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Macedonia: Violent Inter-Ethnic Incident on Skopje Fortress

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Macedonia, Digital Activism, Elections, Ethnicity & Race, Freedom of Speech, Governance, Politics, Protest

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 [1], 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) [2]. DUI demanded [3] [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 [4], a senior coalition partner, claimed that the works would pause [5] [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 [6] [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 [7] [MKD] by the Dnevnik daily), including the mayor of nearby Čair [8], 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 [9] [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 [10] [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 [11] [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 [12] 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 [13] [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 [14] [MKD] and Against the Church on Skopje Fortress [15] [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 [16]]. 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 [17] [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 [18], Albanian [19] and English [20]:

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 [21] [MKD] over a mosque in Bitola this morning.

A Facebook initiative “Monolith on Kale” [22] [MKD] provides a rare attempt to fight dread with humor. It claims that “in 2001: A Space Odyssey [23] the monolith [24] 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.