Macedonia: Violent Inter-Ethnic Incident on Skopje Fortress

On Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, the police failed to effectively separate an ethnic Macedonian and an ethnic Albanian mobs and prevent them from clashing around the old Skopje Fortress. The two large groups of mostly young men had come there to protest for and against the construction of a church-like building, which the government claims should become a museum. Some of the results include six injured civilians and two injured policemen, and alarmingly high levels of general fear and hate speech on-line.

The incident was the culmination of a chain of events of the last two weeks. On Jan. 31, some media revealed that the government had started building “an object” within the medieval Skopje Fortress, called Kale (a Turkish word for “fort”). This caused an uproar among ethnic Albanian politicians, including coalition partners in the government from the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). DUI demanded [MKD] cessation of the construction of any “religious object” that did not reflect the overall heritage of the area.

Pasko Kuzman, archeologist and head of the Culture Ministry's Department for Protection of Cultural and Historical Heritage, appointed by the ethnic Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE, a senior coalition partner, claimed that the works would pause [MKD] until all the misunderstandings have been resolved. In statements relayed by the media he claimed that the building would not serve as a church [MKD], but would house artifacts found on the site.

However, reports that workers were being brought in to continue the work during the night caused “a group of ethnic Albanian citizens led by high officials of DUI” (formulation [MKD] by the Dnevnik daily), including the mayor of nearby Čair, the minister of health and the deputy minister of internal affairs, to storm the construction site during the night of Feb. 10, chase the workers away and do some damage to the walls. Some of the high officials later claimed they had come to the site not as participants, but to calm the population.

On Saturday, blogger Neutralec warned [MKD] that the ongoing call for ethnic Macedonians to go to the fortress to “assess the damage” and/or “defend the church” (which, he reminded, was not a church, according to the government) on Sunday, could only lead to further manipulation:

Do not make war for the interest of others, someone will gain political points even from this!

Viktor Arsovski provided an exposé [MKD] of the subsequent events and the impact of social media. He pointed out that, unlike in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, the organizing power of social media in Macedonia was not used to benefit the people:

…a group of “supporters” of the building of the church (i.e., a Macedonian football fan group Komiti), and a group of “supporters” of its destruction (i.e., an Albanian football fan group Shverceri) gathered on the same location at Skopje Fortress to express their opinions through a “peaceful” protest.

One could have assumed what would happen between these two groups. Mass beating, stoning, eight injured, one knifing, panic in the media, critiques against the politicians, ethnic bigotry…

The difference between this and other similar stupid incidents is the role of Facebook.
According to Radio Free Europe [MKD], the protests […] were organized by informal Facebook groups and the Albanian NGO “Wake Up.”
Currently, a new protest is being organized on Kale for Feb. 19. A FB group with thousands of members calls to protest, posting hideous photos and hate speech (to put it mildly).

And this group is not the only one. There are others with similar violent content. A group with over 4,000 members Church on Kale [MKD], both ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian, arguing and exchanging insults and calls for ethnic cleansing. A similarly sordid story of ethnic insults and hate speech continues within FB groups Museum-Church on Kale [MKD] and Against the Church on Skopje Fortress [ALB].

One click is enough to reveal the age of these people – most of them are teenagers and college students! Interestingly, one can see that most of these young “minds” share similar interests […].

On Facebook, alongside verbal provocations, the most frequent means to challenge the other ethnic group is by using YouTube videos. This service has grown into a vast library of awful hate-filled videos in the years before Facebook gained prominence… [FB users now “recycle” the available] calls for Greater Albania and Greater Macedonia, calls for ethnic cleansing, death, genocide, clips from the [2001 conflict]. For years the .MK institutions have been ignoring the existence of these repulsive videos, even though I believe it would only take a credible notice for YouTube to remove them…

In retrospect, blogger Volancommented [MKD]:

An old fishing trick is to muddy the waters, and if you hunt on land to hunt within a mist…

It is getting clearer that someone is muddying the waters, in this case the hunt is on – on voters. Hunting voters is especially important in the hunting season, i.e., the looming election season. From this perspective, the muddying of the waters on Skopje Fortress becomes clearer. Hidden in the fog, one side is building a church under the smokescreen of a museum church. The others demolish the museum church. The most puzzling aspect is that both ‘sides’ sit within the government/the ruling administration. The smaller opposition parties also sit on the sidelines trying to catch some fish as well….

The hunt on the undecided voters, who comprise more than half of the electorate, is especially sweet… Unfortunately, only the small fry was left swimming in the muddy waters of Skopje Kale: football fan groups… with worrying calls heard in 2001… The big fish sit in the cabinets of power and observe.

Civil – Center for Freedom, an NGO, issued a call on their blog for Macedonia without violence and divisions – in Macedonian, Albanian and English:

The government has to start doing its job, not to play a role of a helpless observer and commentator on events. A huge portion of responsibility for the deterioration of inter-ethnic relations lies precisely in the practices of this government. This particularly applies to the adoption and implementation of projects that have nothing to do with the needs and realities of this country.

