The Macedonian Public Prosecution Office launched a pre-investigative procedure on November 15 to probe whether officials helped convicted ex-PM Nikola Gruevski to flee illegally to Budapest to avoid two-year prison sentence.
After court couriers and police searched for Gruevski for several days, he revealed his whereabouts saying in a Facebook post that he is in Budapest and that he has sought political asylum there.
Gruevski, also a former leader of the now opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, was sentenced in the case dubbed “Tank” for using his position to influence officials from the interior ministry when he was in power to purchase a €600,000 luxury Mercedes from budget money.
Prosecutors are now trying to establish how Gruevski, whose passport had been seized by a court due to his involvement in several trials, was able to leave the country. There has also been much speculation in the media as to how he escaped.
Some media reports say Gruevski fled using a Bulgarian passport, but Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov denied that Gruevski was granted a Bulgarian travel document. “This is 100% fake news," Borissov said following his meeting with Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.
Albanian police confirmed late on November 15, that Gruevski had been in Albania and left the country at the border crossing with Montenegro, Han i Hotit, in the evening of November 11.
"Gruevski headed towards Montenegro and crossed the border with a vehicle owned by the Hungarian embassy in Tirana with license plates CD1013A," the Albanian police said.
The police emphasised that at the time Gruevski was not being sought with an international warrant, which was only issued on November 13.
Gruevski’s escape angered Macedonian citizens who blame the authorities for the failure to put the former prime minister in prison, saying that the judiciary system and institutions do not function well in the country.
“There is a suspicion that certain official persons abused their power and enabled the convicted Nikola Gruevski to leave Macedonia illegally," the prosecution office said in the statement.
The opposition VMRO-DPMNE argued that Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski were ultimately responsible for allowing Gruevski to escape.
On the other hand, the ruling SDSM said it suspects that VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickovski was involved in helping Gruevski to flee the country.
High-level asylum seeker
Meanwhile, Macedonian justice ministry has begun extradition proceedings for Gruevski but the documents of around 400 pages first need be translated into Hungarian, media reported.
On November 15, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov had a phone call with his Hungarian peer Peter Szijjarto to discuss Gruevski’s status.
Szijjarto told Dimitrov that the request made by Gruevski to be granted asylum is a legal, not a political issue, according to the Hungarian ministry. “The Hungarian authorities that will examine the application will act in full respect of the relevant international law,” the minister said.
Gruevski sought asylum from a Hungarian embassy in another country, according to the head of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s cabinet.
A decision was taken for security reasons to hear Gruevski in Budapest at the Office of Asylum Affairs and Citizenship, rather than in the transit zone at the border, said Gergely Gulyas, adding that Hungary did not provide any assistance to Gruevski to leave Macedonia.
It’s not clear whether the relevant authorities in Hungary, will allow the high-profile Macedonian fugitive to stay in their country.
Orban and Gruevski have had a long-standing political friendship. Orban has been a regular guest at the electoral rallies of Gruevski's party and expressed strong support for him and his policies. Both have waged campaigns against Hungarian born philanthropist George Soros. Gruevski was the first to use the Stop Soros slogan, which was picked up by Orban and elevated to a new level. After Gruevski's defeat in the December 2016 general election, businessmen close to Orban bought majority stakes in right-wing media close to VMRO-DPMNE.
However, Macedonian Broadcaster Kanal 5 reported that Hungary is not a final destination for Gruevski, because his presence will place the Hungarian prime minister under additional EU pressure, which will add to the already strained relations between EU member Hungary and Brussels.
Other possible further destinations for Gruevski are Russia or Turkey, according to the broadcaster.
Orban clearly has to choose sides now between the Kremlin or Nato, Hungarian opposition website 444 wrote. If Gruevski is granted asylum Orban would further erode his image among the mainstream political elite in the US and Europe. Alternatively, he can refuse to grant asylum, abandon an ally he campaigned for, and possibly anger Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For years, Hungary's diplomacy has been in a balancing act between Western allies and Russia. Hungary shrugged off Western accusations of standing too close to Russia citing its economic interests, but in the Grueski case, it has to commit to one side, the news portal added.