‘Uncapturing’ the state: Interview with Macedonian NGO Eurothink.

In the latest in our regular series that profiles the work of civil society organizations in the Western Balkans that are working to strengthen resilience to organized crime, we talk to Dimitar Nikolovski and Aleksandar Stojanovski of Eurothink – Center for European Strategies in Skopje, North Macedonia.

Dimitar Nikolovski and Aleksandar Stojanovski of Eurothink – Center for European Strategies, Skopje.

Dimitar Nikolovski and Aleksandar Stojanovski of Eurothink – Center for European Strategies, Skopje.

What is Eurothink’s background and mandate?
Eurothink was founded in 2002 as the Macedonian Center for European Training. The initial focus was on training on topics related to European accession for people in public administration, civil society and the media. In 2007, the name was changed to Eurothink – Center for European Strategies. This was a reflection of a shift in focus from training to more of a think tank-oriented CSO dedicated to generating and sharing evidence-based policy research and activities.

When and why did Eurothink’s work pivot from focusing on the EU to looking more at organized crime and corruption?
The EU is still very much the main focus of our work, but in 2016 we widened our scope to address some of the main issues confronting our country – like violent extremism, migration, corruption, organized crime and environmental issues. With the dramatic events around the fall of the government of Nikola Gruevski, we thought that more focus was needed on issues related to chapter 24 of the EU acquis on justice, freedom and security. Quite a few NGOs were focusing on corruption, but almost none on organized crime issues related to chapter 24 processes.

How would you evaluate the progress of North Macedonia, particularly in relation to chapter 24?
The current government is certainly doing a better job than the previous one: it is worth recalling that the European Commission once described North Macedonia as a ‘captured state’ under the Gruevski regime. Indeed, progress was good enough to be invited to open accession negotiations with the EU, before this was blocked by Bulgaria. But there is room for improvement, for example in relation to reducing politicization of the police (including through a vetting process), improving financial investigations and the seizure and recovery of assets, enhancing border management and putting more effective asylum-seeking procedures in place.

How can civil society organizations like Eurothink help in the implementation of chapter 24?
We can play a watchdog function, monitoring implementation. We have created a network of interested NGOs in North Macedonia called Network 24 that does exactly that. But civil society can help in other ways too – and we do – through making analyses and recommendations, surveying public opinion on relevant topics, providing information about the needs, interests and views of citizens, raising awareness and providing professional support. We have also published specific guidelines for the involvement of CSOs in chapter 24.1

You publish a regular Eurometer, which measures public attitudes towards the EU. What is your assessment of current public opinion in North Macedonia towards EU accession, taking into account the weak signal from the recent EU–Western Balkans summit in Brdo and Bulgaria’s continued blockage of North Macedonia’s EU ambitions?
We have been publishing the Eurometer since 2014. Since we ask the same questions every time, it is interesting to track how opinions have evolved.2 Since 2014, support for the EU within the population has been high (around 70%), but lately we have noticed that it is falling. People are starting to lose hope and look for alternatives to EU accession. Luckily, authoritarian options are still not that popular.

In the past, North Macedonia was described as a ‘captured state’. How would you assess the democratic oversight of the security and intelligence services?
The wiretapping scandal that broke in 2015 really shook this country. Apparently, the private conversations of over 20 000 people were illegally intercepted under the direction of senior government ministers and the intelligence agency. This demonstrated traits of some of the most undemocratic regimes. The challenge now is to ‘uncapture’ the state. Important reforms have been made to strengthen parliamentary and civilian oversight of the security sector, to make the intelligence apparatus more accountable and transparent. But progress is still needed, particularly regarding the judiciary and the prosecution, which remain the weakest links in the fight against organized crime and corruption in this country. This is an issue that should be in the focus of the EU, and all those trying to heal the scars caused by organized crime and corruption in North Macedonia.

Eurothink has focused on environmental crime in North Macedonia. This topic has received relatively little attention in the region. Why did you decide to focus on illegal logging, and what did you discover in your research?
In the past few years, environmental issues have moved up the political agenda in many countries, but not in North Macedonia. This is perhaps because of all the other issues that have been going on with political scandals, bilateral relations and EU accession. We wanted to focus on the impact of environmental issues since we felt that this area was being neglected. The more we looked into the situation, the more we realized that bad policies and management of natural resources were resulting in air pollution and health problems. There are a number of factors that are contributing to the environmental problems in this country, for example related to waste management, energy policy, urban planning and traffic management. The result is that Skopje has some of the highest levels of pollution in Europe, even without much heavy industry. One thing we discovered is that many more people heat their homes with wood than what is officially reported. And some types of trees cut in North Macedonia are being sold as exotic hardwood. Both of these types of wood are being illegally logged in Macedonia’s forests. Our research exposed that half of all the firewood needed to heat homes in North Macedonia is illegally sourced. According to our estimates, this is an illicit market worth €60 million a year. If this trend continues, there will be serious consequences for our country in just 10 to 15 years.

After your report was released, was there any follow-up from the government?
Perhaps it was coincidence, but soon after our report came out, the forest police got new uniforms, better equipment and an increase in salaries.3 In addition, an inter-ministerial body was created to address illegal logging. Nevertheless, the devastating forest fires that ravaged North Macedonia this summer suggest that there may be people deliberately setting fires in order to receive permits to clear the burnt trees. Such cases and the continuation of illegal logging show that more needs to be done to prevent and counter the destruction of our forests.

Have you looked at other types of environmental crime?
There are indications that waste is being illegally imported into North Macedonia.4 This is a big business. There is a problem with lack of regulation at landfill sites, as well as a risk of mineral exploitation. And there are signs that the transformation to a green economy is being exploited by powerful lobbying groups with potential ties to political, business and criminal elites.

How do you engage with the government to effect change?
It may seem funny, but wherever possible we try to have a memorandum of understanding with our government counterparts. This can open doors when we have problems at the local level. We also try to be persistent – to keep our issues on the agenda, even if they are not among the current political priorities. More generally, we try to have good personal contacts with our counterparts and build trust. Sometimes, working with the government is like a dance, you need different moves for different occasions, and it also depends on your partner. We try to take a constructive approach; after all, on the issues that we cover, government and civil society ought to be on the same side.


  1. The guidelines are available at: eurothink.mk/2021/03/23/5066

  2. For a longitudinal comparison, see: eurothink.mk/2021/05/04/duplicated-2014-2021-5117

  3. The report is available at: eurothink.mk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/CIP-FINAL-Izvestaj-Drvokradci-AN.pdf

  4. For details, see: Saska Cvetkovska et al., ‘Europe’s waste dump’: How dangerously polluting oil ended up heating North Macedonia’s hospitals, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, 21 May 2021, www.occrp.org/en/investigations/europes-waste-dump-how-dangerously-polluting-oil-ended-up-heating-north-macedonias-hospitals