Macedonia Locked in Cycle of Corruption

Macedonians despair as successive governments become embroiled in corruption scandals.

Macedonia Locked in Cycle of Corruption

Macedonians despair as successive governments become embroiled in corruption scandals.

Are KFOR soldiers involved in smuggling, or are Macedonian customs officers corrupt? This question dominated the front pages of Skopje's papers all last week.

The story surfaced after Macedonian customs officials blocked 15 NATO trucks on the Greek border for two weeks. The media in Skopje quoted unofficial sources in the customs service, claiming that the goods in the trucks were intended for the black market.

Following a KFOR denial, a normally well-informed television network, citing unofficial KFOR sources, reported that Macedonian officials were demanding bribes - 2,000 German marks per truck - to let the convoy pass.

KFOR troops, who number 4,000 in Macedonia and 40,000 in Kosovo, are alleged to be involved in a smuggling operation supplying private Macedonian firms with cheap alcohol, cigarettes and perfumes.

Such charges however are not just levelled at the international peacekeepers. Macedonians complain that corruption is part and parcel of everyday life.

"To change a telephone number you have to bribe a post office clerk 1,000 German marks," said an elderly man in Skopje. "The same is the case if you want to wait to see a doctor."

A boutique seller in an up-market suburb of the capital said, "You can't do anything here unless you've got several thousand marks to spare."

Corruption in Macedonia began to flourish after the international community imposed its economic embargo on neighbouring Yugoslavia in 1992. Macedonia was one of its most consistent violators.

Everything Serbia needed - petrol, medicines, coffee, cigarettes - passed through the republic. Customs officials and policemen profited. Newspapers wrote about the racket. But no one was taken to court.

The centre-right Coalition for Change between VMRO-DPMNE and the Democratic Alternative (later joined by the Democratic Party of Albanians) triumphed in elections two years ago by pledging to wage a war against corruption.

Following the electoral victory, parliament established a commission of inquiry into the failings of its predecessors who had done little to combat corruption.

The commission presented its findings at a parliamentary session earlier this month. It revealed that the former administration was guilty of a multitude of corrupt activities. These included the printing of passports at firms owned by relatives of politicians and the purchase of horses for the police even though they had no need for them.

But as the findings were made public, the opposition responded with its own counter charges, which included claims that the authorities had needlessly ordered 400 expensive Chrysler vehicles for the police.

As opposition claims mounted, the parliamentary speaker stemmed the barrage by cutting the debate short, preventing 20 opposition members from outlining further charges. His excuse for doing so was the celebration of International Women's Day.

It is now generally assumed that government has been engaged in dishonest practices and done little to crackdown on venality elsewhere.

The Supreme Court recently concluded that judicial procedures have been too slow, inefficient and subject to pressure from people in power.

The government controversially sold the OKTA refinery - one of the most important sources of fuel in the country - to the Greek company Hellenic Petroleum. The opposition later accused the authorities of profiting from the contract.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski pledged during the election campaign that anti-corruption legislation would be one of the first tasks of the new government, but no one talks about the proposed law now.

The opposition believes that the current authorities are unable to enact such a law because they are now themselves so corrupt.

At the beginning of January, the Skopje independent daily, Makedonija Denes, published research revealing that Macedonia has been drawn into a criminal network dominated by Albanian mafiosi based in Kosovo.

Macedonia has become important to Albanian criminals following KFOR's arrival in Kosovo last year.

The paper claimed that the ruling party is involved in the criminal racket, controlling profits and cash flow from dubious deals. According to the paper, 70 per cent of profits go to the ruling Democratic Party of Albanians, with the rest going to its coalition partner, VMRO-DPMNE.

The opposition claims the ruling parties have agreed not to meddle in each other's dubious activities.

KFOR has promised to try to tackle the criminal activity by stepping up patrols along the border between Macedonia and Kosovo. But, after last week's revelations about alleged KFOR smuggling, Macedonians hopes of law and order being maintained are rapidly disappearing.

Zeljko Bajic is a regular IWPR contributor.

Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo
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