Macedonia activists defiant as ‘I Protest’ marches grow

Supporters of the “Colourful Revolution” movement call for further demonstrations to “end criminal governance”.

Patrick Macedonia Colourful Rev Photo
The movement has also been referred to as the "Colourful Revolution" [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Skopje, Macedonia – Activists from Macedonia’s “Colourful Revolution” movement have called for protests to be intensified, just days after police charged dozens for alleged offences related to vandalising government property and cultural heritage sites.

In a statement circulated across social media, campaigners urged supporters to show up en masse on Monday at the Special Prosecution Office in the capital Skopje to “end the criminal governance of Macedonia”.

“We have been protesting tirelessly for nearly two months for freedom, justice and equality,” the statement read. “The time has come that we put an end to the crisis.” 

‘No justice, no peace’

Inside Story – What’s behind Macedonia unrest?

At least seven activists in Skopje are facing criminal charges for their alleged involvement in vandalism during the protests, while 26 have been charged in Bitola, Macedonia’s second largest city, according to activists and local media.

Excluding Sundays, anti-government protests against alleged corruption and mismanagement have continued on a daily basis for 55 days, with activists marching through city centres across the country. The movement has been referred to as both the “Colourful Revolution” and “I Protest” on social media.

READ MORE: Who are Macedonia’s ‘I Protest’ demonstrators?

More than 500 people marched through Skopje on Saturday night, stopping at government buildings to hurl paint balloons as fellow protesters as onlookers cheered in approval.

“No justice, no peace,” the crowd chanted in unison.

Riot police stood in a row between the protesters and the federal parliament, watching without interfering, as several young men used an impromptu slingshot to catapult paint balloons across the face of the building.

‘I’m willing to take the blame’ 

Angered by perceived corruption and the government’s alleged wiretapping of more than 20,000 politicians, judges and journalists, protesters have recently started throwing paint-filled balloons at government buildings and controversial state-funded statues in the capital. 

The statues, which have become targets for the “I Protest” movement, were put up in recent years as part of Macedonia’s Skopje 2014, a project aimed at renovating the capital’s centre at a price of 80 million euros ($91m).

Critics of the government are angry that the actual cost reportedly tops 560 million euros ($636m), according to a 2015 investigation by the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network. 

Protesters have been throwing paint-filled balloons at government buildings [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]
Protesters have been throwing paint-filled balloons at government buildings [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Speaking to Al Jazeera at Saturday night’s protest, 30-year-old Pavle Bogaevski said he had found out he was among those charged with “destroying cultural heritage” by watching the local news. “The media laid out the specific, alleged acts committed by me.”

Bogaevski, who works for a local human rights organisation, said participating in the protest “is an obligation.

“I know what I did: I painted a bunch of buildings and a bunch of monuments,” he added. 

“I’m willing to take the blame for it, but as long as [former Prime Minister Nikola] Gruevski is right next to me taking the blame for his crimes. Going to jail for seven months to a year is a small price to pay … if Gruevski is in the cell next to me.”

READ MORE: New protests in Macedonia as snap poll date set for June

Along with pressure from the United States and the European Union – of which Macedonia is hoping to become a member – the unrest contributed to the government’s decision to postpone snap elections scheduled for June 5 until a later date. The new date for the vote has yet to be decided. 

The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), the main opposition party, along with two political parties representing Macedonia’s Albanian ethnic minority, had declared a boycott of that vote.

“I am now a 100 percent against [the ruling party]. They’re criminals” [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Last month, President Gjorge Ivanov attempted to quell the growing anger by retracting 22 of 56 presidential pardons he had previously given to politicians and their associates who were facing criminal investigations. 

Many of those pardoned are or were prominent members of the ruling conservative party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity.

Ivo Kotevski, head of the party’s communications department, said protesters have caused more than 300,000 euros’  ($341,000) worth of damage to public property across Macedonia.

“Around 70-80 percent of Macedonians are disgusted by the things they saw [the protesters] doing in the last month or two,” he told Al Jazeera, blaming the SDSM and foreign-funded non-governmental groups for the unrest.

“They are damaging public goods and monuments of Macedonian heroes and Macedonian history. It sends a very bad message to the general population.”

Standing near the parliament in Skopje, as balloons splattered against the building and roars of support rose from the crowd, 32-year-old protester Dmitrija Karabas Poposki explained that he used to be a staunch supporter of the ruling party.

“I am now a 100 percent against [it]. They’re criminals,” he told Al Jazeera, arguing that politicians have accumulated personal wealth at the expense of people in the country.

“I hope for a better time for the people of Macedonia.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_