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Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 3: Misadventures in Macedonia

July 23, 2016

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

This, the third installment in our present series, provides exclusive on-the-record official comments, allowing us to add pieces to the still incomplete historical record of Macedonia’s political crisis. The story concerns both the perceived activity of Italian diplomacy and intelligence in the crisis, and Italian intelligence’s research regarding the migrant crisis. Here is where the present series converges with The Great Unraveling, our ongoing investigation of how the crisis caused network destruction and a string of tactical failures.

Bellelli-Popovski-Star of Italy Medal MFA

An offer you can’t refuse: Ambassador Bellelli hangs a medal around the neck of Foreign Minister Popovski (MFA photo)

An Uneasy Peace

Although Italy’s diplomatic and intelligence services have suffered the occasional scandal in different countries, Macedonia is the only place where they are now so completely compromised. However, the casual observer would never know it, and officials from both sides seem confident that with the passage of time all will be well again. After all, nothing seems to have ever been wrong, as cooperation continues as usual- on the surface.

The Macedonians have always been known for their passivity, so the lack of public anti-Italian protests or diplomatic expulsions is not surprising. But Macedonians do have long memories. The now widespread perception that Italy provided clandestine support for SDSM leader Zoran Zaev’s failed coup will linger long after his alleged co-conspirator, Ambassador Ernesto Massimino Bellelli, enjoys his last farewell garden party and leaves Skopje next month. (Bellelli denies any wrongdoing, as our exclusive interview with him below reveals).

While the whole affair has not seriously affected bilateral relations, the mistrust generated will have an uncertain effect for Italian intelligence, which will be forced to take new measures and find new assets. As The Great Unraveling series reveals, a feature of the crisis has been network compromises, and AISE is among the foreign services that have fared worst in this respect.

“Even Little Children on the Street Know”: Public Perception and Timeline of Correspondence

As said above, the present article is meant to contribute to the historical record. A timeline of events that indicates Italian non-cooperation is thus relevant to the overall history of events.

In summer 2015, when the political crisis was peaking, we recall how locals would joke that “even little children on the street know that [Italian Ambassador] Bellelli and Zaev worked together during the coup attempt!” Whether or not it is true, this perception is now deeply embedded in the national psyche. Nevertheless, this story has received very little coverage in local media (and none at all in the foreign press). It is also unclear whether the Italian MFA and EU are aware of Macedonian public perception regarding Italian diplomacy.

As was the case with our investigation of the EU’s Macedonia activities, and the Skopje Delegation’s incredible disappearing envoy, Aivo Orav, the Italian Embassy was very cautious about helping us help them to clarify their role. As was the case with our reporting regarding EU activities, this reticence from the Italian side considerably delayed production of the present analysis.

For example, we contacted the AISE representative in Skopje, Deputy Head of Mission Filippo Candela, on 2 September 2015 to request a friendly conversation. There was no reply to either that request, or to a follow-up one on 17 November 2015. (However, Candela did make time for a pre-Christmas feature with Anadolu Agency in Macedonia in December 2015). We tried again on 9 April 2016, emphasizing that it would be advantageous for him to discuss in person, but the response that came was vague.

Thus we were left with the last (and least preferred) option of sending official questions regarding Italian diplomatic and intelligence activity in Macedonia, on 20 April. (As we would learn later, that was an exciting day for the Italians, though it is a story for another time). In a 2 May response, Candela did not answer the questions, but did express curiosity about how we knew that he will be promoted to the AISE station in Argentina.

Trying to arrange a meeting with Ambassador Bellelli was a combustible experience (and will make for an interesting story in itself, someday). To his credit, the ambassador was finally persuaded to grant us an audience, on 27 June 2016. Thus, as with the EU, we experienced a nine-month delay in confirming any information. In both cases, this has directly and adversely affected our ability to verify key aspects of the crisis.

Bellelli-Popovski-Candela-MFA Ladante.mk

In happier times: Bellelli speaks, AISE’s Candela listens from audience at diplomatic event (Ladante.mk photo)

The Status Quo Today- Everyone’s Happy

For now, everyone seems to be enjoying the status quo. Ambassadors Bellelli and Orav, the EU’s invisible man, will rotate out in August, to be replaced by other diplomats. Anyway, it was never in the interests of either Zaev’s SDSM or the ruling VMRO-DPMNE of Nikola Gruevski to damage such diplomats publicly. The political price from outside would be heavy, and anyway there was sufficient implicit pressure that could be brought to bear – for completely opposite interests – because of information arising from the Coup investigation and wiretaps affair.

This was enough to ensure diplomatic support of SDSM causes and, for Bellelli at least, to help the government, as with investment generation. There were other ways of keeping the government in line, of course, as when Bellelli conferred the Order of the Star of Italy on Macedonian Foreign Minister Popovski, on 2 June 2016. However, the migrant crisis, on the other hand, saw both Orav and Bellelli play a negative role. That case will be examined at another time.

The Effect of the Crisis on Disrupting Traditional Italian Intelligence Activities in Macedonia

Both before and after the 2007 restructuring we discussed here, Italy’s intelligence and law enforcement orientation towards Macedonia has focused on organized crime and radical Islamism, which led them inevitably to cover the Albanian and Muslim populations. Indeed, as Balkanalysis.com reported in January 2007, a DIGOS operation of 2006 targeted Balkan Muslims in the Trieste-Treviso region. It was based partly on intelligence gathered regarding the Struga-area villages, from where some of the suspects originally came. Cooperation with local authorities was good, and Italian intelligence developed strong networks.

