1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
CultureNorth Macedonia

Passports: Freedom for sale

Charli Shield | Rachel Stewart
October 25, 2023

The little booklets we use to cross borders and take a vacation abroad didn't always exist. So where did they come from? Stories of privilege, control and belonging are hidden in the watermarked pages of our passports. Our travels take us to a little country with a complicated past, where we find some unexpected pieces of the puzzle – from citizenship to micronations to cold hard cash.


Episode transcript: 

Sound of walking through town 

CHARLI: So we've just received our new passports from...  

RACHEL: Vevcani! We are Vevcani citizens. 

CHARLI: The Republic of Vevcani. Rachel, how do you feel? 

RACHEL: I mean, I feel like it was a little bit too easy!  

CHARLI: It was, it was really easy. 

RACHEL: How much did it cost? 

CHARLI: 3 euros. 

RACHEL: *laugh* What a bargain! 

CHARLI: What do you think of your new second state of citizenship? 

RACHEL: I feel like I want to move here.  

CHARLI: It's really nice here. 

RACHEL: It's pretty beautiful, it's very peaceful, the people seem nice.  

CHARLI: Lovely. 

RACHEL: And they let us in so easily that I feel very accepted. 

CHARLI: Shall we fill it in? 

RACHEL: Let's do it. Got to make it official.     

Sound of pen click 

RACHEL: I feel like we should drink to our new citizenship with some local Rakija. 

Sound of cheersing shot glasses 

RACHEL: živele. 

CHARLI: živele! 

Sound of clink 

MUSIC – Balkan style 

CHARLI: Damn. 

RACHEL: Aw it burns. 

JINGLE: Sound of phone ringing "развален телефон", "Chinese whispers", "telefono senza fili", "telephone", "kulaktan kulağa", "Stille Post", "испорченный телефон", "téléphone arabe", "głuchy telefon", "Russian scandal", "Don't drink the milk"… sound of dial tone 

RACHEL: Hey, I'm Rachel Stewart and this is "Don't Drink the Milk" - the podcast where we take you to different corners of Europe, tracing the unexpected backstories of everyday things. Things you've probably never stopped to question before. Like that little booklet we carry around to prove who we are. Sometimes it opens doors, sometimes it means the door gets shut in our face. 

So I'm British but I've been living in Germany for 7 years. And just before I made the move in 2016, this happened: 

ARCHIVE: Recording of Brexit vote results being announced - “This means the UK has voted to leave the European Union.” *Cheering* 

RACHEL: That's definitely not how I reacted to the results. Luckily Brexit didn't ruin my plans to move abroad, but it did make me question a few things about my passport and my identity. Did I feel more British or European? Should I try and get a German passport? And if I did, would I suddenly feel German? 

Our producer Charli, who you just heard toasting a new citizenship with me – yeah, we'll explain that later – she's Australian. Her passport has a kangaroo on the front – no joke. And she's been digging into how and why the passport came to be in the first place. Because it didn’t always exist, right? 

Sound of someone closing a door and walking along a corridor 

CHARLI: I’ve been taken through a back door behind the counter at a big old library. Down several flights of stairs into the belly of an archive. Here, in rows upon rows of green shelves, the United Nations stores hundreds of books. But that's not what I'm here for. I've come to meet someone who works in the archives – Hermine Diebolt. And upstairs, she has something to show me. 

Sound of someone handling papers 

HERMINE: It’s a blue document. We can see it has a number, 1131. We have the coat of arms, and the name of the country. 

CHARLI: Uruguay.  

This little blue document is one of the first ever versions of the passports we know today. It’s about 100 years old. So, yeah, actually not that old! 

HERMINE: Not so long you know! *laughs* 

CHARLI: Hermine and I are not in Uruguay though. We’re sitting in a very high-ceilinged room at one of the old wooden desks on the top floor of the United Nations Library & Archives in Geneva, Switzerland.  

MUSIC – historical light drama 

CHARLI: There's a reason this old passport lives here. Geneva used to be the home of the League of Nations – the predecessor of the United Nations. Around the time the League was founded, in the early 20th century, a lot of things were going on that helped pave the way for the passport. Empires crumbled; new nation-states were born; people were no longer “subjects” of their rulers, but “citizens” of their nations. Plus, as things like air travel evolved... 

