‘Want to Work? Join the Party’: Contacts Trump Merit in Balkan Job Market

Saska Cvetkovska Skopje, Belgrade and Prague

Governing parties in Macedonia stand accused of reserving desirable public sector jobs for their supporters, driving frustrated youth abroad.

A mural serves as a reminder of home at a cafe frequented by Balkan immigrants in Prague.

Marko does not discuss his work – or rather, the lack of it – in public. He suggests continuing the conversation at his home, even though the restaurant where we meet is practically empty.

“This is a small place,” he says. “If somebody knows I am talking to you, I will never find a job, and nor will my sister.”

He takes his time on the short walk from the restaurant, pausing to greet passing neighbours. It seems everyone knows Marko here – but Marko does not know the “right people”.

He came home from the capital with a degree in economics and high hopes for a job. In the small town of Berovo in mountainous eastern Macedonia, he has busied himself with friends and errands – but has yet to find regular employment.

During the last five years, Marko has worked for only four months, and that was for a private company. The doors of the public sector – the biggest employer in the area – are, he says, closed to him.

A 25-year-old man wearing a careworn expression and a slightly oversized leather jacket, “Marko” spoke on condition that his real name was withheld.

He says he has been for more than 10 interviews for jobs in the administration. “They asked me frankly: ‘Do you know anyone from the ruling party?’”

Berovo lies at the end of a road so rough it adds an unnecessary hour to the drive from the capital, while knocking a few months off your car’s lifespan. The seat of government is 180 kilometres away in Skopje, but political allegiances are felt keenly here – as a matter of professional life and death.

This report reveals how the governing parties in Macedonia have tried to staff the public sector with their supporters, thus linking their political fortunes to the economic survival of tens of thousands of people.

In interviews with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), bureaucrats and job applicants described how places on the state’s payroll are awarded on the basis of political affiliation, rather than professional qualifications.

“Lately, it’s become really hard to watch some brilliant kids with no connections and no party membership, trying to give it their best,” says a senior official from DUI, the ethnic Albanian party in government.

Speaking to BIRN on condition of anonymity, the official says he has interviewed more than 3,000 candidates for work in the public sector, where a link to one of the two governing parties is a prerequisite.

“I have to watch them, knowing that not a single job in the administration is available for those who don’t have the recommendation.”

The demand for employment in the administration has grown amid an economic crisis that has hit the private sector hardest.

Educated youth who feel locked out of the market have set their sights on migrating to EU countries. A Balkan “brain drain” is taking place, fuelled by the belief that the best jobs in the region go to those with the best connections.

“The state is incapable of ensuring economic growth, so the only available jobs are in the administration,” says Mersel Biljali, a law professor at FON University in Skopje. “And the most discriminated-against groups are those young who do not belong to any political party.”

The main party in Macedonia’s governing coalition, VMRO-DPMNE, and its smaller partner, DUI, firmly deny skewing the allocation of state-sector jobs in favour of their supporters.

They say the accusation is politically motivated, and insist that the government is doing its best to promote employment in hard times.

‘No checking mechanism’

Officials and job applicants have told BIRN that employment within the administration is often granted on the basis of party loyalty, rather than merit.

Marija, a 26-year-old woman whose real name has been withheld at her request, says local VMRO-DPMNE bosses compile lists of the “most deserving” candidates whenever positions become available in the administration.

The redeveloped centre of Skopje is attracting the poor from other parts of the country.

These lists are then sent to the party’s central committee, which makes the final selection.

Marija has struggled to find a job after graduation, and has no previous work experience. However, she has impeccable party credentials: her parents and grandparents supported VMRO-DPMNE.

In 2010, Marija decided to join the local branch of the party, becoming active in its youth wing. She regularly attended party meetings and joined campaign teams at election time.

This summer, she was told that her name was on the party’s list of candidates for a job in the parliament.

“I’m sure I’m going to get this job,” she says. “I had meetings with some big names from the party and they promised me this post.”

Teuta Rexhepi, a young graduate from the same neighbourhood as Marija, says she has been looking for work in the public sector for more than three years – without success. As an ethnic Albanian, she says she was once asked by her interviewer if she had a membership card for the ethnic Albanian party, DUI.

“I said ‘no’. And he made this sad face, like he was trying to say: ‘I am so sorry for you.’”

A senior government official from DUI, speaking on condition of anonymity, told BIRN that applicants who did not have solid links to the party stood little chance of getting a job.

“We know in advance which candidates will be employees,” he says. He described how aptitude tests and interviews were treated as mere formalities in the selection process.

Favoured candidates would be told beforehand to leave test papers blank, so that these could be filled in later by “our guy in the office”, the official claims.

Chosen candidates were also told to list the top possible scores when asked about their performance in higher-education exams.

“Why are we doing this? So that we can have a readymade excuse before the law that the best candidates were chosen,” says the official. “Best grades, best test.”

The official conceded that candidates were effectively lying about their grades, but added that “the law has no mechanism for checking this”.

