Vodič kroz "de-sorošizaciju" u Makedoniji

Oppression. Creator: Petri Damstén. Creative Commons License LogoOva slika je pod Creative Commons License licencom

Recent developments of the political crisis in Macedonia have pushed the country not only closer to an ethnic conflict, but closer to authoritarian society as well. The ruling party since 2006 (VMRO-DPMNE) has never been too friendly with the civil society, but maintained reasonably cold relations with its funders as Macedonian institutions have always relied on their financial help and expertise. From time to time at the beginning of the decade, the party would point fingers at CSOs and their representatives for being too soft on national issues, blame them for opening corruption cases, historical links with the communists… pretty much saying the same things a nationalist government would say of human rights advocates anywhere else in the region.

A step-by-step guide through the “desorosoization” experience in Macedonia

Recent developments of the political crisis in Macedonia have pushed the country not only closer to an ethnic conflict, but closer to authoritarian society as well. The ruling party since 2006 (VMRO-DPMNE) has never been too friendly with the civil society, but maintained reasonably cold relations with its funders as Macedonian institutions have always relied on their financial help and expertise. From time to time at the beginning of the decade, the party would point fingers at CSOs and their representatives for being too soft on national issues, blame them for opening corruption cases, historical links with the communists… pretty much saying the same things a nationalist government would say of human rights advocates anywhere else in the region.

The tone of this communication intensified gradually through the years. Some of the founders of Freedom Square were blamed by the deputy Prime Minister of being national traitors as far back as 2009, but the court could never find the defendant in this and other such cases so that they can respond to lawsuits. Even though this is probably not the first case of such pressure on civil society, it is important to note that these incidents were easily drowned in the sea of accusations and other pressures that came in the following years, thus leaving the activists harmed by representatives of political power and unprotected by the institutions with the mandate to do so.

Mr. Vladimir Milčin, a prominent theatre director and professor, ended his mandate as the Open Society Foundation Macedonia director being lustrated in 2013 for working as an informer to the police and intelligence services in the 1960s, regardless of the absence of any conclusive evidence in the case. Similar steps followed other outspoken individuals, but the all-out attack probably started in 2015 when the ex-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski accused foreign countries, their spies and domestic NGOs for plotting against Macedonia. The real reason was eyewash for the ongoing scandal with leaked tapes of politicians heard implicated in various criminal activities.

But, as the political crisis unfolded and the elections held in December 2016 showed almost equal popular support for the two rivaling parties, the former Prime Minister Gruevski rallied his supporters with a speech that promised “desorosoization” of Macedonia. Right after that speech, numerous CSOs received visits from the Revenue Service and the Financial Police. Five months later, these inspections are still ongoing. The following is a testimonial of a few of these organizations’ problems with Macedonian institutions just because they have used funds by USAID and the Open Society Foundation. Also using these funds are numerous municipalities throughout Macedonia, primary and secondary schools, the Institute for Public Health, churches, the Farmers’ Federation of Macedonia, ministries in the Government of VMRO-DPMNE and judicial institutions.

1.

“The Faculty for Things That Cannot Be Learned” is a local civil society organization with a tradition nearly as long as the official Bitola Cultural Summer, organized by the City of Bitola in Macedonia. The Faculty was devised as an open educational and production platform in the field of contemporary arts and culture, with a distinct focus on cultivation of critical and engaged relations and active participation of citizens in the political, social and artistic context in different environments.

The idea of an educational platform which consists of things/ subjects/ classes that cannot be learned (but are immanent of a person’s optional knowledge) insists on the principle of sharing, collaboration, self-organization and mutual learning. It was established in 2003 as a platform of several artists, theatre, visual arts and architecture students for the production of contemporary arts and culture events.

In 2006, the organization started a festival tradition which was one of a kind and turned the summers in Bitola into special gatherings of the most avant-garde and prominent artists, theoreticians, performers, musicians. Besides, it gathers the Macedonian audience hungry for alternative contents like no other event in the country. The festival, dubbed AKTO Festival for contemporary arts, imposed itself as a serious partner in promoting and producing new forms of influence on the civil consciousness, locally and regionally as well as introducing ways of including volunteers and young people that gravitate, learn and help around/from the festival. The Festival has had 11 editions so far, with the participation of about 600 people.

Creator: AKTO Festival. Creative Commons License LogoOva slika je pod Creative Commons License licencom     

The biography of this civil society organization is relevant because it implies that its members and its activities in the society have explicitly and implicitly been political throughout the years, tackling some very sensitive issues at specific times in the modern history. More precisely, the Faculty has been a member of most national opposition platforms and coalitions against the rule of VMRO-DPMNE together with more than 30 other organizations and the biggest oppositional political party, SDSM. Representatives of this organization were active in most formal and informal initiatives and projects, coordination bodies and meetings with political representatives before and after the elections.