Sound of old propeller airplane taking off 

CHARLI: ...people were crossing borders way more often and way faster than before. Another big factor was war. 

Sound of bomb explosions 

HERMINE: Because before 1914 and before the First World War, no passport was needed to travel from one country to another. 

CHARLI: But during the First World War countries like Germany, France, the UK and Italy, they – perhaps unsurprisingly – started insisting that people from enemy countries needed official identification documents to enter their territories. Other so-called neutral states, like Denmark, Spain and Switzerland – they were basically forced to follow suit. But, when it came to the documents governments were handing out, everyone was kind of doing their own thing. 

MUSIC - old gramophone 

HERMINE: The border officials suddenly were confronted with a lot of different travel documents with different shapes, different sizes, and it was hard to know if the passport was authentic or not. So, they really needed to find a solution.  

CHARLI: And a solution they did find! The League of Nations gathered world leaders in 1920 in Paris at the succinctly named "Conference on Passports, Custom Formalities and Through Tickets." 

MUSIC – speakeasy 1920s 

CHARLI: And thusly it was official – passports, everywhere, should look a certain way and include the same kind of information. 

Sound of someone handling old passports 

HERMINE: The shape of booklet measuring 15.5 centimeter [by] 10.5 centimeters, 32 pages. French has to be used in combination with another language and the front cover of the document has to bear the country's name and the coat of arms. 

MUSIC ends 

CHARLI: But then Hermine tells me something odd, something I wasn’t expecting. 

MUSIC – quirky investigative  

CHARLI: Ironically, the solution many world leaders were looking for wasn’t a compulsory, permanent passport.  

HERMINE: The governments wanted to go back to the situation before the war. Yes. The idea was to abolish the passport. 

CHARLI: A lot of world leaders preferred things the way they were before – when people could move around freely, without carrying around this little booklet. It was also super unpopular with the public and with the press. People thought passports undermined their freedom. Invaded their privacy. And were, like, kind of annoying?  

GABE: The New York Times, October 24th, 1926: "The Passport Nuisance: Must passports be retained as a permanent feature of travel? The system in vogue since the war is cumbersome, vexatious and a drag on free intercourse between nations." 

CHARLI: But...  

HERMINE: It was too late to go back to this freedom of movement. They realised it was too hard. 

MUSIC ends 

CHARLI: Sometimes, barriers are easier to build than they are to take down. League of Nations members couldn’t agree on what a world without border controls and without the passport would look like. On how they would uphold national security if people were allowed to get around freely like they did before. And so, the passport was here to stay. 

MUSIC – light jazz 

RACHEL: That's where the story began – but the passport has been on quite a journey since then.  

CHARLI: And so have we – quite unexpectedly, this story took us to a law firm, a hair salon and a flour mill in... North Macedonia. If you're not familiar with it, it's a small country of around 2 million people, nestled in the Balkan peninsula just north of Greece. 

RACHEL: It sounds so random – but trust us, it just ended up being a great backdrop for so many parts of this story.   

CHARLI: Stay tuned for the scandal... 

RACHEL: Yes! But first up, we wanted to know how the meaning of the passport has changed. What is its purpose and what does it symbolize?  

MUSIC ends 

VOXPOP: I think it's who you are outside your own country, rather than who you are inside. 

VOXPOP: It's just a piece of paper that helps us to travel. But that's all. 

VOXPOP: It is my identity. It's something I'm proud to have to show that I'm Irish. Because I'm very proud to be Irish. 

CHARLI: Identity. Not just in the ID sense, but in the "who am I" sense. One way to see the passport could be as a kind of membership card to a club. It can show that you have something in common with other members of the same club.  

RACHEL: Like a shared history, a shared culture, maybe a shared language... 

CHARLI: But sometimes, national identity isn't so clear cut. Like when different rulers come and go, or borders shift. Which brings us to the first reason we ended up in North Macedonia.  

Sound of main square in Skopje, North Macedonia 

ZORAN: As far as I remember, I have at least one guest from Spain. Can I use you to help make my point? 

RACHEL: We've joined a walking tour in the capital city, Skopje. Our tour guide, Zoran, is quite the joker – and he's got a little anecdote for us. So, this one time... 

ZORAN: I was in Barcelona, on a beautiful day I end up in la Boqueria looking for refreshment, and I see those pots with fruit salads, and on top of them in big capital letters: "MACEDONIA."  

