The town of Stip is sometimes referred to as the Macedonian Manchester. For decades it has been the centre of the country's textile industry. With 48,000 inhabitants it is the largest town in eastern Macedonia. The area is known all over the country for its pizza-like pastry, pastrmajlija.
Thanks to the rapid development of the clothing sector in recent years, Stip has gone from large scale unemployment to labour shortages. A bright spot in Macedonia's generally sluggish economy, Stip can be seen as a model for the development of a thriving private sector.
Stip already became a hub of regional trade in the 19th century, while it was still under Ottoman rule. Trade with Thessalonica, in which the town's Jewish community played an active role, contributed to growth. From 1797, when its population is thought to have been between 3,000 and 4,000, Stip grew rapidly, reaching 20,900 inhabitants by 1899. The town was ethnically diverse at the time, home to 10,900 Macedonians, 8,700 Turks, 800 Jews and 500 Roma (CRPM).
The 20th century changed Stip's multiethnic character. During the Second World War, while the town was under Bulgarian occupation, almost the entire Jewish population was deported to the Treblinka concentration camp. Today, only a single Jewish family remains in Stip (CRPM). Several thousand Turks left the town during the 1950s when socialist Yugoslavia reached an agreement on emigration of Turks (in practice, often also Albanians) to Turkey. According to the census of 2002, 87 percent of Stip's inhabitants are now ethnic-Macedonians. There are still 1,272 Turks, 2,195 Roma and 2,074 Vlachs.
Stip's post-war industrialisation left its mark on the town's appearance. Most of the houses and apartment buildings date back to the early Socialist era (1950-1975), though there is some evidence of the town's older history, including a 14th century monastery overlooked by a medieval fortress on Isar hill. The old Ottoman covered bazaar, the Bezisten, stands next to Stip's largest hotel, the socialist-era "Oaza" (Oasis). The huge textile factories, "Makedonka" and "Astibo", the core of Stip's industry for decades, both went bankrupt in the early 2000s, but have not disappeared from view. Makedonka ceased operating in 2002:
"Today the compound is falling apart, the railway gate is locked, already rusted. The maintenance has been poor in the last ten years and one can see that many windows are broken, parts of the walls are deteriorating and the grass in the park has been growing wild for some time. There is a bulk of old machinery, rusted from the rains and the time that has passed, scattered around the compound. An old flag of the factory remains, continually blown around by the wind that is so strong in the Stip area."
(Macedonian Clothes for Europe, CRPM)
The decline of the town's largest enterprises caused many to lose their jobs. In 2002 the local employment office registered 11,700 unemployed.
However, the rapid growth of private textile producers has since rejuvenated the clothing sector and the town's economy as a whole. A swarm of small companies sprung up in place of the socialist giants, many run by the former managers of "Makedonka" or "Astibo". By 2006 there were 70 textile and clothing companies in Stip, employing 7,000 people. The number of jobs increased by more than 3,000 from 2002 to 2006 and was expected to increase by another 1,600 by summer 2007. In a town which had experienced high unemployment until as recently as 2002, company directors like Sasko Mladinov are now complaining about labour shortages. The local TV station constantly advertises job vacancies.
Stip's flourishing textile sector has attracted investors from Greece, Turkey, Germany and Switzerland. New logistics companies have sprung up to coordinate between European clothing companies and Macedonian suppliers. Though wages in Stip average €150 per month – significantly less than textile workers earned in socialist times – the creation of new jobs is in itself an achievement. If some of Stip's companies can make the step up from doing piecework to producing their own branded clothes, better-skilled workers and higher wages are in store.