Friday, March 07, 2008

A Toast to Tradition

A favorite spirit may be threatened when Macedonia begins negotiating for EU membership.

LISICE, Macedonia | As the distillation process ends and the homemade brandy called rakija drips into a pot, all of Stojan’s neighbors gathered in his back yard, waiting to taste the fresh liquor.

“Cheers!” they shouted in a chorus, celebrating the old Macedonian tradition of producing the brandy. “It’s a really strong one, pure and warming,” Stojan, 62, concluded after taking a sip of his new batch.

The brandy, which is distilled mostly in private homes, is made from fermented grapes and usually contains about 50 percent alcohol. For Macedonians, the joy of rakija is as much in its production as it is in the drinking. Producers often invite friends to taste the product, spurring neighborhood parties. The liquor is considered the national drink among many countries of the former Yugoslavia.

Some Macedonians make a living or supplement their incomes by selling the brandy produced at home, especially in wine regions such as Tikves in the south. But the brandy’s production may diminish when Macedonia begins negotiating for European Union membership. Talks could begin as early as late 2008.

According to EU standards, alcohol production must be licensed, and homemade products put up for sale must carry a tax. Macedonia plans to begin complying with these standards when accession talks begin.

The majority of rakija producers in Macedonia distill in their own kitchens or yards, and they currently pay no tax to the government for their sales. Many are unaware that EU standards would make their unregulated operations illegal. The government has yet to spread the word.

The homemade brandy is popular in other countries in the Balkans and southeastern Europe. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, protests were staged in front of the Parliament in Sofia to demand that rakija not be taxed. There have also been discussions on the topic on Internet forums set up in Serbia, another EU hopeful. Some respondents radically claimed they would prefer dying to joining the EU, mainly because of limitations on traditions like homemade alcohol.

“We don’t like the EU anymore. Why do we need so many limitations and standards that only complicate our lives and contribute towards the loss of our culture and spirit as Macedonians?” said Stojan, who gave only his first name.

Rakija isn’t the only product under threat. Regulations will also be placed on homemade wines and cheeses put up for sale. Moreover, the killing of animals for food in private homes will be forbidden.

According to the European Commission, killing outside slaughterhouses “is restricted to a very limited number of circumstances, such as disease control.” What’s more, “approved methods” of killing must be used in those limited circumstances. All meat for human consumption, however, must come from licensed slaughterhouses.

These laws are violated in many EU countries, where traditions frequently trump health or agricultural regulations, but people risk being caught and fined if they sell their unregulated products or slaughter animals.

Macedonia doesn’t have official data about the number of people producing and selling domestic food products. But so ingrained is the tradition of home production that the numbers are easily in the thousands.

Many people interviewed said they were unaware that their way of life may change soon. They worry that the EU standards will smother their cultural and economic traditions.


Bojan, 58, from the village of Dracevo, hadn’t heard of the looming EU standards. He started to cry when he learned that he would not be allowed to slaughter animals for food or produce his own milk and dairy products for sale.

He lost his job as a locksmith 10 years ago, Bojan said, and home production is what now brings food to his family’s table. Other, modest income comes from Bojan’s work in nearby fields his father left to him when he died. Bojan had to take out a loan to get a tractor to work the fields.

In his back yard, Bojan raises chickens, goats, pigs, and a cow. He uses the animals to feed his family, and he sometimes sells some eggs, milk, and meat to others. With the money he makes he buys other goods his family needs.

“We will starve to death if this happens,” Bojan said of the coming regulations. “I’ve lost my job once, and this is the only way to secure food for my family.” He added that he had thought life would be better if his country entered the EU.

Other Macedonians who hadn’t heard about the regulations refused to believe it, calling it a joke. They said they will continue to make products or purchase them from neighbors.

“We won’t give up the rakija … the honey, the incredible domestic cheese – EU or no EU”, says Lidija, 29, from Skopje.

“This practically means that besides gaining the possibility to travel freely [without a visa], everything else is just too much bureaucracy,” she added, referring to the benefits of EU accession. The right to visa-free travel in the EU is a perk many Macedonians are looking forward to, though it could be years in the making.

The government doesn’t have a campaign planned to inform the citizens about the changes that will occur once EU negotiations start. Officials admitted that the campaign has been delayed in part because of the possibility that there will be negative reactions from the citizens, as there were in Bulgaria.

However, officials also claim that like it or not, the clock is ticking.

“We purposely delayed the solving of this issue because the tradition of domestic production is a several-centuries-old tradition,” said Zivko Jankulovski, the government’s vice president for agriculture and education. “However, very soon we will have to start dealing with it.”

Jankulovski emphasized that not all domestic production will not be banned. Although killing animals for meat will be forbidden, other production will just be regulated.

People will be allowed to produce rakija in their homes, for instance, if they have a license to do so. They can sell it so long as they follow new tax requirements.

“There also will be some trainings and exams connected to the right of producing your own alcoholic drink,” Jankulovski said.

Which of the government ministries will be in charge of conducting an information campaign remains a mystery, but it likely will be the Agriculture or Economy ministries.


Jankulovski said it will be very difficult to boost public awareness of the issue and to calm down the people it upsets. Moreover, it will be a challenge to change people’s habits and force them to stop their home production or license and tax it.

Experts have said that the introduction of EU standards may have negative side effects, like increasing poverty in some regions where people currently rely on domestic food production for extra income. If the regulations force them out of business or they choose to bow out on their own for fear of being caught, their income could be lost.

“Agricultural workers are quite often forced to produce and sell domestic rakija because there are not enough wineries to buy out the grapes that they produced,” said one agricultural expert, who spoke on condition on anonymity. “Similar conditions are present in stockbreeding.”

But some experts have also said there are dangers in domestic production that the EU standards will help alleviate.

Unregulated stockbreeding allows animals slaughtered for meat to go unvaccinated, raising concerns that people will consume tainted meat. Similarly, unregulated production of alcohol and dairy products put up for sale presents health risks associated with poor or contaminated ingredients.

Stojan said that while the government should tell people about the new standards, he won’t worry until Macedonia is an EU member – a development that is years away.

“I’ll make my rakija until someone comes in my house and reads the standards,” Stojan declared with a laugh. “But first I’ll let authorities try my homemade rakija and then let them read my obligations.”

Watching his friends celebrate his brandy, he added: “I’ll live for today.”

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