Supporters of the “Colourful Revolution” movement call for further demonstrations to “end criminal governance”.
Skopje, Macedonia – Thousands of Macedonians have marched through the capital, even as President Gjorge Ivanov rescinded pardons of 34 politicians under criminal investigation in an effort to quell nearly two months of protests in the former Yugoslav country.
Up to 5,000 people marched from the Macedonian Special Prosecutor’s office on Monday evening to government offices in central Skopje.
Heavily armed riot police tried to block routes, but demonstrators passed their barricades after brief clashes.
Monday’s march also marked the five-year anniversary of the death of 22-year-old Martin Neskoski, who was beaten to death by police during post-election celebrations in 2011.
Outside the government offices, activists called on the government, including the president, to resign.
“We call on the government to stop the prosecution of the protesters,” 30-year-old Simona Spirovska told the crowd, referring to dozens of activists who were dealt criminal charges related to damaging government buildings and historical monuments.
Starting in early April, the 55 days of nationwide protests have been dubbed the “colourful revolution” due to activists’ use of paint to cover government buildings and government-funded statues across the country, particularly in Skopje and Bitola, the second largest city.
In Skopje, activists used makeshift slingshots to pelt the government offices with paint-filled balloons on Monday before marching to the city centre and covering much of the ground in red paint.
Having already withdrawn 22 pardons late last month, President Gjorge Ivanov on Monday revoked the remaining 34 pardons he had granted to officials under investigation for their alleged involvement in a wire-tapping scandal in which more than 20,000 people were monitored.
Among those under investigation is former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and several of his close associates.
Many of those who had been pardoned belong to President Ivanov’s ruling conservative party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).
Speaking to Al Jazeera outside the government offices, 26-year-old protester Jakov Spasev said revoking the pardons “is not enough. We want these criminals in jail”.
As he spoke, several young men used a slingshot to catapult paint balloons at the government building, accidentally hitting the police officers from time to time. “There is so much security here because they are afraid of [the protests].”
Zoran Zaev, leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), the country’s largest opposition party, said revoking the pardons was a “precondition” and that protests will continue.
“This has opened the door for the negotiation process to continue,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ivo Kotevski, director of the VMRO-DPMNE’s communications department, accused protesters of being puppets for foreign-funded NGOs and the primary opposition party.
“During the last several years, crisis is practically the middle name of the opposition and these NGOs. They don’t know how to function without the crisis,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone. “They have practically no support from the general public.”
The ongoing unrest in Macedonia has threatened to cause a rift between Macedonia and the EU and NATO, both of which the country hopes to join.
In mid-May, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had urged President Ivanov to revoke the presidential pardons and “address problems on the rule of law”.
Just days later, the United Kingdom warned Macedonia that the ongoing political crisis could damage its chances of membership in the EU and NATO.
Zdravko Saveski, a member of the 11-person presidential committee in the left-wing Levica party, says the “I Protest” movement has reached a critical moment.
“Fifty-five days of protest is a record for Macedonia,” he told Al Jazeera on Monday afternoon at his home, where he has been under house arrest for more than 40 days for his alleged involvement in the ransacking of the presidential office in early April.
“We have had some successes so far,” Saveski said, explaining that activists plan to expand their forms of protest by shutting down throughways and carrying out direct actions until their demands are met.
“There is huge anger and rage against the regime.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_