Violence Disrupts Student Protests in Skopje
Skopje | 30 March 2009 |
The supporters of the new church called the students “Traitors”
Saturday’s protest by architecture students against government plans to build a church on the central Macedonia Square in Skopje was interrupted by a group of religious believers, creating a fresh opportunity for political spats in the presidential and local election campaign.
The protest in downtown Skopje, organised by two activist groups, the Progressive Youth Syndicate and the First Archi-Brigade, and dubbed “the first architect uprising”, was prevented from taking place by a crowd of church supporters carrying flags and crosses, who attacked the protesters.
Local media broadcast footage showing police passively observing the clash. Those supporting the building of the church claimed they spontaneously decided to come to Skopje from towns across FYROM to express their backing for the project.
It remains unclear who organised the buses that brought them to the capital and the numerous printed leaflets calling for a counter-demonstration one hour before the students’ protest.
The previous evening, a local TV show host had called for people to stop the protest allegedly organised by “gays and atheists”, the daily newspaper Dnevnik reported.
The First Archi-Brigade said in its press statement that their protest had no political dimension, but was simply aimed against the “regression in the field of architecture“ that they believed the capital had experienced in recent years.
They said the new church, which the government plans to build in one of the most frequented pedestrian places in the city, would choke the space there and would not match existing architecture.
This was just the latest in a number of disputed projects in the capital, they added.
However, the incident soon took on a markedly political dimension. First, the head of the right-of-centre VMRO DPMNE, the Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, blamed the opposition Social Democrats for supporting the protests; police then announced they would press charges against the student organisers for having failed to ensure security for the event.
“I heard there were certain unfortunate events between groups of citizens. This is not good, and I urge restraint”, Gruevski said on Saturday, adding that his party was not involved in the incident.
The outgoing President and the opposition, however, defended the students, and raised suspicions that the counter-protest may have been deliberately staged by the state.
President Crvenkovski, speaking to the media on Sunday, said, “it is unacceptable for this bullying to happen right in front of the eyes of the police.” He said that if the Ministry of Internal Affairs had been involved in the counter plot this would “ speaks only of the irresponsible attitude of the ministry”.
The outgoing Skopje mayor, Trifun Kostovski, who in the past contested the building of the church, in the Constitutional Court, also condemned the violent break-up of the protest. He urged people to remain calm and “not to fall victim to political repression and organised pressure from the state”.
Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court ruled that the construction of the church could go ahead. The Court is yet to decide whether the construction of their own building, on the other side of the square, is constitutional, as it, too, was not envisaged in the detailed Skopje development plan, devised by the city, and which also has a disputed design.
Asked whether the church would be built, PM Gruevski said this was a government project and that construction would begin in the next few months.
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