Friday, October 20, 2006

Macedonia fires workers on 'political grounds'

Macedonia's new government has axed hundreds of public sector workers, despite criticism from Brussels and requests that civil servants should be shielded from political interference.

Only three days after the new government was elected in August, it removed 544 managers and members of managing boards in state institutions and enterprises.

The changes did not stop there, as some newly appointed managers have made further purges of officials lower down the ranks.

Throughout September, the media has been awash with reports of large-scale sackings of officials in the customs, prison and health services.

The government has defended the personnel changes, saying they were needed to build up these institutions and fight corruption.

But experts say mass dismissals merely show the new government is continuing the bad old practice of politicizing the public administration. Some warn it will undermine the potential to reform it.

Others go even further, saying the country has no real chance of joining the European Union if governments continue to manipulate public employment in this manner.

"The dismissals and appointments in the public administration have taken place at such a speed that it suggests the practice of political employment is continuing," said Gordana Siljanovska, professor of law at Skopje University and an expert in public administration.

Experts say the changes will weaken the capacity for reform at a time when the government has promised serious progress, both to the public and to the EU, and as the country hopes to receive a starting date for membership negotiations with Brussels.

EU officials have also warned that massive dismissals may damage the ability of the administration to deal with the challenge of reform.

Pierre Mirel, director of the European Commission Enlargement Directorate, voiced his reservations about the changes on a visit to Skopje in September. "You do not have to change people to make changes," said Mirel.

One reason for the EU criticism is that many of the recently dismissed officials were former trainees of EU-run programs.

"We have reacted to changes of those people in whose training we invested," a source from the EU office in Skopje told Balkan Insight.

The same source said the EU office wrote to the customs office, asking it not to remove local experts working on a program financed by the Dutch government.

The pressure from Brussels has not stopped the wave of sackings from continuing in the customs office, however.

It did succeed in preventing changes to the law that would have made it easier to sack personnel in the Electronic Communications Agency, an independent regulation body.

"By revising the law in this field, the independence of this body might have been threatened, which is why we hope our comments will be taken into consideration," said Mirel.

Mirel's pointed remarks came only a month before the first report on Macedonia's progress as a EU candidate is to be published. The EC is expected to adopt the report on 8 November.

The government denies sacking people in order to employ loyal party members.

"It is natural that certain changes will occur," the right-of-centre prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, said in response to the criticism. "It is normal that a political team coming to power and with its own programme wants to work with people it trusts."

A government spokesman, Veton Ibrahimi, also denied party political influence on public appointments.

"All the newly appointed officials are professionals, which was not the case with their predecessors," he said.

However, the government has not provided any individual explanatory notes for the dismissals, much to the anger of the government's own anti-corruption body, the State Anti-Corruption Commission.

The commission said due process was not being adhered to when the government made the dismissals, as people were entitled to individual explanations for their removal.

"The commission concluded that the constitution and laws, as well as the prescribed procedures and criteria, were not obeyed in these acts," the acting head of the commission, Slagjana Taseva, said in mid-September.

"This goes directly against the principle of de-politicization and of professionalism in the public administration."

Gruevski did not accept the comments of the state committee, insisting the changes were legitimate.

But experts remain worried about the big picture. Ljubomir Kekenovski, professor of economics at Skopje University said recent events highlighted a fundamental problem that in Macedonia there was still no real distinction between state and public property.

"Public institutions belong to the public and not to political parties," Kekenovski told Balkan Insight, adding that government should enjoy no more than overall oversight.

"The government should undertake only overall control and regulation," he went on. "Contrary to this, the politicians are taking over state and public institutions."

Siljanovska agrees. "The party political criteria for public employment must be replaced by professionalism," she said.

"So far, governments are tying their own hands. When they behave like this with the public administration, they then find they can't accomplish the reforms they need."

In the meantime, some dismissed officials are weighing up legal action.

Ana Pavlovska Daneva, professor of law at Skopje University, who was axed from the state pension funds agency MAPAS, told Balkan Insight she will take her case to court.

"How is it possible to dismiss such a large number of officials at the same time?" she asked, criticizing especially the fact that no explanatory notes accompanied the dismissals.

If many sacked employees follow her example, and sue the government over the lack of explanation for their removal, the State Anti-Corruption Committee estimates it may cost the government a great deal of money.

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