Macedonia: Gun Law Haunts Boskovski

Government rules that former police minister broke the rules by handing out guns to party allies and officials.

Macedonia: Gun Law Haunts Boskovski

Government rules that former police minister broke the rules by handing out guns to party allies and officials.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Macedonia’s controversial former interior minister Ljube Boskovski looks likely to face prosecution for handing out expensive guns as gifts while he was in power – breaking anti-corruption rules introduced by his own government.

Following the revelations, the current interior minister Hari Kostov has decided to end the longstanding tradition – dating back to communist times - where the police ministry handed out firearms as official gifts. Since Macedonia became independent, successive interior ministers have presented more than 3,000 weapons as awards.

Ironically, Boskovski was tripped up by laws which his own right-of–centre government put in place in 2001 in a bid to curb this vestige of the socialist past. It came to light in an audit of the interior ministry submitted to the cabinet on August 18, which found that Boskovski broke these rules by giving away costly brand new weapons, rather than second-hand guns at least 10 years old.

Investigators found that he awarded some 540 weapons to ministers, VMRO party officials, members of parliament, judges and journalists. Former prime minister Ljupco Georgievski was given three guns, and Boskovski presented himself with two, worth around 4,000 euro.

Kostov, who ordered the audit, told reporters on August 19 that the 300,000 euro the ministry had spent on buying the guns would have paid for two or three new police stations – much needed in the areas most affected by the 2001 conflict.

The government ruled that the gifts had been illegal, and ordered everyone who had received a gun to return it within two weeks – or pay for it.

“Out of 540 guns, only 10 have been returned so far. But it will take some time,” interior ministry spokeswoman Mirjana Kontevska told IWPR. Dosta Dimovska, Boskovski’s predecessor, was one of the first to hand back her gun.

Kontevska declined to say whether Boskovski would face charges. But government sources later confirmed to IWPR that this was likely.

IWPR tried to contact Boskovski but was told at VMRO headquarters that he was unavailable for comment because he was on holiday in Croatia. His mobile phone did not answer.

The spectacle of a Social Democrat-led government ruling that members of VMRO – its main political opponent– had received illegal gifts suggested to some observers that party politics was at play. But a source in the government insisted to IWPR that it was not out to get the recipients, rather to act on the report’s findings.

“This has nothing to do with political bickering, nor is it a public relations move by the government,” the source told IWPR. “This is not a campaign against the people who received those guns. The issue is that the guns were given out illegally.”

VMRO was incensed nonetheless. “This latest move by the interior ministry’s leadership is to compensate for their continuing failure to establish lasting security in the country,” said party spokesman Vlatko Gjorcev. “The main problem in Macedonia is the illegal weapons that are threatening the security of all citizens and the stability of the country.”

The extensive media coverage of the Boskovski affair has sparked a wider debate about whether all officials who have received guns as presents since 1991 should now return them. Previous initiatives to surrender them voluntarily have met with only partial success, although the current prime minister Branko Crvenkovski has handed in both the weapons he has been given over the past decade.

Boskovski left office in September last year, when the VMRO government was voted out in a general election. He had been appointed minister in May 2001, at the close of a six-month conflict with Albanian insurgents, where his hard line nationalist views contributed little to the peace process. He also came in for criticism for forming the Lions, a controversial police unit accused of violence during the conflict.

His own love of weapons was well known. When the Lions invited journalists to view a police exercise in May last year, several people were injured when the minister fired off a grenade launcher and the projectile exploded unexpectedly.

The wider issue of a country awash with weapons, referred to by VMRO’s Gjorcev, is accepted as a major problem by everyone. There are tens of thousands of firearms in Macedonia as a result of the 2001 insurgency and wider regional instability - Kosovo and Albania particularly. Estimates of the numbers vary widely, but the United Nations Development Agency suggest there are between 110,000 and 170,000 illegal weapons, while the interior ministry says another 150,000 or so are owned legally.

The government is to run a media campaign from September 1 to encourage people to hand in their weapons. There is considerable scepticism about whether this will bear fruit. Representatives of the international community tried unsuccessfully to persuade the government to hold off until spring 2004 and use the time to prepare more thoroughly.

Many people will be reluctant to give up their weapons, because of the generally poor security situation as well as the persistent gun culture. Public confidence in the process will be especially low in ethnic Albanian areas.

“The Albanians do not trust the police, they fear for their safety,” said a local analyst who asked not to be named. “In a situation when there is still potential for a new conflict, it is unrealistic to expect a massive surrender of weapons.”

Ana Petrusheva is IWPR Project Manager in Skopje.

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