Uncivil Society: The Politicisation of Macedonia’s NGOs

Meri Jordanovska Skopje, Belgrade and Prague

Civil society groups promote the government’s plans and attack its opponents – raising doubts over their independence.

On a summer day last June, several hundred protesters burst through a police cordon around the barracks-like headquarters of Skopje’s Centar municipality.

“Burn in hell, Antichrist!” they shouted, pounding the walls, smashing windows and startling the officials who were meeting inside.

The protesters had been mobilised by a citizens’ group, referred to in the press as a non-governmental organisation, or NGO.

Their rage was directed at opposition party officials who had assumed control of the local government in an election that spring.

The protesters at Centar municipality were furious at claims that a half-built church would be demolished.

The attack on the building seemed to be a violent interpretation of one of the vital functions of the NGO – presenting the people’s demands to the authorities.

Macedonian civil society has become a stage for the country’s political battles, with NGOs cast as the lead actors.

Many of the organisations promote the ideology of the main party in the government, while attacking its critics and rivals.

In some cases, officials from the party have close links to the NGOs – raising the likelihood of conflicts of interest in a sector in which politicisation, though unavoidable, is meant to be kept in check.

The ruling party has in turn accused NGOs funded by foreign governments and international foundations of serving as proxies for the opposition.

Macedonia has been governed since 2006 by a coalition led by a centre-right party known by its acronym, VMRO-DPMNE. The party has cultivated a business-friendly image abroad while adopting ethno-nationalist rhetoric at home.

Its critics accuse it of authoritarian tendencies, citing the decline of the independent media and the gradual dominance of party sympathisers in commerce, culture and the public sector.

According to those critics, that dominance has also spread into the arena of civil society, where NGOs and informal associations are defending some of the government’s more controversial programmes – such as a costly revamp of the capital’s public spaces and restrictions on women’s access to abortions.

“After the contamination of politics, business, state institutions and the media, it is now the turn of civil organisations,” says Radmila Sekerinska, a former leader of the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, or SDSM.

However, Ilija Dimovski, a spokesman for VMRO-DPMNE, says it is hypocritical to accuse the government of manipulating civil society.

“The opposition parties always say we should listen to the demands of the citizens,” he says. “But when the citizens protest against them, they respond with such accusations.”

NGOs are key players in civil society, a nebulous term that has been loosely summarised as a public arena for debate and action that lies outside the state and the market.

There is also no universal definition of what constitutes an NGO, although the concept is widely used in international development, often interchangeably with “charity” and “non-profit organisation”. Nevertheless, most definitions agree on certain shared characteristics.

For instance, the European Union and the United Nations state that NGOs should not do anything illegal and should not make a profit. Above all, they should be independent of any form of government – as implied by the name itself.

Many governments fund NGOs, at home and abroad. In these cases, political officials are usually excluded from the membership of the organisation in order to preserve its non-governmental status.

However, the line between political and civic activism often appears blurred in Macedonia.

‘Free transport and sandwiches’

Several NGOs that espouse government causes have loose ties with the main party in power.

Last summer’s attack on the municipality building followed claims that the newly elected mayor of Centar, Andrej Zernovski, was planning to demolish a partially built church in the capital. He has consistently denied the claims.

Zernovski is from a coalition opposed to VMRO-DPMNE. Soon after being elected, he announced an inquiry into Skopje 2014, a multi-million-euro scheme that has given the capital’s public spaces a faux-baroque facelift.

The scheme is among the most visible and divisive of VMRO-DPMNE’s projects, attracting criticism for its cost and its apparently kitsch aesthetic. Much of the new construction has been carried out within Zernovski’s constituency.

Activist Nikola Naumoski believes the government has a grudge against foreign-funded NGOs.

The claim that the mayor was planning to demolish the half-built church was made by Veritas, a previously unknown association that mobilised hundreds of supporters, seemingly overnight, to protest outside the municipality office.

Veritas is not on the official register of NGOs. Its spokeswoman, Suzana Minovska, gave interviews to the press at the scene of the demonstration. In a later conversation with BIRN, she described Veritas as a “citizens’ initiative”, operated by volunteers.

She insists there was no political aspect to the protests. “We didn’t even have money for this. Just an idea that we believed in,” she says.

Political allegiances nonetheless appear to have played a part. “We got a phone call from the headquarters of the ruling party,” says Dragan, a 24-year-old member of the youth wing of VMRO-DPMNE.

“They told us when we should go to the municipality. We asked why, and they just said that everyone has to go,” he tells BIRN, speaking on condition that his real name was withheld.

Dragan says the demonstration was well organised, with the protesters receiving free transport and sandwiches.

