Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Crime and Politics in Macedonia

Opposition politicians and media have intensified accusations of government collusion with organised crime in Macedonia following the murder of three police officers on routine patrol.
By Zeljko Bajic

During a routine patrol January 11, four Macedonian police officers stopped three cars in Aracinovo, a mainly ethnic Albanian village. While they were checking the first vehicle, the occupants of the other two cars opened fire with automatic weapons, killing three of the officers instantly. The fourth managed to escape with gunshot wounds.


The police authorities believe the cars were stolen and that the occupants were delivering them to Kosovo. The Macedonian media is full of speculation that the killers belonged to an Albanian criminal gang. Three ethnic Albanian suspects have been named as Ibrahim Musa from Aracinovo, Nijazi N. from Skopje and Ibrahim N. from Kacanik. The village of Aracinovo has long been suspected of housing a roaring trade in smuggled cigarettes, narcotics, weapons and cars.


Leading Albanian and Macedonian politicians quickly issued conciliatory public statements, in light of intensified public fear that the incident will dramatically worsen the already tense relations between the ethnic Macedonian and Albanian populations. It is only the latest in a string of violent incidents involving the police in which ethnic Albanians have been killed.


Arben Xhaferi, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) and the dominant force in ethnic Albanian politics, stressed that the killings should not become a political issue, and that the police should be allowed to complete their investigation. This view was re-iterated by Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski, leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), the leading member of the governing coalition.


Such a common position is notable in Macedonia, especially light of previous charges by the DPA that any accusations against Albanians for alleged mafia links are motivated by ethnic chauvinism.


The police statement following the incident was also notable. Previously, police authorities, which have always been closely tied to the political interests of the ruling party, have placed blame elsewhere for violent incidents. The current minister for police, Dosta Dimovska, is a VMRO-DPMNE party ideologue, who recently replaced Pavle Trajanov, the only non-party official to hold the top police post since Macedonia gained independence.


Yet in a statement after the incident, the police accepted responsibility for the officers' deaths in the bungled raid. Macedonian radio reported that there might have been a leak from within the police alerting the criminals that a police inspection was imminent.


Nevertheless, politically independent media in Macedonia, such as Dnevnik daily, have accused the authorities of creating a party political police force rather than an independent and professional one.


Other media have seen the Aracinovo case not as a harbinger of worsening inter-ethnic relations but as proof of a dangerous and growing link between crime and politics. The Skopje independent daily Makedonija Denes, which is sympathetic to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, has published a complex analysis arguing that Macedonia is being increasingly drawn down criminal paths leading to Kosovo, which it called "a black hole and home to the most shady deals in this part of the Balkans".


The paper accused the ruling coalition of controlling the profits and flow of money generated by such "shady deals". It alleged that there are clearly established rules governing who controls the smuggling of cigarettes, who enables narcotics trafficking and who participates in illegal arms trade. According to Makedonija Denes, about 70 per cent of illegal trades can be ascribed to the DPA, while the rest of the profit go into the pockets of the VMRO-DPMNE.


Similar accusations could be heard during the last session of parliament just before New Year. The opposition Social Democratic Alliance accused the ruling coalition of reaching a "gentlemen's-mafia agreement" to prevent internal, violent feuds. Opposition newspapers such as Start and Utrinjski Vesnik claimed that this agreement ensured that where the VMRO-DPMNE dominated illegal business the DPA would not interfere, and vice-versa.


Opposition parties persistently accuse Georgievski of forming a coalition with a party, the DPA, which they allege is financed by the Albanian mafia.


If it emerges that the mafia is behind the killings of the three police officers in Aracinovo, such accusations of mafia links could put DPA leader Xhaferi in a very tight position. Having smugly declared during the Kosovo crisis that it was "keeping the situation under control" - that is, firmly monitoring Albanian radicalism and ties to Kosovo - the DPA will have a difficult time convincing the media and the public that it does not know what is going on in villages such as Aracinovo now.


Meantime, the lack of an adequate police and judicial system in Kosovo only encourages the rising crime rate in Macedonia. Despite the arrival of KFOR troops in Kosovo, civilian authority is still not functioning effectively. An effective international authority in Kosovo would provide a great boost for the Macedonian security services.


As it is, Kosovo remains open for unregulated and illegal business, while Macedonia's role as a key organising and transit point for criminal activity has grown. Thus, even if the Macedonian police were seriously to take on the forces of organised crimes, they are left to their own devices and have little chance of success.


Zeljko Bajic is a journalist in Skopje.