2014 in Review 29 Dec 14

Macedonia: 2014 Marred by Ethnic Unrest

The murder of a teenager and a terrorism case verdict sparked violent ethnic protests this year in a country with a recent history of conflict between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

The statue of the medieval Serbian Tsar Dusan was demolished by DUI members | Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Macedonia started the year already burdened by an ethnically-charged incident from December 2013, when prominent members of the junior party in the ruling coalition, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, were seen taking part in a night-time attempt to demolish a statue of the medieval Serbian Tsar Dusan in central Skopje.

Some said this was a publicity stunt by the DUI, aimed at boosting its ethnic appeal among the country’s Albanians ahead of the March-April early general and presidential elections. The DUI however said that the newly erected statue, funded by the government, symbolised Serbian oppression and was deeply insulting to the country’s Albanians.

But worse was to come in May, when rights groups accused the police of using excessive force to restore order in Skopje’s suburb of Gjorce Petrov after two days of ethnic rioting sparked by the killing of a young Macedonian.

Dozens of people were arrested and several police officers were injured in the rioting directed at the country’s Albanians, after news spread that the alleged murderer was an ethnic Albanian.

Protesters threw stones at the police, smashed shop windows owned by Albanians or Muslims in general and set on fire garbage containers that they were using as barricades.

Ethnic riots in Gjorce Petrov | Photo by: Robert Atanasovski

Not long after the turmoil in Gjorce Petrov subsided, another ethnically charged storm gathered over Macedonia.

This time violence erupted in early July when several thousand ethnic Albanian protesters clashed with police in Skopje at a rally against the jailing of alleged extremist ethnic Albanian Muslims for the ‘terrorist’ murders of ethnic Macedonians.

Running battles broke out in the city streets after protestors charged the Skopje Criminal Court building and heavy riot police responded using tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons.

Police said 20 officers and several protesters sustained injuries. Dosens were arrested for rioting.

Protestors were there to show their anger at the life sentences handed down to six alleged Muslim radicals for the killing of five ethnic Macedonians at Orthodox Easter in 2012, in a case that raised ethnic tensions in the country.

The court ruled that their aim had been to cause unrest in the country that barely escaped an all-out ethnic war back in 2001.

Running battles broke out in Skopje in July | Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

In October, the DUI demanded that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation should oversee a possible new probe of the terrorism convictions to instill much-needed public trust in the ethnically-charged case. But the DUI’s partner, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, said it was a decision for the court, not for politicians.

Mystery attacks remain unsolved

Few people took seriously a gathering in September in Skopje at which a small crowd of ethnic Albanians heard an ex-politician, Nevzat Halili, proclaim the founding of the ‘Republic of Ilirida’, which he said would take up almost half of Macedonia's territory.

But media attention increased after a mysterious movement calling itself the National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the shelling of the Macedonian government building in Skopje, which injured no one but damaged the façade. Some linked the mysterious attack to the proclamation of the ‘Republic of Ilirida’.

Fears of more violence grew stronger in early December, when two explosions shook police stations in the towns of Tetovo and Kumanovo in western and northern Macedonia. The two towns were at the centre of the 2001 armed conflict between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Macedonian security forces.

Police however have so far given no more details about any possible culprits and their suspected motives.

Green light for lustration

Macedonian Lustration Commission got a second five-year term.

In January, the opposition Social Democrats said they would boycott the election of new members of the Lustration Commission, the state office for rooting out former secret police collaborators, which it has accused of bias.

But at the vote in parliament, the commission got a second five-year term and resumed combing the state archives for suspects.

Macedonia is following in the steps of many former Communist states that have brought in lustration laws as a way to address past injustices stemming from politically-motivated prosecutions.

But ever since the commission started work in 2009, it has been marred by controversy. The opposition argues that it has been misused to target government critics.

In October, the commission ran into more criticism when it named academic Ivan Katardziev, Macedonia’s most prominent historian from Yugoslav-era Macedonia and the country’s early independence years, as a collaborator.

Katardziev was accused of spying on students on behalf of the Communist regime in the 1950s. He denied the claims and insisted he was the one who was actually under police surveillance at the time.

Veterans’ war traumas highlighted

Monument in Skopje honouring soldiers who died in the 2001 conflict | Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

In October and November, a series of murders and suicides by ex-servicemen, veterans of Macedonia’s 2001 armed conflict, shocked the country, highlighting the need for better psychiatric help for people traumatised by war.

Media first reported in October that an ex-serviceman had killed himself in the town of Kumanovo.

In early November, police detained another 40-year-old veteran from the southern town of Kavadarci, a police officer, on suspicion of killing his wife’s sister and both her parents in their family home using a gun that he legally owned. Media reported that he was going through a divorce.

Not two weeks passed when another 40-year-old professional soldier and veteran of the conflict was found dead, presumably after taking his own life, after being suspected of killing his wife’s parents and another person with an automatic rifle earlier that day in the village of Zletovo, near the town of Probistip.

There is a lack of official data on suicides by veterans, but war veterans’ associations have estimated that at least 30 Macedonian ex-soldiers have killed themselves and at least ten more have committed murders since the end of the conflict.

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