by Sonja StojadinovicSeptember 08, 2021
On October 17th, local elections will be organized in North Macedonia. For the first time in the history of the state’s independence—obtained exactly 30 years ago to the day—several cities, including the capital Skopje, have lists with independent candidates. This is of immense importance to Macedonian society, because the government has frequently attempted to sabotage elections with ad hoc changes to election rules.
Earlier this week, I interviewed Dragana Velkovska, long-time activist and founder of the movement Zelen Human Grad (ZHG, translated as Green Humane City), who is running for member of the Skopje City Council. She is at the head of the candidate list. I wanted to find out why she decided to enter local politics, after over a decade of organizing with grassroots groups.
Zelen Human Grad brings together ordinary people, as well as more than 15 activist groups engaged in environment protection, animal rights, and many other initiatives. The movement aims to create better living conditions for Skopje residents, against a backdrop of entrenched government corruption and lack of transparency.
With misogyny and mistreatment of women rampant in Macedonian society, women’s participation in politics is a struggle in itself. Thus, the 2021 Skopje elections have become an intersectional, high-stakes battleground for those advancing social justice in the region, especially because ZHG’s candidate list for the October elections is 60% female.
Dragana: I have been part of many protests and marches the past few years. Among the most recent is the largest anti-air pollution march in our country in 2019, the March for Our Lives. We organized it as part of a coalition of almost 40 Macedonian activist groups called the Green Front. We created a “Green Book” of requests for environmental action, with deadlines, and we followed up on their realization.
Another group of which I am part, Ohrid SOS, is mostly engaged in institutional work, but we have also organized street performances about our struggle to preserve Lake Ohrid’s ecosystem. We organized demonstrations under the name of Mora Moratorium (Mandatory Moratorium) in the past few years as well, to stop urbanization from spinning out of control.
I grew sick of decisions being made for me by politicians whom I easily surpass in competence. I grew sick of their lies and hypocrisy. My decision to run, and to motivate my fellow activists to do the same, comes after decades of observing the betrayal and ineptitude of Macedonian politicians.
Some people in my movement, Zelen Human Grad, have been activists/volunteers for over 20 years. I have been an animal rights and environmental activist/volunteer for more than 12 years. During this time, I was constantly working closely with politicians, pressuring them for recognition of animal rights and environmental protection.
The effectiveness of my actions always reached a plateau: politicians safeguarding their personal interests. Implementation of laws to preserve public interest has been in a state of paralysis for years in our country, and that is one of the reasons I am running. We live in a country of relatively acceptable legislation, but an unenforced law is a worthless law.
My first goal is to open the city of Skopje to the people. The sessions of the Skopje City Council are not streamed online; the current majority SDSM is violating the city of Skopje Statute by not even publishing the agenda for the sessions on the city’s website; the Council president is not granting permission for interested citizens to be present in the sessions, thus violating the Rules of Procedure of the Skopje City Council.
What is more, there are no mechanisms for people to effectively submit their suggestions to the city of Skopje. There is no transparent platform to do so, including public and expert consultation. People are completely unaware of what goes on in the City Council. People don’t even know the names of the Council members who allegedly represent them in the city of Skopje. This has to change, and my goal is to provide mechanisms for direct democracy such as MyCity and citizens’ budget forums. It is mandatory that people have control over the ways their money is spent, it is mandatory that people have a say in the prioritization and selection of activities to be funded by the city budget.
It’s not just the city of Skopje that is dysfunctional. Macedonian institutions in general have been slowly eroding for decades. We have reached a point of institutional dysfunctionality bordering the absurd. My ultimate goal is to completely reverse this. This can be achieved when competent and empathetic people who have been volunteering and altruistically helping improve our community for years, take the lead in Macedonian institutions.
We are social actors who do not belong to the political elite—quite the opposite. We are intruders in the institutional political system, the heirs of social struggles and local community movements. That is what makes us a powerful change agent and gives us legitimacy in the public eye.
The first and most daunting challenge has been apathy among people. Thirty years of unscrupulous lies have taken a heavy toll on public trust. Even some of the long-time activists took time to convince to join the first independent list for the Skopje City Council. Zelen Human Grad (ZHG) is comprised of over 15 activist groups and individual activists, and it functions horizontally. However, some groups do not have representatives on the list. We have time, patience, and dedication on our side, and I know that with our work in the upcoming term, we will start bringing back hope and rebuilding trust. This is another unique capacity that activist candidates bring to the table in institutional politics.
Then there were the attempts to adopt authoritarian-like amendments to the Electoral Code. The ruling majority initiated changes to Article 62 of the Electoral Code which has remained unchanged since it was passed into law in 2006. The attempt to change the rules was a tendentious and blatant discrimination based on political affiliation. However, after strong push-back, the undemocratic changes never saw the light of day.
After ZHG managed became a recognized political actor, pro-government propagandists initiated a smear campaign against us. We responded gracefully, and I was personally very glad to see that the public was not even for a moment swayed by their manipulations.
Activism is an internal urge, an inexhaustible energy, a passion, and a commitment for a better and more just tomorrow. At the moment, ZHG is in the process of becoming part of a European network of green/independent local councilors. Unity across regions and mutual aid will be very beneficial, not just in achieving our local transparency and accountability goals with the Skopje City Council, but in our struggle for sustainable development and just transition of the region.
Note: The interview was slightly edited for clarity.
Sonja Stojadinovic is an MA student in Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. She holds bachelor and master degrees in political science and international relations, both obtained on the Faculty of Law, Skopje, University of St. Cyril and Methodius, Republic of North Macedonia. She is also an activist and well-known columnist for North Macedonian daily newspapers and regional political web sites.Read More