“We Can’t Breathe”

North Macedonia's Fight for Clean Air

by Jana Cholakovska

Fighting for clean air in Europe’s most polluted capital is made more difficult as politicians and activists face legal entanglements, money troubles, and corruption. 

        The sign pointing to Drisla’s entrance covered in trash. Photo by Jana Cholakovska.

Skopje, North Macedonia — Two old white garbage trucks wobbled up the hill to the Drisla landfill, ready to deposit their day’s load. As they ascended, at the side of the road, they passed a thick blanket of trash–everything from bottles and cans to plastic bags and dirty diapers. A few yards from the landfill’s gates, a crowd of around a hundred environmental activists in black masks blocked the trucks from entry. The protestors had gathered that morning of Feb. 1, 2019, to denounce the landfill’s dangerously low standards, its management’s lack of transparency, and the pollution it spews on the environs of Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, and its population of more than half a million people. Two weeks earlier, Skopje became the most polluted city on the European continent with an air quality index nearly 36 times higher than what global health officials consider safe, surpassing both New Delhi in India and Dhaka in Bangladesh as the most polluted city in the world.  

Some protestors wore face masks with little filters on the sides, the latest in protective gear to shield them from toxic pollution. They plastered the gates, buildings, and surrounding trees with the skull-and-crossbones symbol for poison; others made their case to the slew of journalists who pointed cameras and recorders at them. 

One of the landfill’s most prominent critics, Toni Nikushevski, looked out at the reporters. “We are demanding immediate change to the way waste is treated in this institution,” he said. “Drisla is one of the most critical polluters in this city and in this country.” The other activists nodded in agreement as Nikushevski spoke. The 30-minute protest winded down and the crowd of activists and reporters quickly dispersed, climbed into their cars, and drove away from the dreary scene. “I felt very crummy that day,” Nikushevski told me in an interview. 

Almost exactly a year later, in January and February, North Macedonia saw multiple record-breaking days of air pollution, many of which were registered in its capital. But, as the world seeks to control the spread of COVID-19 and many are quarantined in their homes, air pollution levels in European cities like Milan, Madrid, and Lisbon dropped significantly during the month of March. It is unclear whether Macedonian cities have followed suit—there is no conclusive data. Nevertheless, much like other developing countries, the lockdown provides no long-term solution and the dire environmental crisis is expected to resume as life normalizes in the coming months. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic only amplifies the systematic and structural shortcomings that perpetuate the crisis. In North Macedonia, these take the form of legal entanglements, money problems, and political corruption. And few locations symbolize the issues faced by struggling countries more dramatically than Drisla. 

The landfill has consumed Nikushevski’s passions for the better part of a decade. Although he graduated with a degree in politics from the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, the field never appealed to the now 41-year-old activist. A voracious reader and a chemistry enthusiast, Nikushevski found that his inquisitive and analytical nature was much more useful in the environmental non-profit sector. When reports first confirmed the alarming state of North Macedonia’s air six years ago, he researched incessantly. “I wanted to understand what one polluting particle could mean,” he said. “ I wanted to see the damage one particle could make.” Since then, Nikushevski has been an integral part of a growing environmental movement that demands institutional accountability and transparency, things that do not come easy to places like Drisla.

                       A garbage truck depositing the day’s load. Photo by Jana Cholakovska.

The landfill—one of the largest in Europe—is the only officially regulated landfill in all of North Macedonia and is situated eight miles from the capital. Since its opening in 1994, it has remained the only site in the country where the waste goes through a technological process, however flawed. The landfill collects, identifies, weighs, and processes most of the country’s hazardous waste, much of it medical, that gets trucked in from most major cities. Drisla also processes the waste of 17 municipalities, 10 of them in Skopje, and 7 of them in the surrounding rural areas. Over 3,000 more illegal dumps, which operate without Drisla’s safeguards, can be found across the country, many of them right outside cities such as Skopje. In the beginning, Drisla was a modest operation: a piece of land, a few administrative buildings, and some simple equipment. Now, almost three decades later, mountains of garbage dot a dump that spans across 190 acres. The only signs of life are usually some cawing crows and a few stray dogs meandering about. 

