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Macedonian elites illegally build vacation homes on public land

13.10.2022

There are few empty lots along the coast of Lake Mavrovo, part of one of North Macedonia’s oldest national parks. Over the past two decades, weekend villas, highrises, and luxury hotels have sprung up across the park,  threatening the natural treasures within. In an attempt to find new land on which to build, the country’s political and business elites stumbled across a small village hidden in the mountainous terrain — Trnica, which is inside the park. Now, the village has been transformed into an elite weekend getaway crammed with luxury villas built on public park land. The village falls under the jurisdiction of the Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe, which hasn’t taken steps to sanction the perpetrators and demolish these illegal buildings, saying no company has agreed to do the demolition. There has been no action, despite requirements of the national Law for Buildings.

By Dajana Lazarevska and Jana Colakovska/Redaction Miranda Spivack/Graphic design: Luka Blazev and Elena Mitrevska Cuckovska

Trnica, Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe, May 20, 2021 

Heavy machinery could be seen arriving in the small village of Trnica, inside National Park Mavrovo,  around May 20, 2021. The objective: tear through centuries-old forest and clear a large swath for a new road. Hundreds of trees were felled. The site was then marked off, and prepped for further construction. The company that did the work has not yet been publicly identified and government officials have refused to say what they know about the company.

“Since we’re obliged to protect personal information, presuming the innocence of those we suspect and were not a directly involved party, we cannot provide the name of the company from Gostivar hired to build the road,”  said an email to IRL signed by Fikri Aliti, director of a group that inspected the site.

After an anonymous tip to the local government suggesting the clear cutting was illegal, the Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe sent its  only construction site inspector, Kirko Djukovski, to take a look. Djukovski found that along with the illegally cut trees and a new road that appears to be only about 100 meters long, there are also now four new houses nearby. 

Trnica village photographed from a drone. Houses in the village were illegally built on public land. Some eventually were legalized, and some are still under construction.

Djukovski wrote a report dated May 20, 2021, describing what he saw. He also prepared a demolition order. But the municipality isn’t in charge of maintaining the forest because it is part of the national park. So Djukovski also reported the incident to the national government organization whose job is to protect and manage the park, and also to the State Inspectorate of Forestry and Hunting, a separate state body. 

“The municipality of Mavrovo and Rostuse couldn’t carry out the proper procedure for illegal logging since we don’t have the qualified staff, so our report was sent to “National Park Mavrovo,” [the formal name of the management organization that oversees the park] and the State Inspectorate of Forestry and Hunting to protect the forest and prevent possible future construction,” said Djukovski in an email to IRL.

There are more than 1500 buildings surrounding Lake Mavrovo, most of which have been built legally. But the many houses that already have been built along  the shoreline inside  National Park Mavrovo must, according to the Law of Nature, receive consent from the management organization that oversees the park which answers to the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning, But records show this almost never happens. In addition to the new, clearcut site near Trnica, there are 20 to 30 other buildings in the village that are inside the park for which there are no records showing that they were legalized..

 June 8, 2021 

After Djukovski alerted the authorities, two inspectors from the State Inspectorate of Forestry and Hunting, Antonio Bozinovski and Trajce Angelov, along with the management group for the park, whose director is Samir Ajdin, gathered at the site.  Also present in the meeting was Cane Petreski, head of the local branch of the park management organization.. They conducted a detailed inspection. In their three-page report describing the inspection, they cited signs of illegal activities: logging on empty lots;the construction of the new road; the four new homes, all illegally occurring on publicly owned land. 

Despite the inspection, the report did not identify the culprits or include any suspicions about who did the damage.  There’s no official information about who cut down all those trees or who started building a road on public land. Still, the group  who conducted the investigation gave the order on June 10, 2021 to return the land to its original condition.  

A cleared site, which was being prepared for illegal construction. The name of the young high-ranking official who, according to residents, intended to build remains an enigma, and he has already destroyed dozens of trees to build a weekend house in the heart of National Park Mavrovo.

According to residents interviewed by IRL, who did not wish to be publicly identified in this story, high ranking government officials were present during the road’s construction in May 2021. Their identity, however, has remained a mystery.    

