Capital Skopje
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 389
Mobile Codes 70,71,72,75,76,78
ccTLD .mk
Currency Denar (1EUR = 61.5MKD)
Land Area 25,713 sq km
Population 2.1 million
Language Macedonian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Macedonian Security Issues, Intelligence Reform and Contemporary Politics: Interview with Stevo Pendarovski

Stevo Pendarovski is a former national security advisor to two presidents, and before that a career interior ministry analyst. He is now a professor at American College, Skopje, a newspaper columnist for Dnevnik, and is often cited in the Macedonian media for his outspoken opinions on subjects ranging from daily politics to issues of national security. Director Chris Deliso recently caught up with Mr Pendarovski to get his views on the security and political situation in Macedonia, and the issues affecting it. The following text provides an intriguing view not only on the contemporary situation, but also on how it was conditioned by the recent history of ‘transition,’ as witnessed by one man particularly involved in shaping it.

Deep Background

Chris Deliso: Welcome, Stevo, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. First of all, perhaps a little about yourself- how did you get interested in police matters in the first place? How did your career start, in the early 1990s?

Stevo Pendarovski: Well, I graduated with a degree in Law from the State University, and had been always focused on research. In late 1991, when Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, there was a general announcement, an open call for employees from the new cadres of graduates. And there were a lot of people being considered for jobs. I became associated with the analytical research department in the Sector for Public Security, following crime trends, in the Interior Ministry.

CD: Since this was coming directly out of the Yugoslav experience, at the time until only very recently centered in Belgrade, how did the new Macedonian security system develop? Was the security sector closely modeled on the former one, or was there some kind of reaction against the Yugoslav system?

SP: That period was quite important, and interesting in a number of respects. There was not a systematic change on our part. But to really answer the question, we first have to go back to supply more background and context. In the former Yugoslavia, the powerful military intelligence service, the KOS (Kontra-Obavestajna Sluzba, Counter-intelligence Service) worked within the JNA [Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija, Yugoslav National Army]. However, the KOS had not only been engaged in military intelligence, but in foreign intelligence work as well.

Nevertheless, in that foreign capacity KOS was still not the most important, the SDB (Sluzba Drzavne Bezbednosti, State Security Service) was the most [important]. And one of the mightiest parts of that service was the foreign ministry SIP (Sluzba Inostranih Poslova, Secretariat of Foreign Affairs). They were the best- think about it. Yugoslavia was a very important country at that time, with a population of over 21 million people, and diplomatic connections with both east and west, and in fact everywhere. With their 120 embassies around the world, Yugoslavia was fully embraced, ensuring that their most skilled and best trained spies could operate under diplomatic cover.

CD: How powerful was this Yugoslav system? From what I understand, they were engaged in killing diaspora nationalists from their republics who were considered a threat to the nation’s security.

SP: Yugoslavia maintained a very big network with over 100 diplomatic sources, and was very active in Europe especially. But even apart from that, civilian operatives within Yugoslavia were also powerful in all segments of society- this was not the case with the KOS. Yes, the army had all devices necessary, and some agents in civilian clothes, but they were not deployed everywhere. But the SDB was everywhere, from the parliaments on down, in even smallest enterprises, and even in primary schools.

CD: -in primary schools? Really!

SP: Yes, and all tightly controlled by the party.

The Early Days

CD: So, getting back to you specifically, how did you begin your service with the Interior Ministry?

SP: I applied and was accepted in November 1991, though I never saw the minister who appointed me; in the next month, our first interior minister, Jordan Mijalkov, died in a car accident in Serbia. He had signed the decision to give me the job. We were the first group of people after communism ended- 320 of us had been accepted. The new independent Macedonia did not even have an army at the time.

CD: Currently, there is a major political debate over the alleged need to do a ‘lustration’ process to name persons in public life who had anything to do with the former Yugoslav services. Were there not large-scale purges done at all after 1991?

SP: No, there was no systematic lustration in Macedonia as was done in Bulgaria and many former Communist countries. We started with more than 10,000 members of the ministry, most carried over from the previous regime. The government had not changed the system or done any lustration.

