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Sour grapes: IU staff member Justin Otten brings to light the corrupt underbelly of Macedonia's wine region

Mar. 28, 2013

The idea of “European wine country” tends to conjure romantic images of couples clinking glasses, picturesque sunsets and miles of succulent vines.

Justin Otten

Justin Otten

Justin Otten’s 2002 Peace Corps assignment in the post-socialist Republic of Macedonia eventually led him to a far different experience of the area’s Tikveš wine region -- one characterized by corruption, greed, strikes and grueling physical labor that often goes unpaid.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at IU in 2002, Otten moved to Macedonia for the Peace Corps. On his very first day in the country, he met the woman who would become his wife and mother to the couple’s two-year-old daughter, Vera. He spent a gratifying two years teaching English as a second language, and returned a few years later to teach in the capital, Skopje, and travel throughout the region as a recruiter for American Councils.

'Wine mafia'

Over time, Otten’s increasing familiarity with the issues of his wife’s hometown in Tikveš, located just north of the border with Greece, inspired what became an enduring research passion: analysis of the transition and corruption in the area’s wine industry as it has been affected by the Macedonian government’s shift to privatization. Otten recently presented a paper at the SOYUZ conference at Columbia University on the “wine mafia” who have taken over the industry, and some claim the government, in Macedonia.

View a photo gallery from Otten's field work.

When Otten was first living in Macedonia, the wine region was emerging from its socialist shell. Under socialism, sub-average wine was produced in industrial complexes, and the government bought the grapes, Otten said. That all changed when Macedonia’s slow post-socialist transition -- dragged out because of enduring conflict in Yugoslavia -- emerged as a government that takes a laissez faire approach to market regulation.

The ruling neoliberally guided government advocates support of free trade and open markets but doesn’t intervene when more powerful market forces are bullying those without power, causing many grape growers to abandon their life’s work, or toil without pay for long periods of time.

“It wasn’t something that caught the attention of myself or other internationals at first,” Otten said. “My wife pointed out to me that there was something really sinister going on: The guys who took over wine production facilities have been pretty coercive and essentially just not paid the grape growers for their grapes.”

Strikes with no solution

Otten is currently an academic advisor at IU Bloomington in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is also conducting research for a doctoral program he is completing through the University of Kent in England, where he studied for a year as an undergrad on exchange then returned to in 2010 to work with a former professor and begin his doctorate. Following his Peace Corps experience, he completed a master’s degree at IU’s Russian and Eastern European Institute in 2007 before moving back to Macedonia. There, he watched as independent grape growers shriveled at the mercy of winery owners, who reduced and delayed payment to them while the new government’s hands-off approach to market regulation did nothing to help.

The conflict has remained at a steady boil without improving. In 2010, the grape growers staged major strikes, locking down the main roads in the region, expecting the government to intervene. “But 2010 was kind of like a turning point -- this realization that the government, who used to pay and buy all the grapes because it was socialism, suddenly did nothing.”

Otten said the government temporarily appeased the grape growers by inviting the mayors and some of the winery owners to get together at the ministry of agriculture in the capital and agree to take measures to be sure growers were getting a certain price for their grapes and actually being paid. They didn’t follow through.

“There’s no planning ahead,” Otten said. “Growers that are still in business hear from wineries a week before the harvest or during the harvest. Suddenly, a winery says ‘we need more of this kind of grape.’ Then that’s all they want to buy, and they leave the growers in agony.”

'Not living, just surviving'

Through a photo essay soon to be published in Student Anthropologist, his 2010-2011 anthropological fieldwork is illustrated, analyzing the alteration of grape growers’ livelihoods in the Tikveš region -- a situation that, in 2013, hasn’t improved, Otten says.

The growers protest the changes by staging protests and blocking main roads. At the same time, they’ve had to adapt to the situation to try and make ends meet. Without government support, and with frequent last-minute order changes from the wineries, the area’s grape growers are frequently left with a surplus of grapes and uncertainty of income. Some have taken to producing homemade brandy or other goods, while others seek to replace, abandon or sell their vineyards altogether. But the side products don’t help much, Otten found. Many of the grape growers told him that they are “not living, just surviving.”
There’s a poor rule of law in Macedonia, Otten said. Coupled with corrupt, patronage-based business practices and corruption in the government, the grape growers see their IOU slips to wineries ignored -- or are paid a fraction of the price.

“Grape growers don’t have money for their families or even for the inputs of grape production,” he said. Otten will present a paper in April at the Society for Economic Anthropology’s annual meeting on the growth of inequality in Tikveš as a result of corrupt privatization practices. 

Otten himself worked in the vineyards while living in Macedonia. “Grape production sounds really sexy, but it’s just downright dirty agricultural work. You’re going to slice your fingers on the vine. You have to put pesticides on the grapes,” he said, explaining that grapes are so vulnerable to destructive fungus that even grapes for organic wine have been sprayed with some measure of pesticides. “These poor growers have to use pesticides, they’ve got tractors they have to put gas into -- gas is very expensive there -- so essentially, they’re just going broke.”

Otten says his research is applicable to the U.S. in its illustration of how the de-regulated private marketplace isn’t good for the country, livelihoods or pocketbooks.

The week of his interview with Inside IU Bloomington in February, Otten had just signed a petition concerning the U.S. Post Office, which has been subject to a slow onslaught of privatization and lobbying efforts from UPS and FedEx. He mentions airlines as another example of the negatives inherent in privatization -- and how the recent merger of US Airways and American won’t be good for the consumer.

“Not that this is anything new,” he said. “We’ve seen plane ticket costs skyrocket in the past several years, just as they charge more fees for baggage. This used to be a national industry, with affordable prices and well-paid pilots. No more, and indeed the pay pilots receive is atrocious.”

His Tikveš wine industry research also applies to private interests and seedy political practices in the U.S., where factory jobs are exported to Mexico and Asia, creating an inequality in the U.S. and abroad that didn’t exist a few decades ago.

“And while my research doesn’t seem directly connected to this, it is: Neoliberalism is an economic paradigm based on globalized Euro-American liberalism, but to a new extreme in what is a very different, inter-connected 21st century world,” he said.

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