news 27 Mar 13

Protests Raise Ethnic Tensions in Western Macedonia

Several thousand Macedonians took to the streets and jeered the country’s PM after the ethnically-mixed town of Kicevo got its first Albanian mayor in Sunday’s municipal vote.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Macedonians gathered in front of the HQ of the ruling VMRO DPMNE party

A group of protesters booed Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski after he arrived in Kicevo on Tuesday, shouting “traitor” and accusing him of giving up Kicevo to the ethnic Albanian community.

Another group rallied in defence of the Macedonian premier, and a brief scuffle broke out between the opposing demonstrators.

Gruevski insisted he was there “to ease tensions” and to reassure people that “Kicevo remains a Macedonian town”.

The government press service denied reports in some media that Gruevski was stuck in the town’s ruling party HQ and unable to leave because of angry protesters gathered outside.

Some protesters claimed that they had been provoked by an incident the day before, when media reports suggested that an unidentified group of people tried to take down the Macedonian flag from a central flagpole in the municipality.

“We are utterly disappointed. Kicevo is now in the hands of extremists,” an unnamed protester told local media.

Police confirmed that the flag was briefly on the ground but said that it was because of high winds and not because someone had made a deliberate attempt to remove it.

The crowd dispersed on Tuesday evening after Gruevski left.

Fatmir Dehari from the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, became mayor in the first round of the local elections on Sunday amid strong ethnic mobilisation in the town during the pre-poll campaign.

He was able to win thanks to the attachment of surrounding rural areas to the town which made Kicevo a predominantly Albanian municipality. The change was agreed in 2004 but took effect at these elections.

Voters from the Albanian diaspora also poured into the town from abroad to help elect its first Albanian mayor.

Kicevo’s new mayor Dehari was once a member of the now-disbanded Albanian guerrilla force that fought against Macedonian security troops in 2001.

The brief but intense armed conflict ended with the signing of a peace deal that guaranteed greater rights to the Albanians who make up a quarter of the country’s 2.1 million population.

One of the most surprising twists at the elections was the decision of Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE and the opposition Social Democrats, normally at loggerheads, to field joint candidates for mayors in Kicevo and another western town, Struga.

The move, intended to boost the chances of ethnic Macedonians becoming mayors, triggered a similar counter-move by the Albanian camp.

While the Albanian camp won in Kicevo in the first round, the joint Macedonian candidate has a lead in Struga ahead of the second round of voting which is due to take place on April 7.


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