Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Why Notre Dame de Paris is important

Gothic cathedrals were the spaceships of their age.

They required polling of the resources of whole societies, both in terms of money, talent and time, at the scale exceeding our contemporary space programs. They mobilized the best scientists and the engineers of the time--forming a network spanning half a continent--to come up with innovative solutions, based on exchange of knowledge with foreign lands.

And--in a quite literal sense for their builders--their purpose was to help people get to Heaven.

Set in chiseled stone, they were also meant to last forever. Or at least until the Second Coming and the Judgement Day.

Their value has far surpassed their initial role as places of worship or edifices of then-established order, and therefore those who survived have been preserved as cultural heritage monuments, and testaments of ingenuity and effort, of sweat and tears of the people who built them.

#NotreDameDeParis is one of the foremost symbols of permanence and continuity of Civilization. Its importance was reinforced by its actual presence over the centuries, and through literature, film and other arts by creators world over, from Paris to Los Angeles, from Milan to Tokyo. Some of them had never touched its stone, or looked up at gargoyle drain spouts from bellow.

The tragic fire showed us how fragile our world is. Nothing lasts forever. This devastating event joins us in solidarity with our sisters and brothers from France, as it is they who--due to proximity--feel the burden the most.

Sharing our common shock and grief goes beyond the sense of being European, 'pro-Western' or 'citizen of the world' - it's simply a reiteration of the fact that it's our shared culture that makes us human.

Moreover, since 1945 Europe had shown that, when cultural values are shared, material damage can be repaired. When humanism and democracy rule, cultural heritage can be reconstructed, its cohesive role reinforced. The process was, is and will be used to heal wounds and build bridges that ensure ability to jointly face adversity. Especially at a time when the whole world can catch fire.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Andrzej Wajda and the "Man of Steel"

Today I found out that the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda (1926-2016) passed away. His movies made big impression on me as a child, especially "Canal" about the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

An episode from his life seems especially instructive as a lesson for artists at a time of political turmoil and totalitarian tendencies.

Less than a year after the first big strike of Solidarity in Gdansk shipyard in 1980, Andrzej Wajda made the movie "Man of Iron" (1981). The Polish Communist authorities censored the film shortly after, as the dictatorship tightened its grip.

Posters for the "Man of Iron" in French, Serbian and Polish.

The film won the Palme d'Or at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. The award is preserved in the museum of "Solidarity" in Gdansk, along with the posters for the movie from around the world, including from Yugoslavia.

The PAlme d'Or awarded to Andrzej Wajda at Cannes Film Festival for Man of Iron.

Monday, December 22, 2014

New Levies for Freelance Work Spark Protest in Macedonia

People from various sectors of Macedonian society have been raising their voices against the law that imposes new contributions to the state-run retirement and health funds for freelance work, in addition to personal income tax, effective from January 1, 2015.

The chief objection is that the employers will simply pay lower net honorariums to compensate for difference which can be as high as 35%. Another objection concerns the aspect of discrimination, i.e. de facto creation of caste society in Macedonia, as certain categories of citizens, such as elected and appointed public officials, judges, top athletes--whose status depends on the decision of ruling Party--as well as pensioners, would be exempt. Another issue is that those who'd receive even one honoraria larger than a minimal wage would not be able to register as unemployed for the following year. The changes will especially adversely affect the functioning of the nonprofit civil sector and independent media, where the employers have no sources for additional funds.

"Is this personal enough?" Protest meme designs  by MightyCreation Aleksandar Pesevski
"Is this personal enough?" Protest meme designs
by MightyCreation Aleksandar Pesevski, CC BY-NC.
Almost 5 thousand people have signed to attend a protest scheduled for December 22, 2014 at noon in the center of Skopje. Online conversations use the hashtag #ПротестХонорарци (Protest of those who receive honorariums). The event, supported by the Macedonian Translators Association and the independent Journalist Trade Union, among others, has been promoted with the following explanation:
Why paying additional contributions to honoraria for freelance work is unacceptable?

The Government’s intention to introduce contributions for freelance work from January 1 2015 will increase poverty unemployment. Besides, exempting state employees from this obligation which the Government imposes on the all other mortals, without any logical explanation, shows the full perversity of the concept.

Our demands are:

1. Stop the implementation of the new regulations… in order to create space for their change and withdrawal.
2. Increase the work of the Labor Inspectorate and detect the actual cases of hidden employment, or the proclaimed issue of working without contracts or not paying of social security contributions…
3. Increase or abolish the highest monthly base for calculating contributions which currently amounts six average salaries.