This would be severely damaged when, in 2014 and 2015, the publicly perceived involvement of Italian diplomacy and intelligence with Zaev’s attempted coup caused internal paranoia and had a chilling effect on cooperation. Not only did mistrust between Italian and Macedonian services increase, but the complete uprooting of networks involved with the coup attempt were massive setbacks for Italy and some of its partner services.

This was especially unfortunate for Italy, as the migrant crisis was coincidentally then unfolding. Work needed to be done on that front, while also maintaining regular operations and assessing damage control. But the biggest result of getting sucked in to the politics of the crisis was a relative neglect of the more important core issues – terrorism and organized crime – that had always characterized Italy’s traditional intelligence focus in Macedonia.

Western Entrapment and Data on the Black Market

Fortunately for Italy, several other Western countries were entrapped by Zaev in early 2015, when he reportedly told them that their own officials had been wiretapped by the Gruevski government. We will return to this claim later, as Bellelli has confirmed Zaev’s general statement in our interview.

It is important to state that, while plenty of wiretapped conversations involving locals have been leaked, not one involving foreign diplomats have ever appeared. Their existence is of course known both to the SDSM (which collected, transcribed and released wiretapped recordings) and the government (which investigated them) as well as to European investigators (the Priebe Team, which confirmed in its official report that foreign diplomats had been tapped).

There was thus room for tacit blackmail (not to mention black-market sales) regarding such prized possessions; this remains an unknown aspect of the pressure dynamics of the crisis. From all available information, however, it appears that black-market resale of wiretapped conversations involving foreigners have fetched a categorically higher price than those involving ‘just’ locals, in the murky world of criminals, intelligence services and politicians trading in data.

The fact that illicit transactions of wiretapped data directly derived from Zaev’s treasure-trove became public knowledge after the 24 December 2015 arrest of an ethnic Albanian SDSM member, Zakir Bekiri (nicknamed ‘Chaush’) At the time, Deputy Public Prosecutor Jovan Cvetanovski stated that, among many forged documents, “tens of thousands” of wiretapped conversations were seized, according to Dnevnik. The number was so large, Cvetanovski stated, that it would take at least two months to investigate their contents. But, as later events would show vividly, conversations sold from the Chaush archive would cause internal crisis among the Albanian parties, and tactical intelligence power shifts around the Balkans and Western Europe.

The Chaush affair was, unsurprisingly, largely ignored by international media. It was a huge embarrassment for both SDSM and the Special Prosecutor’s Office, which had been created by the July 2015 Przino Agreement. The SPO was supposed to have had full possession of all wiretapped material, after Zaev had publicly handed it over to the kangaroo institution. But it failed to make an initial official inventory, despite requests from the Public Prosecutor. As the Chaush case revealed, the SPO did not in fact have exclusive possession of wiretapped material. This fatally undermined its credibility, and that of Western countries that heavily backed it- including Italy. Of course, this fact was deliberately ignored by foreign media charged with upholding the SPO’s professionalism and general righteousness.

Further, the Chaush arrest also revealed new intelligence about the Kosovo-based terrorist cell that was liquidated in May 2015 in Kumanovo. Intelligence sources have revealed that there is a Tirana connection, and cooperation occurred between ex-Albanian intelligence personnel and the Kosovo underworld, which were known to but not blocked by Western services. A constant theme of The Great Unraveling series is constant tactical failure; this was neither the first nor the last time that it would happen during the crisis.

Bellelli-Zaev Oct 2015 Yeni Balkan

Friendly relations: Bellelli and SDSM boss Zoran Zaev (Yeni Balkan photo)

But these are stories for another time. The main point is, as we have noted before, that foreign interests and not local ones are those most damaged by the ongoing crisis, as scandals compound upon each other, and as the powers-that-be continue to lose control of the ‘narrative’ while failing to accurately assess future events. This helps explain both the reluctance of foreign missions to cooperate with journalistic requests, and their determination to end the crisis soonest, as their decision to support people with no credibility among the majority of Macedonians continues to fuel public anger. This policy could have long-term consequences for Western diplomacy in Macedonia.

Diplomatic Unity: the Key Early Factor

It is not clear to what extent Zaev’s initial claims before the ambassadors were actually true, and there is no point in asking him as he has displayed a tendency to contradict himself (sometimes, in the same sentence). But the tactic did have the desired effect: creating a united and indignant Western front that would then get the EU involved, and demand punitive measures against the government.

This led directly to the involvement of EU Commissioners Hahn and Mogherini, and the catastrophic Priebe Report, which we dissected in detail here. This report became the basis for the July 15 Przino Agreement which (predictably enough) failed to end the crisis. Now, the new 20 July 2016 agreement between political parties, which anticipates elections possibly in December, also reasserts support for the Priebe ‘reforms’ and the SPO. Predictably enough, Macedonian politicians have accommodated themselves to the foreign plan, no matter how flawed it is, expecting to gain some advantage in future.

Yet this still does not answer the question of why Italy was perceived as playing such a key role.

Context: the Attempted Coup through Wiretapping Releases (the Putsch Case)

Italy might have never been implicated, had it not been for one key fact, and one key player. First, under the general ‘umbrella’ of Western diplomacy in Macedonia, Italy has traditionally been assigned with ‘covering’ SDSM specifically. As for the key player, this was SDSM-era UBK (counter-intelligence agency) chief Zoran Verusevski, who had worked at the Macedonian Embassy in Rome between 2007-2010.

Verusevski, who was arrested on 23 January 2015, would be accused by the State Prosecutor in late March of having used inside men in the UBK’s SIGINT department to continuously wiretap whoever he wanted between 2010 and 2014, allegedly in cooperation with foreign intelligence services. According to numerous local media reports and our sources, he was activated in August 2014 and sold the tapes to Zaev. According to our sources, these two had not met with each other for years until that point. It is also unclear whether Verusevski sold the tapes exclusively to Zaev, or kept some in reserve.

