A spasm of shocking political violence in Macedonia, which is on the front lines of the European refugee crisis, was, perhaps, long overdue. The VMRO-DPMNE has held the country’s prime ministership and a majority in parliament for the past 10 years. But support for party has slipped in recent years over accusations of corruption, high levels of unemployment, and a controversial, nearly $1 billion-renovation of the capital. In last December’s elections, it eked out a narrow victory. But its efforts to form a government were thwarted by an absence of coalition partners. Meanwhile, the VMRO-DPMNE’s leader, former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, has refused to cede power to Zaev’s Social Democrats; President Gjorge Ivanov has also refused to allow Zaev to form a government. His refusal to recognize the SDSM arguably helped ignite Thursday’s bloody spectacle: For months, he has said that having SDSM in power jeopardizes Macedonian sovereignty. Though his largely ceremonial position should be apolitical, he has been privileging VMRO-DPMNE by blocking SDSM from forming the government.
The tiny country was thrown into political turmoil in 2015, when Zaev facilitated the release of 670,000 wiretapped recordings of phone conversations on 20,000 phone numbers. Zaev released those which involved public officials, containing allegations of corruption, electoral fraud, and even the cover up of an alleged murder. The release of the recordings set off daily protests in Skopje and elsewhere that escalated last year after Ivanov's attempted pardons. The demonstrations were dubbed “The Colorful Revolution,” with protesters throwing colored paintballs at government institutions, especially those renovated as part of Gruevski’s neoclassical facelift.
It is unclear where Zaev obtained the recordings, but an independent investigation by the European Commission found that the wiretaps had been orchestrated by the national security services on orders from top government officials. A special prosecutor was set up by EU mediators to investigate the allegations in the wiretaps.
VMRO-DPMNE, for its part, rejects the allegations raised in the wiretaps, and claims they were doctored by a foreign-intelligence agency intent on destabilizing the country. SDSM claims that VMRO-DPMNE has clung to power over fears of prosecution stemming from the wiretaps. VMRO-DPMNE leaders, including Gruevski and his cousin, former head of secret police Saso Mijalkov, are facing investigation and indictments by a special prosecutor set up to investigate the wiretap allegations. Last year, Ivanov preemptively pardoned officials under investigation by the special prosecutor, but after months of protests and international pressure, he walked the pardons back.
The wiretaps helped incite Macedonia’s worst political crisis since the country narrowly averted a civil war in 2001 instigated by ethnic Albanian insurgents fighting for greater political representation. The war came to an end with the Ohrid Agreement, which expanded the rights of ethnic Albanians, instituted the official use of the Albanian language in municipalities where Albanians are a majority, and required that an ethnic Albanian party be included as a junior-coalition member of every government. Though some of the Albanian parties had been part of VMRO-DPMNE governments, this time, after weeks of negotiations, they refused to join, due in part to lack of concessions and because of revelations in the wiretaps.