Macedonia Braced For New 'Watergate'

Leaked phone transcripts reveal move to block referendum on Macedonian peace agreement.

Macedonia Braced For New 'Watergate'

Leaked phone transcripts reveal move to block referendum on Macedonian peace agreement.

Thursday, 20 September, 2001

Hard line opponents of the Western-backed peace deal in Macedonia are accusing leaders of the two pro-agreement parties of "treason", in a scandal which some are already calling Macedonia's new Watergate.

The core of the "scandal", which Macedonian nationalists are using to destabilise the August peace deal, centres on a leaked transcript of a telephone conversation made between Branko Crvenkovski, head of the Social Democratic Union, and Arben Xhaferi, leader of one of the two main ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia, the Democratic Party of Albanians.

The two men, both of whom have backed the Ohrid peace deal, are reported to have agreed to block proposals in the Skopje parliament for a nationwide referendum to be held on the terms of the agreement, which nationalist Macedonians bitterly resent as a sell-out to the ethnic Albanians.

Supporters of the peace deal fear a referendum will be used to shelve indefinitely a parliamentary debate on constitutional changes in Macedonia concerning ethnic Albanian rights, which form a crucial part of the August 13 deal. The debate was supposed to begin at the end of this month.

The ethnic Albanian parties oppose any talk of a referendum, seeing it as proof that the ethnic Macedonian majority has no intention of delivering on any of the promised constitutional changes, which were a condition for the NLA to end its uprising in the west of the country.

The crisis poses a new threat to the coalition government, formed three months ago with European Union backing, to pull the country back from the brink of an all out civil war. Crvenkovski has warned he will leave the government if the referendum proposal is accepted.

The so-called scandal was broken by an anonymous person, who informed the media by fax that "he intends to notify the Macedonian public about the treason of Crvenkovski and Xhaferi" - the clear targets of the campaign.

Both have admitted the content of the phone call faxed to the media. "They did not even need to tap my phone calls because my position [on the referendum] and that of the Social Democrats have been made public," Crvenkovski said.

Xhaferi said the scandal offered disturbing proof of the degree to which Macedonia remained a police state. "We are continuously being tapped," he said. "'Big Brother' Ljube Boskovski is behind this," he added, referring to the hard-line interior minister.

There are rumours in Skoplje that Boskovski, a key figure in the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity' (VMRO-DPMNE), is the "anonymous person" behind the famous phone call.

Some observers think that he and fellow hard-liners from his party, lead by the Macedonian prime minister, Ljupco Georgievski, want blame for the Ohrid deal, which they signed but oppose, transferred to the Social Democrats and to the Macedonian president, Boris Trajkovski. They want to present their signature to the agreement as a tactical move, only made under heavy international pressure.

Boskovski has made no public comment about the furore. He said he "did not have enough information" about the case.

Aside from its allegedly "treasonous" implications, the transcript sheds light on the changing political alliances within the republic, as the Social Democrats and Xhaferi's Albanian party move closer together, signaling an end to the period of cooperation between Xhaferi's party and VMRO-DPMNE.

Unlike VMRO-DPMNE, the Social Democrats have been vocal in criticising the proposals for a referendum on the Ohrid deal, a standpoint which aligns them with the ethnic Albanians. As one Social Democrat official put it, there was no going back on Ohrid at this stage. "Peace is achievable only through the full implementation of the agreement," he said.

"One referendum would lead to others and spawn a new conflict," Xhaferi said. He has warned that if a plebiscite is approved, the ethnic Albanians will organise their own referendum, along the lines of an earlier vote they organised in 1992.

The 1992 vote, on "cultural autonomy" was largely a symbolic exercise. This time the threat is taken more seriously. According to Slobodan Casule, of the small New Democracy party, "The referendum with which Arben Xhaferi is threatening us would be an attempt at secession."

This is not the first phone-tapping scandal in Macedonia. In January, there was another "Watergate", involving leaked conversations between President Trajkovski and other politicians. As in the latest affair, the conversations were leaked by an anonymous source. Again, the trail of smoke led straight to the hard liners, those who are now enemies of the Ohrid agreement.

Veton Latifi is a political analyst and IWPR editorial assistant in Macedonia.

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