Macedonia – I knew this before my arrival – is a country full of challenges and problems from which especially its citizen have to suffer.
Democracy and Rule of Law
I knew that Macedonia is a country in its transition and transformation phase towards a democratic state. I did not know though that this trend had suffered a severe backlash in 2006 when the VMRO-DPMNE party got elected into government. When talking about the political system of Macedonia one can hardly speak of a democracy, let alone a liberal democracy. Civil rights and liberties such as free media and rule of law are being severely restricted.
I have acquaintances who have been on foreign observer missions to Macedonia in order to check the recent political elections as independent election observers. This is already an indicator that things are not all bright. The amount of statutory violations though is immense: bought voices, manipulated voter registers, no barrier-free entrance to polling stations, questionable methods for counting voices and many more. The dimension of this I only really realized when I visited an event by the NGO “Civil- Center for Freedom“. During this event researchers and journalists presented their analyses of the elections 2016 (you find a link to this document further down). In her analysis of the troubling election year 2016 the independent journalist Monika Taleska writes: “The ruling party of VMRO-DPMNE and its coalition partners further kept the state captured. Every attempt for progress and restoring justice was followed by fierce obstructions by the centers of power.” She claims: “The Republic of Macedonia did not achieve any significant progress in the second part of 2016 in terms of restoring democracy, the rule of law, the work of the Special Prosecutor’s Office and the freedom of speech.”
Economy and Foreign Direct Investment
I also knew beforehand that Macedonia’s economic performance is pretty poor. Official unemployment figures speak about a share of 24%, the number of young people is almost twice as high. Tax income is not invested in infrastructure or education, but instead in big follies being part of the architectural project “Skopje 2014”. This large-scale project is aiming at luring foreigners – especially foreign investors. In 2007 the government announced an economic strategy which focuses mainly on foreign direct investment (FDI). “Macedonia has a fetish for foreign direct investments”, says a panelist during an event about this exact topic. While FDI is often seen as the tool of choice for quick and easy economic growth, the example of Macedonia tells another story. From official sides and also from different scholars FDI is defended and praised, called the “engine of economic development” and the “locomotive of the country”.
Independent research institutions in Macedonia like the Think Tank “Finance Think” have another opinion though. Foreign investors are being attracted with all kinds of incentives such as an exemption from income taxes for the first 10 years, an exemption from social contribution (such as health insurance) for the employees during the first 5 years and a start-off budget up to 500.000€. In return Macedonia gets – precious little. About 2% of the foreign investor’s benefit actually flows into the Macedonian GDP – 12.000€ though are being paid by the Macedonian government annually for every new working place created by FDI (numbers from a 2016 study).
Furthermore, NGOs and Think Tanks criticize working conditions in the companies which mostly do not pay more than the national minimum wage (164€ a month and only 150€ a month in the textile and leather industry). The fetish of the government proves to be a bad romance here – especially for the people of the country.
Do not trust statistics you did not falsify yourself
After all I especially learnt over the past – and first – 10 days in Macedonia that I must treat research differently here to how I learnt and experienced it during my studies. Care and critical reflection are always important – everywhere – and especially with the internet careful fact-checking is a must. Here though research is based on the assumption though that all figures are little concrete and, when in doubt, might be incorrect. That is how we deal with questions about society structures – because the last census dates 15 years back and since about ¼ of the population has left the country – or more. That is how we treat the average wage which is apparently 360€ per month – but reality draws another picture (which would rather suggest a figure about 250€). Nobody knows where the number comes from and what data and extremes have actually contributed to the overall statistic.
Alternative Facts made in Macedonia
Maybe it is only little surprising that a central game maker of the infamous Fake News during the US-American election campaign were a bunch of Macedonian teenagers who built a little fortune – and who are, if we believe the Financial Times, are proud of their support for Donald Trump.
The “Sunny Side” of Macedonia – die Civil Society
I must be honest – in Macedonia I experience plenty of “This-cannot-be-real”-moments. But here’s also another side to the medal and this one shines by itself and not because it was vamped up by all means.
As intern at the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Skopje I am lucky enough to sit right at the source: Daily I meet new people who have geared up – intellectually – for battle against the political and economic system. I meet all these people who do not accept that their future is being thrown away. Daily I have conversations with these people full of visions, power and defiance. Yes, I have the privilege to even live with one of these people, a young inspiring woman full of power and smartness.
It makes no sense to sugarcoat all this – many of these people don’t want to fight this daily fight, they have gotten careful with other people. Trust is something to gain, you do not get it for free.
But despite all these challenges and problems – I do not like to measure a country with its governance performance only, because governments are fading. They represent a system more than the region itself. The country itself though which is welcoming me I like to measure with the people I get to know. And even if it might only be a small, unrepresentative group, I have to say that the political activism, glaring at me every day from the faces of all these people I meet – this makes it easy for me to be happy that I have chosen this chaotic and dysfunctional place as my new temporary home.
Homepage of Civil – Center for Freedom (http://civil.org.mk/)
Election Report 2016 by “Civil – Center for Freedom” (http://civil.org.mk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/CIVIL-ELECTION-REPORT-2016-English.pdf)
Website of Finance Think: http://www.financethink.mk/
Research Paper: “The working conditions in the German transnational company Dräxlmaier in Kavadarci-Macedonia” (https://www.academia.edu/29696668/Research_Draxlmaier_Kavadarci?auto=download)
Macedonia’s fake news industry sets sights on Europe (Financial Times, 16.12.16): https://www.ft.com/content/333fe6bc-c1ea-11e6-81c2-f57d90f6741a