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Macedonia’s Elections and Police Readiness: Interview with Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska

April 2, 2009

By Chris Deliso

In the following exclusive interview conducted on Wednesday, Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso gets the views of Macedonia’s interior minister, Gordana Jankulovska, about subjects ranging from the police’s efforts to guarantee peaceful elections and control outbreaks of tensions, to the fight against organized crime, special operations, foreign assistance and the expected outcomes of reform and re-budgeting towards professionalizing Macedonian security forces to tackle both new and existing challenges.

Elections: Lessons Learned and Upcoming Plans

Chris Deliso: As you know, in the last few months there has been a lot of international pressure on Macedonia to guarantee safe and fair elections, because of the violence that occurred during the previous [June 2008] elections. And now the major representatives of the international community have largely praised your efforts before and during the first round of the elections on March 22. So, what was different about the ministry’s plan this time around? To what do you attribute this more peaceful result?

Gordana Jankulovska: What was different this time was our approach. Unfortunately, we did have serious incidents during the last elections, and because of this we started preparing several months in advance. In a way, though, you could say that our preparations for these elections started on the day after the previous ones. An important element in our plan involved looking at the critical polling stations, and generally those areas where there had been incidents before.

Another important part of drafting the current plan was our unified approach: we asked for a wide variety of comments from outside experts, including security experts from the United States Embassy, the ODIHR and others. They all gave us certain suggestions for the future. At the very beginning of this year, we shared our election safety draft plan with security experts, to allow us more time for getting extra advice and incorporating information that was not available earlier.

It wasn’t just the plan, however- it was the entire preparation of the police as well. We conducted a number of trainings in which the entire uniformed police to be engaged in the elections were obliged to participate.

CD: What kind of trainings?

GJ: For example, there were a few changes in the electoral code that they had to know about. Also, in these trainings we put an emphasis on unification of behavior- to ensure that police will know to take identical reactions to situations, no matter where they happened. And the criminal police also underwent training to ensure better investigation of incidents, if they appear.

However, I should stress that it wasn’t just us. The most important reason why the elections were better, in my opinion, was contribution of all the citizens coupled with better behavior of the political parties. Speaking frankly, even for the previous elections, we in the Ministry of Interior did do everything in our power to safeguard the elections, and then to investigate incidents unfortunately provoked by others.

This time around, we have worked a lot on prevention- stopping problems before they could happen. And we tried to raise community awareness. The calls for free and fair elections from all the political leaders resulted in better behavior from all. As I often say, the stakeholders who have the most responsibility are the political parties, as they have the greatest influence over the voters.

Tensions in Struga

CD: However, as everyone knows, there are also certain tensions currently being felt, as for example in Struga, and many suspect they are related to political party activities. With this in mind, will the police be doing anything differently or additionally to ensure the safety of the second round?

GJ: Unfortunately a few days ago we did have another fight between students in Struga, resulting in a serious injury. This is completely unacceptable behavior. Because of this incident and general tensions in the city, we have already deployed additional police forces to Struga in a preventive manner. Our idea was that by demonstrating a stronger presence of police there a few days early – and not just all at once on election day – the people might feel more accustomed to it and not have reason to feel fearful or intimidated.

CD: Alright. Now, can you tell me, also about political party influence- are you aware of any elements, I don’t want to say paramilitary groups, but any possible violent groups that might not be under the ministry’s control, and that could cause security problems during the voting?

GJ: Well, there is always the potential for people to create groups- but the responsibility is on us, on the police, to deal with any situation. At this time moment I can say that we have full control over our territory, and are ready to react to any security threat. Most importantly, we have heard clear, stated positions from the political parties, that violence won’t be accepted. The message we are trying to send is that the only way to win elections in Macedonia is to do so peacefully. So, we don’t expect any violence on Sunday, though we will be ready to react to any situation.

The Incident on the Square

CD: Another recent provocative issue that has been suspected of having political involvement was this clash in the Skopje square between protesters and counter-protesters arguing about the idea of building a church there. Perhaps you saw on A1 TV last night, the EU Ambassador Fouere got especially worked up about this, while US Ambassador Reeker noted that such incidents don’t help improve Macedonia’s image abroad. What can you say about this incident, and the police’s handling of it?