Drisla’s practices are emblematic of standard municipal waste management throughout the Balkans, a process which was created in the 1970s: workers pile the garbage, compact it, and cover it in clay, to both isolate potential pollutants and mask the smell. Sasho Todorovski, Drisla’s executive manager, who has been with the landfill since the beginning, is proud of its work. “You smell anything? Nothing, right?” he said. “We try to do our job well.”

The two decades before the turn of the century were a tumultuous time for Southeastern Europe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union starting in 1991, a wave of political and economic liberalization washed over the region and North Macedonia emerged from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as the independent Republic of Macedonia. It was the only country that had quietly seceded from the federation and managed to mostly remain at peace throughout the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. After its independence, the new republic relied heavily on construction, mining, and a few other small industries. Its fragile economy, however, was struck with a trade embargo initiated by its southern neighbor Greece over clashes about the use of the name Macedonia. Greece has a region of the same name that borders the Slavic country. For almost three decades, the complex and painful name dispute has barred North Macedonia from entry into the European Union. But, in late 2018, the country officially changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, opening a path to possible entry into the union.

While attempting to find its place in the region and the world as a new sovereign nation, North Macedonia’s government did not have the capacity or resources to ensure proper sustainable practices, thus leaving many public institutions, like Drisla, largely neglected. “You must remember that we are still the only landfill in North Macedonia that uses some kind of technological process,” Todorovski said. Illegal landfills scattered around the outskirts of towns are unregulated and far more dangerous for the environment. 

At Drisla, the handling of hazardous waste has triggered much of the public ire. Workers collect syringes, expired pills, discarded gloves and the like and place them in large sealed bags that are then cut into the smallest possible pieces, and thrown into the landfill’s incinerator, a hand-me-down from the British government in 2001. The gift, pegged as humanitarian aid, was a castoff, highly polluting, and outlawed under the standards of the European Union. Velevski Gjorgji, Drisla’s manager at the time, was not told about the potential health concerns the incinerator brought. A few months later, he told the Guardian that after broaching the topic with the World Health Organization (WHO), which originally recommended the donation, officials advised him that for $245,200 he could buy extra parts that would make the machine more sustainable. The price tag, however,  was way out of North Macedonia’s range.

The medical incinerator’s two chambers can reach up to 1652ºF (900ºC). Photo by Jana Cholakovska.

The old incinerator—made up of two chambers, a protruding metal chimney, and surrounded by a yellow sheet metal for protection—stands brightly against the dull background of the landfill. It can reach a temperature of  1652ºF (900ºC) and turn 1.2 metric tons of garbage to ash each day. Diesel or natural gas fuel this simple piece of equipment that burns 50% of the country’s medical waste.   

Whatever problems the incinerator brought to Skopje, they were better than the waste management process in place before its arrival—the archaic practice of piling toxic waste in the middle of the landfill and setting it on fire. Dijana Veljanoska, Drisla’s chief of staff acknowledged the landfill’s failings. “It was not in compliance with all environmental standards,” she said. “But, it was the best we could do.” 

When the incinerator first arrived, Drisla was under municipal auspices. But, the city quickly proved to be a terrible manager. “We were at our worst when we were under the city’s control,” Veljanoska said. “There was no proper disposal. No standards. We were like every other unofficial landfill in this country. We only gathered stuff and threw it in a pile.” Even primary selection—separating trash into categories like plastic, glass, and paper—one of the most basic processes of waste management could not be performed. The tight budget only kept Drisla alive, but not properly functioning. 

In 2009, after 15 years of negligent and substandard practices, the landfill’s own management took over and Drisla became a self-financed private entity. Todorovski said it was Drisla’s most productive moment. “It was a wonderful time,” he said. “We got new equipment. We were finally able to execute new projects. And we were able to finance them as well.” 

