising numbers of protesters and caught off-guard, the police presence was reinforced with hundreds of heavily armed special forces, which used tear gas and pushed protesters out using their shields. Protesters were chased, beaten and arrested, some even in the premises of the nearby public library, which was raided by the police later that night. The violence used on the side of the police was largely disproportionate to the numbers and the behavior of the protesters. The minister of interior Jankulovska calmly directed the response at the doorstep of the government building.
A couple of points can be taken from yesterday’s events in Macedonia. First, the protest confirmed the awakening of Macedonian civil society, which has used the rise of public dissent as a springboard to gather an increasing number of supporters. The 10th of December, 2014 saw the biggest student protest since the country’s independence and the conception of authentic student movement which eventually managed to stop an unpopular reform in Macedonian higher education. Driven by the success of the student movement, a series of protests and popular initiatives followed, targeting problems from social inequality to media freedom in what have been the most eventful months of civil activism in the country up to date.
Second, the escalation of uncontrolled police violence, along with the explicitly antagonizing rhetoric of the government against the critical mass in the country is a sign of vulnerability and incompetence to handle the situation. Unlike the previous instances of popular protests where pro-government media limited their impact by discrediting the organizers and misleadingly linking them with the opposition party, the last protest saw the use of brute force masterminded directly by the government leadership. The protesters, on the other hand, demonstrated the ability to transcend categories of ethnicity, age and even political ideology and stand in solidarity against injustice.
Third, given the seriousness of the allegations of crime and abuse of power on the side of high-ranking government officials and elites linked with them, it would not be surprising to see further escalation of violence targeted at the critical mass in the country. The stakes are high for the governing elite whose position is jeopardized after it successfully sidelined the opposition for almost a decade. On top of that, the opposition announced its plan to publish materials later this month showcasing even more serious abuse of power and organize a popular rally to channel the dissent of its supporters. These events may set up the stage for another confrontation between citizens and the police.
Finally, it is necessary that the international community keeps a close eye on the situation and apply peer pressure on government officials to prevent escalation of violence. Some of them have been vocal to condemn the wiretapping scandal, as the German ambassador explicitly referred to resignations of government officials as the pre-condition for a transparent and impartial investigation of the serious allegations. However, at this moment no statements have been issued to condemn yesterday’s events.