RACHEL: In Spain, that's what they call this fruit salad – "Macedonia." But something was wrong... 

ZORAN: There was bananas and kiwis in the salad. This is not right! I turned around, went back to the market, asking for an explanation. Why do you call this one Macedonia? I’m from Macedonia, trust me – no bananas! I loved the girl, she said: 'Oh sir don’t worry, it’s not about what type of fruit we put inside, as long as there is a nice mix of fruit, we’re gonna call it "Macedonia!" And I was like yeah, that’s what we are, a nice mix of everything. *laugh* 

RACHEL: This "nice-mix-of-everything" country has been part of numerous empires and kingdoms over past few thousand years – Roman, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Ottoman, Serbian. And each one of those rulers left a lasting mark on the culture. As we explore the old bazaar, Zoran points out all the little reminders of this complex history. 

ZORAN: First of all, you’re gonna hearing people speaking different languages: Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish. You’re gonna see people from different ethnic and religious groups and different architectural styles. And maybe the best part of the story, oh you’re gonna enjoy the flavor that comes from all these small restaurants around of typical Macedonian or Turkish types of food and drinks. 

RACHEL: Sure enough, as we walk past the distinctive domes of an Orthodox church, the Muslim call to prayer starts up from a nearby mosque. 

Sound of call to prayer from a mosque 

RACHEL: We see "Tavče gravče," a typical Macedonian dish, bubbling away in clay pots, then rows of tempting Turkish "Baklava" sweets, then Balkan classics like the delicious flaky cheesy pastry, "Burek." 

ZORAN: I'm always joking that the Ottomans stayed in Macedonia 520 years, not because we couldn’t chase them away – it’s simply local people were afraid if we chase the Ottomans they might take the Burek with them! "No problem, stay as long as you like." 

RACHEL: But there's another piece of the fruit salad we haven't even mentioned yet: Yugoslavia. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia existed from just after the Second World War until the early 1990s. It was made up of six constituent republics, including what is now North Macedonia. Ah, about the name... 

ZORAN: Oh yes, we’ve been independent for only 32 years, but we’ve already had 2 names and 2 flags. 

RACHEL: The Republic of "North" Macedonia has technically only existed since 2019. When the country declared independence from Yugoslavia back in 1991, it was just called the Republic of Macedonia. But now they want to be part of the European Union. In order to settle a dispute with another EU country, Greece, they had to add "North" to their name. That's after already having redesigned their flag for similar reasons. After nearly 20 years of trying, they still haven't actually made it into the EU. But if they eventually do, this would surely mean another cultural shift - and a new kind of passport. See what we meant by complicated national identity? 

ZORAN: Ok, let's go to the drinking section... 

MUSIC – upbeat Balkan traditional 

RACHEL: Zoran leaves us with a few insider tips – like never drink your Rakija as a shot because that stuff is potent. Ah, I wish we'd learnt that earlier. 

MUSIC ends 

CHARLI: So, remember those people we heard from before – telling us what their passport means to them? Those were actually tourists we met in Skopje. And, in most people’s answers, there was a running theme...  

VOXPOP: Liberty. 

VOXPOP: A lot of freedom. 

VOXPOP: A ticket to freedom. 

VOXPOP: To travel the world. 

VOXPOP: To travel where you want to go, to visit other countries. 

VOXPOP: My passport for me is my freedom. 

RACHEL: Which is kind of funny now that we know people 100 years ago thought the opposite – that it was restricting their freedom! 

CHARLI: But we should mention that all those people we just heard from have pretty powerful passports. 

VOXPOP: The Australian passport. 

VOXPOP: It’s a Belgium passport. 

VOXPOP: We’re from Brazil. 

VOXPOP: We’re from Spain but we live in berlin. 

VOXPOP: We’re from Austria. *laugh* 

RACHEL: Because not all passports are created equal. 

CHARLI: Nuh uh! And what better way to illustrate this than with a little round of The Wheel of Fortune: Passport Edition. 

Sound of "Wheel of Fortune" spinning and *ding*  

Sound of gameshow audience clapping 

CHARLI: Rachel are you ready to play? 

RACHEL: Ooh! I’m ready.  

