Concern is growing for Macedonia's fragile democracy as the opposition prepares a massive rally against the government. Ignoring calls to resign, Prime Minister Gruevski mobilizes supporters for counter-demonstrations.
Political tensions in Macedonia are reaching a possible climax, as the opposition prepares what it foresees as the final blow to the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. A massive rally, scheduled for Sunday, is expected to oust Gruevski, who has been in power since 2006, as well as his conservative party, VMRO-DPMNE.
Zoran Zaev, the leader of Macedonia's opposition Social Democrats, has announced that protests "will last until the government has resigned."
Since early March, Zaev has been releasing recorded conversations and evidence that has suggested massive wiretapping, widespread corruption and interference in the judiciary and the media by Gruevski and his government. Gruevski has denied any wrongdoing and claimed Zaev is a pawn in an international conspiracy against his government and backed by a foreign intelligence service.
Resignations can't calm situation
In a bid to defuse the tensions, Gruevski asked three of his most trusted advisers to resign from the Cabinet. Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska, Transport Minister Mile Janakieski and the head of the secret service Saso Mijalkov have been the backbone of his power since 2006. Mijalkov, who is also Gruevski's cousin, used to be perceived as one the most powerful men in the country, with rare public appearances.
"These resignations have marred Gruevski's image of a strong leader who does not succumb to pressure, does not accept calls for resignation and is prepared to sacrifice himself for the greater good," Arsim Zekoli, a former diplomat and political analyst, told DW.
"Gruevski has to go"
For the opposition, which has boycotted parliament since the last elections in 2014 claiming the poll was fraudulent, the resignations "are not enough." Opposition members have demanded the establishment of an interim government that will organize new elections after Gruevski steps down. This scenario has found increasing support among the international community. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov called on Gruevski to resign during a conversation on Sunday. Borisov's call was also backed on Wednesday by Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German politician and vice president of the European Parliament.
"Gruevski must resign, because he is an obstacle to easing inter-ethnic tensions that have been stirred up again and to new elections, which should be held in proper democratic conditions", Lambsdorff said in a statement.
Gruevski's latest moves suggest he has other plans. One day after the ministers resigned on Tuesday, sources in the ruling VMRO-DPMNE told DW that Gruevski is planning "huge counter-demonstrations" on May 18. Media in Macedonia have reported that "100,000 people are mobilized to fiercely defend national and state interests."
Meanwhile, pro-government media launched a new propaganda campaign with a video leaked on YouTube, accusing Zaev of taking a 200,000 euro ($226,700) bribe. Zaev denied the accusations saying that the source of the leaked video was either the police or the prosecutor's office.
Although the release of the wiretapped files gave a new spin to his political career, Zaev is not immune to controversy himself. In 2008, he was indicted and arrested over charges of corruption worth 5 million euros. The case against him closed when the then-President Branko Crvenkovski, previous leader of the Social Democrats, pardoned him.
Divided political landscape
Macedonia's political scene is deeply divided. The two main rival parties are the nationalist-conservative VMRO-DPMNE and the Social Democrats, successors to the former Communist Party, since the country gained independence following the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation in 1991.
Now the information disclosed through the wiretapping scandal has given birth to a completely new movement, independent of the two political blocks. Thousands of young people, organized through social networks, took to the streets on May 5, to protest against the government allegedly concealing the death of a 22-year-old man in 2011. During violent clashes with the police, at least 30 officers were injured and more than 40 people arrested. But the protests haven't stopped since.
"Every day at 6 p.m." has been the demonstrators' motto, and "until the government resigns" has become their most popular chant. The movement bridges the deep ethnic and social divides in the Macedonian society, and as Aleksandar Donev, one of its leaders told DW, their mission will continue, even after the new government comes to power.
"Our civic duty will continue after our demands have been fulfilled," Donev said. "We must never forget the current disaster, and we can't let that happen again. We have a responsibility to put a government in place that is afraid of the people and not the other way around."