Rooting out corruption proves a tough job in North Macedonia

Rooting out corruption proves a tough job in North Macedonia
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announces the latest campaign against corruption. / Government of North Macedonia
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje October 13, 2021

The Social Democrat-led government in Skopje came to power in 2017 pledging to carry out a vigorous and transparent fight against corruption. Despite its efforts, North Macedonia has continued to fall on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), highlighting how tough it is to root out entrenched corruption. 

In the latest initiative, the government launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness and support the fight against corruption in September.

The government said it will use various PR activities, including social media and billboards and will also create an interactive website to promote the anti-corruption campaign activities, to promote a campaign dubbed ‘Now everything is public — Corruption does not pay off’.

"With the campaign we send the message that this government is maximally committed to pursue a policy of transparency, which is the basis of the fight against corruption,” deputy prime minister in charge of the fight against crime and corruption, Ljupco Nikolovski, said while promoting the campaign.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said that the campaign is part of a broad front to fight corruption, and stems from the clear political will to completely eradicate corruption.

"The campaign aims to mobilise citizens and the state administration in providing protective mechanisms and resistance to corruption," Zaev said.

In another move to prove that the fight against corruption is strong as the ruling SDSM prepares to face voters in the October 17 local elections, Nikolovski presented a new draft bill under which anyone who fails to prove the origin of property worth more than €30,000 acquired in the previous year would face having it confiscated. The bill still has to pass the filters of the Venice Commission.

Skopje stepped up its efforts to fight corruption after the country dropped a further five spots on the latest CPI to 111th place, making it one of the lowest ranked countries in Europe, having already fallen 13 places from the 2018 ranking.

“[M]uch more needs to be done in that direction [of fighting corruption],” head of the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption, Biljana Ivanovska, told bne IntelliNews in a phone conversation.

The country still suffers from a low level of political culture and awareness and needs to open more space for professionalism in all spheres, Ivanovska said.

On the other hand, Ivanovska confirmed that North Macedonia has made positive steps in the fight against corruption lately, including in increased transparency, which is a key factor in the fight against corruption.

“There are also positive steps taken in the implementation of the EU recommendations,” she said.

Corruption and the Colourful Revolution

The Social Democrats came to power following mass protests, dubbed the Colourful Revolution, and a prolonged political crisis. The demonstrations against the former administration under the conservative VMRO-DPMNE were triggered by a dossier released by Zaev, then opposition leader, detailing top-level corruption obtained from wiretapped conversations that were leaked to the opposition party. 

Since then, the public prosecutor’s office launched a series of high-level corruption cases, taking over from the previous special prosecutor’s office (SPO), which was dismantled in 2019 due to corruption in its own ranks.

Many of them ended with the arrest of prominent figures mostly from VMRO-DPMNE, including ex-chief of the secret police Saso Mijalkov and businessman Orce Kamcev. There are several court cases against Mijalkov. In one of them, he was sentenced for illegally purchasing wiretapping equipment, while Kamcev is accused of money laundering, among other things.

Even the country’s long-serving former prime minister Nikola Gruevski was sentenced in absentia in a case concerning a luxury armoured Mercedes bought with public money. Gruevski fled to Hungary and sought asylum there to avoid serving his sentence. 

In the latest country report on North Macedonia for 2020, the European Commission praised the state anti-corruption body, for being “particularly proactive in preventing corruption and opened a high number of cases, including those involving high-level officials from across the political spectrum, in line with last year’s recommendation.”

“The State Commission for Prevention of Corruption continued to address allegations of nepotism, cronyism and political influence in the process of recruitment of public sector employees,” according to the report.

The European Commission said that as regards the fight against corruption the country, an EU candidate since 2005, is moderately prepared.

“Good progress was made through consolidating its track record on investigating, prosecuting and trying high level corruption cases,” according to the report.

Political appointments

Despite the positive steps, Ivanovska noted that on the downside, there is still a low level of political awareness in the country. 

The state administration and state controlled enterprises remain the domain of political appointees. Directors and board members in the state-run companies and institutions usually come from the ruling parties’ structures, regardless of their experience in the related field. Even lower-level appointmets in schools and hospitals have to pass ruling parties’ filters.

“The political culture and awareness should increase and there is a need for fair competition and professionalism to come in the first place. Lack of professionalism is the reason why people emigrate,” the head of the anti-corruption commission told bne IntelliNews.

The preliminary figures from the latest census, which ended on September 30, showed that over 1.8mn people live in the country, nearly 200,000 fewer than in the previous census in 2002. It is estimated that several hundred people emigrated mostly to Western European countries in search of a better life.

The anti-corruption body most often acts on complaints about party-influenced employments and appointments of directors, nepotism, public procurements as well as violation in election activities.

Head of TI Macedonia Slagjana Taseva said in February that the government needs to take a clear stand and demonstrate political will to effectively address long-standing problems of politicisation and corruption in public employment procedures.

In a comment on the NGO’s website, Taseva cited the chair of Transparency International, Delia Ferreira Rubio, as saying that the CPI results should be taken seriously and the reality of corruption can be changed by establishing strong political will to change attitudes and corrupt behaviour, which creates uncertainty for business, threatens rule of law and weakens protections of human rights.

The recently launched initiative is not the first time the Social Democrat-led government has tried to reinvigorate its efforts to fight corruption and make the state administration more effective. Back in 2019 the government discharged nearly 70 directors and members of management and supervisory boards as part of the “Operation Broom” launched to eliminate weaknesses in the government, the SDSM, public companies, agencies and institutions.