Sound of gameshow audience clapping and cheering 

CHARLI: So, okay. Every year, "Passport indexes" are released, ranking passports from first to last based on how many other countries can be visited visa-free by a holder of said passport. Or with visa on arrival, which is basically just a formality. So according to the current Global Passport Power Rank 2023, the number one spot is held by... 

Sound of drum roll 

CHARLI: The United Arab Emirates. 

RACHEL: Oooh. 

CHARLI: And at the bottom, that's Afghanistan. 


MUSIC – subtle gameshow challenge 

CHARLI: So in this game, we’ll hear a few random country names and then you’re going to guess that country’s ranking in this Passport Index. There are a lot of countries tied in each position, so the scale only runs from 1 to 93. 

RACHEL: Ok got it. 

CHARLI: Okay, let’s hear what’s up first. 

Sound of "Wheel of Fortune" spinning and *ding* 

CHARLI: India! 

RACHEL: I’m gonna say somewhere in the 60s. Maybe 63? 

CHARLI: 67. 

RACHEL: Ah, so close! 

CHARLI: Very close! Alright next country.  

Sound of "Wheel of Fortune" spinning and *ding* 

CHARLI: Nigeria. 

RACHEL: Mmm. Probably somewhere around 48? 

CHARLI: Other way around! 84. Tying with Iran and Kosovo.  

RACHEL: Oh wow! I really thought that would be better.  

CHARLI: Okay and we have one more.  

Sound of "Wheel of Fortune" spinning and *ding* 

CHARLI: The United States of America.  

RACHEL: I think it's going to be worse than we expect. So, I’m going to say 16.  

CHARLI: It’s actually number 5. It ties with four other countries – Malta, Lithuania, Slovakia and Australia – in 5th position on the Global Passport Power Rank.  

MUSIC – gameshow results 

CHARLI: But wait. There’s actually one more.  

RACHEL: Bonus question! 

CHARLI: Yep...  

Sound of "Wheel of Fortune" spinning and *ding* 

CHARLI: No passport.  

RACHEL: This feels like a trick question. But it’s gotta be the worst, right? 

CHARLI: Well yeah, it’s not published on the indexes obviously. For some people not having a passport is no big deal, they don’t want one and they don't need one to go about their lives. But then there are people who are denied passports because they’re not recognised as officially existing. They don’t have citizenship, and without it, you can’t get a passport.  

AISHA: I feel like I'm in prison. 

RACHEL: That's Aisha. She lives in Germany, but she doesn't have a passport or citizenship to any country.  

CHARLI: And she was born in Germany? 

RACHEL: Yes, but she didn't get German citizenship at birth because her parents hadn't been in the country long enough. Her mother is from Iraq and her father was from Egypt. And Aisha kind of ended up falling through the cracks between those three countries. 

CHARLI: Why couldn't she get citizenship through one of her parents?  

RACHEL: Well, her dad wasn't allowed to stay in Germany long-term, so Aisha was registered under her mother's citizenship, Iraqi. But in some countries, women don't have the same rights as men when it comes to passing on citizenship to their children. 

CHARLI: Ah and Iraq is one of those countries. 

RACHEL: Exactly. So, even though in Germany Aisha is listed as Iraqi, she's not recognized as a citizen by Iraq. 

CHARLI: And Egypt?  

RACHEL: Her parents weren't legally married, they didn't live in Egypt when Aisha was born, and her father actually died in 2002 – so she hasn't had any luck with the Egyptian authorities either. 

CHARLI: This is so complicated! 

RACHEL: Right! And she still can't get German citizenship. She's stuck in this bureaucratic limbo. But she's not giving up. 

AISHA: I'm like no, I will fight for the fact to get the German citizenship. Because I think it's my right.  

CHARLI: And this is about more than just not being able to go on a holiday, right? 

RACHEL: Yeah sure, she told her mum is sick and being treated abroad, but she can't visit her. She also couldn't go to her grandmother's funeral. But Aisha alsodoes dream of travelling, like all her friends do. So, when I asked where she'll go when she finally gets a passport, she broke out into this huge smile.  

A: Oh, the list is long! I want to do a girls trip. Maybe to Turkey or something like this. I would like to visit India. would like to visit Egypt, because in the end it's my father's hometown. So I just want get to know it. And the same thing also about Iraq. Because of the fact that those are the home cities of my parents. 

