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

On Ninth Anniversary of Macedonian President Trajkovski’s Death, New Details Emerge

By Chris Deliso

As Macedonians mark the ninth anniversary, of the death of President Boris Trajkovski and eight others in a plane crash in Bosnia, can provides some intriguing supplementary information, which follows a lengthy report last week which discussed how Trajkovski’s death created a chasm that has widened in contemporary Macedonian politics.

The present article presents insider insights into Trajkovski’s political intentions at the time of his death, and his complicated relationship with American diplomacy of the day. Taken together, the cumulative data paints a very different picture of events than what has been previously understood, and most significantly points to a little-known fact: that before his death, Trajkovski had every intention of running for re-election later in 2004, despite what contemporaneous media accounts reported.

This news comes at a time when the Bosnian government is finishing up an investigation into the crash requested by its Macedonian counterparts (the head of the commission recently visiting Skopje to gather some final data). The new report, written by an investigative team composed of Bosnian, Macedonian and international aviation experts, will be released in a matter of months. This report, can reveal, will cast into serious doubt the initial Macedonian report released not long after the crash, which returned a verdict of ‘pilot error.’ This result will certainly create significant renewed public interest in the issue, and may also have implications for certain foreign relations.

Trajkovski’s Presidency and Wartime Diplomacy

Boris Trajkovski became president in 1999, having run as the candidate for the then-ruling VMRO-DPMNE party under Ljubco Georgievski. Unlike his predecessor, Kiro Gligorov, Trajkovski was not a product of communist times, and nor was he particularly political by nature. Trajkovski’s outsider status was enhanced by the fact that he was not Orthodox, but rather a Methodist from the southeastern Strumica area. By a sort of historical accident Protestantism had been introduced to a few villages there 100 years earlier by American missionaries, and somehow it has lingered on. And so, while Trajkovski was a proud Macedonian, the well-worn foreign criticism of ‘Balkan Orthodox Slav nationalist’ could not be applied to him. This is a subtle detail but one worth keeping in mind as it affected both the president’s relationship with foreign diplomats, and it also meant he would not receive the kind of criticism other Macedonian leaders were getting at the time.

The outbreak of ethnic Albanian militancy in 2001 presented an unprecedented challenge for Macedonia’s leaders, and none more so than Boris Trajkovski. As commander-in-chief he had ostensible control over the armed forces while also being, on the state and international levels, the man tasked with restoring the peace through diplomacy.

However, the president’s ability to deliver was hampered by the unpredictable behavior of both the hostile party (the so-called National Liberation Army of Ali Ahmeti), and the fractious government coalition, which had police control and could do things like declare a state of emergency, martial law or escalate tensions through military action or even rhetoric. Thus statements and actions from all of these protagonists would make Trajkovski’s peacemaking efforts more complicated.

The 2001 conflict was relatively short though traumatic. It ended with summer’s Ohrid Framework Agreement, a document essentially written by Western powers and forced on the country’s ‘national unity’ government. This peace treaty was hugely unpopular among regular Macedonians, who considered its generous provisions for Albanians as essentially rewarding violence. Concessions across the board included increases in existing quota-based public sector hiring, expanded language and flag use stipulations and, most controversially, a territorial decentralization that would further fragment the country along ethnic lines.

Today, we are about to see the final domino fall in elections in a few weeks’ time. The deferred final rearrangement of municipalities will see Ahmeti’s power base of Kicevo get its first ethnic Albanian mayor. And so with very few exceptions from Struga in the south to the Kosovo border in the north, the vast majority of the west will be under total Albanian control, a requisite step for the future federalization or division of the country.

President Trajkovski was ultimately blamed for the outcome of the war, though the process was never one that he controlled. An anecdote illustrating this clearly comes from a professed former member of President Trajkovski’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ (that is, inner circle), American consultant Jason Miko. This longtime supporter of Macedonian issues recalls a tortuous meeting he attended in early May 2001 between Trajkovski and Joe Biden (then a senator, today, the US vice-president), in the latter’s Washington office.

At the meeting, which was devoted to finding ways to end the three-month-old conflict, President Trajkovski sought to appeal to the senator’s sense of justness by questioning, as many Macedonians were doing, whether the Albanians had been right in seeking to solve their demands through war. Miko tells that Biden simply replied: “this is not about right or wrong, this is about what is possible.”