Minovska says she does not know who paid for the sandwiches. Nor was she aware of VMRO-DPMNE members being summoned to the protest. “You should ask the party about that, not me,” she tells BIRN.

At the time of the protests, Minovska was married to a former deputy minister. She said her relationship had no bearing on her activism.

Veritas is one of several civil society organisations that share the ideology of the government.

In an interview given a month after the attack on the municipality, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski appeared to endorse the motives behind the protest – but he also criticised the use of violence.

“In the Veritas case, there was a clear and serious reason behind the protest, though breaking windows was not the best move,” he told a local broadcaster.

One-sided debate

The public usually first hears of groups such as Veritas when their founders are quoted in the media, countering critics of government policy.

An NGO by the name of Akord burst into the spotlight in 2010, shortly after the government released the details of the Skopje 2014 redevelopment.

The plan was attracting intense criticism from architects and conservationists, as well as the SDSM opposition. Akord entered the fray, inviting the media to what it promised would be a debate about Skopje 2014 at a plush hotel in the city.

Journalists who attended the event, however, found that the debate was rather one-sided. The panellists seemed to be entirely in favour of the faux-baroque makeover, confident that it would do wonders for the city’s image.

Akord is registered at an address on Boulevard Partizanski Odredi, the main thoroughfare in Skopje. The NGO’s headquarters is also the home of Violeta Samardziska, who in 2010 was a councillor in the Centar municipality, which was then governed by VMRO-DPMNE.

Samardziska says her organisation is no longer active. She also rejected any suggestion of a link between her activism and her politics.

“I don’t see a connection between my NGO and my involvement in VMRO-DPMNE,” she tells BIRN. She did not wish to comment on who had funded her organisation when it was still active. Akord does not have a website and BIRN could not find any public document listing its donors.

Right to life

Revita, a small NGO from the southwestern city of Bitola, emerged in 2008, when the Macedonian government launched a campaign to discourage women from seeking abortions.

The campaign, accompanied by graphic advertising, claimed that childbirth was a divine event and the termination of pregnancies was tantamount to murder.

It was criticised by a range of activists and associations, from women’s rights workers to medical guilds and human rights groups.

Revita alone backed the campaign. On a website, it echoed the Macedonian government’s criticism of women who sought abortions. “By killing their children, they destroy the country, the family, the nation and the future,” it says.

Revita has received funds from the central government’s budget for the civil sector, as well as from the municipality, which is controlled by VMRO-DPMNE.

Its founder, Blagica Pepovska, is also a member of the party. However, she says, her political sympathies have not helped the organisation, which also receives money from private donors.

“There are not so many advantages [to being a party member],” she tells BIRN. “We succeed through hard work.”

This summer, the government pushed through a law that required women seeking an abortion to seek permission from the health ministry.

During the debate over the law, Pepovska was called to give her opinion in parliament, as one of the few external voices in favour of the new rules.

“A woman has a right to choose her partner and to choose whether to be pregnant,” she told the assembly. “But once she is pregnant, she does not have any rights.”

Tolerating criticism

Many employees of foreign-funded NGOs maintain that the government has a direct hand in the civil society groups that share its ideology.

“If we don’t see Prime Minister Gruevski on the news, then we see the NGOs who convey his message,” says Nikola Naumoski, an activist from Plostad Sloboda, an NGO that has protested against Skopje 2014.

His organisation is financed by the Open Society Foundations, an international fund established by the investor, George Soros, and headquartered in the US. Macedonian government officials frequently accuse Soros of meddling in the country’s affairs.

Naumoski in turn accuses the government of harassing activists like him who receive money from abroad. The complaint is echoed by his colleagues in the foreign-funded part of the NGO sector.

Czech youth hone their debating skills at the Prague-based NGO, the Association for International Affairs.

The Youth Educational Forum, an NGO that advises on reforms to the educational system, was attacked in the local press when it revealed that Soros’ organisation was one of its donors.

“We always face barriers when we try to co-operate with the government,” says the NGO’s head, Marjan Zabrcanec, complaining that the authorities ignore his organisation’s research and accuse it of working against the state.

All NGOs in Macedonia are obliged by law to publish an account of how much money they receive, from whom, and what they do with it.

However, this transparency is not followed across the board. Many of the smaller state-funded organisations do not have their own websites, and therefore do not list their activities.

The state bodies that fund them – such as ministries, municipalities or a central government agency – do not give away many details either.

“Projects are only published with titles,” says Malinka Ristova, president of the European Policy Institute, a foreign-funded NGO that promotes debate about EU integration. “There are no reports on what has been done, so we cannot know how they spent the money.”