June 2, 2022

A  year after the clearcutting was reported,  IRL journalists met with representatives from the municipal administration and the National Park Mavrovo management team. The conversation centered on IRL’s months-long investigation about the failed attempts to reaffirm the national park as a protected area as well as the rapid urbanization in the region.

The road through Mavrovi Anovi to Trnica cuts through a high forest, a landscape starkly different from that surrounding houses and hotels on the lake’s more developed coastline. There are no traffic jams, garbage on the streets or music echoing from the restaurants.  At the entrance to  Trnica is the hotel complex Korab Trnica and its cheese factory. The factory has been running since 1974 and then renovated in 2015. 

In Trnica, well inside the national park, perched atop a hill is the flourishing settlement of illegally built houses of various sizes. During the  recent visit by IRL journalists, some of the houses were still under construction and others already completed. Between 20 and 30 houses stand on public land,  by IRL’s count. One of the houses was getting a second floor. Laborers working on one of the houses didn’t appear fazed when the journalists took pictures of the construction sites. 

During the first visit of the IRL team to Trnica in April 2022 this house was still under construction. At the end of June, when this photo was taken, the house already had a facade. Photo credit: IRL.mk

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Trnica, the terrain where hundreds of trees were cut to make space for a new road, the land hasn’t been restored to its original condition, despite the order from the State Inspectorate of Forestry and Hunting. No new trees have been planted. The surrounding lots are still cleared and ready for construction. 

Samir Ajdini, director of the management organization that oversees the park, said  that the organization has already begun restoring the destroyed piece of forest by sowing seeds. 

Municipal inspector Кirko Djukovski said the replanting was a successful collaboration.

“I think that this is a good example of a successful intervention and cooperation between institutions, a ‘what could’ve been if it hadn’t been prevented’ type of situation,” said Dzukovski.

Google Earth satellite images over Trnica taken in June 2009 and August 2021 / Source: Google Earth

Not a single illegal building has been demolished in the park 

The Law on Legalizing Illegally Constructed Buildings was first adopted in 2011. The law significantly simplified the legalization procedure. Unlike the procedure for obtaining a building permit, which requires extensive documentation and the consent of various institutions, the Law only requires a geodetic report showing a land survey, and a notarized statement affirming that the building was constructed before the deadline of March 3, 2011. 

The construction inspector for Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe said that the scarce documentation required for the legalization process gives people an incentive to build first and then legalize later instead of obtaining a building permit. 

“This has meant an easier process for homeowners. Due to these facts, each owner prefers to go forward with a legalization procedure instead of obtaining a building permit,” Kirko Djukovski, the construction inspector from the Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe,  said in an email. 

Due to the high demand for legalization of illegal buildings, the government extended the deadline several times for submitting requests to legalize illegally constructed buildings.

In Mavrovo and Rostuse there are a total of 42 settlements, 37 of which fall within the borders of the national park. Since the adoption of the Law on Legalization of Illegally Constructed Buildings, the municipality has received roughly 5,000 requests. The majority of the requests – 3,775 – were received in 2011. Then between 2015 and 2016, an additional 816 were filed. And finally, in 2018, a total of 384 more requests reached the municipality. 

From a total of 5,000 requests, only 1,800 have actually been approved. The rest are either processing or have already been rejected. But those that have been rejected are still standing.

Once a building is legalized, the owner pays the municipality of one euro per square meter. 

MP Monika Zajkova and her illegally legalized villa in Trnica 

Several residents had mentioned a well-known name during IRL’s trip to Trnica: MP Monika Zajkova.

“MP Zajkova also has a house there. It’s just not registered under her name,” said a resident who asked not to be named.

Zajkova, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, had disclosed this particular property to the Anti-corruption Commission when she first became a member of Parliament in 2019. Records show that it was listed as a family house acquired in 2018. The villa is registered in government records under her father’s name, Branko Zajkov. 