After the War: a President Forgotten

With a moral focus that on occasion made him appear politically naïve, President Trajkovski could not have been further from the Democrat senator and his realpolitik approach. But the president’s strong Christian values did however win him some very important American allies- most importantly, President George W. Bush, with whom he prayed at a White House chapel and with whom he became a close personal friend. Trajkovski was also on good terms with Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell.

This context is crucial for understanding the Macedonian president’s ambivalent relationship with US diplomacy between 2001 and 2004, a time in which conservatives dominated the administration but liberals (typically, holdovers from the Clinton years) were frequently found in diplomatic missions. It was in this odd, and somewhat schizophrenic historical moment that President Boris Trajkovski’s own drama played out, one in which he suffered a loss in public support due to outcomes that were beyond his control on all sides.

In September 2002 elections, the incumbent VMRO-DPMNE party was defeated by its left-wing rival, SDSM. The latter entered into a forced coalition with the hastily-assembled DUI- a group led by NLA leader Ali Ahmeti, who until the war had apparently been living in Switzerland. Longtime SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski became prime minister, having served in this capacity between 1994 and 1998.

Western powers, eager to uphold the fragile peace, heavily supported the new government. With new local protégés to mind, and the urgency of wartime diplomacy behind them, American diplomats demonstrated less support for President Trajkovski, several informed sources assert.

American Local Rivalries and President Trajkovski

At the time, the International Republican Institute was among the leading international NGOs in Macedonia. In March 2003, American lawyer Henry Jones was appointed as country director for the non-profit, which works in numerous countries on democracy-building initiatives.

Now, Jones reveals for that from the beginning of his time in Skopje, “it was clear that there was a fairly significant rift between Trajkovski and the [US] embassy.” They also disliked the IRI. This seemed partly due to political prejudices: “most of the people in the embassy at that time were left-wing or far-left in orientation,” he notes. “Some of them automatically assumed that [the IRI] would work with Republicans only, which was not accurate.” He recalls that funding giant USAID was also hostile, and that it told him to “do more with women and youth issues.”

Further, he adds, “the embassy would harass us for not working with DUI, when actually we did reach out to them. Part of it was a disinformation campaign from DUI, who always preferred to work with NDI [the National Democratic Institute]- so we ended up having to work more with DPA.”

A counterpart to the IRI, the NDI is another democracy-builder active around the world. Nominally associated with the US Democratic Party, it is also functionally non-partisan. In the specific case of Macedonia in 2003, it seems that DUI’s decision to ally with the organization had less to do with ideology than with its reported ‘sexual diplomacy,’ that allowed it to penetrate high levels in the NDI as well as the EU mission in Skopje. This contributed to the Albanian party’s disproportionate leverage and influence among the ‘international community’ at the time, affecting the tone and quality of diplomacy and internal reports.

Unfortunately, one of the American officials who seemed to particularly dislike Trajkovski was the ambassador, Lawrence Butler. Today, Jones still remembers the ambassador’s behavior on the first occasion that he met President Trajkovski. “A number of us were waiting in line to be introduced to Boris, who could sometimes look a little goofy. And there was Butler, who didn’t know who I was yet, in line behind me. I actually saw him snickering at the president, which I thought was incredibly inappropriate behavior for a US diplomat.”

Ambassador Butler was a career diplomat who developed his Balkan portfolio during the previous liberal administration. He gradually moved from monitoring human rights for the OSCE in Kosovo in 1993 to becoming Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Serbia during the 1995 Dayton Accords, finally becoming Director for Europe on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff from 1997-1999.

However, in Macedonia, Butler would become the most controversial US ambassador in the country’s short history. In fact, “the Bush administration was so happy with Butler’s performance, they gave him to the Europeans!” quips Jason Miko, referring to Butler’s 2005-2007 posting as Deputy High Representative in Bosnia’s international mission. Although Butler’s fortunes were later revived (he is presently Civilian Deputy to the Commander at EUCOM), there is no question that perceived failures in Macedonia – the graveyard of so many foreigners over the centuries – affected his career to some extent.

The reasons for this went beyond personal demeanor. Although Butler became too closely involved in Macedonian internal politics, the totally unexpected issue that got him into hot water with the White House was the odd, and somewhat amusing ‘gay billboards scandal’ that broke in the fall of 2003. This essentially involved dozens of billboards spread around Macedonia for an NGO gay-rights campaign; their erection had apparently been partly subsidized by the embassy in Skopje.

