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Macedonia: Veles Says “No” to Lead Poisoning, Government Remains Ambiguous

After the massive protest against restarting of the lead smelting factory in the city of Veles, the citizens feel cheated by the declarative support shown by the politicians from the ruling parties, and demand clear answers from PM Nikola Gruevski on whether the poisoning will continue.

The protests announced in the previous Global Voices article took place on November 9, 2011. Estimates of the number of the protest participants range from 10,000 to over 15,000 [hr], a huge turnout for this community of less than 44,000 inhabitants.

Samoglaska and Vancho Dzambaski published Creative Commons-licensed photo galleries from the event:

Protest march through Veles streets. Photo by Samoglaska (CC-BY).

People gathering on Veles square. Photo by Vancho Dzambaski (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Twitter tags #Veles or #Велес are still in use, and the seasoned local blogger Jovan Petrov provided comprehensive coverage of the protest:

…the families, school children and elders joined forces. Being there I saw people from all backgrounds – the non-governmental sector, doctors, blue collar workers, politicians including former and current mayors and members of the parliement and local council, mothers and daughters, from all ranges of age, social and ethnic background. They protested in unison, NO RESTART! for the smelting factory.

I was never good at guessing numbers, but the group of NGO's called “Green coalition” have managed to gather more participants than any party on a political rally even when they want to boast with numbers carrying people from other cities to enrich the scenery. Some guesses were in the range of 10.000 participants.

The organization was quite good, the people were loud but very polite, the whole process finished without any recorded incident. The protest was lead by an excavator, symbolic image of the vision of the citizens – to dig up the old shadow factory and plant the perimeter with trees in order to decontaminate the land from cancerogens and active chemicals that modify the DNA of the unborn children.

The message was clear and far-reaching – NO MORE POISONING! Now, the state should show its support for the locals not only by speeches and through columnists, but by clear actions. And the solution is simple – rejecting the application of the investor to restart the factory – which everyone is sure that must be done based on strict following of the environmental legislation. Even the investor has admitted that they will pollute in their environmental impact study submitted to the Ministry of environment of Republic of Macedonia (image of the table follows, and remember the fact – the author of this document is the investor itself):

Table on environmental impact from the study with added explanations in English.

After this night – it should be clear to all, whoever tries to do more harm to the citizens of Veles will be punished severely.

A short documentary about the protest [mk] is available on YouTube:

And while the area's politicians and religious leaders turned out in force for the photo-op, they expressed declarative and noncommittal support for the Veles’ cause. However, not all protest supporters received media attention, and were not credited at the event.

Vladimir Milchin, the executive director of the Foundation Open Society Institute, wrote [mk] on his Facebook profile:

Yes, members of GEM (Citizens for European Macedonia) were at the protest. And the Soros’ foundation supported the NGOs that organized it by supplying funds for 2,000 vests. Just like it supported them in the long bygone year of 2003 with a USD 6,100 grant for the first analysis that proved presence of the toxic materials in the hair of 80 local children.

Dimce Velev, one of the organizers, added a comment:

A reason for this is that road to the truth around the environmental exodus started with FOSM support at the point when the smelter was a taboo topic!

Milchin concluded:

And now some people want to use the protest to build their careers.

GEM activists in the crowd during the Veles protest. Photo by Vancho Dzambaski (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Several Twitter users shared a screen capture of a statement [mk] by former Mayor, Ace Kocevski, published on his Facebook profile [mk]:

Citizens of Veles expressed their position against restarting of the smelting factory with dignity. But statements of the representatives of the Ministry of the Environment indicate that the appeal has not been taken seriously.
Self-censorship of the speakers at the protest and pointing fingers at Metrudhem only did not produce the expected results.
The goal is clear: Veles without a smelter.
The battle for healthy living environment in Veles must continue in more organized, more realistic manner, without improvisations, through the institutions of the system and if needed outside of them.
The municipality must urgently change the General Urban Plan and enact an Detailed Urban Plan to change the zoning of the area into light nonpolluting industry only.
The court process of Veles and the Green Coalition against Republic of Macedonia must continue. EUR 50,000 must be found for judicial analysis of the impact of pollution over the health of the citizens, and the level of intoxication of the soil and waters.
Ask the [Macedonian Bar Association] for pro bono representation.
The pressure must be directed towards the Ministry of the Environment and the Government – they must stand on the side of the people of Veles, to correct the errors of decade-long pollution and selling of the smelter, and to prevent its restart. They must provide funds from the state budget and from international donors to solve the problem of the slag landfill, and to clean the poisoned soil.

In the days after the protest, organizers and participants started expressing concern via the official Facebook group. Nenad Kocic shared the above video and asked the following questions:

1. Is Veles in Macedonia?
2. Does this state have a Government?
3. Does the Government work for the people or not?

After the Minister of the Environment failed to come to the protest and stated [mk] that it was too early to say that the request for license by the factory owners would be denied, the Green Coalition of NGOs asked to hear the truth in person from the “big boss” – requesting a meeting with PM Gruevski, who keeps maintaining detached, eery silence on the matter.

The news [mk], that the PR agency Republika will commence an advertising campaign on behalf of investor, has been taken as a clear sign of support for the investor by the government. During the past few years, this company has been the dominant implementer of numerous advertising campaigns that funneled millions of Euros from the state budget to pro-government media and other beneficiaries (in a setup compared [mk] to the collusion of the Croatian ruling party and Fimi Media).

Veles protester holding a cartoon. Photo by Samoglaska (CC-BY).

In other news: another Macedonian city has been subjected to a similar environmental disaster [mk], apparently due to criminal negligence. On Friday, Nov. 11, Kriva Palanka received an influx of poisonous slag full of lead, arsenic, zinc, cadmium and other toxic materials from the upriver mine Toranica.

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