Greek man attacked after Whittlesea mayor’s flag-waving stokes up Balkan tensions

by on 28 December 2019

Tensions between local Greek and Macedonian communities are believed to be behind the violent attack of a man at a family-friendly restaurant in Melbourne’s north-east last week.

Police are investigating after a number of men set upon a man in his 20s at a Ribs & Burgers restaurant on McDonalds Road in South Morang on December 17.

Three men, who were at the restaurant with a larger group, assaulted the victim about 7.40pm, before fleeing the scene and leaving him with minor facial injuries and small fracture on one finger.

The Age has been told the group was punching the victim, who is of Greek heritage, in the head and face for up to 40 seconds. The victim’s car was also damaged.

The attackers have not been arrested by police and the investigation is ongoing. Detectives have secured CCTV footage from the restaurant.

The Age understands the attackers and the victim had just been at a nearby City of Whittlesea council meeting, where a protest had been planned and extra security engaged. It followed a controversial Facebook post from Whittlesea mayor Emilia Lisa Sterjova, showing her dancing with a flag featuring the Vergina Sun symbol.

The Star of Vergina, or Vergina Sun, was the subject of controversy when it was used on the national flag of the newly-independent Republic of Macedonia – now North Macedonia – in the 1990s.

The Greek government strongly opposed the use of the symbol, accusing the Republic of Macedonia of appropriating a symbol that is considered to be part of Greek culture, and the flag was changed.

In mid-2018, the two countries signed the Prespa Agreement to try to address the long-standing dispute and the symbol is now banned from being used in public in North Macedonia.

The mayor’s photo was taken at a Melbourne graduation ceremony for students who had finished studying the Macedonian language, which Cr Sterjova also studied when she was younger.

Cr Sterjova took down the post and responded to the backlash on social media several days later.

“I was surprised by the negative response to my posting which included death threats against me, threats to remove me from the office of mayor, threats to have me expelled from the political party I am a member of, and stalking threats necessitating the engagement of security services and police for my protection when attending certain future events,” she wrote.

“By way of clarification, the posting of the subject photo was not intended to insult, or be disrespectful to, any member of the Whittlesea community.”

The post sparked outrage within the local Greek and Macedonian communities, with heated debates online leading to death and rape threats towards individuals on Facebook.

A protest was then planned for the December 17 council meeting, which drove the council to engage extra security.

Councillor Kris Pavlidis told The Age that at the council meeting she introduced an urgent motion that suggested the council seek advice from Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about protocols for elected officials in relation to use of the symbol, but the motion was voted down.

“[The mayor] voted it down with her casting vote… I don’t think she understood it as a motion of urgency,” she said.

Cr Pavlidis condemned the violence at the restaurant and said she has been told it was motivated by the recent ethnic tensions.

“It’s unfortunate, it’s unacceptable to resort to barbaric violence in that way,” she said.

“That’s just not on, it’s really is not on. It’s incumbent on the mayor of the day to ensure through their leadership, that their conduct does not in any way incite unruly behaviour. I spoke to the acting chief executive, as it becomes an OHS issue for councillors – how do I feel safe going about exercising my role as an elected councillor?”

Council spokesman Dean Jenkins said the safety and wellbeing of the community, staff and councillors was of utmost importance to the City of Whittlesea.

“The community has the right to protest peacefully on issues,” he said.

“When council became aware that there was a protest planned at the council offices on Tuesday evening, we contacted police for their advice, as is our normal procedure.

“Council worked with Victoria Police and separately engaged security staff to ensure councillors, staff and the community felt safe and that the meeting could run smoothly.

“Council hosts various community events and council meetings during the year and ensures security is considered as standard practice.”

It comes as the troubled council reels from the sudden sacking of its chief executive, former police chief Simon Overland earlier this month.

Mr Overland, a former Victoria Police chief commissioner who was a witness before the Informer 3838 royal commission last week, had been on indefinite leave from the City of Whittlesea since November citing “health and wellbeing” concerns.

The northern suburbs council has also been under investigation by the Local Government Inspectorate over claims of bullying and workplace safety and last week the state government appointed a monitor to ensure good governance.

The Whittlesea council will be monitored over the next six months, with an interim report about councillor behaviour due on March 27.

By Simone Fox Koob and Cameron Houston – theage.com.au