Macedonia Emerging

Amid progress preparing for the EU, Roma poverty lingers

Agriculture is a major part of a strugling economy in Macedonia, where a third of adults are unemployed, and jobless rates among ethnic minorities are even higher | Photo: Yosef Hadar/World

A freshly surfaced fitness trail follows the Vardar River on its course through Macedonia’s capital, hugging riverbanks dotted with new office buildings, swanky shops and bustling cafes.

For a nation that only recently emerged from the convulsions of Yugoslavia’s breakup, things are looking up in this tiny country. Macedonians celebrated at the dawn of 2010 when the country joined two of its Balkan neighbours in winning liberalized travel to the EU, and the European Parliament delivered more good news on Feb. 10 by voting to support the start of accession talks.

The country was not immune to the global financial shock that abruptly halted several years of steady growth. But the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the Macedonian economy to grow at a two-percent clip this year, outpacing many other Balkan countries and the Euro Zone. Industrial production surged 20 percent at the end of 2009, the State Statistical Office reported. And European companies, including Austria’s Mobilkom and EVN, have pumped money into modernizing infrastructure.

“I expect the economy to officially come out of recession and start its gradual recovery in the first quarter of this year,” Finance Minister Zoran Stavreski told reporters on Feb. 8. The government appears to have confidence enough in its finances to plan a sweeping beautification of the capital, a city of 500,000 people that was rebuilt with eerie concrete structures after a devastating earthquake in 1963.

Yet behind the confidence lurk serious challenges. The country’s GDP per capita of $4,300 is one-third of fellow EU-candidate Croatia and one-tenth that of Austria’s, according to the IMF. Nearly one-third of adults are jobless, forcing an exodus of workers and educated young people to other countries. For those who are employed, some 12 percent work in agriculture, compared to less than two percent across the EU. Were Macedonia to join the EU today, it would make economic laggards like Bulgaria and Romania look relatively prosperous. Macedonia ranks near the bottom of nearly every statistical barometer in Europe — health care, education, income and productivity — and near the top of vice indexes, among them corruption.

The economic problems and governmental neglect cut most sharply across ethnic lines. Poverty and joblessness are especially acute among the nation’s Albanian and Roma minorities, who comprise 25 percent and 2.6 percent of the population, respectively. Ethnic Macedonians, who account for more than 60 percent of the country’s two million people, dominate the governing and business elite.

But it is the estimated 53,000 Roma who face the harshest times. Conditions are no more glaring than in the heart of the capital, where the poor live in makeshift homes under bridges and along the river, crammed into cardboard and sheet metal homes without water and electricity. Victims of Macedonia’s deep economic problems, Roma are also subject to bias and neglect.

“Discrimination against Roma exists in all fields — education, housing, health care,” Idaver Memedov, a lawyer for the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), said in a telephone interview. “It is important to have a legal way to challenge the bias and that does not exist in Macedonia.”

A 2005 initiative, called the Decade for Roma Inclusion, has sought improvements in housing, education, health care and gender equality in 10 countries. Although Macedonia has embraced the goals set to improve conditions for Roma by 2015, “nothing significant has been done” in the country, Memedov said.

Human rights advocates concur, saying the country’s Roma still suffer disproportionately compared to Macedonia’s other minorities: Albanians, Turks, Serbians and those descended from Romania and Moldova, the Vlach.

“Little progress can be reported regarding the Roma,” says the European Commission’s latest status report on Macedonia. “Representation of Roma in many areas of public life, at both local and national levels, remained low. Roma continued to be the most disadvantaged ethnic group.”

According to the commission’s 2009 report, unemployment among Roma is the highest (73 percent) among the different ethnic groups. Some 63 percent of Roma live below the poverty line, and they have the highest mortality rate.

“Roma remain on the margins of society and continue to face obstacles in realizing their economic and social rights particularly,” Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, wrote after a visit to Macedonia in 2008. “Many Roma find themselves caught in a generational cycle of poverty, which proves difficult to break free from. Access to education, employment, social welfare, healthcare and housing are restricted more for Roma than any other community in the country.”

The Roma have not shared the improvements of the much larger Albanian population, who won greater representation and influence in politics, civil service and education following a short-lived insurgency in 2001. An internationally brokered settlement led to efforts to expand Albanian representation at all levels of government. The accord also strengthened educational opportunities for minorities — the one area that there has been promising change for the Roma population, said ERRC lawyer Memedov.

Still, the poverty among Roma is glaring. On one sunny day last fall along the banks of the Vardar, a 17-year-old girl carried her infant son and two jerrycans to a public water fountain near an empty basketball court. A visitor offered a hand in carrying the water, drawing glares from her family waiting in a home made of cardboard and wood scraps in a dusty clearing under the Balasica Bridge. As traffic trundled overhead, two young boys pitched stones at a shuffling mule tied up in litter-filled scrub on the riverbank.

Life in the urban squatter camps are symbolic of conditions across the country, where most Roma live in segregated communities or illegal dwellings and are subject to harassment and occasionally eviction.

“The situation is very bad,” said Memedov, himself a Roma from a small Macedonian town, who notes that housing is one of the critical needs not being adequately addressed by the government. “People are living without water, electricity or sewage [systems]. The government has to do more to live up to its commitments under the Decade for Roma Inclusion.”

Share This Post

Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » appearance » Widgets » and move a widget into Advertise Widget Zone