However, the launch of Operation Broom was marred by a drug scandal involving an MP from the governing coalition, Pavle Bogoevski, who resigned in May 2019 after an audio recording appeared to show him ordering cocaine.

Local election campaign 

Good intentions are often trumped by political expediency as elections approach. As Ivanovska pointed out, in the run-up to the local elections there has been disrespect for election rules and government undertakings have been timed to coincide with the pre-election period, among them the launch of tenders and advertising new jobs in the public sector.

“This undermines the election process,” she said.

The latest surprising move by the government confirms Ivanovska’s warning; just before the election the ministry of administration proposed a draft bill to reduce the weekly working hours of the public administration’s employees from 40 to 36, which means they will work only four hours on Fridays.

While civil servants cheered the proposal, the civil organisation United Workers expressed concerns over the circumstances related to the new draft in terms of its content and timing.

“Such changes will contribute to enormous differences in the status of employees in the public and the private sector, promoting the privileged status of the state administration that has been held captive by the ruling parties for many years,” the organisation said.

Procurement scandal looms 

Another controversial move by the government concerns its decision to appoint a strategic partner, the consortium Bechtel-Enka, to build several motorway sections, as part of Corridor VIII, without a competitive tender.

The anti-corruption commission urged President Stevo Pendarovski not to sign the law, but he rejected the appeal.

The commission then referred the case to the Constitutional Court. However, even before the court came out with an opinion, Zaev met representatives of Bechtel-Enka on September 29, explaining that they are using the time before the court decision to work on details of the future agreement, suggesting that this is a done deal.

The tie-up of Bechtel-Enka has been criticised previously for being involved in non-transparent and expensive projects in Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. The consortium was responsible for the construction of the Albania-Kosovo motorway project, selected in a fast-track procurement process back in 2006. The costs of the project escalated several times during the construction and in total the 137-km motorway linking Tirana and Pristina cost about €2bn from the state budgets of the two countries. The method of awarding the contract for the motorway section from Tirana to the Kosovan border was criticised at home and also by the World Bank, which financed the project.

A political hot topic 

The corruption issue in North Macedonia, as well as across the Western Balkans, has consistently been a hot topic and a subject of cross-party accusations.

During a debate with the leader of VMRO-DPMNE on Kanal 5 ahead of the local elections, Zaev said that his government has a clear anti-corruption policy, in contrast to the opposition party.

“Now anyone in our country can be held criminally liable if involved in illicit activities, regardless of their position,” Zaev said.

He also said that the government asked for assistance from Transparency International and the anti-corruption body on how to deal with corruption.

During the debate, opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski recalled that the country fell drastically in the TI ranking from 62nd in 2012 to 111th in 2020.

“North Macedonia ranked 67th in 2013, 64th in 2014, 93rd in 2018, 106th in 2019 and 111th in 2021. These are the numbers about corruption. Everything else is philosophy,” Mickoski said.

“We are working to improve the rating,” Zaev replied.

Mickoski also linked the government’s record on fighting corruption to the stalled EU accession process. Bulgaria vetoed the start of North Macedonia’s EU negotiations at the end of 2020 over language and historical issues, which also blocked Albania on its EU path, as the two countries' progress is linked. But for Mickoski, not only Bulgaria, but also the country’s corruption is an obstacle to its EU accession progress.

Criticism was also levelled at the government by former president of North Macedonia and ex-SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski. In his first public appearance in a long time, Crvenkovski strongly criticised the situation in the country, pointing out to three main factors: explicit corruption, deep divisions in society and high indebtedness.

"North Macedonia is a corrupt country, and in a corrupt country there is no equality before the law, no fair market economy, no quality education and health care system, nor the trust in the institutions and no dominant system of social values,” Crvenkovski said in his speech at the Macedonian Academy of Science and Arts (MANU) in late September.

Crvenkovski also pointed out that North Macedonia is an internally deeply conflicted and divided country, in which the political parties do not see each other as competitors, but as enemies unable to reach consensus on any important issue.

“And third, North Macedonia is a country that lives on loans, and who lives on loans, dies in instalments. The fact is that a large part of this borrowed money was spent not for infrastructure projects, but for totally unproductive things," Crvenkovski said.

His speech was criticised because he was prime minister when illegal privatisations took place following Macedonia's independence from former Yugoslavia back in 1991.

International support 

Despite criticism at home, the EU commended North Macedonia’s efforts to fight corruption and the US increased the financial support in this regard.

On September 28, the government in Skopje announced that USAID increased its planned grant for North Macedonia from over $8.2mn to $56.6mn for projects aimed mainly to reduce corruption in the next four to five years.

This came after in July, the US Department of State said in its 2021 Investment Climate Statement that corruption is a consistent issue in North Macedonia. It underlined that the government generally enforces laws, but there are numerous reports that some officials remain engaged in corrupt activities.

Also on September 26, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, during her visit to Skopje, praised North Macedonia for progress made in the EU-related reforms, in particular on the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime.

Von der Leyen also said that North Macedonia met all conditions to launch the EU talks and that the EU's common goal is that to happen, together with Albania, by the end of the year.

“I fully support, from the bottom of my heart, the formal opening of the accession negotiations...and I want these accession negotiations opened with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible” von der Leyen said at a news conference in Skopje.