War in Europe: The aid dilemma - Why Macedonia wishes charity began at home

The host to 250,000 refugees has had neither the recognition nor rewards it feels it deserves
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The Independent Online
The Minister of Defence threatens to take back the building being used by the United Nations. The Prime Minister says he has been patted on the back so many times it hurts, but getting some actual money would dull the pain.

These are examples of the uneasy and often fraught relations between the grouped UN, Nato and Western aid agencies and, Macedonia, their reluctant ally in the Kosovo crisis.

In Skopje, the capital, politicians of almost all hues complain that Macedonia, a country of 2.2 million and a stagnating economy which has taken in 250,000 refugees, simply has not had the recognition or the rewards it deserves. Instead, they say, all they have received have been platitudes and promises.

Most Macedonians feel they have been victimised twice, first by UN sanctions against Serbian-controlled Yugoslavia, which had been its main market and trading and manufacturing partner, and now by the influx of refugees. And all this against a backdrop of rising tension between the Slavic majority of the population and the Albanian minority.

In a bridge-building article in a Macedonian newspaper by Tony Blair on Friday, it was stressed that some of the aid to the refugees, especially food, was being bought locally, thus helping the country's economy. What the article failed to point out, however, was that this has happened only after criticism by government ministers protesting the fact that the aid agencies were flying in almost everything from abroad. Even now, it is claimed, few of the purchases are Macedonian.

Although impressive sums in international aid are spoken of, the Macedonian authorities say they have seen little of it. In any event, although $250m (pounds 145m) has been pledged, it falls far short of the $430m Macedonia wants to cover its expected balance of payments deficit. Ministers and their civil servants complain that local host families who have taken in refugees are not getting their agreed "rentals" from aid agencies on time, that they are not being adequately consulted about how aid is distributed, and that Albania is getting more than them.

All this may seem distasteful to the Western public, which has not only seen nightly television images of Kosovo's pitiful dispossessed lining up at the border, but witnessed the rough treatment meted out to them by Macedonian border guards. The Macedonians, it might appear, are exploiting the tragedy of the Kosovars while extending them little sympathy.

And yet many economists, firmly maintain that the West has failed to grasp the full extent of the chaos overtaking commerce and industry in Macedonia, and the huge problems caused. Unemployment is 40 per cent, workers have had to take pay cuts in many sectors, and some manufacturing has simply ground to a halt because it depended on ancillary production in former Yugoslavia, now out of reach because of the hostilities.

"We have a saying in Macedonia that the rich man cannot understand the problems of the poor man," says Ljube Trpeski, the governor of the National Bank of the Republic of Macedonia. "This situation is very similar." He foresees increasing industrial action and public turmoil unless the economy improves.

In this situation the aid agencies have become easy targets of both government and public criticism. To a huge number of Macedonians without even the prospect of a job, the sight of tons of aid being taken to the expanding tented refugee camps is a source of grievance, and plenty of politicians are keen to exploit this.

Angelloushi Strasho, leader of the opposition Conservative Party of Macedonia, demands that the aid should be given to the Macedonian poor and unemployed as well as the refugees. He has attacked the government for being "bullied" by the West and the large aid organisations.

Outside one of the large warehouses used to stock aid by Agape, a church- funded charity, Viktor Komorowski, who lost his factory job six months ago and now makes a living scratching around in the growing black economy, makes no attempts to suppress his bitterness. He points to a group of poorly dressed Macedonian children and says: "Why are they less deserving of the West's charity than the Kosovar Albanians? Why isn't our government doing something about this?"

What the government is doing is trying to extract more money from the aid agencies and Western governments. Threats of obstruction normally prove effective.

As one civil servant said: "It has become a grinding process. You all may think we are greedy, but we need the money for the economy, and this is the only opportunity we shall have for a long time."