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Economy

North Macedonia’s Journey to the EU

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Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s new cabinet is confronted with a number of economic challenges, exacerbated by the economic hit to the global economy caused by the pandemic In 2021, North Macedonia will take economic decisions that will shape the course of the country’s future.

The issues Skopje faces

Despite a modest population of 2-million, North Macedonia repeatedly makes headlines, often due to apparently  intractable disputes with neighbouring countries. Athens’s trade embargo imposed on North Macedonia in the 1990s marked the start of a 27 year deadlock between the two countries, which ultimately stalled North Macedonia’s accession to the EU. Only recently did Skopje resolve the dispute with neighbouring Greece over its official name which Greece had previously taken issue with due to the fact that ‘Macedonia’ is also a region of Greece, and the use of this name was interpreted by Greece to be an assertion of territorial ambitions in the region.

This dispute affected the country’s other diplomatic ventures. In 1999, North Macedonia was one of the first post-Yugoslav signatories of the NATO membership action plan, only to have its accession vetoed by Greece in 2008.  Ultimately, North Macedonia’s Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU has not been the diplomatic catalyst that Skopje hoped would ease  localised tensions and draw it into a closer relationship with Brussels.

Under the leadership of Nikola Gruveski (2006-2016), corruption and state capture were endemic in North Macedonia. Gruveksi was averse to opening negotiations with mainstream governments in Greece and it was not until the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia ousted  Gruveski out of power, that there was a breakthrough. Gruveski’s successor, Zoran Zaev, capitalised on Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s reformism to broker the controversial Prespa Agreement which settled the name dispute. Two years later, North Macedonia was finally admitted to NATO, demonstrating that Greece was the final hurdle to NATO membership.

A tamed economy

However, North Macedonia soon found that NATO membership was not a passport to joining the EU. Internal ethnic tensions have created friction with EU member states. Relations with Bulgaria soured during the election campaign for July 2020 during which the campaigns of both main political parties played on anti-Bulgarian sentiment..Zaev managed to gain power by agreeing to a coalition with the main part of the Albanian minority.  The new cabinet’s economic hurdles, specifically fiscal redistribution, could be exacerbated by renewed ethnic tensions between the Slav majority and the Albanian minority. Should tensions reach the levels of the 2001 civil conflict, the deepening of this fracture would   slow down reforms and deter investments.

Bouncing back after the fall

The Balkan countries suffered greatly during the Great Recession due to their proximity to the Greek economy at a time when Athens navigated the worst slowdown of recent history. As Greece’s second largest export partner, the RNM was particularly hard hit(Figure 3a). The region had barely entered recovery before lockdown measures crippled world economic growth. In addition, North Macedonia’s small internal market is heavily reliant  on external demand which the crisis has depleted. In Q1-Q2 2020, exports fell by 22.3% and industrial production by 14.6% compared to the same period of the previous year. Thus, GDP fell by 14.9% in Q2 of 2020 and another 3.3% in Q3 contrary to the  projected 3.2 percent growth (Figure 7). Whilst forecasts suggest growth of 5.5% in 2021, the unpredictability of the pandemic’s economic influence may yet compromise this figure.

Meanwhile, rating agencies downgraded North Macedonia’s national debt, in turn raising financing costs. the RNM’s debt was downgraded by some rating agencies, raising financing costs. Fitch, the American credit rating agency, as well as  Moody’s, another US-based credit rating agency, both value North Macedonia’s debt as a non-recommended investment asset to be reserved for short-term gain. Since May 2020 the outlook has been negative, suggesting the situation will worsen. Yet, with one of the comparatively smallest debt-GDPs of the region, these ratings are still the best in South-Eastern Europe after Bulgaria meaning the RNM has a relatively solid economic base (Figure 4).

The country’s effective response to the pandemic is in part the reason that North Macedonia is economically stronger than some of its neighbours. The caretaker government introduced a furlough scheme, worth approximately 5.5 percent of GDP, as well as a helicopter money initiative. Going forward, the government is prioritising policies that will stimulate economic growth such as slashing parafiscal charges and cutting VAT. Yet, since North Macedonia lacks the economic resources to commit to long-term reform, recovery will be slow.

