Macedonia's government stands accused of arranging the imprisonment of a political rival and tapping the phones of over 20,000 citizens, including politicians, judges, activists, journalists, academics, religious leaders, and even its own president.
Then on Monday European Commission (EC) President Jean-Claude Juncker canceled a Thursday meeting with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (pictured above). EC spokeswoman Mina Andreeva explained that "because of the evolving situation on the ground there was an agreement that it is not opportune right now."
A subsequent Macedonian government statement said: "The two parties have jointly concluded that more space is needed prior to the Gruevski-Juncker meeting in an effort for a better and more comprehensive insight to be provided on the subject matter that will be its focal point."
The EU-candidate country has been rocked by a devastating intelligence file known as "the bomb" throughout February. Zoran Zaev, leader of the center-left opposition party Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), has released its contents in weekly dispatches, while claiming that the process has been "carefully crafted so that no long lasting damage is done to the country."
The allegations have so far detailed direct interference at ministerial level in judicial cases and appointments, and painted a picture of a dynastic surveillance state where government snooping is an accepted fact of life and the premier receives secret service bulletins daily.
Zaev's third dispatch, released last Friday, details seven taped conversations that suggest the imprisonment of former Interior Minister Ljube Boskoski was set up by Chief of the Secret Police Saso Mijalkov, who is also PM Gruevski's first cousin. Boskoski — having left the ruling alliance to form the United for Macedonia party — was arrested for illegal campaign funding and abuse of office on June 6, 2011, the day after his new party had failed to win any seats in the national elections.
The first recording cited by Zaev allegedly contains Mijalkov tipping off Dragan Pavlovic-Latas, an oligarch and chief editor of Sitel TV channel, to prepare for "big news" the following day.
Then, on the day of Boskoski's arrest, the secret police chief allegedly tells the channel owner: "He was lying there for a half-hour on his stomach, handcuffed. Journalists came, taking pictures, and he was screaming: 'Saso Mijalkov set me up.'" Mijalkov adds that "Boskoski will get eight years for this." Later in 2011 Boskoski was sentenced to seven years in prison.
'I think he came with great expectations, and here he collided with reality.'
Another recording allegedly features the police chief complaining to the TV Sitel boss that "Channel 5 covered [the arrest] three times better than you." Pavlovic-Latas apparently answers that, "We will publish [the footage] for five days. I will tell [my colleagues] now."
In two of the conversations between Mijalkov and Pavlovic-Latas, the former jokes about organizing a sexual assault on Boskoski while he is in prison. Only months into his sentence, Boskoski was sending written apologies to Mijalkov over his earlier accusations of corruption during the election campaign, although they appear to have been justified.
Former SDSM presidential candidate Ljubomir Frckoski, who served as foreign minister and interior minister in the 1990s, told VICE News that the EU is now adopting a tougher strategy on the Gruevski administration, due to "doubts regarding the capacity of Macedonian institutions" to handle the crisis on its own.
Zoran Andonovski, the editor in chief at META news agency, told VICE News that: "The government has not yet commented on the claims regarding 'the bomb.' They just beat around the bush and stick to technicalities, but so have far refused to even mention the substance of the tapped conversations."
Gruevski has accused Zaev of being "a puppet of foreign services," because the opposition leader told him he had obtained the information in "the bomb" from foreign intelligence agencies during four meetings between the pair last fall, which were also covertly recorded. They later featured on the TV Sitel national evening news, after the channel claimed to have found them on YouTube.
The validity of the leaked footage's provenance is also questionable, however. "TV Sitel could not have possibly got those videos from YouTube because it was uploaded half an hour after it was shown on the TV," Filip Stojanovski, program director at the Metamorphosis Foundation, an NGO that promotes human rights and spreading knowledge online, told VICE News.
