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Skopje Diplomatic Rumpus

Foreign diplomats in Macedonia face accusations of meddling in the internal affairs of the country.
By Dragan Nikolic

The German ambassador in Macedonia, Werner Burghart, will long remember his Christmas break in Macedonia’s Mount Pelister national park. After lopping off a few branches of a pine, which he hadn't realised was a protected species, he found himself pilloried in the press as an ecological vandal.


His name was duly recorded on a list of offenders in the registry of the local ecology inspector. There followed a barrage of front-page denunciations in the Skopje daily newspapers. 'Ambassador chops down Christmas tree in Pelister', ran one scandalised headline. After a few days of this, the bemused ambassador stopped making public appearances.


This case illustrated an extreme public sensitivity over the activities of foreign diplomats in Macedonia. At least four other ambassadors became targets of unfavourable publicity in the last year.


Envoys from Western and neighbouring countries have been ridiculed, accused of arrogance and of fighting among themselves. All were charged with meddling in the internal affairs of the state - which is a real sore spot for small country so long squeezed


between powerful Balkan neighbours.


The editor-in-chief of the popular Skopje newspaper Utrinski vesnik, Branko Trckovski, suggested in a satirical editorial that an 'Ambassadorial Council' be formed in Macedonia, which would have primacy over government and parliament in decision-making.


The scale of resentment reflects long-standing anger at the proprietorial attitudes taken towards Macedonia by Serbia, Greece, Albania and Bulgaria. The ambassadors of these countries traditionally compete over which one should achieve its 'historic right' to wield the greatest influence over Skopje.


For the Serbian ambassador, Macedonia is a Serbian country. The Bulgarian ambassador regards Macedonia as an authentically Bulgarian country. Albania’s ambassador cites the number of ethnic Albanians living in western Macedonia as evidence of the state's Albanian identity. As far as Athens is concerned, this territory is part of Greek Macedonia.


Bulgaria’s envoy Angel Dimitrov has been directly in the firing line. At the end of last year, opposition newspapers, as well as a number of Macedonian intellectuals, asked the government to withdraw the ambassador’s credentials because of an appearance he made during the launch of the pro-Bulgarian society Radko at Skopje's Holiday Inn hotel. They regard Radko as a Bulgarian nationalist organisation.


Two Macedonian youths threw a smoke bomb during the launch and the evening ended in uproar.


The Skopje newspaper, Dnevnik, published a letter from the Bulgarian Ambassador which expressed a view that Macedonia was 'an artificial formation'. He stated that being present at the launch did not breach diplomatic protocol.


Many prominent Macedonian intellectuals concluded that government and regimes may change in the Balkans but historic aspirations never die.


Former Yugoslav Ambassador Zoran Janackovic was another deeply unpopular envoy to Macedonia.


Following his arrival in Skopje, state security accused him of interfering in the country’s internal affairs and asked the then president Kiro Gligorov to withdraw his credentials. Gligorov chose not comply for fear of spoiling Macedonia’s already


shaky relations with Belgrade.


Janackovic then set about building a huge embassy on highly expensive land to outshine its US counterpart. While news of poverty in Serbia caused by Milosevic's regime spread through Skopje, the Yugoslav ambassador is said to have been organising luxurious parties. At one, he is reported to have roasted an ox on the terrace of Skopje’s Holiday Inn.


The new Belgrade authorities withdrew him at the end of December.


On top of all this, some Western diplomats are said to joust among themselves to advance their own country’s interests.


Aggrieved Macedonians grumble that they might as well be living in a protectorate. Their leading intellectuals call Macedonia "a laboratory of the West".


High on the list of unpopular envoys is EU ambassador Horhe Pinto Tessiera, dubbed by newspapers as 'gubernator', the old-fashioned name for an absolute master of a territory.


Recent remarks by Tessiera have caused some controversy in Macedonia. Former finance minister Boris Stojimenov accused him of taking the side of the government in a recent political crisis.


When the leading opposition Social Democrat party of Branko Crvenkovski, together with Democratic Alternative of Vasil Tupurkovski tried to oust the government, Tesseira declared at a press conference that "only a volatile and irresponsible state would change its government in such uncertain times". He warned that the fall of the Georgievski government could precipitate a war.


Other ambassadors have been accused of interfering in domestic affairs. A typical example was the Macedonian telecommunications company TELEKOM, put up for sale by Geogievski's government at the end of the last year.


The main buyers were the Hungarian company MATAV - whose major shareholders are American and German - and the Greek company OTE. The Democratic Party leader and former police minister Pavle Trajanov accused Georgievski of selling TELEKOM because of a promised commission. He and other opposition parties called for the sale to be cancelled. But before a parliamentary debate on the issue had been concluded, the US ambassador, Mike Aynic, surprised the public by announcing that MATAV had bought TELEKOM.


Aynic said that the purchase had been conducted transparently and legally, but the public concluded that the American ambassador was in fact 'selling' Macedonian TELEKOM.


A political adviser of former President Kiro Gligorov, Eleonora Karanfilska, said neither government nor opposition were able to construct their own policies but relied instead on ingratiating themselves with the West. However, this support has a price - sometimes, a very high price.


For example, during the NATO intervention, the West asked Macedonia to open its border with Kosovo. The country did so after some hesitation. Some 400,000 refugees (around 25 percent of the overall population) rushed into the country as a result. Then, at the end of last summer, the West asked Macedonia to take back all the refugees who had left through the Macedonian territory and moved on to other Western countries.


Towards the end of last year, the representative of the International Monetary Fund, Bisvadzit Benerdzi, demanded that the government sack 4,500 state employees, a condition for receiving loans and credits. The government complied.


In response to perceived Western pressure on Macedonia, the magazine Forum ran an editorial accusing international institutions of doing nothing to alleviate the hardships resulting form the reforms demanded from post-communist countries.


Western officials in Macedonia have told IWPR that the allegations leveled against their colleagues are groundless. They insist they are the result of a combination of xenophobia and an attempt to cover up for the incompetence of domestic officials.


There seems no doubt that 'ambassadorial scandals' will continue in Macedonia. The geo-strategic position of the country will inevitably attract the attentions of its Balkan neighbours. At the same time, the country’s financial vulnerability is forcing it to accept the demands of the West.


This process instead of bringing comfort to its citizens only reinforces the defence mechanisms which lead to over-reaction and xenophobia.


Dragan Nikolic is a regular IWPR contributor


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