North Macedonia’s Shifting Demographics

North Macedonia is contending with mass emigration in tandem with declining fertility rates  (Figure 5) — both of which reduce human capital. The official estimate of two-million residents is dubitable, with some experts hypothesising an actual figure of approximately 1.5 million. Inaccurate projections of a state’s total population jeopardises effective government decision making. In the RNM, where the resources are redistributed amongst ethnic groups pro quota, this makes fiscal management particularly difficult. If, for example, the proportion of Albanians of the total population was lower than estimated, then this group will be receiving more public resources that they are entitled to.

Given that the EU acts in a starkly-protectionist way by restricting trade with third countries, greater cooperation is in the RNM’s interest. In fact, Brussels could reduce trade barriers in the context of a stronger association with Skopje even before the latter formally joins the Union.

There are steps the government can take to encourage citizens not to emigrate . The first and most crucial step would be to improve the education system. Overall, North Macedonia spends much less of its GDP than the average EU country on education. As a result, few people complete their secondary-level education, and therefore either end up in low-paying jobs or unemployed, andare forced to emigrate for work. Another step would be investment in the underfunded Research and Development (R&D) sector. In fact, North Macedonia’s budget allocates only 0.36% of GDP to R&D, compared to an EU average of 2.2% and neighbouring Bulgaria’s 0.77%. Research and development is essential to creating high-paying  jobs, driving productivity, and boosting the economy through innovation and market competition.

Infrastructures as the drive for future growth

The silver lining in North Macedonia’s economic strategy is infrastructure development. This especially true for roads and highways. Grueveski’s administration was instrumental in the investment into road infrastructure,  starting works for two new highways in 2014.

Still, roads can be rather useless if they do lead nowhere. Thus come trade infrastructures. In addition to new road, the building of new border checkpoints and crossing points with Greece and Bulgaria, will bolster the trade infrastructure that North Macedonia shares with the EU, thereby driving trade with a global economic powerhouse. These investments will also reduce the RNM’s dependence on the Yugoslav-time north-south arteries, which currently present a barrier for the development of the “functioning market economy” that is a requirement for EU membership. To achieve this goal, the RNM needs to improve, road connections towards the west (with Albania) and the east (with Bulgaria, an important trading partner). Building better connections within the country and with non-Yugoslav neighbours will boost the country’s internal cohesion by making it easier to move from one part of the country to another proving supplemental infrastructures to foster international trade.

Figure 6 Highways represent a key segment of the RNM’s investments.

A secondary and related benefit of improving connectedness with EU trade routes is reduced economic dependence on Russia. This should reduce Moscow’s potential diplomatic leverage in future disputes in the region. As a matter of fact, pulling out of Moscow’s orbit is almost a precondition to full membership in the EU — which would bring in more funding opportunity and increase financial stability. Yet, Russia’s main asset is not trade tout court, but energy. In fact, the Balkans serve as  a strategic crossroad for oil and gas coming from Moscow and Baku through Bucharest and Ankara. Thus, North Macedonia should also consider developing its energy infrastructure as a route to closer integration with the EU. In order to reduce the Western Balkan’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, the region needs investments. For cash-strapped countries, like North Macedonia, the opportunity to make real progress in this field may come from ‘green’ funds the EU has earmarked for energy projects in both current member states and candidate countries . In addition, Greece has established an LNG terminal on the Aegean to which links the RNM is planning to adjoin its grid. There are also talks of an electric-grid link to Albania, through which the RNM could import as much as needed and even export eventual surpluses.

Forecast: The RNM can make it… with some help

Without radical reform, the extant corruption, bureaucracy and public-sector inefficiency will stymy growth in the coming years. Luckily, the EU might be the answer to Skopje’s economic woes. The Union is expected to grant €3.3 billion to Western-Balkan countries to kickstart economic recovery following the pandemic. The package does however come with strings attached: the country will have to accelerate progress towards regulatory harmonisation with the EU. This is a notoriously difficult and resource-consuming task, which may hinder other reforms.

Furthermore, North Macedonia must confront pre-pandemic economic struggles. The government could revert to coalition infightings and therefore prolong the process of economic reform. For investors, a cautious approach is recommended, in preparation for positive economic developments.

Acknowledgments The Author thanks Charlotte Millington, parliamentary researcher at the UK House of Commons specialising in European politics and international security for her suggestions.

