By Chris Deliso
The June 8, 2015 Priebe Report was written by six experienced professionals. The Hahn Commission and Skopje Delegation gave these men all required support. The team and the Commission were both satisfied with the final report, the recommendations of which would seriously influence subsequent political negotiations and institutional changes.
According to the report, the EU recruited the team “to carry out a rapid analysis of the situation and provide recommendations to address these issues.” Regarding these “issues,” the authors specify “the systemic problems” which wiretapped conversations released by SDSM “have revealed or confirmed.”
Brief Assessment: Factors Influencing the Result
Balkanalysis.com’s comprehensive series on EU intervention in Macedonia has isolated eight key factors that influenced the conduct and outcome of the expert team mission in spring 2015. They are:
- The Hahn Commission’s perception of the crisis as primarily reflecting “rule-of-law” issues (see this series’ second article) .
- The EU’s longtime concerns over Section 4.24 of annual progress reports, and the Interior Ministry’s specific SIGINT setup (see the third article, and this leaked internal document from 2010, regarding amendments to key legislation on communications).
- The Hahn Cabinet’s selection of certain expert team members ideologically predisposed towards accepting allegations such as those presented by SDSM in the “wiretap scandal.”
- The key logistics role of Delegation Chief Aivo Orav, and high likelihood that he was being blackmailed or at least heavily pressured before, during and after the period in question.
- The direct access of SDSM Vice-President Radmila Sekerinska to the team members.
- The agreed decision to investigate the content of the wiretapped material, instead of first solving the mystery of provenance and general creation motives.
- The short and rushed working time of the group, and the relatively tiny sample size of content examined by them, compared to the amount of still-unknown data that has since been announced.
- At least partial ignorance and disinterest regarding Macedonia’s security responsibilities and its key role in overall European security.
Now, off-the-record comments provided for Balkanalysis.com indicate some unsettling facts. Comparing our own interviews, knowledge of events from the field throughout the crisis, and the report itself, it becomes clear that the team ignored historical context, contradictory events, and basic common sense.
Yet most shockingly, some of the Priebe team’s personal opinions – which did not appear in the report, but which definitely informed it – reveal a fundamental ignorance of Macedonia’s security challenges, and a demeaning attitude towards its institutional needs. This view has, unfortunately, been repeated for years in various forms to Balkanalysis.com by similarly clueless Eurocrats. Simply, they do not understand Macedonia’s crucial role in the general European security architecture.
Above and Beyond
Balkanalysis.com has spoken to multiple members of the expert team, Macedonian and international diplomats, commission officials and other informed sources over the past year and more. All of this research has gone into The Great Unraveling series, of which this article constitutes the fourth part.
Our current and previous analyses indicate that the Priebe Report reflected chronic EU concerns. But it also went beyond all previous recommendations, ordering radical new punitive measures not previously suggested. Nevertheless, since the Commission accepted all its recommendations, the Priebe Report became the bedrock upon which the July 2015 Przino Agreement was founded. Thus it is the most significant document/event in the entire crisis.
The Przino Agreement was negotiated between four local party leaders, under heavy EU and US pressure. Essentially, this means that about 15 individuals are ultimately responsible for turning the EU’s failed intervention into a new national reality.
However, this intervention has been heavily criticized, by ordinary citizens as well as partisan supporters. In its well-meaning but botched operation, the Commission and Delegation actually perpetuated further scandals, real and perceived, that were used against key figures throughout 2015, and which continue to paralyze their capacities. This paralysis has tipped the balance of power and influence in favor of the German government and the Americans.
A New Chill in the Air
We exposed the fundamental hypocrisy behind the EU’s pledged respect for media freedom in this series’ first article. It is thus appropriate here to mention that as soon as Balkanalysis.com made official information requests to the Hahn Cabinet about the Priebe Report in May 2016, a sudden behavioral change occurred. Informed persons, including team members who had previously spoken freely with us in an off-the-record capacity, suddenly went silent or referred us to Commission spokespersons.
We thus asked EC Spokeswoman Maja Kocijančič if she or Commissioner Hahn had instructed Priebe team members to not speak with Balkanalysis.com. We have yet to receive a reply.
Mandate: Rapid Analysis, Rule of Law, Content over Provenance
According to the report, and new responses from the Hahn Cabinet, the mandate of the expert mission was “to carry out a rapid analysis of the situation and provide concrete recommendations on how to address the issues arising from the interception scandal.”
