* Covers consumer loans, credit card debt, other bills
* Open to those on welfare, long-term jobless, widows
* Govt aims to stimulate one of Europe’s poorest economies
By Kole Casule
SKOPJE, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Macedonia’s biggest banks and companies signed a deal on Wednesday to join a government campaign to write off the debts of the small Balkan country’s poorest citizens.
In a move recalling global drives to erase the debts of the world’s poorest countries, virtually all major banks, the power and heating utilities and the state television company were among the companies signing on for the project.
The programme covers consumer loans, credit card debt and electricity and heating bills up until December 31 2013.
Macedonia’s welfare recipients, long-term unemployed and disabled can apply for the relief, as can those who have lost a spouse in the last five years.
“By signing this deal, all involved have shown a high degree of social responsibility. With this action we will help the most vulnerable category of citizens,” Finance Minister Zoran Stavreski said after the signing ceremony.
The government launched the debt write-off programme in June, a day after conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s cabinet was sworn in for a forth straight mandate.
This country of two million is one of Europe’s poorest, with an unemployment rate of 27 percent and an average monthly net salary of 350 euros ($460).
Apart from easing the lives of the poorest, the government hopes the debt relief will help stimulate more growth. The economy is expected to grow around 3.7 percent this year and around 4.2 percent in 2015.
A similar programme is being drafted in Croatia, a European Union member and fellow ex-Yugoslav republic.
The government there has started talks with top banks and telecoms companies on scrapping debt worth up to 10,000 kuna ($1,725) per person for the most impoverished citizens.
Since Macedonia invited applications in August, some 17,600 people have signed up, Stavreski said. The deadline expires in October, after which a commission will review the requests.
Companies that take part in the program will be granted tax relief worth 10 percent of the amount written off. One of the companies, power supplier EVN Supply, is a unit of Austrian energy group EVN AG <EVNV.VI. (1 US dollar = 5.7947 Croatian kuna) (1 US dollar = 0.7609 euro) (Reporting by Kole Casule; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Tom Heneghan)