Civilasked the government to stop controversial projects, and act in a transparent manner and build consensus. It also reminded political parties, the civil sector and individual citizens about their responsibilities in maintaining peace and stopping nationalism and religious hatred:

Do not let obsession and madness take hold of you. This situation is not conducive to good for you; neither is for generations to come. A war has inflicted much harm. Another one would mean disaster for this country. What political figures say, sometimes may sound good, but is mostly motivated by their thirst for power and popularity. And personal gain.

The walls are raised high above our heads. Division is our reality. Further divisions can also mean setting new, physical frontiers between people. All of us know that it involves war and bloodshed. And that brings good only for criminals and thugs.

Make the first step; tear down the walls that stand between you and your fellow citizens with different backgrounds or beliefs. It will not jeopardize your identity, on the contrary, that will enrich you.

All this raises the levels of tension and concern among the ordinary citizens of Macedonia, who are not eager to participate in another Balkan bloodbath. However, it seems that forces with powerful backing are working on stirring unrest. For instance, local people prevented an allegedly premeditated arson attempt [MKD] over a mosque in Bitola this morning.

A Facebook initiative “Monolith on Kale” [MKD] provides a rare attempt to fight dread with humor. It claims that “in 2001: A Space Odyssey the monolith helped the apes evolve. As a religiously neutral object, planting a monolith on Kale” might aid the evolution in Macedonia too. Unlike the previously mentioned groups, which have several thousand members/fans each, this has only about a hundred supporters so far.


  • 4Rs

    Filip, thank you for this great article. It’s great to see such neutrality, well done.

    First I would like to add this is not a religious issue at, all lets not be fooled!!

    I have traveled to Macedonia throughout my life and it disgusts me to see the Albanian people still treated as foreigners in their own land. As Macedonia tries to claim any recognition through false history and complete utter lies it is loosing grip of the real truth, which will only result in inevitable civil war. Outside of Macedonia nobody can deny that the Slavic people migrated from Russia and are not the original inhabitants of this disputed land(s).

    Throughout Macedonia corruption is ripe and it is a fact that money can buy you complete power, lives mean nothing!! I have with my own eyes have witnessed a bank manager being bribed with a 50kg bag of beans as wages have not been payed for over a year. When asked why, the reply was “this 50kg bag of beans will feed my family over the harsh winter”. This doesn’t stop here as anyone who has traveled to or lives in Macedonia knows this too well and to deny this is to deny fact.

    The fact of the matter is that the Macedonian Slavic people are bitter over loosing power and wealth gained over many generations of persecution of the Albanians. The Macedonian Slavic people have to realize that the sooner they allow full and equal rights to all who live in the country the quicker the country will move forward and prosper.

    After the atrocities committed in Kosovo by the Serbian Slavic against the Albanian population it seems that the Albanians throughout this region have had enough of this suppression and are standing up for such a simple thing, Human Rights. Once the stone has been thrown the ripple follows.

    It fascinates me to see even after being abandoned by Serbia during the break up of Yugoslavia and recent events in Kosovo that the Macedonian Slavic people are defiant.

    In this last period I have read novels from Macedonian Slavs which try to claim history of the Macedonian Slavic people in Macedonia and am amazed at the extent one would go to claim recognition. History is not made up it is what it is…

    Thank you for allowing me to comment


    • Dear 4Rs,

      Thank you for the compliments. I agree with you that the incident was not a religious issue, but inflaming religious intolerance can be detected on “both” “sides,” and religious radicalization [MKD] can remain as a consequence.

      Poverty and corruption is a joint problem for all citizens of Macedonia, regardless of their ethnic identity. Since the independence, “ethnic Macedonian” and “ethnic Albanian” political parties have always shared power and control of the state resources such as jobs in state administration, government contracts, and freedom from inspections or legal sanctions for “their” companies. These resources have been distributed along the lines of political party, clan or personal-social-network, including affirmative action employment for people who are not ethnic Macedonians in state administration.

      I do not find your foray into history too constructive, as biased and partial views of historical injustices are prime fuel of Balkan nationalisms, and the propaganda used by them to gain support abroad.

      The whole victim-hood narrative can be applied by any “side.” For instance the Christian ancestors of contemporary ethnic Macedonians were the third-class citizens of the Ottoman Empire (1390-1912), a state where Muslim ancestors of contemporary ethnic Albanians were first-class citizens. During the first half of XX century the territory of Republic of Macedonia was the battleground of two world wars and “liberated” (colonized) by Serbia (1912-1914, 1918-1941), or the German allies Bulgaria (1914-1918, 1941-1944) and Albania (1941-1944). Robert St. John, an American journalist who visited in 1946, wrote in The Silent People Speak about widespread abject poverty, illiteracy of 80%… but also of a feeling of togetherness among the people who were for the first time allowed to school and officially use their languages – Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish… OK “the Turks” were the former overlords from a few decades back, but not all the ethnic Turks, just a small elite.

      The propagation related “original inhabitants” theme, which is used mostly for domestic consumption (for the in-group), IMHO is also not very conducive for improvement of inter-ethnic relations or for discovering the actual and immediate reasons for the Kale incident. Neanderthals were the first human inhabitants of Macedonia, and the only thing in common the perpetrators had with them was the use of stones as weapons. :-(

      Stay well, continue reading and keep an open mind. We all harbor prejudices and stereotypes that can be overcome only through open discussion, and joint work for the common causes – esp. the cause of peace, on which all else depends.

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