By Goran Trajkov
A controversy over a local organisation billing itself as a branch of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights has reignited debate in Macedonia over the NGO sector, prompting calls for tighter standards and accountability.
The international human rights organisation no longer exists, having been dissolved in 2007 in the wake of financial fraud and bankruptcy. But the group in Macedonia reportedly continued to use the name for four years after the dissolution, raising questions about its purpose as well as status.
“We are an independent non-governmental organisation and are a legal persona. We receive money from the Bulgarian Embassy, the Swedish Helsinki Committee, and account to them and to the state,” the Macedonian Helsinki Committee said in a statement.
According to registered patent agent Mirjana Stankovic, however, the committee has failed the test of transparency.
“What is happening is neither legitimate nor legally sound. To avoid misunderstandings, the Macedonian Helsinki Committee should clearly tell the public that it acts as an independent local NGO, not a branch of an international organisation which does not exist anymore,” she told SETimes.
”]Critics say the Helsinki scandal reflects the state of the civil society sector. They charge that a number of NGOs were intentionally formed during the transition period of the 1990s to benefit business and ruling political parties’ interests.
“The most known example of abuse is organising strikes in support of political interests,” analyst Vele Mitanovski told SETimes.
Particularly glaring examples occurred during the referendum for Macedonia’s territorial reorganisation in 2004, Mitanovski said. “Many NGOs were working then on behalf of the government, but also the opposition,” he said.
Meanwhile, support by business interests can be critical to the survival of brittle NGOs, Macedonia state television editor Naum Stoilkovski told SETimes.
“Such NGOs were, and still allow, being taken advantage of. Even some printed and electronic media have lately worked on promoting business conducted under the guise of the civil sector. Notable exceptions aside, the citizens’ interests are increasingly at the bottom of NGO priorities,” Stoilkovski said.
Civil society was further tainted by the recent revelation that Vladimir Milchin, head of the Macedonian branch of George Soros’s Open Society Institute, was a spy for the Yugoslav secret police.
“Simply put, when donors hand over money, those who receive it neither ask nor are interested in the donor’s credibility,” journalist Aleksandar Spasovski told SETimes.
Milchin has been extensively criticised by the media for allegedly financing Social Democratic Union party election campaigns with foundation money.
Macedonia’s Law on Elections clearly specifies that citizen associations, NGOs, religious groups and foundations cannot participate or finance election campaigns in any way. Leading columnist Mirka Velinovska pointed to what she calls “media-non-governmental” abuse by forces intent on imposing their political agendas during the elections this past June.
“Macedonia was literally exposed to high-levels of toxic propaganda sold by specialised agencies, NGOs, experts of something or another and allegedly professional journalists,” she said. “Such agendas cost much money, and undoubtedly truly great amounts of ‘black money’ were thrown in. Law enforcement institutions will have to undo this cobweb as well, in order to protect the public from propagandistic terrorism.”