Macedonia’s government is fueling corruption

The new Macedonian Government, led by the SDSM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia) and DUI (Democratic Union for Integration), is not doing anything to tackle the high level of corruption entrenched within government institutions.

I have previously mentioned the domino effect of the Eurostandard Bank going bankrupt and which birthed the need to privatise one of our last remaining public enterprises, the Macedonian Post Office.

The bankruptcy of Eurostandard affected over 130,000 customers. Many of these people would spend months trying to receive reimbursement – however this was only available to those with savings of less than 10,000 euros under the rules of the Fund for deposit insurance.

However, what stirred the pot was that the then Minister of Finance, Nina Angelovska, had withdrawn her savings of nearly 250,000 euros from the bank across three different occasions over a period of 10 months before it went bust.

This raised the eyebrows of the general public, so the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption went on to investigate whether the Minister had abused her power and used confidential information for her own benefit. Of course, the conclusion of the brief investigation into the allegations was that the allegations were not proven, and the investigation must be stopped immediately.

Still, the detailed explanation of the investigation reads that the Minister was able to acquire information on any bank in the country, including banks where she had savings. This is not the first time that SDSM party members have been entangled in a bank or a financial fund scandal, nor is it the first time that SDSM has let a financial institution go bankrupt under suspicious conditions. For a party that prides itself on being “Socialist”, it really shows a cavalier attitude to people’s livelihoods.

Now let us look how the governmental structure broke under the pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the pandemic emerged, the state started procuring protective equipment by using direct negotiations with companies, thus circumventing the procedure to publish a bidding call or a tender, due to “urgent needs”.

The value of these contracts, for the period March – October 2020, amounts to 8.1 million euros spread out over 103 institutions that have made 523 contracts. An interesting fact is that half of this amount goes to just five companies, while in 39 per cent of these contracts, the negotiations were only with one company. According to the research of the Center for Civic Communication, in roughly two thirds of the contracts concluded, the government broke the Law on Public Procurement by not publishing an announcement that they concluded a contract and then failed to publish the same contract within the legally prescribed deadline of 10 days. The failure to publicly disclose those public procurement contracts increased during the months of September and October even though then the impact of Covid-19 had decreased and there was no longer any need for urgent procurements. 

Furthermore, if we look at the public procurement for public enterprises even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, research by the same Center for Civil Communications maps the risks of corruption in Macedonia. The greatest risk of corruption is manifested through the frequent and significant changes to legislation related to public procurement. The CCC has confirmed clear cases of price gouging. For example, there was only one offer submitted in 40 per cent of the tendering procedures covered by their research. In a third of the analysed public procurement procedures, the contracts were concentrated within one company. This is usually the most relevant indicator for corruption. Also, a third of procurements used a non-transparent procedure by directly negotiating with vendors.

Furthermore, let us look at the managing personnel of the public enterprises, how they operate and how transparent they are in terms of sharing public information. Analysis conducted by the Center for Civil Communications confirms that the conditions have been met to dismiss 15 directors of public enterprises for not following the Law on Public Enterprises.

As I was writing this, Transparency International’s report on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) arrived and the headlines read: N. Macedonia has reached its lowest place on the CPI scale since 2001. The country reached a new low. According to the report, Macedonia earned this new infamous record due to the lack of a real fight against corruption, of efficient reforms in the area of rule of law, and tackling high-end corruption and restoration of stolen public funds.

Macedonia is going backwards in the areas of rule of law, human rights and access to information. Transparency International’s country representative has pinpointed that there needs to be greater transparency in the institutions and to end the political bargains to employ “party soldiers”. In return, the Government led by SDSM and DUI has failed to strengthen the capacity of the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption by not providing them the necessary staff, premises, equipment, and software to successfully perform their role in fighting corruption.

Just as a comparison, Macedonia had its best score in 2014 (ranked 64) and since then the corruption perceptions index has deteriorated significantly. Since coming to power in 2017 this government has contributed to monumental fall in the rankings. Now we are sharing the same ranking as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mongolia and Panama.

The Vice Prime Minister in charge of fighting corruption and crime, Ljupcho Nikolovski, tried to minimise the gravity of the report by stating that even though they have heard the alarm sounded by Transparency International, still the report represents only the perceptions of the citizens and fails to measure whether the corruption has actually increased.

As a side note, Nikolovski is also in the spotlight for using his influence to employ two family members in one of the most prestigious and highest paid government agencies. In addition, one of the most vocal mouthpieces for the SDSM party, Kostadin Kostadinovski, stated that the country’s low ranking is due to the policies of the right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE. The last time VMRO-DPMNE was in power was in the first half of 2017. As a response, Transparency International’s country representative swiftly dismissed this unsubstantiated claim by explaining that the report is based on precise statistical data available through seven different researches and uses data from 2019 and 2020, so it is clearly not a ranking attributed to previous governing structures.

The dire situation of the country in terms of the ever-present corruption was highlighted by the US Ambassador Kate Byrnes stating that “Corruption threatens all elements that bind our societies—trust in each other and in government, belief in fairness and equitable justice, and the confidence to build, grow, and innovate economies. The 2020 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index is a clear signal that fighting corruption remains a critically important task for North Macedonia and a focus of our strategic partnership.”

If this government wants to show at least some resoluteness in fighting corruption it requires more than just a pro-forma Vice Prime Minister for fighting corruption and crime; it requires an unwavering firmness of decisions not to appoint party soldiers that are rarely qualified for the positions they hold, to withhold personal interests from the public procedures, and to increase the transparency by increasing the level of free access to information.

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