Perspectives | North Macedonia

Macedonia’s journey from EU-poster child to an autocracy in denial is full of lessons to be learned

By - 04.07.2017

The rise and fall of the once all-powerful VMRO-DPMNE.

At the end of June, the Special Prosecution in Macedonia pressed charges against 94 officials from Vnatresna Makedonska Revolucionerna Organizacija- Demokratska Partija za Makedonsko Nacionalno Edinstvo (VMRO-DPMNE). Among those indicted is former prime minister Nikola Gruevski who is facing up to 27 years in prison if the court rules against him on all counts.

According to the June 29 indictment, the VMRO-DPMNE officials are, among other things, the main actors in cases pertaining to misuse of office, criminal association, misuse of assets during an election campaign, violation of voter freedom, unlawful influence in public procurement and enticement of a criminal act against public order.

The Special Prosecution demanded detention for 18 individuals including Gruevski, former minister of transport Mile Janakievski, former minister of interior affairs Gordana Jankulovska, former chief of intelligence Sasho Mijalkov, former minister of culture Elizabeta Kanchevska and former deputy prime minister Vladimir Peshevski. In addition, the Special Prosecution requested precautionary measures be taken against 47 individuals.

However, the Criminal Court rejected all requests for detention and only granted precautionary measures instead, confiscating the passports of the suspects.

The party itself, after a decade in power, is facing times of great uncertainty.

Indictments against former state officials

The Special Prosecution is an ad hoc state institution created as a result of the Przhino Agreement, reached in 2016 after months of negotiations between Macedonia’s main political parties. The agreement was described by the European Commission as “an important step in overcoming the current crisis and towards addressing key challenges facing the country.”

The tapes, some of them played at press conferences, which involved conversations between high ranking officials of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE, are now formally entering into the legal domain.

Mediated by the EU and the U.S., the Przhino Agreement led to snap elections and the formation of the Special Prosecution office tasked with investigating the alleged criminal wrongdoings that came forth after the biggest opposition party in Macedonia at that time, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), in 2015 unveiled a series of wiretapped phone conversations. The tapes, some of them played at press conferences, which involved conversations between high ranking officials of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE, are now formally entering into the legal domain.

It is critical for Macedonia to go through this process in order to restore faith in accountability and transparency as well as to regain trust in its institutions.

However, as Macedonia ushers in a new government coming in under the same pretense as VMRO-DPMNE in 2006 — reform — it is equally important to discuss how a once promising new party became the most toxic influence on the Balkans.

In April 2016, President Gjorge Ivanov pardoned politicians mentioned in the wiretaps, which triggered the so-called Colorful Revolution; the protesters also addressed the broad issues of corruption, lack of media freedom and deterioration of the rule of law.

However, the 2014-2016 crisis was only the culmination and the wiretaps merely exposed a blurred line between party and state that was caused deliberately from the very beginning of VMRO-DPMNE’s tenure in order to maintain power. The roots of this issue go back to the very genesis of Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE and the driving principles of the new party.

A history of power

Nikola Gruevski’s political career began as minister of finance in the 1998-2002 VMRO-DPMNE government. During this government’s term Macedonia plunged into an ethnic conflict in 2001 resolved by the Ohrid Framework agreement.

VMRO-DPMNE lost by an absolute landslide in the 2002 election cycle to Social Democratic Union (SDSM) — 33 to 60 out of 120 MPs — only to make a fierce comeback in 2006 beating SDSM 45 to 33 on the back of promises of EU and NATO integration.

The propagated narrative for a decade was that VMRO-DPMNE’s program was one centered around reform, jobs, foreign investments, and EU integration, and that it was seeking accountability for the privatization that took place in SDSM’s time that had left many jobless. On this basis, Gruevski turned the party into a powerful undisputed election winning machine.

This success was hardly circumstantial, rather, it was very carefully engineered by the new wave within the Party that came about with Gruevski’s election as head of the Party.

Gruevski understood the power of populism, and these three people were the masterminds of the party’s public image and the building of his own cult of personality.

After Gruevski had gained the Party’s confidence at the 2003 congress, he composed a new VMRO-DPMNE of two symbiotic wings; аn intellectual PR wing of media savvy communicators handpicked by Gruevski and tasked with hardcore propaganda, and the operational wing of clandestine henchmen in the intelligence services that were loyal to his cousin Sasho Mijalkov, who ruthlessly dealt with intra-party conflicts and political opponents.

The key players in the PR wing were Antionio Milosheski, Martin Protugjer and Ilija Dimovski, tasked initially with maintaining the public image of the party; over time they mutated into a propaganda machine. Nikola Gruevski understood the power of populism, and these three people were the masterminds of the party’s public image and the building of his own cult of personality.

Milosheski was a spokesperson in Ljubco Georgievski’s government, one of the party founders and prime minister from 1998 to 2002, which in itself speaks volumes about his understanding of the Macedonian media sphere and all its intricacies. But with Gruevski’s ascent to power, his ability to successfully navigate through the Macedonian media sphere saw him become one of Gruevski’s closest associates and earned him the position of minister of foreign affairs in VMRO-DPMNE’s first term in 2006. Ever since he has been in VMRO-DPMNE’s top tier of officials, which underlines how much Gruevski valued effective communicators.

