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

Macedonian Nationalists Exploit Hague Fears

A campaign to protect the interior minister from war crimes charges seems rooted in domestic electioneering.
By Saso Ordanoski

A strident campaign has flared up in Macedonia to prevent the ultra-nationalist interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, being handed over to the war crimes tribunal, but political analysts believe the campaign has more to do with the coming general election scheduled for September this year rather than any real threat from The Hague.


Boskovski's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, VMRO-DPME, is not doing well in opinion polls and the reasoning seems to be that boosting his hero status might improve the party's fortunes.


The war crime blamed on Boskovski concerned an incident last August following seven months of civil strife between the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian rebels.


It happened at Ljuboten village, north of Skopje, where at least nine ethnic Albanian civilians were allegedly killed by Macedonian security forces in retaliation for the death of eight soldiers. Macedonian authorities claimed that the dead Albanians were either guerrillas or "battle related victims", even though several of those killed were over 70 and one was an infant child.


Last week, prosecutors from The Hague tribunal, together with Macedonian forensic experts, finished their exhumation of 10 bodies in Ljuboten. A statement was expected after the autopsy.


On April 22, war crimes tribunal spokeswoman Florence Hartman protested against Macedonian government efforts to present Boskovski as an innocent victim of the tribunal. Interviewed by Skopje's daily Utrinski vesnik, she said that while the tribunal was investigating his case it is too early to say whether he is likely to be indicted.


The opposition Social-Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, SDSM, commented sardonically, "How can we give 'brother Ljube' to anybody when nobody is asking for him?" The party's secretary-general Gjorgji Spasov said, "The SDSM is also against giving Boskovski to the tribunal, because we want to prosecute and try him here in Macedonia."


The "pro-Ljube" movement reached a climax on Friday, April 26, when thousands of demonstrators were bussed into Skopje from all over the country, waving banners proclaiming, "We are not giving up Ljube!" "No compromise with terrorists," "Carla go to Kosovo," (a reference to Hague prosecutor Carla Del Ponte). Organisers promised a turnout of 50,000-60,000 but only a few thousand showed up.


Boskovski began his speech, "Macedonia has said its historic NO tonight! Macedonians have proved that they will not kneel or beg in front of some international..." at which point his words were drowned out by ecstatic cheering. Similar ovations punctuated other wildly patriotic remarks.


"I came here because I'm sick of Europe's double standards - I've had enough of Brussels dictating what we should do," said a Macedonian from Strumica. "We were pushed into a war that we did not deserve and now the ones that defended us could be tried for war crimes - it is completely unfair! Albanians should stand trial. This is a disgrace for Europe."


An international diplomat is reported to have said: "This is nothing new. We have seen such campaigns in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. The tactic is to show how popular Boskovski is and make the international community afraid to send him to The Hague."


It was notable that not one anti-Albanian remark was made by Boskovski in his speech or in the statements of his supporters. This was due to two factors. First, VMRO-DPMNE and the major Democratic Party for Albanians, DPA, have renewed their old coalition for the forthcoming elections. Secondly, some western diplomats have said they have reached an agreement among the major parties not to use inflammable rhetoric about ethnic divisions during pre-election campaigning.


"It is odd that DPA says that they have won the war and liberated the Albanian population while at the same time VMRO-DPMNE claims that Ljube Boskovski is a liberator of Macedonia," Spasov commented.


At the last SDMS press conference on April 26, the party claimed that the whole governmental and political infrastructure of VMRO was involved in the campaign against the tribunal. "VMRO members are visiting homes in the provinces making lists of people regarded as 'traitors' and threatening them with loss of jobs if they do not support Boskovski," one SDSM official said.


Saso Ordanoski is IWPR coordinating editor in Macedonia