Expectedly, the people involved in its activities were marked and slandered, be it by the propaganda perpetuated by corrupt media, or representatives of the new left and its supporters. Still, the AKTO Festival exists as an important landmark in the professional lives of many artists, theoreticians and collectives in the region.

2.

Since December 2016, the Faculty has been under the scrutiny and pressure of several public authorities, as a part of the operation “Desorosoization”, announced by VMRO-DPMNE one month after the general elections that still haven’t had an outcome in the shape of a functional Parliament and Government.

It was January the 13th 2017 when most of the press and digital media outlets in Macedonia were covered in one title in all caps: “THE PEOPLE HAVE DECIDED: THE DESOROSOIZATION OF MACEDONIA BEGINS!” As mentioned before, this was a not-so-sudden shift in discourse with the VMRO-DPMNE, but it represented a sensible change in what their representatives, activists and apologetics were perpetuating in the media: the discourse had shifted overnight from “Macedonia will be federalized if SDSM wins” to “Macedonians decide do desorosize Macedonia”. The only difference is that this time, it was presented as something real that was going to take place, and it did. Interestingly enough, their Albanian coalition partner for 11 years, DUI, distanced themselves from the process, expressed support for the civil society and vowed to further collaborate with the organizations. SDSM was the only other political party that explicitly condemned the shrinking space for the civil society.

The idea that George Soros and USAID (and other Government-funded grant projects) are running our countries and corrupting the civil society is not new. Although the phenomenon (project-oriented civil society) is prone to a lot of criticism, the criticizers of the “Soros funded civil society” still haven’t managed to create a strong line of argumentation, cross-reference the costs and benefits, and not to mention that each of them use their own definition of the term “civil society”, especially the one funded by the Open Society Foundations, often omitting grant projects that don’t follow their argumentation line. Usually, the definition is arbitrarily adapted to the given situation, and very often to political opponents either in everyday politics or in the realm of social and political activism.

Throughout the years, many criticizers have pointed fingers at benevolent initiatives or individuals, making this topic one of the very rare ones on which the far right and the far left (as much as they are represented in Macedonia) agree! Unfortunately, the organizations that are the most active and loud face the most criticism, although some of them may be considered motors of certain change, or, at least environments that still provide resources to forward-thinking individuals and groups. Understandably, some organizations have turned into bureaucratic mammoth institutions with tendencies only to keep existing, that enlarge the labor community working in precarious conditions and give shelter to marginalized researchers, academics, activists and other social dissidents.

Nevertheless, the synchronization between the “people’s demands” and the work of the institutions is interesting: the task to start the audit of about 30 civil society organizations was already issued in the middle of December 2016 (after the elections), whereas “the people” started asking for it sometime in early January 2017, when VMRO-DPMNE announced it was official. After some time under inspection, the public learned that activities related to the “desorosoization” of Macedonia had actually started as early as November 2016, if not earlier. Finally, the first civil society stakeholder to undergo financial audits was the coalition “We Decide” consisted of many CSOs, including The Faculty, with the objective of independent observation of the election process. The process was further focused on the civil society organizations that participated in this coalition.

3.

Since December 2016, the Faculty, with the support of their lawyer and accountant, has had to handle five different audits and documentation inspections concerning projects only funded by the Open Society Foundation and the USAID Civil Society Program. The audits and reviews were and are implemented by a representative of the financial police, the Public Revenue Office inspector and a regular police officer, asking for documentation dating all the way back to 2012 and even asking the accountant to review the ongoing year 2017.

What seemed to be a regular financial audit in the beginning, turned out to be an odyssey in pressure and complete disturbance of the work dynamics of cultural workers and social activists who already work in unsafe precarious conditions. In the beginning they asked for all financial documentation related to projects funded by the USAID, but that list has kept growing. At this point, The Faculty is being audited for the abovementioned projects in the period 2012-2017, including all payments made from the organization to its president (and one of its most active members) and all material costs made by the same person. As these documents are being sorted and reviewed, the list of additional papers and reports being asked for is constantly growing.

The organization which is the subject of this article is not the only one under scrutiny by the occupied institutions. The same pressure is put on the Foundation Open Society Macedonia itself, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Civil, Center for European Strategies Eurothink, Project – EU, Youth Educational Forum and others. Informal conversations with their representatives have shown that they all face a stiff and uninformed administration, there to follow orders and make it difficult for the organizations to fulfill the demands and implement their work at the same time. As an example in relation to this, according the director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights Uranija Pirovska, they are reviewing all their documents page by page and spending hours and hours on lengthy reports, as most reports from HCHR’s projects are. The executive director has to elaborate every page and sign it at the end. After that, they go into the narrative reports, promotional material and publications, although they show great misunderstanding of the topics and methodologies of work in the civil society sector.

