Scores injured as protesters storm Macedonian Parliament (PHOTOS, VIDEO)
Over 100 people were injured during violence in Skopje on Thursday evening, including 22 police officers and at least three MPs, local media say. The scuffles came as nationalist Macedonian protesters were angered by the election of an ethnic Albanian as parliamentary speaker. The controversial move escalated the ethnic tensions amongst the 2.1 million residents of the small country, which has been locked in a political crisis since 2015.
Some 200 people forced their way into the parliament building after the vote took place. Live footage from the scene shows camera stands and other equipment being hurled at a group of defending lawmakers.
Zoran Zaev, leader of the Social Democrats party (SDSM), apparently received a head injury and is seen with his face and shirt covered in blood. Witnesses said they also saw blood in some of the hallways of the parliament after police cleared the protesters from the building and used stun grenades to disperse the crowds outside.
“In an attempt to take the situations inside and outside the parliament under control, we have ordered police to use all measures,” the interim government’s interior minister, Agim Nuhiu, said in a televised interview justifying the police action.
Thursday’s violence is just the latest episode in a political crisis that was triggered by the fall of the country’s government after a wiretapping scandal in 2015. Macedonia held new parliamentary elections in December of 2016, in which the previously ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE won 51 seats to the SDSM’s 49.
However, the socialists proposed a minority coalition with parties representing the Albanian ethnic minority, which comprise roughly a third of Macedonia’s population.
As a condition of participation, the Albanian parties have been insisting on a seven-point platform that includes making Albanian an official language in Macedonia. The plan is said to have been co-authored with the government of Albania, which has triggered protests from Macedonian nationalists. Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov has refused to give Zaev a mandate to form a new government.
The protesters were voicing their disapproval of the coalition electing Talat Xhaferi, a former defence minister from the ethnic Albanian DUI party, as president of the parliament.
The clashes on Thursday came after the coalition elected Talat Xhaferi, a former defense minister from the ethnic Albanian DUI party, as president of the parliament. VMRO-DPMNE MPs have accused the Social Democrat-led coalition of violating parliamentary voting procedures.
President Ivanov invited leaders of all political parties for a meeting on Friday morning to try to find a way to resolve the situation.
This is Macedonia’s worst crisis since 2001, when ethnic tensions brought it to the brink of civil war. The situation was defused when the EU promised the country eventual membership.
EU officials have condemned the violence at Macedonia’s parliament and called on its political parties to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis. European Council President Donald Tusk visited the country earlier in April to meet with President Ivanov.
“I came here with the strong message from the EU leaders that commitment to European perspectives is unequivocal,” Tusk said at the time. “I therefore hope that you will continue to follow this compass and avoid anything that could further fuel tensions also along ethnic lines,” he added.
Russia has called on foreign politicians to stop putting pressure on Skopje and allow the Macedonians solve their own problems on their own terms. Moscow said the eagerness on the part of EU officials to hail the election of Xhaferi, despite his questionable legitimacy, has contributed to the country’s tensions.
Macedonia’s progress towards EU membership has been blocked by Athens over a naming dispute. There is a province called Macedonia in Greece, which considers the use of its name by the former Yugoslavian republic illegitimate.