Zaev claims he merely lied at the meeting to protect his sources in the Macedonian secret services, as he pushed for Gruevski to make way for a government of experts in the wake of the April 2014 elections. He also disputes that ballot's validity, claiming the ruling party enabled multiple voting with fake ID cards. International observers from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OSCE) also declined to call that vote "free and fair" in their post-election report.
The snub from Juncker, the European Union's most powerful politician, further dents the Macedonian PM's credibility and comes the week after the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, visited Macedonia's capital Skopje, but pointedly opted to meet Gruevski at an EU office, rather than his own. "The investigation should be conducted in full respect of the principles of due process — impartiality, presumption of innocence, transparency, separation of powers, and judicial independence," Hahn concluded after his visit.
"Hahn was obviously disappointed from what he heard in Skopje. I think he came with great expectations, and here he collided with reality," Andonovski said.
'We were all aware that we were monitored, it was a "public secret" as we say in Macedonia.'
Frckoski added that the extent of the phonetapping shows "the level of paranoia" of the Gruevski government, which is "still attempting to act like everything is normal." Recently announced US plans to restrict the visas and freeze the assets of Macedonian "human rights abusers," and now Juncker's cancelation are making such a strategy less and less viable, Frckoski continued.
Macedonia's insidious state surveillance is a hangover from communism, but now with newer technology, according to Stojanovski. "If it is true that 20,000 people have been put on a list for monitoring [over four years] that would be more than the total number of 14,000 people of officially monitored people in the four or five decades of communism in Macedonia," he noted.
Stojanovski said: "One of the current pieces of propaganda is not denying that the surveillance has taken place, but claiming that it's normal and citing cases like [Edward] Snowden. But it's not normal, it's a crime, because our law allows authorized surveillance for 14 months for a specific person, with a court order. If 20,000 people were eavesdropped, in order for it to be legal we need to see the court order and if it was taking part for four years it was also against the law because the maximum period of surveillance is 14 months."
"We were all aware that we were monitored, it was a 'public secret' as we say in Macedonia," Andonovski concluded.
These leaks have also thrown into question the matter of who really runs Macedonia: its prime minister or secret services chief. "With these conversations you can infer from Mijalkov's comments that he is at top of the hierarchy. He doesn't have to refer to anyone else, even though his cousin is senior to him both within the government and the party," Stojanovski commented.
Mijalkov is the "person who is allegedly in charge of the whole operation, depicted as the power behind the throne, and the man who runs things for the ruling elite," he added.
Phonetapping is a favorite weapon in the government's arsenal, but there are others. Before the 2011 election, the ruling coalition ordered state employees to provide the names and personal details of at least 15 associates who would definitely vote for the VMRO-DPMNE party. An investigation by a1.com.mk shows how successful the VMRO's intimidatory tactic proved to be.
Another conversation released last Friday appeared to show Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska after the 2011 election telling Gruevski's Chief of Staff Martin Protoger that any civil servants who worked for the SDSM or for Boskoski should be sacked.
Meanwhile regular government-sponsored publicity campaigns also push Gruevski's nationalist agenda, as did the Skopje 2014 project, a renovation of the 6,000-year-old city's main square.
After the first dispatch from "the bomb," police took four people into custody, including former Head of State Intelligence Zoran Verusevski and his wife. Stojanovski notes that "this government has now arrested anyone who has ever held the position of secret service chief since independence, under one pretext or other."
Zaev remains a free man, despite his charge of treason. The SDSM leader says he expects to be arrested after the latest revelations, but that his party has put a system in place that will ensure the revelations against Gruevski's government will continue even if he is put behind bars.
Frckoski said the next three months will be decisive for the future of his country, and expressed hope for active US and EU cooperation in "working out an exit strategy from the present situation" and cementing an interim government of experts.
"So far, the EU strategy in the Balkans to put security before democracy has allowed illiberal, authoritarian regimes to thrive undisturbed: This will end now, although this is a bit late," the former foreign minister predicted.
Follow Daniel Nolan on Twitter: @nolan_dan
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