Macedonia’s protests try to bring down government with a splat

By Guy Delauney
BBC News, Skopje


Three paint-splattered figures in Macedonia's capital, Skopje, are wielding a contraption that looks like it was devised for an old game show. It's a Knockout, perhaps, or better still, contemporary children's favourite Splatalot!

Two people hold a thick length of rubber band, while a third loads a paint-filled balloon into a small basket and takes aim at the target. A stretch, twang and colourful splat duly follow.

In the firing line on this occasion is Skopje's much-maligned Arc de Triomphe knock-off, Porta Macedonia. It was erected as part of the government's Skopje 2014 programme - aimed at recasting this small country's capital as the "cradle of civilisation" by erecting scores of statues and neo-classical structures.

Media caption,
Guy Delauney reports from the centre of Macedonia's "colourful revolution"

As a symbol of the government and with its tempting expanses of white marble, Porta Macedonia is an irresistible target for the self-styled "colourful revolution", protesting against politicians whom the demonstrators accuse of corruption, vote-rigging and abuse of power.

President's pardons

The protests started in April, after Macedonia's President Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 politicians caught up in a massive scandal involving everything from ballot box-stuffing to unauthorised surveillance on an industrial scale. Mr Ivanov said the amnesty was vital to end what he called the country's "agony" after two years of political unrest.

If that really was his intention, the move completely backfired, prompting outrage rather than providing a panacea.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Mr Ivanov initially revoked pardons for 22 politicians implicated in a wire-tapping scandal but on 6 June retracted 34 more

An EU-brokered agreement last year had established a Special Prosecution office to investigate the scandal, and it appeared to be making progress. But Mr Ivanov's intervention seemed to let the politicians off the hook.

Most of the politicians pardoned by the president were from the VMRO-DPMNE party, led by long-serving prime minister Nikola Gruevski. He stepped aside in January, after a decade in office, to allow an interim administration to take charge in the run-up to early elections, which also formed part of the Brussels-brokered deal.

VMRO-DPMNE insisted it was disappointed by the president's pardons, saying that jeopardising the Special Prosecution investigation would hamper efforts to "unmask the lies" surrounding the scandal.

Elections scheduled for June were cancelled in the face of a boycott by all parties except VMRO-DPMNE. And Mr Ivanov this week retracted all 56 of his pardons. But it is not enough to satisfy the protesters.

A crowd cheers and hoots through vuvuzelas as each projectile makes its messy mark.

The guerrilla artists say that the non-violent nature of their protest is a practical way of expressing their anger.

Image caption,
Balloons of paint are catapulted towards the government's recently erected neo-classical buildings

"The first day the protests started, there were some signs of violence," says theatre director Irena Sterijovska.

"But when we started using colour we found it made a good point and didn't take lives or put any of us in jail. We are fighting for a better future, not to lose our country or fight each other."

Image caption,
Theatre director Irena Sterijovska believes violent revolutions rarely lead to successful change

The crowds hope to paint the town red, purple and any other shade that comes to hand.

Similar stunts have been staged in cities and large towns across Macedonia. And while the protests may be unorthodox, they appear to be achieving results, adding to diplomatic pressure from the European Union and United States.

The government remains defiant. Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki believes that complaints about conditions for free and fair elections are just a convenient cover for opposition parties.

"The timing of the presidential pardons was not helpful at all - it provided a cheap excuse to avoid elections," he says.

"Physically, we can run elections whenever we want, but from a political perspective it will take a while. The key determinant is the biggest opposition party: it doesn't make sense to run elections called by them if they're not going to participate."

Image caption,
Opposition politician Radmila Sekerinska says her party has listened to the voices from the streets

Opposition leaders are optimistic that the "colourful revolution" is playing its part in changing Macedonia's political scene.

The deputy leader of the Social Democratic Union, Radmila Sekerinska, admits her own party's behaviour was far from exemplary when it held power more than a decade ago. But she says the protests have helped to reshape the opposition.

"The protests have helped us learn to listen and talk to people with different views," she says.

"The people of Macedonia have spoken. They've shown they will not tolerate this kind of governance any more, and I think that Macedonian politics will not be the same again."

Many of the protesters are reserving judgement. The elections have yet to be rescheduled, and the future of the Special Prosecution is uncertain.

But for the moment, Skopje's paint splattered monuments and buildings remain a graphic illustration of the power of freedom of expression in Macedonia.

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