Macedonians vow to protest until PM Nikola Gruevski resigns

Tension still high ahead of planned pro-government march through Skopje today

Anti-government protesters  wave Macedonian and Albanian flags  in Skopje. Photograph:   Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

Anti-government protesters wave Macedonian and Albanian flags in Skopje. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

 

Anti-government protesters in Macedonia have pledged to continue street demonstrations until the government steps down, after tens of thousands of people packed the centre of the capital to demand the resignation of premier Nikola Gruevski.

Up to 40,000 people rallied yesterday in the heart of Skopje, waving flags, placards denouncing Mr Gruevski’s scandal-ridden government, and posters with his face crossed out, as riot police kept watch over the gathering.

The main protest ended peacefully, but there are still fears that public anger and hostility between pro- and anti-government groups could explode, particularly with Mr Gruevski’s supporters planning to march through Skopje this evening.

“We will stay here in front of the government. Nikola Gruevski must resign. Until he goes we are not going to leave either,” opposition leader Zoran Zaev told crowds outside government headquarters last night.

Activists

Before the rally, Mr Zaev said that “some 4,600 activists have decided on their own initiative to sleep out in front of the government building and to continue the protest. Knowing that we are not the only organisers of this protest, we have decided to remain until the end, until Gruevski resigns.”

The protest brought together not only political groups, but people from Macedonia’s Slav majority and its 25 per cent ethnic Albanian minority, uniting communities with a history of difficult relations.

Over several months, Mr Zaev has released secretly recorded conversations that seem to implicate senior officials in lurid criminal, corrupt and anti-democratic activity.

He says that a whistleblower in the security services gave him the tapes, but Mr Gruevski claims that an unnamed foreign state is involved and Mr Zaev has been accused of plotting a coup.

Mr Gruevski accepted the resignation of two ministers and the state security chief last week, but he refuses to step down, saying that Mr Zaev is corrupt and is willing to pitch the country of two million into chaos to seize power.

Gun battle

The crisis dramatically deepened earlier this month, when police fought a 36-hour gun battle with an alleged “terror” group that officials said was led by ethnic Albanians from neighbouring Kosovo. That clash – which killed 10 gunmen and eight police officers – stoked fears of ethnic strife in Macedonia, which in 2001 witnessed a brief insurgency by rebels demanding more power for the country’s ethnic Albanians.

With public trust in government at rock bottom, Mr Zaev and many others suspect the police operation could have been an attempt to distract attention from the government’s travails.

The violence focused the West’s attention on Macedonia, and EU and US envoys in Skopje brokered crisis talks between party leaders late last week, without making a major breakthrough.

The former Yugoslav republic is a candidate for EU and Nato membership, but its progress has been stymied by corruption, poor relations with neighbouring Greece, and allegations of growing government pressure on opponents.

Russia, which wants to build a gas pipeline through Macedonia, claims the West is fomenting a “Ukraine-style” crisis that could plunge the country into disaster.