Macedonia's massed protesters turn heat on PM Gruevski

By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Skopje

Image caption, Protesters carried a variety of flags emphasising the broad nature of their ethnic mix

At first it seemed that the protest movement, building in Macedonia for months, was heading for an anti-climax on what was supposed to be its big day.

Zoran Zaev, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, had talked up the possibility of a crowd numbered in six figures angered by covert recordings that appeared to show ministers plotting vote-rigging and covering up a murder.

But half an hour before the start, only a few hundred people had gathered in front of government headquarters.

Then, with just minutes to go, the influx began.

Image caption, The protesters paraded past Skopje's brutalist 1960s post office

They came from all directions - over the Stone Bridge in front of Skopje's controversial new neo-classical riverfront; past the main post office, a brutalist 1960s lotus flower overseen by Japanese master-planner Kenzo Tange.

There were curious juxtapositions in the crowd as well.

Not just in the mix of young and old or male and female - but in the collection of flags the participants were waving.

The Albanian eagle flew next to the Macedonian sun; the Turkish crescent alongside the spoked wheel of the Roma people.

Standing together

Macedonia's ethnic groups have not always rubbed along happily.

A brief but violent insurgency in 2001 resulted in improved rights for the country's large ethnic-Albanian minority.

And a deadly shoot-out earlier this month between police and an armed ethnic-Albanian group in Kumanovo, Macedonia's third city, was an unwelcome reminder of those times.

Image caption, By standing together, different ethnic groups sent a message they were united

But, by standing together at the rally, people from different ethnic groups were sending a message that they were united in their aim to force the resignation of long-serving Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

"No matter what religion or political party, we're here - to give support to the opposition and people who think about more than money," said Vladimir, a young protester who had travelled with his friends from Valandovo, a small town about 130km (80 miles) from Skopje.

They held small placards printed with articles of the Macedonia constitution, which the protesters claim the government has violated.

Macedonia protests

Image caption, Protest hashtags were trending on Macedonia's social media on Sunday

"If we claim to be democratically-conscious citizens, then it's our responsibility to protest against a non-democratic and criminal government," said Ivana, a protester from Ohrid.

"We don't protest only for them to resign, but because we want criminals to go to jail."

Placards portrayed Mr Gruevski behind bars or crossed out in red, like a prohibitory traffic sign. Some simply read: "Goodbye, Nikola."

Media caption, Protesters set up camp outside the government building in the capital, Skopje

But the prime minister has so far shown no willingness to leave.

His responses to the protests and the scandal caused by the release of the covert recordings have been defiant, promising to "face down" demonstrators, who he says are trying to destabilise a democratically-elected government.

Long-term solutions

The authorities made a point of their own on Sunday by allowing the rally to go ahead in front of government headquarters, complete with temporary stage, big screen and massive sound system.

Policing was restrained and no serious incidents were reported.

"It's a democratic right to assemble and protest, a constitutional right to express your views - and when that happens in a non-violent manner it's very good, because that's how democracy works," Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told the BBC.

Image caption, Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said the protest was proof of Macedonia's democracy in action

But he insisted that the governing coalition had won last year's general election fairly - and should not be expected to stand aside because of the protests.

"We gained a strong victory at the election - people put their trust in us to run the country and we have to follow that path. The opposition's job is to challenge the government - but it has to be within institutions and in a peaceful manner."

The government is planning a rally of its own on Monday evening - an attempt to show that the protesters do not speak for everyone in Macedonia.

Meanwhile, a number of anti-government activists are planning to camp out in front of government headquarters until the government resigns.

Whatever happens to Mr Gruevski, long-term solutions for Macedonia remain elusive.

A seemingly farcical dispute with Greece over the very name of the country has had serious consequences: Macedonia's bigger neighbour has repeatedly vetoed its prospects of joining the EU or Nato.

Diplomats acknowledge that is a disincentive to make reforms - for whichever party takes power in the future.

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