Members of the grassroots civil initiative AMAN, who are demanding fair energy legislation and an end to state-controlled price hikes in Macedonia, are facing various forms of pressure, including increasing threats.
In the local languages, the word “aman” means ‘a cry’ or ‘a plea’ and is equivalent to “please, stop.” This grassroots movement against price hikes of state-controlled monopoly commodities (electricity, fuel, central heating) started weekly protests in August. As the price hikes resulted in the increase of food prices, affecting the most vulnerable people first, protests spread from Skopje and Bitola to several other cities – Tetovo, Shtip, Prilep, and Kumanovo.
At first, the authorities, represented by the Regulatory Commission for Energy, the mainstream media and the unions, ignored the movement. To partly address this issue, AMAN increased social media promotion (hashtag: #АМАН) and held a protest in front of the state Public Broadcasting Service, MTV [mk, sq].
As the authorities’ deliberate disregard approach failed, AMAN participants were subjected to various forms of pressure: infiltration by partisan agent provocateurs, hacking and mysterious closing down of their recurrent Facebook event, general threats by passersby [mk], labeling by the PM (which affected the participation of people whose incomes depend on the government), counter-protests by GONGOs, smearing campaigns.
One World SEE reported:
Since the start of the protests, the Government has constantly accused them of being led and working on instructions of the leading opposition party, the Social-Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM).
Also, the Government continued with its practice to respond to all civic initiatives and protests against its policies with counter-protests held by its own, loyal, organizations and initiatives. This time, we have the “Burnt by Privatization” („Изгор приватизација“) initiative, which holds parallel protests against the privatization of the power utility company by Austrian corporation EVN during the last SDSM’s term in power.
Earlier this week, on September 25, 2012, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Macedonia accused the Regulatory Commission for Energy that its decisions for termination of the cheap daily electricity tariff and the decision to allow increase of prices of electricity and distance heating were adopted on basis of provisions that do not, in fact, exist in the Law on Energy.
At the Oct. 30 press conference, AMAN representatives informed the public [mk: 1, 2, 3; sq: 1, 2] that one of the movement's members had received threats against him and his family by “unknown persons”: they intercepted him in the center of Skopje, tried to interrogate him about other activists, showing him their photos. Obviously, the message was to stop the protests and the current petition to change the Energy Law. The activists asked for the police and other state institutions to quickly find and sanction the perpetrators, and for the PM not to hinder the legislative process.
The protests, however, continue. The activists are using institutional channels and have submitted an initiative to change the Energy Law. Pending the government's approval, they would then need to gather 10,000 signatures required to propose amendments within the Parliament.
Pressure on the activists continues, too. While the perpetrators of the reported intimidation attempt are still at large, a new incident occurred during the 12th protest on Nov. 3. Radio MOF reported [mk] that a group of counter-protesters threatened and tried to chase the AMAN protesters away, but the police prevented further escalation.
Sonja Ismail, one of the protesters, wrote [mk]:
Today at noon we traditionally gathered in front of the Energy Regulatory Commission. But we were not alone. They came spontaneously. They parked a jeep on the sidewalk [nearby]. They came out of the jeep with the spontaneously-made counter-protest props. [About 50 meters further] they were joined by around 60 more. Camera crews from Kanal 5, Sitel and MTV spontaneously appeared, too. They filmed these people who spontaneously put masks representing the face of Radmila Shekerinska [“a parody” targeting an opposition MP]. There were no more than 30 of us. A young man approached us, and when asked who he was, he said he was from the Union of Young Forces of [VMRO-DPMNE]. He told us to disappear in 20 minutes. He also shouted obscenities while returning to his group. P.S. There were many police officers present and they assumed the proper position [between the two groups]. Their commander assured us that they came to stop any violent incidents. [OSCE] representatives were also present.