The ‘Gay Billboards Scandal’ Brings a Special Visitor

Henry Jones recalls the period clearly. His first reaction when passing one such billboard on the road from Skopje Airport was incredulity. “I saw the embassy’s seal and thought, ‘what the hell is this?’” With the Bush administration supporting a family-values agenda at home, here was a very different agenda being presented abroad.

When the story reached the White House, there was also surprise: “this was not out of any hostility towards gays,” Jones notes. “It was just that it was completely counter to the administration’s agenda.”  The real issue for the White House, however, was that the money used for the billboards campaign had apparently come from the ambassador’s discretionary spending budget, “and thus had not been approved by Washington first.” The administration was most angered, Jones says, because “when confronted about it, Butler first pretended he didn’t even know about the program… then he said there was one billboard, when in fact there were 60, all over the country. The whole concept of how they represented it was flawed.”

The story made waves with a National Review article on it in January 2004, and even reached conservative tax campaigner Grover Norquist, who apparently denounced Butler as “an enemy of the American taxpayer.” The whole bizarre affair became a subject of questions at State Department briefings for two or three days and titillated the Macedonian media, with locals finding it just an ephemeral amusement of no importance. But the whole furor, it is believed, severely rattled the ambassador.

Not long after the ‘scandal’ it became clear to Jones and colleagues that Ambassador Butler was taking an excessive interest in them. “Butler seemed to always have interesting info about us personally, and about IRI in general.” The attention and generally hostile relationship between the embassy and IRI led the White House to intercede.

In February 2004, Barry Jackson, a senior advisor to President Bush and Karl Rove’s deputy, was dispatched to Skopje. Henry Jones accompanied Jackson to the meeting, which was held at the ambassador’s residence.

Part of Jackson’s message concerned the recent scandal. As Miko notes with amusement, “Bruce was sent to read Larry [Butler] the riot act over the billboards.” However, there was another and more important aspect to the trip. Jones recalls that “the key message to Butler was that the White House wanted the embassy to throw in its support for Boris’ re-election- and at very least, for the embassy to just leave IRI alone. Jackson’s message to Butler was essentially: keep your hands off of IRI. We had significant resources, arguably the best in the world for Macedonia at that time. We offered world-class political consulting free of charge, available to every party and NGO in the country, regardless of political orientation. We were doing important work for the country’s progress.”

Very soon after the meeting, a perceptible change could be noted in Ambassador Butler’s behavior towards the IRI and particularly, President Trajkovski. Miko recalls a meeting soon after in which the ambassador specifically asked the president what the embassy could do to help him. But it was too late- Trajkovski’s tragic fate was rapidly approaching.

President Trajkovski before the Crash: ‘Happy and in High Spirits’

As has been said, after the war President Trajkovski was gradually marginalized as Western diplomats focused their support on the new government. The more controversial aspects of the Ohrid Agreement angered Macedonian voters who blamed all leaders involved with its passage, including Trajkovski. Particularly controversial was the planned territorial decentralization, which would reduce municipalities from 120 to 84- lumping the land together in ways that, as mentioned above, would consolidate ethnic Albanian municipal control over wide swathes of the country, and thus expedite future ethnic federalization.

According to people around him at the time like Jones and Miko, President Trajkovski felt a sense of betrayal from the US side. “Boris was saddened,” recalls Jones. “He remarked to me that he had done everything the US asked of him with the Ohrid Agreement, and that this should count for something. But these people [i.e., foreign diplomats] have a ten-second memory.”

While by late 2003 Crvenkovski and Ahmeti had managed to negotiate a settlement for the decentralization plan, Trajkovski famously refused to sign it, stating that it was counter to national interests and would not lead to ethnic harmony. This was another reason why Butler and his staff saw the president as an obstruction: “the embassy didn’t like it when people didn’t do what they said,” notes Jones. Trajkovski’s principled refusal also reportedly angered Crvenkovski.

This inside testimony on President Bush’s order to support Trajkovski’s re-election is compelling, since it contradicts local media reports at the time. They stated that Trajkovski would not run, as the VMRO-DPMNE was openly touting Sasko Kedev, a doctor, as its likely candidate. Trajkovski was planning to run again, even if it was as an independent, says Jones, but he first would have needed to “reintroduce himself socially, to restore his relevance and image in society.”