“This is a building that my parents built in 2010. The procedure for legalizing the building was conducted in accordance with the Law on IIllegally Constructed Buildings, rules that applied for all illegally built buildings in the country. They haven’t attempted to privatize the land underneath. All utilities have been paid as per the municipality’s price list,” Zajkova wrote in a email to IRL. 

On the same piece of land where the Zajkovi family has built their villa, there’s another house owned by Marjan Zdravkovski, the Assistant Minister for Informatics and Telecommunications at the Ministry of the Interior, land records show.. Just like Zajkova, Zdravkovski hails from the ranks of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). IRL attempted to contact Zdravskovski on numerous occasions, but to no avail. 

Fikret Ibraimi, a spokesperson from the Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe,  wrote in an email to IRL that the persons with the initials M.Z. and B.Z. submitted a request for legalization of illegally built houses that the owners claim were built before March 3, 2011.

Satellite image from Google of the location where the families of MP Monika Zajkova and Marjan Zdravkovsk, an assistant minister in the Ministry of Interior, have vacation homes. On the left is the image from 2014 when there are no buildings, and on the right in 2017 the image shows houses on the same site.

But that assertion is contrary to what can be seen on Google’s satellite footage of Trnica. In 2011, those houses didn’t exist. Instead, they show up for the first time sometime after 2014 on Google’s satellite images. Zajkova, the member of Parliament,  insisted that the house was built in 2010.

Monika Zajkova paints herself as one of the young progressive leaders in the country – and she was a vocal advocate of allowing illegally constructed buildings to be legalized. At just 28, she gained the trust of her party and served as the president of the Young Liberal Democrat. She was nominated by the administration of then-prime minister, Zoran Zaev in 2018 to the Supervisory Board of the State Lottery of Macedonia, an influential state company and then most profitable. After the parliamentary elections of 2020, she was elected to Parliament. 

In November 2020, an Inter-Party Parliamentary Group composed of 39 MPs was formed to address environmental issues, prompted by efforts from O2, non-profit environmental group. The parliamentary group’s goal was to advocate and protect the country’s diverse natural resources, fight against pollution and climate change. Named as the group’s leader was Monika Zajkova. 

Publicly, MP Zajkova opposed the adoption of the new Law on Legalization of Illegal Buildings in 2021, which was being pushed by Zaev’s Ministry of Transport and Communication whose minister was Blagoj Bochvarski. Together with three other party members, Zajkova urged President Stevo Pendarovski to refuse to sign the law, stating in the letter that illegally building buildings is a crime. 

“Should we as a country stimulate crime by allowing such illegal construction, discriminating against all of those good and responsible people who obtained all necesary documentation for a building permit that requires a lot of time and resources?” she wrote to Pendarovski, who did not sign the law.. 

Letter to President Pendarovski from the parliamentary group of the Liberal Democratic Party. MP Monika Zajkova and her supporters ask him not to sign the “criminal” law on the legalization of illegal constructions. The most recent version was proposed in 2020 and would allow illegal buildings to be legalized. She opposed that, even though in 2018 she benefited from a similar law and her house was legalized.

Trnica’s unofficial mayor 

In the search for Trnica’s other homeowners, IRL’s journalists analyzed Google satellite footage. The examination began with data from 2003 when the village had only seven houses. In 2009, there were an additional three houses built, a total of 10 houses. 

All of these houses have one thing in common  – they are on public land, according to public records. As per the Law on Illegally Built Buildings, houses constructed before March 3, 2011 are eligible to be legalized. 

Regardless, construction continued. According to Google’s satellite footage, there are now 16 houses between 2014 and 2017. In 2021, six more houses appeared on Google Earth images.

Residents, who asked not to be named in this story, claim that the person who paved the way for this urbanization is Angjelko Pejovski. They call him the unofficial mayor of Trnica. Without his knowledge it would be impossible to build in the village, they say. In the 1999 documentary short by Macedonian public television,  titled “Trnica is my dream” the main character is Pejovski, who details his idea to build a new settlement on the road from Mavrovo to Debar. 

“Life in the surrounding villages is difficult, there is no electricity in the winter, there is no asphalted road. For these reasons, the idea to form a new settlement was born. That would be the Trnica neighborhood,” Pejovski said in the 1999 documentary.