CHARLI: We'll be back in just a minute. 


CHARLI: What about being without passports or citizenship? For a surprising number of people in the world, that's already a reality. They’re stateless.  

RACHEL: This often affects people who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity or their religion. It can also be caused by changing national borders or contested nation-states, like Taiwan. Today, there are an estimated 10 million stateless people around the world. 

CHARLI: And back in North Macedonia we met someone who knows exactly how hard it is to be in this situation. 

Sound of people greeting each other 

CHARLI: But don't worry, this story does end well! Because when we met Valentin, he'd just received his first ever official ID. 

VALENTIN (speaking Macedonian, translated by ALEKSANDRA): I'm really happy, because for the first time, I feel like I'm legally visible in the country, in the system. Because for 21 years I didn't have any document. 

CHARLI: Valentin’s lawyer, Aleksandra, is doing the translating here. She says that there are two main causes for statelessness in North Macedonia.   

ALEKSANDRA: First one is historical, and it is related to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia. Back then, certain number of people who originated from other countries that were part of Yugoslavia didn't register neither in Macedonian citizenship nor in the citizenship of the country have they originated from. 

CHARLI: Some communities are disproportionately affected, like poorer communities, people with less education and socially marginalized groups like the Roma population, which is a traditionally nomadic ethnic group in Eastern Europe. Statelessness then got passed on to their children and their grandchildren. 

ALEKSANDRA: That is the first cause of statelessness. And the other is administrative barriers in the birth registration procedure. 

MUSIC – light and sombre 

CHARLI: That's what happened in Valentin's case. Until now, he’s been stateless all his life, simply because his parents didn’t register his or his siblings’ birth within the 42-day limit set in North Macedonia. His mother was Serbian, and later abandoned them and his father died. He never got a birth certificate, and so, no citizenship. Without it, he struggled to access healthcare, he couldn’t go to school. 

VALENTIN (speaking Macedonian, translated by ALEKSANDRA): I felt like I didn't exist. No one deserves to be left out from the system. 

CHARLI: Valentin's 12-year legal battle for official recognition has paid off. And in recent years North Macedonia has taken some important legal steps to fix these issues, to try and make sure everyone gets citizenship. So, Aleksandra is feeling pretty optimistic these days. 

MUSIC - optimistic 

ALEKSANDRA: Now I think that we have the capacity and political will to solve these cases and to maybe to become the first country in Europe that solved this problem. Why not? *laugh* 

Sound of people chatting: "How do you say congratulations in Macedonian?" "čestitki" *loud laughter* "Fala." 

CHARLI: But you know what? Statelessness is nothing new. It emerged around the same time the passport did – post-WWI, alongside disappearing empires and new nation states. And when I was in Geneva, Hermine dug out something else from the archives to show me – it was another kind of passport... 

Sound of someone handling papers 

HERMINE: So we have two of them. I have one, it’s from a gentleman, a man. It’s just one sheet of paper. I don’t know if you can see this here. 

CHARLI: Hermine hands me a sheath of papers. I can make out a Russian name in neat calligraphy. She explains that, after the First World War, more than 9 million people were displaced in Europe, including many refugees from Russia.  

HERMINE: All these refugees had become stateless, when the Bolshevik issued a decree that revoked the citizenship of old Russian expatriates. 

CHARLI: At that time, with world leaders basically having redrawn the European map, millions of people found themselves in countries that either didn’t recognise their legal identity or weren’t willing to give them one. They didn’t have citizenship – they were stateless. 

MUSIC - curious 

HERMINE: And Nansan, he had a very innovative idea. 

CHARLI: Nansen was the High Commissioner for Refugees at the time – Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian guy. And his "innovative idea" was these special passports, which were actually more just like identity documents. Nearly half a million Nansen passports were issued in total, before they were discontinued in 1942, and eventually replaced with international laws and conventions. 

CHARLI: But nowadays, there’s this other side to citizenship too that's more like a game, wheeling and dealing. Because it turns out most countries do bend their own citizenship rules from time to time, if they see someone as valuable enough.  

RACHEL: Like win-us-an-Olympic-medal kind of valuable. For example, take the case of US basketballer Becky Hammon. She accepted an offer to play for Russia in 2008. Despite having no Russian heritage, not speaking the language and not even being a permanent resident, her citizenship was fast-tracked. She fulfilled her dream of competing at the Olympics, and Russia got a new star to help it to the bronze medal in Beijing. 