Having recently worked at the Macedonian Embassy in Rome, Verusevski possibly developed a taste for life there. For researchers, his activities while stationed in Rome are largely unknown. But our sources believe that it was Verusevski’s pre-existing networks made in Macedonia during the 1990s (as opposed to some new contacts in Italy) that were most important to the creation of the wiretapping program. Verusevski had already been publicly blamed as the mastermind of the 2000 ‘Big Ear’ wiretapping scandal, also directed against a VMRO-DPMNE government. While in Italy he would surely have been aware of the specific Telecom Italy wiretap scandal which we discussed in Part 2 of this series, and which partially led to the 2007 reform of Italy’s intelligence services.

In that case (as well as the earlier Greek Vodafone scandal also mentioned therein), hostile actors were able to insert software to enter networks undetected and tap lines. In the Macedonian case, it is not clear how the SIGINT system was accessed, whether this could have been accomplished at different times and from multiple locations and so on. Only the State Prosecutor and a few others know these details.

The reason the general public does not know is because of EU failure: while a technical mission such as the Priebe Team could have conceivably clarified this, such tasks were removed from its mandate, because Commissioner Hahn chose to emphasize covering ‘rule of law’ in the report. That the ‘scandal’ should be treated as a rule of law issue rather than an intelligence one was determined when Zaev began touring the embassies in February 2015 to discuss the wiretaps in his possession.

The case that the Macedonian State Prosecutor’s Office originally brought against Verusevski is called Putsch (Coup). It claims that the ex-spymaster, his colleagues and SDSM leaders conspired to blackmail the Gruevski government by threatening to release incriminating wiretapped data- which Zaev began to do on 9 February 2015, getting plenty of foreign media attention. However, that same media avoided coverage of Verusevski and the alleged plot, instead concentrating on the content of wiretaps. It was the same unfortunate decision of content-over-provenance made by the Hahn Commission and Priebe Team.

The Alleged Coup Master Threatens Macedonia, and SPO Politics

On 27 June 2016, Alfa TV reported a chilling message sent by the alleged leader of the foreign-backed coup. Speaking through his lawyer, Zoran Verusevski boasted that “my influence in the intelligence service today has never been bigger, since the first September day in 1981 when I started with intelligence work.”

Alfa noted that “for many people, this is a direct message to the judges who are handling his case, and also a message to the employees in the security and intelligence sector, that he is powerful and protected.”

Whether or not his boast reflects reality, Verusevski’s threat was not censured by any of the Western diplomats who are supposedly so concerned about the rule of law and non-intimidation of the judiciary. When Alfa asked Special Prosecutor Janeva whether she sanctioned such threats, she would not speak about “comments from other people.” It had been Janeva who supported the release of Verusevski and alleged UBK co-conspirator Gjorgi Lazarevski from jail, on 25 December 2015. The decision caused ‘euphoria’ among SDSM and the pro-opposition civil society funded by Soros (the future ‘Colorful Revolution’ crowd), reported Kurir at the time.

Through the SPO, Western powers sought to put the Putsch case ‘safely’ into the hands of its puppet prosecutors, to ensure that foreign elements are never held responsible for potential involvement in the failed coup. Only a very few people know how damaging the results of the investigation would be for Western diplomatic and intelligence interests, but we estimate they would be spectacular. This helps explain why the Macedonian Constitutional Court has come under such heavy pressure from Western diplomats to guarantee the SPO’s constitutional legitimacy, though it has none.

Today, to the great consternation of the incompetent diplomats who have managed it, the SPO has lost all credibility among the public, and any constructive role it might have served has been fatally undermined. On 3 February 2016, SDSM leader Zaev stated that he expected “results” from an SPO that he had fought to create, and that these results would influence the upcoming election, by punishing “those criminals who are running the country.”

Such rhetoric gave VMRO leader Gruevski the opportunity to accuse the SPO of seeking pro-SDSM ‘selective’ justice. In poll after poll, large majorities of the Macedonian public have shown disapproval for the SPO and confirmed their belief that it is a political instrument of Western powers designed to benefit the hugely unpopular SDSM.

Foreign attempts to rehabilitate the image of Janeva and her team have included sympathetic foreign media coverage and events. The Italians have been involved in this, too. The prime example was the invitation from the Francesa Movrillo Falcone Foundation, for Janeva and her two assistant prosecutors to visit a high-level memorial for the late Italian judge, Giovanni Falcone. Yet their appearance there on 23 May 2016 did nothing to change public opinion in Macedonia.

Allegations of Italy’s Role in the Verusevski Extraction Plot and Crisis Management in Early 2015

Since early 2015, Italy has been singled out merely for a supporting role in the overall coup plot. Our exclusive interview with Ambassador Bellelli, which will be discussed below, reaffirms this conclusion. It also reaffirms our original suspicion that the Italian Embassy did not seek to get involved, but was tricked into participation and could not extricate itself once sucked in.

The question that remains, and which will also be discussed below, is whether the Italian Foreign Ministry – whether under Mogherini or after – was even aware of this situation, and whether Mogherini as EU Commissioner is aware of it. Again, some diplomatic testimony might suggest that they were not fully cognizant of the damage suffered by the embassy in Skopje.

In this 1 December 2015 interview, Macedonian journalist Boban Nonkovic mentioned some aspects of the alleged scandal that had been rumored about for months by then throughout the country. Nonkovic, who has represented the Macedonian Information Agency in Brussels for years, is one of the most objective and well-informed Macedonian journalists, so it is worth taking his comments seriously.