Other CSO representatives have also witnessed the obvious intention of these audits (dubbed “inspections” in the B/H/S/M languages) to waste their time and disrupt the work process, instead of verifying the legality of their financial operations.

Most CSOs and their members, such as the “Faculty for Things That Cannot Be Learned” have had around five or six official visits from the authorities, plus meetings at the accountants’ offices but also outside of the office, in order to define additional documents needed and make redundant conversation. The meetings last for hours and each time the representatives of the authorities ask for additional documents and announce a more in-depth investigation. In the whole process, various speculations surfaced, some obviously perpetuated by the media machine of VMRO-DPMNE, some coming out from other sources. The dominant narrative is that the civil society is under investigation for treason, serving foreign interests and possibly funding terrorism. None of those have been confirmed so far.

The only potentially certain follow-up are financial violation charges and fines, related to an issue that affects the organizations that work with guests, hosting people, speakers that need flights and hotel accommodation more, and such are many of the organizations under inspection. Namely, the accountants and lawyers have already informed their CSO clients that fines for tax evasion are being prepared and their advice is to concede to the convictions whatever they may be, and lead a case against Macedonian institutions afterwards because all of the purchases and payments from grant accounts have been made in accordance to the law. In addition, this kind of abuse of public institutions to pressure its own citizens must be a lesson learned in the process of democratic change, which, unfortunately, must include seeking justice from outside of the Macedonian legal system.

The last visits from the inspectors and financial police occurred shortly before the Easter holidays (April 16), and most CSO representatives report they were left with a message that audits are coming back after the holidays and that they should prepare another batch of documents, specific to each organization (some need to present all payments made to outstanding activists, others need to present all travel costs and financial work related ones, etc.).

As this article is being published, the first news since the Easter holidays have arrived for the Faculty – they must pay additional EUR 10.500 in personal tax for hotel rooms and travel costs for guests from their projects since 2012 (although the financial documentation proves VAT had been paid for the services). The representatives from the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and the Center for European Strategies Eurothink stated that they expected the same thing happening to them, according to speculations they heard. This decision practically puts civil society organizations in the category of commercial enterprises that generate profit for themselves and their guests, thus taxing them additionally. This legal provision dates a few years back and was brought on the initiative of the Film Fund of Macedonia.  

4.

Basically, the people working in the “Faculty for Things That Cannot Be Learned” have been running back and forth between Skopje and Bitola for five months now, never being sure that it is over at one moment. The communication with the institutional representatives, although decent, has not been very pleasant and makes it increasingly obvious that the purpose of the whole action is to oppress and threaten opposional forces, as well as to physically block their work. As a result of these demands, meetings and travels, many people working in the civil society sector have not been able to perform their everyday duties in other projects and earn their living, even if the projects are not funded by the problematic USAID and FOSM. Working on projects is insecure in itself and now even projects providing temporary salaries are being put on hold, while workers are pushed to spend much of their time and productivity in explanation and communication with funders, partners, engaged professionals, etc. This is an attack on the human right to work and prosper and earn a decent (though mainly sub-standard) living!

The civil society organizations and the people engaged in CS project management and work are very responsible and aware of their duties. None of the funders have a loose financial reporting policy; hence the working archives of the CSOs are perhaps more organized or detailed by the ones of the decayed public institutions in Macedonia. Therefore, the people under scrutiny have nothing to worry about from that aspect.

The most problematic issue is the psychological pressure, the special war waged against citizens who respectfully contribute to society with their expertise and earn below average salaries. As in the case of Skopje 2014, the “desorosoization” has its own “off projects”, such as perpetuating the story about the foreign mercenaries by bishops from the Macedonian Orthodox Church on gatherings, apologetics among the cultural workers (actors, opera singers, visual artists). Even the President of the Republic of Macedonia Gjorgje Ivanov gave an interview in which he claims that the civil society in Macedonia is imposed by US agencies and paid for by the American citizens through the funds named “Soros”. He stated that his People’s Office was demolished and burned (in the protests of 12.05.2016) with the funds from the abovementioned sources. Ivanov actually gave this interview on Hungarian national television on 26.04.2017, one day before the second violent mob obviously staged by VMRO-DPMNE supporters and institutions occupied by them in the Macedonian Parliament in only few years.

