Officials from the office for protection of cultural heritage are among 19 suspects arrested.
By Aleksandar Pavelvski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 10/05/13
Macedonian police arrested 19 people involved in the alleged theft of religious and historical artifacts. [Aleksandar Pavlevski/SETimes]
Macedonian police struck a blow against organised crime and corruption with a recent operation that resulted in the arrests of 19 people on charges of theft and illegal trading of religious and historical artifacts.
Seventeen of the 19 are Macedonians; the remaining two are Serbian nationals. Among those arrested was a deputy director of the office for the protection of cultural heritage, who was responsible for analysing archaeological objects that were seized during a previous operation.
An administrative inspector, directors of museums in Demir Kapija and Skopje and a police officer from Chaska also were arrested.
"I am convinced that it is an organised group that is associated with other groups and individuals abroad," Pasko Kuzman, director of the office for protection of cultural heritage, told SETimes.
Minister of Interior Gordana Jankulovska said the group includes individuals who took advantage of their inside knowledge and access to artifacts.
"Using official positions and authority they gave information about the meaning, value and safety of cultural heritage, enabled the smooth transfer of archaeological objects from one location to another, concealing items and sales outside of Macedonia," Jankulovska said.
The interior ministry told SETimes that it remains committed to the eradication of corrupt activities in all institutions in the country and that combating corruption and crime is its agenda for the future.
Police say the archaeological artifacts illegally trafficked by the group were excavated from localities in Demir Kapija, Sveti Nikole, Kavadarci and Skopje, and were sold in the country or abroad. Coins, bronze, ceramics and icons that police suspect were stolen from several churches were among more than 150 items discovered in the operation.
Theft of archaeological and church icons by foreigners has been an issue in Macedonia for decades. According to the interior ministry, nearly 800 churches and 53 mosques have been robbed in the last 12 years, including about 40 churches in the first four months of 2013.
Ministry spokesperson Ivo Kotevski said the government is determined to clamp down on such thefts.
"Some of the items have priceless historical value," Kotevski told SETimes.
Dragi Nestorovski, a former police inspector for protection of the cultural heritage, said penalties for such offenses are generally small. The harshest penalty ever imposed in such a case in Macedonia was a seven-year prison sentence.
He said that churches are a frequent target because they are usually not properly secured, leading to a debate about whether the government or the Macedonian Orthodox Church is more responsible for protecting these items.
"There are buyers who operate upon orders. There are countrymen who want to buy some paintings for large sums, passionate collectors. They are sold on secret auctions and markets across Europe," Nestorovski told SETimes.
Many robberies have occurred in Debar Kicevo Diocese, where numerous historic works by Dico Zograf are located.
"Dico is the greatest fresco painter of the 19th century, not only in Macedonia, but also in the Balkans. His icons are still discovered in Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Kosovo. His works are especially valuable because of the symbiotic style," Saso Cvetkoski, an art historian and museum director in Struga, told SETimes.
The Macedonian Orthodox Church has said it does not have the funds to install security measures at churches. Cultural preservation experts have advised that valuable items should be moved out of churches and into more secure locations, but village church boards are opposed to that idea.
"It is better to empty the churches and to know exactly where the icons are," Kuzman said.
What should be done to prevent the theft of valuable items from Macedonia's churches? Share your thoughts in the comments section.