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The aftermath of 23 July riots in Struga
On 26 July, the Macedonian parliament started debating the government's controversial plans to decentralize the state administration and to cut the number of administrative districts from currently 123 to 80. The tense atmosphere in the plenary mirrored the controversy that had been going on in public -- and in the streets -- for about two months (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 and 23 July 2004).
The latest escalation of the controversy took place in the western Macedonian town of Struga on 22-23 July. Struga is one of the administrative districts affected by the government's plan to merge some districts with others. So far, ethnic Macedonians have a slight majority in the Struga district. But with the envisioned merger of Struga with rural areas, ethnic Albanians will be in the majority. In a referendum held in January, a majority of Struga's citizens voted against this merger (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 18 December 2003 and 12 and 20 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 February 2003). However, the government did not take into account the referendum result, arguing such referendums were not binding. As a result, Struga declared members of the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM) unwanted persons.
But on 22 July, Defense Minister and SDSM Deputy Chairman Vlado Buckovski dared visit the SDSM headquarters in Struga. The news of Buckovski's visit rapidly spread in the small town, and a crowd gathered outside the building, shouting, "Buckovski is a traitor," "Struga is a Macedonian town," or "Come out," as "Utrinski vesnik" reported. By two o'clock in the morning, the situation outside the party headquarters had escalated to such an extent that the police decided to evacuate Buckovski, using teargas and rubber bullets to break up the demonstration. During the clashes, about 40 protesters and police were injured. Police subsequently filed charges against more than 50 people in connection with the disturbances.
Buckovski himself called the unrest an attempt on his life, claiming that the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) organized the protests. VMRO-DPMNE Deputy Chairwoman Ganka Samoilovska-Cvetanova, for her part, accused Buckovski of having provoked the incident by coming to Struga (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 26 July 2004).
In the wake of the Struga events, police stepped up security in the capital Skopje, expecting similar violence during a large-scale demonstration outside the parliamentary building in Skopje in the evening of 26 July. The demonstration was organized by a broad coalition of ethnic Macedonian opposition parties, NGOs, the Macedonian Orthodox Church, and the nationalist World Macedonian Congress.
It seems that the massive police presence in the streets of Skopje and especially around the parliamentary building left their impact on the lawmakers. At the beginning of the debate, Minister for Local Self-Government Aleksandar Gestakovski warned the opposition members not to embark on populism to improve their ratings for the upcoming local elections.
The opposition VMRO-DPMNE, for its part, claimed that the government has tried to push through the controversial legislation without debate or taking into account proposed amendments. The VMRO-DPMNE argued that the government's disregard of the opposition became apparent, when Gestakovski presented the 29 laws under discussion in just 89 seconds. At the same time, VMRO-DPMNE lawmakers accused parliamentary speaker Ljupco Jordanovski of breaching the house rules. What is becoming clear after the first day is that the opposition wants to prolong the proceedings -- even by proposing absurd legal amendments to "counter absurd laws," as Gjorgji Orovcanec of the VMRO-DPMNE put it.
Whereas the parliamentary debate ended without any results or clear message, the demonstration later that same day had a clear message: no to the redistricting plans. Interestingly, neither VMRO-DPMNE Chairman Nikola Gruevski nor the other speakers opposed the decentralization as such, but only the redistricting plans. And they repeated their call on the public to sign a petition calling for a referendum on the controversial plans.
Commenting on the demonstrations, Rafis Aliti of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), said they reminded him of the mid-1990s, when anti-Albanian demonstrations stirred-up interethnic tensions. "From what we heard, these protests do not differ from those demonstrations [in the 1990s], when gas chambers were demanded for the Albanians," Aliti said.
Some ethnic Albanian opposition politicians such as Xhezair Shaqiri of the small National Democratic Party (PDK) have made it clear that if the Macedonians succeed in gathering the necessary 150,000 signatures for the referendum and eventually vote down the redistricting plans, the Albanians will call for a referendum, too (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July 2004). Zamir Dika of the largest ethnic Albanian opposition party, the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), says that the Albanian minority will not gain anything from the new district borders. Zamir Dika of the largest ethnic Albanian opposition party, the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), says that the Albanian minority will not gain anything from the new district borders.