According to the Cabinet, the Commission and Hahn himself were “satisfied” with the report and its recommendations, “which reflected and confirmed” many concerns previously raised by the Commission. They were pleased by the “concrete steps” the report recommended. A “broader” set of recommendations (the so-called Urgent Reform Priorities, presented by the Commission in June 2015) followed. Macedonia’s four largest parties signed off on these, without any public debate or qualitative discussion of the Priebe Report, and thus arrived at the July 15 Przino Agreement, which has been a predictable failure.
However, the Hahn Cabinet may have now unwittingly betrayed the possibility that parallel institution creation (today’s ‘Special Prosecutor’s Office) was, as we suspect, envisioned from the very beginning. The expert team’s mandate was not to investigate the making of the recordings themselves, the Cabinet informed us in May 2016, because “that criminal activity is currently being investigated by the Special Prosecutor’s Office which was set up at the end of 2015 for this precise purpose.”
There was no reply from Spokeswoman Kocijančič when we pointed out that this explanatory reference was an anachronism; in early 2015, no special prosecutor existed, but the regular public prosecutor was successfully investigating the provenance of the recordings and the circumstances under which they were made.
Yet without first solving this mystery, without verifying the reality of the ‘evidence,’ there is no point investigating unproven content- unless, of course, your goal is to create a rushed, out-of-context and activist document for a political goal. And that is precisely what the Priebe Report was.
“The working group intentionally refrained from inquiring individual cases,” one senior team member told Balkanalysis.com, when addressing the issue of why they chose to investigate content over provenance. “That is for prosecutors and courts. This probably explains why some ‘prominent’ cases were not even mentioned in our report. In any case, we were aware of each such case.”
This is interesting, though inconclusive testimony that the Priebe Team had a wider awareness of events than is reflected in their narrow report. Yet they (and the Commission) were surely aware that their own activities would inevitability put heavy pressure on said prosecutors and courts, regarding how they conducted their own investigations.
EU Team Selection Process and Targeting: the TAIEX System and Contradictions
According to the Cabinet, the Commission Directorate General department dealing with Macedonia selected “independent experts” familiar with the issues and the country. Similar expert team visits occur elsewhere, in relation to various parts of the acquis (especially justice and home affairs). Such experts are chosen from the TAIEX (Technical Assistance and Information Exchange instrument of the European Commission).
According to the Hahn Cabinet, the Priebe Team members were chosen on objective grounds including their knowledge of their field, and Macedonia; they were not proposed by EU Member States, officials state. The work of such experts (in theory) is apolitical and not made public, but shared only with the Commission and the involved country.
For some reason, the Commission perceived the Macedonia mission as more important than most; it thus sent what it considered its most experienced and trusted experts. This is quite interesting, because Balkanalysis.com also knows experts with regional and highly specific SIGINT backgrounds who were not chosen, and who arguably could have done a better job. One team member told Balkanalysis.com that “all of us had some experience in dealing with pre-accession and Western Balkan countries. The composition of the group made sure, that very different areas of expertise were covered (including security, intelligence, IT and constitutional matters.”
However, inconsistencies emerge. While the Cabinet has attested that TAEIX was used, this team member admitted to actually not knowing “how individual members have been selected.” We assess that Hahn personally selected at least the team leader, retired career EC official Reinhard Priebe. “[Hahn’] probably did not pull his top lieutenant out of TAIEX,” says one Brussels official with basic knowledge of the case. “He wanted a guy he could count on.”
Further, intelligence available to Balkanalysis.com indicates that at least one expert member had little or no Balkan experience, and that member-state interests did, contrary to the Cabinet’s claim, play a role in the selection of two other members.
There are other odd discrepancies. A senior team member told Balkanalysis.com in April 2016 that “I do not know if any of the members have done some further FYROM work afterwards.” However, we know that at least two team members were asked to continue advising in Macedonia after the team’s activities ended. Thus either the old gang does not keep in touch, the cabinet is not being entirely honest, or people’s memories are slipping.
Hahn spokeswoman Maja Kocijančič did not respond to our request regarding possible member-state influence on expert team selection.
EU Stealth Missions: Non-Transparency as the Rule, Not the Exception
For many Europeans, one sinister thing about the European Union is its tendency to use small groups of anonymous, faceless technocrats for purposes that inevitably impact the lives of millions. This is symptomatic of the EU’s current democratic deficit.