That time of growth was short-lived. In 2010, a project created by the British consulting firm Mott MacDonald and financed by the World Bank offered suggestions for Drisla’s further modernization. “It was the most beautiful project,” said Todorovski. “It outlined how the landfill worked at the time and how it could work in the future in compliance with all EU standards.” One of the proposed alternatives for further survival of the landfill was a Public-Private Partnership, an arrangement that would ensure steady investments and retain institutional oversight. And so, Drisla became an LLC, where an international waste management company would own 80% of the shares, while the city would operate with the remaining 20%.  

Nonetheless, what was supposed to be the beginning of a more streamlined and eco-friendly Drisla, turned out to be the exact opposite. During the bidding process, the company chosen to manage Drisla was the inexperienced Italian FCL Ambiente. The company was set up only three days before the deadline, despite the fact that contract bidders were required to show both annual profits of at least $21.7 million and a minimum turnaround of $271 million for the last five years. The Italian company was chosen over two of the world’s leading waste management firms: the German Scholz AG and the Austrian Asa International Environmental Services. In 2013, Scholz AG challenged and successfully overturned the decision to award FCL Ambiente the position. Skopje’s administrative court ruled in favor of the German company citing irregularities. But, a few months later the North Macedonian government repeated the selection process and resuscitated their contract with FCL Ambiente. 

In the following decade, FCL Ambiente failed to invest the 73 million euros stipulated in the contract. The Italian company blamed the legal dispute with Scholz AG as the reason for the lack of investments. Veljanoska recalled plans for a new machine for waste selection, a machine for industrial waste, a composting station, new administrative buildings, and a new incinerator for medical waste. “But none of that happened,” she said. The investments would have put Drisla in line with other landfills in the region like the ones in Bulgaria and Slovenia, which are seen as models in the Balkans. As stated in the contract, Drisla was supposed to be under concession for 35 years and investments were projected to return in 10 years. “It could have been good for us, the city, the environment, and the investors would have gotten back their money,” Veljanoska said.

Safety boxes for medical waste propped against the wall of the incinerator. Photo by Jana Cholakovska.

The months that followed Drisla’s legal troubles with its foreign concessioners were a turning point for North Macedonia. In the winter of 2014, a wave of environmental protests brought on a collective consciousness that now evokes memories of large banners, waving flags, and posters with the slogan: “We can’t breathe.” Gorjan Jovanovski, a Macedonian software engineer, and creator of the well-known air quality monitoring app MojVozduh, or AirCare, has been instrumental in the country’s growing environmentalist movement. Jovanovski admits that he was not aware of the severity of air pollution at the time. “We call it the smell of winter,” he said. “We did not know that what that smoggy smell meant was enormous amounts of pollution.”  

Skopje’s distinctive smell of ash and chemicals is, in fact, the presence of particulate matter, that is, hazardous microscopic solid or liquid particles suspended in the air. Those who monitor air quality distinguish between two types of dangerous particles: those with a diameter of 10 micrometers (PM10) and those with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5). And although small, particulate matter is heavy. In the winter months, when pollution reaches its peak, warmer air presses the heavier, colder air further into the valley through a process termed temperature inversion. This traps the particulate matter and creates a thick quilt of fog and pollution, a familiar sight to any Skopje local. The steep mountains guarding the city provide the perfect conditions—they make the valley virtually impenetrable to gusts of wind that might otherwise expel these heavy polluting particles. The only remedy is warmer, rainier spring days.  

The European Environmental Agency (EEA) cites air pollution to be the single largest environmental health risk. The agency’s 2019 Air Quality Report attributed the premature deaths of 3,580 Macedonians, most of whom reside in Skopje, to air pollution. This is a 79% percent jump from last year’s rough estimate of 2,000. While exposure to both types of particulate matter is damaging, PM2.5 molecules are especially dangerous as they are smaller, remain airborne longer, and are easily embedded into the sensitive membrane of the lungs. They decrease the proper functioning of the immune system and exacerbates existing chronic conditions like asthma and high blood pressure. Children, elders, and expecting mothers are particularly at risk.

