Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters rally in Macedonia to call for the resignation of the country’s prime minister amid an astonishing scandal over secretly recorded phone conversations.
Crowds gathered in front of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government office calling for his resignation, something the conservative leader has refused to do.
There are concerns the anger could spill over into confrontation as Gruevski has called for his own rally on Monday. Protesters say they intend to camp out in the streets until the prime minister quits.
The small nation of just two million people has already seen bloody violence – last weekend a gun battle in the country’s north claimed the lives of eight policeman and ten ethnic Albanians, described by the government as “terrorists”.
The explosion of public anger has come from the leaking, by Macedonia’s leftist opposition, of a series of secretly recorded telephone conversations involving top government officials in which they allegedly discuss everything from vote-rigging to covering up killings.
Macedonia’s government says the wiretaps are the work of an intelligence organisation of some unnamed country working to topple the government. Russia has also accused the West of trying to foment a “colour revolution”.
Above: the anti-government protest in Macedonia’s capital Skopje.
Prime Minister Gruevski has not disputed that the voices are genuine but says that he did not order the recordings and that the tapes have been doctored.
Six people, including a former chief of the secret services, have been charged with making the tapes and the opposition leader, Zoran Zaev, who has been leaking the coversations – which the opposition call “bombs” – has been charged with threatening violence against the prime minister.
And yet the anger still rages in Macedonia.
The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, the opposition party, says it has snippets of recordings from 670,000 conversations from more than 20,000 telephone numbers.
The conversations appear to show tight government control over journalists, judges and election officials during Prime Minister Gruevski’s nine year rule.
Above: a protester holds a sign saying “resign”
The content of the conversations is reported to include government officials planning how to rig elections and the head of secret police talking about having a political opponent raped in prison.
Mr Zaev also says he has wire-taps concerning a notorious murder case from 2012, when five Macedonian men were shot dead at a lake near Skopje.
It is the biggest political earthquake to hit Macedonia since the country teetered on the edge of civil war in 2001, when the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army clashed with government forces.
Macedonia wants to join NATO and the European Union, but progress has been blocked for years by a long-running dispute with neighbouring Greece over the country’s name.
During that time, critics say Gruevski has shifted right, stoking nationalism and monopolising power.
Above: tens of thousands attend the anti-government protest in Macedonia
The violence last weekend took place when police raided a northern ethnic Albanian neighbourhood. 18 people, including police and Albanians, died in the ensuing gun battle.
Prime Minister Gruevski has said he thwarted a terrorist plot, but critics have questioned the timing of the incident, suggesting the leader may have been trying to create a diversion.
The UN, Nato and the European Union have called for calm and an investigation into the incident.