On December 10th, 2014 thousands of students defied the Government led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and took to the streets of Skopje, Macedonia's capital city.
Despite harassment, intimidation and a campaign led by the government supported media to discredit them, the students marched to the government buildings and demanded that the government withdraw its plan to introduce a state imposed exam before graduation.
For a period of time during the demonstration internet access was blocked, thus preventing the use of social media by the students. This crude attempt at intimidation used methods that one would expect too see in Belarus or Russia, but not in an EU candidate country.
The Prime Minister himself also joined the efforts to discredit the students by suggesting that the protests were instigated by the opposition SDSM Party and the 'Soros Foundation'. The latter has been a definition used in the governing party (VMRO-DPMNE) lexicon to denote 'enemies of the state' and 'unsavory leftists'.
He continued to defend the government's plan by underlining that it was necessary in order to improve the quality of education. Yet it is the government itself that has lowered the standards through establishing pseudo university faculties in several cities across the country in order to supposedly to bring education closer to the citizens. However the motivation was clearly political as there was no proper planning or consultation with the established university system.
The courage shown by all the students this past week and during the previous demonstrations represents a clear rebuttal of the governments’ policies and the authoritarian methods it uses in order to implement party policy. This is not the first instance where the government has attempted to interfere in the education sector, particularly at the university level. It has used every opportunity possible in order to undermine the autonomy of the universities from dispersal of faculties to interfering in the appointments of professors and senior staff, and by trying to introduce “family value” studies into the university curriculum. This is all a part of a deliberate governing party campaign to impose its socially conservative agenda not only on the education system but across society as a whole.
The governing party does not tolerate any criticism of its policies, and shuns any effort at inclusive consultation prior to introducing its legislative proposals particularly with the sectors of society most concerned. On the contrary; it openly encourages aggression and intimidation against those who dare to speak out. This can be seen in the following instances: when the faculty of architecture students in 2009 demonstrated against the building of a church in the main square of Skopje and were set upon by an unruly mob that the governing party had mobilized, the mob which had attacked and damaged the municipal buildings of the Centar municipality - the only municipality in the City of Skopje run by an opposition mayor, and the two occasions where a small office run by the LBGT community, was attacked and damaged. In all these cases the government only responded by arresting and charging the architectural students, while doing nothing to bring charges against those who attacked the Centar municipality or the LBGT community, despite the fact that the perpetrators were easily identifiable.
This selective approach and double standards in the application of the law has increased the climate of fear, intimidation and aggression in a society that used to be known for the opposite. This climate is also encouraged by government supported media outlets as hate speech and homophobic sentiments are a common feature of talk shows on which both the Prime Minister and even the President are regular guests.
This background shows all the more reason why the students must be supported in their courageous stand. The banners they waved in front of the government buildings were eloquent in their pleas for respect and the right to be heard. Ironically, in front of them stood government buildings covered in a shroud, which are undergoing a makeover as a result of the the controversial Skopje 2014 urban facelift promoted by the government. A telling image of the government's overall attitude towards dialogue.
Erwan Fouéré is an Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). Prior to joining CEPS, he was the first to assume joint responsibilities of EU Special Representative and Head of Delegation in the EU External Service when he was appointed in this double capacity in Macedonia (2005), where he served for five years up to his retirement from the EU Institutions. He was also a Special Representative for the Irish 2012 Chairmanship of the OSCE, with special responsibility for the Transdniestrian settlement process, Head of Delegation in Slovenia leading to accession, and the first Head of Delegation in South Africa (1994) and the first Head of EC... Read more about the author