Letter from Macedonia

In Macedonia the critics are silenced, opponents are imprisoned, the budget is empty and ethnic tensions are reaching boiling point. What has led to this disaster?

A friend recently emailed me from Macedonia and said "we are witnessing a fully-fledged mafia state being endorsed for EU membership by some of the leading democracies on the planet."

I groaned. I couldn't be bothered. I was on the road, visiting Istanbul at the time and I didn't have time for this. I'm fed up with stories of corrupt Balkan countries and surely this has already been covered by the international media?

You would be forgiven for not knowing where Macedonia is. It is one of the newest, smallest and most obscure countries in Europe and, from the perspective of a busy news editor, is probably irrelevant. Once a province of Yugoslavia, Macedonia declared independence in the early 1990s and managed to avoid getting invaded by the Serbs. It is located between Serbia, Kosovo, Greece, Bulgaria and Albania - and the capital city is called Skopje (pronounced "skop-yeah"). I visited Skopje in 1999, during the Kosovo crisis, and thought it was a dump.

My friend wouldn't leave me in peace. He insisted that I "get the word out" via the Huffington Post and told me the mainstream international media don't give a damn. As I read his email and researched the story online I realised that political corruption in Macedonia is a hundred times worse than it is in Romania, the country I'm currently based in. How can a "mafia state" about to be granted EU membership?

Reuters published a news story on 6 March which stated that "Macedonia's opposition leader released a fresh batch of wire-taps on Friday that he said proved the government rigged elections, pursuing a surveillance scandal that has rocked the Balkan country since January."

The only mainstream British paper which seems to have covered the story is the Financial Times, which described how the Macedonian government (allegedly) carried out a massive phone tapping campaign over six years and then blamed it on the opposition party and foreign intelligence agencies. The FT said the incumbent Prime Minister, who has been in power for nine years, is accused of "one of the worst election scandals in Europe in recent memory."

Why is the international media not covering this story?

I can't answer this question as I'm not plugged into media or diplomatic circles and I'm not in Macedonia (and not sure if they'd let me in after seeing this) but I can share some of the email that my old friend sent me:

"I would like to remain anonymous because I fear that I would quickly lose my business. The situation has been dire for quite a few years now.

The main opposition party have published evidence of the government's mass wire-tapping policy along with leaked conversations of government Ministers discussing massive election fraud.

Since coming to power in 2006, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has led a campaign of ultra-nationalism and squandered the national budget on a 'national culture' plan. Unfortunately, the private sector has had to pay for this nationalistic madness through heavy fines from questionable inspections.

The tax inspectors arrive with pre-written decisions even though the correct legal process is that inspectors must first present their findings to an internal commission. Bypassing the commission and any due process points to a policy of revenue generation rather than standards enforcement. Fines start at €3,000 for small infractions, such as a sign not being in cyrillic, and increase substantially for larger matters.

Macedonia promotes itself as the best destination for foreign investment with taxes of just 10%. Having invested in a company there I would argue that the taxes, including random fines, are closer to 40%.

Up until 2010 business people and foreign diplomats were glad to share their opinions in the media but this is no longer the case. The government has spent years acquiring or closing all media outlets and only those praising the ruling party are allowed to broadcast or publish.

In Macedonia the critics are silenced, opponents are imprisoned, the budget is empty and ethnic tensions are reaching boiling point. What has led to this disaster?

The centrepiece of the Prime Minister's policy is a so-called 'cultural' project called 'Skopje 2014'. As much as 5% of Macedonia's state budget - an estimated €300 million so far - has been allocated to this absurd project to build statues and monuments and reinforce Macedonia's claim to exclusive ownership of Alexander the Great's legacy. Even the current Minister of Finance said it was mad.

To put this into context, the average monthly salary of Macedonia's two million citizens is one of the lowest in Europe, at less than €525.

This begs the question: if the constitution has been breached, the elections rigged and the national statistics (allegedly) falsified why does the European Union not suspend its dealings with the country?

And considering the disastrous state of public services - and that the public administration is bloated, bankrupt and unaccountable - should the IMF (International Monetary Fund) keep paying off Macedonia's national debt?"

This article was also published on my new travel blog: www.wolfemurray.com.


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