From student protests to movement – the (un)expected reinvention of politics in Macedonia

On December 10th 2014, tens of thousands of university and secondary students, citizens and supporters took to the streets in several towns/cities in Macedonia and clearly expressed their “No” to the governmental plan to introduce external or state-tests for university students of all degrees. Realistic estimates place over 10.000 protestors at the march in Skopje, which in fact is the greatest non-partisan, civil society and cross-ethnic mobilization in modern Macedonian history.

Just a day before the event Abdulaqim Ademi, the Minister of Education,, announced the government’s “determination to introduce a mechanism for controlling the quality of education” despite the growing dissent coming from the student movement, civil society groups and the  partisan opposition in the past few weeks. The protestors rallied with slogans and banners in both the Macedonian and Albanian languages which stated “University is the voice of freedom!”, “No justice, no peace!”, “Autonomy!” and etc. Some banners were explicitly ridiculing the pro-governmental media and implicitly criticizing the lack of media freedom in the country.

Was it Tito or Gruevski saying that the students are right?

The latest demonstration stemmed from a smaller-scale student protest that took place on the 17th of November. The events which followed are essential to understanding the potential that the newly born social movement holds to become a fully-fledged agent of wider social change.

Against all odds, this protest caught the government and its powerful populist media mouthpiece off guard. Both the government and media were unprepared to respond with counter-protests and media assaults at the protestors, both which are tactics regularly used by the socially conservative and politically illiberal VMRO-DPMNE party to silence all forms of opposition no matter how small. Initially, the protest was simply ignored even by the pro-governmental media outlets which are located on the very route of the march. Only on the 20th of November, 2014, following the intense social media campaign ridiculing the ignorance of the authorities did the Prime-Minister Gruevski comment on the demands of the students –.

Appropriating the language typically used by his civil society opponents, Mr. Gruevski reassured the students that no final decision would be made before a wider public debate and consultation session took place, thus affirming that the students have the right to protest and to express their opinion. He also made a promise to the students that the new legislation would not be applicable to the students currently enrolled in universities, but only to the future generations. In contrast, his media backers relied on well established propaganda techniques. In their commentaries and reports photos from the protest were posted and the faces of individual protesters allegedly belonging to the opposition parties and the scapegoated Sorosoids - civil society groups associated with the infamous Foundation Open Society Macedonia, were marked with red rings. The purpose was straightforward – to discredit the protests by alluding to their politicized nature and denying their authenticity.

In the following days, conditions for the rise of a more extensive movement were gradually created. Subjecting the propaganda to mockery and ironic comments, many students and supporters changed their Facebook profile pictures and marked themselves with the notorious red rings. "I think, therefore I am marked" became the slogan around which the symbolic protest was condensed. The so-called Student Plenum - the informal core group of protesting students with rather different, but mainly radically leftist worldviews - very prudently articulated its political demands, calling upon wider social solidarity. The Student Plenum took advantage of Mr. Gruevski’s indecent promise to apply the tests only to future generations and invited high school students to stand up for their rights.

The events that followed became part of history. Despite the propaganda,  pressure and attempts on the part of the government to break the protesting groups, the number of individuals taking part at the second mobilization at least tripled in comparison to the first successful event.

What is so traumatic about the normal?

In mature democracies, protests are normally interpreted as legitimate expression of grievances. Yet, in Macedonia they are routinely portrayed as something traumatic and worthy of condemnation. Once depicted as an oasis of peace and embodiment of European values in the Balkans both by local elites and their international patrons, the past several years have seen Macedonia experience a paradoxical illiberal turn. The shrinking space for freedom of expression, the politicized judiciary coupled with institutions blurred between the state and the ruling party, turned Macedonia into a semi-authoritarian, grey zone regime. Elections are held frequently and organized efficiently, yet no level playing field is provided for political competition. Elections thus serve only as a demonstration of the invincibility of the ruling political party.

On symbolical level, the incumbent elite depict politics and the political as if they were an exclusive matter of political parties. In the public discourse, political and partisan are used as synonyms. Any civic engagement is directly labeled as related to and incited by opponent political parties. In the past, many protests were caught in this rhetorical trap, evident in their futile attempt to resolve this issue by claiming their “apolitical” nature.

Survey-based research conducted in 2014 by the think-tank Macedonian Centre for European Training highlights these tendencies and the general atmosphere of fear and conspiracy dominating political life in Macedonia. According to the survey, three quarters of Macedonian citizens believe that “spontaneous protests do not exist; they are instigated and organized by centres of power”. Only 20% of the citizens doubt that “secret services intercept communications of people they perceive as opponents”, while 63.6% of the respondents believe that they do. More than half of the respondents (57.7%) believe that “ruling authorities in Macedonia have ways to find out how citizens voted”. Finally, 53% of the respondents reported that “fellow citizens don’t freely express their opinion.”

Perspectives of the student movement

The figures above make the newly born movement even more exceptional. In an illiberal, semi-authoritarian regime at Europe’s periphery which produces an atmosphere of fear and conspiracy to discourage civic engagement in politics, protests are not business as usual since they question the fundamental assumption of the way that politics functions.

It seems then that the leadership of the movement is faced with a strategic dilemma.

Firstly, do they want to carry the scepter in a wider civic mobilization against the political establishment in the country? If so, then what sort of demands will they articulate? Is the state test the only problem that the students in Macedonia face, and how are student grievances related to  wider social problems? Many disaffected but hitherto passive citizens are inclined towards the demands of the movement and the expectations have risen considerably. Are the students ready to act for the other social sectors? The movement’s inter-ethnic and dominantly leftist nature represents an important asset if students opt for this strategy. 

Alternatively, the leaders of the movement should consider the advice of “benevolent” proponents of political virginity. These voices claim that if the initial demands are satisfied by the authorities the movement will inevitably be left without its raison d’être and should therefore cease to exist. Otherwise, according to the proponents of this logic, the student movement would inevitably be “politicized” or “polluted” by the alienated agenda of other political actors. To turn this mode of thinking into a caricature - if one protests against state tests, then the fight for social justice ends. The meticulously formulated narrative of the student movement which emphasizes its political and cross-political-party character (not the apolitical, as various protest leaders in the past did) demonstrates that times of political immaturity of Macedonian protest movements are long gone. To sum up, the student movement will be inevitably split between the particularity of its initial demands and the need to express wider social dissatisfaction through these demands. It is not certain how this dynamic process will end.

What is certain is that Prime-Minister Gruevski, after a long time, found himself trapped in a lose-lose situation. If he decides to remain intransigent refusing the legitimate demands of the student movement, he faces even wider mobilization, which – given its cross-ethnic nature – could not be tackled with tools from the usual political repertoire used to distract attention such as instigating interethnic incidents. If, on the other hand, he decides to withdraw the proposed legislation, he risks questioning the powerful myth of his intransigence and invincibility. Dormant social frustrations and demands could appear, questioning the wider symbolic framework the regime relies on. 

One way or another, civil society and democracy in Macedonia will win a small but paradigmatic victory.

Ljupcho Petkovski

Ljupcho Petkovski is a Research Coordinator at the Macedonian Centre for European Training. He holds MA in Political Sciences and he has published on populism, the interplay between political culture and Europeanization, and democratization through external incentives.

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