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR in Italian, English, Bulgarian and French. As of 2021, he has edited two volumes and is the author of contributions in collective works. He combines his activity as author and researcher with that of regular participant to international conferences on Europe’s periphery, Russia and everything in between. For more information, visit the Author’s website (in English and Bulgarian).

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Economy

St. Petersburg Forum Offers Unlimited Business Opportunities

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The 24th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF’21), unique business forum that is highly expected to bring together politicians, corporate business directors and investors from different parts of the world, is set to take place June 2-5 as the epidemiological situation begins to stabilize in Russia.

That however, the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) with organizers promise everything in its power to ensure that the event is held with all the necessary measures in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and strictly in compliance with the recommendations given by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Roscongress Foundation, the organizer, says on its website that it has decided to create new infrastructure for comfort and safety of participants in view of the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, PCR test conducted at access to the venues, catering, sanitizing the premises, and providing participants and staff with personal protective equipment.

Thermal imaging control will be provided. Medical stations at the venue provided with the necessary equipment and medicines. There will be ambulances and resuscitation vehicles, including teams of English-speaking doctors. All spaces of the site equipped with air recirculation units and decontamination devices, among other measures for all participants visiting the events in St. Petersburg city.

Hans Kluge, Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, together with Anna Popova, Head of Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor), will hold a special briefing for participants on pandemic situation and its control in Russia and around the world.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian local media that President Vladimir Putin plans to take part in the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). “But Putin will be there in person,” Peskov reaffirmed his earlier statement, and further informed that in-person forum will be held in strict accordance with health and safety measures, the president received the first vaccination shot on March 23 and the second on April 14.

Over the years, this forum has strengthened multifaceted business ties, facilitated broadening relations and the development of cultural dialogue between Russia and many foreign countries. According to Roscongress Foundation, a number of foreign countries, keen on making solid business presentations and equally seek partnership opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation, have already registered their participation.

Traditional inter-country business dialogues are planned as part of SPIEF featuring representatives of business communities of Italy, Germany, France, the United States, India, Africa, Finland, Japan, Latin America, Middle East, as well as the EAEU-ASEAN business dialogue. Under the umbrella of SPIEF, international meetings in business room format will be held with the participation of representatives of Roscongress Foundation’s international partners and businesses in the corresponding world regions.

Apart from the main business programme, SPIEF will also host the SME Forum, Youth Economic Forum, SCO, BRICS and ASEAN events, B20 Regional Consultation Forum, Creative Business Forum and Drug Safety and Security Forum, as well as events on Arctic and African agenda.

The central theme of the Forum is A Collective Reckoning of the New Global Economic Reality. The business programme includes more than a hundred events divided into four tracks touching upon the issues of global and Russian economy, as well as social and technological agenda.

Joining Forces to Advance Development is the key track of the business programme. It includes sessions on economic recovery and international cooperation, discussions on Eurasian integration, transformation of global trade, effectiveness of business during the pandemic, global energy market, recovery of food market, and sustainability of national healthcare systems.

The second theme block of the business programme focuses on national development targets, the anti-crisis agenda for strengthening long-term potential of the economy, investment climate in Russian regions, shaping of Russian research and technology space, development of the financial market, creation of circular economy, and functioning of strategically important industries.

Discussions under the New Technology Frontiers track will feature the topics of international cooperation in science, digital sovereignty and information security, healthcare digitalization, tech ethics and others.

The Human Factor in Responding to Global Challenges theme block will talk about cultural codes of the new reality, collaboration in international education projects, and new skills and employment models in a post-COVID world. Moreover, there are sessions on the development of creative industries, sport and education.

The Russian Small and Medium-sized Business Forum is an annual event held as part of SPIEF to discuss the current state of small and medium-sized businesses and measures to enhance their role in the Russian economy. It is, however planned that the focused sessions encompass the key aspects of support and development for small and medium-sized enterprises.

“Small and medium-sized business is the foundation of the economy and a key indicator of the current status of socioeconomic development. As we are looking towards the future, it is essential to develop and implement long-term programmes that will give a new impetus to the development of SMEs,” said Anton Kobyakov, Adviser to the Russian President and Executive Secretary of the SPIEF Organizing Committee.

