Jail looms for Macedonia’s ex-premier amid row over name deal

Gruevski loses court appeal against corruption conviction as state debates Greece agreement

Former prime minister of Macedonia Nikola Gruevski accompanied by his bodyguard arrives in the court in Skopje where he was appealing his two-year sentence for corruption.  Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA

Former prime minister of Macedonia Nikola Gruevski accompanied by his bodyguard arrives in the court in Skopje where he was appealing his two-year sentence for corruption. Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA

 

Macedonia’s court of appeal has upheld a corruption conviction against former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, adding to bad blood between his nationalist party and the government as they wrangle over a historic name-change deal with Greece.

Mr Gruevski, who reluctantly left power in 2016 after running Macedonia for a decade, was earlier sentenced to two years in jail for rigging a deal to buy a bulletproof Mercedes limousine with state cash and receiving a kickback from the car dealer.

He may now appeal to the supreme court, but his defeat on Friday means he could be taken to prison at any time – marking an extraordinary reversal for fortune for a man who dominated his country’s politics for so long.

The tables began to turn in early 2015, when Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev released wiretaps that appeared to reveal senior government, security and other officials – including Mr Gruevski – discussing crimes ranging from vote-rigging and misuse of state funds to the covering up of a murder; they deny the allegations.

The crisis that followed resulted in Mr Gruevski stepping down and his nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party ultimately losing power last year to a coalition of the Social Democrats and parties from Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian community.

“This is classical political persecution,” Mr Gruevski said on Friday, while vowing to use “all legal means to fight the prison sentence”.

The verdict was handed down as Mr Zaev’s government tries to persuade VMRO-DPMNE – or at least several of its deputies – to back a parliamentary vote on a deal with Greece that would change their country’s name to North Macedonia.

In exchange, Athens would lift its 27-year veto on Macedonia’s bid to join Nato and the European Union, allowing it to become a member of the military alliance next year and start EU accession talks in 2019.

After presiding over a decade of dismal relations with Greece, VMRO-DPMNE refuses to support the deal and calls it a betrayal of Macedonia’s national interests and identity.

It opposed last Sunday’s referendum on the deal, which asked Macedonians if they supported eventual EU and Nato accession by accepting the name change.

More than 91 per cent of those who voted said Yes, but turnout was only 37 per cent – well below the 50 per cent required for the poll to be valid.

VMRO-DPMNE and other opponents of the agreement said the referendum’s failure should kill the deal, but the government and senior EU, US and Nato officials insist Macedonia’s parliament should hold a final vote on the matter.

Mr Zaev’s coalition has 71 of the 80 votes it would need for approval of the deal, and he hopes to woo at least nine VMRO-DPMNE deputies to his side; he says he is ready to call a snap election if he fails to do that by next Wednesday.

EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn urged deputies to make a deal on Friday, telling Austria’s Kurier newspaper that “new elections would only delay the EU accession process” for Macedonia, which otherwise could begin in 2019.