“These protests are our first victories as a society,” said Anna Krukulj. Standing outside the Macedonian parliament building, the costume designer, 28, looked as though she couldn’t believe the scale of what she and other activists had achieved. Behind her, Skopje’s triumphal arch was pockmarked with countless blotches of paint, and in front of her, behind a row of police dressed in riot gear, the parliament building had been similarly decorated. The road that stretched between the two, on which Krukulj stood, was covered by a Technicolor carpet of paint. Irena Stzeijovska, a 28-year-old theater producer, jumped on her cohort, a grin underlining the glittered band of paint masking her face.
For over two months, Krukulj and Stzeijovska have taken to the streets of the Macedonian capital almost every day, covering government buildings and monuments with paint. Dubbed the Colorful Revolution, their movement has rallied thousands of people – ethnic Macedonians side-by-side with ethnic Albanians – to demonstrate against government corruption and impunity.
A wiretapping scandal rocked the small Balkan nation last year when opposition leader Zoran Zaev began publishing excerpts of secret recordings that were made by the national security service which targeted up to 20,000 people, including government officials, journalists and religious leaders. The leaked conversations appeared to expose widespread corruption among ministers, including alleged vote-rigging and a murder cover-up. A report by the European Commission laid the blame at the feet of then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski and his government. A large anti-government protest was countered by a pro-government rally in May 2015, followed by talks between Zaev and Gruevski.
In an attempt to defuse the country’s biggest crisis since independence in 1991, the E.U. brokered an agreement that saw the appointment of a Special Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the wiretaps, and led to Gruevski stepping down in January, though he claims the wiretaps were fabricated by foreign intelligence services.
In April, President Gjorge Ivanov halted the investigations of 56 officials and businessmen charged with involvement in the scandal, effectively granting them preemptive pardons.
The following day, Krukulj got a call from Stzeijovska, who was at a huge protest in the capital; Stzeijovska yelled at her friend for not being there with her. The next day, Krukulj joined Stzeijovska in the streets for what would turn into more than two months of consecutive demonstrations, with the pair playing a major role in shaping the message with their unique method of protest.
“These are modern times, and we use color, not weapons,” Krukulj said as she sat in her home overlooking the capital. “If we take down the regime with color, that is art.”
While Krukulj provides the artistic direction, Stzeijovska has become the face of the movement. On the evening the pair – along with several other activists, young and old – repainted the road outside parliament, Stzeijovska had been riding in the back of a pickup truck headed toward that evening’s concrete canvas. Recognizing her mask of glitter paint, people came up to her, hugged her and told her how much they appreciated what she was doing. “When people come up to me, I feel a responsibility,” she said. “Some of these people, they see you at every protest, and yes, you are a hero to them. They put their hope in you.”
But that fame comes at a price. Since starting their pigmented protest, both women claim they have been unable to work. Stzeijovska said each of the plays she was working on has been cancelled, and Krukulj said she lost four plays for which she had contracts. “The director pulled all the strings so I couldn’t be employed elsewhere,” she said. “Now, I have nothing to lose.”
And she has faith in the power of the people. “We are a small country with 2 million people,” she said. “People like me and Irena, we have the strength to overcome all obstacles.”
Bowing to pressure from the protests, President Ivanov rescinded pardons for 22 politicians on May 27, and, as the demonstrations continued, revoked the remaining pardons on June 6. The protesters are still waiting for him to address their other demands, notably the prosecution and imprisonment of those involved in the wiretap scandal. “We want politicians who will respect the law, and not work for personal gain,” said Mihaela Ivanova, 23, a law student who has been taking part in the protests from the start. “There is a lot of criminality and corruption in public institutions.”
Stzeijovska sees the Colorful Revolution less as a protest against the government, and more as a call to Macedonians to remember the power they have to make the change they want to see in their leadership. “Our target is the citizens, not the government – however this ends, people have to vote and choose a government,” she said one evening in her apartment as she checked social media for the reaction to that night’s protest. “People have been taught to obey. [The government] has been cracking down on any free thought and free ideas. There is no free society; we are all that is left of it.”