Additionally, a recent Harvard University study suggests that coronavirus patients in areas with high levels of air pollution before the pandemic are more likely to die than those who breathe cleaner air. Currently, 46 Macedonians have died per every one million citizens. This is the highest rate in the region. In Albania, there have been only 11 deaths per one million people. In Bulgaria, it is 15. And in Greece, it is 15 people. 

Both the European Union and the World Health Organization have set legal limits for PM concentration. The regulations suggest that countries limit PM concentration to 50 micrograms per one cubic meter more than 35 days a year. North Macedonia’s 18 official monitoring stations handily exceeded those standards in the last few years. 

In 2014, when Jovanovski first stumbled upon government air pollution data, which tracks both PM10 and PM2.5 levels, he was not interested in environmentalism—he was just trying to learn how to make a mobile app. “That winter, the pollution was really bad,” he said. “So I thought that making an app to track it would be a good idea, a fun project.” A few days after launching the app, Jovanovski saw its downloads rise so fast that the app crashed. It could not support that many users at once, but Jovanovski was able to resuscitate it. “At the beginning, the goal was not some huge project,” he said. “I just wanted to present the data in a more readable way. It has surpassed all my expectations.”  

As the number of AirCare’s users rose in the following year, so did the number of environmental protests. The easily accessible information prompted people to flood Skopje’s city center by the thousands. Many of them sported a red cardboard cut-out circle around their heads—a rendition of the app’s logo—as a symbol of defiance. And they were not the only ones. In the summer of 2015, a political crisis erupted after then-opposition leader Zoran Zaev, head of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) party exposed then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski and the upper echelon of his national populist  Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) party for corruption, illegal influence on the judiciary, manipulation of the media, and even a covered up murder of a young man by a police officer in 2011. These revelations, disclosed through a series of wiretapped conversations between Gruevski and other government officials, plunged an already troubled country into chaos. 

 Widespread distrust of the system seems to have permeated all aspects of life. Every issue became political. It even interferes with Jovanovski’s work. “Since it was so polluted outside people thought that the numbers were wrong or fake,” he said. “I was accused of being a pawn of every possible political party.” During what Jovanovski feels was a targeted act of cyber aggression, his app experienced a Denial of Service Attack—a surge of large numbers of users who try to overload and ultimately incapacitate a server. Jovanovski, at this point still a novice programmer, locked himself in a room for three days trying to fix the app. “That thing was like my child,” he said. Although he managed to mend it, he was left with a $430 bill, an unpleasant amount for a Macedonian university student. He posted a PayPal link to his Facebook asking for any contribution that people could manage. When he checked it later that night, he saw that people had donated more than $1,620 in only a few hours. “My knees were shaking,” he said. “I appreciated everyone’s help so much, but it also made me realize how much this app meant to people. This was no longer my project, it was ours.”

Growing concern about air pollution is indicative of a larger trend: North Macedonia was ready for a drastic change. In the summer of 2017, after months of political instability, failed coalition building, and even an outbreak of physical violence in parliament, SDSM assumed power and broke VMRO-DPMNE’s 12-year reign. The center-left party also won the 2017 local elections and elected SDSM’s Stevo Pendarovski to the presidency in May of 2019. In the meantime, more than 90 people were indicted in connection with the wiretapping scandal that toppled the VMRO-DPMNE-led government. 

Jovanovski’s recollection is that during the time of VMRO-DPMNE there was no communication between government officials and activists. “They completely ignored the issue,” he said. But when SDSM took over, Jovanovski noticed a difference, an effort to establish a rapport, and an earnestness for change. For the first time in years, he felt hopeful. In early 2018, the Ministry for the Environment and Physical Planning, chaired by Minister Naser Nuredini and Deputy Minister Jani Markaduli, released the “Plan for Clean Air,” a report that outlines the government’s plan to identify, finance, and tackle air pollution sources. According to the report, air pollution seriously affects the health of many in the country and costs North Macedonia $325 million in additional medical services annually, roughly 2.5% of its GDP. The ministry’s report also raised concerns about the socio-economic factors that contribute to the air pollution levels that rise steadily each year.

