The Macedonian government has endured a major storm this week over allegations of wire-tapping and widespread surveillance. The allegations broke at the press conference of the Alliance of Democratic Forces in Macedonia (SDSM) on 17 January, when some 150 pages of transcripts, allegedly from telephone conversations, were shown to the press. SDSM claims that tapping was rife in the run-up to the local elections and throughout the "no-confidence" crisis that staggered on for three months after the elections, threatening to bring down Ljubčo Georgievski's government.
According to SDSM President Branko Crvenkovski, some 100 people were tapped, including 25 journalists. He went on to say that the material was only one-tenth of what he had discovered. The material has been verified as authentic by former head of State Security, Slobodan Bogoevski, who has said he is prepared to testify to this in court. On 18 January, Georgievski agreed to establish a parliamentary committee to investigate allegations, and the European Parliament called for an independent investigation.
Interior Minister Dosta Dimovska employed a tactic of random mudslinging in reaction to the allegations, saying first that the transcripts were the "result of tapping carried out by the SDSM and True VMRO" (the latter was formerly part of VMRO-DPMNE), and later that the tapping could have been carried out by the Defence Ministry. This was denied outright by Defence Minister Ljuben Paunovski. Finally, the Interior Minister referred to a precedent for wire-tapping in Macedonia, saying she herself had been tapped during her time in opposition.
According to daily newspaper Dnevnik, the Macedonian police can tap 2000 land-lines simultaneously and an unknown number of the 100,000 mobile phones currently operating in Macedonia.
The other major story of the week has been the attack on the police station of Tearce by unidentified assailants, in which one policeman was killed and three others were injured. The village of Tearce is situated behind Tetovo on the road to the Kosovo border, in the heart of the Albanian-dominated northwest region of Macedonia. The attack took place on Monday 22 January, involving several assailants, two Kalashnikovs and a hand-held rocket launcher. Despite a large amount of gunfire, the injuries are believed to have been sustained from the two rockets fired at the station.
On 24 January, "ERA," the private (Albanian) television station in Skopje received a fax with a somewhat confusing logo. The fax bore the insignia of the UÇK and was dated 23 January 2001, Skopje. However, when written out, the "K" of UÇK stands for "Kombetare," meaning National (or people's) Liberation Army (rather than "Kosova" as in the original). It was numbered "Communique 4" in the style of old UÇK press statements, but there is no general recollection of the three previous communications.
The fax appears to have been sent from Germany, but police checks have revealed the number to be false. The body of the fax states that this attack was a warning to the "Macedonian occupiers and their Albanian associates" and concludes that "we will fight until all Albanians are free."
In the wake of the attack, Tearce was sealed off by police forces and house-to-house searches were carried out. Albanian paper Fakti reports that these searches targeted only Albanain houses, frequently flouted police regulations and recorded incidents of physical brutality against inhabitants of the region. In the nearby village of Shemshove, weapons were found in one house and three people were arrested. Some ten people were tested for paraffin traces to establish whether they were part of the attack and a further 30 people were taken into police stations for "formal questioning."
Macedonian papers have carried the same stories but without the Tetovo-region status reports (that is to say, no mention of house searches, or police brutality), reflecting the general ethnic segregation of the media in Macedonia.
Police statements that this is simply an action to "frighten people and destabilise the country" seem the most plausible explanation at present. However, it is interesting to consider who might want to destabilise the country and why. While Albanians protest their position and treatment as a minority, Albanian politicians are placed higher in government and in greater numbers than ever before, as Arber Xhaferi's Albanian Democratic Party (PDSA) is critical to the coalition government's slender majority (64 seats of 120).
Most importantly, the coalition government, under the watchful eye of Max van der Stoel (UNHCM), has agreed to a compromise for Albanian language in higher education—a key concession in the eyes of the Albanian community, and the institution is scheduled to open in October.
Any military actions could seriously jeopardise this and, of course, result in heavy police presence and intervention in Albanian dominated areas—so patently counterproductive it seems almost incredible that such an action could be launched now. Albanians have scanted to gain, and much to lose, unless they went all out for independence. This is not the prevailing mood in Macedonia, where most Albanians, while bemoaning their minority status, take satisfaction from shifting demographic trends and their relative affluence compared to the Macedonian communities.
So, who else could be involved? It is possible, due to the close proximity to the Kosovo border, that "trouble-makers" have crossed into Macedonia. It is not unheard of; last year saw several attacks on Macedonian border outposts which were variously ascribed to the Serbian secret police and Kosovar Albanians—both keen to destabilise Macedonia to further their own aims.
With the change of government in Belgrade, the first option can probably be dismissed (at least, the officially sanctioned intervention of such a force). Kosovar Albanians are dissatisfied with the plans of the new head of UNMIK, Hans Hækkerup, to establish links with the Koštunica administration. They stand to delay this process if Macedonia were destabilised, or teetering on crisis ... it could be ex-UÇK stirring trouble as is believed to be the case in the south-Serbian Preševo Valley, but it is still quite a long shot.
Last but not least, we have the possibility of the action being initiated by the government itself. The fragile VMRO-DPMNE government is undergoing a second major crisis in four months, one that will possibly lead to a vote of no-confidence. The government has been criticised this week by domestic journalists and politicians, the European Parliament, UK based censorship monitors Article 19 and the International Federation of Journalists. It couldn't really get much worse—this is not the Europe-oriented image they have so carefully cultivated.
The coalition barely survived the threatened departure of Vasil Tupurkovski and the DA before Christmas and this could easily be the straw that breaks the governmental back. However, a crisis, the apparent act of terrorism by a force so long prophesied by the Macedonian media and so feared by the populace, deflects attention from this most effectively. It allows the monitoring of one third of the population and renders the majority dependent on the government to protect it.
So it seems likely that the action is either an unexpected and short-sighted move by an Albanian group, or an inspired smoke-screen thrown up to hide the Macedonian "Big Brother" who, it seems, may have been listening to all of us. Only time will tell.
Eleanor Pritchard, 26 January 2001
- Archive of Macedonian news reviews
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page