Five houses in Trnica are registered under the last name Pejovski. For three of them, the land underneath has also been privatized, property records show. The remaining two are still standing on public land, property records show. 

Pejovski is a professional surveyor. In 2006, he started a surveying company but records show that it was liquidated in 2019. 

Several illegally built houses on the official list for removal. However, not a single house in the entire municipality of Mavrovo and Rostuše has been demolished. These two buildings are still under construction and lack proper permission for construction.

Former Minister Janakieski proposed a law that legalized his own holiday home

Among the first houses built in Trnica is owned by Zarko Dojcinovski. But everyone in Mavrovo knows it as the villa of Mile Janakieski, the former Minister of Transport and Communications from 2006 to 2016 during Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s administration. Dojcinovski is the father of Janakieski’s wife. The house was built before 2011 and is covered by the Law on Legalization of Illegally Constructed Buildings. But this does not mean it can be privatized, because to do so, the land would need to be part of a designated urban plan, the system set up to allow some privatization. So far, there is no approved urban plan for the area.

Janakieski initially proposed the Law on Legalization of Illegally Constructed Buildings. It was announced as a social measure that would enable poorer households to legalize their homes.

“The purpose of passing this law was not to punish people, but to consider the social aspect of the law and the construction of houses,” said Janakieski when he proposed the law in 2011.

Forgetful actors 

Two actors from the National Theater also have weekend houses in Trnica: Igor Angelov and Maja Veljkovik Panovska, according to property records. On social networks and in casual interviews they’ve shared photos and moments from their vacation in Trnica. 

“I will spend the summer on the mountain in Trnica. I’m often there. There is Bistra, Galicnik and it is wonderful. I think that when I retire there, I will find peace,” said Igor Angelov in an interview in July 2018 with “Betty Magazine.”

According to Google’s satellite footage, their houses were built before 2009. During a telephone conversation, both actors claimed that the houses have been legalized and they have all the necessary documentation. But when our journalists asked who they bought the houses from, they couldn’t answer, saying that they cannot remember. IRL sent additional questions by text message, which they have not answered. The actors have not shared the documentation with IRL.

In early June 2022, IRL requested from the Municipality the documents for the legalization of all illegal constructions in Trnica. But the local government did not deliver them to us.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications does not accept satellite images as evidence of when a building was constructed

The standards for determining what building was built when are limited. The Ministry of Transport and Communication does not accept satellite images as evidence for determining exactly when a building was constructed. The ministry only requires a notarized statement affirming that the building was constructed before the March 3, 2011 deadline. 

On numerous occasions, the Association of Local Government (ZELS) has requested that the Ministry of Transportation and Communications allow the use of satellite footage as evidence for the legalization process. 

“ZELS in its official requests to the Ministry of Transport and Communications, always proposed to insert an article that would allow the use of satellite footage as evidence in the case of legalization, so that we can determine whether the building was constructed within the lawful deadline. Unfortunately, our proposals weren’t accepted,” said ZELS’s Executive director Dusica Perisic in an interview..

Former mayors have attempted to overturn several legalization orders or reject legalization requests because it was proven that the buildings were built after the deadline. The Ministry of Transportation and Communication Appeals Committee, however, has dismissed them, citing that Google’s satellite footage is inadmissible in court proceedings. 

Number of submitted requests for the legalization of illegal constructions in the Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostuše, provided by Kirko Dzukovski, inspector for Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostuse, via email.

The Ministry maintains that satellite footage can show whether a new building has been constructed, but that it cannot be used to decide whether previously existing buildings had been upgraded or expanded – or the original date of construction. 

In 2021,  the municipality of Mavrovo and Rostuse issued four demolition orders for houses illegally built in Trnica. IRL’s journalists requested the names of the owners of these buildings, but the municipality refused to reveal them. 

Thus far, the Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe has yet to demolish an illegally constructed building, even after issuing a demolition order. In February, the Municipality announced it was looking to hire a company to carry out these demolitions, but not a single one answered their call.