Protugjer started his career as a journalist in the then reputable newspaper “Vest.” He moved up the career ladder in the newspaper within the team of the director of Media Print Macedonia, the media establishment that owned several newspapers including “Vest.” Protugjer joined Gruevski’s team after the party congress in 2003, and quickly became one of his most trusted advisors, resulting in his appointment as Gruevski’s chief of staff and secretary general of VMRO-DPMNE.

He is infamous for his statements from the published wiretaps, including his collusion with Gordana Jankulovska — a minister in four Gruevski cabinets — on leaking confidential evidence to the press on the case of Ljube Boskovski. Boskovski, who was interior minister and leader of the small right-wing United for Macedonia party for a while, was arrested in 2011 and later sentenced for illegally financing his political campaign. Apparently, police used extensive violence against him during the arrest. Protugjer is widely known as one of the chief-masterminds of the current media paradigm, which was servile to VMRO-DPMNE.

Dimovski is one of the most prominent PR men within VMRO-DPMNE’s ranks. Interestingly, he was affiliated with the Youth Educational Forum, which he later condemned fiercely as an extension of George Soros’ influence on the Balkans. Dimovski has been one of the men in the shadows that liaised with editors of TV channels in order to maintain total control of information that is disseminated across the public domain.

The man that’s not afraid to get his hands dirty

When VMRO-DPMNE came to power in 2006, it inherited a Macedonia distraught by the privatization that left many people jobless. This was fertile ground for a narrative that propagated that corruption would be a thing of the past, that foreign investments would be their top priority, and that NATO and EU accession would be imminent. Claiming their commitment to these goals secured them wide international support.

The PR wing painted a picture of a hardworking, devoted, patriotic government that was constantly fending off a threat to national identity; whether from the ghosts of the transitional past like Branko Crvenkovski, Greater Albania which threatened to engulf Macedonia or foreign influences determined to destroy every trace of Macedonian identity — there was always a public enemy. Meanwhile in the background, intelligence chief Mijalkov and his henchmen, were creating the infrastructure for an autocracy.

Unlike the PR wing, this wasn’t a team effort; one of the key men indicted by the Special Prosecution, Mr. Mijalkov’s trademark wasn’t exactly democratic values. He was a one-man show and he built clientelist relationships, not teams.

Mijalkov was the kingpin of VMRO-DPMNE’s election success and due to his ruthlessness quickly became the most feared man in Macedonia.

Mijalkov didn’t want public exposure and he never held any exceptionally high posts in the party, nor did he aim for flashy appointments in government. In fact, it is nearly impossible to even find public statements made by him in front of a camera.

All he wanted was the intelligence service and complete autonomy within it. In return, he delivered what later the European Commission defined as “state capture” in the 2015 report drafted by Reinhart Priebe. He made sure the state apparatus was working to further the Party interests, and they were amassing huge sums of wealth for him and VMRO-DPMNE’s top tier.

In one of the wiretaps Jankulovska complained to Mijalkov about pressure from EU and OSCE Ambassadors. The complaints related to a man called ‘Utka,’ who was brutally pressuring voters into voting for VMRO-DPMNE in local elections, causing an incident in Ohrid that had alerted the attention of the diplomatic community.

Mijalkov showed no concern for that and stated “Utka isn’t there to play a ballerina, he’s doing his job”; instead he was scolding the minister, telling her not to interfere with his flow of communication and “chain of command” and telling her to let him deal with his men himself. Mijalkov was the kingpin of VMRO-DPMNE’s election success and due to his ruthlessness quickly became the most feared man in Macedonia.

He was crucial to eliminating competition in the Macedonian right wing and was the protagonist in the wiretap recorded ahead of Ljube Boshkovski’s arrest. In a conversation with a controversial local journalist who was close to the party, Dragan Pavlovich Latas, he talks about how he had arranged the ordeal, and most interestingly specifies the sentence that Boshkovski would ultimately receive from the court.

In other wiretaps, Mijalkov is also heard talking about how he arranged for judges to be elected, which allowed him to speak with such assurance on matters such as Boskovski’s sentence before the judicial process ever took place. Understanding of such power was reinforced when Mijalkov was heard telling deputy prime minister for European affairs and coalition partner DUI vice president Musa Xhaferi, that when it comes to judicial appointments, the coalition terms were non-negotiable.

Both Mijalkov and Jankulovska were forced to resign their official positions in May 2015 as VRMO-DPMNE desperately attempted to cling on to power.

End of an era?

Through election rigging, dealing with political opponents and complete control of the judiciary, Sasho Mijalkov enabled VMRO-DPMNE to become virtually invincible. With his operational capacity and a PR machine that had almost every editor on speed-dial to do their bidding, Macedonia was a classic example of a modern autocracy in denial.

The most recent developments with the Special Prosecution indicate that Macedonia will potentially finally see justice and punish those who abuse the power entrusted in them by citizens. However, the real closure needs to be a lesson learned as we usher in a new government under the same premise — reform.

A lesson learned for the international community that stability cannot be traded for the decay of democratic values and principles, for civil society that their endeavors need to be grassroots and not elitist, for political parties that their criticism must be strong and constant, and for citizens that it is they who give power and take power away.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

  • 05 Jul 2017 - 17:36 | sime dimovski:

    The tapes were made in Bondstil USA army base at Kosovo,and now some kosovo [obscenity deleted]* can talk about Macedonia.Every body know that every one is innocent until proven otherwise,but i think in kosovo that isnt the case [*This comment has been edited by K2.0 in line with our house commenting principles: ]