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Macedonian Tragedy Triggers Flood Of Criticism

  • Deana Kjuka

In the wake of deadly flash floods in and around the Macedonian capital, criticism over how the disaster was handled and why more was not done to prevent it is flooding in.

Activists, citizens, and online media are expressing outrage at what they view as the government's slow response, failure to issue warnings as torrential rains battered Skopje and its environs on the night of August 5-6, and neglect of a storm-drain system that could have prevented the flooding that killed at least 21 people.

As recovery efforts continued in the hardest-hit villages near Skopje, the government declared August 8 a day of national mourning. A state of emergency is in place for the next 15 days in the country's northwest.

Most of the deaths occurred on the outskirts of the capital, in the villages of Aracinovo, Smilkovci, Stajkovci, and Singelic. The northwestern municipality of Tetovo was also hit by the torrential rains, causing landslides near several mountain villages.

A video shot in Singelic by RFE/RL's Balkan Service on August 8 shows residents struggling to deal with flood damage.

Many civilians and local media said already bad flooding was exacerbated by clogged storm run-off channels, and a slow response by the authorities.

President Gjorge Ivanov, interim Prime Minister Emil Dimitriev, and Skopje Mayor Koce Trajanovski faced some of these accusations when they visited affected villages on August 7.

Trajanovski, who just five months earlier had told locals in Singelic and Stajkovci that storm-sewerage systems had been reconstructed, found himself being booed when he returned to there on the evening of August 7.

Trajanovski, currently in the middle of his second term, said the floods were a natural disaster and could not have been foreseen. "I don't feel responsibility, just grief," he told media.

A police vehicle drives past a destroyed car near the village of Stajkovci, outside Skopje, on August 8.

A police vehicle drives past a destroyed car near the village of Stajkovci, outside Skopje, on August 8.

The intensity of the floods was unprecedented -- according to the country's National Weather Service, in the course of four hours, 93 liters per square meter fell -- approximately equal to the monthly average for August.

Skopje's city council has decided to award the families of those who died in the floods 180,000 dinars ($3,237), each. But it likely won't be enough to quiet government critics.

A Facade In The Capital

The floods have put the controversial Skopje 2014 revitalization project, which has cost the country upward of 600 million euros ($665 million), in the spotlight.

Both the costs and the results of the project have come under criticism, with international media coining the city "Europe's new capital of kitsch" after the facelift.

Skopje Mayor Trajanovski and President Ivanov, members of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, have been the target of much of the criticism.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, they were asked whether they would recommend that money earmarked for their party's latest big Skopje project -- a gigantic Ferris wheel along the river -- be reallocated to help flood victims or to help create a drainage system that could prevent such floods in the future.

The panoramic Ferris wheel is expected to cost more than 18 million euros ($20 million).

Ivanov deflected the question, saying that he had done all he could in his capacity of commander in chief by sending in 400 soldiers to deal with the floods, and that it should be directed to the government.

Skopje's Public Transportation Enterprise, which is behind the project and falls under the mayor's purview, is directly involved in the Ferris wheel project, however, leading to more criticism after Trajanovski remained silent when asked the question.

Journalist Kristina Ozimec expressed outrage on her Facebook account afterward, and called on the authorities to take responsibility. "Now we see where our billions have gone -- everywhere but where they are most needed -- the sewerage system, infrastructure, emergency services, fire fighters...."

For her part, student Eleni Mickovska shared a photo of water sprinklers going full blast in her neighborhood a day after the floods. Some people are living in a parallel universe, she wrote.

Former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, now head of the VMRO-DPMNE, has also been subjected to mockery after he was filmed giving instructions to government officials about how to handle the post-flood relief efforts.

The video clip posted online has been dubbed "Gruevski's reality show." In the video he is seen questioning the number of food packages and barking orders -- even though he no longer serves as a public official.

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