During its final months in power in 2016-17, the former ruling party of North Macedonia imposed a Kremlin-style administrative siege against non-government organizations (NGOs) that leaders called the “de-Sorosization” of the country.
After nearly two years, the government of North Macedonia has issued an official call for remedy of the damages incurred by NGOs during this period and reform of policies that allowed for the abuses to take place.
For seven months beginning in December 2016, state institutions conducted coordinated, large-scale investigations of 21 NGOs across the country, combing through their accounting and other documentation and seizing every opportunity to punish and fine NGOs for administrative errors and other alleged misdeeds. This period ended after the new government came into power in June 2017; in November 2018, the Financial Police announced that their investigations concluded that there were no grounds for the investigations of the NGOs.
At a press conference on May 11, Deputy Prime Minister Radmilla Šekerinska emphatically exonerated NGOs and vowed to remedy the damages done.
“NGOs were penalized and unjustly fined for mistakes they had not made,” she said.
Civil society groups, whose reputations and work had been badly shaken by these institutional abuses of power, have eagerly anticipated closure and justice.
The de-Sorosization of Macedonia
In December 2016, chief of then-ruling party VMRO-DPMNE Nikola Gruevski announced declared a “final showdown” with his sworn “enemies”, civil society groups. The right-wing populist party had ruled the country since 2006 and had already invested millions in taxpayer revenue in media campaigns smearing critical voices. The so-called showdown or “de-Sorosization” of the country — a reference to grants awarded to local NGOs by the philanthropic network of George Soros — came just after parliamentary elections in which his party failed to win a majority. This loss preceded the end to Gruevski’s rule in 2017.
Working in lockstep, state institutions including the Public Revenue Office, the Financial Police and the Public Prosecutor for Organized Crime laid virtual siege on 21 NGOs across the country. In addition to fines levied under a loophole in the Personal Income Tax law, 13 NGOs had to undergo controls by the Financial Police lasting several months, whose aim was to find out or fabricate misuse of the funds received from USAID during the implementation of their activities. The initiative drained NGO resources and upended the activities of many organizations, forcing them to focus their labor on complying with government demands, rather than doing their actual work.
Evidence indicates that the former ruling party was attempting to implicate donors from NATO countries in alleged “subversion.” Domestic propaganda at the time labeled Soros and USAID as the Western enemies of Macedonians. VMRO-DPMNE and its populist allies also carried out intensive lobbying in Washington and Brussels during that time, in an effort to block foreign aid invested in civil society and democratization.
Since it came to power in June 2017, the new government has worked with NGOs on the implementation of the “3-6-9” plan for comprehensive reforms that to restore democracy in North Macedonia and promote its accession to European Union. It has also finally heeded calls from EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who urged changes in the government’s attitude towards NGOs.
Gruevski was convicted of corruption soon after his time in office, and became a fugitive from the law in November 2018. He is currently hiding in Hungary, a country whose government attacks NGOs in similar manner.
At the May press conference, Šekerinska described how the former government had misinterpreted parts of the law and abused regulations that were overly broad in an attempt to financially ruin NGOs, in order to silence them.
In her remarks, she lauded the work of NGOs:
NGOs and activists who were target of this witch hunt now have nothing to be afraid of, or to be ashamed of. Practically they did what was needed for the good of the state. They went out, spoke the truth, fought for freedom and democratic values.
After consultations with several government institutions and parliament, Šekerinska also announced that the parliament has adopted an “authentic interpretation” of the Law on Personal Tax that eliminates the loophole that the previous government had abused and used to demand higher tax payments from NGO workers.
With this authentic interpretation, along with previous changes to the law, this Government has shown that it does not want to leave any grey zones that would allow blackmail, intimidation or manipulation in the future. This way, the solution will guarantee that all state institutions will not be able to intimidate or exert pressure on those who do not share the same political convictions.
Critically-minded NGOs that were targeted by the former VMRO-DPMNE regime have welcomed the move, saying that it brings an end to the injustice inflicted on them.
Bardhyl Jashari, Exective Director of Metamorphosis Foundation, which was a prime target of the “de-Sorosization” explained:
This is good news, it puts an end to the injustices carried out against several non-governmental organizations during Gruevski’s regime and it’s another blow to the tendentious defamation directed at us and at the same time it once again highlights our professional work. While it is difficult to forget the institutional pressure exerted on us through the Financial Police and the Public Revenue Office, as well as pressure through the media controlled by the then government, it is nevertheless good to formally shut down this unfair process that damages not only the non-governmental sector but which has also weakened democracy in the country.
Fani Karanfilova-Panovska, the director of the Foundation Open Society Macedonia, stated for Portalb.mk that the government would need to find a formal way to bring an end to all the activities carried out by representatives of the former government.
Besides the representatives of the targeted NGOs, social media users also expressed positive reactions to the government’s announcement. When referring to the ‘de-Sorosoization,’ one independent Twitter user noted:
This was possibly the most shameful act in the modern history of the Macedonian people.
– Wrapped inside their own impulse for witch-hunt, the [rulers] institutionally incited, enabled and rewarded the cleaving of the Macedonian tissue and state.
In her closing statement, Šekerinska congratulated the NGOs for scrutinizing the work of all administrations, and expressed support for their right to assemble, speak freely, and criticize the former and current governments.