I personally started work in January 2002-

CD: Under [former Interior Minister Ljubomir] Frckovski?

SP: Yes, at the time he was having the status of minister without portfolio in the ‘technical’ government… he had been involved with writing the constitution. He became the minister of interior after being suggested by [former President] Kiro Gligorov, at age 34.

CD: That seems like quite a young age for that job, at that time in history.

SP: Yes, we did not have pluralism in the media at that time, only Puls, which doesn’t exist anymore, and Nova Makedonija were the two newspapers. They mildly raised the question of why was some older person had not been given the job. You know, during communism we had not been accustomed to young guys in such roles- they were always gray-haired older gentlemen, and here was this young guy who was coming to work by bicycle.

One interesting paradox during these almost 20 years of post-communism is that after each parliamentary election, always the winners from each political party are heavily fighting over who will run the Interior Ministry. Yet when it comes to individual choices, no one volunteers to be minister, because it will significantly shorten their political career-

CD: That wasn’t the case with Frckovski, he became foreign minister and recently ran, unsuccessfully, for president…

SP: Well I believe that [entering politics] was not his goal [at the time]. Even some sources told me Frckovski had initially rejected the idea but he accepted the ministry, allegedly after lengthy persuasion by President Gligorov. Everyone would like to nominate themselves to be minister of culture, economy, etc… or even minister of defense. They also have more access – our defense minister has met with [US Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, but our prime minister cannot even meet [US Vice-President Joseph] Biden.

Macedonia’s Contemporary Security Concerns

CD: You were serving under two very different presidents in Boris Trajkovski and Branko Crvenkovski. Can you explain how did the experiences differ, on a day-to-day level? In what way did their priorities differ when it came to security issues? And, were the outside conditions affecting national security in those days divergent as well?

SP: The security agenda was fundamentally different in these two successive historical periods; in 2001-2004 it was classical conflict and post-conflict-management, while in the period 2005-2009 ‘hard security’ concerns had eventually retreated and more or less routine political agendas emerged. What is really interesting is the excellent cooperation that existed between both politicians in 2001 and meaningful co-habitation after it.

CD: Macedonia survived ethnic strife in 2001, and occasional armed attacks on police since then. In your mind, what is the most significant security threat affecting the country today, and is the police handling it appropriately? If you were currently involved with security issues in the government, would you do anything differently and if so, what specifically?

SP: Security problems are two-fold: aspects of human security are totally neglected since an array of outstanding problems in the economy, social and criminal areas have an impact on people regardless of their ethnic origin. From the more traditional security menu the interethnic tensions are regularly referred to by the ‘hard security’ instruments of the state and very rarely by the preventive political tools. The internal interethnic contradictions are going to stay as the biggest challenge for the stability of the state in the years to come.

Uniting the Intelligence Agencies: Time for Change?

CD: The media has been reporting a lot about the government’s proposals to change the structure of the intelligence agencies, to be under one head. This means, for outside readers who may be unaware of the current set-up, moving the foreign intelligence agency (Agencija za Razuznavanje, currently under the president) to be under the prime minister, and thus united with the counter-intelligence agency (Direkcija za Bezbednost i Kontrarazuznavanje) and the Bureau for Public Safety (Buro za Java Bezbednost). Has such a plan ever been proposed before?

SP: Yes it has, but so far it was not achieved. Speaking about the timetable, I can remember at least two attempts by different governments [to do this]. As far as I can remember in 1999, under the government of Ljubco Georgievski, and again in 2005-6 when SDSM was in power. But they didn’t pass in either case.

CD: Do you see any problems with this proposal? Do you feel that it would concentrate too much power in one place? And, would it lead to more effective intelligence work?

SP: The proposed concept is wrong, for many reasons. First of all, stable and mature democracies have a so-called decentralized system of intelligence institutions. A clear majority of EU [countries] operate with such systems. It is good to have the crucial areas in Macedonia with overlapping areas of competencies, and to avoid politicizing as much as possible the operations.

