271. Shaking Off the Shakedown State? Crime and Corruption in Post-Ohrid Macedonia

By
Robert Hislope

The good news for Macedonia is that the current government, led by Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski (of the Social Democratic Union), has initiated a high-profile attack on corruption in the country. The Social Democrats (SDSM) and their Albanian coalition partners, Ali Ahmeti's Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), were elected in September 2002, on the heels of a damning report by the International Crisis Group (ICG). This document highlighted the serious levels of corruption in the country. Since taking the reins of power, the SDSM and BDI have launched a two-pronged strategy. One part involves clamping down on the activities of the Albanian mafia in western Macedonia. The other concerns prosecuting those who abused power in the previous government and setting forth new rules to increase the transparency and integrity of the government.

The bad news for Macedonia is that such actions are taking place against the backdrop of an extremely weak state, frayed ethnic relations, an ineffective judicial system, a depressing economic situation, nearly daily incidents of violence, and the continued presence of Albanian paramilitaries. All of this adds up to a volatile situation. The conditions that create incentives for crime and corruption, as well as renewed ethnic violence, remain in place.

How bad is corruption in Macedonia? And how does Macedonia compare to other countries in the region on this issue? Transparency International, which monitors corruption worldwide, included Macedonia only in its 1999 survey (it was omitted other years for lack of data). In that year, Macedonia placed 63 out of 99 possible positions, with 1 being the lowest level of corruption present. Sharing this ranking were the neighborhood states of Bulgaria and Romania. The position of other states in the region was as follows: Slovenia 25, Croatia 74, Albania 84, and Yugoslavia 90. A June 2002 report on human trafficking issued by the U.S. Department of State identified Macedonia as a "tier 1" state, which means its efforts were fully compliant with standards set by U.S. law. In contrast, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, and Yugoslavia were assigned "tier 2" status (for states that are taking steps forward but still fall short). Bosnia was consigned to the worst category, "tier 3."

These mixed comparative assessments do not paint a Panglossian picture. Macedonian police estimate that there are 2,000 prostitutes working in roughly 100 nightclubs. Most of them are illegal foreigners and many are held against their will. Macedonia is widely recognized as an important transit country on the drug road that links the Far East and Western Europe. Corruption in the government and related criminal activities is said to cost the country about 250 million euro per year.

All Balkan states face the problems of government corruption and organized mafias, which traffic in drugs, prostitutes, tobacco, and illegal migrants. What makes the matter particularly damaging for Macedonia is how corruption is woven into the fabric of political and ethnic relations between Macedonians and Albanians. This connection came into sharp relief during the previous governing coalition led by Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) and Arben Xhaferi, head of the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH). For all intents and purposes, this was a corrupt coalition that cynically distributed the spoils of office, de facto divided the territory into personal fiefdoms, and made a series of secret agreements that jeopardized the security of the state.

Albanian journalists such as Iso Rusi and Kim Mehmeti have drawn attention to the backroom deals between VMRO-DPMNE and PDSH that involved a 2/3 – 1/3 split (respectively) in the business dealings of the state, and the "Mr. Ten Percents" who traded votes for a skim off the sale of state firms. The practical results of this rampant abuse were the squandering of public assets for private consumption, the demoralization of a public that could no longer trust its elected representatives, and the international reputation of Macedonia as a place that investors should avoid. Even more unsettling was the VMRO decision, at the request of the PDSH, to pull back security forces from border monitoring operations in 1998. This gave the Kosovo Liberation Army, then under pressure from Milosevic, a safe haven for freedom of movement. This decision would come back to haunt the government as the insecure border facilitated the National Liberation Army's (UCK) assault on the Macedonian state. Another troubling by-product of the VMRO/PDSH coalition was the quiet and persistent release of Albanians from jail who had been arrested for criminal acts (such as Dilaver Bojku) and terrorist attacks (e.g., the suspect in the Tearce assault).

