Recently, the government of Macedonia, led by the national-conservative party (VMRO-DPMNE), has announced new amendments to the Law on Higher Education. The new Law, according to the authorities, should improve the quality of education in Macedonia. The proposed amendments envisage students to take an 'external examination' twice before graduation. Should students fail the testing, they will not be able to continue with the studies until they pass the 'external/state exam'.
Shortly after the government let the public know about their intention, the students formed a movement, the 'Student’s Plenum', which stated on several occasions that the envisaged amendments are unconstitutional and threat the autonomy of the University. Since the government had ignored the reaction on the part of the students, the Plenum scheduled a protest on 17 November. To the surprise of many, the demonstration gathered more than 2000 students, decidedly rejecting the 'state exam' in its entirety. Swiftly, the issue received more attention and became a 'hot' topic in the social networks (but not in the state owned/controlled media).
After the protest was held, the government and the Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski issued a few controversial statements concerning both the exam and the content of the protest. Firstly, the head of the government repeated that the proposed examination would improve the quality of the high education in Macedonia. In that way, the students would no longer be able to complete their study without obtaining the appropriate knowledge. As Gruevski stressed, ''the students will benefit from the examination because at the end they will obtain a degree that will help them in the future [...] we are aiming with this law to force students to pass the exam with the adequate knowledge''.
Furthermore, after the first big protest, the authorities proposed a compromise by announcing that the new law would affect only the generation of students from year 2017 on. This move can be interpreted as an attempt on the part of the government to demotivate current students from expressing their discontentment. The Prime Minister has confirmed this new-proposed compromise by saying that he sees ''no reason for more protests because the 'state exam' will not affect current students".
Thirdly, the authorities have stubbornly attempted to give the protest(ers) a political connotation, saying that the main opposition party SDSM stands behind the organization, accompanied by the support of Soros foundation. In this way, endeavors have been made to discredit the protests in a manner that is already well known in the Macedonian society – blame the opposition and Soros for everything. Thus the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE accused the opposition of “causing unrest among students, with a single purpose – to use them for their own political agenda”.
The way in which the authorities reacted to the first protests – by using strategies of demotivation and delegitimization – caused even more grievance among the students. They rejected all accusations of being politicized, stressing that they are ''a completely authentic student movement [...] that has no political party activists whatsoever.'' As a result, the representatives of the Student’s Plenum have announced new protests on 10th of December.
The second protest attracted more than 12,000 people, being one of the biggest expressions of civil disobedience in the country, and a major challenge for the government and its media sector. Several university professors and some representatives of the opposition joined the students. The government-controlled media swiftly reacted by marking the professors and opponents of the regime with a red circle, trying to convince the public that the protests are exclusively politically driven. What is more, the media made an effort to present the protest as unsuccessful, since, according to them, less than 3000 people took part in the rally. In addition, the state media either simply ignored the protests or provided a small account of the events, while persistently avoiding to display photos and videos from the demonstration.
Several points may be emphasized here.
The low quality of education in Macedonia implies that the problems are rather systematic and students are just the tip of the iceberg. The issue lies, in the first place, in the quality of teaching, methodology of grading, the offered curricula etc. What is more, it is not clear now who is authorized to modify the educational system – the state or the universities. The sociologist, C. Wright Mills has once discerned with regard to the power elite in the USA, an expression that may fit well nowadays in Macedonia: ''if the centralized system could not rely upon the inculcation of nationalist loyalties in public and private schools, its leaders would promptly seek to modify the decentralized educational system.''
Furthermore, these were the first large-scale protests against the government that behaves in authoritarian fashion. Florian Bieber argues that the authorities in Macedonia are displaying authoritarian tendencies by having almost complete control over the media in the country, while state is being 'captured' by the ruling party. This is why we should accentuate that the protests did not occur solely as a result of dissent against the 'state exam'. They demonstrate, also, an expression of resentment to the perpetuated authoritarian behavior of the power elite.
The second demonstration gathered more people, despite the pressure from the government. Among the protesters, Albanian and Macedonian banners could be seen, which can be regarded as a positive sign for the civic relationships in the country. The mass participation is to a certain extent a result of the government's persistent accusation that the protests are exclusively politically-driven. In addition, the success of the rallies might be interpreted as the first defeat of the undemocratic regime.
The last but not least, the myth of indifference of citizens in Macedonia, in terms of their putative disinterest in expressing a dissent publicly, has been challenged. The large number of protesters surprised many, and this tells us that in the long-run the arbitrary politics of government will be resisted.
During the protests we could hear students singing a famous song dedicated to the Macedonian capital – 'Skopje radost ti ke bides' (Skopje, you will be joy), addressing the song possibly to the (in)famous urban revamp of the city dubbed 'Project Skopje 2014'. Let's just hope that the government will not treat the University in the same manner as it treats the public space in the capital.
Branimir Staletović is a student in the Master’s Program in South-Eastern European Studies at the University of Graz. He holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Skopje and a LL.M degree from the University of Graz. His research interests include studies in nationalism and ethnicity, history of Southeastern Europe as well as the theory and practice of civil disobedience. He currently works on his master thesis focusing on the contemporary nationalism in Macedonia.