Rise and Fall of Macedonia's Nationalist Showman

Once hailed as a national saviour, the stunts of the latest Hague indictee Ljube Boskoski finally repelled even his most ardent admirers in the media.

Rise and Fall of Macedonia's Nationalist Showman

Once hailed as a national saviour, the stunts of the latest Hague indictee Ljube Boskoski finally repelled even his most ardent admirers in the media.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

For those acquainted with the controversial career of former Macedonian interior minister Ljube Boskoski, news of his indictment by the Hague tribunal on war crimes charges will have come as little surprise.

As a fiery hard-line politician during the 2001 clashes with ethnic Albanian rebels, the sharply-dressed Boskoski was a darling of the Macedonian media and enjoyed huge popularity amongst the country's majority population.

But he fell out of favour with journalists following a stunt with a rocket launcher in which a reporter was badly injured.

His fall from grace was compounded last year when he fled to Croatia - where he has duel citizenship and owns a hotel - having been charged with the deaths of seven immigrants at the hands of the Macedonian police.

In November, already jailed in Croatia pending an investigation into the immigrants' deaths, he was questioned about a police raid in the Macedonian village of Ljuboten in August 2001, in which ten Albanian civilians were killed.

Boskoski, 44, spent more than a decade living and working in Croatia, and fought in the war there in the early Nineties, before emerging onto the Macedonian political scene in 1998 following the success of his nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party in that year's parliamentary elections.

Having started out first as deputy head of Macedonia's counter-intelligence agency and then as state secretary in the interior ministry, he was made interior minister in 2001, two months after the outbreak of ethnic violence.

From his new post Boskoski repeatedly called for an all-out offensive against the Albanian insurgents at any cost and, to that end, formed a 1,400-strong special police unit called the "Lions" - named after his "Lion" hotel in Croatia and his own privately produced "Lion" brand of red wine.

Known for their heavy-handed tactics, on a number of occasions the Lions' raids into Albanian-dominated areas threatened to turn the sporadic violence into an all-out civil war.

During the Ohrid peace talks, which brought an end to the conflict in August 2001, Boskoski took every opportunity to attack the foreign diplomats whose job it was to oversee the dialogue, repeatedly accusing them of being over-protective of the Albanians.

International figures, for their part, publicly dismissed him as a hard-line nationalist, whilst privately describing him as a "dangerous lunatic" and a "clown".

Later on, with the Ohrid accords signed, Boskoski continued to threaten the fragile peace deal. In November 2001, a few days before the Macedonian parliament approved a number of changes to the country's constitution in line with the agreement, he ignored warnings from the international community and sent his Lions to secure suspected mass graves in the Tetovo area.

After his men were shown on state television arresting a number of Albanians, Albanian gunmen killed three policemen in a retaliatory ambush. During the ensuing crisis, as top government officials and international envoys convened a series of emergency meetings to try to restore calm, Boskoski refused to take responsibility for the results of his actions.

When the VMRO-DPMNE lost power in 2002, Boskoski clung on to his political ambitions. Following the death of president Boris Trajkovski in a plane crash in 2004, he even announced his decision to run for the presidency, but was ruled out by the state electoral commission on the grounds that he had not lived continuously in Macedonia for the past 15 years.

Boskoski attacked the decision as political and joined with former prime minister Ljupco Georgievski in calling for a boycott of voting, but the VMRO-DPMNE refused to back him.

Throughout this period, from the 2001 conflict to the present, Boskoski's once high standing in the eyes of the Macedonian public has steadily declined.

During and after the fighting, his firm nationalist stance and hawkish behaviour, which made him feared and despised by the country's Albanian population, earned him a place as one of the most popular politicians amongst ethnic Macedonians.

Known as "Brother Ljube" for his habit of addressing everybody as "brother" or "sister", he revelled in expensive designer suits and loud hats.

He was a particular favourite of the media, who loved his protracted, patriotic speeches about "the bleeding fatherland", and he was always surrounded by a pack of journalists who documented his every move.

Famous singers, ambassadors and journalists would gather in the traditional wood and stone cellar of his Skopje home for wine and Dalmatian prosciutto ham.

But his relationship with the press took a turn for the worse at a May 2002 Lions military exercise, where he decided to demonstrate his skill with a rocket launcher. Shrapnel ricocheting from nearby rocks in the ensuing explosion injuring three people, including a journalist.

"I am sorry but these things happen," Boskoski said in a television interview later the same day. But it was too late - Macedonian journalists turned on him, demanding that he accept responsibility for the incident and declaring a media blackout on every event he attended and on the activities of his ministry.

Boskoski's image suffered a further blow in 2002 following the deaths of one Indian and six Pakistani immigrants at the hands of his police force.

Earlier in the year Boskoski had proudly announced that Macedonian police had ambushed and killed seven "mujahedin", or Islamic extremists, who were planning to attack foreign embassies in Skopje. "[The international community] should finally get involved in the global anti-terrorism war and not leave this fight solely to the US and Macedonia," he crowed.

He also paraded before the media bags of National Liberation Army uniforms apparently found in the possession of the alleged militants, declaring them proof of a link between al-Qaeda and Albanian fighters in the region.

Even at the time, staff at the British, American and German embassies had expressed reservations, saying they had no information about any pending attacks.

But the real blow came in May, when the Wall Street Journal published an article suggesting that, far from being terrorists, the seven men had been illegal immigrants.

The Greek paper Elefterotipia later interviewed relatives of theirs living in Greece who said the men had been on their way to Athens in the hope of finding work in the Olympic Games.

At the time, the international community chose not to protest too much, fearing a new conflict with Boskoski might endanger the ongoing process of redeploying police in the parts of Macedonia where there was still tension following the 2001 conflict.

But in September 2002, when Boskoski's party lost power, diplomats began openly calling on the government to investigate the case.

The following May, Boskoski became the first ethnic Macedonian to be added to the US blacklist of personalities whose actions pose a threat to stability in the Balkans. Those on the list are banned from travel to America, any assets they have there are frozen and US citizens are prohibited from supplying them with funds.

In May 2004, the Macedonian authorities finally charged Boskoski with the murders of the seven men and parliament moved to cancel his immunity from prosecution so that he could be put on trial. But as that process was underway he fled to Croatia - and Skopje, unable to seek the extradition of a person with duel citizenship, was forced to turn the case over to the Croatian courts.

Boskoski - who claims the charges were orchestrated to eliminate him from the political scene in Macedonia - has been detained in the Croatian town of Pula since last September. On February 26, the Zagreb authorities charged Boskoski with murder of the seven migrants.

Ana Petruseva is IWPR's Macedonia project manager.

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