Macedonia barely hits the news. This small landlocked Balkan state that emerged from the breakup of former Yugoslavia has not had an easy road during its quarter century of independence. Though it managed to escape the Balkan wars of the 1990s -experiencing a short-lived armed insurgency in 2001- this nation of 2 million (with a 30% Albanian minority) has walked a thin line between ailing economic prospects and ethnic tensions ever since. With one of the highest unemployment rates on the continent it has seen nearly 15% percent of its population leave the country. The often-projected remedy of European integration (the country received candidate status in 2005 though no accession talks have been held) has basically been a chimera since all attempts to join the EU or NATO have been effectively blocked by its southern Balkan neighbour, Greece, which even opposes the name of the country itself. More so, the country’s crony political system has been dominated for the past decade by the increasingly authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) which has been evolving towards what political commentator Ivan Krastev has aptly dubbed “Balkan-style managed democracy.”
However, in the past year-and-a-half cracks in the system appeared. After winning the parliamentary elections of 2014 Gruevski was accused by the opposition of rigging the elections, which led the latter to boycott the sessions of the legislative. Mass protests followed with the government -though nominally pro-EU and pro-NATO- making innuendo about ‘foreign influence’ prompting similar concerns from Russia. In June 2015 the EU stepped in to broker a power-sharing deal that stipulated early elections to be held in April 2016. While the protests were the largest the country had seen since independence and the conflict got a flavour of East-West geopolitical confrontation that has appeared elsewhere in the region, the initial mobilisations that prepared the ground for the escalation and the EU stepping in were in fact precipitated by domestic issues and the actions of students. It is therefore worth revisiting the Macedonian student protests of 2014-2015 to demonstrate how what can be described as an unruly generational factor forced the hand of the government, the opposition, and the international players in the crisis.
Student protest has been a regular occurrence in the Balkans in recent years. While the actions of students against austerity policies and budget cuts at Greek universities or the Gezi protests in Istanbul gained wider international notoriety, it was the western Balkan countries that provided for a model of student protest action that has been emulated throughout the region. In the wake of an occupation strike at the University of Zagreb in 2009, activists compiled an ‘Occupation Cookbook’ as a manual for student action – the methods of which have served to inspire student protesters around the region with street protests and university occupations becoming a trademark signature. Yet, the emergence of mass student protest in Macedonia was somewhat of a surprise despite longstanding grievances -such as the conditions in dilapidated dormitories- within the milieu. The linchpin was a move by the Gruevski government to instate a centralised higher education examination system in the autumn of 2014, as David Stefonski, a student protester, affirmed: “in October 2014, there was this announcement that there was going to be a state exam that would evaluate students’ abilities through a series of tests where you just circle one answer, scratch another one etc. and they expected that tick-box process to work as a form of assessment, for some reason, like it does with people at high school, except it doesn’t even work there – right now the high school exam system is a complete disaster. That was the last straw. Up until then we had been through all sorts of forms of repression. We had been the last priority on every list. And we had to pay for stuff we didn’t even know existed. We have completely corrupt student representatives who are all supporters of the party in power. So it had to boil over sometime and it did when they announced this state exam.”
When the Studentski Parlament, the bureaucratic government-sponsored student organisation, did not react students took matters in their own hands and set up a grassroots structure, the Studentski Plenum, to protest the government plans, and fight for student rights in general. The need for an organisational structure of their own was clear due to the servility of the Studentski Parlament towards the government, as Vladimir Delov of the Student Plenum explained: “The politicisation of the Student Parliament is a problem that dates back to its creation in 1997. The party in power created a system of dependency, a system that will buy your obedience through political membership. It is a form of student clientelism.” The Plenum did not oppose higher education reform as such but was mainly geared towards enhancing student representation and direct democracy. Students opposed the out-of-touch pro-government student organisation and engaged in various protest actions to this end. Then, the international students’ day on 17 November presented itself as an opportunity to show mass student defiance to the government. That day over 2,000 students rallied in the capital, Skopje, at St. Cyril and Methodius University and marched towards the Ministry of Education and Science. They called for students to ‘wake up’ and symbolically declared the Studentski Parlament dead. Once they reached the Ministry they called for the Minister’s resignation and handed over a letter with their demands stating that the planned reforms went against the right to an education and curbed academic autonomy. While the government tried to mute reports of the march in the media, it also resorted to the now near-protocol-like counter-attack of unpopular governments in the region and denounced the students as steered by the opposition and backed by the textbook bogeyman, George Soros. Nevertheless, the Plenum’s first street protest hit a nerve and students started reporting on the march and the Plenum’s actions applying the hashtag #СтудентскиМарш (#StudentMarch) on social media to enhance visibility. In the days that followed, the government responded with vague mitigating pronouncements of introducing the examination system in a watered-down and phased manner but this only served to fuel student resentment. Darko Malinovski, a Plenum activist, put it bluntly: “The ministry must reconsider the need for introducing such exams, not discuss different ways to implement them. If not, we will stage more protests.”