GJ: I agree that this incident was terrible for the perception of Macedonia abroad, and it was unacceptable. In a democracy, everyone has the right to participate in peaceful protests.

When this incident occurred, the most important thing for us was to stop the situation from escalating, and in investigating to clear up the incident as soon as possible. To now, 23 people have been charged already for participation in violence-

CD: Yes, but are these only from the side of the protesters, these students?

GJ: I can’t say specifically to which group all of these individuals belong, but I believe they must come from both. We are looking at all the available evidence, such as videos made by the media, and we can see that way if someone was directly involved. The Ministry of Interior doesn’t charge people involved in peaceful protests, only those who engage in violence.

CD: Yes, but what about the charge that political parties were involved in this incident? And that this was basically a side event of the election campaign?

GJ: The job of the police is not to get involved with any political aspects of violence- our job is to stop the violence, and then investigate those responsible for causing the violence. However, looking at certain names of people involved in the protests, it is clear that this event was not completely separate from the elections.

Still, I don’t think that any of the people who were in the square originally intended to go there to cause violence. I believe their goal was to attract attention to their positions. But, things quickly progressed, first verbal exchanges and then physical altercations, and from that point it was difficult to stop.

CD: It has also been said that the police were slow in reacting- your thoughts?

GJ: Actually, a further and more serious escalation of violence was prevented by actions of the police. And another fact, though it doesn’t really matter any more, was that the organizers of the protest only announced their intention to the police 24 hours before the event-

CD: How much before should it have been?

GJ: Well, the law says such public events should be announced at least 48 hours in advance, to give the police sufficient time to create an appropriate security plan. And, another part of this bad planning, though also not really relevant now, was that the organizers gave us an incorrect assessment about the number of expected participants- we received a note from them saying there would be 200, though actually there were many more.

CD: Yes, but I understand this was because of the large number of counter-demonstrators? And did they give any advance notice for their presence?

GJ: That is correct, they had many more. And they didn’t give any notice in advance of their intentions.

CD: So, this is part of why people have suggested it was an organized political affair?

GJ: Perhaps, but I don’t want to speculate, as the police is not interested in politics, whether political parties were ultimately the organizers or not. What is important from our side, was that the situation was not allowed to escalate. But I would like to restate that it looked very bad and gives a very bad image of our country. This is why we are committed to bringing to justice those who participated in the violence.

I should add that while so far in our investigation we haven’t seen any indications of abuses of power by the police on duty during that event, if we do receive such information, any such officer will be held liable as well.

Special Operations: An Encouraging Trend

CD: Now, to leave the subject of the elections for a while, one thing that has seemed impressive to me is the success that the Macedonian security forces have had in comparison to previous governments in special operations, such as the neutralization of armed extremists near Tetovo in Operation Mountain Storm, or the arrest of the alleged organized crime boss from Kumanovo, Bajrush Sejdiu. Both operations required secrecy, tactical and strategic preparation and coordination. I have been here a long time, and I don’t recall previous police operations against extremists or criminals ever going as smoothly as those did. Do you agree? If so, to what do you attribute this change?

GJ: Yes. It’s a matter of good organization and disciple, and having the right people in the right positions- it’s all about management.

CD: Well€šÃ„¶ you’re the manager!

GJ: (laughter) But seriously, in these operations you can imagine how many people are involved: if they are the wrong people, you end up with a disaster. Operation Mountain Storm was a very complicated operation, requiring a great deal of planning, discipline, and exchange of information both within the Ministry and with our partners outside.

This is what I consider to be very different from the operations that occurred under my predecessors. I want to hear from my peers, and learn from their experiences. Within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are people who have experience, who have been here for ages, but who had never been given the chance to use this experience. Now they have the chance to use their skills. I don’t have any problem with asking questions if I don’t know the answer- most of all, I’m interested in achieving results, guaranteeing the security of the people, and ensuring the positive working perception of the police among the people. So far, everything has gone well.

