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31 Jan 13

Doing business in Macedonia

Eleonora Veninova

I am a writer. Sometimes I even get paid for it. 

Eleonora fellowOther times I try to figure out what makes business so damn difficult to do in a country that prides itself on the high ranking for doing business on Doing Business.org. These are some of my findings:

1. Don’t sign if you can shake:

Managers in Macedonia fear signing contracts with employees (temporary or permanent) and among themselves liken it to signing a contract with the devil. Contracts are seen as a sign of mistrust: “If you can’t trust someone’s word, no contract is gonna save you.” So, most transactions are handled with a handshake and sealed with: “You have my word.” This business manner is tightly connected to another professional modus operandi in Macedonia:

2. The joy of flexibility:

In order to get a more objective and unbiased view of the matter, I spoke to a German friend who’s been working in Macedonia for three years. While recalling the positive and negative experiences, he mentioned the unusual level of flexibility in professional relations. “In Macedonia, you can get a politician to attend a conference with one phone call and in matter of days. In Germany, you would have to arrange that six months in advance.” 

But then, there’s a down side. Flexibility means that agreements just as easily can be deemed void, since the provided flexibility brings in itself an expectation of reciprocity from the other party. A manager in the private sector agrees that contractors are only a phone call away, but he recalls an example where he had arranged a translator for an event, only to get a call from him a day before the agreed date that he couldn’t do the job because he’d got a better offer elsewhere. Angry with the contractor, he concluded: “You just can’t trust people.” When I asked if he had signed a contract with the man, he answered: “Of course not, it’s not like we started working already.”

3. Sign firm on loose terms:

On the other hand, state institutions in Macedonia love contracts. Dealing with a state institution requires good deal of patience and a spare tree to cut in order to get the necessary paper for the ensuring bureaucracy. But, even here one finds examples of strange business practices. The most recent one is the public call for a selection of an insurance company that would provide annual insurance for the Post Office in 2013. Nothing unusual here, except that the call comes three weeks into 2013 and after a fire that caused serious damage to the main administrative building. One of the conditions of the call is that the bidders agree to cover the damage done before the call was even published, basically asking insurance companies to bend or straightforwardly break the law. But, if you look at it from a different perspective, what they are really asking them to do is show some flexibility.

4.  Not any day is payday:

In spite of all this, business is done and people are paid. Not on Mondays, though. Apparently many Macedonian businessmen are superstitious and believe that if they start the working week with payments, the week will be “jinxed” and somehow they’ll be stuck paying people in the next four days. Certain days and hours are also not good, like Tuesdays and Fridays, when the banks are overwhelmed with customers. If the manager is on a business trip, which happens every other day as far as his secretary is concerned, all transactions are suspended until further notice.

Don’t get me wrong, business is done in Macedonia every day, even a couple of times a day, sometimes. Only it’s done with handshakes, instead of pen and paper, on Wednesday and Friday mornings and with a lot of flexibility. As long as you have a firm handshake and can bend without breaking, you have a future doing business in Macedonia.

Eleonora Veninova is alumni of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. The programme is initiated and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the ERSTE Foundation.

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