This means the politicians should not interfere with the mid-level staff and the actual conduct of the operations. For example, the president according to our constitution is involved with foreign policy, in that he appoints ambassadors- but no one else beneath them in the hierarchy. He is the chief of the armed forces, but he appoints no one else except for the top generals, and so on. All the rest of the agencies should be operationally independent. The prime minister may be able to change an individual because of a bad job, but he should not get involved with the details of any specific operation.

The same is true with the intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, the president and prime minister, respectively, nominate only the director. However, now we are not working like this, there is too much political involvement down through the hierarchy… plus we are a transitional country, without a long history of institutions. Control is supposed to be overseen in parliament, by committee, but the committee does not have proper control. Also multi-ethnicity plays a role. That [reorganization of the services] was a bad suggestion in the time of VMRO-DPMNE and then SDSM (ie., 1998-2006), and it is again a bad idea now.

In short, we do have a need for better coordination, but we also have to create a better system that is under proper democratic control.

This said, the government also tells us that they would like to do this [reorganization] for saving money. It is true, we don’t have a lot of resources. Then why not to have three or perhaps five ministries, instead of 15? Why not do many other things? It is not a good excuse.

CD: At the current moment, what are Macedonia’s foreign intelligence capabilities? To what extent does the country rely on outside partnerships with countries like the US, UK, Israel and Turkey to do its own intelligence-gathering work?

SP: We have good connections with more than 20 partners in the world and yes, we are relying on them for now in many ways. It is true, we do not a big financial budget. And maybe it is not a high enough priority… I had joked in one of my columns for [the newspaper] Dnevnik that the budget of the intelligence agency is less than the cost of two of the lion statues] the government has built on the bridge.

Early Elections?

CD: Will there be, as some are rumoring, a call for early elections by the opposition if Macedonia is not invited to join NATO next month and if the name issue with Greece is not resolved?

SP: I don’t know about this issue, so I can’t say more. I am not connected with daily politics, as a non-member of any party, so I do not have that kind of inside information. But speaking just as a citizen of Macedonia, I doubt we will have early elections. On the part of the government, there is no need for that. They still are doing pretty well in the polls.

However, if there are early elections, the government cannot repeat the same success it had in the elections of 2008. They will win, but not by as much of a margin as before, and not get more than 60 of 120 seats [in parliament]. Thus they would not have a strong mandate.

In such a situation, it is possible to see a big coalition on the other side. Their only common denominator and overarching goal would be… to try solving the name issue and the currently frozen EU-integration process. But it would be highly uncertain to be successful, if elected, in solving the name issue if the biggest political party [the currently ruling VMRO-DPMNE] is outside of the process. Then the eventual solution would lack the broader political legitimacy essential for this kind of strategic issue.

CD: Do you have any concerns that since any “broad coalition” government would have to congregate under a large umbrella of parties and outside interests that radical elements, such as Islamist interests, could find a way into power this way?

SP: I differ greatly on the so-called “Islamic menace” from the mainstream public. Due to the dominantly secular matrixes of Albanians, Turks and Bosniaks living in Macedonia and the lasting legacy of atheism under communism radical Islam does not have the great potential  to position itself as a structural security threat.

CD: What would a specific solution to the name issue be, as brought forth by such a coalition?

SP: You cannot spell out all the details of an eventual solution because a comprehensive settlement could be in place… it is not all about just the name of the state. Other issues might be brought up like identity, language, minority rights, joint committees on history textbooks, etc.

CD: In a normal country, though, there is a shadow government made up of the opposition, that has clear policies and that makes counter-arguments to whatever the government proposes. In Macedonia, however, they all just attack each other. So, why are [the opposition] holding back, if they know the answer? Are they waiting for the government to fail on its own accord, so that they can come in after an election and implement their own secret solution?

SP: You cannot spell that out, as the main opposition party, SDSM, has not been involved in the actual negotiating process with Greece in recent years. They can’t make counter-proposals, because they are not privy to whatever negotiations are going on behind the scenes, and thus where the process is now. But it can be said they are deeply suspicious of public statements on the negotiations coming from [Prime Minister] Gruevski.