Most such expert groups come and go without anyone even knowing of their existence. Luckily, the Priebe report is known- but only because the Enlargement Commission made a very unusual decision. Due to the “seriousness” of the situation the decision was taken, “exceptionally,” to publish the report, the Hahn Cabinet told us.
While the report was made public, it did not name the specific team members, except for Reinhard Priebe. So, in the interest of transparency, Balkanalysis.com will now list the expert team members. The member identities were all confirmed for us as correct by a senior team member.
Meet the Experts
Reinhard Priebe. This former German judge and (from 1984) career EU official gave the expert team’s report its informal name. On his distinguished CV, two appointments stand out: Priebe’s former role as Director for Western Balkans in DG External Relations (2001-2004) and identical role in DG Enlargement, in 2005-6. Before retiring in 2014, Priebe was for four years Director of Internal Security at DG Home Affairs. In this period he negotiated data-sharing agreements with the US, implemented the EU Internal Security Strategy, and worked on anti-corruption and police cooperation initiatives.
Priebe was thus covering Macedonia during the last period of rule by SDSM- a time when Deutsche Telecom was fighting to retain its business and SIGINT monopoly position. According to the mentioned Brussels official, Priebe is “a consummate professional, a real EU insider who knows the system inside out. If I was Hahn, I might have picked him too.”
James Hamilton. This veteran Irish prosecutor was the team’s key legal/ideological mind. Director of Public Prosecutors of Ireland from 1999-2011, Hamilton was elected President of the International Association of Prosecutors in 2010, serving for several years. He has worked regionally on legal missions for the EU and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. Thus, Hamilton has written about laws on the Prosecutors Offices in Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia and Ukraine, as well as political parties, amnesty laws and so on in Balkan, Caucasus and Central Asian countries. He has also worked on anticorruption issues and criminal justice systems issues in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Albania.
Given the context of an alleged ‘government wiretap scandal’ in Macedonia, Hamilton was a natural ideological choice. His writings indicate strong leftist views. For example, in a 2006 Venice Commission report, he concluded that state security actions actions “must be taken carefully, and must be restrained in their application, limited in a way that echoes the derogation provision of the ECHR, no more extensive than demanded by the exigencies of the situation, and which do not go beyond it.”
Hamilton also criticized the US Patriot Act in that text as being “among a number of American legislative measures designed to remove the impediments that individual privacy rights pose to investigations. It permits the interception and monitoring of communications and communications records, and searches without notice.”
An August 3, 2015 media article confirmed that Hamilton had been retained after the expert team’s mission, to advise on issues regarding the envisioned special prosecutor’s office. He can thus be considered one of the most influential team members.
Thomas Trier Hansen. This 46-year-old Danish lawyer has human rights and anti-corruption expertise, and is a partner at Nordic Law Group, which advises companies on compliance and due diligence with Deloitte, Denmark. Formerly Team Leader for the “Access to Justice and Reform of Law and State” program at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Hansen was also a lawyer for the Danish Immigration Service, and President of the Court of Greenland (2009-2011). He is also a board member of Transparency International Greenland and a member of the Danish Refugee Board. Hansen was a judge in the Eastern High Court of Denmark (2008-2009), and been chairman of the Greenlandic Board for supervision of municipalities and the Greenlandic Complaints Board for Public Procurement.
Dovydas Vitkauskas. This British-trained Lithuanian lawyer advises on justice, human rights and good governance issues- illustrating again the ideological worldviews of the team. He is a partner at Moscow-based Threefold Legal Advisors, and worked for 10 years as a senior lawyer at the Registry of the European Court of Human Rights. He was nominated as a judge there In December 2009 by the Lithuanian President. Vitkauskas has worked on EU-financed projects regarding judicial and legal reforms in Russia and other CIS countries.
Vitkauskas also was Team Leader of the IPA Project for Further Support to the Judiciary and promotion of the Probation Service and Alternative Sanctions in Macedonia, from 2010. But more recently, and possibly of more relevance, is the fact that, according to the EU, he participated in a justice-related event at Skopje’s Stone Bridge Hotel on January 24, 2015- one day after Zoran Verusevski’s arrest. The coincidence could have given the Lithuanian ‘added value’ as an external expert who, coincidentally, had been in-country at a key moment.
