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When Fascists Break into Parliament

A Reflection on the Crisis in Skopje

When fascists break into your country’s parliament you feel like you’ve been talking about right-wing populism in academic settings for far too long.

You feel like you’ve been talking about the causes and the cures of something just getting underway in the West, all while this is the only kind of government you ever really remember living under in your home country.

You find yourself unable to think, unable to grapple with the reality of something you (and many others) tried to prevent. You are outwardly distraught, more so than ever before. You feel helpless, in fact.

This is how I felt, at least, on Thursday April 27th when fascists broke into the Macedonian parliament.

***

“I feel like I don’t know what’s been happening in Macedonia lately,” your friend Anders, who’s studying in the Netherlands, tells you over Skype. “I know what you mean. I feel like I’ve almost accidentally detached myself,” you reply.

“No, but what is actually going on?” he says, “I don’t think I get adequate news.” “Well, the neo-fascists are still protesting,” you reply, “Nothing big has happened, as far as I know.”

You say this as if it is a normal, everyday thing. Both of you know that Macedonia is a clientelist state where the government employs a large number of people in public institutions – people it can then easily control. Because the population is poor to begin with, it is not too difficult a task to get state employees to show up to bigoted protests when their livelihood is at stake. Still, and this is the awful part, some the protesters are there of their own free will.

“I saw them when I was home for spring break,” you tell Anders, “and I was horrified. I thought it was just a couple of hundred crazies, but there were thousands of them.”

***

After you hang up, pleased to have finally spoken with your friend, you return to reading a book the central theme of which is guilt – the guilt that accompanies leaving one’s country behind. This is something you feel once in a while.

It is a message from your brother that pulls you away from the book. “MA KE DO NI JA,” It reads. This is your country’s name in your own language, mockingly written in all caps and broken into syllables as nationalists often pronounce it. Knowing your brother, you assume something bad happened, and he, being a Slav, conveys this to you through collectively self-deprecating humor. You pick up the phone.

“What happened?” You say to him, not knowing what to expect.

“You didn’t see? The nationalist morons raided the parliament. They apparently hurt a couple of MPs,” he says to you. “Great stuff.” He is obviously saddened, outraged. Still he keeps up his cynicism.

“Jesus Christ… And the police let them?” you ask. “Of course they let them. They’re on their side,” comes the reply.

“I know… but still.” You’re mesmerized. “God, we don’t deserve a country…”

***

You aren’t even sure where to begin an explanation of how Macedonia got this way. The country has been under VMRO-DPMNE’s right-wing regime for 11 years now and has only become more authoritarian as time has passed. The short version of what happened on Thursday, April 27th is this.

Last April 2016, the Macedonian president Gorge Ivanov decided to pardon 56 people[1], many of whom were high-ranking politicians who had massively abused their power. This expedited events for which the seeds were sown long before. None of these politicians had been sentenced yet: they were only under investigation but were obviously guilty. This destabilizing act led to the start of a months-long series of protests called the Colorful Revolution[2]. You, too, were a part of this hopeful movement that united Macedonian citizens of various ethnicities, sexualities, and beliefs. They expressed their shared anger at a government that had suppressed their freedom of speech, committed voter fraud and laundered their tax money through “Skopje 2014” — an overpriced architectural project in the country’s capital that exponentially increased Macedonia’s debt built under the premise of increasing tourism and marking the Macedonian national identity. They had even gone so far as to try to hide the murder of one of their fellow citizens: Martin Neskovski. It was the revelation through the opposition-released wiretaps that had been ordered by Macedonia’s 11-year-long right-wing regime that the public found out about ex-Minister of Interior Gordana Jankulovska’s attempt to cover-up the brutal 2007 killing of the 22-year-old Neskovski by a government-aligned police officer that sparked the first wave of protests in 2015 – ones that laid the groundwork for next year’s movement to come. One of the biggest protests of the Colorful Revolution, too, was held in his name on June 7, 2016.

The Colorful Revolutionaries materialized their outrage on April 13th, 2016, starting with the president’s pardons, while keeping a myriad other VMRO-DPMNE related atrocities, such as Martin’s murder, in mind. The protesters expressed their anger through vandalism in the form of throwing paint to the horrendous buildings and statues that were a part of the money-laundering architectural baroque project “Skopje 2014”[3]. The project was the medium through which 671 billion euros landed in the hands of politicians – one that embodied fabricated nationalism. Statues of figures like Alexander the Great were supposed to perpetuate the masculinist, militarist and quasi-fascist ideas about Macedonian identity. “Skopje 2014” became the symbol of the regime and the different types of colored paint used to vandalize them – reds and greens, neons and purples – became the metaphor for the protesters’ unity in their diverse – rather than singularly Macedonian – identities.