 Despite this promising initiative and an eagerness to collaborate with the non-governmental sector, Jovanovski said that the enthusiasm quickly vanished. In the beginning, he had been in frequent contact with Makraduli, but after multiple disagreements on what needs to be prioritized, that was no longer the case. “He doesn’t answer my messages anymore,” he said. “And as time passed by, I did not see the changes that were promised. I heard the ‘Not much can be done in two years’ excuse many times. I understand that two years is a short amount of time to enact policies, but it has been 20 years already. That is when I realized that everything will stay the same. Why should I labor over this? Why should I be outside in the cold protesting? I do not want to blame anyone. I completely understand that people are tired. They see that nothing has changed for years.”     

Many share Jovanovski’s disappointment. In 2018, Skopje’s Mayor Petre Shilegov announced that the European Commission had accepted the city’s candidacy for the “European Green Capital 2021.” His announcement provoked a slew criticism and ridicule. “Skopje can’t even pass for a city, let alone a green one,” a Skopje local tweeted. For Jovanovski, these types of measures are nothing but PR stunts. “Some small populist measures are taken, but they have no real impact,” he said. “Even if the pollution is from household heating and old cars, they cannot be contributing to that extent. Ignoring the real air pollution contributors is the real issue here. They are living in a world without data.”  

The government and environmental organizations have struggled to find common ground and their diverging approaches only made tackling air pollution more complicated.  According to the “Plan for Clean Air,” all of the government’s research points to one perpetrator: household heating. In North Macedonia—a country where the average monthly salary hovers around $430 a month—households often opt out of the central heating system and instead turn to unsustainable heat sources like wood, coal, textiles, and even plastic. In 2016, household heating accounted for more than 46% of all dangerous emissions. Vehicle exhausts and big industry come in second and third place for the biggest polluters. And sustainable heating and a new car are simply not a possibility for many struggling Macedonians who live paycheck to paycheck.  

For one of the plan’s most fervent proponents, Makraduli, the course of action is clear. “The plan is focused on the sources of pollution. And according to our information that is household heating. That is where we need to look for a solution.” In the last few years, the ministry has directed most of its attention and resources at eliminating polluting households, businesses, and public institutions. The goal is to connect them to centralized heating or proper electricity, install radiators or air conditioning, and insulate their walls and windows for better heat retention. The government even lowered taxes on central heating hoping that it would serve as an incentive for faster transitioning to more sustainable and reliable heating practices. But the approach might be too sluggish. This past winter, air pollution levels were as extreme as they have been for years.

“I appreciated everyone’s help so much, but it also made me realize how much this app meant to people. This was no longer my project, it was ours.”

Jovanovski thinks the approach is completely misguided. His view is that resources should be primarily directed towards better data collection. North Macedonia’s current monitoring stations that track its air pollution adequately cover the country’s small surface area, but many of them are simply too old for proper functioning. Even though North Macedonia got its first automatic air monitoring system in 1998 as a donation from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) while the EU helped install 16 more in 2000, some of these decades-old instruments are still in use today and the old technology is difficult to maintain and repair. Oftentimes, they are only used for a few months at a time instead of running around-the-clock. In 2018, critical monitoring stations in some of Skopje’s most polluted neighborhoods, Lisiche and Gazi Baba, were defective for months. “Our measuring stations are whack,” Jovanovski said. “The fact of the matter is that they are ancient. It is time to stop resuscitating them and instead invest in new instruments.”

