BALKAN BLOG: Is extortion scandal serious enough to overthrow North Macedonia's government?

BALKAN BLOG: Is extortion scandal serious enough to overthrow North Macedonia's government?
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is under pressure to resign after he was named in leaked conversations between suspects in the "Extortion" case.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje August 15, 2019

The eruption of the “Extortion” scandal involving the chief special prosecutor is exactly what should not have happened to North Macedonia when the governing establishment and the people are desperately waiting for a positive signal from the EU in October for the launch of the long-awaited accession talks.

At its onset, the scandal was not so spectacular. The owner of the newly launched 1TV station Bojan Jovanovski, aka Boki 13, well known from Balkan reality shows where he appeared as a transvestite, and his associate Zoran Milevski, alias Kiceec, were detained in mid-July for extortion.

The two were accused of taking as much as €1.5mn in cash from a prominent businessman and one of the richest people in Macedonia, Orce Kamcev. Kamcev had been accused in another case launched by the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO), tasked to probe high level crime, dubbed “Empire”, for money laundering via offshore companies. It was revealed that Boki 13 had promised him privileges during the investigation and his possible release as Boki 13 used his influence over a special prosecutor — later found to be chief special prosecutor Katica Janeva.

When Milevski and Jovanovski, whose transition from showman to businessman is unclear, were arrested, public prosecutors also seized Janeva’s mobile phone to check for possible links with the two accused. However, she was not treated as a suspect in the case.

Janeva resigned the same day, but before the court authorities announced the detentions. She said her decision was to open the way for the governing Social Democrats to settle differences with the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party over the new law on prosecution.

The new law is supposed to define the future role of the SPO, set up in 2015 to probe crime and corruption by former VMRO-DPMNE government officials, as its mandate expires soon. The opposition is insisting on its own version of the law, and is unhappy with the role and the status of the current SPO prosecutors, whose salaries are much higher than those of other prosecutors.

The law is also crucial for the country, an EU candidate since 2005, to obtain a date from EU for membership talks.

La Verita “bombs"

It is not known how Jovanovski was connected with Janeva, except that her son was employed in the legal department of Jovanovski’s 1TV station, which has a dubious financial record.

The public was surprised by the links between Janeva and the two businessmen, but the scandal was almost forgotten when prosecutors went on holiday during the peak of the summer. But it re-emerged with striking effects after shocking details were revealed by the Italian right-wing daily La Verita on August 7. La Verita journalist Laris Gaiser started releasing a batch of video and audio recordings, revealing details of the case including some seriously implicating Janeva. 

The first video recording showed Boki 13 and his collaborator Milevski leaving Kamcev’s home with a bag packed with money. Kamcev is heard commenting that the bag is a Louis Vuitton, one of Boki 13’s favourite brands. Boki is known for his eccentric fashion style and for carrying Louis Vuitton ladies handbags.

The video was followed by other audio recordings. In several others, the voice of Janeva popped up (she was obviously with Boki 13) saying to Kamcev that everything will be ok. In another recording Janeva said that she cannot have complete control over special prosecutor Lile Stefanova, who is in charge of the Empire case. But it was obvious from the conversation that Janeva was the one who was making all final decisions in the SPO.

The name of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was also mentioned in one audio recording during a conversation between Boki 13 and Kamcev, who was under house arrest, related to the return of Kamcev’s passport. In the audio Boki said he met Zaev, adding that Zaev wouldn’t “make any problems”. 

Janeva and Zaev came into the spotlight following the leaks, with pressure for the resignation of Zaev and immediate detention of Janeva.

When in opposition, Zaev used so-called “bombs,” recorded conversations revealing crime and corruption among top VMRO-DPMNE officials, which he used to topple the previous government. Now this strategy seems to have backfired on him.

During the peak of the scandal, Janeva was on holiday in Greece, but she is now back at work. However, there is no information on whether she was invited to give a statement to her colleagues in the SPO, even though other prosecutors in charge of the Empire case, and whose names were mentioned in the recordings, have already been invited to explain. 

In a latest poll conducted by news agency Makfax, 73% of those surveyed thought Janeva should be detained and only 4% supported her.

Zaev’s nervous mistake

Zaev then plunged into a fresh scandal with an unguarded comment on the case, saying that he "will not allow several criminals, one vain journalist and one gay [an obvious reference to Boki 13] to overthrow his government".