Sound of basketball game and people cheering 

MUSIC – casino jazz music  

CHARLI: But you know what else is seen as another real asset to governments? 

Sound of cash register 

CHARLI: Money. If you have enough of it to spare, you can buy your way in to some countries. It’s called “citizenship by investment.” 

RACHEL: AKA the "golden passport.” 

CHARLI: It’s not cheap though. It usually costs the equivalent of 500,000 to 1 million US dollars. Malta, Montenegro, Austria, Jordan... around 30 countries offer this kind of deal. One of the trailblazers back in 2006 was the Caribbean Island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. But who exactly is forking out for these "golden passports?" 

ATOSSA: People who have bad passports to begin with. People who want to be a lot more mobile than they are and who are constantly being hampered by the color of their passport. Right now, it's really not great to be Russian in the world. 

CHARLI: So, mostly people who have a low-ranking passport and plenty of cash.  

ATOSSA: Yes! *laughs* Freedom isn’t free, as the Americans like to say! 

MUSIC ends 

CHARLI: Meet Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. She's a journalist and the author of "Cosmopolites," a book on the global market for citizenship. She’s got four passports herself, although she didn’t buy any of them. 

ATOSSA: I was born in Canada, sort of on purpose for the passports, so I have a Canadian passport. I have an Iranian passport because that's where my parents were born. I have a Swiss passport because I lived in Switzerland for 18 years, and after a certain amount of time they gave it to me. And as of November, I am also a US citizen. It’s complicated. *laughs* 

CHARLI: But guess which country is one of the most recent to start offering citizenship by investment. North Macedonia. 

Sound of streets in Skopje, North Macedonia 

RACHEL: There are two main ways of buying your way in to North Macedonia. You can either donate about 200,000 US dollars to a government fund or you can invest just over 400,000 dollars in a business in the country. It has to employ at least 10 people and be up and running for at least one year. 

MUSIC – curious, investigative 

RACHEL: So, the country gets something out of it. But what the investor gets out of it is not so clear. The North Macedonian passport doesn't really get you very far. It's not an especially wealthy country, and many North Macedonians are actually trying their luck getting passports elsewhere. 

ATOSSA: If you’re trying to sell a North Macedonian passport, you’re not maybe pitching to the crème de la crème, you know. I think that if your instinct is “Why would anyone want to be a citizen of this country?” – no offense to the country or its citizens, purely on the passport power – there might be something else going on. 

MUSIC ends 

CHARLI: Local journalists here were suspicious of these new North Macedonian citizens too. 

ANA: We were actually researching something entirely different, but for the purpose of it reading loads and loads of minutes from government sessions, until a reporter stumbled across a name that seemed interesting.  

CHARLI: Ana Petruseva is an investigative journalist from the Balkan Investigative Reporter Network. That "interesting" name she mentioned... 

Music – interesting discovery 

ANA: It was, in fact, a Ukrainian former politician who has fled the country on charges of corruption, and who is also on the US sanctions list or blacklist, if you will, for meddling in the in the US elections. This guy's an oligarch, and a playboy, but he's also very much into equestrian sports. 

RACHEL: Ah the old sports chestnut. 

CHARLI: Yep, this guy got in pretty much based on his horse-riding skills. The journalists began to dig deeper though. 

ANA: It inspired us to continue looking at who is being granted and on what grounds citizenship. 

CHARLI: While investigating people who have acquired North Macedonian passports by paying for them, the journalists came across more interesting names. 

ANA: We managed to find an example of a US citizen who had been working in the States mostly in the casino business. 

CHARLI: In 2018 the controversial casino investor Shawn Andre Scott founded a company in North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. 

ANA: He set up a hair salon, employed a bunch of people. 

RACHEL: Oh yeah – the hair salon! Seeing as we came all the way to Skopje and stumbled across this strange story, we couldn’t not go and see it for ourselves. 

MUSIC ends 

Sound of walking through streets of Skopje 

CHARLI: Yep, there it is down there. 

RACHEL: Oh yeah! Charm beauty salon. Okay. So we're right in the center of Skopje, down a little side street. 