Yet, the government tried to placate the protesting students by introducing the reforms in a way to exempt the current student generation from the planned state exam, as Gruevski himself stated: “I see no reason for more protests because the ‘state exam’ will not affect current students.” This, however, had an adverse effect with students calling upon high school pupils -who would thus in future be subjected to the exam- to join the protests while university professors started to rally to their cause as well. On 10 December another street demonstration took place in Skopje and it was massive, drawing over 10,000 (some sources put the number to over 12,000) participants who flocked to the streets of the capital. The protest not only included students but also professors and high school pupils. More so, other towns in the country saw protest marches of their own. On top of that, the marches managed to overcome ethnic divides between the Slavic and Albanian segments of society. It was the biggest grassroots civic protest the country had seen. The student protesters had in fact also succeeded in breaking the widespread stigma of protests being perceived as steered from certain ‘power centres’. The government was caught by surprise and turned to known authoritarian tactics by closing down mobile networks and the internet, and unleashing a media propaganda campaign to smear the protesters. Still, it did not manage to thwart the protest mobilization.
Instead, university faculties joined the students’ cause by openly starting to reject the government’s reform plans. This was followed by an open letter to the government signed by 110 professors in defense of the students’ demands. Academics, intellectuals, and students from abroad also sent statements of support. While the government was trying to ignore the protests, the students -emboldened by their rising numbers and the various displays of solidarity- planned for another mass demonstration which took place on 26 December in front of the government building in Skopje. Again, thousands of students took part in what was the third consecutive mass demonstration against the planned reforms. Nevertheless, the government was determined to push through the amendments to the higher education law and put the matter to the parliament in January. Professors and students appealed to President Gjorgje Ivanov (also a professor) to veto the legislation. This proved to no avail and the Macedonian parliament voted for the reforms on 14 January 2015. The adoption of the law infuriated the students and radicalised the movement. The following message was published on the Plenum’s facebook page: “Prepare yourself, dear Prime Minister, dear Government, dear legislators, dear President, grab your indexes and go to classes. The Students’ plenum will start teaching statehood lessons! The struggle begins!” Shortly thereafter the Plenum decided to stage an occupation strike.
On 11 February over a thousand students started to occupy four faculties of the university in Skopje. They proclaimed them ‘autonomous zones’ and held alternative lectures, concerts, and other events. The occupation strike would last for 15 days. In reaction, the government made a U-turn: it opened negotiations with students and professors and after a few days decided to repeal the adopted law and instead commit itself to drafting a completely new higher education law without the provision for the state exams that had sparked the student protests. The students had won.
However, this unexpectedly swift victory needs some further clarification. When the occupation strike started the government came under increased pressure as workers started to protest against tax hikes introduced in the new year and the hitherto aloof opposition suddenly announced it would come forth with compromising materials on the Gruevski government. Against the backdrop of this escalating political and social conflict, the government surely would have been moved to accommodate the students. That said, it were the mass student demonstrations and growing protest movement led by the Student Plenum that had paved the way for broader anti-government protests to arise. After the opposition released transcripts of widespread wiretaps ordered by the government (that included evidence of an attempt by officials to cover up the murder of a young man called Martin Neshovski a few years earlier) more protest demonstrations broke out in Skopje and turned violent in early May when the government called in the riot police to disperse the crowd. As a result, daily protests erupted with demonstrators calling for Gruevski’s resignation. It was at this point, in June 2015, that the EU’s commissioner for enlargement Johannes Hahn negotiated a settlement between the government and the opposition to hold early elections in April 2016.
What had started out as a student protest movement against educational reform, morphed into a national anti-government protest movement. The Macedonian crisis of the last year-and-a-half would certainly have taken a different course had it not been for the initial mobilisations of students which lowered the bar for other social groups to take to the streets in protest. In other words, the actions of an unruly younger generation showed the way.
Tom Junes is a post-doctoral researcher and a member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015). In 2011-2012, he was a Bronisław Geremek fellow at IWM.
© Author / Transit Online
 Ljupcho Petkovski, “From student protests to movement – the (un)expected reinvention of politics in Macedonia'” Balkans in Europe Policy Blog; Sinisa Jakov Marusic, “Student Protest Blocks Macedonian Capital,” Balkan Insight.