Maurizio Varanese. This veteran Italian chief police inspector was the Priebe team’s key law-enforcement expert. He has served in similar EC expert missions in Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Georgia, Jordan and Ukraine, on topics like organized crime, terrorism, corruption and financial crime. This very experienced lawman, who has also worked for Europol, has lectured on telecom interception, and was one of two SIGINT specialists on the Priebe Team.
All available intelligence indicates that Inspector Varanese was selected from the beginning for implementation of planned future legislative changes. As of November 23, 2015 (at latest) he had been asked to help rewrite Macedonia’s law on interception of communications.
6. The final Priebe Team member, also Italian, played an important role on several fronts. However, we will not identify him at this time.
The Secrecy Pact
From the beginning, the team made a pact. “We agreed to preserve the confidentiality of our work, in the interest of working efficiently,” one senior team member told Balkanalysis.com in April 2016. “This includes by the way, refraining from giving any information to the outside on who said what in the group.”
While this is standard practice for such entities, it certainly does not add to public trust or transparency. Macedonian citizens had little idea of this team or its work, though these citizens – and not the experts – would have to live with the consequences of the experts’ findings.
The secrecy pact was mostly, according to this official, a preventive measure against possible damage arising from media citations or “sending mixed messages.” In a highly-charged and fluid atmosphere, it would make sense. However, the fact that multiple members have made private comments contradicting (as we have seen) some Cabinet remarks indicates that leakages still occur.
The Logistical Role of the Commission and Delegation- and Possible Hostile outside Influences
The key liaison between the Hahn Cabinet, the Priebe Team and EU Delegation in Skopje was a little-known Commission official named Marie-Sofie Sveidqvist. She has served in similar roles in the past, for example accompanying a 2004 EU justice-related expert mission to Turkey. In January 2013, as an “international policy officer,” she participated in a Brussels event on human rights in Macedonia. Other information is not readily available; Sveidqvist would seem to personify the anonymity of the Brussels machine. “She was not a member of our team,” one member told Balkanalysis.com. “But as a Commission official she, like other officials gave technical support to the group.”
The Hahn Cabinet informed us that the expert team’s meetings were organized by “the geographic unit in Brussels” and the EU Delegation in Skopje. The latter arranged meetings for the team with state bodies, representatives of relevant international organizations, NGOs and journalists (note: this website was not among those invited). According to the Cabinet, meeting/interview subjects were chosen “based on the relevance of their (or their institution’s) activities, to the rule of law issues raised by the intercepted conversations.” They further add that a “courtesy meeting” was arranged with Foreign Minister Nikola Popovski.
A team member told us that Delegation Chief Aivo Orav and his staff “took care of logistics and getting confirmation on meetings. We asked their advice for meetings, and if they had other recommendations, we were not against seeing anybody.” The Commission, in addition, also helped find certain interview targets.
In the end, the team was satisfied. “We were free to arrange the meetings we wanted to have, and managed indeed to meet all the people we wanted to see,” the official notes. “Of course, we could have met more and other people, but we got quite a good picture of the issues at stake in the meetings we had.” This is an important comment to keep in mind, considering some of the problematic elements (discussed below) regarding who the team did (and didn’t) meet.
Throughout the expert team’s three visits, they also confirm awareness of “underground interest” from the various embassies in Skopje. But it is unclear to what extent they interacted. One member recalls that US ambassador Jess Baily joined the team for a dinner, but that this was “just a dinner, he happened to be there too. He did not seek to advise us.”
However, neither the team nor the Commission would discuss one crucial factor. While the Macedonian media has recorded countless testimonials of blackmail allegedly exerted against politicians, businessmen and foreign officials, Hahn Spokeswoman Maja Kocijančič failed to reply when asked whether the Commission had been aware of this. Yet all available intelligence indicates a high likelihood that key figures assisting the Priebe Team (most importantly Head of Delegation Aivo Orav) were being heavily blackmailed by local actors at the time, and that this affected his behavior.
Since neither the team members nor the Commission will acknowledge whether they are or were cognizant of this situation, the question of how external pressures impacted the EU’s handling of the Macedonian crisis remains unanswered. We might note again (as in the first article) that Orav has ignored or avoided all requests from Balkanalysis.com to discuss anything since last July. He is expected to leave Macedonia in August.
This is also significant because the Priebe Report does in fact note that unnamed foreign diplomats had been tapped, though no one would discuss any details, or whether this has had an influence on the diplomatic process.
