SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Thousands marched through the capital for a fifth consecutive night Wednesday protesting a proposal aiming to break a deadlock in North Macedonia's efforts to join the European Union.
Limited violence broke out when a group of people threw stones, chairs and bottles at the protesters, while a 40-year-old man was detained after firing a gun in the air as protesters marched to the foreign ministry, police said. No injuries were reported. Police said they found bullet casings at the scene.
Opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski and the governing social democrats hastily convened news conferences and accused each other of creating such incidents for political gain. Mickoski, who participated in the march, posted a photo on his Facebook account showing a man pointing a gun and claimed the gunman had intended to kill him.
Earlier, police said that violence after the Tuesday night's protest inured 47 police officers, two of them seriously. A group of mostly young people threw stones, metal bars, eggs and petrol bombs at the parliament building.
Thousands of people have protested nightly since the weekend over a French proposal for a compromise aimed at lifting objections by neighboring Bulgaria to North Macedonia joining the European Union.
Police said 11 protesters were detained in Tuesday night's incidents. Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski condemned the attacks on the police, saying violence cannot be justified.
Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski visited the injured police officers in a hospital Wednesday. He said an investigation into the instigators of the violence was underway and warned they would face the “strictest possible punishments.”
“We all know very well who is behind the protests and who called for them,” Spasovski said.
Bulgaria, which as an EU member has veto powers over new members, wants North Macedonia to formally recognize its language has Bulgarian roots, to recognize a Bulgarian minority in the country and to quash “hate speech” against Bulgaria. Many in North Macedonia say acquiescing would undermine their national identity.
North Macedonia’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, and the government back the proposed French deal, which calls for the country to acknowledge in its constitution the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority. It would also provide for regular reviews on how the bilateral dispute is being addressed, which could potentially hamper North Macedonia’s future course toward EU membership.
Bulgaria has already formally accepted the French proposal, which now requires the backing of North Macedonia’s parliament. Lawmakers are scheduled to convene Thursday to set up a committee that will look into the issue. No plenary session has yet been scheduled.
The center-right VMRO-DPMNE, many international law experts and civic groups contend the French proposal favors Bulgarian demands, which dispute Macedonian views of regional history, language, identity and heritage.
North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. The country received a green light in 2020 to begin accession talks, but no date for the start of the negotiations has been set.
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