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Case Studies in Macedonian Decentralization: Challenges and Opportunities (2)

December 20, 2005

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- This survey of the Macedonian decentralization process, which cites several local mayors and outside sources, is divided into two halves. The first, discussing challenges and difficulties faced by municipalities during the decentralization process appeared yesterday, while today’s second part discusses some of the opportunities municipalities can exploit in the fields of IT and tourism.

Macedonia is a small and predominantly rural country, with a few large areas of population concentration, but enormous and fairly depopulated regions comprised of wilderness, mountains and rivers, not to mention historical sites of significance. As such, it presents ideal opportunities for outdoors and cultural tourism.Also, since Macedonia cannot even seek to compete with neighboring countries in terms of heavy industry, there is better opportunity in developing “white collar” IT industries, which can be far more flexible and decentralized. And, while the larger businesses and factories are generally in the hands of older, change-resistant businessmen, the younger generation of Macedonians is increasingly tech-savvy and able to compete with programmers, designers and other IT workers from anywhere in the world. The main challenge here is to give them an incentive to stay, rather than seeking out fortunes in more developed countries.

An Opportunity: Technological Development

Macedonia has one of the lowest levels of internet usage in Europe. Even though the estimates on daily usage vary, several surveys point out that 70 percent of the population has never used the internet, and those who use it daily number below 10 percent.

However, several large-scale initiatives on the national level, with international input, are already having a big impact on municipalities’ e-capabilities. USAID and Macedonia’s On.Net have teamed up to make Macedonia the world’s first wi-fi internet country, and the Chinese government donated thousands of computers to local schools. According to the BBC, this means “broadband internet access [for] hundreds of remote villages in Macedonia by putting the country’s 460 primary and secondary schools online.”

Getting businesses and government to become more IT-friendly is a goal of organizations such as Metamorphosis, a Skopje-based foundation that promotes the development of information society and which was represented at the weekend event, organizing an educational session entitled “ICT for more efficient local government.” ICT usage continues to be pointed out as an efficient tool for satisfying the needs of the citizens. Also, with EU candidate status, Macedonia will be required to develop its e-government capacities.

Some municipalities, most notably Veles, are already making strides to develop e-governance. Under the direction of Mayor Ace Kocevski, Veles was the first Macedonian municipality to have its own IT department, as well as “four employees with Microsoft licenses,” according to Metamorphosis. The municipality’s manager of the sector for economical development and IT, Sashko Ristovski, spoke at the recent NGO Fair’s educative session regarding Veles’ progress in ICT implementation, noting that the main factors are “strong support from the mayor, clear vision on what to do, quality projects, and training of all employees according to the tasks assigned to their workplace.”

Filip Stojanovski, Metamorphosis program coordinator, recently explained his group’s vision to us in more depth: “we are working on a local e-governance project that would enable the municipalities to provide e-services for the citizens, together with the USAID Decentralization project. The project is jointly financed by USAID and FOSIM, and has several stages: research of the needs of the citizens, supplying a number of municipalities with needed hardware, software and training, as well as developing two e-services that would be available to citizens.”

“Important factor when selecting partner municipalities will be the level of their commitment to ICT development,” Stojanovski added. “A good indicator, for example, is the fact that they formed an ICT department and actually employed people to run it, as opposed to just intending to do it after they receive the equipment and the training.”

Tourism: a Key Factor for Local Economies

Everyone agrees that tourism, especially outdoors-oriented tourism, is key for little Macedonia. At the convention, municipalities from Kriva Palanka to Ohrid – that is, from one corner of the country to the other – devoted large parts of their displays to promoting their natural and cultural attractions.

Enthusiasm too is needed, and the human aspect is important. When asked why visitors should come to Rosoman, Mayor Goce Velickovski stressed the climate, the wine, and “the well-known Rosoman hospitality.” Of course, there’s also the captivating nearby site of Stobi, with its Roman ruins and mosaics.

Long-established tourism destination Ohrid, of course, has the clear advantage as Macedonia’s leader in terms of visitor numbers and infrastructure development. Problems for places such as Ohrid today have more to do with resource management, environmental safeguards and rubbish removal. For relatively undeveloped places, by contrast, developing infrastructure, access and service for tourists is necessary.

“We would like to develop our tourism,” says Caska Mayor Manevski. “Our municipality is full of mountains and ecologically clean.” Indeed, a quick look on the map shows how Caska sprawls across an enormous area of central Macedonia which includes the mountains of Jakupica, Golesnica and Karadzica. Lovers of the outdoors can rely on an established series of mountain huts of Cheples, Vranovci, Oravdol and soon, in the picturesque hamlet of Bogomila. However, for those who prefer more luxuries, there are not many options for other places to stay- according to the mayor, only one old hotel in Gorno Vranovci.

While much of Caska municipality comprises remote and inaccessible terrain, the town itself does have one enviable benefit- its own railroad station on the Skopje-Bitola line. Another key strategy for the municipality is to develop the increasingly popular “monastery tourism” that brings the religiously or historically curious to see some of Macedonia’s most representative cultural monuments. New publications from Caska point out a wealth of churches to see, including the 13th century Gorna Crkva and Monastery of Sveti Spas in Bogomila, Teovo’s Monastery of Sveti Arhangel Mihail, Sveti Bogorodica near the village of Sogle, and the secluded Monastery of Sveti Ghiorgia outside Bogomila.