“Ambassador Bellelli – as will be shown by the Putsch case, if it ever gets judicially finished – was meeting with the Strumica major [Zaev] in unsightly [неугледни] and dark places, after midnight, to make deals about the strategies [that should be followed by SDSM], in the period of the publishing the so-called ‘bombs,’” contended Nonkovic. “That means that one EU member state is giving protection to the SDSM leader, and this is why Brussels cannot stay on the sidelines, especially since the people in power in Italy, who were working on getting a work visa for Verusevski, actually also gave us the present high commissioner for foreign affairs and security, Federica Mogherini. All of them are Social Democrats.”

Senior sources from different countries surveyed by Balkanalysis.com since January 2015 have confirmed all or part of such local media coverage. The composite picture that emerges is that Verusevski was activated by his foreign handlers in August 2014, and sold Zaev the wiretapped material that the latter had already been alluding to for months, when threatening to have a ‘bomb’ that would topple the government. (At the time, most people did not take him seriously, assuming it was just Zaev being Zaev).

After September 2014, two things allegedly happened: one, Verusevski sought to guarantee an escape route by asking Zaev to get him an Italian work permit from Bellelli; according to several sources, Verusevski expected to become a professor or work in a think-tank, in a country where he had worked a few years earlier, and thus deftly escape from whatever chaos was caused by the impending coup. Whether or not the visa was ever granted, the wily ex-spymaster would have known that even a request would entrap Bellelli and thus win his cooperation.

The second thing that happened was Zaev unwisely went to Gruevski and directly threatened him, claiming that a non-regional foreign intelligence service gave him wiretapped data. According to Kanal 5, Zaev visited the prime minister’s office four times (28 September, 9 October, 31 October and 17 November 2014). Later, Gruevski claimed that he had obtained legal permission to clandestinely film one of these meetings, given the serious nature of the threat. When the video of Zaev making precisely this threat was later leaked on Youtube, Macedonians were outraged with Zaev’s reckless and treasonous behavior.

Our sources confirm another aspect that reinforces the theme of tactical failure studied in The Great Unraveling series. The release of the wiretapped ‘bombs’ had been originally scheduled for spring, but by blatantly threatening Gruevski in fall 2014, Zaev triggered a secret investigation that brought the whole coup plot crashing down, when Verusevski and his cohorts were arrested in late January 2015.

The unexpected arrest of Verusevski and roll-up of his UBK network in January thus forced SDSM to speed up its ‘bombs’ campaign before it was ready. VMRO-DPMNE was not ready to defend itself either and, fearing international criticism, did not arrest Zaev. It thus allowed the farce to become a world media spectacle. In Macedonia, experience has shown that if you do not kill an infection immediately, it will rapidly metastasize. With typically Macedonian thinking, PM Gruevski had naïvely assumed that the facts would speak for themselves, and that justice would be served. But while he had the support of the people, he did not count on the concerted and overwhelming power, influence and money of Western structures opposed to him.

So Was Bellelli Guilty? Some Caveats

Ernesto Massimino Bellelli is a typical old-school Italian diplomat: from an aristocratic family, impeccably dressed, favoring a good espresso. His father was among Italy’s first diplomats in Socialist Yugoslavia (Bellelli himself was born in Zagreb, in 1955). His sister is Italian consul in Miami. He has worked in ‘serious’ countries such as India, Brazil and, most recently, Iraq. We understand that he will soon return to Rome for a relaxed pre-retirement post dealing with regional cooperation. When he arrived in Skopje on 2 December 2013, getting involved in a Balkan conspiracy was certainly the last thing on his mind.

So, could Ambassador Bellelli have masterminded a coup, one which involved political party leaders, SIGINT experts and international intelligence figures? Or, if not, what was his role in the Macedonian crisis? Unfortunately, only a confused but somehow revealing picture emerges from our interviews with the ambassador, senior Italian foreign ministry officials, and other informed persons.

Bellelli’s appointment in 2013 was not considered auspicious. One American diplomat who is on good terms with him told Balkanalysis.com that he suspected it was a “pre-retirement posting.” A senior Italian MFA official goes even further, noting that Italy generally does not put a high priority on Macedonia: “unlike Belgrade, where senior diplomats serve, or even Kosovo or Montenegro where younger diplomats might be appointed, we tend to send older diplomats to Skopje.”

Further, when asked whether Bellelli could have been involved with steering the coup plot, the Italian diplomat – who knows the Bellelli family well – said “He is not that smart. I do not think he has the knowledge or capability to handle such a serious operation.”

Unsurprisingly, Bellelli denied all specific contentions in our 27 June interview. Whereas the intelligence and media reports (such as the above-cited Nonkovic interview) indicate that Bellelli met Zaev several times clandestinely in SDSM safe houses in the Aerodrom neighborhood of Skopje, in underground car parks, and in Zaev’s home city of Strumica to discuss strategy and the possibility of getting Verusevski a visa, the ambassador vigorously denied this. “I have met Zaev mostly in the SDSM headquarters, or here in the embassy,” he said, “and not in Aerodrom.” Bellelli added that he has met Zaev at the annual winter carnival in Strumica.

Regarding Verusevski, Bellelli told us that “the only factual aspect of this is that we were asked about how to obtain a residence visa” for the SDSM insider. According to Bellelli, the ex-spymaster even showed up in person at the consular section of the Italian Embassy in Skopje. “We informed him [about the process] as we normally do, for anyone who asks. But the visa was never applied for, so it was never granted,” attested Bellelli. And, because there was no application, there is no record of Verusevski having appeared at the embassy at all, he said.

