The head of a national agency to channel European Union educational funds into projects in North Macedonia has rejected calls for her resignation amid accusations that her organization misallocated some 270,000 euros ($317,000) in funding by steering it to a hairdresser.
The director of the country's National Agency for European Educational Programs and Mobility, Lidija Dimova, was responding to news of an EU investigation into how the funds ended up in the hands of a Macedonian "beauty salon."
She blamed the reports on "fake news" and politically motivated attacks and said fears of the potential for evidence tampering were unfounded.
The European Commission has opened an investigation into the possible misuse of the EU's Erasmus+ funds to North Macedonia, commission spokeswoman Susanne Conze confirmed to the Macedonian news outlet MIA.
The owner of the company reportedly in question, Zoran Zlatkovski, confirmed that it had been established as a beauty salon in 2001 but that a subsequent clause in the business registry allowed it to carry out other activities.
The National Agency for European Educational Programs and Mobility is an independent government agency that helps implement European educational programs in North Macedonia, with counterparts in other EU and aspiring EU states.
If European Commission investigators find sufficient grounds for further action, the case can be referred to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).
The commission could also simply request that North Macedonia return the money if "irregularities" like a procedural error are to blame.
Participating states are the guarantors of such funding, meaning Macedonian taxpayers could be on the hook for any discrepancy.
Dimova, in an October 12 Facebook post, blamed the accusations against her and the agency on an "organized attack" that led to a report by the information outlet A1on.mk.
She also cited confusion based on the similarity between the numeral "3" and the letter "Z" when written in Cyrillic, the script used in written Macedonian.
She told reporters on October 13 that information from inside her agency was being "leaked" in an effort to discredit her after she discovered that 2.2 million euros had been embezzled from the agency under the previous government.
She blamed rivals from the previously ruling VMRO-DPMNE party for the affair.
Dimova also said she had shared her suspicions with officials in Brussels.
The A1on.mk portal first raised a red flag about the Erasmus+ funds going to Zlatkovski's company over a three-year period, questioning the granting of educational funds to an entity that appeared to be outside the education sector.
The report also suggested that Zlatkovski had a role as an outside collaborator or evaluator despite also seeking funds from the program.
Dimova and Zlatkovski have said the money that his company received went to implement "media-literacy education" projects.