Despite the very low probability of Trajkovski winning in autumn 2004 elections as an independent, he was “happy and in high spirits during my last meeting with him, which was about a week before he died,” attests Jones.

Further, at the time of Trajkovski’s death, Macedonia’s conservative party had not actually made a final decision on its candidate. Media suggested Kedev would be the VMRO-DPMNE candidate (which indeed is what happened), but this had not been decided at the time of Trajkovski’s death.

One of the last people to have seen the president alive was Jason Miko, who took part in a brief but detailed strategy meeting with Trajkovski the day before his fateful flight to Bosnia on February 26, 2004. “What you’ve got to remember,” says Miko, “is that the presidential elections were not supposed to be held until the fall- and the date of the [VMRO-DPMNE] party nominating congress had not even been set yet.”

Adds Miko, “President Bush wanted to see Boris run as the VMRO-DPMNE party’s candidate, and to be re-elected. And Boris was optimistic- he was looking forward to making a strong run when we last spoke, the day before he died. He said that we would meet again soon, to discuss more campaign strategy, as soon as he returned from Bosnia.”

This evidence contradicts the accepted narrative that President Trajkovski was prepared to accept defeat and meekly ride off into the sunset when his term came to an end in autumn 2004. Now, we can only speculate on what would have happened had he lived long enough to run.

A Mysterious Tragedy

As soon as Macedonians heard the news that the presidential plane had crashed on February 26, 2004, killing Trajkovski, six of his cabinet members and the two pilots on board, speculation rapidly spread that he had been assassinated. This being the Balkans, such suspicions were to have been expected. But there were undoubtedly strange elements to this particular case. Critics questioned everything from various odd technical discrepancies to the extraordinarily long time (24 hours!) French SFOR troops manning the Mostar Airport claimed it had taken them to discover the wreckage. However, after a quick report by the incumbent SDSM government, the two (very experienced) pilots were blamed for the crash, and many odd inconsistencies remained unanswered.

The family members of those who died were justifiably angry at the findings, as some of them shared public suspicions and all of them were in grief. As in similar tragedies, there was a sentiment among them that they simply lacked closure.

Frustration over the debatable results of the first report led the families of the deceased to file a wrongful death suit on October 17, 2005 against the American producer of the presidential plane, Raytheon. A close relative of one of the crash victims now tells that “we felt something was wrong with the first case, but we just didn’t know what to do… this decision was an expression of our anger and grief.”

This source concedes that filing suit against the American company had probably been ill-conceived, and there was internal disagreement about the victims’ families about whether to even go ahead: “some of us just wanted to leave the past behind, since nothing could bring back our loved ones.” The case was dismissed in 2008, based on various legal precedents (the details are available here). From the very beginning it had been a long shot anyway, since the plane was built over three decades before the crash.

Was Trajkovski’s Death an Accident or Assassination? Still No Motives

While the new evidence to be provided in the upcoming Bosnian report will show that these NATO troops deliberately lied about this and many other aspects of the case, it still does not establish any conclusive proof or motive for anyone to assassinate the president. Certainly, many people were happy that he was out of the way, but this does not mean that they would resort to assassination.

“The [US] embassy believed that Boris would have run as an independent, lost, and thus be out of the picture anyway,” notes Henry Jones. “So there wouldn’t be an intelligent reason for anyone to get rid of him. He did not represent a threat to anyone.”

Further, unlike certain other Balkan leaders and businessmen, the moral Trajkovski was not the sort of fellow to become involved in corruption or white-collar crime either, so there could not have been any scenario for a ‘gangland’ assassination.

There have been a variety of local conspiracy theories among Macedonians over the years. One has it that Trajkovski had incriminating information about corruption or crimes among certain international officials. Mysterious missile attacks have been proposed. The most outlandish theory has it that the president never actually boarded the plane and instead was secretly retired to some tropical island (possibly, to live out his days with Elvis).

However, more frequently the alleged culprit in most Macedonian conspiracy theories is SDSM chief and then-Prime Minister, Branko Crvenkovski. One variant of this theory claims that Crvenkovski sought to eliminate Trajkovski because the latter refused to sign the toxic territorial decentralization bill, heavily being pushed on the country by the West at the time.

