Ohrid SOS citizens’ initiative

MACEDONIA/2017

Since mobilizing in response to the multiple urbanization plans that represent an existential threat to the ecosystems of the UNESCO Lake Ohrid in the Republic of Macedonia, which are globally unique, the Ohrid SOS citizens’ initiative has suffered various types of persecution, disruption, and obstruction of its operations on both an individual and organizational level. These have ranged from attempts to criminalize activists to a campaign of fake news aimed at discrediting the initiative and its members.

The party does not forget!

JANUARY 2015: The Ohrid SOS citizens’ initiative comprises a group of scientists, activists, NGO leaders, and concerned citizens acting in response to plans to drain the Studenchishte Marsh, the last remains of a vital Lake Ohrid wetland that functions as a natural filter maintaining the extremely specific water conditions which the ancient lake’s ecosystems have evolved. The movement soon expanded to oppose multiple proposed projects for the region, including an EBRD-financed express road, a ski resort, and multiple shoreline development zones in the Galichica National Park.

Following an assembly meeting in March 2015 at the Municipality of Ohrid to discuss the drainage of the Studenchishte Marsh, at which attempts are made to ridicule Ohrid SOS and thereby shut down its contribution, one activist was advised not to interfere in the wetland issue by a member of the Republic of Macedonia’s ruling party. The same activist was also informed that the ruling party “does not forget”, interpreted as a warning of future consequences should his involvement with the Ohrid SOS initiative continue.

The vanishing of the comments on the SEA

FEBRUARY 2016: Ohrid SOS submits extensive comments in both English and Macedonian as part of the public consultation process for the Second Draft of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for Draft Amendments to the 2011-2020 Management Plan for the Galichica National Park, a report prepared by the United Kingdom’s Citrus Partners LLP. The SEA relates to plans for the aforementioned ski resort, express road, and tourism development zones. When the document responding to comments is released by Citrus in June 2016, all trace of Ohrid SOS’s submission has disappeared and it has been replaced with another document. Ohrid SOS reacts by contacting the Galichica National Park (the official recipients for comments), Citrus Partners LLP, and the EBRD, the proposed financier for part of the road and SEA facilitator. Neither Citrus Partners nor the Galichica National Park responds to requests for an explanation. The EBRD writes back, emphasizing its lack of control over the SEA procedure, redirecting Ohrid SOS back to the authorities in Macedonia, and offering a meeting at the bank headquarters, which takes place in February 2017. To date, however, the disappearance of the comments has never been explained by any of the relevant parties.

Criminal charges and threats against Ohrid SOS activists

FEBRUARY 2016: Ilina Arsova, a prominent Ohrid SOS activist, artist, and sportswoman, is invited for questioning by the Ohrid police in response to complaints brought by the Municipality of Ohrid, key drivers of plans to urbanize the environmentally sensitive Lake Ohrid shoreline and drain the Studenchishte Marsh wetland. The questions centre on the activist’s peaceful activities to oppose the construction of an artificial beach complex in the village of Lagadin and the associated urbanization. Criminal charges – later dropped – are brought against Arsova. It is believed that her demands in the name of the people of Lagadin for access to information regarding the plans for the village was the motivating factor in the attempts to pressurize and criminalize her.

JUNE 2016: Threats are received by Ohrid SOS members after the initiative releases public criticism of an organized 4x4 event that saw a convoy of thrill-seeking off-road vehicles cut through the mountain habitats of the Galichica National Park. A photograph of one activist is intimidatingly shared online, while the aforementioned Ilina Arsova is obliquely told by supporters of the 4x4 event that they know the remote locations where she spends her free time. The convoy had been strongly supported by the Municipality of Ohrid and officially started by the Ohrid mayor.

JULY 2016: When photographing and recording the slaughter of trees, an Ohrid SOS activist is intimidated by public service workers, who verbally abuse and attempt to assault him, threatening to break his mobile phone. A similar incident in the same month sees the same activist verbally abused by public service workers again as he records further tree-felling.

A fake news campaign

JULY 2016 & ONGOING: A campaign of fake news and personal attacks against Ohrid SOS activists is disseminated by the local media outlet, Ohrid1, owned by Megastar Productions, the PR company that provides services to the Municipality of Ohrid’s Mayor Bakracheski, a key political figure backing environmentally reckless developments in the Ohrid region. The fake news largely takes the form of fabricated press releases sourced to a deceptive email account and signed by an unknown character named Fidan Zulfi, whose name is nowhere to be found in the official records of the Civil Registry of the Republic of Macedonia. Zulfi falsely claims to be the leader of Ohrid SOS and to speak on its behalf. He intimates financial scandal and presents the SOS initiative as extremist, divided, and out of touch with reality in a clear attempt to damage its reputation with the public, destabilize and defocus its operations, and distract attention away from the important issues it publicizes. The personal attacks include the defamation of SOS activist Ilina Arsova, whose private property is mentioned as a subject of threat. One particularly ominous dissemination also redirects members of the public to an email account that has been covertly established to impersonate Ohrid SOS, while intimating that activists may face prosecution for using the initiative’s identity.

Forms of silent and indirect persecution

Reprisals against citizens who disagree with Macedonia’s authorities have, in the past couple of years, included the abuse of employment procedures, the weaponization of inspections of private businesses and fines on them, and the uneven use of administrative/tax processes. Such measures are sometimes applied to family members instead of the target citizen directly. This discourages active public support for initiatives like Ohrid SOS which are willing to speak out against government plans. Meanwhile, the media has been subjected to control, and the right to freely access information held by institutions has been violated, with some requests for necessary documentation being completely ignored.

These forms of silent and indirect persecution have undermined environmental initiatives in the Republic of Macedonia, restricting their ability to research, communicate, interact, attract members, and gain support. They may not be so newsworthy or readily provable as a physical attack or explicit verbal threat, but they are equally real and dangerous to the future of the environmental movement.


Further reading:

https://ohridsos.org/press-releases/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311675876_BALKAN_GALAPAGOS_AT_RISK_-_BBC_Wildlife_Magazine_interview

http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2985975/macedonia_ebrds_planned_destruction_of_lake_ohrid_biosphere_reserve.html

http://fokus.mk/lake-ohrid-a-paradise-in-peril/

https://www.biogeosciences.net/7/3999/2010/bg-7-3999-2010.pdf

https://www.yahoo.com/news/macedonians-send-sos-europes-oldest-lake-040024387.html

https://www.wetland-ecology.nl/sites/cwe.nioo.knaw.nl/files/Apostolova%20et%20al.%202016.pdf

http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/158740/