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A Macedonian police officer tries to remove red paint from his helmet's visor after protesters threw balloons filled with colored paint during an antigovernment protest in Skopje on June 6.

This week is set to become a watershed for Macedonia's "Colorful Revolution." The political crisis that has gripped the country since last summer is coming to a head, and President Gjorge Ivanov has been forced into making a major concession to the antigovernment protesters.

In response to growing public pressure, Ivanov rescinded the controversial pardon issued to 56 government and party officials implicated in a corruption scandal -- but the Macedonian parliament rejected the protesters' demand for the president's resignation.

As RFE/RL's Macedonia unit chief, Zoran Kuka reported, the antigovernment protesters delivered an ultimatum on June 6 to the Macedonian authorities -- or the Skopje "regime," as they call the government of President Gjorge Ivanov. They demanded the unconditional repeal of the blanket amnesty issued for all those implicated in a wide-ranging investigation into corruption, electoral fraud, and illegal wiretapping. Most of those accused are government officials or their supporters. The pardon was widely denounced as an assault on the rule of law, and was the motive for the wave of protests.

The activists, or "colorful revolutionaries"-- referred to as such for their habit of spray painting government buildings and public monuments -- also demanded President Ivanov's resignation. They asked for an interim government to be appointed with the task of creating the conditions for a free and fair election.

For more than two months, thousands of citizens have taken to the streets every day in the capital, Skopje, and other major cities. The ultimatum was meant to "draw a red line," according to the message which the protesters delivered to the authorities on June 6. "This is a nonnegotiable deadline for the fulfillment of our demands, which are equally firm," the demonstrators said.

Swift Response

The response from the government has been swift. On the day of the ultimatum, the presidential pardon was revoked, although Ivanov will remain in charge.

The date itself is meaningful. Exactly five years ago, 22-year-old Martin Neskovski died after being beaten by a policeman at a political rally. The government was accused of trying to cover up this act of police brutality -- another example of its alleged disregard for citizens' rights, due process, and the workings of democracy. Five years later, the day has been chosen as the beginning of what government opponents hope will be a new era in Macedonia.

"Long live free and democratic Macedonia!" exclaimed one antigovernment protester, Demijan Hadzi Angelovski. Until now, the protesters have been gathering every day at 6 p.m. in front of the special prosecutor's offices in Skopje -- whose investigation was frustrated by the presidential pardon, leading to the popular outcry. Prior to the latest turn of events, the protesters had vowed to change tactics, calling for so-called guerrilla actions via social networks, the first of which was the blockade of major intersections in Skopje.

WATCH: Skopje Protesters Tangle With Police On June 6

Macedonian Protesters Keep Up Pressure, Despite Concessions
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It is unclear whether the revocation of the pardon will be enough to appease the opponents of the government gathered in the streets of Skopje. Moreover, if the investigation into corruption and wiretapping by state and party officials resumes, it will put more pressure on the government. In any case Macedonia is about to enter a period of political uncertainty, at least until a new election can take place. But this would be a welcome development, according to Stevo Pendarovski, a former adviser to the late Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and an opposition candidate during the last election.

"If Macedonia could make it through ten years of soft dictatorship, there is no reason why it cannot hang on for another month or so, so that we can attain our freedom by peaceful means," Pendarovski told RFE/RL.

Whatever happens, the next few days and weeks will likely prove crucial to Macedonia's political future. The country will either begin to reclaim its status as a regional poster boy for political and economic reform, or it will slide further into thinly veiled authoritarianism-- and further popular unrest.

The Serbian cartoonist Corax’s vision of Vucic’s meeting with Putin in Moscow. The figure emerging from the babushka doll is Socialist leader Ivica Dacic.

When the newly reelected Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic promised to form a new government by mid June, few surprises were expected. Speculation was muted as the usual suspects were widely expected to land the most important ministerial positions. That is until Vucic’s trip to Moscow on May 26, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. All of a sudden, the composition of the new cabinet emerged as the hot topic of conversation in Belgrade.

Vucic’s trip was initially described as being private in nature. The Belgrade-based daily Blic quoted official sources saying that the prime minister was in Moscow for some medical tests. Yet the word from Moscow suggested otherwise. On the Russian president’s official website, Putin congratulated Vucic on his party’s recent election victory, and made pointed comments about the makeup of Serbia’s next government. All of a sudden the risks inherent in Vucic’s “balanced” foreign policy were exposed.

Vucic continues to insist that there is no contradiction between his commitment to the European Union and friendly relations with Russia. But with the formation of the new government imminent, there are more questions than answers. Is Serbia obliged to follow the dictates of Moscow? What are Putin’s primary interests in Belgrade, and how will these be reflected in the new government? How long will Vucic be able to walk the tightrope between Moscow and Brussels?

It has not escaped anyone’s attention that in 2012, Vucic also followed up his election victory with an unannounced trip to Moscow. Just like this time, it was later explained that he was there for a medical checkup. That prompted the chief editor of the Belgrade political magazine Danas, Draza Petrovic, to wonder if perhaps the EU is raising Vucic’s blood pressure -- and he needs Putin to bring it down.

This year, speaking at the Kremlin after meeting with Vucic, the Russian president said he hoped that “whatever the makeup of the new government, there will be a prominent place in it for those committed to nurturing relations between the Russian Federation and Serbia.”

This statement may be read as a thinly veiled request to give pro-Russian politicians three key posts: the Foreign, Defense, and Energy ministries.

Dragan Petrovic, an expert on Russia, told RFE/RL in Belgrade that Moscow is doing its best to protect its interests in Serbia and in the region. “In my opinion, Russia would prefer to see some other parties in power in Serbia, like [the far-right] Dveri [party], but as this is currently not possible, they want to see [Ivica] Dacic’s Socialists and possibly the Serb Populist Party of Nenad Popovic included in the government as a minimum guarantee of Russian interests.”

Vladimir Gligorov, a Vienna-based economist, told RFE/RL that as a result of Vucic’s meeting with Putin, the Socialists may indeed be included in the new government.

Commenting on why Vucic would allow the Russians to have a major say in the final shape of the Serbian government, Gligorov said: “Russian influence is strong in Serbia and it is strong within Vucic’s own party as well. Vucic is aware that he needs the support of Russian officials -- and that support has a price.”

Jelica Minic, from the pro-EU European Movement In Serbia, was struck by Vucic’s habit of visiting Moscow in the wake of his electoral victories (in both 2012 and 2016):

“If an event repeats itself, then we have a pattern. This time, whatever is said about it, the message is clear: Russia has a role in the formation of the Serbian government,” Minic said.

Minic highlighted Russia’s economic interests in Serbia and linked these to its growing political interests. Meanwhile, the EU has promised to help Serbia in diversifying its energy sources -- and reducing its dependence on Russia -- but it has been very slow in putting this into practice, in Serbia or within the EU itself.

Vucic may thus feel that he has little choice but to follow the Russian prescriptions, but the cost of his “medical consultations” in Moscow is rising. If Putin’s sway extends to the makeup of the Serbian government, the country’s sovereignty is surely at stake -- and staying on track for EU membership may prove even harder.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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