This theory is also difficult to believe, because (as many have pointed out), the parliament could in time simply have overstepped any presidential veto after several rounds of voting. In short, Trajkovski could not have stopped the decentralization, was not expected to run for re-election, and thus did not represent a threat even to his political foes. It is also very hard to believe that the prime minister of a small country like Macedonia would, or even could have coordinated an assassination with international NATO forces in a third country, while orchestrating a seamless cover-up. sources state that the upcoming joint report is not expected to come up with any ‘smoking gun’ (unless the Bosnians have something explosive not yet known to us). The case is thus likely to retain its aura of mystery forever, though the result should give relatives of the victims a greater level of closure.

Suspicions will always remain, however. Anecdotal evidence does exist that would seem indicate certain warning signs of a planned assassination in the three months before Trajkovski’s death. However, as it would not be responsible to disclose such comments before the report is issued we will not specify these at this time.

Revelations to Come: the Second Committee’s Report

In February 2013, the chief investigator for the Bosnian side of the new international investigation team visited Skopje and gave several interviews for local media. He stated several details that had already been told to by an informed source familiar with the investigation. The visiting official told media that the upcoming report of the committee – which contains Macedonian, Bosnian and international experts, including pilots and at least one American representative – will be released in a matter of months. He gave a very strong statement in which he said that the investigators were willing to do everything, including exhume the bodies of other victims of the crash, in order to dispel the confusion and solve the case once and for all.

The Macedonian government finished its second investigation into the crash eight months ago, after approximately two-and-a-half years of work. Part of the reason that the results will be released in a few months and not now, our informed sources says, is that it did not want this to become perceived as a politically motivated stunt before the March 24th local elections.

Indeed, while it is foreseeable that partisan domestic critics may blame the government’s decision to reopen the case as politically motivated, our source claims that “a totally different person, a high-level European close friend of Boris who shared many of his beliefs, personally petitioned for the case to be reopened,” even taking his plea to the highest levels of the US government. It seems that President Bush was not Trajkovski’s only influential supporter.

Unless the Bosnian side has some huge new piece of evidence of which we are unaware, can predict that the upcoming report will not directly blame any single person or group for the crash. In short, it will not conclude that the crash was a political assassination.

However, sources say that the report will prove something almost as damning: that the first committee committed a joint cover-up with the NATO force in Bosnia to conceal acts of gross negligence absent of which the fatal accident would not have happened.

Since the technicalities of this are too long and complex to recite, we can say in general that the report will detail a combination of technical errors and oversights on the part of individuals and civic aviation bodies, including SFOR air traffic controllers in Bosnia (who were reportedly returned to France immediately after the crash, and who refused to cooperate with the second committee). These embarrassing facts would have made them partly liable for the crash.

One of the key points the Bosnian report will make has long been questioned by individuals (including Bosnian local witnesses)- SFOR’s claim that, despite all of their advanced equipment, maps and local knowledge, that they did not find the downed plane for a full 24 hours after it crashed. In fact, the report will contend that witnesses, including Bosnian intelligence, spotted NATO soldiers on the crash site less than two hours after it happened- and were told by them to leave immediately.

Another problematic question that will be raised involve issues pertaining to radar usage and signal lights at Mostar Airport’s radar at the time of the crash. Gross negligence on the side of NATO in its air traffic control capacity will thus be singled out.

On the Macedonian side, issues regarding the plane’s upkeep, problems with its black box, and other small but important technical deficiencies that should have been addressed before the flight will be discussed.

Therefore we can predict that the results of the report will be both sensational and widely respected, considering the international make-up of the investigative team. Internally, Bosnian leaders might be able to settle political scores with officials active in 2004 and involved in some way with the case. On the Macedonian side, the previous SDSM government and local NATO officers will be blamed for a cover-up of gross negligence, by not discussing in the first report some of the embarrassing details that should have been addressed.

Broadly speaking, this could lead to a worsening of relations between the major Macedonian parties and a brief spat between Macedonia and France. However, relations with France are not considered important as the latter has historically been viewed as playing favorites with the ethnic Albanian side.

In the end, no matter what is reported, it is going to be interesting to watch. Even nine years later, Macedonia’s greatest modern tragedy continues to affect the national psyche and perception of its political leaders.

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