My experiences with threats to civil society in Macedonia
I’ve been an environmental activist in Macedonia for pretty much all of my adult life, struggling to preserve my country for future generations. Over the years, I’ve taken on numerous development projects and the institutions that finance them, in order to prevent the literal bulldozing of the natural beauty of this country.
Increasingly the space has been shrinking for activists like myself that are critical of or simply think or speak differently than the government. While the dramatic worsening of the situation in the past year is to a certain extent the result of the severe political crisis in Macedonia, I have nonetheless witnessed a general deterioration in the space for civil society.
I live in a country where public consultation is a formality. Public hearings are only advertised at the very last minute and offered for a limited audience. Officials are rude and often simply ignore public opinion, leaving all parties with a feeling that the consultation didn’t lead anywhere. The public comes out of these hearings with a renewed resolve to oppose a project because the government refused to take on board any issues that were raised during discussion.
Now the situation is even worse: not only do officials refuse to take on board what we say, but they’ve also blocked access to information. For example, when we recently asked for environmental studies related to hydropower plants in protected areas, the government refused, claiming that these reports are subject to copyright laws. We are currently challenging this decision in court.
On another occasion in 2012 when we organised a visit to a protected area, we were prevented from entering a specific zone of the park and threatened by government officials. Security guards surrounded the area and prohibited us from moving freely in the national park. In spite of this, we decided to move in the direction that we originally planned, risking arrest. While fortunately nothing happened, we were followed closely by security.
The most serious instances of harassment were evident in two recent episodes. While participating in the Bern Convention standing committee in December 2015, which was voting on a resolution for the government to stop its hydropower plans, I was approached by someone from the Macedonian power plant company who said: you will see what kind of ‘cases’ await you when you return home.
Then during a TV interview in May of this year, I explained the impact on the country if corruption was proven in the Corridor X motorway project.
Such instances of intimidation are the main means that the government has resorted to in limiting my work, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The methods that the government has exhibited in its crackdown against not just civil society but even critical individuals, artists, journalists – whoever – has shown to know no bounds.
What we need now is international pressure, be it from the media or European decision-makers, to hold our government to task.
What the future holds for Macedonia depends on how the political crisis will be resolved. But if there has been one silver lining to the present crackdown, it’s the renewed enthusiasm for challenging these abuses of power and the dedication to a solidarity movement that aims to bring government in line with the wishes of its citizens.
Civil society is more alert, and citizens are ready to take part in decision-making, but the political parties are not ready to listen. A new grassroots initiative provides a blueprint that Macedonia civil society is pressing for the government to adopt as a sort of new public compact.
But the space for activists, members of civil society has shrunk to a point that it has to completely be rebuilt, rather than just ‘improved’.
This story is part of a project by the Coalition for human rights in development, a global coalition of social movements, civil society organizations, and grassroots groups working to ensure that all development finance institutions respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.
Find out more at the Coalition for human rights in development website.