By Rick Lyman /NYT/
An almost surreal scandal involving hundreds of thousands of secretly recorded conversations caught top government officials discussing everything from rigging votes to covering up killings.
Two ministers and the head of the secret services have resigned. Thousands have taken to the streets demanding the right-wing government’s ouster. And last weekend, 25 miles north of the capital, a sudden burst of bloodshed left eight police officers and 14 “terrorists” dead and others wondering why it had happened, and why now.
Macedonia, a country about the size of Vermont with two million residents, an increasingly nationalistic temperament and a history that goes back only 24 years, is on the edge of cracking.
Once seen as a shining light among former Communist states, Macedonia has slowly, over the last decade, slipped into authoritarian rule under a party that has curtailed press rights, emboldened security forces, dominated the judiciary and once even ejected the opposition from Parliament. And since Macedonia, with its volatile ethnic mix, sits at the crossroads of countless Balkan conflicts, and along one possible path of a proposed Russian natural gas pipeline, Western governments are paying close attention to its turbulent swirl of events and the steady flow of rumors and conspiracy theories.
“People don’t laugh much about conspiracy theories here in the Balkans,” said Marko Trosanovski, managing director of the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis,” a nongovernmental research group in Skopje, the capital. “They have learned to take them seriously.”
Sweltering in a spring heat wave and ringed by mountains, some bearing the last shawls of snow, Skopje is perhaps the most idiosyncratic of European capitals.
In a burst of nationalistic energy, the powerful prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, embarked on an immense building program, only now coming to completion, lining the capital’s riverfront with neo-Classical behemoths. Dozens of new statues fill nearly every public space.
But his efforts to build a movie-set version of a nation in the wreckage of the Soviet Union have been undercut by the recent events. For three months, the leftist opposition has been releasing a stream of what it calls “bombs,” snippets of recordings from 670,000 conversations from more than 20,000 telephone numbers secretly recorded by the government between 2007 and 2013 and leaked to them, they say, by patriotic civil servants.
The targets of the wiretaps were journalists, clerics, activists and foreign diplomats, but also some top officials in the government. Even the widely admired, and widely feared, Mr. Gruevski makes the occasional appearance, when he happens to be on the phone with one of the wiretap targets.
There have been 31 such disclosures since February, and a few more are promised before a mass protest scheduled for Sunday in Skopje. So far, no one has denied that the recordings are authentic, although the government insists that some have been taken out of context and severely edited.
Instead, the government has denied making the recordings, saying it was the handiwork of the “intelligence service” of some unnamed foreign country working with accomplices in the Interior Ministry to topple the government.
Six people, including a former chief of the secret services, have been imprisoned and charged with making and leaking the tapes, and Zoran Zaev, the opposition leader who has been spearheading the “bombs” campaign, has been charged with threatening violence against Mr. Gruevski.
But what has struck people almost as much as the content of the conversations is the tone, the callous way government ministers plot to punish their enemies. In one tape, the head of the secret police, who is also the prime minister’s cousin, gleefully talks about having a political opponent raped in prison.
“They are so vulgar,” said Jabir Deralla, president of a local human rights and elections-monitoring group called Civil. “How easily they speak about human life and death.”
Neither Mr. Gruevski nor any of his top aides agreed to be interviewed.
But Aleksandar Pandov, a political analyst who is a former member of Parliament for the ruling party and who fervently supports the government, explained its view of the scandal.
“You may hear something that is maybe vulgar, but not evidence of a crime,” he said. “There are cuts in the conversations, things taken out of context. We do not know whether some of the things they were discussing actually happened.”
Mr. Pandov said the way forward was for those caught making intemperate comments to leave the government, anyone found guilty in the case to go to prison and Mr. Gruevski to remain in power.
“The whole situation is trending towards its conclusion,” Mr. Pandov said.
For now, the opposition is feeling emboldened. In an interview, Mr. Zaev sat behind a long conference room table, gleaming with polish, and declined to go too deeply into the tactics for Sunday’s rally — which he says will include many groups, not just his party members, and will draw around 70,000 people, maybe more.
He hinted that human cordons might be used to surround important government ministries and to block bridges, and that the protests would continue.
“We will use the Gandhi system,” he said. “We will make the whole process absurd.”
The resignation of the ministers of transport and interior and the security service chief does not change the plan, Mr. Zaev said in a Facebook post. If anything, it confirms what the opposition has been saying and the need to proceed, he said.
“It is not time to celebrate,” Mr. Zaev said. “It is only one more step towards the end of Nikola Gruevski’s rule.”
Meanwhile, the first appearance of what the government is calling “Albanian terrorists” occurred last month, when a group was said to have seized a border watchtower on the Kosovo frontier and briefly taken four Macedonian officials hostage. The region had been the site of heavy fighting involving Albanian nationalists in 2001, but had calmed down since.
Many critics of the government scoffed, finding it suspiciously bloodless and conveniently timed to distract from the wiretapping scandal, but government officials insisted that it was a genuine threat from a well-trained gang of ethnic Albanians.
Last weekend’s episode, though, in the Diva Naselba, or “Wild Settlement,” neighborhood of Kumanovo was markedly different. The town was sealed off and gunfire could be heard through the weekend. In the end, officials said, more than 30 insurgents from Kosovo and Macedonia surrendered to the police.
Mr. Gruevski said the group was plotting to attack public buildings and shopping malls in Macedonia, hoping to destabilize the government, and called for two days of national mourning. The opposition temporarily suspended the protests. But suspicions persisted that this was somehow orchestrated, or exploited, to distract attention from the scandal.
In a joint statement, the United States Embassy in Skopje, NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the episode “an isolated phenomenon” and urged the government to face up to its political crisis and enact much-needed changes.
Gordan Kalajdziev, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of the Republic of Macedonia, said the core problem was that Macedonians had little experience with democracy and scant understanding of notions like checks and balances. The government, he suggested, has little incentive to change course or give up power.
“They will not resign because they know that if they do resign, they will be prosecuted,” he said.
Mr. Pandov said the government was unconcerned about Sunday’s planned demonstration or any of the protests that have taken place. “The ruling party will have its own gathering later, and it will show whose support is greater,” he said.
On one recent day, the first protesters gathered outside the main government building around 6 p.m., when the fierce sun was just losing its heat. They were a mix of ages, though predominantly young people. “Resign!” they shouted. When the police refused to allow them forward, the crowd of about 1,000 turned and began marching toward the Parliament building on the far side of the city center. “Come with us!” they shouted to pedestrians, and some did.
The crowd had swelled to about 5,000 by the time it reached the Parliament building. Another line of riot police officers waited for them there.
“I am not a member of any political party,” said Tashe Strezovski, 28, who works at Skopje’s airport. “Neither are many of these people. We are just ordinary citizens who love their country.”
The only acceptable outcome, he said, is for Mr. Gruevski to step down.
“I am not afraid,” Mr. Strezovski said. “No one is afraid anymore. This government, it is demystified.”