CHARLI: It's really small. They have hair & makeup, depilation, massage and nails on offer. 

RACHEL: And someone is actually currently getting their hair cut, so it is in operation. 

Sound of opening salon door and chatting 

CHARLI: Hi! Do you speak English?  

Woman: Yes! 

CHARLI: Okay! My name's Charli. We're doing a podcast... 

CHARLI: We explain why we've barged into the salon. And she tells us that Scott has already moved on. 

Woman: No, I'm new here. I'm working here alone.  

CHARLI: Do you own the whole... 

Woman: Yes! 

RACHEL: And just you alone? 

Woman: Yes. 

RACHEL: Wow, okay. 

CHARLI: Hmm, so it seems the 10 jobs that were supposedly created didn't last long. I did actually really need a haircut, but at that moment her next customer arrives so we leave them to it. 

CHARLI: Take care. Thank you, bye! 

Woman: Bye! 

Sounds of leaving the salon 

CHARLI: Ana confirms that 18 months after opening the salon, Scott left and withdrew some of his investment. Her and her team didn't find any evidence that he'd been involved in illegal activities. 

ANA: But what was peculiar was that this person before obtaining a Macedonian passport, he obtained a Bulgarian passport and had various investments and dealings in Bulgaria as well. Which also raises the question: why? Why would anyone need that? And on one hand, you could hear explanations that it could be making it easier for them to deal in these countries. On the other hand, you could also hear explanations from experts that it will be also say useful if there are any kind of warrants or extradition requests because different countries have different regulations in that matter. 

MUSIC – darker tone 

CHARLI: Citizenship by investment has been linked to some shady deals and shady people around the world. It’s also not just wealthy individuals who've made the most of this option, but entire countries, too. 

ATOSSA: The UAE and the Comoros islands were involved in a really weird passport scheme wherein the UAE bought passports in bulk from the Comoro islands to document people in their country who are stateless. Who UAE did not want to document with UAE passports.  

CHARLI: Atossa discovered that, in 2008, the United Arab Emirates decided to deal with the issue of their own stateless population by buying them passports to another country. They bought around 50,000 passports! To a tiny island nation off the east coast of Africa. The Comoros government did get in trouble for doing this, and their president from back then is actually now in jail. And the country never saw most of the money promised for this scheme. It’s still a mystery as to whose pockets those hundreds of millions of dollars went into.  

RACHEL: But as for the country that bought the passports... 

ATOSSA: No, the UAE has faced absolutely no repercussions. Barely a peep from the humanitarian world. Human Rights Watch put out a statement I think. But no, absolutely nothing. 

MUSIC - thoughtful 

CHARLI: The way Atossa sees it, the whole system of citizenship is outdated and unjust, and basically needs a shake-up. 

ATOSSA: It's really a 20th century, or even 19th/20th century, system, right, that was forged through massive wars and reacting to them. It certainly seems like we need something new for the next century, but I'm not hopeful that we're going to come up with one. But his all boils down to the same root cause. And that's that people are routinely discriminated against based on where they're coming from. You don't choose where you're born, you don't choose your nationality, you certainly don't choose your parents. And yet our whole architecture of the world is designed as if it is someone's fault that they're born in a certain place. And so, if people are equal and free, we should start treating them like it! And I think a good place to start is passports and visa regimes and making migration a little freer. 

MUSIC ends 

Sound of bakery in North Macedonia 

RACHEL: Got it? 

CHARLI: Got it! 

RACHEL: Woohoo, burek. Ok we're gonna do it the Macedonian way and have our proper breakfast. Mmm. I would eat this every day if I was here.  

CHARLI: Sitting at that bustling Macedonian bakery, trying to blend in with the locals, eating our yogurt and delicious cheesy pastries, we were thinking what a shame it was that we didn't have 400,000 dollars to spare. It would be so nice to stay. 

RACHEL: But we did discover there was one much more affordable way we could get our hands on a passport...  

Sound of driving and parking a car 

RACHEL: We've driven three hours south-west of Skopje, almost to the Albanian border, to the little village of Vevcani. It's a hilly town lined with traditional old stone houses with cute little balconies. One of the first things we see is a throwback to Yugoslavian times. 

DRIVER: First car in Yugoslavia. Fića. 

RACHEL: The Zastava 750 car, nicknamed the Fića. 