Structural and Linguistic Characteristics of the Priebe Report
The Priebe Report is 20 pages long and includes 34 footnotes. It starts with a Background and Working Methodology section, which gives an overview and profile of the kinds of persons they met. It ends with nine bullet-point recommendations. In the General Remarks section (1) the authors state that their findings were made “on the basis of a series of technical meetings conducted in Skopje on 3-4 May and 18-20 May 2015 and numerous reports and materials from various sources.” However, here they do not mention the earlier, 20-22 April meeting; did it not contribute to the overall findings, or was it not a ‘technical’ mission? The situation is unclear.
In the footnotes, the authors refer to Zaev’s wiretapped ‘bombs’ as ‘revelations’- a Biblical word associated with prophets, and one that confers indirect legitimacy. The report uses a carefully legalistic writing style; this is meant to avoid assuming responsibility. The authors frequently use passive-voice sentence construction and vague copular verbs (‘seem,’ ‘appear’ and so on). This is a classic distancing technique that protects authors from having made a direct assertion of fact, while simultaneously intimating a sort of abstract authoritativeness and objectivity. This choice of linguistic register was very unfortunate, given the significance of the research subject.
For examples of passive usages, the authors allege that shortcomings “have been identified,” and “cannot seriously be contested.” Or, the team reports that it “was confronted with” a certain attitude from interlocutors. Other vague verb usages occur when, for example, the team writes that they have focused on what “appear to be” areas where action is most needed. They write that parliamentary committees “appear unwilling” to fulfill their mandate.
This linguistic subterfuge surfaces again in the section ‘Causes of the Current Situation,’ in which the report endorses Zaev’s allegations, without factually endorsing them. Thus the authors write that the counterintelligence service “appears, to an external onlooker, to have been operating outside its legal mandate on behalf of the government, to control top officials in the public administration, prosecutors, judges and political opponents with a consequent interference in the independence of the judiciary and other relevant national institutions.”
The Ramifications of Bad Language and Content-Over-Provenance
That formulation technically keeps the authors (and EU) safe, as they have not specifically blamed anyone for anything. But the conflation of foggy language and foggy thinking tended toward a tacit endorsement of opposition allegations, even though team members we spoke with assert they did not intend this.
For example, when briefly mentioning (without really discussing) the then-ongoing investigation of Zoran Verusevski and his former UBK colleagues, the report adds that “it would be a matter of concern to the group if these investigations focused exclusively or primarily on opposition-linked figures and related to the leaking of the documents rather than the substance of the wrong-doing which appears to emerge from many of the transcripts.”
This is a disturbing intervention in an allegedly objective technical paper, and not only because of the sleazy choice of linguistic register. Fundamentally, the comment is a reaction to political advocacy regarding assumptions that were unproven, and which the group specifically did not want to prove. The proliferation of passive voice, copular verbs and the subjunctive mood is symptomatic of the legalistic distancing language used whenever a subjective element is expressed in a supposedly objective technical document.
When asked to explain its activist approach, one senior member told us, “we were an expert group, not a court. But all our factual findings are based on solid information/evidence which made us confident that we got the facts right. If you have the impression, that we simply took over the charges put forward by the opposition, this impression clearly is wrong. Many of the allegations (in particular those related to wire-tapping) were not contested by interlocutors from the government side. I am not aware of any reaction on our report, pointing out that we got the facts wrong.”
The Other Reason for Content-Over-Provenance: Limited Competencies
There is another interesting fact regarding why the team avoided investigating the provenance of the wiretaps- and the whole Verusevski aspect. It was not only because the case was already being handled by the courts (as the team and Hahn Cabinet state), but also because the experts did not feel themselves competent to investigate.
“We had long meetings and decided not to rush to judgment,” a senior expert told Balkanalysis.com. “We said, ‘let’s not cover [provenance-related issues], because we are not sure.’ So we decided to leave that aside and concentrate on the wiretaps.”
Thus, it appears clear that even had it wanted to investigate the case properly, the EU would have not been competent to do so.
Problems: Short Stays, a Reluctance to Investigate, and Unique Priorities
One of the major disconnects when dealing with Priebe Team members and the Hahn Cabinet is their unshakeable belief that the report is comprehensive, correct and not qualitatively flawed. The fundamental blame first falls on the Hahn Cabinet, in that it demanded such a rapid assessment. SITREPs are essential for advisory purposes, but they are not something that a government or institution should base an ambitious multi-year institutional policy on. Yet that is precisely what happened with the Priebe Report.
