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Justice for all must apply in North Macedonia before accession plans can progress

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This week’s Western Balkans summit in Slovenia was a timely opportunity for the European Union to reaffirm its commitment to the enlargement process, writes Ján Figeľ.

North Macedonia appears to be towards the front of the queue of nations wishing to join the EU. In September, following a visit to Skopje, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen tweeted “North Macedonia has made outstanding progress on EU-related reforms and taken courageous decisions” and she indicated it is not a question of if, but when, accession talks should commence.

As a former European Commissioner, I support plans to bring more nations into the union. However, it’s also apparent that some Western Balkan countries are currently falling short in key areas before they can be welcomed with open arms.

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Ahead of the Western Balkans summit, it was confirmed that EU support for candidate states is “linked to tangible progress on the rule of law…and adherence to European values, rules and standards”.

Evaluated against these criteria, the North Macedonian government, legislators and judiciary have work to do.

In July, a Council of Europe report criticised the treatment and conditions of detention of prisoners in two North Macedonian prisons, in addition to persons held by the police in Skopje.

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The report highlighted cramped, unhygienic and decrepit conditions and stated that the situation was made worse by the lack of activities provided to remand prisoners, who could be locked up in their cells at Skopje Prison for 23 hours a day.

One of this prison’s most notable inhabitants is North Macedonian businessman Jordan Kamchev, who has been detained without trial since 14 March.

His case highlights additional failures by the North Macedonian authorities to abide by important European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings. (Incidentally, Mr Kamchev’s legal team has made submissions to the ECHR concerning his case.)

Above all, in their treatment of Mr Kamchev, North Macedonia is reneging on its promise to follow the terms of the ECHR’s judgement in the 2010 Vasilkoski case, which dealt with cases of unlawful and unjustified detention.

As a result, the public prosecutors have failed to provide concrete reasons for repetitively prolonging Mr Kamchev’s pre-trial detention. They have also failed to consider alternatives to long-term detention such as bail or house arrest, in direct contravention of the Vasilkoski judgement.

Furthermore, Mr Kamchev’s legal team maintain that the public prosecutors have not provided all relevant documentation concerning their requests for extending the defendant’s ongoing detention, while the Appeal Court has failed to hold any public hearings concerning this case. Moreover, an indictment based only on a note from the National Security Agency (North Macedonia’s secret service) with a mix of untrue information is unlawful grounds and smells of political interest.

The Council of Europe’s condemnation of conditions within Skopje Prison became apparent following Mr Kamchev’s initial detention, when he was imprisoned in a 4m2 cell with no running water or sanitation facilities. The Ombudsman of the Republic of North Macedonia, which has a mandate to protect citizens’ rights, criticised Mr Kamchev’s “inhuman and degrading treatment”.

In the summer, Mr Kamchev’s health condition deteriorated, and he was transferred to hospital. He was returned to Skopje Prison a few days later, but he still suffers from serious, long-standing cardiovascular health issues. A legal hearing is due to take place in Skopje on 8 October to consider Mr Kamchev’s case. Despite not being charged with any offence, he has now been imprisoned for almost seven months.

I should note that Mr Kamchev’s family has asked for my assistance in this matter, and I am willing to meet all relevant parties to find a solution that satisfies the prosecutors’ requirements while respecting Mr Kamchev’s legal and human rights. I have already visited Mr Kamchev in prison, and I  will meet several government and judicial officials, along with the Ombudsman, in Skopje over the coming weeks.

The concepts of rule of law, human rights protection and justice for all must apply to every citizen living in the European Union, in addition to people residing in applicant countries.

States such as North Macedonia must be held accountable for the commitments they have made to administer penal and judicial reforms, in line with European legal rulings and regulations.

They can not be allowed to pick and choose which legislative elements are implemented or ignored as has happened in the case involving Mr Kamchev. The law must apply equally to everyone, all of the time.

I sincerely hope that the European Union will move forward with its plans to admit Western Balkan countries into our group of nations without further delay. And, in order to facilitate this process, I call on nations such as North Macedonia to honour their commitments in respecting the rule of law and human dignity for all.

Ján Figeľ was European Commissioner for the Enterprise and Information Society (2004) and Education, Training and Culture (2004 – 2007). He also served as European Commission special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion outside the EU (2016 – 2019). Currently he is a member of the International Council of Experts at the IRFBA Alliance established in February 2020.

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Disasters

Fire in North Macedonian COVID-19 hospital kills at least 14

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Fourteen people were killed and 12 seriously injured when a fire broke out in a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients in the North Macedonian town of Tetovo late on Wednesday (8 September), the Balkan country's health ministry said today (9 September), writes Fatos Bytyc, Reuters.

The prosecutor's office said DNA analyses would be needed to identify some of the victims, all of them patients in a serious condition. No medical staff were among the victims.

The total of 26 patients were accommodated in the COVID-19 hospital at the time of the fire, said Health Minister Venko Filipce.

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"The remaining 12 patients with life-threatening injuries are being taken care at the Tetovo hospital," Filipce said on Twitter.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said the fire was caused by an explosion, and that the investigation was under the way. Local media said that a canister with oxygen or gas may have exploded.

A hospital for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients is seen after a fire broke out, in Tetovo, North Macedonia, September 9, 2021. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

Local media showed images of a huge blaze which broke out around 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) at the hospital in the town's west as firefighters raced to the scene. The fire was extinguished after a few hours.

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The accident occurred on the day when North Macedonia marked the 30th anniversary of its independence from the former Yugoslavia. All official celebrations and events were cancelled on Thursday, said the office of President Stevo Pendarovski.

