North Macedonia’s government accused of secret talks with fugitive opposition politician to squeeze through constitutional changes

North Macedonia’s government accused of secret talks with fugitive opposition politician to squeeze through constitutional changes
Former prime minister Nikola Gruevski fled to Hungary, where he was granted political asylum.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje September 21, 2023

The leader of North Macedonia’s main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski, has accused the party's fugitive ex-leader Nikola Gruevski, who is facing criminal charges in his home country, of being in secret contact with the government to benefit from recent criminal law changes.

In an interview with FAC, Mickoski accused Gruevski of secretly collaborating with PM Dimitar Kovacevski's government with the intention of dividing VMRO-DPMNE in order to get controversial constitutional amendments through the parliament. North Macedonia must make the changes to continue its EU accession process. 

During the parliament session on August 18, the governing majority led by the Social Democrats failed to obtain the necessary votes to pass the constitutional amendments, which would have included ethnic Bulgarians in the constitution, a move opposed by VMRO-DPMNE. Nevertheless, Kovacevski has reiterated his confidence that it will be possible to secure enough votes for the amendments to pass.

Gruevski led conservative VMRO-DPMNE from 2004 to 2017 and served as prime minister from 2006 until 2016. He has been issued several prison sentences and faces numerous criminal charges for abuse of office following the wiretapping scandal disclosed by former Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev in 2015. Gruevski evaded justice in 2018 and sought refuge in the Hungarian capital Budapest, where he was granted political asylum.

In a Facebook post, Gruevski asserted that it was Mickoski that had instigated the division in the party and launched vehement attacks against him without any apparent justification.

“[H]e created a division by designating me as a new enemy and launching a fierce attack without providing the slightest reason. Throughout my life, I have only contributed positively to his endeavours,” Gruevski wrote.

Mickoski responded to Gruevski on Facebook: "I regret your decision to engage in a public parody, diverting attention from the wrongdoings of this criminal government. While I understand your perspective, I cannot endorse it. Engaging in a public dialogue may not be necessary, but as you have reached out to me publicly once, I will respond in kind.”

Criminal Code amended

North Macedonia's government recently approved amendments to the Criminal Code, resulting in reduced penalties for abuse of official position and authority. Key changes include the removal of a minimum five-year prison term for Paragraph 5 of Article 353, which pertains to misuse of public funds. Furthermore, the maximum sentence for criminal association has been lowered from 10 to three years, and extended confiscation of unlawfully acquired property has been abolished.

The opposition has strongly criticised the criminal code amendments, viewing them as an effort by the government to shield its officials from potential criminal prosecution, amid mounting corruption allegations.

The government has argued that certain urgent issues have arisen necessitating these legal amendments, which they believe would be beneficial to address over a shorter period.

NGOs also say the criminal law changes should be withdrawn, as they are perceived to be detrimental to the fight against corruption.

Secret deal suspected

Professor and NGO activist Mirjana Najcevska has suggested that the adoption of the amendments could signify an agreement between the government and the opposition, possibly involving vote-buying for constitutional changes.

In October 2018, in a similar scenario, the parliament gave the green light to constitutional changes related to the “name deal” with Greece under which the country’s name was changed to North Macedonia, by securing eight votes from VMRO-DPMNE. This move enabled the country to become a Nato member in 2020.

However, even though the authorities believed that the Euro-Atlantic integration processes had been completely unblocked, Bulgaria then vetoed the country’s bid to launch EU accession talks in late 2020. The veto was lifted last year under the condition that North Macedonia amend the constitution to include ethnic Bulgarians, who make up less than 0.2% of the total population, as a constitutional nation.