AIM: start

FRI, 25 JAN 2002 23:39:34 GMT

Ball Extravaganza, Soup Kitchens and Garbage Containers

The top of the Macedonian government stepped into the New Year glamorously - with a ball - while the hungry multitudes besieging garbage containers headed towards the new soup kitchen opened for Christmas by an Irish humanitarian aid organization in the center of Skopje. The initial days of yet another year of the Lord are marked by the analyses made of the inglorious balance of the year just expired which, so it seems, do not worry those in power much. On the other hand, anxious of their attitudes and of what the authorities might yet have in store for them, ordinary citizens seem to glance at their watches ever more often, counting-down the ticking time!

AIM Skopje, January 10, 2001

The arrival of year 2002 has hardly changed the state of things in Macedonia for the better. Unfortunately so. Not even the deep snow could cover the tracks and the arrogance of the ruling oligarchy which - without a trace of shame for the dramatic political, security and social crisis and well guarded from the multitude by respective retinues of bodyguards - continues to indulge in its lavish life-style habits.

The best illustration for this is the traditional Christmas Ball organized by the Prime Ministerís wife Snezana Georgievska ever since her husbandís WMRO-DPMNE party came to power - Snezana, accidentally, being the chairwoman of the humanitarian organization Blagovestie, set up three years ago and financed through suspect funds... On the occasion of the latest gala staged at the prestigious Skopje Aleksandar Palace hotel by the hostess better known in the broad public under her nickname "Macedonian Lady Di from Vladimirovo" on account of her desperate attempts to attain the assumed romance and glamour of the international jet set (Vladimirovo being a village in eastern Macedonia and the birthplace of the acting Prime Minister), all of the 550 Snezanaís hand picked guests drove to the entrance of the hotel ballroom in luxurious private limousines driven by chauffeurs and dressed according to the R.S.V.P. gala code, meaning they all came in evening attire labeled by the leading high-fashion designers. As the usually well informed Dnevnik and Utrinski Vesnik informed their readers, kindly requested to do so, the men showed up in tailcoats. Lacking more specific dress code instructions, the ladies did their best. Protected from the cold by their knee-high or ankle-long fabulously expensive furs, they outdid themselves: most simply glittered in their evening dresses and hair-styles and hats (!?) to match, the chosen few even exhibiting their preciously small feet adorned in Cinderella- like golden high-heels bought abroad by their ever appreciating husbands.

The public had a chance to witness all this via TV - from afar because the press was strictly forbidden close access to the glorious event! And there certainly was a lot to see and be amazed with. Everything was almost exactly the same as last year, except for the splendor! A good portion of the guests, mostly personal friends and business associates of the Prime Minister and the head of VMRO-DPMNE (the most prosperous "firm" in the country today, according to independent analysts), obviously managed to make nice profits for themselves during the war. Whether this was done through manipulation, obedience or by illegal means is an altogether different story, but they all chose to make a public show of it on the eve of the New Year which is to be an election year as well.

Each of the 550 politicians and businessmen present were given a chance to decide just how close to the hosts they wish to sit and how much money they are prepared to part with for the exquisite pleasure. Depending on the distance from the central table, they bought their tickets for the price of 30, 10 and 5 thousand denars or, roughly, the equivalent of (late) DM 1000, 300 and 200. Those of an exceptionally generous nature, took part in a charity auction of old Macedonian masters of art, the canvasses put on sale actually originating from the state treasury, as some maliciously claim! The two events - the ball and the auction - brought in a sum of 58 400 euro, to be used for charity purposes, as is officially claimed. According to the official statement, a part of it will be used for the construction of a kindergarten in Kavadarci and the support fund of disabled homeland defenders. The Vienna waltzes heard at the ball were performed by none other than the state philharmonic orchestra: for a decent fee until midnight, from then on for free, under the direct order given on the spot by the Culture Minister. For the sake of economizing, this time caviar, French champagne and the like, were excluded from the menu. The spiteful claim that this has much more to do with the preference of the hosts and the guests for traditional Macedonian cuisine than with thriftiness. Although invited, the absent diplomatic corps sounded its unequivocal message to the said elitist gathering of Macedonian upstarts.

At the exact moment the chosen 550 were waltzing their fabulous lives away at the Prime Ministerís wifeís ball, on the opposite end of the town, on the main city square, a soup kitchen within the premises of the Metropol restaurant opened its doors to the destitute - a Christmas gift of the Irish Evangelical humanitarian aid organization Essol Tras to the so many hungry in Macedonia these days. Relentless statistical data show that, at the moment, Macedonia is dealing with a figure 385 thousand persons out of work, another 30 thousand employed in bankrupt firms, 250 thousand pensioners with under average incomes and around 77 thousand four-member families entirely dependent for their survival on charity. Up to now, the government failed to exhibit much concern for their grim fate. The sole soup kitchen financed by the Macedonian Red Cross Committee closed long since, the only hot meals handed out since the middle of last year being those daily distributed by certain local churches and humanitarian aid organizations financed from abroad. Apart from the miracle of freshly prepared cooked meals, the virgin white table linen and candles lit for the occasion surprised the 700 beneficiaries of the Irish charity probably more than anything else. Unfortunately, this soup kitchen will be open only until January 19, after which those enjoying its services will once again have to satisfy their hunger with "lunch packages" or, more probably, leftovers found in garbage containers. People rummaging garbage containers are one thing Macedonia is not short of!

