The Republic of Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy. A popularly elected president is head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. A unicameral parliament exercises legislative authority. The country held parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections in 2014. In its preliminary report on the December parliamentary elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observed that the elections were transparent, well administered, and orderly but took place “in an environment characterized by a lack of public trust in institutions and the political establishment” and failed to meet some important OSCE commitments for a democratic electoral process. Problems observed in the elections included voter intimidation, widespread pressure on civil servants, vote buying, coercion, and misuse of administrative resources.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
The country continued to experience a political crisis sparked by the 2015 wiretapping scandal, when opposition party Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) disclosed that the government’s intelligence services intercepted communications without authorization, and publicly released excerpts of those communications allegedly revealing evidence of political interference in public administration and the media as well as high-level corruption. The controversial pardoning by President Gjorge Ivanov in April of 56 individuals connected to the wiretapping scandal sparked mass protests, dubbed the “colorful revolution,” and vandalism of several government buildings and monuments. President Ivanov withdrew his pardons on June 6.
The most significant human rights problems stemmed from pervasive corruption and from the government’s failure to respect fully the rule of law, including continuing efforts to restrict media freedom, interference in the judiciary and impeding the work of the Special Prosecutor’s Office charged with investigating and prosecuting crimes relating to and arising from illegally intercepted communications, as well as the selective administration of justice. Political interference, inefficiency, favoritism toward well-placed persons, prolonged processes, violations of the right to public trial, and corruption characterized the judicial system.
Other human rights problems reported included: physical mistreatment of detainees and prisoners by police and prison guards; poor conditions and overcrowding in some of the country’s prisons and mental institutions; delayed access to legal counsel by detainees and defendants; restrictions on the ability of Roma to leave the country and to access constitutionally mandated healthcare services, particularly gynecological services; restrictions on access to asylum; decreased prevention and protection of victims of trafficking in persons; domestic violence against women and children; discrimination against persons with disabilities; institutional and societal discrimination against Roma and other ethnic minorities and against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and child labor, including forced begging.
The government took some limited steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed violations, including police officials guilty of excessive force, but impunity continued to be a significant and widespread problem.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials; there were reports that officials engaged in corruption with impunity.
NGOs stated the government’s dominant role in the economy created opportunities for corruption and has harmed business relations and decreased economic growth. The government was by far the largest employer in the country, with some analysts estimating that it employed as many as 180,000 persons, despite official statistics showing public sector employment of approximately 128,000. The government used its dominant position within the labor marketplace to influence significant sectors of the economy. The construction industry, heavily supported by government-financed projects, dominated GDP growth. In October the World Bank reported that the government subsidized 89 percent of all new jobs in the country and 100 percent of all new jobs created by foreign investors in the free trade zones.
Government interference in private business was widespread. Although there were no official statistics or records on the subject, some of the contents of the unauthorized intercepted conversations made public in 2015 shed light on the problem. According to NGOs, the recordings demonstrated that the government, directly and indirectly, controlled a significant proportion of private sector companies and extorted funds from them. In return, companies that cooperated the most with the government routinely won government tenders. Facilitated by ambiguous, often contradictory, and fast-changing business legislation, various inspection bodies visited uncooperative companies and imposed heavy penalties on them.
The 2015 wiretaps also revealed several cases where government officials ordered retaliation against businesses believed to be supportive of the opposition political parties, including foreign investors. Some business representatives complained that inspectors often came to their offices with a predetermined “fine” they needed to collect. Other credible evidence indicated that some businesses were required to pay sponsorship to different government-controlled organizations, and others pay regular “fees” in order to avoid government harassment.
There were credible allegations that the government attempted to reduce competition in the private sector by driving out independent firms and companies that took positions or were headed by individuals in opposition to the government or by weakening them to make them susceptible to a takeover by progovernment companies. One common tactic was the selective withholding of payments to businesses for government contracts while continuing to pay competitors who were connected to the government.
Corruption: In August the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation released its biennial report, which noted that corruption had increased since 2014 and that acceptance of corruption remained high among the public. During the year, 30.5 percent of 1,000 respondents to a survey conducted by the organization reported they were asked for a bribe, up 4.9 percent from 2014. Similarly, 29.2 percent of respondents offered/gave a bribe, up 7.7 percent from 2014. Corruption varied along ethnic lines, with 83.3 percent of ethnic Albanians reportedly experiencing pressure to pay a bribe and 80.5 percent paying a bribe, compared with 40.6 percent and 35.5 percent, respectively, of ethnic Macedonian respondents.