“We plan to discuss all the proposals in details at the SME Forum because they determine how small and medium-sized businesses will thrive in the future. Small and medium business is the largest employer and a guarantor of socioeconomic stability and the dynamic development of society. The development of entrepreneurial education, cooperation among small and big businesses, and the development of youth entrepreneurship, among other issues,” he said.

With a similar view and position, SME Corporation CEO Alexander Isayevich said “Entrepreneurs need to understand how to work in the new economic realities and what support measures the state will continue to provide. In addition, it is crucial for entrepreneurs to have high-quality non-financial services. The sessions, attended by a wide range of experts, will help to find optimal solutions not only for the SME sector, but also for the entire economy. We always advocate an open dialogue with business, as this is the principle that underlies our new development strategy.”

As part of Youth Day programme, the most promising undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as young scientists from Russia’s leading universities and scientific organizations will participate in the St. Petersburg Forum.

“It has become a good tradition for talented young scientists and students to take part in SPIEF, it is a leading business event that brings together unique experts from all areas of the economy. Participation opens up limitless opportunities for young people to exchange experience and gain new knowledge,” said Andrey Fursenko, Aide to the President of the Russian Federation.

There will also be large-scale different cultural events. For instance, Qatar plans an exhibition – “Qatar between Land and Sea, Art and Legacy” – this exhibition is a great opportunity for people from around the world to explore the very precious elements of the Qatari and Middle Eastern tradition and lifestyle, such as handmade carpets and artifacts, pearls, and antique jewelry, which makes it a magical journey through history.

St. Petersburg forum is highly-considered as an important step forward in developing and strengthening investment‑related collaboration. As one of the biggest economic forums in Russia, it yearly gathers several thousands of participants, including representatives of ministries and government bodies, financial and investment organizations, startups, and tech and innovation companies, and representatives of the media.

Despite the adjustments made due to the pandemic, there are for all participants interesting and useful initiatives for comprehensive interaction as the key objective is to create opportunities and friendly conditions to consolidate links between Russia and the world.

About the SPIEF’21 Organizer: Roscongress Foundation is a socially oriented non-financial development institution and a major organizer of international conventions and exhibitions; and business, public, sporting, and cultural events. It was established in pursuance of a decision by the President of the Russian Federation.

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On the Role of Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) in Supporting a Green Recovery

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Perhaps one of the few areas where a consensus is crystallizing across the major powers of the global economy is on the urgency of advancing the green environmental agendas and reducing the carbon emissions. Global institutions such as the IMF are emphasizing the need for a green recovery to take hold in the world economy as the global community emerges from one of the starkest crises in the past century. The world’s sovereign wealth funds as a powerful force in international financial markets could play a vital role in advancing green projects as well as green finance. This is particularly relevant for Russia, where the National Wellbeing Fund could be partly invested into green financial instruments.

At this stage there is a number of global networks and initiatives that bring together the world’s largest institutional investors, including sovereign wealth funds, to drive the green investment agenda. These include European Long Term Investors, the Institutional Group on Climate Change and the Network on Climate Risk. Some of the wealth funds from the Middle East, including the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the Kuwait Investment Authority, the Qatar Investment Authority and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, are signatories to the One Planet SWF Framework. The meeting held by the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds in 2016 “participants highlighted that SWFs are particularly well-positioned to become trailblazers in green investment”.

Recent data and surveys reveal a growing integration of the green agenda into the decision-making and strategies of the world’s sovereign wealth funds. These were the findings of an inaugural survey of 34 sovereign wealth funds, representing 43% of the world’s sovereign funds, conducted in September by the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds and the One Planet Sovereign Wealth Funds .

The survey reveals that climate-related strategies represent more than 10% of portfolios for 30% of responding wealth funds. The survey also found that these funds made 18 investments in agriculture technology, forestry and renewables opportunities in 2020 at a total value of $2 billion, up from eight investments valued at $324 million in 2015. Overall, according to the survey “sovereign wealth funds have invested more than $5 billion in agritech, forestry and renewables opportunities over the past five years as part of an increased push toward climate change-aware investing”.

Just over a third of responding funds (36%) have a formal climate-change strategy in place, with 55% of these funds adopting the policies since 2015 and 30% since 2018.

