• Adrian Waters

Of ‘Bombs’ and Hybrid Regimes: How the Macedonian Colourful Revolution went full circle

macedonian election

The Swiss-French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan (1749-1800) wrote in his essay on the French Revolution that, like the ancient Roman god Saturn, the revolution devours its own children [1].This is certainly the case for those who led and participated in the Colourful Revolution in Macedonia (2014-16) and it provides a basis to better understand the country’s current political climate.

The Macedonian Prime Minister and leader of the governing SDSM party, Zoran Zaev, resigned in January 2020 after Macron’s France blocked the start of EU accession talks with Skopje in October 2019. He was replaced by a caretaker administration which will rule the Republic until the early parliamentary election scheduled for April that was later postponed to 15th July due to the coronavirus pandemic [2]. It can be argued that this was predictable because of a scandal involving the Macedonian Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO).

The scandal began in July 2019 when the media personality Bojan Jovanovski (a.k.a. Boki 13) was arrested for an alleged extortion racket. This was followed by the resignation of the SPO chief Katica Janeva [3]. Eventually she was arrested on suspicion of abuse of office. The Macedonian Organised Crime Prosecution accused Boki of extorting money from an entrepreneur in exchange for a promise to help him avoid prison or have a lighter sentence by using the influence with Janeva’s office [4]. The scandal was further exacerbated by the publication of compromising footage by the Italian newspaper La Verità exposing the racket [5], which implicated Janeva [6] and even Zaev himself [7].To make matters worse, it was discovered that she received tens of thousands of euros in bribes as well as 157 000 euros in bonuses to keep classified information secret [8]. Moreover, members of the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE claimed that they have been blackmailed by Janeva [9]. The latest update to this scandal was provided by Antonio Milošoski, a VMRO-DPMNE member of parliament, who disclosed an audio tape in which Zaev can be heard orchestrating Janeva’s decisions [10]. Its authenticity was confirmed by the former premier [11] whose anti-corruption drive was already undermined by this affair [12]. For Macedonians this is just a farcical repetition of what occurred in previous years [13].

The Macedonian Colourful Revolution began, arguably, in late 2014 with student protests against higher education reforms but these were soon overshadowed by a political crisis [14].[xiv] In January 2015, Nikola Gruevski, the former VMRO-DPMNE leader and then-Prime Minister since 2006, announced that he met with Zaev, who declared that he received incriminating information regarding Gruevski from foreign intelligence services and urged the latter to resign. As the government was preparing to prosecute the opposition frontman for plotting a coup, Zaev released wiretapped conversations (dubbed ‘bombs’) exposing widespread corruption [15] This sparked mass anti-government demonstrations in May-June 2015 and in April-July 2016 that were largely dominated by SDSM, expecting that the ‘bombs’ would stir popular rage and force Gruevski’s resignation [16]. Eventually the US and the EU brokered an agreement between government and opposition parties that envisaged new elections and the appointment of a special prosecutor that would investigate the wiretapping scandal [17]. This was Janeva and her choice was controversial from the start. Although she was nominated by cross-party consensus, she hired Colourful Revolution organisers and activists into her staff and started cases exclusively against VMRO-DPMNE members and supporters. In early 2016 a temporary government was established, but SDSM kept postponing elections, hoping that Janeva would finally tarnish Gruevski [18].

Although the anti-corruption protests had the highest turnout in Macedonian history, their effects remained limited for several reasons. Firstly, because many citizens were implicated in the government corruption networks. Secondly, since the 'bombs' were edited and released exclusively by SDSM, the political crisis was seen as another power struggle between the major parties. Thirdly, the nascent progressive forces who were active in the demonstrations missed an opportunity to go beyond the anticorruption rhetoric due to their inexperience and naivety. The close links between SDSM and civil society quickly took advantage of the protests to bolster the opposition party's standing and legitimacy in front of the EU and the US. This restricted the appeal of the movement to those outside the SDSM base. Moreover, the Colourful Revolution involved private sector employees, students and metropolitan middle classes, while a significant portion of the population (including labourers and the unemployed) did not participate [19].[xix] Research has shown that protest movements dominated by the urban bourgeoisie do not always lead to democratisation [20].[xx] In Macedonia the fact that the Colourful Revolution was pursued by middle class activists restricted its capacity for making profound changes.