 Spotty air pollution data is one of North Macedonia’s thorniest issues. The ministry—relying on its tired monitoring system—is still the only accredited body collecting data. International institutions like the EEA, the WHO, and the World Bank all use the ministry’s numbers in their own reports. Even Jovanovski relies on the government’s data for his app. Without replacing the entire monitoring system and letting it operate constantly, North Macedonia cannot be sure that it is properly and accurately tracking its air pollution levels. “I do not believe that the ministry is manipulating the data. At least not with the numbers they are reporting. But, that they are playing around with when the stations are working or not is a whole different story. This is why we cannot even trust the European studies,” Jovanovski said. 

To supplement the government’s data, activists have started to install their own monitoring instruments. Jovanovski includes the data of over 100 of these volunteer sensors for AirCare. He acknowledges that they are of lower quality and that their margin of error is much higher when compared to the government’s monitoring system. “I do not negate that fact,” he said. “But, these sensors give us a clearer picture where there are no monitoring stations or when the existing ones are broken.”   

Makraduli has completely dismissed the validity of volunteer sensors and has blamed them for the high levels of air pollution. Since they are not government vetted—he argues—the data they collect cannot be trusted. At the same time, he recognized the concerns about the government monitoring system and said that monitoring stations are mended whenever and as fast as possible. He also noted that a complete systematic overhaul will require much more money. “The demands from activists already exist in some form or another across the ministry’s documents,” he said. “No one is saying that this type of project should not exist. But it is just too expensive.”  

Currently, one monitoring station with seven instruments would cost the government between  $162,700 and $271,200. With that kind of money, Makraduli estimates, the ministry could connect 30 more buildings to the central heating system. “We have struggled to get where we are now. It really is better for us to deal with the sources. If there are no polluting sources there will be no emitted particulate matter.” Makraduli scoffed at the criticism that industry might be a bigger polluter than it is acknowledged. “That is a myth,” he said. “Industry is not what it used to be 30 years ago. Now, they use good practices, foreign practices. We are talking about foreign companies.”The problems with funding and data collection are not just at the national level. In the past decade, Drisla’s Italian partner, FCL Ambiente, has refused to invest in the landfill citing its legal troubles. The millions of euros in investments that were supposed to modernize the landfill never materialized. Despite being strapped for cash, in April of 2018, the change in government and public outrage over growing air pollution levels pushed Drisla’s management, after multiple delays, to install a new filter on its decades-old incinerator. Still, the improvements did little to appease local environmental activists, despite assurances that the upgrades put the landfill in line with European environmental guidelines.

The incinerator’s chimney. Photo by Jana Cholakovska.

Only a few months later, in October of 2018, multiple news outlets reported that Drisla’s own monitoring instruments had not been measuring air pollution in over a year. The landfill—like any other industrial complex with a government-issued A-integrated environmental license—is required to monitor its own pollution. And for the past few years, Drisla has financed a measuring instrument that is monitored by the Faculty of Computer Science and Engineering at the St. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. The device is attached to the top of the incinerator’s chimney and covers the area surrounding the landfill. Just like the national monitoring stations, however, the instrument rarely works around-the-clock. Veljanoska, Drisla’s chief of staff, said that it would be impossible to run the measuring instrument constantly. “That would be too expensive, let’s not kid ourselves,” she said.  

 In June of 2019, Drisla financed a third-party report that detailed the dispersion of air polluting particles around the landfill. The report, a collaboration between waste management solutions group Eco Energy Agri Design and Nikov Consulting, does not include any data collection by the third party. Instead, they used the sparse information Drisla had already collected. The report concluded that Drisla’s incinerator was not a significant contributor to particulate matter emission, but that it nonetheless needed to be replaced to conform to EU directives for medical waste management.

Legal entanglements, money problems, and corruption have stunted Drisla’s progress dramatically, leaving little opportunity for sweeping structural changes. “Our landfill works 24 hours, without any breaks, 365 days,” Todorovski said. “There are no breaks in the technological process. We cannot just stop.” But, what Drisla experiences on a small scale is felt throughout the country. North Macedonia is not only fighting its air pollution, but it is also attempting to take on all the challenges that come with the slow and sometimes painful process of democratization, which have become increasingly apparent in post-Cold War Southeastern Europe. 