The opposition VMRO-DPMNE reacted with the harshest condemnation of the prime minister for the language he used and for insulting the LGBT community and journalists.

Zaev apologised to the LGBT community for using the term, underlining he will continue to support them in their fight for more rights. He explained that he used that term having in mind another meaning which is a deceitful and fraudulent person, and not referring to sexual orientation.

Zaev also stressed that people should know that he has nothing to do with the Extortion scandal and was the one who helped the scandal to be revealed. Namely Kamcev informed Zaev about the situation with Boki 13 and with the help of the prime minister the court authorities launched the investigation.

Kamcev is the owner of Orka Holding, has a stake in Acibadem Sistina private hospital and is involved in other businesses. He had close ties with now opposition VMRO-DPMNE particularly with ex-intelligence service chief Saso Mijalkov, a cousin of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who is charged in the same case as Kamcev.

Kamcev was also known for his Russian ties and close relations with Russian millionaire Sergey Samsonenko who lives in Skopje and was the owner of the Macedonian handball club Vardar, which won a European championship this year, as well as the football club with the same name.

The main suspect in the Empire case was caught on camera in Cologne, Germany at the 2019 Man’s Handball Championship watching a Vardar match, when he was under investigation and his passport had been seized. Many people wondered how it was possible for Kamcev to leave the country when he was supposed to be under house arrest. There were further questions regarding the SPO’s cases as its high profile suspects had been seen moving back and forth from prison to house arrest.

Now the La Verita recordings have provided answers to these questions. 

Embarrassing links 

Social media are displaying a batch of photos of Jovanovski with distinguished ministers of the government and SDSM party officials, including the prime minister himself.

Zaev denied he had any links with Jovanovski in relation to the Extortion case, but confirmed he met him in relation to Boki 13’s humanitarian organisation, which was supposed to build nursing facilities for the elderly.

Janeva also denied involvement in the scandal but confirmed that it was her voice in La Verita recordings. She explained she needed to talk to the suspects in the course of the investigation.

The governing SDSM has claimed that the La Verita journalist had close ties with the opposition and that the opposition VMRO-DPMNE is behind the revelations in an attempt to obstruct the country’s bids to advance in its EU path. Gaiser claims that Zaev’s government will collapse soon.

In the latest development, a court in Skopje extended detention for Jovanovski and Milevski for another 30 days. Many forecast that Janeva will be the next to be detained in the case.

For North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski, the latest case implicating the chief special prosecutor is one of the biggest scandals in the history of the young republic.

Pendarovski did not take sides in the affair, and promised he would support institutions to examine the scandal urgently and thoroughly. Pendarovski also called for political responsibility, suggesting that Zaev may be losing the support of the president.

VMRO-DPMNE is pressing for Zaev’s resignation. It says that not only is the government not doing enough in the fight against corruption, high officials linked with the government are involved in criminal activities related to the Extortion scandal.

On shaky legs since the beginning

Zaev’s government has been on shaky legs since its inauguration in May 2017 when it replaced the conservative VMRO-DPMNE led by former PM Nikola Gruevski which had been in power for 10 years. Gruevski fled to Budapest last year to avoid serving a two-year sentence in an SPO case and enjoys asylum in Hungary.

Among other things, Zaev’s government came under attack for its quick deal with Greece that under which the name of the country was changed from “Macedonia” to “North Macedonia” in order for the Euro-Atlantic integration of the country to be unlocked. Athens, which objected to the use of the name “Macedonia”, had hindered the process over the unresolved name dispute. 

Zaev’s cabinet was also criticised for the contested "Friendship" agreement with Bulgaria, which enables Bulgaria to claim rights to parts of Macedonian history, and for allowing the Albanian language to become the second official language in the country.

The opposition also slammed the government over its poor economic performance, extravagant spending and corruption scandals.

After the SDSM regained power following 10 years in opposition during what many saw as Gruevski’s autocratic rule, it is now considered inadmissible for the government and its close institutions to make such obvious mistakes.

The last scandal is really threatening as it affects the state institution in which the citizens used to have the greatest trust, namely the SPO. 

Now that the people feel betrayed by the top justice body, which is supported by the government, great efforts will be needed by the politicians currently in power to regain trust and credibility.