Branimir Jovanovic was one of the thousands of Macedonians protesting peacefully in Skopje on April 13, 2016, when he was arrested by the police.
The protests began the day before, when the president announced he had preemptively pardoned 56 politicians facing criminal charges. Jovanovic, 34, had been actively protesting against government corruption for years.
One day later, when Jovanovic returned home, a photo of him being arrested had gone viral. He wrote a column about his arrest and shared it on his Facebook profile, becoming an instant star.
— Aleksej Demjanski (@ADemjanski) April 14, 2016
Small-scale protests in Macedonia began in 2008, when the government enacted a project of urban renovation in Skopje, said Fabio Mattioli, who researches Macedonia at New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. The government invested in building monuments and renovating historical buildings, as well as building parking lots. Mattioli argues that the government used the project to suffocate the local market and control the economy by circulating money within a select network of companies linked to the regime.
Opposition intensified in February 2015, when a series of recordings leaked, revealing that the government had covered up police brutality and had been wire-tapping thousands of Macedonians, including officials and journalists, in the previous years.
The scandal exploded in April when Macedonian president George Ivanov pardoned a coterie of officials who had been accused of listening in on citizens’ conversations. Street protests and parliamentary opposition pressured the government into postponing elections, which had been scheduled for the end of the month. The opposition argued that the elections would be unfair given the government’s tight control of the press and election procedures.
“It all started on Facebook,” Jovanovic said in a Skype interview from Skopje. “The government announced the pardon, and people were so shocked, they began sharing their shock on Facebook. They wrote, ‘I’m going out and protesting now,’ and so more people joined them in the streets.”
The younger generation has led the protests. A group of students last year created a Facebook page called “Protestiram,” which quickly became the main source of information about the protests. The administrators of the page organized the protests by creating Facebook events every day for months.
“The traditional media outlets are controlled by the regime,” said Irena Sterijovska, 29, one of the administrators of the Protestiram page. “So there is no way of getting any information from them. If we don’t have traditional media, we still have the streets, we have graffiti, and we have social media.”
Before getting involved in the movement, Sterijovska worked as a theatre director. She is also active on Facebook and, like Jovanovic, has about 1,000 followers.
In April 2016, during the latest wave of protests, Sterijovska noticed that some people were getting too violent. Some of the protesters had broken the windows of the president’s office. Sterijovska and Ana Krkulj, a costume designer who was part of her activist group, had the idea of throwing balloons filled with paint at the buildings and monuments. The so-called Colorful Revolution had begun.
“We were angry with our President, and through the colors, we turned the protests away from that violent context,” she said.
People loved the idea, and reproduced it. They created slingshots they used to throw paint at the city’s recently renovated buildings. It became a fashion, said Mattioli. Protesters walked in the streets, colored the city, and shared their excitement on Facebook by posting their photos with the vandalized monuments and buildings.
“When I saw people posting selfies and photos from the protests on Facebook, I thought: ‘This is what we’ve been doing for years, now finally everyone is doing it!’” recalled Sterijovska. “We became popular. We represented democracy in the street for all these people, we gave them hope. Some of them saw us as heroes. They realized they could make a statement about the regime and get away with it.”
Tijana Radeska, 25, had recently returned from Cambridge, where she pursued an M.A. in anthropology, when the Colorful Revolution started. At first, she liked it, but then she saw the way people shared their participation on Facebook, and became more critical.
“I got the feeling that most people protesting didn’t know the political background behind the protests,” she said. “Some of these people took selfies just to share them on Facebook, without being aware of why they were actually participating. One day, someone threw colors at a public building, and the next day everyone started throwing colors. It became a fun thing to do.”
Skopje is an ugly city, said Redeska. But what was the point, she wondered, of throwing colors?
“I would hear people say, ‘We want a colorful life.’ But it seems to me that the protesters were not doing anything to actually make their life more colorful.”
Radeska made her mother open a Facebook account so that she could get informed about the protests. She believes that Facebook can be both good and bad: good, because it provides information that cannot be found elsewhere, bad, because it flattens issues and shapes people’s opinions. Reproduced symbolic acts, in her opinion, lose their meaning.
When asked whether the Revolution has been successful or not, the answer varies depending who you ask. According to Sterijovska, it’s too early to see the whole picture.
“We had eight demands,” said Jovanovic. “Only half of them were met: for instance, we had the decision to pardon [the alleged criminals] retracted, the election was postponed. But we still don’t have a new government.”
In December, Macedonia will elect a new president, and due to the control the current regime still holds on public institutions and the media, it is going to be tough for an opposition party to win. Jovanovic, who is a member of a newly founded leftist party, Levica, said this is not going to be a fair election: “In order to win against the ruling party, we need to create a wide coalition of all the anti-government parties.”
When asked about the election, Radeska paused and took a long drag on her cigarette.
“Despite the protests, there has not been a political change in Macedonia,” she said. “Right now, for instance, there are no protests taking place. In June, as the summer began, all protesters went on vacation: what kind of protest is that? If people were aware of what is going on, they would continue protesting.”
Sterijovska acknowledged that the movement has “slowed down” over the summer, to “allow the institutions to work on the upcoming election.”
“Everyone now knows that the regime is corrupt, and people are going to respond to this injustice,” she concluded. “I think there is hope. We will win.”
Photo (top): Young protesters in Skopje during the Colorful Revolution, 2016. Photo by FOSIM / Flickr.