According to Transparency International’s annual Global Corruption Barometer released in November, 12 percent of survey respondents reported having to pay bribes to obtain public services to which they were legally entitled. All respondents believed that powerful, influential, and rich people exert too strong an influence over politics.
During the first six months of the year, the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption referred two cases of misuse of public funds to the Basic Public Prosecution Office. In one of the cases, the commission initiated a procedure for removal of a public official. The commission also received and checked 535 conflict of interest statements by public officials and determined that a conflict existed in 53 cases; resolution of these cases remained pending as of year’s end.
During the year, the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office investigated 22 suspects on corruption related charges, filed 16 indictments, and obtained convictions against 27 defendants. The crimes included misuse of official position and authority, money laundering and/or laundering of other criminal proceeds, receiving bribes, and accepting rewards for unlawful influence.
In its most high-profile case, the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, supported by special police forces, arrested eight persons on June 6 from the Faculty of Economy at the state-run Sts. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje on charges of soliciting and receiving bribes from students. The suspects were seven professors, including the Dean and the recently elected President of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts Taki Fiti, and a logistics support employee. On September 14, the Basic Court Skopje I, at the request of the prosecution, banned four of the professors from performing their academic duties pending a verdict. On October 6, prosecutors indicted six of the eight suspects, charging them with accepting or giving bribes, receiving rewards from unlawful influence, and misuse of official position and authority. Prosecutors dropped the charges against the remaining two suspects, including Professor Fiti, for lack of evidence. The trial remained pending at year’s end.
During the year, the Special Prosecutor’s Office filed two summary indictments against 21 suspects, opened nine formal criminal investigations, and initiated more than 40 preliminary investigations into apparent criminal behavior relating to or arising from the content of illegally intercepted communications during the period 2008-15.
Since the creation of the Special Prosecutor’s Office in September 2015, progovernment media have run a robust and coordinated campaign to attack its credibility, integrity, and professionalism, and have favored imposing administrative hurdles on its operations, investigations, and prosecutions. The ruling VMRO-DPMNE party repeatedly obstructed the work of the office and publicly criticized Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva, claiming she was incompetent and a politically biased tool of the opposition. President Ivanov’s April pardons (see section 1.d.) effectively froze most of the Special Prosecutor’s Office’s investigations for two months. The judiciary also played a role in hindering the effectiveness of the Special Prosecutor’s Office.
One of the year’s most prominent corruption cases, for example, was the “bribery” case against opposition party SDSM leader Zoran Zaev, originally filed by the Basic Public Prosecution Office in June 2015. Zaev, as mayor of Strumica, was accused of soliciting a 200,000 euro ($220,000) bribe from a local businessman to complete privatization of a state property. In January the Special Prosecutor’s Office requested jurisdiction over the case, but in April the Public Prosecutors’ Council denied the request, as it had done with several other requests (see section 1.e.). Dropped after President Ivanov included Zaev on his list of 56 individuals pardoned on April 12, the case restarted after all the pardons were revoked on June 6. The case remained pending as of year’s end, and Zaev continued to maintain that the charges were politically motivated.
Financial Disclosure: The anticorruption law requires appointed and elected officials and their close family to disclose their income and assets and provides penalties for noncompliance. The public could view disclosure declarations on the website of the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. The absence of a registry of elected and appointed officials continued to hamper effective control of assets and monitoring of conflicts of interest.
On April 7, the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) called on former prime minister Nikola Gruevski to disclose his assets, as required by law, to the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. The LDP also called on the Public Revenue Office to take action to determine Gruevski’s wealth, since his declaration of assets was not publicly available at the state commission’s website, although the law requires all elected officials to submit a declaration of assets within 30 days of terminating their public function. Gruevski had stepped down on January 14.
The ruling VMRO-DPMNE party responded that Gruevski had filed his report with the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption in February and called on the commission to present Gruevski’s asset declaration to the media. Commission president Goran Milenkov told the press that Gruevski submitted his asset declaration on time and claimed “there was nothing interesting in Gruevski’s statement, as it is not much different from his statement 10 years ago,” when he became prime minister.
Independent media outlets supported the LDP’s call and asked why Milenkov did not distribute copies of Gruevski’s purported asset declaration. Milenkov told reporters that the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption’s electronic system of records was set in such a way that it removed the asset declarations of officials the moment their public function ends.
Public Access to Information: Although the law provides for public access to government information, citizen and the media’s access to the government’s financial and public procurement dealings remained limited. The government addressed public access to information in the Open Government Partnership Action Plan, adopted by the government in 2014. Numerous members of civil society and media outlets complained that the government often ignored requests for information under the freedom of information law.