World News

Former Macedonian Leader Seeks Asylum in Hungary to Avoid Prison

Posted November 15, 2018 4:31 p.m. EST

For those seeking refuge from war and violence, Hungary has been an unwelcoming place. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been at the vanguard in casting refugees as an insidious menace, best kept at bay by barbed wire and locked up in detention centers. His government made it a crime to even assist people in the country applying for asylum.

So it was somewhat awkward this week when the former prime minister of Macedonia — Nikola Gruevski, who was supposed to begin a two-year prison sentence Monday after being convicted of abuse of power — announced on Facebook that he had fled his homeland and was in Budapest seeking asylum.

After more than 24 hours of silence, the Hungarian government confirmed late Wednesday that Gruevski was in the country and seeking asylum but provided few other details, including how a convicted politician managed to get into the country considering that both his personal and diplomatic passports had been confiscated.

Gruevski’s flight stoked outrage in Macedonia, which issued a warrant for his arrest and demanded that he be extradited. It has also highlighted the competition between the European Union and Russia over the values and allegiances of countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

For years, Orban has been engaged in a battle with Brussels as he flouted its norms and rules over a variety of issues, including migration policy and threats to the independence of Hungary’s judicial system.

At the same time, Orban has sought to strengthen his ties with Russia and find allies in the countries on the eastern fringes of the bloc of nations, including rulers in the western Balkans that aspire to join the union.

When Gruevski was in power, Orban cast aside concerns about corruption to embrace the Macedonian leader.

Istvan Hegedus, chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society, said Orban has tried to have it both ways for years — reaping the benefits of membership in the European Union while cozying up to Russia and other nondemocratic nations for support when needed.

“This sort of dance between east and west, between dictators and Brussels, it cannot work forever,” he said. “As a leader, you are forced to make decisions.”

In this case, it is Macedonia that again finds itself in the middle.

The small Balkan nation is in the final stages of a wrenching political battle to change its official name to satisfy a decades-old dispute with Greece and set a path to joining NATO. Moscow has long opposed the expansion of NATO and Gruevski’s party, VMRO-DPMNE, had opposed the deal to change the country’s name.

Hegedus and other outside observers said that they would not be surprised to see Gruevski disappear from Hungary only to re-emerge in Russia or some other country from which it would be harder to have him extradited.

“It would be incredibly cynical, but Orban might make a human rights argument, saying that other asylum-seekers have chosen to leave the country and that is their right,” he said. “Which would be incredibly unfair given that most of those seeking asylum are stuck in shipping containers on the Serbian border.”

Márta Pardavi, co-chairwoman of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group dedicated to helping refugees, said it is “completely unrealistic that a former prime minister of another country would arrive to Hungary without the prior knowledge of the Hungarian authorities.”

Pardavi, whose group has been a frequent target of the Orban government, said that technically, Hungary’s interior minister has the discretionary power to grant asylum even if someone can’t be considered a refugee under normal circumstances.

“It’s hypocritical that this extraordinary exception is only made for somebody who is a great ally of Prime Minister Orban,” she said.

The Hungarian government denied that it played any role in facilitating Gruevski’s flight from Macedonia. “Nikola Gruevski has submitted an asylum request to the competent Hungarian authority,” the government said in a statement. “Given that he was prime minister of his country for 10 years, for security reasons the Hungarian authorities have allowed Mr. Gruevski to have his asylum request submitted and heard at the headquarters of the Immigration and Asylum Office in Budapest.”

Pressed on why Gruevski was not forced to go to one of the transit centers created by Orban to seek asylum, the Hungarian leader replied dismissively, telling reporters to “ask the lawyers.”

Earlier in the day, however, Balazs Hidvéghi, communications director of Orban’s party, Fidesz, pointed to a familiar figure to explain why the former Macedonian leader might deserve asylum.

“Nikola Gruevski is persecuted and threatened by the current Macedonian government, which is under the influence of George Soros,” he said.

There is no evidence to suggest the Hungarian-born American philanthropist has anything to do with Gruevski’s legal troubles.

In fact, the U.S. government played an instrumental role in helping establish the office of the special prosecutor in Macedonia that eventually brought charges against Gruevski. The State Department, in a statement, said Gruevski had been convicted after a “thorough and transparent legal process.”

“We believe it is appropriate for the Macedonian legal process to proceed and for Mr. Gruevski to be held accountable within the Macedonian justice system,” the department said.

During the trials of Gruevski and his associates, audio recordings and documents revealed how the former prime minister ran the country as a mafia state, ordering surveillance on opponents, rigging elections and reaping the spoils.

The trials were viewed as a big step forward in a country that has been plagued by corruption since it declared independence from the former republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.

While Gruevski still faces a variety of charges, he was recently convicted of abuse of power in a case having to do with the purchasing a new armored vehicle for official use while he was prime minister. He lost his final appeal on Nov. 9 and was scheduled to start his jail sentence Monday.

He never showed up.

The reaction in Skopje was swift. Public shock and anger were stoked by rumors and suspicions that quickly took on a life of their own online.

Social media — where most people in the country get their news — was rife with anonymously sourced speculation about plots and conspiracies. Some people said Gruevski escaped by dressing as a woman and traveling with false papers. Others saw the hand of Russia.

The Albanian Interior Ministry said late Thursday that Gruevski escaped through Albania, somehow making his way to the Hungarian Embassy in Tirana, and then driven in a diplomatic vehicle to Montenegro. It remained unclear how he was able to exit Macedonia and how he made it from Montenegro to Budapest.

Some in Macedonia said they suspected the complicity of the Macedonian government itself, claiming without evidence that the administration of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had secretly agreed to let Gruevski escape in order to secure the votes needed to reach an agreement on renaming the country.

Still others pointed to the Macedonian government itself, claiming without evidence that the administration of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had secretly agreed to let Gruevski escape in order to secure the votes needed to reach an agreement on renaming the country.

Zaev said such speculation was nonsense.

“I strongly reject all speculations about some kind of political deal with Gruevski. Nothing such has been done,” he said. “We will investigate how he escaped, but I am convinced that Gruevski will be returned and he will face his sentence.”

He then said he was confident in the core values of the European Union.

“What kind of motivation would other countries have to join the EU if an EU country allows convicted criminals to escape from justice?” he asked.