Software Freedom for Macedonia?

by David Sugar

When I first heard that I would be visiting to speak in Macedonia, my initial thoughts were of a small isolated Eastern European nation. I had spoken in many other countries recently, usually about GNU Bayonne. The people who organized this event, however, wanted to use it to help launch a national free software movement in Macedonia, and so I thought for a long time, so I agreed and decided I would go and speak there primarily about software freedom, an issue of deep importance to me.

I first received the offer to speak in Macedonia while I was traveling abroad. In fact, I was attending the Bristol Software Conference at the time, and then a week later visiting France for what has now become the annual Libre Software Meeting. It was on my return to the US, and a family tragedy, that initially made me cancel all my immediate travel plans, however, including this event.

A week before the event, I was contacted, and, considering the importance of being able to reach and speak with hackers in that part of the world, I did finally consent to go. It was not until the day before that we were able to get airline tickets booked, however, so this trip was already very much in doubt before it happened, and seemed at best precarious. This led me to have even lower expectations.

What is "officially" called the "Former Yugoslav" Republic of Macedonia is a landlocked nation of 2 million people surrounded by the Kosovo region of Serbia in the north, Albania in the west, Greece in the south, and Bulgaria in the east. In that they were having national elections and a national holiday around the time I would be there, it was impossible for them to make travel arrangements for me to fly into the one major airport in the country. I was also reminded that Macedonia is not considered "safe" for air travel, in that the nation is not considered to have air traffic safety up to western European standards. Finally, my own State Department suggested American citizens should not travel to this country. With such overwhelming negative comments, my expectations had reached a very low point indeed, but I had agreed to go, and, at the last minute, the flight arrangements came through.

To visit Macedonia, I was flown to Sofia, in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is perhaps the most friendly of Macedonia's neighbors, and perhaps the easiest approach into the country. From there it is only a two or three hour drive to Skopje (pronounced Scopia), with, as I later learned, anywhere from a 1 to 12 hour delay at the border crossing being possible.

While I had many negative expectations about the country, I found that many of these expectations were very true, but of Bulgaria. The drive to the border was perhaps the most depressing drive I ever took. Everywhere one looked in Bulgaria there were large buildings falling apart. This was a very consistent theme. This trip reached a very low point when the car I was in had an accident about 20km for the border in some nameless Bulgarian town. The car was undrivable, and we were too far from the border for anyone's cell phone to work, so we were stranded, until the police would allow themselves to be paid, and we could arrange to get the car towed to the border.

Unlike most borders, there are checkpoints at both ends, and a kind of 1km no-man's land in between where time can stand still for many hours depending on the mood and circumstances of the border police. My entry into Macedonia consisted of helping to push an old Russian-made car with a smashed front end over this border with a short (under two hour) delay in "no-mans" land fairly late in the evening of my first day in the Balkans. This was clearly the most challenging nation I had ever visited. Little did I expect then that it would be very much worth all these difficulties to do so.

A large and dynamic city

Even from the very first village we passed through after getting a cab at the border, it was immediately clear Macedonia was place very different, and much more alive than Bulgaria. Skopje itself has perhaps from 1/3 up to 1/2 of the entire population of the country in it, making it a fairly large and dynamic city.

I was staying next door to the Russian embassy, and the humour of this was not lost upon me. However, Skopje is very much a 24 hour city, and, even as an American, I felt and found I was perfectly safe wherever in the city I went. In fact, I felt safer in Skopje than many other foreign cities I have visited, and even than in some American ones at night. It also helped that English was a fairly common second language, and, unlike in some European countries, people that know English are quite willing to use it. I suppose trying to speak Macedonian is likely to break one's tongue, so it is no doubt out of politeness that they do not expect one to!

I could describe the extensive night life of Skopje, but I did not visit there for that purpose. I also learned much about Macedonian culture and history while I was there and visited their national museum. I found that to be equally interesting. Certainly, in the place that gave the world the Cyrillic alphabet, there is a long and deep understanding of the need to share knowledge for the benefit of society.

Microsoft makes Expo vendors an offer

My trip was sponsored by the Macedonian magazine publication, [PCInfo+], and I was invited to speak at an event they called ExpoCom. This event was originally expanded to be a full week long. However, when it was announced I was coming to speak on software freedom, a number of vendors and speakers withdrew and ExpoCom was shortened by a few days. I learned this was because the Microsoft Adriatic representative and the local Microsoft reseller in Macedonia had contacted the speakers and vendors who were going to attend, and requested they withdraw from ExpoCom and offered other considerations if they would do so.