Sound of car horn 

RACHEL: We ask around for some directions. 

DRIVER: (Macedonian: where can we find a passport?) 

SHOPKEEPER: (Macedonian: In the souvenir shop, 600m away.) 

DRIVER: 600m

RACHEL: ...And set off uphill.  

Sound of walking uphill, cat miaowing, a stream flowing 

RACHEL: Soon enough, we get to a stream. A stream with a story. In 1987, plans were made to redirect the water away from this community. Apparently to provide water for houses being built by the rich elite. The Vevcani villagers rebelled, ending up in a violent stand-off with the police.  

Sound of unhappy crowds and a police siren 

MUSIC – drama  

RACHEL: This unusual example of resistance in communist Yugoslavia became known as the "Vevcani Emergency". It lasted several months, but in the end, the villagers won! And their rebellious reputation was sealed. A few years later, Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia. But for the Vevcani locals, that wasn’t enough. They held their own referendum and voted overwhelmingly to become an independent republic. 

MUSIC ends  

It was never formally recognized, but they were eventually granted their own separate municipality. You can find many places like Vevcani around the world. They're often referred to as "micronations" – communities that haven't officially broken away from their countries, but they use self-proclaimed independence to highlight something they want or need, or simply to make a statement about their identity. Currency, constitutions, parliaments, even armies – and, of course, passports – have all been used as symbols of independence.  

Sound of streets in Vevcani 

RACHEL: The idea of the "Republic of Vevcani" lost momentum over the years. Until the early 2000s, when locals decided to revive it as a tourist gimmick. They printed their own currency, the Ličnik – which means beautiful in the local dialect – and they made their own passports. 

Sound of arriving at the souvenir stand 

RACHEL: We've found the passport! The Republic of Vevcani? 


CHARLI: How much, to buy one? 

DRIVER: (Macedonian: How much?) 

SHOPKEEPER: (Macedonian: 150 Denar) 

DRIVER: 150 Denars. 

CHARLI: We'll get two passports and some money please. Oh, we're getting a stamp!  


Sound of passport being stamped 

RACHEL: Now we are the proud owners of Vevcani passports, emblazoned with the crest of the village and validated with a stamp. 

Sound of stream 

CHARLI: On our way back to the village center, we meet a local boy and ask him if he also has one of these passports.  

BOY: At my house yes, but not with me. 

RACHEL: And is it important to you?  

BOY: I mean, it's a part of my culture.  

RACHEL: So you really feel like a Vevcani citizen? 

Boy: Yes.  

RACHEL: More than Macedonian?  

Boy: Yeah, definitely. 

Sound of flour mill churning 

CHARLI: A little old man is sitting on a crumbly stone wall just outside the local flour mill, which is powered by the stream. He explains his family have worked here for 5 generations. 

Sound of Man's voice talking in Macedonian 

CHARLI: But what does he think of tourists like us rocking up to pick up a passport for 3 euros? 

DRIVER (translating): Every time you come to Vevcani, he's happy! 

CHARLI: We've got his approval. 

RACHEL: So... I guess we can stay? 

CHARLI: Fala. (Thank you) 

Man: Priatno. Ciao. 

MUSIC – Upbeat whimsical Balkan 

RACHEL: This episode was written and produced by Charli Shield and me, Rachel Stewart. It was edited by Sam Baker. Fact checking was by Rayna Breuer and Katharina Abel, and Julia Rose dug into the archives for us. Sound design was by Nico Maas, final mix by Phillip Rabenstein and additional help from Chris Caurla. A big thanks to all our interviewees, as well as Speranta Dumitru, John Torpey, Arshak Makichan and Nadine Mena Michollek for their time and insights. If you've got an idea for something you'd like us to explore, something that morphed as it moved around the world, get in touch. You can reach us at dontdrinkthemilk@dw.com – no apostrophe. You can also catch bonus Don't Drink the Milk video content as well as lots of other great podcasts over on the DW Podcasts YouTube channel. And if you're still scratching your head trying to work out the name of our podcast – check out the short episode before this one. All will be revealed! We’ll be back with a new episode in two weeks. Until then, here’s another show you might like. 


Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section About the show

About the show

Dont drink the milk Teaser

Don't Drink the Milk

The podcast packed with history, culture, travel – and a touch of controversy