As anyone who understands Macedonia and the context of the issues could tell you, three visits by six individuals supported by bureaucrats is simply insufficient for making a legitimate assessment of anything- let alone sweeping policy suggestions. However, the team takes a different view.
“We had the time available we needed to produce a serious analysis of the situation,” says the senior expert. “Obviously, one could have spent much more time on the various (and on other) subjects, but this was not the intention. In any case, I do not think that there are any shortcomings of the report caused by undue time constraints… it would not have come out differently, even if we had had another year to work on it.”
In fact, if the team had been given more time, they would have spent it on “the media freedom situation”- a historic talking point among the opposition and its NGO supporters. This alleged national deficiency was lapped up by a credulous and ideologically sympathetically expert team. It indicates how strongly they were influenced by the media and NGO members who Orav arranged for them.
Indeed, if the EU expert team had been able to spend more time on ‘media freedom’ issues, their interlocutors would have most certainly been the precise media and NGO bodies that were and are heavily subsidized by the EU (as discussed in our first article). It is a perfect circle.
Another Problem: a Small Sample Size and No Evidence of Technical Examination
Another fatal flaw was the relatively insignificant sample size of content examined. The credulous authors of the Priebe Report reference (by number) what had been leaked as ‘bombs’ by Zaev since February 9, 2015. The grand total was “36 packages of recorded telephone conversations,” which equaled “500 pages of transcripted conversations.” At that time, the team reported, SDSM claimed that it had access “to over 20,000 such recorded conversations.”
However, over time many more recordings have emerged, even being leaked from other persons and countries, and SDSM has continually raised the number of recordings it claimed to possess. Indeed, Zaev stated on February 10, 2016 that the number he transferred to the Special Public Prosecutor was actually over one million.
Who knows what could be on these tapes, or why others were released instead of them? The discrepancy between the small sample size available to the Priebe team and the total amount of (largely, still unknown) data is startling. Only the Commission and the expert team do not regard this as a serious issue.
From reading the report and discussing with team members, there is no evidence to suggest that the Priebe Team asked the basic question of who transcribed 500 pages of conversations, and how long that process had taken; certainly, it could not have been done overnight. So when did the whole process begin?
This is a basic common-sense question, just as is that of why the government would record itself saying self-incriminating things. Again, the fundamental case returns to establishing provenance and motive first. But the team did not seriously consider consistent claims that the taped material was in some cases doctored or completely edited to cause deception.
There is also nothing in the Priebe Report that would indicate the team made technical assessments of the recorded files, as one might expect from a mission of ‘technical experts.’ Thus, unless a new investigative body is convened, we will never know whether audio editing of ‘evidence’ took place, and where.
The team also ignored clear evidence that SDSM had infiltrated not just the UBK and SIGINT, but the border police database (on April 1, 2015, Zaev released an Israeli citizen’s passport image and entry/exit information, clearly taken from that database on April 15, 2013). A detail like that would change the focus of the entire investigation if, of course, the EU had been interested in a real investigation.
A Dangerous Path to Truth
There is no evidence that the team sought forensic verification of content- rather, it examined the content, and believed that a certain amount of it surely indicated crime and corruption; this because, as two team members have told us, the government did not contest their claims.
This is a dangerous way of establishing truth in the Balkans, especially when one considers Macedonia’s unique political climate. In short, politicians here often have motives for their actions or statements that are based on other factors that could affect an outcome. They might smile politely and accept what you say, not because they agree but because it serves a tactical purpose at that specific moment. Certainly, the excuse that ‘nobody objected’ to the team’s assertions is not an objectively correct way of establishing the truth.
Thus we are left with a team that spent six days in Macedonia and based its assumptions on 36 packets of unverified ‘evidence,’ without seriously trying to establish the provenance of said evidence, who had executed the operation and why, nor whether the content had been modified (through audio and/or transcription), while ignoring evidence of a wider intelligence infiltration. But it gets worse.
Source Issues and Intelligence (Non) Meetings
Source issues are crucial for understanding the report’s problematic nature, and why certain decisions were made.