Who will be affected by these legislative changes?

Large number of Macedonian citizens who have no opportunity for full-time employment are forced to fight for their existence working for honorariums, which most often are neither regular or large. Such freelancers are not entitled to labor rights which come with full-time registered employment. Far from privileged, they are part of the precariat, the most endangered working class. When these legislative changes come into effect, their employers will lower the honorariums in order to pay the contribution benefits requested by the state, thus causing further impoverishment. It is also possible that, with a lower bottom line, that many such people would be fired, increasing the unemployment.

All persons who are employed full-time and all people that will be employed in the future are affected by these legislative changes!

These changes:

1) Affect temporary hidden employees (journalists and others). They should have permanent (full-time) and not temporary employment contracts. But their employers, in order to make additional profit from not paying the salary contributions, annual leave, sick leave, etc. of their employees, give them the status of temporary, instead of full-time employees.

2) Affect temporary employees whose profession is freelance by nature (translators/interpreters, project staff, etc.). In most cases such as these no employer would employ them full time and they are forced to become opportunists (opportunities in most cases are little or none), forced to struggle to make a (semi)decent living, and more often than not they fail to do so.

3) Affect full-time employees who also freelance. They are employed full time, but use fees from freelance work as an additional source of income. Although they are least affected, their impoverishment should not be overlooked. Salaries for the vast majority of the population in Macedonia have become insufficient for a decent life. Having said this, the few occasions for freelance engagements for these people should not be seen as opportunities for their enrichment, but as a chance for a slightly more decent living for themselves and their families.

4) Affect all future employees and all current full-time employees. The new amendments will enable employers, having fulfilled all of their financial obligations to the state, to legally employ only temporary instead of full-time employees. It is even possible that they –again, completely legally – transform all current full-employment contracts to temporary employment contracts. Thus, by having fulfilled their financial obligations toward the state and not having it as an obstacle, they will be able to profit by exploiting the employees through not paying them annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave, mandatory annual physical examination, severance packages for persons whose employment has been terminated; as well as to deprive employees of the rights guaranteed under the Law on Labor Relations and other laws regulating employment rights.

With these amendments the government wants to overlook the biggest problem of Macedonia – and that is poverty – not the increase in the amount of money it controls! The remedy offered is worse than the disease itself! The poor and the oppressed should not be used as scapegoats and sacrificed so the government can overcome the problems with the Pension and Disability Insurance and the Health Insurance Funds it itself created!
The Parliament adopted these legal changes under urgent procedure during the Summer holiday season in July, without any prior consultations with the relevant stakeholders. The dumfounded public had to wait until October for the authorities to offer official explanation of the many ambiguities in the new regulations to react. The Government has so far been refusing to postpone the implementation of the law, but seems to backtrack on the issue of privileged for the public officials - the relevant procedure has been quietly removed from the website of the state pension fund. Some social media users have commented that the unconstitutional and discriminatory aspect was intentionally placed as a bargaining chip.

 Overall, the Government plays tough in public, especially after the massive student protests sparked hopes for changes in the stagnant society. At base level, the influx of fresh funds (expected EUR 68 million) is direly needed for the depleted health and pension funds, as the bloated state budget has to sponsor the loyalty to the ruling parties of the "army" of estimated 180 thousand state employees, in a country with about 2 million citizens.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Ebola Scare as Distraction from Unflattering EU Report on Macedonia

Issuing of critical EU report on Macedonia coincided with other government activities that drew the public attention: massive spectacular arrest of judges, and over the top reaction to alleged case of ebola. On October 8, 2014, the European Commission (EC) issued its annual Progress Reports, delineating the progress of countries participating in the process of joining the European Union (EU). In case of Macedonia, the report noted significant backsliding in the areas of freedom of expression, media and the independence of the judiciary, apart from the ongoing name issue, as summed up by Enlargement Commissioner Füle in the following video:

