EU and US back Macedonia over ex-leader’s asylum bid in Hungary

Facing jail at home, Nikola Gruevski claims to have been given refuge in Budapest

Then Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski (left) with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban in Skopje in 2011. Photograph: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

Then Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski (left) with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban in Skopje in 2011. Photograph: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

 

International criticism of Hungary is mounting over its reported decision to grant asylum to Macedonia’s former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled his homeland while facing a jail term and a string of corruption charges.

Mr Gruevski announced on Tuesday that “Hungary . . . responded positively to my previously submitted request to obtain political asylum due to political persecution” in Macedonia.

He appears to have sought protection in Hungary because of his good relationship with its prime minister Viktor Orban, who is best known for his fierce opposition to illegal migration and for building fences on his country’s borders to stop asylum-seekers arriving via the Balkans.

“I take note of reports about Hungary’s decision to grant political asylum to Nikola Gruevski. If confirmed, I expect a sound explanation of its grounds by Viktor Orban,” EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted on Wednesday.

“The rule of law remains a fundamental principle for member states and accession candidates alike. It is crucial for Europe’s credibility. Surprising that Hungary supports Macedonia’s EU membership but does not consider it safe.”

Mr Gruevski seems to have travelled through Albania, Montenegro and Serbia to reach Hungary and to have made at least some of the journey in a Hungarian diplomatic car in the company of embassy staff; having had his Macedonian passport confiscated, he reportedly may also have used a Hungarian travel document to cross borders.

Corruption cases

He fled Macedonia after being ordered to report to jail on November 8th to start a two-year sentence for graft, and while facing at least four other corruption cases linked to his time as premier from 2006-2016.

Mr Orban’s government – which is at odds with the EU over migration and rule-of-law issues – has not announced any ruling on Mr Gruevski’s case, but says his status merits consideration of his asylum request in Budapest, rather than a grim “transit zone” on the Serbian border that is the norm for migrants.

The US state department told Reuters that Macedonia’s courts convicted Mr Gruevski after a “thorough and transparent legal process”.

“In addition, Mr Gruevski is indicted in four pending criminal cases. We believe it is appropriate for the Macedonian legal process to proceed and for Mr Gruevski to be held accountable within the Macedonian justice system,” it added.

Macedonia’s current Social Democrat-led government enjoys strong western support as it seeks approval of a deal with Athens to change the country’s name to North Macedonia, which would end its longstanding dispute with Greece and pave the way for it to join Nato and start EU accession talks next year.

The deal is opposed by nationalists including Mr Gruevski, who presided over a decade of dismal relations with Greece, during which some of his officials allegedly engaged in crimes ranging from graft to vote rigging to illegal wiretapping of some 20,000 people.

“Asylum is a human right. It is a lifeline of humanity for those who are politically persecuted but not for the buddies of a head of government fleeing prosecution,” said Michael Roth, Germany’s minister of state for Europe.

“The EU must remain a community of democratic constitutional states.”