According to the report, the team met: Representatives of the Ministry of Interior, including the Director and staff of the intelligence service (UBK); State Public Prosecutor and members of the Prosecution Office; President and judges of the Supreme Court; President and members of the Judicial Council; Representatives of the associations of judges and prosecutors; Director of the Academy for Judges and Prosecutors; Judges and prosecutors working in the specialized court division and prosecution office dealing with organized crime and corruption; The Ombudsman and his staff ; Director and staff of the Data Protection Directorate; President and members of the State Election Commission; Speaker of the Parliament and members of two of its oversight committees. The group also met with representatives of relevant international organisations, non-governmental organisations, associations of lawyers and journalists.
The first interesting claim is that the team met with “representatives of the Ministry of Interior, including the Director and staff of the intelligence service (UBK).” Leaving aside the fact that the UBK is actually the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence – the Intelligence Agency is under the President’s office – it is unclear who they actually spoke with. This is important because of the personalities involved.
Indeed, the assertion that wiretapped material was created within interior ministry facilities is supported by footnote 6, which states that this “has been acknowledged to the group by the former Director of the intelligence service (UBK) and can also be inferred from the plea bargain admissions and subsequent conviction of a former employee of UBK.”
One can determine the latter’s identity from the news. As for the former, it is unclear. Was the group granted access to Zoran Verusevski himself, while still in jail? Neither they nor the Commission would say. If not, which former UBK chief did they speak with, and how was this particular person arranged for them, considering that all UBK chiefs have been politically appointed by one side or the other?
Similarly, the assertion that the group met with the (current) director of the UBK is also problematic. Saso Mijalkov, who headed the administration at the time of the team’s work, was one of Zaev’s two major targets in the wiretaps affair, and allegedly guilty of many crimes. He resigned on May 12, 2015 with this official resignation letter.
This is problematic because in December 2015 we asked a senior expert team member whether they did in fact meet Mijalkov: “yes, but only on our last visit,” was the reply. However, the team’s last visit was 18-20 May, six days after Mijalkov had resigned. His successor as UBK chief, Ljupco Andonovski, was not appointed until 27 May.
“They are lying if they say they met Mijalkov,” one intelligence official told Balkanalysis.com. “Maybe they met [police official Mitko] Chavkov, but not Mijalkov.”
If true, this would not be just a simple lapse; we are talking about the man who the Zaev camp alleged was behind both the wiretapping affair and sundry crime and corruption. We are not aware of any claim from Mijalkov, as to whether he did or not meet the Priebe team. In any case, whether or not they did meet Mijalkov, it is inexplicable why the team would have avoided this major figure until their report was essentially finished, given his central role in every aspect of the case. It reaffirms the general unserious nature of the EU’s intervention.
Source Issues and Political Influence
Whether or not they actually met Mijalkov, the Priebe Team certainly did not meet Zaev’s other alleged partner in crime, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. This was because of a procedural decision, however.
“We were keen to avoid seeming political, since it was purely technical work in a very sensitive technical level,” a senior team member told Balkanalysis.com. “We didn’t ask to see the prime minister because we did not want to involve politicians.”
However, the policy applied strictly to party leaders: the team was happy to meet deputy leaders. In May 2016, the The Hahn Cabinet told us that a meeting took place with “a representative of the political party which had come into possession of, and was publishing, the intercepted conversations.”
As was confirmed for us in discussions with a senior team member in December 2015, that politician was indeed Radmila Sekerinska, the SDSM Vice-President and a former protégé of deposed SDSM chief Branko Crvenkovski. Sekerinska has been the real leader of SDSM behind the scenes, with Zaev a mere figurehead. Literally everyone in Macedonia knows this.
Unfortunately for the Priebe Team’s credibility, they knew this too. As a senior team member admitted for us in December, “I knew quite well” that Sekerinska was the real SDSM leader at the time of their activities in Macedonia. Thus while the team but a ban on meeting party presidents as a policy, they were happy to meet a deputy president who they knew all the while to be the real leader.
In fact, the team member recalled that Sekerinska had been the “opposite number” of team leader Reinhard Priebe, when he had worked on Balkan issues for the EC from 2001-2006. As such, they had already enjoyed a “good working relationship” many years ago, this official states.
Macedonian media have long speculated about the extent of Sekerinska’s role in influencing the Priebe Report. This new inside testimony for Balkanalysis.com is the first solid indication that these suspicions may have some validity.