Subtitled statement by Füle via 24vesti

Foreign political analysts did not express optimism regarding the Macedonian government's response:
However, on the same day, the Macedonian authorities staged a massive police action leading to arrest of 14 judges and 11 officers of the Skopje Basic Court, in front of the cameras of Sitel TV, which is most influential in the country. The judges stand accused of delaying implementation of sanctions against perpetrators of misdemeanors, resulting in lack of fines. In some media, this occurrence overshadowed the conclusions of the EU report. The second most influential TV station, Kanal 5, decided to devote more time in the evening news to traffic accidents and local political squabbles, with a reporter claiming that the Macedonian public was uninterested in the EU report. The next day, another media blitz followed: a British national who died in a Skopje hotel was suspected of ebola. The authorities sealed the hotel (and the neighborhood) with a heavy police force, imposing strict quarantine to dozens of guests trapped inside. Media buzzed with warnings about the disease, even though its existence was not confirmed at all. The ebola case put Macedonia on the map of world news organizations, thanks to speedy and continuous Reuters coverage. UK media in particular picket up the story, but also many in the US and elsewhere.
In Macedonia, a continuous stream of news items about the case flooded the media, "revealing" various aspects such as the role of the British businessman, his ties with the government and its efforts to attract foreign investors, etc.
Macedonia health authorities sent samples to a relevant laboratory in Hamburg, Germany, which after three days confirmed that the ebola was not cause of death. Foreign follow up coverage was far less spectacular than with the initial news, even though new details had sensationalist potential.
Even before the official results were out, Macedonian social media users expressed doubts about the propaganda use of the whole case. As early on October 9, one twitter user pointed out that the victim suffered from chronic alcoholism.
Foreign journalists did not know that Swine Flu, Bird Flu, or ebola usually attack Macedonia after each EC Report. No matter, at least they'll enjoy a bit of traveling.
Is the harsh criticism by the EU a reason for "occurence" of ebola in Macedonia?
Everybody used to talk about the Report, now everybody talk about ebola. - The Prime Minister likes this.
Tonight on Sitel: Macedonia with largest economic growth of all ebola-affected countries.
Seasoned journalist Erol Rizaov expressed his outrage in a column entitled "There's no ebola, but there are plenty of idiots:"
It would be mission impossible for a pro-government television to air an unconfirmed news that a man suffering from infectious disease that scares the whole world died in this country, without a blessing from the government. It is unthinkable to continue propagating the same news as prime time for three days and three nights, as if a catastrophic earthquake hit somewhere between the Phillip the Second Arena [the seat of Sitel TV] and the Government building, without political assistance and logistical aid. Somebody sorely needed "ebola in Macedonia," even if that would quarantine the whole country, as they quarantined the "hotel of horror." If a real ebola patient exists in a country, than the procedure is akin to plague epidemics, with hermetic closing of all doors in and out of Macedonia. This is the big accomplishment of these high professionals. They froze the blood of our citizens by spreading the lie of the year, that the Brit who died in a hotel had ebola symptoms. Someone was in a real big hurry to distance the people from the real dramatic news affecting the country's future. This future is jeopardized, according to the European authorities from Brussels. After the news of wholesale arrest of an entire court of law, planting the ebola story came as a cherry on a cake for redirecting the public attention.
"Ebola" graffiti on a wall in Caen, France. Photo by F. S., CC-BY.
"Ebola" graffiti on a wall in Caen, France. Photo by F. Stojanovski, CC-BY.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Macedonia: Media Outlet Mixes Labor Day with Giving Birth

Click to enlarge
In line with Macedonian government's campaigns to increase the number of births, a local newspaper declared that the U.S. holiday Labor Day is some sort of celebration of pregnancy and published an article "informing" about many American celebrities who mark it by being pregnant.


Can the propaganda become more bizarre? Yes it can!

Macedonia has declining number of births and increasing rate of emigration due to worsening economic and social conditions, including the decline of freedoms over the past several years. To hide this reality, the Government refuses to conduct a census way past the deadline set by law, which is 10 years since the last one (in 2002).  As a way to "remedy" the situation, the Government invests public money in costly PR campaigns [mk] with a "side-effect" of bribing the complacent media through advertising.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Macedonia State Election Commission Changed Data on their Website

This morning some the State Election Commission changed some of the data on their website.

During the night Libertas.mk informed about discrepancies between the actual numbers, sums and percentages shown on SEC website. Incited by the numerous posts on the social networks, as soon as I opened the article I also accessed the SEC Results website and verified that the screenshots published by Libertas are genuine. That was around 9:30 on 29.04.2014.

This is how data on Aerodrom on SEC website looked around 9:30 on 29.04.2014.