Psychological warfare – threats, slander and even violence – has been a method more explicitly implemented in the last five years of the rule of VMRO-DPMNE. Violent break-ins and demolishing of the premises and equipment of CSOs and independent media outlets started happening every once in a while. Most notable are the six brutal attacks on the LGBT Support Center since its opening in 2012, all of which included completely demolished premises and equipment of the support center and most of which included injured people too. Five out of these six cases are unsolved and the perpetrators have not been apprehended, despite some quite obvious video material of them demolishing the center. Such violence happened twice to the very humble premises of the textile and leather workers’ CSO “GLASNO”, which also work as a cultural center for the workers, dubbed cultural center “Textile”. These perpetrators have not been apprehended yet either. Finally, in the long line of examples of literally shrinking spaces for CSOs is the most recent breaking into the offices of the outstanding and very active CSO “Civil”. Their offices were under attack also during the Easter weekend in April and workers from the organization claim that it was a very interesting and selective robbery – leaving some expensive pieces of photo and video equipment and financial sector untouched, while most laptops and hard discs were taken. Civil is a very active organization with very visible projects, often mobilizing activists and volunteers in activities such as election monitoring, citizen journalism, public readings and other campaigns. It is also a rare example of an ethnically mixed CSO that operates in both cultures predominantly in Skopje. The president of the organization, Xhabir Deralla, stated that they have a lot of sensitive video and other material, but fortunately do not keep it at the offices.

On the funny side, if such thing is possible in this scenario, the technical Prime Minister set by VMRO-DPMNE announced an open call for the allocation of EUR 800.000 for civil society projects, covering most topics that the funders and organizations under scrutiny have already been working on. At some point the same week we witnessed a great mobilization on the “patriotic organizations’ scene” including founding of new organizations, reviving old ones and authoring a Charter to raise the voice for saving national and state interests in these hard times for the state. Once again, even though not in explicit position of power, but still in control of most of the public institutions and media, VMRO-DPMNE simulates an environment, a context, a whole new civil society! It kidnaps and substitutes narratives, pressuring the real hardworking CSOs and their members, blocking their professional activities and endangering their already insecure income.

Another reason for concern is the lightness with which it has all been accepted, making the affected organizations, DUI and SDSM the only stakeholders who officially reacted and condemned the operation implemented by the Macedonian institutions. The support that FOSM and USAID provide in this process, although both under scrutiny too, must be mentioned too. The donors are finally aware of the overall conditions in which activists and CSO workers have been operating in the past years and they show that with their actions. Maybe this will be an incentive for them to reform and adapt their funding strategies and policies in the region after this whole trauma has been overcome.

The regional context is not favorable either. Nikola Gruevski and Gjorgje Ivanov are not the only ones talking about a more restrictive legal regulation targeted directly at funds from American sources. Especially in the dawn of the newly brought “Lex CEU”, a case which encouragingly ended with the European People’s Party explicitly asking from Orban to amend the law. But will that be the case with the leader of the richest political party in Europe? He has “accomplished” by far more than Orban and has been tolerated by the EPP and its affiliates despite brutal evidence of their oppressive and criminal rule throughout the years. This narrative is completed with the all-round media chase after activists carried out in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most recent protests in Serbia and the fantastic propaganda attack on the organizers and activists also showed how authoritarian political leaders dwell on manipulations about the civil society not only in their own countries, but also in the neighboring ones. Serbia’s current Prime Minister and President-elect Aleksandar Vučić has been using the unstable political and social situation in Macedonia to further perpetuate the myth about the imposed civil society and the potential of spillovers if situations are not tackled.

“Desorosoization” might be a fun, revolutionary topic for discussion among inexperienced and undefined leftists and disillusioned right wing activists, but when it comes to real life, productivity, expertise and even psychological health – it becomes another battlefield where the need of solidarity and support is more than obvious. Governments which manage the fund must take a strong stand against such treatment of civil society organizers, activists and workers, especially when they work in full compliance with the law of the country and in precarious conditions. Funding strategies and policies must be urgently thought-out and reshaped, providing conditions for fixing more stable organizations, with programs instead of projects and workers that can freely focus on their work and expertise, instead of making ends meet or working overtime and out of their professional domain to provide minimum income.

In conclusion, most of the political factors in Macedonia do not see a partner in the civil society organizations and representatives. The CSOs have taken over a significant fragment of the public institutions’ work and they recognize that. With the overemployment of administration they have become far from professional and responsive, thus leaving the citizens and the civil society to provide or substitute for public services, publically accessible data, strategies and policies. Even the political stakeholders sharing oppositional attitudes see them as competition for the political power they aspire to, and would rather keep them away from the institutional processes, or with a regulated access. This problem is peaking at the moment despite the evident clues for political change and we, just like the 30 Macedonian CSOs and foundations/agencies expecting to see the outcome of the inspections, are left to wait and suffer the consequences.

During the drafting of this article the new parliamentary majority elected the president of the Macedonian Parliament which then went through another violent mob episode in which PMs from SDSM and its coalition partners were physically attacked. When this article was published, Macedonia had elected its new Government and investigative journalists discovered that the order for financial inspections and audits of the CSOs mentioned was issued by the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption.

By Ivana Dragšić, Freedom Square

                                                            

Creative Commons Lizenzvertrag This article is licensed under Creative Commons License.