 

The Colorful Revolution was effective, to a point: the President rescinded his pardons, further investigations were conducted into the previously pardoned politicians’ wrongdoings, and a new election was called for December 2016. In the end, though, the right-wing party, VMRO-DPMNE, won a narrow majority. However, they couldn’t form a government without forming a coalition with the Albanian parties and, this time, these parties didn’t want to be a part of their regime, opting instead to form a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats, who had only marginally fewer seats than VMRO-DPMNE.

Unfortunately, the president refused to give the Social Democrats the mandate to form a government – a completely unconstitutional action that has resulted in Macedonia still, to this day, having only a technical government. At the time, and tragically, this led to a month and a half of government-instigated protests seeking new elections. These protests often referred to Albanians with slurs and used the extremely frightening rhetoric of a “pure” Macedonia.

Of course, VMRO-DPMNE’s leaders did not directly organize these protests. Instead they worked through proxy actors, like journalists, or actual actors, or supposedly “independent” citizens who sold their fascist message for them. It is here that Macedonia’s status as a client state in which many are employed in public jobs becomes a point of enormous leverage. Because it means that VMRO-DPMNE can threaten its government employees with unemployment – and when certain Macedonians still feel antagonism towards Albanians (even though 16 years have passed since the 2001 Civil War/Conflict) it is not difficult to mobilize a group of nationalists.

Even knowing all this, as you do now and did then, you were still in disbelief when you saw them gathering by the thousands. You were still shocked to see them walking, covered with their Macedonian flags, red-and-yellow the markers of their false-patriotism everywhere, down the same streets which you and the other Colorful Revolutionaries had filled with so many colors.

***

After ending the conversation with your brother, you refresh your Facebook newsfeed, only to see the first post to come up is one informing you that some 200 protesters – some with their faces hidden and too many clad with Macedonian nationalist symbols – entered the Parliament building by force after finding out that an Albanian MP had been elected President of the Parliament.

Looking at the images you cannot believe the chaos: a hateful group shouting, breaking objects, and hurting people in the halls of Parliament. You find out that one Albanian MP might be in critical condition.

You watch a video of the opposition leader Zoran Zaev with blood spread across his face. You watch as an old man grabs the deputy-opposition leader Radmila Shekerinska – a small but powerful woman – by the hair, almost slamming her to the floor.

She happens to be your favorite Macedonian politician, one you met at a protest once, so you watch that video over and over again.

You are appalled every time.[4]

***

Later you are talking to your parents.

Your father tells you that when he saw the news he was sure that the attackers would have killed the opposition members if it hadn’t been for the lucky presence of a few personal security guards who had to go so far as to fire bullets into the air. Your mother tells you that she thought the President might have declared a state of emergency, in which case he would have gained access to military power, but thankfully didn’t.

You listen to them and watch fearfully from a safe distance. You feel guilty for not being in Skopje when it seems to be at its most vulnerable.

Hanging up you text your Albanian friend Bardh. “This is so scary. Please stay safe,” you type, seeking to salve some of the anger, disgust, and fear he is presumably feeling right now. It was only a few weeks ago that he had been talking to his mother on the phone – in public, in Albanian – when three “patriots,” three rather old and probably empty men, approached him and told him that he “won’t be around here much longer.”

“Tomorrow I’ll go to Debar with my Mom for a few days,” he says. He must drive hours away from the capital, you think. You cannot believe it has come to this.

***

You remember how many police officers there were at the Colorful Revolution protests and how there was no possible way to enter any government building. You remember the cops that looked like military with their guns, shields, and uniforms. You were a part of a fight for freedom, and you feel like you’ve lost.

 

You see images from inside the parliament, images of the police nonchalantly allowing the protesters to hurt the MPs. You see photographs of police going so far as to shake some of the perpetrators’ hands as if they were old friends – because they probably are, in fact, old friends.

When the Colorful Revolution broke out a little more than a year ago, 13 people were arrested while no one was injured. On Thursday evening, 102 people were injured and no one was arrested.[5] This is apparently what “justice” looks like.

It registers that this was obviously a set up: The right-wing controlled police let in the people whose ideology they agreed with in a desperate attempt to cling to their diminishing power. The police officers had no intention of upholding their duty. At best, the police would protect institutions, surely not people.

***

Despite everything, you try to be a good student. You continue reading but in one scene one of the main characters asks the other how he could leave, how he could go to the US for work when so much was happening at home in India. The passage hits a little too close to home.

Because the truth is that you have left your home and now the fascists are coming and there is nothing you can do but share Facebook posts and feel uneasy. You stop reading the book and go back to reading the news.

You have already gotten into a fight with one friend. Perhaps there will be more. You wonder how a country can reconcile with itself after something like this happens.

You imagine a future in which even more people have made the same decision to leave that you have, and you see a country with nothing but beautiful landscapes and bitter nationalists. You begin to think of going home for the summer to be part of something – some kind of activism or journalism or something that will relieve you of your immigrant guilt.

You refresh your social media accounts again and again. You try not to think of the worst, of civil war. You try to hope for good news, but, right now, you’re not even sure what that would look like.

***

The next day you see world media reporting: BBC[6], The New York Times[7], The Economist[8], even Now This[9], and you feel recognized, a little bit. Like your tiny country has taken up a little bit of space in the vastness of the world’s attention.

Maybe if the world watches, you think, your home will not descend into chaos. Maybe.

“So what happens now?” A friend asks after you explain the incidents to her. You have perhaps been speaking a little too loudly.

“I really don’t know,” you reply.

***

Three weeks have passed.

You wake up. Brushing sleep from your eyes you read the news. And there it is: your president is promising to give the mandate to form a government at noon.

You reread the headline. Rubbing your eyes once more, you reread it again. And, your brother’s protective cynicism ringing in your ears, you stop yourself from taking seriously — because you’ve learned to take everything that VMRO-DPMNE presents with a grain of salt. Instead you wait.

You come back from lunch and there are the pictures. It actually happened.[10]

You see messages from your parents, thrilled at the beginning of the end. You read Facebook statuses celebrating the act. You even laugh at memes making fun of how uncomfortable the president looked while performing the obligatory act.

It continues to feel surreal. What country will you return to this summer? One in which the VMRO-DPMNE no longer has a tight grip on all public institutions? Will it truly be? On some level, you thought that this would never happen — and, yet, here it is.

Of course, nothing is over. It’s not like this one act solves more than a decade of oppression, skyrocketing debt, clientelism; party-controlled media. Hours after giving the mandate, the president even called for a pardoning of the attackers of the 27th of April because they were swayed by the “crowd and emotions.”[11] This is not the definite end of the quasi-fascist insanity. Criminals still need to be given prison sentences, resignations need to be turned in, and whole system of control dismantled. A lot of rebuilding and reconciliation work is yet to be done. But at least for a moment you feel happy.

It’s hard to resist it, this happiness. Because even the date is so wonderfully symbolic. Not only is the 17th of May the international day of resistance against homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia — the same communities that were antagonized by the exiting majority party for the past 11 years. The 17th of May is also the anniversary of the biggest protest in the history of Macedonia, the day when perhaps 40 or even 50 thousand people jointly protested the VMRO-DPMNE’s tyranny. This is a day you remember fondly.

You were there with your parents, your brother, your family friends. You have kept the sign you held while marching that day — “Goodbye Nikola” it read, patronizingly referring to the ex-Prime Minister by his first name.

You have kept the blue whistle your mother’s friend gave to you and which you’ve taken with you to many protests since.

Photos of that day hang on your dorm room wall, beside you, right now, as you write.

In each of them you are smiling.

Footnotes:

[1]Marusic, Sinisa Jakov. Macedonia President Pardons Politicians Facing Charges. Balkan Insight. April 12, 2016.

[2] O’Sullivan, Feargus. How Paint Became a Weapon in Macedonia’s “Colorful Revolution”. CityLab. May 9, 2016.

[3] Skopje 2014 Under Close Examination (Скопје 2014 под лупа.) Prizma. April 12, 2017.

[4] Macedonia parliament stormed by protesters in Skopje. BBC News. April 28, 2017.

[5] On Saturday, April 29, 2017, arrest warrants were issued, but for only 15 of the many aggressors.

[6]Ibid. BBC News.

[7] Zoran Zaev, Macedonian Lawmaker, Is Bloodied in Attack on Parliament by Nationalists. The New York Times. April 27, 2017.

[8]Macedonian nationalists storm the parliament to hold on to power. The Economist. April 28, 2017.

[9]Nationalist protesters violently attacked members of Parliament in Macedonia. NowThis. April 29, 2017.

[10] Zaev Wins Mandate to Form Macedonia’s Next Govt. Balkan Insight. May 17, 2017.

[11] Ivanov Calls for Amnesty for the Attackers and Aggressors of the Parliament. (Иванов предлага амнестија за насилниците и тепачите во Собранието.) Novatv.mk. May 17, 2017.

Elena Gagovska

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