The government of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was rocked by the loss of a close political ally and two government ministers on Tuesday, in the wake of a 24-hour long gun battle that killed 22 people, leaked tapes allegedly exposing corruption, and mass protests.
On Tuesday Prime Minister Gruevski's announced the resignation of his counter-intelligence chief and cousin Saso Mijalkov, a key advisor and member of the prime minister's inner circle. Two of Gruevski's ministers also resigned from their posts Tuesday evening, Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska and Transport and Communications Minister Mile Janakieski, according to the Macedonian Information Agency. Both officials held the positions since 2006 and featured heavily in the series of leaked wiretap recordings that have severely damaged the credibility of the Gruevski government.
The resignations come in the wake of a gun battle between police and alleged Albanian nationalist guerrillas that left 22 people dead over the weekend and accusations of corruption and abuse of power by opposition leaders. The European Union, NATO and the United Nations yesterday called for calm in Macedonia, as Prime Minister Gruevski faced widespread accusations of cynically stirring up ethnic tensions to divert attention from growing calls for his resignation by critics who consider the timing of the raid suspiciously convenient.
A police raid in the northern town of Kumanov sparked the deadly gun battle, which killed eight policemen and 14 civilians, and wounded 37 people other people. It began before dawn on Saturday when a Macedonian special anti-terrorist police unit equipped with armored vehicles and machine guns moved in on what Prime Minister Gruevski said was "one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Balkans" composed of ethnic Albanians hailing from neighbouring Kosovo, who Gruevski said intended to attack shopping malls, police stations and sports events, according to Reuters.
The fighting raged from early Saturday morning into Sunday, and left the northern Macedonian city's Divo Naselje neighbourhood in ruins. Observers said the scenes recalled Macedonia's 2001 insurgency, when ethnic Albanian guerrillas fought against Macedonian security forces. A NATO-brokered peace deal halted the fighting and led to greater rights for the country's 25 percent ethnic-Albanian minority and tentative ethnic reconciliation.
At a national security council meeting later on Sunday, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov claimed the "prompt" police action had neutralized a group of several dozen terrorists planning nationwide attacks to destabilize the country. Opposition party leaders also attended the meeting. State prosecutors said they had charged 30 alleged members of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) with terrorism and illegal possession of arms and explosives. The Interior Ministry said some of those killed were wearing the KLA insignia.
Socialist opposition leader Zoran Zaev dismissed the increasingly unpopular government's claims of an urgent need to conduct the operation against the alleged terrorists, saying he has proof that that the prime minister's political party, the VMRO had been aware of the existence of an armed group for 20 months, yet had taken no action. Ivanov himself admitted on Monday that the authorities were monitoring the alleged terrorist group since January.
EU Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn in an official statement urged all actors and parties involved to "collaborate in clarifying what has happened, who is responsible for this, and to act united on this issue."
He also warned against the events in Kumanovo being "used to create any further complexity by introducing ethnic tensions into this situation."
Biljana Ginova of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of the Republic of Macedonia questioned the government's version of events, asking why Macedonian authorities decided to conduct the raid in a densely populated neighborhood if they were aware of the alleged terrorist group for so long.
"How did they evaluate the safety situations for the citizens of Kumanovo, if the group was trying to attack vital institutions of the country, which are based in Skopje?" she said. "Wouldn't it have been smarter to attack them in some non-populated areas?"
Socialist opposition leader Zoran Zaev has since February been unveiling a series of audio recordings, popularly known as "bombs," alleging to document Macedonia's descent into an authoritarian surveillance state in which judges, state institutions, most of the media, and even elections, are manipulated by Gruevski's ruling VMRO party.
Two weeks ago prosecutors charged Zaev with espionage, illegal wiretapping, and "violence against representatives of the highest state bodies."
Last week, when Socialist leader Zoran Zaev's latest release accused the Interior Ministry of allegedly covering up the murder of 22-year-old Martin Neskovski by a policeman on June 6, 2011, the tension boiled over into a mass protest outside the parliament building in the capital Skopje.
Biljana Ginova, of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, said Zaev's leak proved that high-level officials were participating in the cover up.
"It revealed that even the prime minister himself as well as his cousin Miljakov had been involved in the cover-up," she said. "That was a trigger for the citizens to go out on the streets, and (our) demands changed."
Last Tuesday thousands gathered around the government building, carrying signs with slogans such as "Resignation," "No Justice, No Peace," "Imprisonment," "Little Dictator," and "Enough Silence."
After some protesters were arrested the the demonstration and later, during a meeting with police, Ginova said around 250 citizens and representatives from different movements decided to join together and spell out their common demands.
"Our demands are: the immediate resignation and accountability of the entire Government; the urgent release of all activists detained from May 5 onwards; and the formation of a government for the democratisation of public institutions," she said.
Despite the charges agains socialist opposition leader Zaev, he has vowed to go ahead with his plan to hold an anti-government demonstration in Skopje on Sunday.
The Macedonian PM has never directly addressed any of the specific accusations arising from Zaev's intelligence leaks, saying they are the work of foreign forces and designed to destabilize Macedonia. However, Gruevski's government did invite Zaev to participate in Sunday's national security council meeting.
The President said Zaev's involvement in the meeting was important for national security and he is guided by the presumption of innocence. But with a backdrop of the blurring of governmental, police and judicial power laid bare in Zaev's "bombs", the sincerity of this statement was questioned by the protesters gathering for the now nightly anti-government demonstration in central Skopje at 6pm on Tuesday evening.
"The institutions are hostages of the government, the previous revelations already prove that," Ginova said. "It would be crazy to ask for them to clear the case."
Gruevski looks increasingly cornered, and some of his formerly close political associates have turned on him. One such group is comprised of three former Gruevski government nominees turned VMRO party opponents known as the Amsterdam Three, who met in the Dutch city in March to form a "revolution of conscience" movement in Macedonia. The group comprises Vladimir Lazarevik, who served as deputy health minister in the first Gruevski government from 2006-08, Nikola Dimitrov, the former Macedonian ambassador to the US, and the former deputy agriculture minister Pero Dimshoski.
Lazarevik recently wrote in an article entitled "Little Dictator — Gruevski's End is Nigh" that he is "personally deeply embarrassed" by his former association with the PM, as the "ongoing situation continues to paint a cruel and almost unbelievable portrait of the reality of Macedonia's brutal political scene."
Follow Daniel Nolan on Twitter: @nolan_dan