March 18, 2019

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Hungary Sheltered a Fugitive Prime Minister. Did It Help Him Escape?

Hungary Sheltered a Fugitive Prime Minister. Did It Help Him Escape?
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SKOPJE, Macedonia — As he awaited a ruling on his appeal against a corruption conviction, Nikola Gruevski, the former Macedonian prime minister, gave the impression that he was resigned to going to prison.

It was early November, and Mr. Gruevski contacted the prisons authority about conditions inside jail. He asked his bodyguards, allocated to him by the state, to buy him clothes to wear while incarcerated. He strolled around central Skopje as if savoring his last days as a free man.

But on the day he was finally told to report to jail, Mr. Gruevski vanished. He re-emerged four days later — but in Hungary, where he was soon granted political asylum by the far-right government of his political ally, Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“It was like out of a movie,” said Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a research group.

The escape has stirred fevered gossip and numerous conspiracy theories. But interviews with senior Macedonian officials have produced new details that suggest Mr. Gruevski was in contact with Hungarian officials in the final days before his escape. And Macedonian authorities are now investigating whether Mr. Gruevski was ferried across the border in a vehicle with Hungarian diplomatic plates.

Mr. Orban’s government has denied interfering in Macedonia’s internal affairs, or having any role in smuggling Mr. Gruevski out of the country. But by merely sheltering him, Mr. Orban is inserting himself into the fragile politics of the Balkans at a time when Macedonia is trying to join NATO and the European Union — efforts that Russia is trying to block.

The current Macedonian government is trying to complete a historic diplomatic deal with Greece that would remove the biggest obstacle to the country joining NATO and the European bloc after two decades of diplomatic limbo.

In January, Parliament is set to vote on changing the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia. Greece, which objects to the current name as implying territorial ambitions on a northern Greek region of the same name, would lift its veto of Macedonia’s accession in exchange.

Mr. Gruevski, who had been sentenced to two years in prison for receiving kickbacks on government contracts, had opposed the deal with Greece and allied himself with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Though Mr. Gruevski left office in 2016 amid scandal, he has remained a central figure in Macedonian politics. His sudden departure and reappearance in Hungary have raised potential hurdles in the delicate negotiations before the parliamentary vote, and have added a highly destabilizing element to the debate.

By granting Mr. Gruevski asylum in Hungary, Mr. Orban may have primarily been acting out of personal loyalty to a kindred spirit, said Ms. Tcherneva, an expert on Balkan politics.

“But he has nothing against the collateral damage,” Ms. Tcherneva said. “Orban does not hide his sympathy for Putin and Trump, and the destruction of the version of the West that we used to know.”

Since entering office in 2010, Mr. Orban has morphed from a marginal player in European politics into the Continent’s leading nationalist voice. After eroding democratic institutions at home, he rose to international prominence during the refugee crisis of 2015, when he called for the European Union to take a stronger stance against migrants, while advocating for an end to the liberal values and institutions on which the bloc was founded.

And as Macedonia became a key way station along the migration trail through the Balkans, Mr. Gruevski and Mr. Orban grew close. They shared an opposition to migration, but also a similar approach to domestic governance, a warmth for Mr. Putin and a habit of blaming their woes on George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist.

Mr. Orban continued to support Mr. Gruevski’s political party even after the Macedonian leader left office two years ago. This summer, Mr. Orban spoke in support of the party’s attempts to derail the deal with Greece even as his government says it supports Macedonia’s membership in both the European bloc and NATO.

But Mr. Orban’s government has tried to avoid the implication that it directly intervened in the judicial system of another sovereign country, claiming that Hungary agreed to help Mr. Gruevski only after he turned up — unassisted — at the Hungarian Embassy in Albania, the country to Macedonia’s west.

“Hungarian state authorities had nothing to do with him leaving his home country,” the Hungarian government said in a statement.

Yet interviews with three senior Macedonian officials in three separate ministries, all of whom spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to give public statements, suggest a more complex story.

In the weeks before his escape, Mr. Gruevski visited the Hungarian Embassy in Skopje, said one official. An unusually high number of Hungarian diplomats traveled to Macedonia in the days before Mr. Gruevski’s departure, holding private meetings at various hotels including one owned by Mr. Gruevski’s cousin, a former chief of the secret police, according to a second Macedonian official.

And the Hungarians themselves discreetly asked Macedonian counterparts how likely it was that Mr. Gruevski would end up in prison, the first official said.

The Macedonian government has not announced publicly how Mr. Gruevski left Macedonia for Albania, partly to avoid prejudicing an ongoing judicial investigation, and partly to avoid worsening relations with Hungary. But they are investigating allegations that Mr. Gruevski left Macedonia in a Hungarian diplomatic car.

Moreover, Macedonian officials have received confirmation from other Balkan intelligence agencies that after reaching Albania, Mr. Gruevski was driven by a pair of Hungarian diplomats to Montenegro, where a different pair of diplomats drove him immediately to Serbia, according to the third senior official.

The next day, Mr. Gruevski crossed Serbia’s northern border into Hungary, the Serbian government has announced, without stating who accompanied him.

The highly coordinated nature of these moves suggests Hungary had at least some foreknowledge of Mr. Gruevski’s escape, all three Macedonian officials said. And it is not the first time that Mr. Orban has taken an interest in Macedonian affairs.

Starting in 2017, two Hungarians close to Mr. Orban bought out several Macedonian media outlets that support Mr. Gruevski. The outlets, which might otherwise have closed due to financial difficulties, were also strong opponents of the deal with Greece.

Mr. Gruevski’s warm reception in Hungary was therefore “the continuation of something that people outside of Macedonia may have been oblivious to — that Orban was not only the role model for Gruevski for the last couple of years, but was actively helping him,” said Ms. Tcherneva. “There is a whole media empire that Orban has built in Skopje.”

Yet if Hungary’s role in the escape is under scrutiny, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s administration faces accusations that it tacitly allowed Mr. Gruevski to leave without obstruction, in exchange for his allies’ support for the name-change deal.

Mr. Zaev’s government denies the claim, saying that Mr. Gruevski’s absence has complicated negotiations, not eased them.

But critics question whether parts of the administration were nevertheless complicit in his departure, or at the very least too incompetent to prevent it.

In September, anti-corruption officials learned that Mr. Gruevski had recently withdrawn more than 100,000 euros in cash from his bank account, two officials confirmed — but this was not deemed enough to consider him a flight risk.

On Friday Nov. 9, the day Mr. Gruevski vanished, the police detail assigned by protocol to all former prime ministers could not reach him by phone after arriving at his apartment block as usual.

After they reported his absence to their superiors, no action was taken to trace him — even after a court had ordered that he report to prison by the following Monday.

The police waited outside the front door to his apartment building all day, but did not watch the entrance to its basement garage, through which cars can easily drive in and out without obstacle.

Investigators now suspect that he left via the garage that Friday for Albania, driving through a border crossing in the mountains near the western town of Debar.

But a national arrest warrant was issued only on Monday, Nov. 12, after Mr. Gruevski failed to report to jail. An international arrest warrant was not released until Tuesday night, after Mr. Gruevski had already announced that he had reached Budapest.

But all this ultimately would have had little bearing on Mr. Orban’s decision to assist Mr. Gruevski, said Dimitar Bechev, a specialist on Balkan affairs at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“It’s a demonstration to everyone else in the E.U. that he can get away with murder,” said Mr. Bechev. “He can do pretty much anything and there is no high cost to pay.”



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