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Wiretapping Scandal In Macedonia Unleashes A Political Backlash

ARUN RATH, HOST:

What happens when government surveillance catches the government breaking the law? That seems to be the case in the small Balkan country of Macedonia, where a massive wiretapping scandal revealed shocking behavior by top political leaders. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital today, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Andrew Byrne is a correspondent for the Financial Times, covering the Balkans. He spoke to us a short time ago about the political backlash.

ANDREW BYRNE: The government was wiretapping 20,000 people in Macedonia, and that included everyone from prominent opposition activists, politicians and judges to journalists and really anyone who was prominent in their community. But in a sense, the government has been hoisted by their own petard, if you like, because it seems to have backfired, in so far as the government's own conversations between ministers have now been released by the opposition to the public. It reveals a whole series of alleged misdeeds by the government. And so what started out, it seems, as a government surveillance scheme for whatever their own purposes were has turned into a massive backlash against their own interests.

RATH: And can you talk out, from what's been released so far, what it does reveal about the government and about the prime minister, in particular?

BYRNE: Well, I suppose the first thing to say is that the government says that these tapes have been selectively edited. The prime minister of Macedonia says that they were presented or given to the opposition by a foreign - unnamed foreign secret services. So that - that's their starting position. But they haven't outright denied that the tapes are real.

What they do reveal, if they are true, is a whole series of abuses of power from massive and elaborate electoral fraud schemes to interference in the judiciary and the courts and the police. And most recently, there was a very controversial case where it revealed an attempted cover-up by the government of some of the details of a notorious case from 2011, when a young man called Martin Neskovski was beaten to death by police. I mean, each week, there has been more and more excerpts of these tapes released. And with each week comes more sordid details that appear to depict a government that had tightened its grip on the country by twisting the institutions of the state for their own political ends.

RATH: And how have people there reacted to the revelations?

BYRNE: So on May 5, things really reached a boiling point. And the latest release about an attempted cover-up of the police killing of that young man in 2011 - that sparked mass protests in the streets. And those protests have been happening on a daily basis since then, culminating today in a protest in the streets of Skopje, the capital.

So it's an interesting mix of people. On the one hand, you have the loyal followers of the opposition Socialist party who joined the protest today. But prior to this, what you've seen is something relatively new in Macedonia, which is a protest movement that's not aligned with political parties. It's made up of various NGOs, student bodies, different trade unions. And they've been very clear that they aren't calling for any particular leader to be installed as prime minister. They simply want this government to resign. And they want some kind of reforms to take place to - in the words of some of the people I spoke to in the protest, to bring back democracy to Macedonia.

RATH: Andrew Byrne covers the Balkans for the Financial Times. Andrew, thank you.

BYRNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.