Another screenshot of SEC website made around 9:30 on 29.04.2014.
Around 10:30 I returned to the SEC website and saw that it displays different data, with the numbers, sums and percentages which correspond. One hour before, the turnout for the whole country was 64.05%, and the new figures lowered it to 63.93%. Similarly for the municipality of Aerodrom, in the morning it had turnout of 99.76%, and after 10 pm the turnout was 68.49%.

This is how data on Aerodrom on SEC website looked around 10:30 on 29.04.2014.

Another screenshot of SEC website made around 10:30 on 29.04.2014.

I am curious as to what figures are contained within the results provided on paper to the international observers immediately after the counting.

As a public, a people and a state we deserve an explanation from SEC whether this is some sort of error or purposeful changes, and if there was an error, what caused it.

--- Update at 15:40 hrs, 29.04.2014 ---

SEC sent the following media release by e-mail at 14:25 hrs.:

    Republic of Macedonia
State Election Commission

Media Announcement
Regarding the claims put forward by certain Internet portals about the difference of 20.000 votes between the valid and invalid ballots at the early parliamentary elections in municipality of Aerodrom, the State Election Commission issues the following clarification:

During the input of data in the computer syste of the State Election Commission a typo was made in the field 5.of the registry of the Municipal Election Commission which contains the data about the total number of voters who voted. During the comparison of the recorded data in the system with the records of the MEC Aerodrom it was discovered that the system in the field 5. contains the data item 63,818 instead of 43,818. This error was corrected and it has no influence on the votes won and the mandates by political parties which are correctly input in the system, it only has an effect on the percentage of turnout.

According to the correction made, the turnout at the parliamentary elections in Aerodrom municipality is 68.49%, and at the level of Republic of Macedonia it is 62.95%.

State Election Commission

Friday, April 11, 2014

Underrepresentation of Women as Recipients of State Awards in #Macedonia

Can the only important thing done by women for this state from 2009 to 2014 is to be a well known singer or one-twelfth of the support staff for a male national team?

According to his "Account" („Отчет“), during his mandate as president of Republic of Macedonia Gjorge Ivanov awarded medals to 185 individuals. His official explanation why is the following:

"I did all this to send a strong message to the Macedonian public that everything that has been achieved in culture, sport, and social life is valued and noted by the state."
4% of the recepients of these awards are female.

Those 4% consist of 8 persons. Two are citizens of Republic of Macedonia fellow-party member Esma Redzepova-Teodosievska and Iva Chadikovska - member of the support staff of the male handball national team, consisting of a dozen persons, which received a medal in bulk. The other 6 female ricipients are foreign nationals, including one professor of Slavic studies, and 5 members of the ethnic Macedonian diaspora.

The 1% of the medal recipients are female citizens, as opposed to about 50% of the population seems quite disproportionate, especially due to the ambitious declaration that the purpose of the awards was to provide recognition to "everything that has been achieved." Do you think so, too?

Analyzing by areas, for instance taking into consideration which ministers received medals posthumously, "everything" important turns out to mean - the police.

Similar hazy criteria applies to institutions which received medals. For instance, in the priority area of education, only two institutions of higher learning received medals - the Faculty of Law "Iustinianus Primus," in Skopje (where Ivanov was professor) and the SEE University - Tetovo.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How Does it Feel to be Mugged by Bulgarian Cops?

Central Bus Station Sofia. Photo by Nikola Gruev, published on Wikipedia under CC-BY license.
Central Bus Station Sofia. Photo by Nikola Gruev, published on Wikipedia under CC-BY license.