There is something strange about all this. Firstly, Bellelli did not remember when Verusevski came to the embassy. Nor did he seem cognizant of the person he was discussing. It is common knowledge that Verusevski is one of the most feared and controversial persons in Macedonia. In fact, on the very day of our interview, Verusevski’s latest threat about having strong influence in the secret services was being reported.

It therefore beggars belief that an Italian ambassador, serving in country for three years during an extensive crisis situation, could claim that his embassy knew of Verusevski simply as “a university professor,” which is how described him to us. It also seems implausible that, under any circumstance, Verusevski – a person with previous experience in Italy, and high-level connections – would have ever needed to come in person to the embassy for visa information. If so, it would have certainly been a cover, and it would have had to have occurred previous to his arrest in January 2015. But when? Bellelli did not remember, and claims there is no written record of the visit, as no application was made. Something just does not add up.

Testimony: When Zaev Informed Bellelli of the Wiretaps

In the interview, Bellelli also could not remember precisely when Zoran Zaev first told him that his phone had been tapped. “Zaev mentioned that I was one of the ambassadors tapped,” Bellelli stated. “I expressed my strong surprise as this is against the Vienna Convention.”

While the Priebe Report specifies that foreign diplomats were tapped, none of them have been identified, officially. However, Bellelli specified for us that Zaev told him six ambassadors had been tapped. Zaev has always lied that the government was guilty of tapping everyone, as opposed to Verusevski’s people. That lie was central to the SDSM campaign that started the crisis, and was bought into wholesale by gullible (and not so gullible) foreign officials, media and other entities.

Soon after beginning its ‘bombs’ campaign, SDSM developed a tactic of presenting targeted persons from whom it sought to win support with folders of their own taped data. This included diplomats and, on 27 February, opposition journalists too.

When asked whether Zaev had presented him with a similar folder, Bellelli told us that the SDSM leader “did not offer, and I did not ask for [transcripts of] my communications.” The reason for not requesting this information, Bellelli said, was because “I did not want to be in possession of illegal information. Asking for something illegally produced was not in line with the way the Italian embassy works.”

Fair enough. This would seem to give the ambassador some degree of plausible deniability. However, he did not elaborate on any specific communications topics that Zaev might have told him about- topics that, real or imagined, would have caused Bellelli (and the other Western ambassadors) to make a unified and hostile front against the government.

Yet rather strangely, considering that we did not ask, Bellelli chose to add a specific detail about the folder of conversations that he allegedly did not receive. “I presume they were [transcribed] in English or Italian.” Taken together with the phrasing of many of Bellelli’s other responses, it added to the overall sense that something is wrong with the picture he tried to present.

Therefore, from his overall testimony, Bellelli paints himself as an ambassador who was uninformed about one of the most famously controversial people in Macedonia (Verusevski), as disinterested in knowing anything about private data concerning himself from Zaev, and also keen to avoid exploring the greatest mystery of all- the provenance of the wiretapped material.

When asked whether he had ever questioned the plausibility of Zaev’s basic claim, Bellelli demurred. Here we had a case in which a government somehow carried out a vast wiretapping operation in which it just so happened to make thousands of recordings incriminating itself. Of course the whole premise was ridiculous. Yet despite the absurdity of this scenario, Bellelli has been one of the strongest Western ambassadors in pressuring the government to toe the EU line. In general, most Italian analysts and think-tank experts surveyed by Balkanalysis.com also seem to have believed the propaganda spun by SDSM and its backers unquestioningly.

Yet despite his strong convictions, Bellelli was curiously disinterested in discovering the truth of what actually happened in Macedonia. When we asked whether he had any suspicions about Zaev’s allegations, he gave the lame response that “I don’t know, but certainly the [SIGINT] equipment was in the government [facilities] and was state equipment.  Maybe it was not the government [at fault], but the government is responsible if something happens.” This is precisely the argument given in the Priebe report, which as we have reported, deliberately avoided investigating the provenance of the recordings.

One key question the Priebe Team could not answer in our previous answer, because they did not research the matter, was whether all local telecom networks had been tapped. This is potentially extremely important, because a source generally aware of the case told Balkanalysis.com that all of the recordings appear to have been made on the T-Mobile network, not others. If this is the case, then the possibility emerges that not only government SIGINT equipment was used, and that a software intrusion method similar to the Telecom Italia case could have been used additionally to penetration of MOI equipment. If this turns out to be true, the whole case would take on entirely new dimensions.

Yet instead of asking serious questions, the Italians followed (and helped shape) the trajectory of EU intervention in Macedonia. Because “the bomb campaign was going on,” Bellelli told us, “the response for this, our idea was to respect what we thought was a concern.” This was done by the common pressure applied by the Western diplomats leading to Priebe and Przino.

Regarding the Priebe team, Bellelli stated that the Enlargement Commission “did not consult with us during planning,” noting that the EU mission was independent of member state influence. “I met only briefly with Priebe,” he stated. This is an extremely interesting revelation, considering that in our previous report, a senior team official specified only that they had met US Ambassador Jess Baily at a dinner, and that the team was aware of “underground interest” from the various embassies in Skopje. But no mention of a specific Bellelli-Priebe meeting was made. Clearly, there is more to this story.

Another question also left unanswered from our interview with Bellelli was how one Italian member of the Priebe team, Inspector Maurizio Varanese, went on to advise the Special Prosecutor’s Office after Przino. We strongly suspect that the decision had to do, on a larger level, with helping to lead the SPO in the ‘right direction’ in regards to what its duties would be. By November, Varanese was helping the Macedonian government to change its law on interception of communication.