Still, naturally enough no one is willing to speak about changing his country’s name, and thus risk losing popularity… all political parties, old and new alike, are aware that solving the name dispute will be bad for themselves in the end, because it will involve compromise.

It is just like as I recall the late President Trajkovski saying of the political leaders who signed the Ohrid Framework Agreement after the [2001] war, “no one from the signatories is going to gain politically from this- each of us will have to pay a political price for it.”

It is the same with the name issue. This is not a popular issue. To build a monument to some historical event or person will earn some respect for you, somewhere, but no one will gain any personal points in solving the name issue.

CD: Still, since the leaders of different parties do not seem to be communicating, the internationals seem to have been right to be dubious about the country’s dedication to solving this all these years.

SP: Well, according to my information, the opposition as a whole has not been approached by the government and asked to forge a unified position on the issue- or at least the leaders of the main political parties.

However, in contrast, Greece’s so-called “red line” has been created outside of the view of the cameras. The Greek leaders agreed on their position before the [2008] Bucharest Summit, and on one has ever seen even a photo from the meeting where they did that, held under the organization of [Greek President Karolos] Papoulias. Of course, the then-premier [Costas] Karamanlis and Georgios Papandreou were not on good terms, as politicians, but all of them had sat and agreed on a national position. So Macedonia cannot resolve the name issue unless there is a large coalition-

CD: That means it will never happen.

SP: As far as I know, SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski has not been asked. We all know that he and Gruevski do not maintain regular political communication. But they have to be made to agree, to say “look, even though I cannot stand to be in your physical presence for more than 5 minutes, please, no one is going to agree without us making a unified position.”

CD: This brings up an interesting point. When he stepped down from the post of national president, Branko returned to the SDSM – which was suffering very badly in the polls – and promised that a new generation would be leading the way forward. So he removed a whole bunch of mid-level people and added some young faces. Yet he himself did not step down- and this is a leader who was active since 1992, who many voters associate especially with the difficult years of ‘transition’ in the 1990s, when many dubious things happened. So why, if he wanted to give the party a breath of fresh air, did he not resign as well?

SP: That’s one interesting thing here in Macedonia. First of all, his decision to stay or resign is up to him. But generally people are not putting him in a comparative perspective. Gruevski, for example, has been for 12 years in politics. He might be easily classified as someone who has also been a long time in politics.

CD: One of the reasons average voters have shared with me about why they think SDSM has done so poorly in the past few years is their television ads, which seem to reinforce the party’s image as arrogant, cold and unfeeling.

In the latest series of ads, which appeared just recently, viewers were presented with a somewhat shocking selection of “social cases”- utterly impoverished persons, special-needs individuals, even a retarded child in chains- it was like the SDSM selected a few very extreme cases to shock the public and imply that the government is not doing anything for them.

Do you feel that this amounts to a manipulation of disadvantaged persons for political gain? Is such advertising ethical? And, in any case, why do you think the party’s PR campaign planners would think this would have a positive impact on the voters?

SP: I have deep personal dilemmas about some of the political ads being aired, as well. Of course, it does not include impoverished people which unfortunately are a very real category in our country. What is good is that the president of the oppositional party [Branko Crvenkovski] had already issued public apologue on it.

However, I am afraid to say that the ruling party had contributed immensely in denouncing its political opponents in the past years, thus vastly reducing the scope for free expression. The latest catastrophic fall of Macedonia on the global scale of media freedom is a sad reminder about the current state of affairs.

CD: Would you accept a position in an SDSM-led government? Maybe police chief or something?

SP: I cannot speculate. Some of the newspapers had published my name linked with different hypothetical future governments. I have never ever seen myself as a professional politician. For sure, in the next few years, we will not see any reshuffling. Should I say maybe in 2018? I really don’t know.

CD: Stevo, thanks very much for your time, I appreciate your insights.

SP: Thank you.

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