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

Macedonia: Inquiry into Missing Deadlocked

Not much expected of government body charged with establishing fate of disappeared.
By Tamara Causidis

A new move by the authorities to find out what happened to people who went missing during the 2001 conflict appears to be little more than a cynical attempt to keep their angry relatives at bay.

Analysts say a new government body set up on December 8 to investigate the whereabouts of the 20 disappeared is unlikely to make any headway with the cases as, in doing so, it could implicate members of the ruling coalition, destabilising fragile relations between its Macedonian and Albanian members.

The fresh probe, which came about as a result of pressure from relatives of the missing, is to be run by representatives of the ministries of justice and health. It will aim to gather information on the disappeared and improve communication between their families, the international commission established to look into the matter and the government.

Thirteen Macedonians, six Albanians and one Bulgarian vanished in 2001 during the country’s ethnic conflict.

The Macedonians disappeared in areas then controlled by the Albanian rebel group, the National Liberation Army, NLA, while the Albanians were last seen near checkpoints controlled by the Macedonian police, headed at the time by hawkish interior minister Ljube Boskovski, a member of the nationalist VMRO.

The last report of the international commission for missing persons in July 2002 said the former Albanian rebel leadership and ex-interior ministry officials hold the answers to their fate.

The current government - made up of the Social Democratic party, SDSM, led by Branko Crvenkovski, and a party of former rebels-turned-politicians, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, headed by Ali Ahmeti - came to power in September 2002, ousting the VMRO and its partner, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA.

Since coming to office, the new coalition has vowed to find out what happened to the disappeared, but, in truth, has paid lip service to the issue - for now, two years on, little more is known about the victims.

Despite several exhumations on sites thought to be mass graves - some even monitored by the international war crimes tribunal - no new information has been released.

Meanwhile, the families of Macedonians who vanished have tried to maintain pressure on the authorities, occupying part of the parliament building for several months and staging a hunger strike there. But their efforts have been fruitless.

Relatives of missing Macedonians accuse the SDSM of not having the political will to pressure the DIU to uncover the truth behind the disappearances as this could implicate Ahmeti and jeopardise the coalition.

The families have long been calling on Ahmeti to use his authority to find out what happened to their relatives - in early 2002, he appointed one of his former NLA commanders from Tetovo to look in to the matter, but nothing came of it.

Ahmeti has since been reluctant to speak about the subject, saying only that there are efforts from both communities to address it.

Vojo Gogovski, a relative of a missing Macedonian, told IWPR that “we (the families of Macedonian disappeared) are convinced that Ahmeti is the only one to blame for the kidnapping of Macedonians as he was the one giving the orders to the NLA”.

Others say the SDSM leadership is reluctant to pressure Ahmeti at a time when the coalition faces numerous challenges. Indeed, a senior party official effectively admitted as much. “We do not have the strength to persuade our coalition partner to solve this issue, although they owe us that,” he said.

Members of the ruling alliance have enough on their plates dealing with a battered economy, fragile inter-ethnic relations and the implementation of controversial provisions of the 2001 Ohrid peace deal, analysts say.

Indeed, senior DUI members privately concede that the issue of the missing has not been addressed properly because the government has so many other things to deal with.

“But it is not about escaping responsibility. I think there is readiness on both sides, but there are so many obligations and priorities and [the issue of the disappeared] has not come on the agenda yet,” said one DUI member who did not want to be named.

In the case of the missing Albanians, Boskovski is under suspicion because they were last seen close to police checkpoints.

Fazli Veliu, whose brother Ruzdi vanished, told local media that “one thing is for sure and that is that Ljube Boskovski knows the truth about what happened to my brother”.

The former interior minister has not responded to the accusations and has so far not come under any pressure to do so from the ruling coalition.

A possible reason for this is that if the government leans on Boskovski, then it will come under pressure to get Ahmeti to account for the missing Macedonians, which could once again destabilise the coalition.

Relatives of the missing Albanians have meanwhile alleged that the secret service has tried to pressure them to give up trying to find out what happened to their loved ones.

The lawyer for the Veliu family, Milka Dimovska, confirmed that she was threatened when she launched a legal action against the interior ministry and was told to lay off the case. Later, the ministry even filed charges against her for slander.

Some western diplomats have expressed the hope that transferring responsibility for investigating the disappearances from the interior ministry to the new government body might give inquiries a fresh impetus.

But some of the international officials involved in the process are not expecting a breakthrough any time soon.

“Two and a half years after the conflict, a year after the new government came in place and we still don’t have any answers. There is no political will, at least not a sufficient political will,” said Jeffrey Buenger from the International commission for missing persons.

“It is important that the government demonstrates it’s moving forward and quits pushing this under the carpet, hoping it will go away.”

Tamara Causidis is a journalist with Radio Free Europe.