Mogherini’s First Appearance

But the already strange case hardly ends here. Bellelli’s activities during the crisis are particularly important because the period intersected with the promotion of his MFA boss, Federica Mogherini, to EU foreign affairs commissioner- in precisely the period when the coup plan was secretly moving forward. And that was also the same period when Italy was holding the EU’s rotating presidency (July through December) 2014, which came right after the EU presidency of close ally Greece.

Italy capitalized on its position by sending then-Foreign Minister Mogherini around the Balkans for a few days near the end of July 2014. In Macedonia, she met state and party leaders. One important meeting occurred on July 25, when she met Bellelli, together with SDSM deputy chief Radmila Sekerinska and fellow SDSM man Damjan Mancevski. A senior member of the Priebe team confessed to us earlier that he knew what everyone in Macedonia already knows: that the cunning Sekerinska (a protégé of founding SDSM boss Branko Crvenkovski) has always been the real leader of the party. The less intelligent Zaev was sent up to make the public addresses, a president just in name, a rural mayor who could easily be sacrificed.

According to our sources, Mancevski would be assigned by SDSM with the task of selecting which particular wiretapped conversations would be used from among Verusevski’s massive, four-year trawl. Those conversations were then either transcribed (as discussed above) or broadcast on TV and internet as ‘bombs.’ From 9 February 2015, when the bombs campaign began, the government would claim that some of the conversations released had been altered in a cut-and-paste montage that created the impression of guilt. From August, when Verusevski was reportedly activated, until December 2014, these tasks were accomplished internally by SDSM leaders.

How Much Did Mogherini Know- and When?

So how much did Mogherini know about unfolding events? Her 25 July 2014 meeting with the two SDSM luminaries came at a time when SDSM was protesting and boycotting the elections they had just lost on 27 April. The purpose of Western diplomacy then was to convince SDSM to return to parliament, though the party had no intention of doing so; the plan for the bombs campaign had been agreed in January.

In our interview, Bellelli confirmed that he was at the 25 July meeting. But he did not remember whether the SDSM officials had briefed Mogherini on the upcoming bombs campaign, or anything that would insinuate instability ahead. Rather than just deny this, he continued with his pattern of evasiveness, compounding the uncertainty by claiming that “there was a second, closed-door meeting which I did not attend, so I do not know what was discussed.”

Given any ambassador’s responsibilities, it is inconceivable that his own foreign minister would create a situation whereby he was not privy to all the information involving events he was supposed to be monitoring. He could simply have told us that no, plans for a coup were not discussed at the meeting. But going on to say – again, unasked – that a second, private meeting took place is baffling. It reinforces the suspicion that with Bellelli, as they say, the cover-up is worse than the crime.

Whatever was discussed or not discussed in July 2014, two facts are clear. One, on 21 August 2014, Zaev announced that SDSM had “begun to realize its strategy” for the future. No one knew what this meant, but it is clear in retrospect that the party was already hard at work on transcribing and cutting-and-pasting from its trove of data.

The second fact is that on 2 September 2014, Mogherini (who had won appointment as a new EU Commissioner) warned in the EU Parliament that things could go in “an undesirable way” in Macedonia if the name issue with Greece was not solved. One of the major goals of the SDSM campaign has been (under Western guidance) to create the conditions for changing the name – which Gruevski has said could be decided only by public referendum – Mogherini’s view reflected official Italian policy and, of course, EU policy, due to the heavy influence of Greece there.

Therefore, something happened between July and September 2014 that hardened Italy’s stance, and created a concern that destabilization could occur. Was it directly stated to Mogherini, or to Bellelli, or to someone else? We will probably never know. But it is plausible that Mogherini accepted the policy of an SDSM that was on the verge of plotting its grand coup.

In this case, Bellelli has a most unexpected defense. For while still Italian MFA chief, Mogherini apparently did not know all that much about the Macedonian situation, says a senior Italian diplomat with close knowledge of the state of affairs.

“Mogherini learned a lot about Macedonia only after she went to Brussels,” this official told Balkanalysis.com. “When the crisis started, she learned many things about Macedonia for the first time. This was because Bellelli was previously not sending enough regular information back to the MFA. For example, he would send perhaps three cables per month, whereas from Serbia or other regional countries, other ambassadors might send up to 30 per month.”

This contention particularly stung Bellelli. In our interview, he strongly disputed this statement as being “completely unfounded. I cannot comment you the number of cables,” he said, but claimed that he has been sufficiently informing Rome.

While such a contention is obviously embarrassing for Bellelli, it might provide his best defense. Perhaps, he was just not working very hard. Or perhaps he was trying to avoid reporting home on events that would affect ‘the narrative.’ We have already reported in the past about the tendency for diplomats from the main Western embassies to coordinate their reporting so that when higher-ups might cross-check them for consistency, the evaluation would hold up. This is how the echo chamber perpetuates itself.

Mogherini’s Brussels Influencers During the Crisis

So, if Mogherini had been uninformed about Macedonia while Italian foreign minister, who did inform her after moving to Brussels? The enormous EU bureaucracy has dozens of ‘Balkan experts.’ Due to its many years in opposition, SDSM has won the sympathy of most of them. VMRO has historically failed to develop an external public relations program, meaning that its support in Euro-land comes only from conservative think-tanks or MEPs from aligned parties.

