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Increased electricity prices spark protest wave in North Macedonia

The cost of living is a point of friction amid huge disparity between the highest and lowest wage earners

While the left party is in disarray, unions and civil society are organising cross-ethnic, working-class resistance, writes Elena Gagovska

On top of economic crisis, a chaotic snap election, prematurely loosened Covid-19 restrictions and a resulting spike in infections, citizens of North Macedonia have been hit with yet another setback. On August 1st, the energy regulator in the small Balkan country announced a 7.4% hike in the price of electricity.

The decision sparked a public outcry on social media and protests in the streets of several cities three Fridays in a row. While the nominal price of electricity of €0.09 per kilowatt-hour may not seem like much compared to other European countries, relative to the average wage it is actually one of the highest on the continent.

In North Macedonia, the bill for 1 megawatt-hour - which a typical household might get through in two months - equals 19% of the average wage. On this measure, only Bulgaria, Latvia and Romania have higher prices. The costs also need to be seen in the context of the very low net minimum wage in North Macedonia, of just 14,934 denars (€242). According to a new book by Kristina Bozurska, 15 Horror Stories by Women Workers, despite the minimum law regulations many in the textile sector receive even less - as little as €100 a month for a working week of 7 days.

Some see the increase in the electricity price as a consequence of the privatization of the Macedonian electro-distribution services (ESM) in 2006, which was met with large protests at the time. The state-owned firm was sold off to the Austrian energy company EVN for just €225 million (plus an additional promise of €96 million investment in infrastructure over the following 3 years). Now EVN will directly profit from the newly imposed prices.

Since Coronavirus, North Macedonia has not only experienced increased unemployment, but also the scandal of more than 700 companies receiving government assistance yet still failing to pay their employees in April and May. In this climate of economic upset, it is little wonder many are mobilizing against the electricity price hike.

On August 21st, protests took place in 8 cities Skopje, Tetovo, Gostivar, Kicevo, Kumanovo, Debar, Bitola and Prilep in the form of intersection blockades. The protests were supported by the Confederation of Unions, (oddly) the Police Union, the Union of Educational workers and various civil society organizations and NGOs. The August 21st protest in Skopje was advertised by Duam Çair të pastër, an Albanian-led civil society initiative. Albanians are the largest ethnic minority in North Macedonia. They are not only often subject to ethnic discrimination, but sentiment against them is often weaponized by right-wing forces seeking to appeal to the more conservative part of the ethnic Macedonian majority.

I was able to attend one of two blockades in the capital city of Skopje, at the intersection of Paloma Bianka and Rekord, close to the Parliament and government buildings -- the other blockade took place in Cair, a majority Albanian neighborhood in Skopje. The blockade used both cars and pedestrians. The protesters carried signs with various messages such as “Love is no longer enough to keep us warm”, “Nationalization Now!”, and “Your End is Coming”. The protesters came with a number of specific demands, such as the immediate restoration of the previous electricity price and ending the contract with the Austrian company EVN.

The key speech of the protest was given by Zdravko Saveski, a leftist activist and former member of the political party Levica (“The Left”). Sadly, Levica has taken a nationalist and specifically anti-Albanian turn in the last election cycle under the new leadership of Dimitar Apasiev. He took over the party in a move that some former Levica members, including Saveski, have alleged was illegal and involved falsifying party documents. Levica has not even mentioned the protests in the last month, but has instead focused on attacking the new coalition government of SDSM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia) and DUI (Democratic Union for Integration), a party that claims to represent the Albanian minority. Apasiev used his first days in Parliament to attack the so called “bilingual law” which allows for expanded official use of the Albanian language in North Macedonia.

“The electricity companies justified their position by saying that they have been hit by the Corona crisis. Are the citizens not the hardest hit? Or is it the citizens who are so rich that they should subsidize the electricity companies?” Saveski asked ironically.

“Let us remember the terrible economic situation not of the citizens, but of the electrical companies,” continued Saveski. “Last year, EVN made €29 million in profit. 29 million! If an ordinary Macedonian citizen was able to save up 29,000 denars (€485), then he would have a higher living standard than many of his fellow citizens. Yet EVN ‘only’ made €29 million, while MEPSO [another private electricity company] made €7 million.”

“They lied! They lied to us when they said that liberalizing the electricity market would lead to lower electricity prices. We are seeing now that the electricity is not cheaper, it is actually more expensive,” fired Saveski. “Liberalization hasn’t meant cheaper electricity for ordinary citizens, it has only meant higher profits for the international companies. Why should we work hard every day for the profits and the extra profits of the capitalists?” Saveski exclaimed passionately.

With the many compromises with the private sector and lack of systemic reforms from the ruling SDSM-DUI coalition, as well as the nationalist turn of the only supposed leftist party in Parliament, Levica, it seems that many Macedonians do not have a clear political party to turn to. Rather, so far it appears that unions together with civil society initiatives are beginning to form multi-ethnic and working class alliances in these turbulent times. Protests are announced to take place on September 4th in 5 Macedonian cities Skopje, Kicevo, Gostivar, Tetovo and Bitola as the wave of organized opposition continues into the month of September.

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