Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Paint-balling your way to fair elections.
Look at the aftermath of recent protests in the Macedonian capital Skopje, and you might assume a festival had just left town. Archways appear splattered with polkadot blotches of color, statues drip pink and blue streaks, and fountain water runs scarlet. This colorful makeover isn’t the result of some Balkan version of Holi, however. It’s the product of a protest movement whose dazzling tactics—dubbed Sharena Revolutsiya or “the colorful revolution” despite its overwhelmingly peaceful nature—has meant covering city walls and monuments in splashes of brightly colored paint. While it all looks like fun on social media, the protests, involving tens of thousands of people, express deep frustration, part of unrest that has been rocking the tiny but geopolitically significant Balkan republic for over a year.
Macedonia’s Colorful Revolution actually kicked off last winter following shocking revelations over the scope of alleged state surveillance in the country. Over 20,000 citizens, it emerged, had had their phones tapped—a sizable number in a country of barely more than two million. The opposition claimed the wiretaps were a government-designed plot not just to monitor opponents, but to help fix last year’s elections in favor of former PM Nikola Gruevski’s political party, VMRO-DPMNE (and possibly the most unwieldy political acronym ever coined). In addition, they claim that almost 500,000 names on the country’s electoral register were invalid, belonging to people who were dead or to émigrés who had long left the country.
Gruevski, then the country’s prime minister, denied knowledge of the wiretaps or voter fraud, suggesting the leaked tapes were the work of foreign powers. It is true that much of the information leaked is highly damaging to the government—such as tapes suggesting government employees turned off public housing elevators to prevent elderly citizens from voting. And while claims that outside powers set all this up still seem feeble, the government is not entirely wrong to fear outside involvement. Previous “color revolutions” such as Georgia’s Rose Revolution have indeed taken place with active Western encouragement and even training from Western NGOs. Macedonia also continues to be an arena in which tensions between the Western powers and Russia are played out.
Undercutting this fear, however, is the degree of international pressure the crisis has caused: It’s been close to nothing. With the E.U. relying on Macedonia to stem the flow of refugees trying to cross the country from Greece, European governments have largely taken a softly-softly approach, concerning themselves more with brokering stability than pushing for regime change. All that has forced local protestors to get creative. Instead of throwing bricks or Molotov cocktails, they’ve been firing paintballs, scattering Macedonia’s parliament and public buildings with glaring color.
Such protests tapered off over the winter, after Gruevski stood down in the run-up to elections scheduled for April (and now postponed until June). But they resumed again this spring when Macedonia’s president (himself fighting allegations of involvement in companies named in the Panama Papers) cancelled the official investigation over Gruevski and 56 colleagues’ alleged involvement in the wiretapping scandal. And so the protests roll on.
That demonstrators are especially concerned with altering the capital’s appearance is not insignificant. In many countries this might come across as a wanton, self-defeating attack on public property that has served many governments, not just the current one. In Macedonia’s capital, however, those very buildings are often new, and represent the forces in the country that protestors loathe.
Skopje has in recent years been undergoing a massive reconstruction project to make it look grander and more imposing (and in Europe, it’s not alone in doing so). The ruling VMRO-DPMNE party has splurged on giving the city a neoclassical makeover that has smothered the city with Brobdingnagian monuments to Alexander the Great, bridges bristling with bronze reliefs, and endless hollow colonnades. At a mushrooming cost of €633 million ($722 million)—meaning that the country is paying out €10,400 ($11,860) every hour—the results are dramatic, oppressive, and hideous. It’s no wonder that these new monuments have been taken as symbols of the government’s grandiose delusions and petty oppression, stone and masonry canvasses on which people are now writing their frustration in day-glo paint. This isn’t just a case of protestors writing their anger on walls. In Skopje, the walls themselves are part of the problem.