SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonia braces for large-scale civil unrest this weekend, as an anti-government protest movement gathers momentum.
The unrest follows a whistleblower’s ongoing release of damaging wiretaps and a day of bloody gun battles last weekend that left 22 people dead.
Thousands of protesters are expected to flood central Skopje, the capital city, tomorrow, demanding the resignation of conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s Government, in power for nine years.
Opposition politicians have released a slew of wiretaps in the past month – leaked by a government insider – appearing to show abuse of office, electoral fraud, tender rigging, mass surveillance and even a cover-up of the murder of a protester several years ago by some of the highest figures in the land.
Three Macedonian Cabinet ministers, including the Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska and the chief of secret police, resigned on Wednesday, a move interpreted as an attempt to slake street-level anger with the Government.
“This is no time for triumphalism. The resignations … are not our ultimate goal,” wrote opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, who has been responsible for publicising the leaks, on his Facebook page. “This is just a step towards the end of Nikola Gruevski.”
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.
The state prosecutor has meantime charged Zaev and other leftist politicians with attempting to topple the Government.
Regardless, the wiretaps have united Macedonians across an, oft bitter, ethnic Slav-Albanian divide, while seeing an array of protest movements coalesce around the common goal of forcing Gruevski’s departure.
Few doubt the recordings’ authenticity.
Many thousands of Macedonians have taken to the streets across the country, chanting “no justice, no peace”. They have been met with an increasingly brutal police response: tear gas, plastic bullets and a wave of arrests.
The Prime Minister, Zaev and several other political figures reportedly met yesterday in an attempt to defuse the crisis, issuing a joint statement vowing to respect “democratic values, including the right to peaceful protest and to condemn violence”.
However, reports indicate that Zaev intends to release further wiretaps and that the political impasse remains unresolved.
The current mayhem, possibly approaching its apex, represents the most significant challenge to Macedonia’s stability since Nato and European Union diplomacy averted a full-blown civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency 14 years ago.
Adding to the sense of an impending showdown, police last week launched a dawn raid against what it labelled a “terrorist group” composed of ethnic Albanians in the frontier town of Kumanovo, 40km north of the capital.
In the ensuing day of bloody street combat, eight predominantly ethnic Slav police officers and 14 militants – part of what the Interior Ministry described as a 44-member cell, which infiltrated Kumanovo from neighbouring Kosovo – were killed.
Analysts have previously cautioned political factions against stirring up ethnic tensions at times of crisis.