Europe's massive aid program for Macedonia has failed to build a civic society in the southern Balkans and did nothing to stem the country's growing corruption problem. A recent European Union study confirms the worrying trend.
Wednesday's newspapers in Skopje feature pictures from the lavish charity ball and auction held the previous night. It was attended by the prime minister, cabinet ministers and the cream of Macedonian society. Tickets cost as much as $500 with the proceeds to be used for children's playgrounds and aid for war veterans. But so strong are suspicions of corruption that virtually all of Skopje's foreign diplomatic community stayed away.
The European Union's report about the effectiveness of the huge aid program for Macedonia and Albania suggests that much of the $1.3 billion it has allocated over the past decade has been wasted.
The Macedonian government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgieveski won elections three years ago on a promise to clean up corruption. And yet there have been no significant arrests of those accused of corruption. Financial irregularities led to the resignation of the defense minister last year but no charges were filed.
Mikhail Petkovski, economics professor at Skopje University, concedes that corruption is a huge problem. It has gotten worse, he says, because of unstable situations in neighboring countries.
"For example, we had the U.N. blockade against Serbia [under Milosevic]. It simply produces corruption or some kind of illegal behavior [like smuggling]. We had many Greek blockades [against Macedonia]. We had the war around our borders [in Kosovo]. And one of the problems is this gray zone around us," he said.
Mr. Petkovski says Macedonia has been adversely affected by the criminal elements that he believes operate freely in Albania and Kosovo.
Stephen Haynes of the U.S. Agency for International Development directs the American assistance program in Macedonia. The U.S. aid effort is the largest from a single country, although smaller than the total amount coming from the 15-nation European Union. Mr. Haynes says corruption keeps away foreign investors.
"I think you just have to show people that if they want to increase business and become part of the global economy, corruption is something that is just not acceptable. So if you want your economy to grow it is something you have to tackle sooner or later," he said.
Skopje University's Mikhail Petkovsky blames the international community for failing to crack down on corruption in Kosovo, which is administered by the United Nations.
"We have in Kosovo and Albania the E.U. ideal of open borders. Only it means drugs and prostitutes. They are flowing freely. They are entering in and out. So the point is that Macedonia can not fight corruption, even in its own country, if the international community doesn't support it," he said.
USAID mission director Haynes says linking Macedonian aid to effective anti-corruption measures could be very difficult.
"When problems like corruption are ingrained, it's hard to root them out. And I guess you'd have to say that different donors have different agendas. So I'm not sure that you could get the donor community together on any one issue, even corruption, even one as important as corruption," he said.
Diplomats, analysts and aid workers worry that the widespread perception of corruption in Macedonia will give rise to cynicism and indifference among Macedonians toward their government. This at a time when Macedonia faces the enormous challenge of reducing inter-ethnic tension and building a multi-ethnic society.