Macedonia's Ruling Party Lashes Out at Civil Society After Contested Elections

Banner "Freedom for the Activists!" at April 25 protest in Skopje. Photo by Vančo Džambaski, CC BY-NC-SA.

A banner that reads “Freedom for the Activists!” at an April 25 protest in Skopje. Photo by Vančo Džambaski, CC BY-NC-SA.

Threats against Macedonian civil society organizations have reached new heights since December 12, when Social Democrats’ party leader Zoran Zaev vowed to contest the initial results of early parliamentary elections in Macedonia.

The special parliamentary elections were held in an EU-brokered effort to re-stabilize the country, which has been in mired in political crisis since revelations of widespread illegal wiretapping by the ruling government surfaced in 2015. The country's two most powerful parties garnered 38.06 percent (Social Democrats) and 36.69 percent (VMRO) of votes, leaving neither party with majority support in the parliament. On December 20, a court ruled that a re-vote will be held in one district where credible allegations of fraud have come out. The re-vote will take place on Christmas Day.

Over the last two weeks, the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE, headed by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, has issued threats against opposition leaders as well as multiple civil society organizations, in particular those that have worked with Open Society Foundation – Macedonia. (Editor's note: Open Society Foundations is a supporter of Global Voices.)

Civil society and opposition advocates blacklisted

On December 9, flyers listing the names of dozens civil sector activists were distributed in the mailboxes and under windshield wipers of citizens of Skopje, the nation's capital. They included allegations about “mercenary” money that civil society advocates allegedly had received, along with other spurious claims. The flyers were signed by GDOM (Gragjansko dviženje za odbrana na Makedonija – Citizen Movement for Defense of Macedonia), an entity that acts as a proxy for the more radical positions advocated by VMRO-DPMNE. The flyers also included copies of defamatory articles about some of the individuals on the blacklist, which were originally published in pro-government media Republika.

The Directorate for Personal Data Protection has confirmed that such materials constitute a violation of the Law on Personal Data Protection. A group of individuals targeted in these articles filed a criminal suit with the help of the Macedonian Helsinki Committee, but the competent state institutions have yet to give any information about processing of the suit.

Individual activists also have been targeted with specific threats on Twitter and other social media platforms. Several activists from the Colorful Revolution, a protest movement against state corruption and impunity, were tagged in various posts which show a photograph of a handwritten list with their names and addresses. These tweets were retweeted by numerous profiles, some of them anonymous. Many of these accounts have targeted other activists in the past.

State officials appointed by VMRO-DPMNE are also directly threatening civil society members online. Filip Petrovski, director of State Archives, sent public personal threats to various Twitter users vowing that “Kjoseto will come to your door.” Andon Kjoseto aka “the Butcher” was a member of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization who became infamous as an executioner in the early 20th century.

In another one of his tweets, he mentioned a hit list with 800 persons. Petrovski has also used his own portal Puls24.mk to target anti-corruption activists in the past.

Macedonia's Political Crisis

The conflict between Gruevski and Zaev is long-standing, but has reached a peak in recent years. In 2015, Zaev made headlines, and more than a few enemies, when his party alleged that the Gruevski government had illegally wiretapped thousands of government employees, politicians, journalists, editors, and foreign diplomatic representatives. Hundreds of recordings of conversations were strategically leaked thereafter, leading to numerous revelations of corruption and wrongdoing by the Gruevski government, including the cover-up of a murder of a citizen by a police officer. Public protests began shortly thereafter and demonstrations have since become a normal sight in large cities of the country.

As candidate for membership into NATO and EU, Macedonia invited the representatives of these entities to serve as arbiters within the process of negotiations leading to so-called Pržino Agreement, which served as basis for reforms needed to end the political crisis. One such reform includes forming of a Special Prosecutor's Office in charge of investigating the contents of the leaked wiretaps.

Ruling party and supporters rally, threaten ‘disobedient’ civil society

Before the elections, Nikola Gruevski also issued a veiled threat of assassination against opposition leader Zoran Zaev, suggesting that if historical Macedonian freedom fighters were alive today, they would send the assassin Kjoseto to deal with Zaev.

The next day, Gruevski said he was “misunderstood.” However, during the last rally of the campaign, some of Gruevski's supporters waved a huge banner glorifying this controversial historical figure.

On the eve of the elections on Saturday, December 10, the public broadcasting service Macedonian Radio and Television aired a ‘documentary’ about the life and times of Kjoseto.

After the elections, two opposition parties submitted complaints to the State Election Committee (SEC). While the SEC held public sessions discussing these complaints, VMRO-DPMNE organized protests of its members in front of the building. The party provided transportation and lodging for supporters from other towns, along with food, alcohol and firewood, allowing supporters to build open fires on the street. The police did not intervene, even though such distribution of liquor and open fires are strictly prohibited.

A frame from the Macedonian PBS 'documentary' about Andon Kjoseto, featuring his proverb "Sometimes you ask nicely, sometimes you use the knife."

A frame from the Macedonian public broadcasting service documentary about Andon Kjoseto, featuring his proverb “Sometimes you ask nicely, sometimes you use the knife.”

At the protests, other high party officials gave inflammatory speeches. Valentina Božinovska, a former actress who now serves as director of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Communities, yelled to the crowd that “tonight is the night of the knives,” and that the time has come to deal with “the last Macedonian traitor, Zaev.” Some interpreted this as a reference to the 1934 Nazi purges known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” Božinovska later claimed she was misunderstood, and was merely quoting lines of poetry.

While the VMRO-DPMNE protests do not seem to have wider grassroots support among the general population, as the participants seem to come by direct order of the party, their organizers are capable of threatening people and civil society organizations from their publicized blacklists. This kind of hate speech and propaganda serves as incitement for VMRO supporters, who in opportune moments might decide to perpetrate “patriotic” attacks on their own, without direct orders from party leaders. Several such attacks on journalists from blacklisted media by random party supporters have already taken place this year.

Moreover, during the last protest, VMRO-DPMNE chief Gruevski read a proclamation which, among other claims, includes a direct threat to “disobedient” civil society members:

Ќе се бориме за десороизација на Република Македонија, и јакнење на независен граѓански сектор кој нема да биде под ничија контрола. Ќе се пристапи кон регулирање на областа на финансирање на фондациите и НВО, по теркот на најнапредните демократии во светот.

We shall fight for de-Sorosization of Republic of Macedonia, and strengthening of the independent civil sector which would not be controlled by anyone. The financing of the foundations and the NGOs will be regulated according to the model of the most advanced democracies in the world.

Selective inspections by the Public Revenue Service targeting NGOs that began just before the elections have continued. At least 19 NGOs had received notices announcing such visits so far.

Read our special coverage of protest and political life in Macedonia

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