CD: Aside from this, though, can you point to any specifics- for example, enhanced training or exchange of know-how with partner states?

GJ: Certainly- the openness of the Macedonian Interior Ministry for ideas and support from friendly countries such as the United States, the experience we can get from working with them, is all very beneficial for us. The exchange of knowledge is essential – no country is an island, after all – and we have excellent cooperation.

CD: Now regarding the second major case, the arrest of Bajrush Sejdiu on serious crime charges. I understand that at his trial, which started today, he expressed a confident attitude, as if assuming he would be freed. In this region we find things like that happen frequently- which also can have serious ramifications for anyone who had helped the police build a case against the suspect. So, do you think there should be concern about this here?

GJ: I cannot speak for the judiciary, which is an independent one anyway, but being a lawyer and having knowledge of this case, I think it would be extremely difficult for any judge to release Bajrush and his associates, because the crimes they are accused of were so many and so interrelated. This was a very high-profile case, and we were working on the investigation for a full 2 years in advance. We were following everything he was doing, and noting every illegal operation he was involved with. It was one of those things, an open secret, everyone in Kumanovo had been saying for years that he was a major criminal, but there was no concrete proof. It was very difficult, he was very smart and he had connections everywhere-

CD: Well, I think he had practically half of Kumanovo-

GJ: Anyway, it’s for the judge to decide. However, it’s hard to imagine him being let off.

CD: You mention two years of planning went into the case. Can you tell me what motivated this action? Was it was, for example, an idea that he was becoming too much of a danger to general security to be ignored any longer?

GJ: Well, again, this case was a sort of public secret for many years. But the people of Kumanovo feared that Bajrush was so strong that he could do anything he wanted- we realized it was becoming a serious problem. The organized crime department started with preparations for this case, finding out about the activities he was involved in.

CD: Did these criminal activities spill over into neighboring countries, for example Kosovo?

GJ: Yes, he did have partners there- in this contraband tobacco business, you know, it involves the entire region. It’s not just the production, but especially the illegal export that matters. And it took a while to track all of these activities and to have the entire evidence in front of us to make a case.

CD: With all of this intensive investigation, certainly he must have become aware of it at some point?

GJ: He probably knew something, but I believe only in the late stages- in the end, he he tried to leave the country, but€šÃ„¶ he didn’t make it.

CD: After the action, which went off flawlessly, did the Ministry of Interior receive any private congratulations from partner countries?

GJ: Yes. We received very positive comments from our security services colleagues in regional countries, and from other friendly countries such as the United States. It was a case we were very proud of; we had been working on it for a long time in full secrecy.

CD: This is a very interesting concept. Macedonia is, after all, a very small country where secrecy is very hard to maintain. Why in this case were you able to maintain it?

GJ: Again, it was a matter of good planning and delegations of responsibilities, along with having the right people in the right places at the right time.

Discontents and Reforms

CD: Turning to a more controversial subject, some people, civil society groups and even foreign officials, complained last summer after the government’s revised budget was passed. Since the Interior Ministry received a huge increase in funds with this rebalance, some critics were charging that you are planning to make some sort of police state or surveillance state. How do you react to such charges?

GJ: These kinds of assertions are a result of ignorance, of people who don’t know how the ministry really works. They don’t understand that our ability to have success and achieve results depends on investment in equipment, resources, and people. The Ministry of Interior had not received sufficient investments for ages before I became minister. It was thus necessary to change this situation. After all, the people who are working under threat need to have the right equipment.

CD: €šÃ„òPeople working under threat’- meaning the police?

GJ: Yes, the police.

CD: Was that the case?

GJ: Nothing was really being done to improve things; the police were working in the same old ways, with the same old equipment, and getting the same results. In the 21st century, it’s impossible to fight today’s sophisticated forms of crime with 20-year-old equipment. And it’s part of my job as minister to lobby inside the government for more money for the budget.

I should add that we have figures, indicators that show it has been a successful investment, even in a short time. We seized a half-ton of cocaine, for one. We solved the [Bajrush Sejdiu] case in Kumanovo, there was Operation Mountain Storm, and a number of lesser-known organized crime cases. So, looking at everything in this light, the money allocated to us is very small, in comparison to the results.