Within the EU foreign-affairs cabinet, however, Mogherini has had two experts whose input would surely have helped steer her policies. The first was Alain Le Roy, a French former EU special representative to Macedonia. When he was appointed as EEAS chief on 7 January 2015 – weeks before the crisis started – Mogherini described Le Roy’s experience as “instrumental to steer the EEAS and contribute to build an effective and solid European external policy.” However, due to the transition time, he was not fully in place until 1 March, which might help explain the EU’s rushed and incompetent reaction to the Macedonian crisis. Nevertheless, Le Roy was in charge of the EEAS when it was choosing its Priebe Team experts.

Le Roy had notably served in Macedonia from 2001-2002, the period of the war and resulting four-party talks leading to the Ohrid Agreement. This experience of conflict resolution undoubtedly influenced Mogherini’s range of options. But the uncanny similarities between foreign interference in the events of 2001 and of 2015 made an already cynical Macedonian public even more disaffected.

On 22 May 2015, Independent.mk reported that the EEAS was considering sending a ‘special mediator’ to help the parties solve the crisis, and that this person should be neither a Christian Democrat nor a Social Democrat. The disastrous final choice was the Belgian cat-meme expert, Peter Vanhoutte, who failed to take a balanced or serious approach. This decision again reflected the 2001 decision to send a special envoy, who had been the American James Pardew. The sense of history repeating itself made an already disenchanted Macedonian public both more alienated and angry. Le Roy would later resign for “personal reasons” on 15 June 2016, and was replaced by Helga Schmid.

The Italian-Greek Shadow Cooperation around Mogherini’s Cabinet

The second person of influence, from within Mogherini’s cabinet, is also quite interesting because of her Italian connection. Anna Vezyroglou, a longtime EU official, was a protégé of the very influential Italian liberal diplomat Stefano Sannino. With wide-ranging experience including having been OSCE representative in Belgrade, Sannino served as Deputy Director for Enlargement and then, Italian Permanent Representative to the EU from July 2013 until March 2016. On 21 March, Sannino was announced as being Italy’s next ambassador to Spain. This means that Sannino was another prominent left-wing Italian in Brussels during the Macedonian crisis.

Sannino is in fact one of the main players in Italian diplomacy. In 2002, he became very close to the then-EC President, Romano Prodi, acting as his diplomatic advisor; when Prodi became Italy’s premier, from 2006 to 2008, Sannino also became his permanent advisor. After Prodi’s left-wing government fell in 2008, Sannino returned to Brussels. Sannino had often represented Prodi in international meetings. After winning elections, the Renzi government said it would return Italy’s foreign policy orientation to that of the former Prodi government. Sannino was nominated as Italy’s representative to the EU by Mogherini, when she was Italy’s foreign minister.

For her part, Vezyroglou is listed in the Mogherini cabinet as covering the Western Balkans, Turkey and other subjects. This appointment gave the Greek side a high-ranking influence-maker inside Mogherini’s Commission, which became very helpful in promoting Greek national interests during the crisis in Macedonia.

Vezyroglou has been involved with enlargement negotiations, having previously served at a high position in DG Enlargement. She seems to have come to Mogherini specifically due to her previous work there under Sannino, who became deputy director in 2010. According to diplomatic sources, in that time she briefed him personally for all meetings with Macedonian delegations.

When he became the ambassador of Italy to the EU, Sannino left Vezyroglou to his replacement, Kristijan Danielson. However, while Danielson kept her in the position as Sannino had requested, Danielson reportedly diminished her influence. Part of the reason for this, apparently, was that sources in Brussels reported that Vezyroglou would boast to colleagues that she was responsible for blocking any focus of the EEAS for Macedonia, thereby promoting Greek national interests.

But despite the setback, there would be a reprieve: diplomatic sources tell us that influential people in Italy asked Sannino in 2014 to help Mogherini fill her cabinet with persons already inside European institutions, and that he specifically recommended Vezyroglou for the job. Sources indicate that while she had been somewhat constricted under Danielsson, the endorsement from Sannino and complex situation of the Macedonian crisis allowed Vezyroglou to have an outsized influence during the target period.

Vezyroglou is also reported to be close to Juncker’s spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, who is one of the longest-serving Greek EU officials, having worked at the Commission since 1990. He was also a Nea Dimokratia MEP, from 2007-2009. While people tend to forget, Juncker owes his current job – which came after he was forced to resign as lifetime leader of Luxembourg following a wiretap scandal – to the support of former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. The latter was still in power in 2014 when the Commission decisions were made. This in turn helps to explain the disproportionate influence of Greeks across the EU bureaucracy today.

However, given the seismic shift that has occurred with the aftermath of Turkey’s failed military coup, it is likely that covering that country will take up most of the Commission’s time and, because of her Turkey expertise, keep Anna Vezyroglou busy in particular.

Impressioni di Macedonia: title page of the 1904 classic for which Italy’s 2015 internal intelligence report on migration was named.

Impressioni di Macedonia: title page of the 1904 classic for which Italy’s 2015 internal intelligence report on migration was named.

Italian Intelligence Activities and Migration: the Impressioni di Macedonia

While the foregoing does not clarify Ambassador Bellelli’s role in the crisis, it does provide some comments for the historical record. It also indicates the possibility that, as with Zaev, who was sacrificed by his party to suffer public ridicule through getting to be the hero onstage, his diplomatic counterparts in Skopje all suffered a similar fate, due to their stature and natural relationships with political authorities. This group does not exclude Bellelli and if, as our sources say, he was neither oriented towards nor capable of abetting a coup, it would help explain why the coup failed.