Eventually, together with EU and US ambassadors, the main parties agreed to hold elections in December 2016 [21]. These resulted in VMRO-DPMNE gaining the most seats, but not enough to have a majority. Its former coalition partner, DUI, the largest party representing the ethnic Albanian minority, formed a new administration with SDSM and Zaev as prime minister in 2017. He galvanised on the popularity gained during the wiretapping scandal, but after achieving power he focused on resolving issues with Macedonia’s neighbours instead of meeting popular demands. Firstly because he promised the West that he would facilitate his country’s NATO integration in exchange for their backing. Secondly, it is easier for the government of a weak state to attain NATO membership than to deliver public well-being. With Western support, Zaev and his Greek counterpart Tsipras signed the Prespa Agreement in 2018 supposedly ending the long-standing name dispute between their two countries. Under this deal Macedonia would modify its name to North Macedonia and Greece would accept its entry into the EU and NATO [22]. The way it was ratified was questionable to say the least. Although the deal was approved by a majority in a referendum, there was a 37 percent turnout which should have invalidated the result. Regardless, Zaev pushed through constitutional amendments by bribing, intimidating or blackmailing eight opposition lawmakers to obtain a parliamentary majority [23]. Although he succeeded in obtaining NATO membership, Macedonia cannot contribute in any meaningful way to the alliance or to European security since it is a poor country located in a region that only brings risks for fellow members. Its accession was simply used to counter Russian influence and to isolate Serbia [24].

Fast forward to 2020 and the Macedonian situation is dire. The SDSM-led administration has reneged on its promises to end corruption and illiberalism. The country’s corruption and press freedom indexes have worsened since Zaev took over [25]. Democracy reports have classified Macedonia as a hybrid regime where journalists and activists face pressure and intimidation [26]. Evidence shows that the 2017 local and 2019 presidential elections were marked by vote buying and other irregularities [27]. This should not be surprising since SDSM ruled in an authoritarian manner during the 1990s. Although Macedonia had democratised by 2008, it regressed to competitive authoritarianism under Zaev [28]. The racketeering scandal resulted in prison sentences for Janeva and Boki, but is far from settled since other leaks have revealed the former PM’s involvement in extortion [29]. Due to these factors, former Colourful Revolution activists are turning on Zaev, whose chief spy admitted that the 2015 ‘bombs’ were manipulated for maximum political impact [30]

thus demonstrating that the SDSM leadership utilised the Revolution as a means to gain power and riches. The story of the Macedonian Colourful Revolution also shows that, like in the cases of Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005), colour revolutions do not produce consolidated democracies especially because the rule of law never takes hold [31]. On 15th July 2020, Macedonians stand at a crossroads between entrenching authoritarianism, i.e. voting for the already compromised governing parties, or a chance to foster genuine change by choosing the opposition parties on both right and left of the political spectrum.


[1] Jacques Mallet du Pan, Considerations sur la nature de la revolution de France, et sur les causes qui en prolongent la durée (1793), 80.

[2] Nektaria Stamouli, “North Macedonia’s PM resigns”, last modified 6th January 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/north-macedonian-pm-zoran-zaev-resigns/

Republika English, “SDSM and VMRO reach agreement to hold elections on July 15”, accessed 29th June 2020, https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/sdsm-and-vmro-reach-agreement-to-hold-elections-on-july-15/

[3] Jason Miko, “Boki 13, Katica Janeva, and the hot mess that is Macedonia”, accessed 12th march 2020, https://medium.com/@Miko_Janos/boki-13-katica-janeva-and-the-hot-mess-that-is-macedonia-8b9d062cd0d8

[4] Sinisa Jakov Marusic, “Indictments Expected in North Macedonia’s Explosive ‘Extortion’ Case”, accessed 13th March 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/09/24/indictments-expected-in-north-macedonias-explosive-extortion-case/

[5] Sinisa Jakov Marusic,“ Video Adds Weight to North Macedonia ‘Extortion Scandal’ ”, accessed 14th March 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/08/08/video-adds-weight-to-north-macedonia-extortion-scandal/

[6] Sinisa Jakov Marusic, “Fresh “Extortion” Video Recordings Shake North Macedonia”, accessed 14th March 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/08/09/fresh-extortion-video-recordings-shake-north-macedonia/

