The small Southeastern European country of Macedonia has recently been in the international media spotlight for all the wrong reasons: the last few months have seen massive anti-government demonstrations, marked by police violence towards unarmed protesters, as well as illegal restrictions of movement and unjustified arrests of civil society activists.
Last week, in a seemingly unrelated development, an armed battle broke out between a group of gunmen and police forces in a town with a large ethnic Albanian minority.
The events have attracted media coverage and commentary that has rarely departed from the usual trope that is used to describe events in the Balkans. There is talk of endemic corruption, historical legacies, ethnic tensions and deep societal divisions.
A lot of this is undoubtedly true, as revealed by the wiretapped mobile phone recordings leaked to the main opposition party in the country. It is alleged that the recordings were made by two individuals at the head of the country’s authoritarian government, including its Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. His right-wing political party has dominated the country’s governing structures since 2006, becoming increasingly more oppressive and (as evidence suggests) corrupt along the model implemented by Recep Tayip Erdoğan in Turkey and – to a lesser extent – Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
One of the government’s major initiatives been the Skopje 2014 project. It has been widely criticized for being economically wasteful, indicative of corruption, and counter to all the basic principles of urban planning and architectural design.
The opposition alleges that that 20,000 citizens were subject to surveillance – an unprecedented figure in a country with fewer than 2 million inhabitants. Their content points to extreme practices of financial fraud among top government officials, complete elite capture of the judiciary, media and private sector, widespread vote-rigging, imprisonment and torture of opposition activists, and even indications of murder.
The leaked recordings also offer fascinating insights into how power was practiced by the authoritarian Gruevski government. Among the serious indications of large-scale criminal abuses of office, there are slivers of information about how and why Skopje 2014 came into being.
The wiretapped conversations suggest that the entire project can be attributed to the surreal desires of the country’s Prime Minister, in addition to providing yet more indications of widespread corruption in the construction and urban planning sectors.
It is also possible to discern the extensive presence of clientelism and rent-seeking in the energy domain, involving the illegal employment of political party members as well as racketeering. These practices have been associated with the management of the main state-owned electricity generation company.
Nevertheless, the public reaction to the recordings reveals a different side to the country. It challenges mainstream reporting on the recent crisis and offers hope that a different political future is possible.
In reaction to the authoritarian practices of the government, the period since 2009 has constantly seen mass public protests and other displays of civic disobedience. These have gained strength during the past few months. Rather than political parties, the demonstrations have been entirely citizen-led, involving a diverse coalition of individual activists and advocacy groups.
The country’s emergent but massive student movement has played a central part in the protests. This mobilization arose as a result of the government’s efforts to curtail the autonomy of higher educational institutions, and resulted in one of the largest university occupations ever seen in the region. The students have inserted unprecedented amounts of energy and creativity into the rallies.
Being citizen-led means that the demonstrations have bridged existing social and political divides in the country. They have brought together different ethnic groups in a display of solidarity that is rarely seen in this part of the world.
As such, the citizen movement has done more to foster integration than the countless technocratic initiatives funded by international organizations (unfortunately, much of the international community, including the EU, has not been energetic enough in publicly supporting this broad-based mobilization).
Possibly the strongest confirmation of the growing democratization of the country was provided by the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Having been silent for more than a decade with regard to affairs in this part of the world, the Ministry recently issued several official announcements condemning Macedonia’s own ‘colour revolution’.