A verdict pronounced on May 23, which sentences former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to two years in prison, reverberated like a bomb, not only at home, but across the entire region. The court sentenced him for “receiving rewards for illegal influence,” in relation to the purchase of a luxurious Mercedes in 2012, the cost of which was over 500,000 euros. This was the first verdict announced in regard to Gruevski, against whom the Macedonian Special Prosecution is currently undertaking five different cases.
Besides the charge relating to the Mercedes, he has also been accused in the ‘TNT’ case for allegedly ordering the demolition of the Kosmos building complex; in the ‘Trajektorija’ case for allegedly overriding his authority in order to select companies for building two highways; in the ‘Titanik’ case for alleged election fraud; and the ‘Violence in front of the Centar Municipality’ case for allegedly orchestrating violence in front of the municipal building. The Special Prosecution has not yet announced whether it will request the arrest and detention of Gruevski. There has been speculation in the media that a lesser prison sentence has also been discussed.
However, the Prosecution is also entitled to file an appeal requesting a longer sentence. Whether this is the course that will be taken is something that should be known in the coming days after it receives a written explanation of the court verdict.
The Prosecution’s case was built on wiretapped conversations that emerged in 2015, as part of a scandal given the title ‘The Bomb’ in the media.
Then opposition leader — now prime minister — Zoran Zaev, published a series of taped conversations and accused Gruevski, and the state security services, of illegally eavesdropping on some 20,000 citizens.
These tapes originated from the opposition, and among them there was a conversation in which Gruevski speaks about a present to himself, calling it “The thing starting with an ‘M.’”
A damning verdict broadcast to the nation
The pronouncement of the verdict was broadcast live on some media outlets, as Judge Dobrila Kacarska announced that Gruevski was guilty of all elements of the crime he was accused of.
The judge’s explanation stated that Gruevski used his influence as prime minister in order to ask the former minister of internal affairs, Gordana Jankuloska, that an armored Mercedes be bought for him. Jankuloska was also accused in the case, but due to a risky pregnancy her trial is separate.
The explanation stated that Jankuloska had acted in a premeditated fashion when incentivizing her fellow defendant and former assistant, Gjoka Popovski (who was sentenced himself to six and a half years in prison), to favor the Makautostar-Skopje company — a distributor of Mercedes in Macedonia — “all in order to fulfill Gruevski’s wishes.”
The verdict stated that the public procurement notice published favored the Makautostar company and that a reservation for a Mercedes was made even before the public procurement decision was ever taken.
The court concluded that the defendants knew that this was an expensive vehicle, the price of which was 35,216,000 Macedonian denars (around 572,000 euros), an amount allocated from the budget for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The evidence clearly referred to the fact that Nikola Gruevski would use the car.
As early as February 2012, before the tender was announced, Gruevski spoke to Jankuloska and gave her instructions to purchase the Mercedes, a procedure that was kept secret. The court concluded that Gruevski was aware that what they were doing was wrong, reasoning that this was why he didn’t dare to mention the car, but rather used the phrase “the thing starting with an ‘M.’”
In the eyes of the court, the conversation between Jankuloska and Gruevski, recorded on July 10, 2012, is evidence that the entire procedure was kept from the public. At one point, Gruevski is said to have stated that until the end of the local elections, he would act as if the car belonged to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and that in the presence of journalists Gruevski would use his old car. Gruevski told Jankuloska and the people in charge of maintaining the car that he would use it often.
In a conversation recorded on July 20, 2012 Jankuloska is heard to tell former director of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence Sašo Mijalkov that the Mercedes arrived and that it was “placed in the prime minister’s garage.” She added that the car was “a fantasy,” as well as that everything written in the catalogue was also implemented, and that one of the requests made by Gruevski was that the car have screens in the back seats in order to entertain his children.
The court believes that Gruevski performed this entire purchase in an illegal manner in order to ensure ownership of a car that citizens were not informed about. He and other officials agreed that they were pretending as though the car belonged to the Ministry of Interior, in order to obtain political prestige in front of the electorate.
“It’s an honour to be a public official in Macedonia, especially to be the prime minister,” the verdict concluded. “For that reason, he should have cared for the interests of the citizens. Not only him, but every public servant should know that one of the basic principles is the principle of responsibility.”
It was also said that citizens must know how their money is spent, and that no one, “especially not a public official,” should underestimate or disrespect citizens “as the defendant Nikola Gruevski did.”
Reverberations across the country
The verdict caused markedly different reactions in the courtroom; while some celebrated, others revolted.
There was little surprise when Gruevski didn’t show up in the courtroom to hear the sound of the judge’s hammer, even though on that day, at 9:30 a.m., he was already in court in order to be present for the court case proceedings for the ‘Trajektorija’ case.
Sources from Gruevski’s defence team told the media that he didn’t attend the judgment pronouncement because he “didn’t want to raise tension” among his supporters that were waiting in front of the court.
Around 30-40 citizens protested in front of the Skopje court, cheering “Freedom for Gruevski.” Amongst their number were the former mayors of Skopje Koce Trajanovski, and the former president of the Municipality of Aerodrom, Ivica Koneski. However, after the verdict was given, the two quickly disappeared.
Following the pronouncement of the jail time sentence, the parliamentarians from Gruevski’s party, VMRO-DPMNE, walked out of the parliament in protest. A few hours later the party expressed their condemnation, saying that the court belongs to the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), the ruling party, and that it was being used to persecute those who disagree with the prime minister, Zoran Zaev.
An hour after the verdict was pronounced, Gruevski addressed the public through his Facebook profile with the following message: “Heads up, better times are coming.” A day later, he again left a message, claiming that the trial was a political attack. “This proceeding is part of a political and judicial hunt,” the status read. “This is classic political persecution in which myself and many of my associates are under attack.”
The sentencing of the controversial former prime minister is a symbolic moment in Macedonia’s recent political turmoil. But with other big cases in the pipeline and the very real possibility of appeals, it is far from the end of the story.
This article was originally produced for and published by Kosovo 2.0. It has been re-published here with permission.