CD: Alright. But more specifically, when you were preparing the budget and procurement for some of this advanced technical equipment, did you experience lobbying efforts from foreign companies, Israeli, American or other, to buy their particular products?

GJ: No, not at all. Our principle is to try to get the best value for money, and we undergo the legal procedures.

CD:Still, returning to the original issue, some Macedonians and even foreign officials say the government’s ultimate goal is control of the people.

GJ: Macedonia is a democratic country and there no room for such concerns. Believe me, the police has more than enough work to do fighting the existing criminal and security threats- we have neither the time nor intention to deal with anything else.

Nowadays, when global society is threatened by terrorism, we need to reach certain technical levels. It would be impossible, for example, if your government asked for us to contribute in a special operation if we were stuck using old equipment and old methods. We wouldn’t be able to help them.

Missions Abroad?

CD: On that note, it’s well-known that the Macedonian military has long contributed to the US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is there any possibility that the Macedonian Interior Ministry will send officers to such places?

GJ: There is a European Union civilian mission in Afghanistan, and we have expressed our full readiness to send police there to train Afghan police.

CD: Will this happen?

GJ: It’s a matter of their decision, and then administrative procedures. However, last year our foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, participated in an international conference for Afghanistan, and he also expressed our willingness to contribute Macedonian police to stabilization missions there.

CD: Perhaps it would be unlikely, but since this is an EU mission, would it be possible that Greece could block Macedonian participation because of all the current tensions between the two countries?

GJ: I don’t see why the Greeks would want to block something that would be a benefit to global security. So I don’t think so. But you never know.

Recent Arrivals

CD: Speaking of Afghans and Greeks- in recent weeks there have been several incidents of Afghan illegal immigrants, who actually did have valid temporary visas in Greece, being discovered by Macedonian border police. And not a small amount-

GJ: About 38.

CD: Do you think that this amounts to immigrant-dumping? That Greek authorities were sending these people across the border to get rid of them?

GJ: I don’t want to speculate, and I can’t judge that in advance. This is a very sensitive case and the investigation is ongoing.

CD: Fine. But I also understand that these Afghans were discovered not only on the border with Greece, which seems logical, but also up in the north, in the ethnic Albanian-populated village of Lipkovo near Kosovo. Since this area has been a hotspot in the past, with some connections to radical Islam, is it possible that there was some connection along these lines?

GJ: Again, I don’t want to rush to judgments here- the case is still being investigated. It would be bad to make qualifications before the case comes to an end.

CD: Fair enough. Tell me, where are these people currently being held?

GJ: These people here illegally are being housed in temporary detention centers, until we have a decision about what to do with them. The usual procedure is to send them back to their country of most recent origin-

CD: Yes, but Greece doesn’t want them back, right? Is there any chance of them actually staying and living in Macedonia?

GJ: They have not applied as asylum-seekers.

Promoting Discipline

CD: Finally, when one thinks about police reform in a country like this, a small country where everyone knows each other and people are used to doing favors for one another or turning a blind eye to things, it becomes hard to see how laws can be enforced on local levels. A less dramatic issue than the others, perhaps, but something that is still worth noting.

For example, I had someone from Bitola complaining to me yesterday that people are breaking the law by driving in the carsija [old town] there, and the police don’t do anything about it because they don’t want to penalize their friends and so on. What can you say about this issue?

GJ: We still find local situations like this, but we are trying to promote discipline more widely. We want local police officers to understand that they are required to execute the laws wherever in the country they happen to be based. If you have the opportunity to follow the work of the Ministry of Interior, you will see that we have become quite involved in promoting discipline.

CD: But it’s also a societal thing, it would take time-

GJ: Yes, it is also a matter if time to change the culture and behavior. But we are trying to create order. A big part of this, however, also involves making the local populations aware of the need to accept order, and to work with us. So we need the cooperation of Macedonia’s local populations first and foremost. That’s important.

CD: Minister Jankulovska, thank you very much for your time.

GJ: Thank you.

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