In reconstructing the period, our estimate is therefore that two people had an inordinate influence on directing the schedules, interview subjects and orientation of the Priebe Team: Aivo Orav, the Delegation chief who we believe to have been under heavy blackmail at the time; and Radmila Sekerinska, the shadow president of the party making the allegations. If this assessment is correct, the Priebe Report – and subsequent EU reform efforts – would have to be re-examined.
An Unprecedented Order: Take Away the Toys
Yet there are still aspects of the Priebe team’s views that are even more troubling than source issues, linguistic register or political influence. Their most radical suggestion – not previously made by the EU – was the recommendation/order that the UBK be forced to give its SIGINT machinery to the telecom providers. (Try telling that to the NSA). While the team strongly believes that the current set-up is contrary to EU practice, the 2010 leaked EU document we provided in the previous article only noted that it was a different, perhaps unusual practice. But it not suggest drastic measures.
The exact text of the Priebe report reads:
“The UBK should have no direct access to the technical equipment allowing mirroring of the communication signal. The proprietary switches should be moved to the premises of the telecommunication providers. The providers should activate and divert signals to the competent law enforcement agencies (Police, Customs Administration and Financial Police) or the security agencies (the Security and Counterintelligence Service (UBK), the Intelligence Agency, and the Ministry of Defence’s military security and intelligence service) only upon receipt of the relevant court order, and only for the purposes of lawful interceptions. Under no circumstances should the UBK have the practical capability to capture communications directly.”
The team arrived at this edict from a number of perspectives, ranging from common practice in EU states to human rights and the rights of other intelligence bodies. But what they fundamentally failed to understand – because they deliberately did not investigate the provenance issue – is that misuse of this machinery was not due to the UBK as an institution. And it was due not a lack of parliamentary oversight, but a lack of internal oversight; without going into further details, it was specifically a human resources problem that created the conditions for illegal wiretaps to be made.
The Priebe Team was not interested in this. We pointed out that returning the equipment to the telecom providers would specifically mean returning to the set-up when Deutsche Telecom held a business and security monopoly in Macedonia.
A team member acknowledged for Balkanalysis.com that they did in fact understand this reality. “Obviously, we were well aware of the ‘dimension’ of recommendation,” he stated. “I would not contest this [UBK hosting of equipment] in a normally functioning state, with rule of law and parliamentary oversight in place, but that is not the case in Macedonia… It is quite a far-reaching recommendation, but under the circumstances, the combination of the parliamentary oversight committee not functioning and so on, that triggered the recommendation.”
In other words, the ‘expert team’ proposal is based on a subjective perception of Macedonia, at a particular moment in time, and not on a law. And we have shown above that this perception was based on numerous factors leading to an incomplete and often subjective result.
“That Does Not Impress Me”
To date, the UBK has chosen not to follow the ‘divestment’ order. As an example of how SIGINT access is indispensable to modern anti-terrorism operations, we brought up the Kumanovo operation last May, in which a coordinated terrorist plot was only foiled because of the police’s existing SIGINT capacities. In fact, according to intelligence available to Balkanalysis.com, SIGINT played the key role in identifying the plotters, who had planned to cause mass casualties in several Macedonian cities.
At this point, it is worth recalling the testimony of a veteran Macedonian intelligence official we noted in the third article of this series. He had said that in the days of Telecom’s monopoly, when there was no direct data access, it could take weeks or months for a tap request to be fulfilled. Had that structure been operational last year, thousands may have been killed.
“That does not impress me,” one senior Priebe Team member stated for Balkanalysis.com, in consideration of the Kumanovo operation. “Any intelligence service will tell you that the more direct data they have, the better. I don’t agree.”
The reader can make his own conclusions.
Does Macedonia Even Need an Intelligence Service?
Finally, we must note that the Priebe Team’s lack of understanding goes beyond technocratic opinions such as the above ones. With the exception of Inspector Varanese, it is not clear that the team had any real understanding of Macedonia’s actual importance in European security – let alone its responsibilities for its own citizens – despite the objective reality of terrorism plots, organized crime concerns, and being on the direct route of Europe’s worse migration crisis in modern history.
Indeed, as one senior member mused in a December 2015 discussion with Balkanalysis.com, “Macedonia is such a small country- why should it even need an intelligence service?”
Such an opinion would automatically disqualify anyone from participation in a serious job- except, of course, for the EU.
There is really nothing left to say.