Politicians expressed revulsion after two days of violent, ethnically-charged protests gripped the capital, sparked by the controversial appointment of an ex-guerrilla as defence minister.Skopje was calm again on Monday after the unrest on Friday and Saturday that saw riot police use tear gas and armoured vehicles during clashes with protesters that caused dozens of injuries and led to 19 people being detained and charged.
All major political parties condemned the violent protests and counter-protests that erupted after the appointment of ethnic Albanian ex-guerrilla Talat Xhaferi as defence minister, but they also blamed each other for causing the unrest.
The ruling VMRO DPMNE of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski criticised the opposition Social Democrats for allegedly stirring up the first day of protests by young ethnic Macedonians against Xhaferi’s appointment, which led to mob violence and random attacks against Albanians on Friday.
“There is not a single acceptable reason for causing violence, beating innocent people and destroying property,” said Nikola Todorov of VMRO DPMNE.
The opposition returned fire, insisting that the government was responsible and warning that Macedonia’s fragile ethnic relations were under threat.
“All political parties must demonstrate maturity and must stop misusing inter-ethnic relations for daily politics,” said Igor Ivanovski of the Social Democrats.
On Friday, several hundred young ethnic Macedonians threw stones at riot police in front of the government building in Skopje and attacked people on the streets after what had initially been announced as a peaceful protest against Xhaferi’s appointment, organised by police and army veterans from the 2001 armed conflict between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels.
The reports of Albanians being assaulted on Friday are believed to have provoked the even more violent counter-protests that followed the next day.
The ruling coalition’s junior Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, blamed its bitter political rival, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, for allegedly orchestrating the counter-protests.
The DPA responded with counter-accusations against the DUI, warning it that it was “playing with fire”.
The clashes broke out in central Skopje and in the area around Bit-Pazar, the central market in the ethnic Albanian-dominated municipality of Cair. At least 15 people were wounded on Saturday alone, with as many injuries reported the previous day.
“Several individuals were injured, including police officers, a number of passenger and police vehicles have been damaged, as well as two public transport buses and couple of fire-fighting vehicles,” said a police statement on Saturday’s violence.The Skopje-based ethnic Albanian civic organisation Wake Up claimed that Albanians had been manipulated, although it didn’t say who it believed was responsible.
“The honest Albanians who wanted to express their revolt against the happenings of the last few days have been played and manipulated,” the organisation said in a statement on Sunday.
Xhaferi, a key figure on the ethnic Albanian side in the 2001 conflict and a DUI member, took office two weeks ago as part of an agreement with the ruling VMRO DPMNE.
The conflict ended with the signing of a peace accord which granted greater rights to Albanians who make up a quarter of the population.
As a result, the guerrillas disbanded and were granted an amnesty, while their leaders formed the DUI, which has since become the most popular party among Albanians in the country.