The climate of close control is familiar for those that experienced living in the former Yugoslavia. Macedonia was a constituent Republic of the socialist federation in which the communist party exerted tight control over the media and regularly spied on its people until its bloody break-up in the early 1990s.
In 1976, theatre director Vladimir Milchin was selected for surveillance by the party as an 'anarcho-liberal,' an opponent of the State. In 2000, he was able to read his file – for five years, the ruling party had been recording his conversations. There were transcripts of his conversations with family, with friends, with everyone.
This year, he received another transcript. This time however, it was in the form of CD, and the surveillance was not being conducted by a communist state, but by the intelligence agency of a modern European democratic republic.
In February 2015 the opposition party, Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) began providing victims with transcripts and CDs of their own intercepted phone calls.
“I wasn't shocked,” explains Vladimir, who went on to become the Executive Director of the Open Society Institute in Macedonia for 20 years, an international foundation supporting liberal civil society and individuals financed by multi-billionaire George Soros.
“What was disappointing was that it is now the same as in a one party communist state, where I'm judged to be an internal enemy.”
“On 21st April this year , I was attacked in the street by a man wearing a hood... I've received death threats. One time I was told that my dead body wouldn't be buried in Macedonia. This is how opponents are treated in this country.”
Violeta Gligoroska, a life long activist and journalist who also worked at the Open Society Institute, received a similar batch of her own private conversations in May.
“It felt like I had been raped, like I had been raped by the State."
“My father was a communist dissident expelled from the party. For sure he was under surveillance. I never asked for the files. As my father was already dead, I didn't have the courage, the emotions, to go and to ask for it. I wanted the Ministry of Interior as far away from me as possible.”
“Unfortunately, that didn't happen.”
One of their colleagues who still remains at the Foundation, Slavica Indjevska, explains that it is regularly demonised by the pro-government press, characterized as foreign agents. They are derogatorily referred to as Sorosoids.
But surveillance of the foundation's employees does not just concern them. Even the most targeted surveillance also affects everyone who is in contact with the target; it is one of the main objectives and problems of modern surveillance. The job of the foundation's staff is to monitor social and political developments and to speak to journalists and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) about their projects, plans, and opinions. Because the Foundation was being surveilled, it gave the Government direct access to everyone they spoke to.
Slavica has yet to bring herself to listen to the CD in her office containing her recordings. On a Sunday evening she was preparing aid packages for refugees that are transiting through Macedonia when she received the phone call telling her that a file of her intercepted communications was available to collect.
“'You must be wrong,' I said... I was speaking to OSF colleagues all over the world where we have projects... It's such a bitter feeling, really an awful feeling when someone is in your private space without your consent. It's like having someone in your house, in your ear. It's just so personal.”
“This is the worst period in the country's history,” remarks Violeta, the experienced activist. “Even in the communist times, at least we knew we were being spied on.”
“We have taken Stasiland and translated it,” insists Vladimir, the theatre director. “It's just like East Germany; control by poisoning people with fear and propaganda.”
Slavica recalls voting in the independence referendum which saw Macedonia leave Yugoslavia in the early nineties. “I took my son and remember feeling like it could be a bright future for him. But something has gone wrong... during the nineties we witnessed hope and change, and people were motivated to look past their own individual position. But now we're going backwards.”
She's not optimistic about the future. “Simply when I see how much control, effort and money the state has, and the fear in people, with assumptions on their power by the economically weak, you're prone to manipulation, especially when you have no way out.”