A Revolution that Devoured its Children Before it even Happened
Since February this year, the Macedonian opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), has been continuously releasing documents incriminating the ruling party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), of mass wiretapping, frauds, corruption and notorious abuse of the – in theory – democratic system for personal and party purposes. The information sparked mass protests, but the situation in the country has remained generally peaceful. The only exception is a few odd and inexplicable incidents which happened around Macedonia in the past months, such as minor explosions, an attack on a police station in Gosince, and the two-days-long battle between police forces and alleged Albanian terrorists related to the Kosovo Liberation Army in Kumanovo. The peak of the protests came in mid-May after information about a governmental cover-up of the murder of 21-year old Martin Neskovski by a policeman in 2011 was released.
Everything that has been happening after Kumanovo and the big protests of May 17th raises a number of questions. What really happened and who has been managing these events? And even more importantly: who is playing with whom against whom. The first gunshots fired in Kumanovo were followed by days of no information from the ground and disinformation on conventional and new media, including false information about incidents in other cities.
It is most likely that we will never find out if the armed clash was a governmental set up organised in order to distract the public’s attention from the protests or a real anti-terrorist operation. Nevertheless, the fact is that it has changed the dynamics of the protests. Assuming that there was at least a small component of hope of the authorities for sparking ethnic tensions involved – this part of the plan was completely unsuccessful. On the other hand, though, the events in Kumanovo have influenced the situation significantly. It overlapped with the growing engagement of the SDSM in managing the protesters. Together they have woken up the societal sense of being manipulated.
At the beginning of the protests, the situation seemed optimistic. There was a lot of positive energy in the society, a powerful convergence of Albanians and Macedonians, hope for de-ethicising of the party system in the country and a show of courage by the opposition party to release critical information. This included information about the so-called “Monstrum” case – a killing of five ethnic Macedonian civilians at Smilikovci Lake in 2012 followed by life imprisonment for six Macedonian Albanians in what resulted as one of the most severe ethnic tensions in the country. Allegedly it could have been manipulated by the authorities in order to empower the ethnic tensions in the country and maintain control and loyalty of ethnically-driven voters. For some reason, the SDSM leaders have decided not to release the documents they claim to have in their possession. This is probably due to a complex mix of fear of the societal reaction to the information and a willingness to maintain the most powerful bargaining chip in the negotiations with the ruling party.
The fear usually referred to as the crucial reason, however, is more irrational. As many point out in Macedonia, if the case was in fact manipulated it would create a situation where all involved parties were victims of the system – the killed ethnic Macedonians and the sentenced Macedonian Albanians. This could create a sense of unity among both ethnic groups. The social-democrats frequently underline that the release of the “bombs” has created such a sense of being exploited by the authoritarian system in the whole society despite the fact of being a Macedonian or Albanian. However, as it might have been true at the beginning of the process, Albanians now feel that they are being used by the opposition just as they were used by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE. The initial enthusiasm of the Albanians, represented by numerous applications by Albanian citizens for SDSM membership, and the symbolic use of a hashtag for the protests in both languages – Macedonian #ПРОТЕСТИРАМ and Albanian #PROTESTOJ (both mean “I protest”), has already been wasted to a great extent.
The mistakes made by the opposition party have a great demobilising and disintegrating potential in the country. Even though the steps they have undertaken are undoubtedly brave and somewhat revolutionary, with an unclear strategy together with weak pressure from the EU the overall result of the initiated “revolution” is questionable. Somewhere in the planning process on how to release the “bombs” there was a clear lack of understanding of natural social dynamics. After a certain amount of time public opinion can become accustomed to everything. Even the most shocking revelations stop being shocking when they are being served to the public every week for months. Now everyone knows that the bad guys are truly bad. So what? First, they still guarantee work, subsidies and basic social care. Second, one cannot organise his whole life around a protest that goes on for months. It has been fun and empowering but it is simply exhausting in the long-run.
All the same
Moreover, the SDSM is confronted with the societal remembrance of their governments in the past that remain evaluated not positively. A growing number of citizens start to feel that the long and non-transparent process of revealing the bombs and playing with the wiretaps they have, puts Zoran Zaev (leader of the opposition) in the exactly same position as the prime minister, Nikola Gruevski. In other words the society starts to get the impression that they are all the same.
Another big mistake of the opposition is the management of the protest movement. Social processes have been strongly politicised which resulted in serious division. The conflicts among representatives of the civil society started to be visible after the big May protests. While some of the organisations and initiatives have agreed to co-operate with the SDSM, other strongly oppose this concept and claim that being a non-governmental force requires no collaboration with politicians and therefore have withdrawn from the main protest camp. Now the protests are organised by several separate groups and the society is getting more and more lost in the situation. Moreover, the “revolution” is of a strongly exclusive character. It involves representatives of highly educated, well-travelled societal circles, people from big cities who have been active in the civil society for years, and those who have access to information and spread the information amongst themselves.
The negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition on Gruevski’s exit strategy, the creation of an interim government and preparation of early elections in April 2016 are facilitated by the EU. So far they have been unsuccessful and the years-long consent of the international community for VMRO-DPMNE’s game with the quasi-democratic system together with Brussels’s obsession with stability in the Balkans result not only in a far-reaching stagnation of the country but rather many steps backward.
As Slobodan Milošević wanted to be the new-Tito, few leaders in the Balkans today obviously dream about being a new- Milošević. The wars in the early 1990s as well as the ethnic internal conflict in Macedonia in 2001 started not much different from the clashes in Kumanovo. However, the social context is radically different and people are not that easily provoked as they were 25 years ago. They have learned to understand the mechanisms of manipulation. They are learning to seek power in social capital and not in governments.
However, Macedonians are not a revolutionary nation. It has been no coincidence that Macedonia left Yugoslavia as the only republic with no war and is stuck in a name issue with Greece for years. A significant change in Macedonia requires severe systemic transformation, not only a change of power. This has to be understood by the political powers in the country, the civil society and the EU. The EU involvement in Croatia (including imprisonment of the Prime Minister Ivo Sanader) could have been a great lesson for Brussels. The history of protests in ex-Yugoslavia could have been a great lesson for those who organise protests in Skopje and other Macedonian cities. None of the lessons, however, has been learned so far and time works in favour of those who stay in power.
Ida Orzechowska is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Wroclaw, Poland, obtaining a degree in political science. Her main research interests relate to international security, the Western Balkans and conflict studies.