Indeed, Macedonia is in a veritable economic maelstrom and no one can tell how and when the country might pull out of it. It stepped into year 2002 with an inglorious balance sheet, the worst in eight years and with gaps in its budget that are yet to be supplemented, estimated to some US $ 173 million. The holding of the donorsí conference is still under question and consequently, the post-war recovery and economic stabilization of the country. Practically all economic parameters relating to the previous year are negative. The first and foremost, gross national product (GNP) is 4,5 per cent down. Industrial production took a downturn of 8,8 per cent, agricultural production of 13,3 per cent. Merely seven of the 32 branches of the economy were in the positive. Foreign trade was down for 15,3 per cent (amounting to US $ 290 million), internal trade for nearly 9 per cent in comparison to 2000. Exports took a fall of 10,2 per cent. The overall trade balance was in the red for US $ 513 million. The average salary amounted to 10.574 denars (61 denar = 1 euro), a two per cent fall. Only figures pertaining to the inflation and the costs of life were on the rise: respectively, for 5,3 and 5,9 per cent. The results of a statistical research carried out in October 2001 showed that 30 per cent of the working population was unemployed. According to the Employment Bureauís records and researches done by the Institute of Economics and some other independent institutions, the unemployment rate in Macedonia actually surpasses 40 per cent, making it an infamous European champion in this respect. In all reliable expert analysis of the past year, 2001 is judged to be the worst since the gaining of independence, one resulting in an unprecedented low in the countryís birth rate, lower in respect to the previous year for amazing 15,4 per cent. To make things worse, it is claimed 2002 is to be even more disastrous.

As if all of this was not sufficient in itself, the country is also in the grip of organized crime and the unbelievable susceptibility of those in power to wastefulness. A number of government officials bear themselves as if they were veritable oil-sheiks. If the Skopje Dnevnik is to be believed, instead of the one put at his disposal by the government, the Foreign Minister trots the globe in a charted plane formerly owned by the ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Not that the head of the Macedonian diplomacy is isolated in such behavior. His first visit to Athens in budget year 2001, as the well informed claim, cost the taxpayers around US $ 12 million! The head of the state Health Services Fund bestowed his inner circle of associates and the managing board of the fund with Christmas presents in the form of wristwatches worth DM 250 each. Utterly unaware of the implications of his words, he informed the press as to how pleased he was not to have paid a much higher price, the one exacted by his promise to present his associates with lap-top PCís instead! Just how far from the grim reality of things this is, is probably best illustrated by the fact that most hospitals in the country lack basic medicaments and technical means and that even terminally ill patients have to pay for the treatment needed themselves !

What troubled most those desperate for a friendlier economic environment and business practices present at last yearís final session of the Macedonian Chamber of Commerce is that 2002 is to be the election year, one in which the authorities are likely to spend government funds at their disposal for pre-election propaganda purposes. Their fears were further strengthened by the budget adopted for the fiscal year 2002 amounting to DM 2 billion (1 million euro). The said document is conceived so as to primarily suit the wishes of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE, pushing aside all other interests of the country. The best part of the sum is to go to the police (10,3 per cent), military (8 per cent) and - which is unprecedented - for welfare purposes (as much as 30 per cent)! Under the pretext of liberalizing the trade and promoting production, a 30 per cent cut in tax rates is to be implemented. The state treasury is to be replenished through taxes levied, for the most part through the value-added tax (VAT) and the one imposed on imported goods. For the first time, the financial effects of customs duties and the war tax are expected to be reach the same level. To the mind of many independent economic experts, the realization of the said "party budget" relying on the war tax to be levied until the end of 2002 actually represents a step towards a military dictatorship!

In other words, the post-war recovery and stabilization of the economy are still under the direct influence of non-economic factors. The envisioned growth of four and the inflation rate of 2,5 per cent are, according to independent analysts, unrealistic. The policy of artificially maintaining a stable exchange rate of the national currency is detrimental to all export oriented firms supposed to give the economy the boost it so desperately needs. Interestingly enough, in the course of his presentation of the monetary policy for 2002, the governor of the National Bank, Ljube Trpeski, distanced himself from government policies for the very first time, calling for a much stricter financial discipline on the part of all budget users. The IMF and the World Bank agree with him. Their representatives in Skopje are keeping a strict watch over the implementation of adopted economic plans and measures taken by local authorities. The recovery and future development of Macedonia depend on the conclusions they reach and their assessments concerning future foreign investments.

All of this does not seem to bother those at the top much. As opposed to their calm, ordinary citizens ever more frequently glance at their wrist watches, counting down the ticking time! Throughout the country, social discontent is spreading with light speed. Strikes abound and a social upheaval is imminent. The ball extravaganza of politicians in power has just taken place, is a "ball of the hungry" in order?