Nation status: a young country, Macedonia is building monuments and statues to shape its heritage and create jobs
At 9am on a hot summer Sunday a triple line of cars, trucks and gleaming tourist coaches stretches several kilometres back from the Gevgelija crossing point between the republic of Macedonia and its southern neighbour Greece.
It takes more than two hours for the daily Skopje-Thessaloniki bus, the only regular transport link between the two countries, to nudge its way past two sets of controls and enter Greece through its own prefecture of central Macedonia.
Macedonians and Greeks have little trouble keeping bilateral relations ticking over despite the diplomatic obstacles raised by a 22-year-old dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name, which Greece sees as implying a claim on its own region of Macedonia. The neighbouring state is known officially in Athens as “Fyrom” (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Most Greeks simply call it “Skopje”.Dimitar, a 20-year-old engineering student from Skopje aboard the bus, is texting friends in Platamonas, an Aegean seaside resort popular with tourists from the Balkans and central Europe.
“They’ve found a job for me in a café, with luck I’ll be making €50 a day with tips.”
Two-thirds of landlocked Macedonia’s trade moves though Thessaloniki port, according to EU statistics. The country’s main infrastructure priority is to complete a €220m upgrade of the highway to Gevgelija, with co-financing from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank. Greece is Macedonia’s fourth-largest investor, accounting for about 10 per cent of total inflows of foreign direct investment since independence in 1991.
An estimated 400,000 Macedonians will take cheap sun-and-sea holidays in Greece this year. Another 800,000 will make weekend trips or visit Thessaloniki for a day’s shopping, says an official at SETE, a Greek private sector tourism organisation.
Athens still blocks Macedonia’s membership of Nato and the start of negotiations for EU accession because of the name dispute, even though its neighbour was deemed to have fulfilled all the criteria for joining Nato in 2008. It would have begun EU accession talks the following year were it not for the Greek veto.
“In my opinion, Greece will not take steps to resolve the issue without pressure from the world’s strongest countries,” says Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia’s prime minister.
“I understand they have problems because of their financial crisis, but I think they are using this as an excuse to avoid a dialogue with us and not find a solution.”
A Greek government official shrugs off the criticism, pointing to the Skopje 2014 heritage project, which features a 30.5m-high equestrian statue – generally accepted as modelled on Alexander the Great, the ancient Greek warrior king – in the capital’s main square, as an example of inflexibility on the Macedonian side. “It is hard not to see in this a deliberately provocative usurping of Greek identity, history and culture.”
The Athens government recently brushed aside another effort by Mr Gruevski to intensify bilateral negotiations under UN auspices on an amended name, saying the arrangement of intermittent meetings should continue unchanged. Politicians on both sides tout “Upper Macedonia”, which would satisfy Greece’s insistence on a geographical qualifier, as a possible eventual compromise.
Ali Ahmeti, leader of the largest ethnic Albanian political party and a partner in Mr Gruevski’s governing coalition, urges the premier to make the concessions necessary to secure Nato membership as soon as possible and put Macedonia on the road to EU membership. “I believe that as soon as we join the alliance we will see a big jump in foreign investment that will create many more jobs.”
Zoran Zaev, the opposition leader, voices a sense of urgency: “We’ve been an official candidate for EU membership since 2005 but we have slipped down the ladder (of west Balkan applicants) when we could have been close behind Croatia,” which joined the EU in July.
Macedonia’s democracy remains fragile, though most analysts exclude the chance of a repeat of the 2001 ethnic Albanian insurgency. This left doubts about long-term regional stability, even after leaders of the ethnic Macedonian majority and the rebel Albanian minority renewed a commitment to coexistence under a peace deal brokered by Nato and the EU.
The appointment as defence minister in February of Talat Xhaferi, a former rebel fighter, triggered outrage among ethnic Macedonian armed forces veterans. Violent, if shortlived clashes ensued between rival ethnic gangs in Skopje, highlighting tensions underlying a five-year political partnership between Mr Gruevski and Mr Ahmeti.
Inter-ethnic divisions are evident, too, in the business community, with Macedonians controlling most larger companies. Ethnic Albanians run small businesses focused on boosting trade with neighbouring Kosovo and Albania.
“Things are better than they used to be but it’s still a problem for Albanian companies to grow and flourish ... Many bureaucratic obstacles are put in their path and it’s harder for them to win state contracts,” says Shefki Idrizi, an ethnic Albanian businessman who is founder and chief executive of Renova, a producer and exporter of specialised building materials.
Mr Gruevski’s six-year campaign to put Macedonia on the global investment map as a cost-competitive centre for manufacturing and services is proving successful. This was despite initial scepticism that an impoverished southeast European country of 2.1m people would be able to attract high-quality international investors.
Macedonia has raced up the rankings since 2006 from 96th to 23rd place in the World Bank’s annual global “ease of doing business” survey, ahead of most EU member states. It takes only a few hours to set up a company at Skopje’s “one-stop-shop” for investors, while average monthly wages of €330 compare favourably with neighbouring Bulgaria and Serbia.
More than 30 companies, from Johnson Controls of the US, a maker of printed circuit boards which has built a second factory, to the Belgian bus manufacturer Van Hool, a recent arrival, are established in an industrial and technological zone outside Skopje. The unemployment rate has edged down to 30 per cent.
The stand-off over EU accession talks has seen Mr Gruevski seek investors from further afield. On a trip to Beijing in June, he renewed an earlier proposal to set up a special industrial and technological zone for Chinese companies seeking a European manufacturing hub. In July, Macedonia signed an agreement with Russia to build an offshoot of Gazprom’s South Stream pipeline project to bring natural gas across the Black Sea to the Balkans and central Europe.
At home, the prime minister faces criticism over a media crackdown that has attracted the attention of Frank La Rue, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of speech. On a visit to Skopje in June, he noted an “atmosphere of intimidation towards any kind of critical press”. He called for a detailed investigation into the death in March of Nikola Mladenov, an investigative journalist killed in a traffic accident, to dispel “the cloud of suspicion and fear it provoked”.
Mr Gruevski dismisses such accusations, saying the Macedonian media is “too deeply politicised”. “I’m not saying there aren’t weaknesses ... after all we are a developing country. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of journalists are affiliated with political parties and only about 10 per cent are really independent.”