Rising wage bill

Rugged and unspoiled, the town of Berovo could be a poster-child for a rural-tourism initiative. It is said to produce the best cheese and honey in Macedonia.

Its unemployment record, however, ranks among the country’s worst. Some 67 per cent of the local youth – and 31 per cent of the overall population of 13,000 – are without work, according to official figures. With investment clustered around cities such as Skopje, Bitola and Tetovo, the Macedonian countryside is largely poor.


In the run-up to the 2011 general election, journalists from the A1 TV station said they had procured lists of voters provided by civil servants to VMRO-DPMNE party bosses.

Each list was said to contain the names and contact details of between 15 and 30 people that each civil servant had pledged would vote for the party.

Posing as VMRO-DPMNE workers, the journalists rang up the names on the list to check which way they intended to vote.

The conversations were recorded, and later broadcast. The people on the list confirmed that they planned to vote for the party. Some even said they were doing so because they had received informal incentives – or warnings – from civil servants.

VMRO-DPMNE denied the claims made in the broadcast. It accused A1 journalists of fabricating the entire investigation at the behest of the main opposition party, and threatened to sue them.

The station was later shut down. A1’s supporters said the closure was an attack on press freedom, but the government denied this, instead accusing the station’s owner, Velija Ramkovski, of using his media interests as a cover for unscrupulous business practices. Ramkovski was later sentenced to 13 years in jail on a range of charges including tax evasion.

“There are no jobs except in the state sector,” says Marko. “There is no private sector. Just a few hotels and not many tourists.”

Businesses may be drawing back, but the Macedonian public sector is expanding. In 2009, it employed around 115,000 people. In 2012, it employed 165,000.

These figures – taken from reports submitted by the government to the European Commission – do not include public-sector workers on temporary contracts, whose number is estimated to be around 30,000.

Macedonia is one of several former Yugoslav republics that aspire to join the European Union. International institutions have been monitoring the influence of the political parties on the public sector as part of their broader assessment of Macedonia’s eligibility for entry into the bloc.

The current coalition government of VMRO-DPMNE and DUI has been in power since 2006. Both parties say they are committed to EU membership.

A peace deal, struck after a brief insurgency in 2001, guaranteed political representation to the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, who make up a quarter of the population. It also guaranteed an equitable share of public sector jobs to all communities.

The Macedonian state has been adding to its wage bill, while governments across Europe are slashing public spending to cope with the crisis.

According to official statistics, the country has 645,000 people in employment. This means that at least one in four of the country’s wage-earners draws a salary from the public coffers.

But have all the new jobs gone to the best-qualified people? Many believe that the state only hires supporters of the parties in government. Jobs in the administration are seen as a reward for political activism. Loyalty, rather than ability, is seen as the key to employment.

The suspicion is widespread, but hard to prove. No reliable surveys have been conducted into the political affiliations of public sector workers. Nor do election results indicate which way government departments voted.

However, former officials and employees in the administration have complained that jobs there are not awarded on the basis of merit.

Shedding trained staff

Macedonia has been a candidate for EU accession since 2005, although it has yet to receive a firm date for entry. The country’s efforts to join the bloc are overseen by a government department, the Secretariat for European Affairs.

After 2005, scores of senior employees of the secretariat were sent on lengthy postgraduate scholarships to universities in EU countries. They received instruction in topics relevant to EU integration, with a view to enhancing their professional capabilities.

The cost of the scholarships – some of which lasted two years – were largely borne by the host nations.

After 2008, however, many employees who had returned from their scholarships began leaving the secretariat. Several had been on temporary contracts that were not renewed.

Many students in Macedonia believe they will need party connections to break into the job market.

Igor Jovanovski, a former employee who received a €15,000 scholarship to study in France, says he lost his job at the secretariat in 2010, within a year of coming back to Macedonia.

“Someone called up and said they had no budget for me,” he says. He adds that he had expected to work for at least another three years at the secretariat.

Instead, he now teaches at a private university in Skopje. “Of course, with the education I had, it was easy to find a job abroad, or even in the private sector.”

Out of a pool of some 50 people that have studied on scholarships abroad, former employees say around 30 have stopped working for the secretariat.

Some staff were surprised at the decision to let go of experienced workers in a department with such a high international profile.

“We had spent a lot of time training them so they could run projects for European integration,” says Malinka Ristova, a senior adviser who had worked at the secretariat since its formation. “European countries were also investing in their education and skills.”

The Netherlands was one of the countries that paid for the workers’ scholarships. The former Dutch ambassador in Skopje, Simone Filippini, did not comment directly on the loss of staff. However, she told BIRN by email that the Macedonian authorities had been expected to make further use of the workers whose education had been sponsored by her government.

“The understanding was that people who got trained in the Netherlands, who gathered knowledge of European integration processes or parts of those processes, could be employed in the Macedonian government to help and support pre-accession processes,” she said.

The former deputy prime minister, Vasko Naumovski, was also in charge of European integration at the time when many of the staff left. He did not give any explanation as to why contracts for trained workers were not renewed.

Former employees believe new staff, hired over the last two years, do not have the experience to match those who have left.