Kriva Palanka, in Macedonia’s northeastern corner, is another mountainous, sparsely populated municipality that is banking on monastery tourism. The sublime Monastery of St. Joakim Osogovski is located about 3 km northeast of the town and remains the area’s best-known attraction. Similarly rural Demir Hisar, in southern Macedonia, put an emphasis with its own fair presentation on its monasteries, including the 17th century Sveti Atanasij Aleksandriski, Sveti Petar in the village of Smilevo, Sveti Nikola Toplicki,

Dobromirovo Monastery in Slepce, the Golemo Ilino Monastery of Sveti Ilija, built in 1550, and more.

Prilep too is keen on developing its monastery tourism. It has one of the more famous churches in Macedonia, the 12th century Treskavec Monastery, built into an adjacent mountainside. But Prilep also has something else: the formidable Mariovo plain, an isolated moonscape of mountains, creeks and traditional houses set in nearly deserted ghost villages. This great area stretches to the border with Greece, hemmed in by the Kozjak Mountain to the east and on the west evening out at the Bitola plain.

Mende Trajkovski, Mariovo enthusiast and head of the environmental association “Kajmakcalan” was involved with the 2003 Mariovo Children’s Camp (a project sponsored by the Soros Foundation’s Living Heritage Network) that brought together kids and Mariovo elders. The former provided a living connection to the past through stories and workshops in traditional sheep fleecing and honey-making, among other things. For Trajkovski, such interactive projects help stress the living connections with the past that can still be made in this largely depopulated region. “Everyone should visit Mariovo,” he said at the SAEM fair. “This is one of the most fascinating parts of Macedonia.” Prilep Mayor Risteski agreed, stating that Mariovo is a central part of the municipality’s future tourism strategy.

Other municipalities are banking on new investment in winter tourism. Mavrovo of course leads the way, with its established ski resort, international competitions and several hotels. In Ohrid, there is talk of developing Mt. Galicica for skiing (though this is a national park). At the convention, Kavadarci Municipality used its presentation space to promote its Kozuf ski center, a joint Greek-Macedonian investment that should be ready by 2007. This resort, which “promises to become the most modern tourist centre in the Balkans” according to the Southeastern European Times, will require a 72-million euro investment, to be invested over the next three years.

The ski center is expected to be comprised of 40 kilometers of ski trails and will be located at a height of 1,500-2000 meters above sea level. Perhaps over-optimistically, planners are expecting to fill a “600-bed hotel, 450 four-star 180-bed suites, 750 cottages, a shopping mall, a parking lot for 1,600 vehicles, and sport facilities.” Yet there is no guarantee such a facility would be popular in the summertime, and there are environmental concerns as well, as Kozuf is home to endemic flowers and trees.

Nevertheless, in July Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski pledged state assistance for the construction of connecting roads, 35 kilometers in all, a potential example of the type of new cooperation state and local governments will have in future economic development projects, Panco Minov, the mayor of Kavadarci, has specifically asked the central government for help in realizing the project, “which will mean revival of the economy in Kavadarci and Gevgelija” he said, according to the SE Times.

But small personal initiatives on the local level can also lead to results. Mixed marriages between locals and foreigners have led to an influx of foreign tourists, albeit in small numbers to some places. The same goes for expatriate Macedonians. According to Strumica Mayor Zoran Zaev, Strumica natives living in Holland have helped the municipality attract Dutch visitors. “This summer they brought 4 tours consisting of 15-25 people each,” says Mayor Zaev. “The Dutch are very interested, especially in the villages around Strumica.”

To better facilitate tourists’ needs, more informative infrastructure is required. All too often roads in Macedonia are insufficiently signposted and main attractions like churches and mosques often not open to the public, or only on erratic hours. Incidentally one wonders about the strategic worth of the Ohrid Agreement’s decree to make signs in minority languages rather than in English. This costly and time-consuming process will no doubt bring emotional and political satisfaction for some, but it won’t particularly help develop Macedonia as a destination for the outside world.

According to Mayor Zaev, the next big project for his city will be to create a tourism information center, with a large map of the municipality, so that tourists can locate the key points of interest in the Strumica area.

Lessons Learned and New Opportunities

As they enjoyed the weekend fair at SEAM, Macedonia’s mayors learned from one other’s experiences, swapped stories and made contacts with one another and with international donors. All in all, mayors seemed to be satisfied with the initiative that brought them together for a few days and about the prospects for the future, despite the teething problems of the decentralization process.

“It was a big experience for me,” said Caska Mayor Manevski. “I took a lot of information out of it and got good ideas from my colleagues. We are prepared to do something for the good of the people.”

“Most of us are young,” noted Mayor Risteski of Prilep. “So we’re optimistic for the future. There is potential.”

Strumica’s Zaev continued on this theme, noting that “we represent a new generation, and we have new obligations.”

Adding that the new powers granted under decentralization have put a new spotlight on their activities and led the citizens to expect more, the mayor joked, “it’s harder now, because we are so open with our citizens- they feel free to come here to complain! But we were elected, and we have an obligation to solve their problems.”

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