Many Macedonian activists believe that the key to making civil society more transparent and less politicised lies with the EU, which their country has applied to join.

They look for a model to countries such as the Czech Republic, which also emerged from communism but now have a healthier civil society – in part because of reforms carried out to join the EU.

The contrast is stark. Lucie Bilderova, from the Multicultural Centre, a Prague NGO that works with minority groups, says the Czech foreign ministry often funds organisations that are critical of its work.

Vit Dostal, from the Association of International Affairs, an NGO that trains students in political debates, also says his organisation is often critical of its donor – the Czech government.

“The government knows what to expect from us,” he says. “They do not discriminate against us over that.”

The mayor’s festival

While foreign-funded NGOs are often criticised in Macedonia’s pro-government press, those that receive their funds from the state are under less scrutiny.

In the town of Radovis, in southeastern Macedonia, the overlapping interests of local government officials and an NGO appear to have gone unnoticed.

For three days every August, the town celebrates the festival of St Spaso Radoviski, its patron saint.

The celebrations start with church services and culminate in a concert in the main square, which has also been named after the saint.

The Czech Republic's entry into the EU has shored up its civil society.Some Macedonians hope the same will happen at home.

The festival is a highlight of the calendar in a town of 20,000 people, where the best hope of employment comes from a nearby copper mine and most of the young dream of migrating abroad.

The star attraction at this year’s festival was the Croatian pop singer and contender for the 1994 Eurovision song contest, Toni Cetinski. At the end of his show in the public square, the hostess went on stage and thanked the festival’s organisers.

“Two people share the blame for this event,” she joked. “The first is your mayor, Sasko, and the second is the director of the chamber of culture and the president of the town council, Nikola Miovski.”

The crowd cheered as the names were announced. Yet this outpouring of local pride is a relatively new tradition. St Spaso Radoviski was declared the town’s patron saint in 2009 – the result of a decision by the municipal council.

The festival is organised by an NGO that was formed in the following year, and which also goes by the name of Spaso Radoviski.

According to municipality documents, the town of Radovis spent more than €32,000 on the NGO between 2010 and July 2013.  

According to the central registry, the organisation was co-founded by Sasko Nikolov, the mayor who was publicly credited for organising the festival.

Miovski, the head of the town council who was also thanked on stage for putting on the event, is listed as one of the key members of the NGO.

The municipality allocates its funding for local NGOs by inviting tenders for a project. The bids are voted on by the town council, and its decision is approved and signed off by the mayor.

The mayor and the head of the town council thus play a significant role in allocating funds for an NGO in which they are also deeply involved – an apparent conflict of interest.

Moreover, the mayor uses the festival – funded by public money through an NGO which he helped establish – to burnish his political profile. His website lists this year’s event as one of the top achievements from his first 100 days in office.

Nikolov told BIRN he had given up his role in the NGO when he was elected to the mayor’s office in the spring. However, at the time of the interview this summer, the central registry – which is regularly updated – still listed him as one of the key members of St Spaso Radovis.

Nikolov acknowledged that his apparently ongoing involvement in the NGO and in local politics could be construed as a conflict of interest.

“I will check,” he says. “Maybe there is some misunderstanding over the laws.”

BIRN tried to reach Miovski for comment on his mobile phone but he did not answer. A visit to the address where the NGO is registered revealed a locked building that used to house a restaurant.

BIRN also asked the state anti-corruption body to comment on whether there may be a conflict of interest in cases where government officials were also active in NGOs. A spokeswoman for the commission confirmed the requests had been received but did not provide a response.

Dimovski, the VMRO-DPMNE spokesman, acknowledges that some NGOs provide a cover for political interests – but he blames this phenomenon squarely on the opposition.

“The problems arise when people use the cover of the NGOs to promote the party’s agenda,” he told BIRN. “For example, there are civil society activists who speak at opposition party meetings.”

Nevertheless, Dimovski says members of political parties cannot be prevented from running their own NGOs.

“There are people who are members of VMRO-DPMNE or SDSM and they have their own NGOs and there is nothing wrong with that,” he told BIRN.

Dejan Donev, a professor of ethics and an expert in NGOs at the University of St Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, says many organisations operating in Macedonian civil society are “quasi-governmental”.

“We don’t have the basic form of non-governmental organisations, which should be understood as non-profit civil society groups that represent the citizens’ needs,” he says.

Most Macedonians seem to agree that their country’s civil society is deeply politicised. In a survey last year by the local office of Transparency International, a global organisation that promotes good governance, 67.5 per cent of more than 1,000 respondents said NGOs existed purely to serve the interests of political parties.


Meri Jordanovska 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.