[PCInfo+] had at one time been a more traditional PC magazine much like [PC Week] or similar publications that cover proprietary software and hardware. When Igor become managing editor, and I think it was some two years ago, he focused attention and coverage on GNU/Linux, and the local hacker community. The immediate result of this was the Adriatic Microsoft rep asked their Macedonian reseller to stop future advertising in [PCInfo+.]

Very recently they had an amusing cover for PCInfo+ where they had a "Tux" penguin suck a "Microsoft" juicebox dry. This prompted the Microsoft Adriatic offices to phone each and every one of the local advertisers of [PCInfo+], and any that would withdraw from further advertising were offered "special" software licensing terms. Most recently, they had contacted the the printing house that [PCInfo+] uses. However, Igor will be telling his story for the world press directly, so I will leave it to him to fill in most of the details first hand.

I suppose in a country with a stronger civil history this would be scandalous. In fact, Macedonia has a poor history for enforcing laws and certainly, especially considering the short history of independence, less strong a connection between civil law and constitutional ideals than we enjoy here. Copyright, as a concept in Macedonia, is actually practiced somewhat on the French model. Authors have permanent and non-transferable "intellectual" rights, but can severably transfer "commercial" rights to others. In practice, actual enforcement on copyright restrictions has been very minimal in Macedonia to date.

Neighboring Serbia passes software audit law

With their low experience and civil history, there are many risks that they face. I was told that in Serbia, a separate and specific "software licensing" law was passed last year after much lobbying of that government which are neither based on constitutional, contractual, or civil law as it existed before. These laws permit private software companies to directly audit commercial firms in Serbia at will and permits the state to then close commercial businesses if the business is not in full software license, with "compliance" as defined by the firm initiating a software "audit". This also seems to be a slap to the concept of due process. There is some fear that similar laws may be passed in Macedonia.

As it was, ExpoCom was a much smaller and more intimate event than I had originally anticipated. It was held in a very small convention center. But, while most small Macedonian companies were discouraged from participating, many well known foreign companies unlikely to be effected by pressures choose to attend and present at it anyway. Most of these presentations were actually, for me, rather boring traditional marketing presentations. Most were, for me, somewhat boring, and I have little interest in mostly proprietary products or services from companies like Fujitsu and Assman.

The most heavily attended presentation

My talk was at the end of the event, the "footnote", if you will. Even so, it was the most heavily attended presentation, even though I actually required the audience to actually think and ask questions rather than just listen to some slick video or slide presentation. I mostly spoke about software freedom and the right to study, and a little about GNU Bayonne. The audience was very receptive and much more energetic than I saw at the other presentations.

Later I had the chance to meet with a number of members of the Macedonian hacker community. I would say there are probably about 200 free software hackers in Macedonia as a whole, with the vast majority being in Skopje itself. While some Macedonian hackers are are in similar circumstances and viewpoint to many we have in the US who work part or full time in various commercial companies, a vast majority of Macedonian hackers are under 20, and perhaps a majority are under 18. It is this latter group which is most visibly prevalent and highly cohesive. I think the small size, uniformity of experience, and geographical proximity (being in one city) of Macedonian hackers accounts for this uniformity of viewpoint and goals and high level of social integration that they share.

Among this group of Macedonian hackers is Angov Arangel. While I would never suggest getting in a car with him, as such cars seem to have a natural tendency to crash into other cars even though he never drives, he is involved in getting this Macedonian hacker community together under a new Macedonian national Free Software organization. This organization was originally going to be formed and announced during ExpoCom itself, but they had not completed everything necessary by that date.

Connecting new hackers with history

The problem the hacker community faces in Macedonia is that, especially in regard to their age and historic isolation, they do not have anyone who fully understands free software philosophy in the country. They have ideas of what this means and certainly can and have read things including the many things Richard Stallman has written, but they lack the full perspective or history that we enjoy here and so lack some of the understanding that comes from it. It was this reason, I think, that they wanted specifically an FSF "speaker" present. As it happens, I mostly spoke about free software philosophy and our common values while I was there, including in my main speech, and so I think this part of my trip worked out very well.

Returning from Macedonia also proved a most unique challenge. Igor was late picking me up at the hotel that morning. We were delayed several hours in the border no-mans land once again. By the time we reached Sofia, they had already closed boarding for the flight, and even though it had a half-hour before departing, there was no means for them to get me on the airplane. There is only one daily flight, as it happens, from Sofia to Frankfurt. Also, while there were later flights to other German cities, that particular flight connected with the very last flight available from Germany to the US that day.

I have learned that the people of Macedonia do care deeply about software freedom, and that they relate to it in regard to their own unique cultural history and national identity. With their recent elections and change of government, there is new hope that software freedom will become part of the agenda of their national government, for it already is part of their society.

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