"Don't be afraid to dream of justice and freedom," Macedonian activist and author Xhabir Deralla wrote in a recent blog post.
Deralla is the head and co-founder of Skopje-based CIVIL -- Center for Freedom, an NGO focused on peace and reconciliation. Getting through to his office has not been easy in recent days, due to the chaos engulfing the city and the country for the second time in less than a year.
The most recent demonstrations in the Macedonian capital were triggered by a blanket amnesty issued by President Gjorge Ivanov for more than 56 officials accused of wide-ranging fraud and corruption -- including election violations, illegal wiretapping, and backroom business deals. The investigation of the corruption allegations was one of the key measures agreed to as a way out of last year's political crisis, when Macedonians took to the streets to demand the resignation of the government in the wake of the wiretapping scandal.
However, five months into the independent probe, the president concluded that the time was right to pull the plug and hold elections in June as if nothing had happened.
I have long envied the Macedonians because they managed to gain their independence without a war, unlike virtually every other constituent republic of the old federal state of Yugoslavia. Just 10 years ago, Macedonia was poised to become a member of NATO and EU accession talks were progressing well. The official view in Brussels was that Macedonia was the most promising of the EU's otherwise mostly unruly Balkan proteges.
So what went wrong?
Zana Trajkoska, director of the Skopje-based School of Journalism and Public Relations, said in a telephone interview that people have had enough of corruption and are horrified at the prospect of a brazen suspension of the rule of law, which is the upshot of President Ivanov's amnesty. The most recent U.S. State Department report highlighted that political interference, inefficiency, cronyism, and nepotism, violations of the right to public trial, and corruption characterized the judicial system.
Among those under investigation, in the now-suspended probe, were members of the president's security detail and powerful businessmen. Such "persons of interest" were not publicly known -- until now -- which raises the question of how the president was able to know about -- and pardon -- individuals under secret investigation by an independent body.
I met Trajkoska last summer in Skopje and we discussed the state of the media in the country. At the time, I remember thinking that her opinion of the extent of government control over the media may have been exaggerated. My impression was that Macedonia was in slightly better shape than some other parts of the former Yugoslavia.
In hindsight, Trajkoska might have been right. Experts have reported an environment of fear surrounding the media, and one that encourages self-censorship. The country's political crisis has also highlighted serious concerns over selective reporting and the lack of editorial independence on the part of the public-service broadcaster, Macedonian Radio Television. According to the 2016 Freedom House Nations in Transit report on democratic progress, the largest decline was Macedonia's, where its scores dropped in six of the seven categories.
For now, Macedonia's integrationist dream appears to be on hold. The main stumbling block to Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration is the dispute with Greece over the country's official name, which is also the name of a region of northern Greece. At the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008, Macedonia was meant to receive its invitation to join the alliance. It never arrived, thanks to Greek opposition. That dispute continues to have a serious impact on regional stability at a time when Europe needs the Balkans, or at least the cooperation of Balkan states -- and Macedonia in particular -- over a number of issues, notably the influx of refugees.
The Greek objection seems petty. There are almost a dozen "Macedonias" -- from Alabama to Virginia in the United States, which no one seems to object to -- but ethnic nationalism is still a winning ticket in the wider Balkans. The "Macedonian question" has been used by Greek politicians to whip up domestic support ever since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
Riot police stand guard in front of the Ministry of Culture in Skopje on April 18.
Historically, the wider region of Macedonia has been a sphere of influence for Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece, and each has tried to imprint its own language, culture, and identity on all or part of it. After World War II, numerous villages in northern Greece with a Slavic Macedonian population were resettled, the names of places were changed, and the people who stayed behind declared themselves Greeks. Perhaps this past still haunts Greek political leaders. Or perhaps history -- and names -- have unusual power in this part of the world. Regardless of which party is in power in Athens, Macedonia continues to be denied its own name and has to live with a clumsy substitute: "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (sometimes unofficially abbreviated as FYROM).
Itself not averse to using ancient history to play modern politics, the Macedonian ruling party has responded to the Athens veto by vowing to build an "older and more beautiful" Skopje, with more ancient gods depicted in the center of the city than one can see in some parts of Greece. Macedonia has also declared itself a cradle of ancient Greek civilization, and the first person one encounters at Skopje airport is none other than Alexander the Great -- otherwise known as Alexander of Macedon. The Macedonian government has used the name issue to position itself as the defender of the nation's honor and patriotism. People who have criticized the government on any account have been declared traitors, a convenient -- and time honored -- way of silencing those who cried out against corruption.
In the latest twist, the parliamentary speaker has announced that elections will go ahead on June 5 as planned, although the opposition and NGOs insist that conditions have not been met for a free and fair vote.
In a telephone interview, Deralla from CIVIL -- Center For Freedom said that he's not sure if the ruling coalition was, in fact, ever elected. "The voter list is a major issue of concern for the Macedonian public. The election commission initially announced that around 500,000 names on the register were suspected of not being eligible voters. The figure was later reduced to 300,000, then 200,000, and finally 89,000," Deralla said.
"Two years ago, my organization conducted its own investigation and concluded that 120,000 to 150,000 of those on the register were 'phantom voters,' as we referred to them. The figure initially reported by the election commission exceeded even our estimate of the extent of [electoral] fraud."
To put this into perspective, the total number of eligible voters in the 2014 Macedonian parliamentary elections was 1,779,572, with a turnout of 54 percent in the second round of voting. The initial figure cited by the election commission would mean almost one-third of all voters were not eligible.
The opposition and NGOs say that in order for free and fair elections to take place, voter lists have to be reviewed and adjusted, individuals suspected of fraud and corruption must stand trial, and the media must adhere to the basic standards of impartiality and objectivity during the upcoming election campaign. That may seem like a forlorn hope today, but the protesters in the streets of Skopje are undaunted, just as they were last year when they eventually forced the government to concede.
I managed to again get in touch with Trajkoska, the director of the journalism school. She sounded indignant but determined as she set off on her daily protest march from the special prosecutor's office to the Macedonian parliament: "We meet every day at 6 [p.m.] and our slogan is: 'No Justice, No Peace!'"
Perhaps once again Macedonians are actually ahead of the rest of the region. We may be witnessing the dawn of another dark age in Balkan politics, a time of authoritarianism, extreme nationalism, and corrupt governments everywhere, from Zagreb to Skopje to Belgrade.
But no one has drawn a line in the sand with quite the determination of the Macedonian protesters, who have made it clear to their leaders: "This far, and no further!"