Since emerging from the disintegration of Yugoslavia relatively unscathed, tensions within the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or FYROM, a disambiguation from Greek Macedonia over which Athens is very protective) have remained precarious.  Civil war loomed in 2001 between the Slavic majority and the significant Albanian minority before western mediators brought the Balkan country back from the brink.  Now, in drama reminiscent of the television series House of Cards, recordings of taped conversations leaked to the press showed the government involved in large-scale phone-tapping and covert surveillance, electoral fraud, abuse of the justice system and even murder.

This has provoked a mass turnout of protestors in the capital Skopje on Sunday the 17th of May demanding the resignation of the centre-right government which narrowly won elections in April 2014. Estimates put the number of protesters between 20,000 and 40,000.  But the following day, tens of thousands turned out to support Nikola Gruevski’s administration, playing nationalistic music and waving Macedonian and Serbian flags (with Albanian flags conspicuous by their absence, Gruevski accused of manipulating ethnic tensions in divide and rule tactics).

This all took place against the backdrop of a deteriorating security situation in the west of the country, as Albanian rebels took up arms seeking to improve the rights of their ethnic kin.  Just a week prior to the protests, 22 died in gun battles, including eight policemen.  The rebels see the example of Kosovo immediately north and by turning to organised violence, they believe there is no viable future within Macedonia as it is currently constituted.  The Serbian flags amongst the pro-government demonstrators in Skopje are a way of showing solidarity to Belgrade – which refuses to recognise Kosovo as independent – as a proxy for their concerns with Macedonian Albanian rebels.

Freedom House, the non-governmental organisation that promotes democratic rights and civil liberties, has downgraded Macedonia to a partly free ‘transitional regime’ – from a ‘free state’ (in Freedom House’s calculations) ten years ago – because of worsening standards of press freedom.  The wiretapping is emblematic of the new environment with its long list of victims including journalists, religious leaders, police and opposition politicians. Even government ministers are subject to these intrusions and Freedom House says the immediate outlook is negative.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Russia has accused the West of attempting to ‘orchestrate another “colour revolution” similar to those seen in Ukraine and Georgia’.  But with European Union states deeply concerned about circumstances in Ukraine, rowing back from its Eastern Partnership scheme approach to former Soviet states and engulfed in Euro and Brexit wrangles and with the USA looking towards the Pacific Rim while alarmed by ISIS, it is extremely unlikely that the West will seek to stir up a hornet’s nest in the Balkans.  Rather it is another play for influence in Europe by Russia – which does not recognise Kosovo and would love an informal ally in power in Skopje.

More than 1,000 anti-government protesters remain encamped in the tent village erected outside the Prime Minister’s office.  One of them is Jasmina Golubovska, a 30-year-old political analyst for the Helsinki Committee on Human Rights and a long-time activist.  She is now a Facebook and Twitter emblem for change and peaceful protest after photographs emerged showing her applying lipstick using the reflective riot police plastic shield in front of her.  Later images displayed one policeman’s shield having a scarlet kiss mark.

These hardcore demonstrators are also angry over the alleged cover-up of the death of Martin Neskovski in 2011 following a beating of the 22-year-old by an interior ministry policeman.  Rumours even suggest that the conspiracy goes to the very top with the former Interior Minister (who resigned on the 12th of May) participating.

Speaking to the Guardian, Golubovska said she and others had seen Neskovski’s brother and mother pushed to the front of the crowds and, instinctively they went to shield the aggrieved family from the riot police.  Golubovska was there for two hours and began a conversation with the policeman in front of her, inviting him to join the protesters and disobey orders so as to protect the constitution.  ‘I told him my father was a retired police officer, I told him that I understood how hard it was for him.  And then I asked if I could draw a heart on his shield, but he didn’t like that at all’.

Receiving no response to the request to use the plastic shield as an impromptu make-up compact, she applied the lipstick and, ‘then I very quickly kissed the shield.  He didn’t move but I did see him smile, very slightly’.  The majority of social media supported this action but getting through to that policeman would have meant most to Golubovska.  From such acorns can regimes fall.