Monument disputes raise ethnic tensions in Macedonia

Monument disputes raise ethnic tensions in Macedonia
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje March 6, 2016

Several hundred Macedonian citizens protested on March 5 after a group of ethnic Albanians destroyed the foundation stone of a Christian monument in Skopje’s ethnically mixed Butel district.

This was the latest in a series of disputes over new monuments put up by both Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, raising fears of a rise in ethnic tensions as Macedonia heads for snap general elections on June 5. There is speculation within Macedonia that the erection of new monuments has been orchestrated by the governing VMRO-DPMNE party and its junior coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) to distract attention from the deepening political crisis in Macedonia.

On March 5, protesters gathered in front of the interior ministry seeking the resignation of interim minister Oliver Spasovski, due to his failure to react in time to prevent demolition of the Butel monument, a 51-metre high Christian cross, local media reported.

Spasovski, from the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), was appointed as interim minister of interior as part of the Przino agreement, reached in July 2015, for overcoming the political crisis in the country. The deal was brokered by the EU after the opposition blamed VMRO-DPMNE for corruption and election fraud, and published a series of recorded conversations which appeared to incriminate top VMRO-DPMNE officials and ministers.

The March 5 protest was organised by the World Macedonian Congress, an NGO close to VMRO-DPMNE party, which fights for more rights of ethnic Macedonians across the world. The NGO’s leader Todor Petrov donated money for the erection of the Butel monument, broadcaster 24casa reported.

Petrov was hospitalised after being beaten by a group of ethnic Albanians on February 27, when the cornerstone of the monument was layed but released from hospital the next day, Makfax reported at the time.

On March 5, VMRO-DPMNE urged citizens planning to participate in the protests, to hold peaceful demonstration without incidents, according to the party’s statement.

This followed demonstrations on March 3 and 4 by a group of ethnic Albanians, supporters of the DUI, against plans to erect a Christian monument in the Butel municipality. This escalated into violence at one point, and left four policemen injured, of which one was hospitalised, according to the SDSM's statement.

The group of ethnic Albanians set up tents at the cross’ construction site, saying they will stay there until the municipal authorities decide to stop the construction. However, on March 5 the tents were removed.

A week before the cornerstone ceremony for the Christian monument, DUI inaugurated a monument of Albanian’s coat of arms in the shape of big eagles in Skopje’s Cair district, which is mainly populated by ethnic Albanians. Some political parties voiced disapproval of the monument, which also angered some of the local Macedonian population.

However, the ethnic Albanian mayor of Cair municipality commented that “if monuments of lions and bulls, or maybe of the whole animal world, can be erected in Skopje, why not a monument of a double-headed eagle,” broadcaster Radio Free Europe reported on March 6.

The Butel monument is the third big cross planned in Skopje, after the 66-metre high Millennium Cross was erected on the top of Mount Vodno in 2001, with the support of the VMRO-DPMNE led government. In 2013, the World Macedonian Congress built another high cross, a symbol of Orthodox Christians in Skopje's Aerodrom district.

Snap elections were previously planned for April 24, but were postponed on the request of the SDSM, after EU and US ambassadors estimated that there no conditions for free elections, which assumes clearing of the voters’ registry and media reforms. They are now expected to take place on June 5.