Ristova, who recently left the secretariat of her own accord, says she cannot be sure of the reason behind the departures – but does not believe they were related to performance.

“There was political pressure at some level,” she said. “All I can say is that all those young, educated and skilled people were fired and replaced.”

Radmila Sekerinska, an opposition MP and former deputy prime minister for European integration, told BIRN that the trained employees had left for a mixture of reasons. Some did not have their contracts renewed, while others were sidelined within the secretariat and quit in frustration.

Overall, she too blamed politics for the departures. “Most of the valuable people are not there anymore,” she says. “This situation is the result of the parties running wild in the administration.”

The secretariat has not responded to BIRN’s requests to comment on the issue.

To check the allegation that less-skilled staff had replaced those trained abroad, BIRN also asked the secretariat to list the qualifications held by its top employees. The body responded by saying it did not have any such data.

It remains unclear if the skilled employees were indeed sacrificed for political reasons, as several of them have claimed.

The European Commission’s latest progress report – effectively an ongoing assessment of a country’s chances of joining the EU – praises Macedonia for its overall progress in reforming the public administration.

However, it also says “additional efforts are needed to guarantee the transparency, independence and professionalism” of the sector. The report emphasises the need for “merit-based recruitment” and “equitable representation”.

Macedonia's economy has taken a hit from the crisis in the euro-zone.

‘Ridiculous accusations’

Workers cannot easily discard their affiliations after using them to secure a job. Political parties might continue to call in favours from public sector employees who owe them their position.

In the run-up to the 2011 election, a TV station critical of the government broadcast an investigation that claimed to reveal how VMRO-DPMNE activists had demanded lists of sympathetic voters from civil servants.

The party dismissed the report as a fabrication. However, similar allegations were later cited in an assessment of the election published by the OSCE, an influential body that monitors democracy in the region.

“Any partisan actions by state employees taking place during working hours represent a misuse of state resources for party purposes,” the report said. “Allegations of intimidation of voters should be swiftly, thoroughly and effectively investigated… and prosecuted.”

Despite these recommendations, the OSCE said the elections had generally been “transparent and well-administered”.

Dragan Malinovski, a former member of the state anti-corruption watchdog, says the damage from politicising the civil service extends beyond elections. Partisan employees in the administration can “push contracts and fix tenders for companies close to the parties in power”.

Both the parties in the governing coalition reject any suggestion that the public sector workforce is being used for political aims.

“These are ridiculous accusations by the opposition,” says Ilija Dimovski, a senior spokesman for VMRO-DPMNE. “We have the opposite situation: a lot of people in high-level positions in the public sector are not members of VMRO-DPMNE.”

Bujar Osmani, a spokesman for DUI, also says it is untrue that his party has awarded public sector jobs on the basis of loyalty. “Everything is transparent and legal,” he told BIRN.

Spiro Ristovski, the minister for social affairs, concedes that youth unemployment is a huge problem – but says his government has a plan to tackle it.

“The crisis is everywhere, people are losing their jobs,” he told BIRN. “This government is organising projects that will help the young find a place in the job market.”

Voting with their feet

In Serbia as in Macedonia, there is a widespread belief that the parties in power have a stranglehold on public sector jobs.

Vesna, a mid-level government employee who asked not to be identified, says that the recent change of government in Belgrade has put her career in jeopardy. She fears her contract will not be extended.

A younger generation of Macedonians is hoping for a better future abroad.

“A new party is in power and they are watching me like an enemy, just because I was hired by the previous government,” she told BIRN.

For educated youth who are struck off the state payroll, the private sector is not much of an alternative. Jobs there are scarce, partly because the flow of foreign investment into the Balkans has been sluggish.

Meanwhile, there is a steady flow of skilled workers in the opposite direction. Several surveys by NGOs have confirmed that the youth of the Balkans are not waiting for their countries to be admitted into the EU.

Instead, they are voting with their feet, travelling to EU countries to complete their studies before finding jobs that will allow them to remain there.

Prague is a popular destination for many youth from the region. Far from home, they have created a small diaspora around bars and restaurants.

“People here do not care where you are from, they do not care how you vote in elections,” says Bojana Mickovska, a Macedonian citizen who now works for an IT company in the Czech capital.

Borce Nikolovski left Macedonia as a student five years ago, and now works in Prague. “Should I go home? I ask myself that frequently,” he says, sipping a Czech beer. “Then I go to Skopje and see my brother struggling to find a job, and my dilemma is resolved.”

Back in the home country, Borce’s dilemma would be viewed with some envy.

Rexhepi, the unsuccessful job applicant in Skopje, says she plans to join her sister in Germany. “I don’t want to be a part of this sick society, and beg for a job that pays €300 per month,” she says.

Marko in Berovo also thinks the grass is greener within the EU. “So, tell me,” he asks, as we part company, “how is it going in Prague? Maybe I should go there.”


Saska Cvetkovska is a Skopje-based journalist.This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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Saska Cvetkovska

Saska Cvetkovska has worked as a journalist for hard-hitting TV news shows in Macedonia.