The survey came up with the following recommendations to wealth funds based on the survey findings:

· to adopt and implement climate-related strategies;

· to seek appropriate talent and expertise;

· to explore board member and executive education;

· to use metrics to show not only climate impact but also comparable returns and risk reduction;

· to communicate to all stakeholders the strategic importance of climate change;

· to partner with peers and international initiatives to share experience and generate greater leadership from within the wealth fund network.

The latter recommendation dovetails the recent Valdai Club initiative to enhance cooperation among the largest sovereign wealth funds against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic. In particular, in 2020 the Valdai Club together with Shafi Aldamer and Curran Flynn from King Fahd University of Oil and Minerals advanced the proposal to create a platform for the sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) of G20 countries to boost long-term cooperation, direct investments, and the formation of bilateral/trilateral/multilateral investment accords. The findings of this policy brief were included in the T20 communiqué, which encourages the G20 to promote “the creation of a platform that would bring together the sovereign wealth funds of its members, possibly in coordination with the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds.”

Such a platform would encourage the G20 states to strengthen their economic cooperation, bolster mutual interests, improve multilateralism, and develop opportunities for their SWFs. Additionally, it would act as an emergency tool in easing the impact of a global crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, as it can be employed as an anti-crisis measure via the investments of the G20 states’ SWFs. One important venue of cooperation for such a platform for sovereign wealth funds could be the elaboration of green investing principles and benchmarks for the major sovereign wealth funds, which in turn would support the advancement of a green recovery in the global economy in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic.

As regards Russia’s sovereign wealth funds, most notably the National Wellbeing Fund (NWF), which by Q1 2021 has accumulated more than USD 180 bn in overall resources there may be a case for investing part of the liquid reserve into green instruments, including sovereign green bonds. In particular, the investment guidelines for the NWF may involve a formal target on the share of green assets in the Fund’s portfolio. These in turn may include corporate and sovereign green bonds from advanced economies as well as an allocation reserved for Russia’s corporate and sovereign green bonds. The latter would potentially deliver a significant boost to the development of Russia’s green bond market. Currently green bonds account for just 1.5% of total corporate bonds outstanding in Russia and the emergence of sizeable demand from Russia’s sovereign wealth fund would raise the potential growth for this very important market segment.

From our partner RIAC

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5 things you should know about the state of the global economy

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Is this the year we overcome the global economic crisis caused by the pandemic? Are our jobs in danger? Who has lost the most in the crisis and what can be done to recover? As the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs (DESA) prepares to launch the mid-year update of the 2021 World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report, here are five things you need to know about the state of the global economy.

1) US and China bounce back, but a slow recovery for developing countries 

While economic output in the United States and China is expected to grow robustly and lift global growth, many developing economies are not expected to return to pre-pandemic output levels anytime soon. The pandemic is far from over for most developing countries where vaccination is advancing slowly, and fiscal pressures have intensified.

2) The situation of the most vulnerable has become even more precarious

Lockdowns and social distancing measures resulted in large job losses in contact-intensive and labour-intensive service sectors, which predominantly employ women. The pandemic has also exposed the vulnerability of informal employment, which is the main source of jobs in many countries and which offers less job security, social protection and access to healthcare.

3) Global trade recovery is strong, particularly in Asia

Merchandise trade has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels, buoyed by strong demand for electrical and electronic equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other manufactured goods. Trade in services remains constrained by restrictions on international travel. While exports from Asian economies have soared, exports from Africa, Western Asia, and the Commonwealth of Independent States has stalled.

4) The COVID-19 crisis has inflicted more harm on women and girls

This crisis disproportionately affected women, who suffered significant job and income losses, contributing to the worsening of gender poverty gaps. Burdened by increased home care duties, many girls and women gave up on schools, and the workforce altogether. Returning to school and work might take longer or may not happen at all for many of them, further widening gender gaps in education, income and wealth.

5) Countries need to do more to address the uneven impact of the COVID-19 crisis

There is an urgent need for countries to formulate better targeted and gender-sensitive policies to drive a more resilient and inclusive recovery from the crisis. Though on the frontlines of the pandemic, women have been under-represented in pandemic related decision-making and economic policy responses. The severe and disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls call for more targeted policy and support measures for women and girls, not only to accelerate the recovery but also to ensure that the recovery is inclusive and resilient.

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