Macedonia’s missing Prime Minister

Macedonia’s missing Prime Minister

On 13th November Nikola Gruevski, the ex-Prime Minister of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), sought asylum in Hungary after his appeal against a prison sentence for corruption failed. His escape and asylum bid will have significant consequences for both FYROM and Europe.

The situation of the former Prime Minister

Nikola Gruevski was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption relating to the purchase of a luxury car while he was Prime Minister. His conviction is part of a wider crackdown on members of the previous government, many of them for corruption. Part of the evidence is wiretaps originally unveiled in 2015 by then opposition leader and current Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. At the time, Gruevski dismissed the recordings as the work of foreign spies. He maintains that they should not be admissible as evidence in court, and so his sentence should not stand.

How Gruevski fled the country

It has been reported that Gruevski escaped FYROM by travelling through Albania, Montenegro and Serbia, possibly crossing the border from the FYROM to Albania illegally. He was allegedly driven in diplomatic cars owned by Hungary from Albania onwards.

This account of the events has attracted some controversy. Someone speculated that Gruevski managed to leave as part of a deal with his VMRO-DPMNE party, to gain support in parliament for the current government’s main priority: an end to the longstanding name dispute with Greece. These rumours have gained some legitimacy from Zaev’s support for an amnesty for those MPs involved in violent clashes in the parliament on 27 April 2017.

The choice of Hungary and its implications for the EU

It is no coincidence that Gruevski chose to apply for asylum in Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s socially conservative, nationalist politics are similar to Gruevski’s own. Both of their parties are members the European People’s Party (EPP). Gruevski’s party even received an endorsement from Sebastian Kurz, now Chancellor of Austria, during the last election partly due to its associate membership of the EPP. Both parties have faced calls for them to be expelled from this primarily centre-conservative grouping of European parties, which includes several more liberal parties, including Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

The EU as a whole, however, is firmly backing the current government in FYROM, including its crackdown on corruption by members of Gruevski’s party. The EU enthusiastically supported the recent referendum on renaming FYROM, hoping that a solution to the name dispute can push the country towards EU accession. The name dispute has stalled the country’s progress for many years. By seeking asylum with Orban, Gruevski chose to ask for help from a likeminded politician who has many arguments with Brussels. Orban will appreciate the opportunity to contradict the EU’s position on FYROM as it fits his political narrative of him being a thorn in Brussels’ side.

Orban may also have some personal sympathy with the former Macedonian Prime Minister. Gruevski represents the future that Orban wants to avoid: a populist political leader losing power with the backing of the EU and convicted of corruption.

Consequences for the FYROM

Gruevski’s escape is embarrassing for FYROM and its security services. It undermines the image of a former Prime Minister’s conviction. Similar cases have previously been used by potential EU member states to indicate the independence of their judiciaries, most notably Croatia’s jailing of former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (though this has been partly stained by his retrial after his party returned to power). For now, the country lost a big opportunity to demonstrate the strength and independence of the judiciary.

If, however, Gruevski’s escape was part of a broader deal with his party over the name dispute with Greece, it could have consequences that reach much further than his prison sentence. After the referendum on changing the name of the country to the Republic of North Macedonia produced a positive result, though on a very low turnout, Zaev is trying to find a way to pass the name change in the parliament. He has a very slim majority and needs some votes from Gruevski’s party for it to pass. If it passes, the country will have done all it can to secure the deal, they will then be relying on Greece’s parliament to do the same. A positive result in both parliaments would be a huge win for Zaev and a strong affirmation of his foreign policy. The country would quickly join NATO and its EU accession process would significantly accelerate. However, there is no definitive evidence that Gruevski’s fate will have any effect on how MPs vote on the country’s name change.


Orban will protect Gruevski from extradition to FYROM for now. He will take the opportunity to further demonstrate his opposition to Brussels. The EU must decide how much pressure to exert on Orban on this issue. Unless it can put real, practical pressure on Orban, he will likely see Gruevski’s fate as just another one of his stubborn quarrels with the EU. If the EU can find a way to hurt his regime, however, Orban may use Gruevski’s extradition as part of a compromise. Gruevski’s fate is probably not a hill that Orban would choose to die on, given he has some many other, more fundamental disputes with Brussels.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.