SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonians staged a vast rally yesterday, flooding Skopje’s sprawling boulevards and alleyways and demanding the immediate resignation of a government embroiled in a wiretap scandal.
An estimated 40,000 people marched in Skopje, the capital city, gathering in front of the Government’s pristine, white headquarters, where they demanded embattled Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s resignation.
“No justice, no peace,” the crowd chanted.
Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish and Serbian flags fluttered amid the massed crowd, a rare display of unity in the often ethnically tense Balkan state, highlighting widespread discontent with Gruevski’s rule.
“This Government has attempted to make us feel powerless,” said 28-year-old Frosina Stojkovska, a modern literature student. “They want to make Macedonia and their party the same thing. They want absolute power.”
Since February, opposition politicians have released a slew of wiretaps, leaked by a government insider, showing widespread corruption, abuse of office, electoral fraud, mass surveillance, tender-rigging and even the cover-up of – and planned smear campaign against – a protester killed by police four years ago.
Street vendors hawked popcorn and beer, as poets and celebrities took to the stage, addressing the crowd, which called for Gruevski’s resignation in deafening booms.
“Your time is up,” opposition Social Democrats leader Zoran Zaev, responsible for publicising many of the wiretaps, told protesters, according to local media. “Leave.”
The Government claims the wiretaps are doctored, part of a “dark” plot by “foreign secret services” to undermine the Government and destabilise the impoverished, landlocked Balkan state.
Whistles screamed and trumpets blared, with the crowd chanting, “enough with the silence.”
“The Government is totalitarian,” one protester, who like many, did not want to be named for fear of government retribution. “We all knew about their corruption and lies – it was a public secret – now everything is out in the open.”
Protesters carried placards reading, “freedom comes from within” and “when you have an impotent government, only the people can rise”, during the festival-like protests.
The wiretap scandal has compelled an array of disparate protest movements – most notably, students and architects angered by Skopje’s gaudy overhaul – to coalesce around the common objective of forcing Gruevski’s resignation and forming a transitional government.
“We tried to negotiate with Gruevski through institutional, legal channels. This didn’t work,” said an activist from the local Student Plennum, which has formed the backbone of the protests. “So now we have to take more radical action.”
During Gruevski’s nine years in power, the state bureaucracy has been politicised along his conservative ruling VRMO party’s lines, NGO’s harassed and dissidents marginalised.
Police brutality has become routine. Dismissals from the bureaucracy for opposition to Gruevski have become routine, according to rights activists.
“Macedonia has become like a mafia state, an oligarchy,” said Jasmina Gulobskova, an analyst at the Macedonia Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.
An image of her kissing a police officer’s shield went viral during recent protests.
“Human rights have worsened, while ethnic discrimination, a failure to implement laws, hate speech, torture and police brutality continue to rise.”
As night fell, the protests had remained peaceful, despite a noticeable police presence.
Tents began to be erected, as young men and women laid out mattresses, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, drum beats pumping from speakers.
Opposition political factions – and many more protesters – have vowed to occupy the green space near the government complex until Gruevski leaves.
“We now hear Gruevski saying that it would be cowardly if he leaves, said Zaev, media reports indicate. “This gathering here says one thing: with or without his agreement, he will leave.”
Gruevski’s supporters have vowed a counter-rally late Monday evening, prompting fears that a bloody showdown looms.
“The Government is unpredictable,” said a bearded activist from the local Solidarity Movement, 28-year-old Anastas Vangeli. “I want to tell Gruevski’s supporters not to be afraid of us, we want freedom from this tyrant for all Macedonians.”