Since the mid-2000s, North Macedonia’s democratic institutions have been a target of both the nationalist-populist movement of VMRO-DPMNE and Gruevski’s subsequent authoritarian reign. A rhetoric of “us” versus “them has politicized almost every aspect of life in the country and trust in institutions has crumbled. While this crisis culminated during the wiretapping scandal in 2015, trust in institutions has not entirely recovered. This poses a serious threat to the fight against air pollution since none of Drisla’s or the government’s efforts are fully trusted. 

For Nikushevski, the decade of environmental activism has been exhausting.“To be honest with you, I am really disappointed right now,” he said. “These types of problems can only be solved with extreme transparency and consensus. Politics has no morals. Politics will always find a way to implicate the other side. That means that we do not have a basis for solving these types of big problems.”   

 In an effort to address Drisla’s decade of stagnation, in January 2020, Mayor Shilegov finally announced the annulment of the partnership with FCL Ambiente and the landfill’s reintegration into Skopje’s municipal system. Both activists and Drisla’s management were critical of the decision: the city had already proven itself to be a terrible manager when Drisla was first established. Todorovski and Veljanoska were disappointed. “This is going to take us back 10 years,” Veljanoska said. But, the city insisted that if it were to properly assess the landfill’s performance and build a better system, then it had to start from scratch. 

 In February 2020, only a few weeks after the city took over Drisla, anonymous photographs of supposed illegal imported waste swarmed social media platforms. Allegations of foul play soared. As a result, parliament rushed to revise the law on waste management and eliminated the clause that permitted the import of waste as an energy source. In a rare moment of unity, both the ministry and activists rose in protest. The decision stunned Nikushevski. “That was the wildest thing that could have happened in this country,” he said. “This is going to handicap our economy. Why would you close down someone’s business if it does not have an effect on the environment? It all starts with regulations.”  

Makraduli echoed the same sentiment. “In poor countries like North Macedonia it is really difficult to lead the fight for the environment,” he said. “What we need to do as a country is get together and ask ourselves: how will North Macedonia sustain itself energetically in the future? How are we going to balance economic development and environmental protection?”  

This balance is incredibly difficult to maintain. But, the Paris Agreement—a document within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—stipulates that governments of developing countries must express commitment to a so-called Just Transition. For Makraduli this is one of the most crucial aspects of his job. As the transition to more sustainable ways of life brings about job loss it is his view that change must be strategic. “You cannot just close down a factory and leave 6,000 workers on the street,” he said. “There has to be a compromise.” 

At present, Drisla does not have the capacity to transform its waste into energy. But, Markraduli and Nikushevski are both convinced that this is the path forward. That would only be a small step toward improving the way in which air pollution is dealt with in North Macedonia. A complete overhaul would require much more money, transparency, investments, and commitment from both state institutions, activists, and citizens. It is Makraduli’s view that entry into the EU would be the only way to address all of those things at once. “Selfishly, pressure from the European Commission would help me,” he said. “Our country is stuck fighting corruption and the courts. I need the added pressure of Europe so that I can secure a solid part of the budget for the projects we need.” 

In the last two years, North Macedonia has made substantial progress. Its name change opened a path towards entry into the European Union. And after three decades of uncertainty, in March of 2020, the country officially became NATO’s 30th member and received an invitation for accession talks to the EU. 

 While the current COVID-19 crisis has halted much of Macedonian society, Makraduli remains hopeful. “Entry into the EU would really help us,” he said. “That is something that would push us more, the higher standards. No one is saying that we do not know what needs to be done. Or that we do not want to. But that costs money. And this society is not exactly completely organized. For some healthcare is a priority. For others it is education. That is why I welcome the pressure because I know that is how we will secure more funds. I am optimistic that entry into the EU will completely change our society. Then there will be no excuses. No alibi. Only work.”   


Note: All interviews were conducted in Macedonian and translated into English.