[7] Sinisa Jakov Marusic, “North Macedonia’s PM Named in Third “Extortion” Video”, accessed 14th March 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/08/10/north-macedonian-pm-named-in-third-extortion-video/

[8] Vlado Apostolov, “Database Reveals North Macedonia Ex-Prosecutor’s Big Bonuses”, accessed 14th March 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/11/22/database-reveals-north-macedonia-ex-prosecutors-big-bonuses/

[9] Republika English, “Mickoski says that Janeva blackmailed him and VMRO members of Parliament”, accessed 14th March 2020, https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/mickoski-says-that-janeva-blackmailed-him-and-vmro-members-of-parliament/

Republika English, “Dimovski: 15 VMRO members of Parliament, myself included, were blackmailed by the SPO”, accessed 14th March 2020, https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/dimovski-15-vmro-members-of-parliament-myself-included-were-blackmailed-by-the-spo/

[10] Republika English, “New audio “bomb” blows up Zaev and the mafia in power: It is agreed cases to drop. Katica knows. Supreme Court will make a decision, they can’t do anything without Zaev”, accessed 15th March 2020, https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/new-audio-bomb-blows-up-zaev-and-the-mafia-in-power-it-is-agreed-cases-to-drop-katica-knows-supreme-court-will-make-a-decision-they-cant-do-anything-without-zaev/

[11] Republika English, “Zaev confirms the authenticity of the new audio bomb: I’m commenting on the Supreme Court’s decision”, accessed 15th March 2020, https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/zaev-confirms-the-authenticity-of-the-new-audio-bomb-im-commenting-on-the-supreme-courts-decision/

[12] Marusic, “Indictments Expected in North Macedonia’s Explosive ‘Extortion’ Case”.



The Macedonian Colorful Revolution gained its name from the balloons filled with colours and graphic iconography used by protestors in 2016 (see reference above).

[15] Chris Deliso, “Macedonia’s Crisis Isn’t Going Away”, accessed 18th March 2020, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/03/05/macedonias-crisis-isnt-going-away/


Paul Reef, “Macedonia’s Colourful Revolution and the Elections of 2016. A Chance for Democracy, or All for Nothing?”, Südosteuropa 65, no. 1 (2017), 170-172.

[17] Andreja Bogdanovski, “Macedonia – back in the global spotlight”, accessed 20th March 2020, https://nupi.brage.unit.no/nupi-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/302497/NUPI_PB_Bogdanovski.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

[18] Republika English, “ THE KATICA JANEVA SCANDAL – BACKGROUND AND LATEST NEWS”, accessed 21st March 2020, https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/the-katica-janeva-scandal-background-and-latest-news-3/

[19] Adela Gjorgjioska & Anastas Vangeli, “Macedonia in Crisis”, accessed 8th July 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2017/02/macedonia-corruption-ethnic-politics-levica-protests

[20] Sirianne Dahlum, Carl Henrik Knutsen & Tore Wig, “We checked 100 years of protests in 150 countries. Here’s what we learned about the working class and democracy.”, accessed 8th July 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/24/we-checked-years-protests-countries-heres-what-we-learned-about-working-class-democracy/


[22] Biljana Vankovska, “A Diplomatic Fairytale or Geopolitics as Usual: A Critical Perspective on the Agreement between Athens and Skopje”, in OSCE Yearbook 2018, ed. Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg/ IFSH (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft), 114-115.

[23] Ibid, 129-132.

[24] Paul Antonopoulos, “North Macedonia Is Being Used by NATO to Target Serbia and Russia”, accessed 30th June 2020, https://infobrics.org/post/30360/

Robert Moore, “Admitting North Macedonia to NATO brings more risks than benefits to the US”, accessed 30th June 2020, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/468270-admitting-north-macedonia-to-nato-brings-more-risks-than-benefit-to-the

TASS, “Russia slams NATO approaches during pandemic as counter-productive to unifying agenda”, accessed 30th June 2020, https://tass.com/politics/1138259

[25] Trading Economics, “Macedonia Corruption Index”, accessed 29th June 2020, https://tradingeconomics.com/macedonia/corruption-index

Knoema, “North Macedonia-Press freedom index”, accessed 29th June 2020, https://knoema.com/atlas/North-Maced