Italian intelligence (as opposed to the MFA) would actually benefit from having Bellelli exposed to public criticism. This would allow more savvy operators to work in the shadows. AISE representative Filippo Candela, who previously was stationed in Montenegro, had the right regional experience and contacts to be effective. But for obvious reasons, he is not talking. Unlike Bellelli, who has actually worsened his situation with his odd interview replies, Candela has largely kept quiet. Indeed, public appearances (like this one at Tetovo’s SEE University, in February 2014 soon after arriving) are more the exception than the norm. Candela, officially deputy head of mission, is not listed on the Italian MFA’s personnel list that we discussed in the previous article of this series.

While Candela’s exact intelligence role in the crisis remains unknown, it is most likely that AISE took better steps to avoid visibility, and let Bellelli take all the criticism. The one aspect where Candela did have a role was in the much more important topic of illegal migration. This is an unexpected and very interesting topic in itself, revealing Italy’s renewed awareness of its former role in the region.

In 1904, an Italian politician, diplomat and later foreign minister, Francesco Guicciardini, wrote a short book called Impressioni di Macedonia. This travel diary was written after the author’s long visit to Serbia and Macedonia, as he was on his way to Istanbul.

The diary captures the local situation around the time of the 2 August 1903 Ilinden Uprising, framing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the context of the rise of the VMRO rebels, and the activities of the Great Powers in the region. Two themes are particularly interesting in Guicciardini’s memoirs. His description of the struggle between Russia, England and the Ottomans in the competition for religious supremacy in the area is one. At the time, Russia was backing the Bulgarian Exarchate, while the English were supporting the Serbian Patriarchate. Also noted is the unclear behavior of the Western Powers, whose interest in defending the Ottoman presence was aimed only at impeding Russian expansion in Macedonia, and the “Bulgarization” of the population.

Balkanalysis.com covered this period in 2006, in a 10-part series on the Mürzsteg Reform Program of 1903-1909. Intended to defuse a crisis in war-torn Ottoman Macedonia, the reform program gave each Great Power a zone of territorial control in the geographical Macedonia. They were supposed to monitor reforms demanded of the Sultan, but instead the whole mission predictably devolved into power and interest struggles. One of the key alliances was between Britain and Italy, to counteract some of the Continental powers and Russia. In 1911, two years after the reform program failed, the Italy-Libyan War erupted. Considering what is currently happening in the region and the world, the similarities are uncanny.

Fast-forward to 2015, when Macedonia was again the subject of geopolitical intrigue and suffering a historic migration crisis from Turkey and Greece. The explosion of the migrant crisis instigated a special Italian intelligence report on the potential security risks to Italy of migrants traveling the ‘Balkan Route.’ This has never been reported by any media, until now.

Whether the authors of the new report were being nostalgic or ironic, they chose to name this working paper after the 1904 classic, Impressioni di Macedonia. This decision to name the study after a very obscure and short political travelogue indicates that it was organized by someone who has a sense for Italy’s historic role in Macedonia.

Different sources approached by Balkanalysis.com have offered different views on the 2015 text, which remains an internal state document. But most recently, a senior Italian diplomat confirmed for Balkanalysis.com that “the paper does indeed exist. It was created by a combination of MFA, interior ministry and intelligence services. It was commissioned because of the fact that we did not have sufficient information coming from our embassy in Skopje.”

As mentioned above, Ambassador Bellelli vigorously denies any charges that he had been keeping the MFA under-informed. However, when asked about the new Impressioni di Macedonia, he stated that he was not aware of this specific document, saying only vaguely that “we have research going on all the time.”

Considering that a study of migration patterns is not controversial, there would be no reason for Bellelli to deny the document’s existence, had he known about it. Thus his attested lack of awareness indicates that he probably never knew about it, which would not be surprising considering that he was burdened exclusively with the political crisis.

Therefore, the Impressioni would have been researched with the help of an AISE specialist like Candela. But neither he nor the official AISE spokesman in Rome would comment for us on any aspect of the text.

“The argument of the paper was that the Balkan route was very important for our state interests,” says the Italian diplomat familiar with the text. “And one of the main actors in handling the migration crisis was the Skopje government. The MFA realized [from the report] that until then, we didn’t know what was going on.” The Impressioni text was finished in late 2015 and, according to other intelligence sources, was delivered to Renzi’s office in February 2016.

According to the senior official, the paper was also commissioned out of a desire “to limit potential threats to national interests. It was sent when finished to the MFA by the office of the prime minister, but was never discussed at high levels. It offered no suggestions for new approaches to the migration problem, but some recommendations were provided for how to use EU leverage, to bring up the Balkan countries’ EU perspective to mitigate risks. Some options were also stated, regarding how to use aid money. In all meetings with Macedonia, migration was always top of the agenda.”

Conclusions

As the foregoing account of Italy’s recent diplomatic and intelligence engagement has shown, the general picture remains very murky. But it can be said that the eruption of a political crisis at the same time Italy was assuming a larger role in national and then EU foreign affairs put great pressure on the country’s local role in Macedonia. At the same time, the explosion of the migration crisis also forced Italy – burdened already by heavy traffic on the Mediterranean migrant route – to pay attention to ongoing events.

It is unclear to what extent the urgent need to address the Balkan Route migration crisis affected Italian or EU diplomacy towards Macedonia (or, Italian diplomacy within the EU) during the political crisis. It is also unclear whether, in the absence of an open and transparent investigation of the coup attempt, the public perception of Italian complicity will ever be proved or disproved.

However, while we have assessed that diplomatic relations will continue as normal, the now deeply-ingrained perception in Macedonia about Italian scheming will continue to affect security and intelligence cooperation. Whatever its real role was during the crisis, Italy has lost considerable trust locally. As stated above, the general network destruction caused by the failed coup has forced Italian (and other) intelligence services to create new networks, partnerships and goals. We estimate that it will take them two to three years to regain their former position.

 

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