It is a common argument that corruption in multiethnic societies acts as a kind of glue to bind together otherwise implacable foes. Better that spoils are shared rather than blood spilled, so the reasoning goes. While the perquisites of office did indeed keep VMRO and the PDSH closely aligned – even during the 2001 conflict – it should be clear that this kind of corrupt coalition did enormous damage to Macedonia's economy, security, ethnic relations, and the long-term interests of the country.

The issue of corruption reached a fever pitch in Macedonia in the months prior to the September 2002 elections, helped in no small part by the August release of the ICG report on this topic. The public delivered a resounding defeat to Georgievski and Xhaferi, both of whom turned to extreme nationalist rhetoric during the election campaign. The new governing coalition brings together Branko Crvenkovski's Social Democrats, and former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti's BDI. Popularly billed as the "Guns and Roses" coalition, both Crvenkovski (the rose) and Ahmeti (the gun) are on record promising to change politics-as-usual and clean up the state.

Towards this end, the new government has already achieved a number of impressive results. For example:

  1. Between January and February of 2003, the police conducted 4 raids into the brothels and clubs that are ubiquitous in western Macedonia. Scores of women who are illegal residents were found, and key mafia figures in the prostitution racket, such as Dilaver Bojku (Leku), were arrested.
  2. Since the change in government in November 2002, there has occurred a series of high-profile arrests of VMRO politicians and former directors of state enterprises. Based on reports in the Macedonian media, charges have been leveled against 19 enterprise executives who served during VMRO's tenure, 2 leading members of VMRO (including the party's general secretary, Vojo Mihajlovski), the top Rom politician in the country (Amdi Bajram), and the former Albanian Minister of the Economy, Besnik Fetai.
  3. These actions have been supported by a public campaign to alter the rules by which the government operates. Prime Minister Crvenkovski has specifically taken on nepotism by creating an anti-corruption commission and requiring officeholders to declare their property and assets. Meanwhile, President Boris Trajkovski has called for party finance reforms to eliminate "dirty money."

It is clear that the government is moving in the right direction. However, unsettling questions and challenges remain.

The police dragnets in western Macedonia are made possible by the consent and authority of Ahmeti, but how thoroughly the Albanians are willing to police their own community is open to question. There was a flurry of intra-Albanian violence in March and April of 2002, and sporadic attacks continue on Ahmeti's headquarters in Mala Recica and Cair. This is a subterranean conflict that involves party animosities (BDI and PDSH), rival paramilitary factions, and mafia turf battles. Future flare-ups on these faultlines should be expected. The bombing of the Struga courthouse on February 14, following the arrest of Dilaver Bojku, illustrates how brazen and lethal these groups are.

It is also questionable how willing the Social Democrats will police themselves while in office. There were several prominent scandals during their first tenure in office (1992-1998), and it is not unreasonable to assume there will be more again. In addition, the judiciary is notoriously weak and susceptible to political influence. Will those arrested VMRO members receive a fair and impartial hearing? Lately, VMRO has gone on the defensive, decrying what appears to be a witch-hunt directed at the viability of the party. Indeed, one can legitimately ask why the government has not been as diligent in prosecuting corrupt PDSH members, or cracking down on worrisome paramilitaries?

The writ of the state remains a fiction in many of the border areas where Albanians are concentrated. This problem is compounded by the continued cross-border activities of the mafia as well as the threats and maneuvers of the Albanian National Army (AKSH). AKSH is a splinter group of the UCK that never accepted the Ohrid peace accords. It remains a dangerous wild card in Macedonian politics.

In sum, post-Ohrid Macedonia is a weak state attempting to take on powerful mafia groups and root out entrenched and pervasive corruption. Under normal conditions, this would be a Herculean task. But given Macedonia's economic misery, embittered interethnic relations, public disillusionment, and paramilitary menace, it looks more like a Sisyphean curse. Whether the government can shake off corruption without being shaken itself remains to be seen.

Dr. Hislope spoke at an EES noon discussion on February 26, 2003 as part of an ongoing EES seminar series on organized crime, corruption and terrorism in the Balkans. The above is an edited version of his remarks. Meeting Report #271.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant