Several thousand people marched yesterday (11 October) along the streets of Macedonian capital Skopje protesting against the rule of conservative leader Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party ahead of snap elections in December.
The march, called by the main opposition social democrats, was symbolically held on the 75th anniversary of Macedonia’s anti-Fascist uprising against Bulgarians, Italian and German occupiers at the beginning of World War II.
“We are writing history, toppling a regime, getting back our freedom,” opposition leader Zoran Zaev told the rally in front of the parliament’s building, where the march ended.
“Our weapon is our vote,” Zaev told the crowd as protesters chanted “Freedom, freedom!” and “The fight continues!” waving with Macedonian national flags.
The rally was the first mass street protest since June, when thousands of opposition and pro-government supporters demonstrated daily.
Macedonia has been deep in political crisis since February 2015, when Zaev began releasing tapes that appeared to reveal official and widespread wiretapping, top-level corruption and other crimes.
After street protests on both sides, the European Union stepped in to mediate a deal that included early elections.
Gruevski stepped down in January to make way for the election after 10 years in power.
Having delayed the vote twice due to opposition claims that conditions for free and fair elections had not been met, leaders of four main political parties, including Gruevski and Zaev, agreed to hold snap polls on 11 December.
Regular polls were due in 2018.
Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005 but has yet to open accession talks.
Macedonia declared independence from the dissolving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.
The country is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present. The government of Macedonia however says the majority of the population are not Slavs, but descendants from Alexander the Great.
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the so-called 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest.
Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – the Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece vowed to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.
Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name most EU countries, the name dispute with Greece has led to an impasse for the country's membership of both the EU and Nato. UK, Poland, Romania and 13 other EU countries call the country Macedonia, while France, Germany, Spain and 9 other EU members call it Fyrom.
Greece also considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. The airport in Skopje was named after Alexander the Great, who is seen by Greece as a hero of its ancient history. Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great.