As part of our series looking at national experiences of the coronavirus, Sonja Stojadinovic explains how government inertia and pro-business politics have led to a confused, ineffective and damaging response on the part of state actors in North Macedonia.
With a population of over 2 million people, the Macedonian state has not been spared the COVID-19 pandemic. The government took measures for the protection of citizens, first closing schools and universities on the very same day as some Western countries. One month after the lockdown set in, the government is expecting the number of infections to reach its peak by the end of April.
Since the first measures were brought in during the first week of March, the government has introduced new measures on nearly thirty occasions. It is hard to follow the instalment of new measures when there is so much dissonance in the public reactions that this group or that group of citizens was not taken into consideration, that they are being discriminated against, or that their movements are limited.
The imposed measures were installed fast and quite harshly, as part of an approach to solving upcoming problems within the system through ‘learning by doing’. The lockdown measures have covered all the territory and all sectors. However, it is clear to see that the government was not ready for the pandemic.
Political interest is always first in line
Since early parliamentary elections had been called in January – initially scheduled to be held on 12 April but now postponed until the end of the crisis – the current interim (“technical”) government is led by the previous government parties Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) together with the Albanian political party DUI. However, it also includes ministers from the former opposition, the Christian-democratic conservative VMRO-DPMNE, in line with a requirement on the formation of transitional governments ahead of snap elections.
The condition of putting together ministers from the government and opposition with a limited mandate and their functions postponed because of the crisis, has created political and professional clashes. VMRO-DPMNE has not missed a chance to attack the interim government despite its “technical” role and the opposition’s inclusion. Since the beginning of the crisis, the leader of the opposition Hristijan Mickovski used several press conferences on the response to the pandemic for politicking, for example when presenting the opposition’s “own” group of doctors and experts as an alternative to the government’s advisors.
These political attacks with a serious dosage of populism have shaken the already unstable situation in Macedonian society. Citizens are more than aware that the healthcare system is deeply eroded not only because of the eleven years of VMRO-DPMNE rule (2006-2017) but also due to the never-ending transition from socialism to ruthless capitalism.
There are also fundamental concerns about how the peculiar situation under a technical government affects democracy broadly. Because of the postponed parliamentary elections within the frames of the Constitution the Parliament is not in session. Currently the only legislative force is the technical government. By its Constitution the Republic of North Macedonia is a republic with parliamentary democracy in which the parliament controls the government. Now, however, in this state of emergency, every decision brought forward by the government immediately becomes law. There is mounting criticism of the lack of institutional control of the government and public demand that members of the parliament come back to sit parliamentary sessions. Many citizens are worried about how long the government will continue to impose harsh measures in the name of the public good, yet without democratic control.
Protect children and the vulnerable, but forget workers and pensioners
The first measures taken by the government were to protect children by closing the educational institutions. Mothers of children younger than ten have to be released from work in order to care for their children. Subsequent measures outlined the list of chronic sicknesses which allows workers to work from home or employees to secure more safe working conditions. Private sector employers were urged not to dismiss workers, with the government offering financial help only for those who decided to keep their workers on.
Hotels, restaurants and coffee bars have been particularly hard hit. The government already offer two packages of financial support for this sector. Also included in the financial packages were other services which were in danger of dismissing the workers in order to protect their profit. One of the bigger FDI companies is Drexelmaier, a German car supplier, whose management has sent almost 5,000 workers on payed break for two weeks – during which period they will work at a bare technical minimum.
However, there are other employers from the private sector that have more interest in protecting profits instead of workers’ rights and well-being. In the private textile, leather and shoe factories across Macedonia there have been 1,554 registered cases of workers’ rights violations, especially in the area of employment contracts and protection at work. The civil society organisations who work in areas of workers’ rights protections have urged the state and companies to supply the workers with protection gear and the State Labour Inspectorate to introduce more inspections on site. Unfortunately, the number of dismissed workers is rising every day.
In light of the bailout measures for the private sector, the government had a hard time justifying the cut in the wages of all elected officials and public sector managers to the minimum wage of €250 for two months. This decision has caused public reactions. In a blurry and ineffective statement, the current Minster of Finance actually argued that the government’s support for the private sector needed to be financed by the decrease in salaries in the public sector in order to save those private sector jobs. It should be borne in mind that the majority of civil servants live from their salaries and do not have savings, while there are managers in the private sector with incomes of 250.000 euros per month.
The National Bank has issued recommendations for the banks, calling on them not to pay dividends in this period. But unfortunately two banks did not respect this call. Most banks have postponed credit payments for the next 3-6 months but none of the banks have cancelled the accumulation of interest for these months. This means that there will be interest on the interest calculated within the credit rate, creating an additional burden for citizens.
When it comes to the curfew, North Macedonia has perhaps the harshest measures of all Balkan states after Serbia. There is a weekend curfew from Friday afternoon 16:00 until Monday morning 05:00 – a total of 60 hours across the whole state territory. During working days the curfew is from 16:00 until 05:00 in the morning. There are also curfews for citizens older than 67 years of age, who are permitted to go out between 05:00 and 11:00. Those younger than 18 years of age can move between 12:00 until 21:00. Complaints from pet owners that there is no time for daily walks have put a pressure on the government to issue exemptions for their needs three times per day. Public demands for other exemptions such as exercise for citizens with special needs have questioned the competence of the government to take into consideration the diverse needs of citizens and protect them from a violation of their rights.
The group of citizens that is perhaps most hit by the curfew are the pensioners, and for now only members of their families are rising demands for their protection. It is not only that they have the most limited time to go out, but also that they were most heavily criticised by the public and the government for going to markets. The justification for these harsh measures is that they are for their protection. But allocating such a short period of the day to go to the bank or market for essential needs creates big queues and in fact raises the possibility of infection. Once again, the most vulnerable such as old citizens and workers have been the least protected in this crisis.
Only raising voices can protect human rights
Revolted by the slow and ineffective response by the government in protecting workers’ rights, ten labour unions and NGOs have submitted a set of demands to address these concerns. They have called for financial protections for workers who have lost their jobs during this crisis, protections for pregnant women who lost their jobs and state-supported pregnancy leave, and for freelance and honorarium workers to be supported by the government for two months (April and May). They have also insisted that financial support be denied to companies who fired workers, demanded respect for collective agreements to prevent salary cuts of more than 20 percent, and repeal of the regulation that restricts payment allowances and salary allowances for public sector employees during the state of emergency (inspectors, firefighters, media workers, forest police, railroad workers). Other proposed measures directed towards the wider population include the prohibit of interest for the duration of the crisis by banks, savings houses, financial companies and executors.
How the government and the state will come out of this crisis is under a huge question mark. The economy of the state will be devastated and there will be an army of unemployed citizens who will be the main target for political parties in the upcoming elections. We cannot forget that the first decision made by the government will be issuing a new date for elections, and then the madness of the election campaign will start. The clear business and capitalist orientation of this social democratic government has been seen during this crisis and it is questionable if they will have the time and opportunity to fix their mistakes. The other sad part of the story is that the opposition VMRO-DPMNE is also incompetent to govern the country, as borne out by their one decade of devastating ruling which can clearly be seen in the poor state of the healthcare system. Only solidarity can save us.
Sonja Stojadinovic is a well-known columnist for Macedonian daily newspapers, regional political websites and a leftist activist. Her professional and research experience cover the subjects of non-violent struggle in politics, European Union integration, international relations, labour law, workers’ rights and social equality. Currently she is studying for a Masters in South East European Studies at the Karl Franzen University of Graz, Austria.