Coronavirus cases have been on the rise in North Macedonia since mid-August, prompting the government to introduce stricter social measures such as health passes for cafes and restaurants.

The country of 2 million reported 701 new coronavirus infections and 24 deaths in the past 24 hours.

The town of Tetovo, mainly inhabited by ethnic Albanians, has one of the country's highest number of coronavirus cases.

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Albania

Forest fires: EU helps Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia to fight devastating fires

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As forest fires continue affecting various regions in the Mediterranean and the Western Balkans, the European Commission is swiftly mobilising support to assist countries in limiting the spread of the fires and protect lives and livelihoods.

  • Two Canadair firefighting airplanes from France are being sent to affected areas in Italy to start firefighting operations today.
  • Two firefighting planes from Cyprus are supporting Greece, on top of a firefighting team to support operations on the ground.
  • Two helicopters to support operations in Albania will be equally dispatched from Czechia and the Netherlands.
  • In addition, Slovenia is sending a team of 45 firefighters to North Macedonia.

All help is mobilised through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, with co-funding by the Commission of at least 75 % of transport costs.

Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič said: "We are working around the clock to send help as fires rage across Europe. I thank Cyprus, Czechia, France, Slovenia and the Netherlands for swiftly deploying firefighting airplanes, helicopters and a team of firefighters to support countries heavily affected by forest fires. At this time as several Mediterranean countries are facing fires, EU Civil Protection makes sure that our firefighting tools in place are used at maximum capacity. This is an excellent example of EU solidarity in times of need.”

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These deployments come in addition to EU-coordinated firefighting operations that are currently ongoing in Turkey, as well as in Sardinia, Italy at the end of July. Satellite maps from the EU's Copernicus Emergency Management satellite are providing further support to the emergency services to coordinate the operations.

The European Union's 24/7 Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre is in constant contact with the civil protection authorities of countries affected by the fires to closely monitor the situation and channel EU assistance.

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Macedonia

North Macedonia launches €2 million development fund to support Roma businesses

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Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev (pictured) today (30 July) launched a €2 million development fund in partnership with the Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (REDI) to support Roma businesses and address the issue of unemployment in the community. 

The project 'Financial Support for the Development of Roma Entrepreneurship with Matching Fund' aims to create favourable business conditions for Roma entrepreneurs by facilitating easier access to business loans; offering coaching, business development services, and creating new jobs, formalizing Roma employment, and harnessing the Roma’s demographic dividend. 

Traditionally, Roma have been declined loan and business investment in Europe because of bad credit history, lack of collateral, lack of proof of business activity and racism. In addition, on average 80% of the mapped Roma entrepreneurs work in the informal sector. In the current COVID climate, one in two Roma entrepreneurs surveyed by REDI worry that they will not be able to pay their rents, and loans if the situation continues for longer than two weeks. Six out of ten businesses owned by Roma fear they will go bankrupt in the next two months in absence of urgent support, especially for their cash flow needs. The help is timely. 

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Launching the initiative, Prime Minister Zaev said: “This Government recognized the potential of Roma entrepreneurship and their contribution for development of Roma community, which is why this first step is important towards building an economically stable community.” 

Alexander Soros, deputy chairman of the Open Society Foundations welcomed North Macedonia’s unprecedented commitment towards building an inclusive economy. “This initiative comes at a very important moment for the region. The regional cooperation spearheaded by PMs Zaev and Rama and President Vučić will open new possibilities for this initiative to succeed. Through this initiative, we can create, sustain, and grow the Roma-owned businesses and generate new job opportunities.”

Investing in Roma would pay high dividends for the Western Balkans, said Zeljko Jovanovic, Director, Roma Initiatives Office of OSF that initiated the creation of REDI. “There is evidence that Roma exclusion hurts economies in the region and this will only get worse due to the pandemic and demographic trends. Governments now have an opportunity to reverse this trend. Serbia already joined the initiative with an initial investment of one million euro in Roma entrepreneurs, today North Macedonia joins. More Western Balkan governments should sign up to the match funding development initiative.”

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REDI has a track record of aiding Roma entrepreneurs. Muamed Malikovski, a young artist entrepreneur from Bitola, North Macedonia, received a start-up COVID relief grant of € 5000 from REDI and ERIAC in 2020 to put together his initial collection of traditional clothes for Roma women. He also received branding and digital marketing support from REDI. Today, despite COVID, Malikovski has managed to sustain his business and continue to serve the community.

Another businessman Malik Maliki, owner of a pizza restaurant in Suto Orizari, who was repeatedly denied access to loan, received technical assistance from REDI in 2021 to apply for a government grant to grow his business. This helped him to employ more people and grow his business. In addition, he managed to get further business support from the government. 

Senat Jaja, Founder of Marchelo, a clothing company welcomed the news: “I have been an entrepreneur for over 15 years. At the beginning of my career, I worked as an informal entrepreneur (without registering a company) for the first five years, but I realized that I could prosper and expand my business much better if I registered it. Over the years, I have faced many challenges, but my main challenge was in 2020 when the COVID-19 virus appeared, which caused a pandemic and economic downturn, both in our country and around the world. I found it difficult to get a loan from commercial banks and was getting desperate. Fortunately, REDI stepped in to assist me in getting a loan. I managed to apply for an interest-free loan from the Development Bank with 0% interest. I got motivated to invest in my business and I feel more confident about the future. REDI in the Republic of North Macedonia is the first Roma NGO that unconditionally helps entrepreneurs, supporting them to succeed. I believe that the REDI fund as a new mechanism can help Roma entrepreneurs by motivating them to register their business and showing them that we can succeed.”

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