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Macedonia: Threats Follow Corruption Report

International organisations come under fire from authorities after top Macedonian officials are accused of running country like a "racket".
By Ana Petruseva

A report by the International Crisis Group, ICG, revealing widespread corruption in Macedonia, has caused uproar in the nation, with the interior minister calling the ICG's Edward Joseph a "criminal" who should be thrown out of the country.


The report, Macedonia's Public Secret: How Corruption Drags the Country Down, was released on August 14 and details several cases of dishonesty at the highest levels of government. It warns that the situation could not only retard economic progress but also pose a threat to the country's fragile stability following last year's Albanian insurgency, which was ended by a western-sponsored peace agreement.


"In effect, the state has come to function in important respects as a 'racket', and the racketeers thrive in a culture of impunity. It is also a cross-community shared enterprise, and collusion between ethnic leaders serves to heighten tensions," said senior analyst Joseph.


The Macedonian authorities have rejected the allegations and called the report, which was issued the day before the country's election campaign was launched, "an attempt by Joseph to interfere with internal affairs of the country".


The ruling party VMRO-DPMNE's spokesman, Vlatko Gjorcev, said the account was "an attempt at a soft coup in the country" and that the ICG analyst "was lobbying for the major opposition party SDSM" in the run-up to the Macedonian elections planned for September 15.


Joseph told IWPR that the government response came as no surprise. "There was a series of efforts to dishonour me personally and also to try to discredit the organisation. The authorities were anticipating the report and obviously they would try to protect themselves by rubbishing it and us," he said.


However, the situation took a more sinister turn on Thursday, when Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski branded Joseph "a criminal", described him as "dangerous" and recommended that he be expelled from the country. State-owned daily newspaper Vecer published several "conspiracy theory" articles saying the analyst and his organisation sought to destabilise the country and overthrow the government.


Joseph denies that the report has political connotations. "We made it clear that the corruption did not begin with the current authorities. It would be a serious mistake to believe that a change of government after the September 15 elections will automatically sweep away the problem," he said.


The report cited serious accusations against top officials rumoured to have been involved in a number of scams. The customs director is alleged to have a racket coercing businesses to use freight-forwarding firm under his control. The Health Insurance Fund reportedly asked suppliers to provide five per cent of accounts receivable in cash, deemed to be a contribution to VMRO-DPMNE.


The report also examines the privatisation of an oil refinery, described by an ICG sources as a deal agreed to by "an idiot or a corrupt official". The organisation's research also hinted at cross-ethnic cooperation in tobacco smuggling.


While Macedonian officials have repeatedly denied the allegations, their efforts to deal with the issue have been weak.


Since the international donors' conference for Macedonia, held in Brussels in March 2002, the nation's media have been awash with stories about corruption and exposing deals involving top officials, but the government has not taken any serious measures to tackle the problem.


Analysts believe that a newly established government commission to investigate corruption, led by Boskovski, was set up only as a sop to international donors who were warned before the March conference not to give money to Macedonia until the country set up a "watchdog" to ensure aid ended up where it belonged.


"According to our estimates, various corruption scams have deprived the state of around 250 million euro. The ICG report just confirmed those concerns," said Zoran Jacev, president the local branch of Transparency International. The amount is roughly equal to the money pledged by the donors' conference.


The ICG recommends conditioning financial aid on anti-corruption reforms, the appointment of a foreign adviser to the Macedonian government and the establishment of international watchdogs inside the most dishonest institutions.


However, outside agencies have a difficult task ahead of them. A new biweekly magazine called Manifest, in an article titled "Macedonia must defend itself from a soft coup" labelled ICG, along with IWPR, Forum magazine, Soros' Open Society Institute, Transparency International and other non-governmental organisations as "enemy forces trying to interfere and destabilise the country" and placed them in the middle of a global "conspiracy against Macedonia".


Many believe the campaign is marginal and should not be taken seriously but others warn it should not be underestimated. The article also gave names, phone numbers and addresses of the "conspirators".


"We have many reasons to be concerned. I am shocked at how these neo-nazi attitudes are being underestimated," Vladimir Milcin, director of the local Open Society Institute, told IWPR.


Ana Petruseva is a regular IWPR contributor from Skopje


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