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Macedonia: Strikes Hit New Government

The authorities struggle to deal with outbreaks of industrial unrest across the country.
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After two months in office Macedonia's new government has been hit by a wave of strikes over job cuts and unpaid salaries inherited from the previous administration.


Unions are pressing ministers to make good their pre-election promises to clear up the problems left behind by the old VMRO-DPMNE coalition. Unemployment has now reached about 40 per cent after privatisation pitched tens of thousands of workers out of jobs. Those still in work are rarely paid.


But the new finance minister, Petar Gosev, said the previous government left state finances 63 million euros in the red. "There is no money available in the budget," he said.


More than 8,000 workers from about 20 enterprises in Macedonia have been on strike for over a week, complaining they have not received salaries for months and that their health insurance has not been paid.


"In the last four years the workers were afraid to express their anger," said Vanco Muratovski, president of the Alliance of Unions of Macedonia, SSM. "The change of government and the pre-election promises encouraged the workers to express their demands. The most dangerous thing is that the current government does not seem to have any strategy for improving the socio-economic picture."


The new government is a coalition of Macedonian parties led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, SDSM, and the biggest party representing the Albanian minority, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI. In international eyes, the new administration is regarded as more acceptable than the VMRO-DPMNE government, which pursued a hard line against ethnic Albanians.


Almost 1,000 lead and zinc miners from the mostly state-owned Sasa and Zletovo pits recently staged a 10-day hunger strike 800 metres underground at Makedonska Kamenica and Probistip, about 150 km east of Skopje. Salaries had not been paid there for two months. The two mines produce metallic ores at above world market prices, which leaves them stuck with hundreds of tonnes of unwanted ore.


The miners ended their strike when the government paid them half a month's salary and agreed to buy up some of the unwanted ore. "We are humiliated and disappointed because we had to go on hunger strike for 240 hours to obtain our basic rights," said miner Saso Nikolov.


At the Tipo construction supplies factory in Skopje, some 1,300 strikers are demanding unpaid salaries and insurance benefits dating back to 1996. They also want the factory management dismissed. "Pension insurance has not been paid for five years and our salary is only 1,200 dinars (20 euros) per month," said Tipo worker Kire Nikolov.


Similar strikes have hit several other privatised companies Gazela and Slavija in Skopje, and Kiro Cucuk in Veles, where workers want the government to meet unpaid salaries and put privatisation into reverse.


The minister of labour and social policy, Jovan Manasievski, said, "The government has no money to give. We are not going to pay off business debts because that would be a bad signal for other companies."


Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski promised to review the privatisation of companies where employees requested it. Government spokesman Saso Colakovski announced the cancellation of the sale of Nova Makedonija, the country's biggest publishing company, after more than 1,400 of its workers went on strike.


At the same time, police arrested the ex-director of the government's privatisation agency, Dusko Avramovski, who was appointed by ruling VMRO-DPMNE party when it was in power. He is under investigation for involvement in illegal deals when selling Nova Makedonija to an anonymous company from Slovenia.


The VMRO-DPMNE vice-president, Marjan Gorcev, denounced the arrest of Avramovski as "an act of terrorism".


Mare Anceva, secretary of the Union of Metal, Electricity and Mine Workers at Sasa and Zletovo, said the former government appointed highly incompetent managers to run the mines. VMRO-DPMNE, in power between 1998-2002, denied the charges. Party spokesman Vlatko Gorcev said, "The new government is acting irresponsibly and unscrupulously. In four years, we helped the Sasa mine with six million euros."


SSM chief Vanco Muratovski warned, "The workers' patience is nearly exhausted. Because of this they go on strike more often and in larger numbers."


State employees have threatened massive protests before the New Year unless the government and the SSM sign a social agreement regulating unemployment and a strategy for poverty reduction.


The unions also want to review the agreement with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank under which loss-making companies would be sold off or liquidated. Another demand is for new laws on pension insurance and trade associations.


Gosev said he would negotiate with the SSM. One of the toughest union demands is for the 7,000 experienced workers laid off from 32 enterprises to receive state benefits until they found other jobs or reached retirement age. This would cost the state 250,000 euros per month. The head of the IMF Mission for Macedonia, Franek Rozvadovski, categorically opposed this measure, saying it would disturb budget discipline for next year.


Much is expected form the new Macedonian Government even though its room for manoeuvre is extremely limited. The budget deficit for next year has already been set at 127 million euro.


Spasiljka Jovanova is a journalist at the Skopje's weekly Zum.