Macedonia's opposition leader Zoran Zaev was charged with conspiring with a foreign intelligence service in a plot to bring down the conservative government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski at the weekend. Then, on Monday, covertly recorded videos showing secret discussions between the men were broadcast on the government-linked TV Sitel television channel.
Zaev, a Social Democrat, reportedly has possession of a file that has become known as "the bomb," which he claims contains evidence of a number of criminal cases so sensational that they could end Gruevski's nine-year tenure, and inflame inter-ethnic relations. Ethnic Albanians make up at least 25 per cent of Macedonia's population, and many politicians are in coalition with Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE. There are widespread but unconfirmed rumors that "the bomb" also includes information of an affair between two government ministers, a leak that would be damaging for Gruevski's Christian and pro-family party.
Gruevski has admitted to meeting Zaev several times during the fall, when the prime minister says his rival tried to blackmail him into ceding power to a technocrat cabinet, claiming: "I watched and listened to the head of the opposition… informing me that he is collaborating with a foreign intelligence service."
The reports on TV Sitel on Monday night suggested that Gruevski had covertly recorded some of those meetings.
The Social Democrat party (SDSM) condemned the publication of a video showing one of the four reported secret meetings between Zaev and Gruevski. In the low-quality footage — which leaked onto YouTube around the same time it was aired on TV Sitel's prime-time news show — Gruevski can be heard asking Zaev whether "foreigners" gave him the material, to which Zaev then answers in the affirmative.
The SDSM said in a statement that the film "shows how Gruevski operates, and confirms Zaev's claims that he is being followed, and that thousands of Macedonian citizens are being spied on."
Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski described Zaev's actions as amounting to an attempted coup. "For the first time since independence, the Ministry of the Interior has stopped an attempt to threaten the constitutional order — the undemocratic seizure of power," he said at the weekend.
Police have submitted the criminal charges of espionage and violent threats aimed at government officials with the goal of undermining the constitutional order against four people, including a former head of state intelligence Zoran Verusevski and his wife. All are in now custody, except Zaev, which is somewhat unusual for a suspected traitor, though he has been forced to turn in his passport.
Zaev denies the treason charge and says the authorities are trying to block the publication of "incendiary evidence of criminal wrongdoing."
Macedonian political analyst and former ambassador Arsim Zekolli told VICE News that the politicians are now playing a waiting game and while Zaev remains a free man on a treason charge, "the government is waiting for further action from him, whether or not he will publish the information."
"Even arresting me will not succeed in stopping the publication of the evidence we have," Zaev said last week. Furthermore, Zaev's imprisonment would deepen political divisions and heighten concern in the European Union over Gruevski's perceived authoritarian turn in the landlocked country of 2 million people, which has long-term ambitions to join the EU as well as NATO.
Government critics say the arrests are the next step in a co-ordinated attack on opposition voices in Macedonia. "This is something that the government has done before, it is a psychological pressure, when you do not know when you are going to get taken into custody," Petrit Saracini, the Macedonian Institute for Media program manager, told VICE News.
Zekolli described "an ongoing steady shift in the general mood of society… generally, the economic stagnation and the blocked European and NATO integrations are sounding the alarms and adding to a general lack of perspective."
Separation of powers is non-existent in Macedonia, according to Zekolli, who notes that Sasho Mijalkov, the chief of the police service who initiated the treason charge, is also Gruevski's first cousin. "The very fact that he was appointed after the government took power, one can only illustrate the double standards imposed by the ruling coalition," Zekolli said.
Saracini adds that the pervasiveness of Macedonia's state surveillance situation is best illustrated by a joke, in which a man meets the prime minister and tells him: "I have so many policy ideas."
"Please send them in an email, we will definitely read them," says the prime minister. "But to which email address shall I send them?" asks the man.
"Whichever," the prime minister replies.
"Macedonia has never had a ruling political class that is not dominated or in close partnership with the secret police or the criminal community," Saracini added.
The stand-off between Gruevski and Zaev is merely the latest escalation of hostilities in the increasingly broken culture of Macedonian politics. Zaev disputes Gruevski's legitimacy and the election that took place in April 2014, claiming that the governing party issued false ID cards to increase its support, and has boycotted parliament ever since.
Regarding last year's election, Kekolli noted that the report written by international election observers from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OSCE) had declined to call the elections "free and fair," instead saying the governing party's campaign had not adequately separated party from state activities, and urging the government to undertake serious reforms to ensure better conditions for opposition parties.
Things have not improved, according to Zekolli, who says "the opposition is virtually powerless with very few media outlets, financially drained, under round-the-clock observation, and practically forced out of the parliament and institutions."
In response to the arrests at the weekend, the EU issued a statement that expressed "concern about the deterioration in political dialogue" in Macedonia, and underlined "the inalienable right for an independent and transparent investigation in case of any alleged wrongdoing… in accordance with the law and international standards."
Zekolli is skeptical that Zaev can expect justice. "It is highly unlikely that the government is either able — and even less, willing — to ensure a proper investigation that includes procedural and factual respect for the defendants and the presumption of innocence," he says.
The former ambassador says the waiting game between Macedonia's two biggest political party leaders will continue, but meanwhile the tide is turning against Gruevski's government. "Although the roles of who is the cat and who is the mouse are not quite defined," Zekolli says, adding that the case increasingly "resembles a mass murder investigation without a body."
Follow Dan Nolan on Twitter: @nolan_dan