 Political scientist and blogger Anastas Vangeli described his experience of extortion by Bulgarian policemen on his way from Macedonia to Poland. On February 9, 2014, two armed officers "detained" him at a secluded area the main bus station in Sofia, until he gave them some money. In conclusion, he wrote:
This was probably one of the most disappointing experiences in my lifetime. What added to the disappointment, however, were the comments and the double victimization by people when I told them this happened:
  • I was asking for it since I look “like a foreigner” and rich
  • I was asking for it since I was bragging with my China books and looked rich
  • I was supposed to know and expect this kind of things
  • I was supposed to hold my grounds better, e.g. not let them take me to a room, not let them get my money
  • I am supposed not to complain, as this stuff happens every day and I am not special
These are all statements that not speak only of the reality of omnipresent corruption and abuse of office and power, but about the complete lack of empathy, or even consciousness that one day it might be you. Moreover, it is an indicator that people have given up the hope that things will change; but also the responsibility that they should contribute to such change. At the end of the day, the state holds the monopoly of the use of force; I was mugged by those who are supposed to protect me (even though I don’t have a Bulgarian passport – no pun intended). So all kinds of relativizing comments are completely out of place on this.
These reactions are consistent with one of the key characteristics of "backsliding from democracy," exposed at the Seventh Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, held in Lima, in October 2012:
"...corruption becomes so widespread that citizens accept is as a norm."
People commenting (in various languages) on Vangeli's Facebook post about the incident reminisced that such "toll for foreigners" was common Bulgarian police practice during the dismal 1990's - but did not expect its resurgence. Some of them related similar experiences from other countries, from Russia to Kenya. Activist Besim Nebiu wrote:
Notice how they immediately asked you if you have a flight to catch at the airport. That gave them the 'upper hand' in dealing with you. A friend of mine who lives in Kenya, once wrote a blog post, in which he describes how corrupt police have "opportunity cost" (8 hours shifts in which they try to maximize revenue). They usually avoid "difficult customers," so any strategy of acting dumb and not too upset should work, after 15 minutes, they give up on you, and move to someone easier to deal with.
Special Winter uniform of Bulgarian Border Police. Source: Ministry of Interior.

Special Winter uniform of Bulgarian Border Police presented [bg] on the website of Ministry of Interior Affairs. According to the victim, the officers in question wore green and carried badges of common police (“Ohranitelna Politsiya”), which according to the Ministry wears dark blue uniforms.
  Bulgarian blogger Komitata translated Vangeli's post within his post [bg] "They protect us and it's no theatre," which includes opinions about the local context of wasted state resources on police actions praised by the relevant minister:
The system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is not reformed. Previous government invested great efforts, but due to lack of decisiveness and political will, the reforms remain modest and far from irreversible.
In his post, Komitata also referred to Twitter discussion [bg] in which Bulgarians ask whether the police has the right to search them at the bus station, and pointed to a info on citizen rights during police searches [bg].

What is Backsliding from Democracy? - Return to Authoritarian Rule

Backsliding from democracy is experienced by nominally democratic countries world over. An early discussion about this phenomenon took place at the Seventh Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, held in Lima, in October 2012. During the discussions the following four signs of backsliding were identified based on experiences from South East Europe:
  • "The first is a shrinking space for freedom, a process which creeps up and often goes unnoticed by the public. Decline of Freedom of expression, for example, often starts with self-censorship. Public information becomes increasingly incomplete, inaccurate and hard to access; consequently, the government stops letting people know what it is doing. 
  • Second, corruption becomes so widespread that citizens accept is as a norm. 
  • Thirdly, trust in institutions declines, as their legitimacy is replaced with legality. 
  • The final indicator is the selective application of justice, most poignantly illustrated in... selective prosecution of opposition leaders."
(I actually attended this discussion, and was impressed on how the speakers were able to concisely synthesize a very vast and confounding subject. The quote above is based on the transcript from the Seventh Assembly's bulletin.)

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Pre-Christmas Fires Indicate Survival of Ancient Slavic Rites in Macedonia

Ancient custom of lighting fires around the Winter Solstice, originally in honor of the Slavic sky god Svarog, is alive and well in Macedonia, as presented by this great pictorial [es] by Robert Atanasovski and Gorgi Licovski, published by Miami Herald.

Most of the participants consider it part of the Orthodox Christian Tradition, even though some Orthodox Christian priests regularly denounce this practice as "pagan" (in a very pejorative sense), reminding that it's not related to church cannons. Some, but not all, as the celebrants also invite orthodox priests to bless the fire. Such priests charge various kinds of material compensation for these acts.

In the past, the solstice and Christmas coincided. However as Earth plows through the universe and also turns, the imperfect Roman calendar required readjustment, done in XVI century by Pope Gregory. In Macedonia, most Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas according to the old calendar, so today it's removed from the actual solstice (December 21) by about two weeks. 

In Skopje, these fires are built within neighborhoods, gathering residents of a single alley or of an apartment complex. Neighbors prepare the wood and chip in to buy food and alcohol. Often the chief person of the celebration is deemed godfather or godmother of the feast, an annual honor that includes preparation/bringing of some special type of food, like the customary pie. 

In order to win favor with the voters, authorities keep a blind eye on the ecological aspects of these fires (normally it is not allowed to build fires within urban areas) and even use public funds to supplement much of the fuel.