Macedonia: New Arrests on Corruption Front

Former ministers put behind bars as new government seeks to stamp out corruption.

Macedonia: New Arrests on Corruption Front

Former ministers put behind bars as new government seeks to stamp out corruption.

Macedonia's new authorities, now busily locking up former ministers accused of massive fraud during their four years in power, has netted its biggest catch yet.

Vojo Mihajlovski, former director of the government-run Health Insurance Fund, was detained on January 9, charged with defrauding the public purse of more than one million euro. He's to be held in custody for 30 days pending trial.

The fund was at the centre of widespread fraud allegations involving price-fixing of medicines and diverting money from drug companies into the coffers of the former ruling VMRO-DPMNE party.

Mihajlovski is secretary general of the VMRO-DPMNE, which now ranks as the country's biggest opposition party. The new government has hinted that even the party's president, ex-prime minister Ljupco Georgievski, could find himself in trouble.

The anti-corruption campaign started right after the election on September 15, which brought to power the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, SDSM, in coalition with the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, representing the Albanian minority and is led by former armed insurgents.

"Nobody will be protected whether they were at the top or the bottom of the old hierarchy," said Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, leader of the SDSM, in his New Year's interview with the Skopje daily paper Dnevnik. "If we have proof that the ex-prime minister committed criminal acts he will answer as well."

Earlier this week, Crvenkovski said the government was preparing a national strategy to fight corruption. "We are determined to fight organised crime and entrenched corruption on all levels, especially within the top power structures and institutions," he told the media.

The arrests started with the scandal-ridden sale of Macedonia's biggest press-printing company, the state-run Nova Makedonija. On December 10 last year, the interior ministry detained the company's director, Nikola Tasev, and four colleagues on corruption charges. They were placed under 30-day pre-trial confinement.

Tasev and the others were charged with improperly providing 2.3 million euro of state money to the Slovenian company Jug-storitve, which sought to buy a majority of shares in Nova Makedonija. In the same case, the interior ministry also brought charges against the ex-minister of economy, Besnik Fetai, from the Democratic Party of the Albanians, a VMRO-DPMNE coalition partner.

Interior ministry spokesman Voislav Zafirovski said so far police have failed to locate Fetai. "If we get a court order and the police can't find him, then we will issue an international warrant for him," Zafirovski was quoted saying in daily Utrinski vesnik.

As a result of these charges, the new government in December terminated the purchase agreement for Nova Makedonija and the shares were returned to the state.

Edward Joseph, director of the think-tank International Crisis Group, ICG, in Macedonia, told IWPR that the arrests were unprecedented in former Yugoslavia, where even notorious former officials are rarely punished.

But he also stressed that the government must show that it is equally determined to go after corrupt officials or cronies of its own as much as those from the former government.

In August, last year the ICG published a report claiming corruption in Macedonia was perpetrated by the state and was so huge as to threaten the country's very survival.

Georgievski came under scrutiny in March last year when the media reported that he was building a huge palace in a plush part of Skopje on land bought for 2.5 million euro. The construction was carried out in the name of Sonja Takovska, sister of the prime minister's wife.

When the story broke, work at the site stopped and a succession of new owners appeared in the state property register.

Snezana Georgievska, the ex-premier's wife, insisted the building had nothing to do with her family. "It was another women who had the same name as my sister," she said in a statement.

Just before the New Year holidays, Tatjana Mitrevska, director of the land survey and five associates, were arrested on charges of forging and destroying documents to hide evidence relating to the suspicious property. Mitrevska is the wife of Georgievski's former chief of cabinet.

And then on January 9, the ex-parliamentary deputy Amdi Bajram, who had been the only Roma member of the assembly, was arrested along with a VMRO-DPMNE official and accused of an alleged one million euro financial fraud involving a textile company in southern Macedonia.

VMRO-DPMNE has denied all the allegations against its members, claiming they were part of a revenge campaign by the new government. Interviewed by a local weekly in December, a clearly nervous Georgievski warned that if the arrests continued, "Macedonia will not be a pleasant place to live in."

Marjan Gorcev, vice-president of VMRO-DPMNE, declared on January 13, "The situation in our party is not normal." He described the arrests and threat of future ones as troubling events that "destabilise the party". Gorcev, said that a person should be classified as a criminal only after valid court decisions, not merely after charges and arrests.

VMRO-DPMNE's spokesman Vlatko Gorcev told IWPR, "Any public official is responsible for his/her affairs. Still, when the steps of the SDSM government are closely analysed, it is obvious they are a deliberate political attempt to eliminate all opposition in the country."

Interior minister Hari Kostov told the media earlier this week that he had formed a team that's will prepare an anti-corruption strategy, "No criminal deeds will be pardoned nor the police and the government will withdraw from any investigations of criminal activities."

International officials in Skopje viewed the arrests as part of a drive to establish the rule of law. "It is what happens in normal societies, if you have misused your position you will be held accountable, and that is a good thing," one Western diplomat told IWPR.

Assessments by Vitosa Research and USAID, published some time in the middle of last year, put the cost to the Macedonian state of organised crime and corruption at 200 million US dollars each year. The annual state budget is about one billion dollars.

According to the survey, four-fifths of Macedonian citizens believed that corruption was at its highest among ministers, deputies and customs officials.

The new government, meanwhile, has been facing accusations of cronyism and nepotism. It appointed Zoran Verusevski as the director of the Security and Counter-intelligence Department only to discover he illegally owned more than one state apartment. Verusevski is refusing to step down over the affair.

"A person with a moral question mark against him should not remain in such an important post," said Slagjana Taseva, executive director of the NGO Transparency International in Macedonia. "To maintain the integrity of the government, Verusevski must submit his resignation or be dismissed."

Zaklina Gjorgjevic is a journalist at the daily newspaper Utrinski vesnik in Skopje.

Balkans, Macedonia
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