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Macedonia

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

Europe’s Macedonian Intervention, Part 2: Introduction to the Priebe Report

By Chris Deliso

As the foundation document upon which the July 2015 Przino Agreement was directly based, the EU Expert Team report (the Priebe Report, uploaded by Balkanalysis.com here) represents the single most important event in the 2015 Macedonia intervention.

Analyzing the report reveals (among much else) that, at its hard bureaucratic core, the EU utilizes operational capacities that create undemocratic realities; as in other cases, a small number of anonymous foreign ‘experts’ were allowed to determine the fate of an entire country.

While Macedonia’s political party leaders still pledge to implement the Priebe Report’s “reforms,” local and foreign media have not investigated the report itself- including its underlying rationale, personnel, logistics arrangements, policy priorities, technical execution- and the ramifications that its conclusions would have for Western crisis response in managing, and prolonging the crisis.

A Most Civilized Murder

The EU may be owned by corporations and guided by invisible lobbyists, but in general it is not an aggressive actor; instead, it offers death by a thousand footnotes. So while the means and methods of exacting a result may differ from those of a military intervention, the EU intervention through its Expert Team reached a similarly political result.  The beauty of the system is that those most directly involved are always hidden within the black hole of EU bureaucracy. The purpose of such methods is to limit transparency and any chance of deeper inquiries.

Therefore, given the Priebe Report’s historic significance for Macedonia and foreign involvement there, Balkanalysis.com has conducted the first such analysis. Our 10-month investigation is based on official EU Skopje Delegation interviews, leaked documents, and written testimony from the Hahn Cabinet, as well as interviews with high-level Expert Team members, EU diplomats, European security and intelligence officials and other informed sources. This multi-part investigation will examine, with minute precision, the facts about EU involvement in Macedonia through its team of experts and their influential report.

Our series will thus hopefully be useful for anyone seeking to understand the trajectory of events in Macedonia since late January 2015.

A Problem of Timing

It is debatable whether the Macedonian crisis began on April 27, 2014 (when SDSM leader Zoran Zaev refused to accept the election results), or on January 23, 2015 (when former SDSM-era counterintelligence chief Zoran Verusevski was arrested), or on January 31, 2015 (when PM Nikola Gruevski addressed the nation to announce the blackmail scenario and coup that the two had allegedly planned).

However, the Priebe Report cites none of these. Like the very effective foreign media coverage in following months, it settled on February 9, 2015- the date when Zaev started releasing what the report describes as “a large number of illegally intercepted communications.”

Obviously, the European Commission, intelligence services and diplomatic missions involved with Macedonia had been watching the situation carefully since the April elections. However, the EU’s slow reacted to events indicates that it was surprised by the Verusevski arrest- one of the many tactical failures that have characterized the period of The Great Unraveling, in which the locals have always been one step ahead of the foreigners.

The Fog of War: Timing and Deployment

For a truly comprehensive analysis of the EU reaction and decision to deploy an Expert Team, it would be necessary to know precisely when and how the EU first reacted. However, the Hahn Cabinet did not respond to our requests for clarification.

Balkanalysis.com did however interview other Expert Team members, including a very senior member of the group, in December 2015 in person and by phone in April 2016. This individual, who supplied a wealth of otherwise unknown inside details, did not “remember the exact date” when the Commission first reacted to the crisis, nor when it decided specific policy actions. The group was created, he recalls, “in March [2015] to support the Commission’s work and to advise it.” Nevertheless, the team member concedes, it is possible that “plans for such a group and discussions with FYROM authorities might have [begun] earlier.” Again due to the non-cooperation of the Hahn Cabinet, we could not clarify these dates further.

Interestingly, this key source specified that the early intercession of three MEPS (Richard Howitt from Britain, Eduard Kukan from Slovakia and Ivo Vajgl from Slovenia) was “quite useful. It gave political weight in the European Parliament and Commission to the idea that, since technical issues were involved related to rule of law, technical experts were needed to provide concrete advice.”

Nevertheless, EU experts were not deployed until late April, by which time the already fluid operative conditions were very different. SDSM’s ‘bombs’ campaign was ongoing, while the majority of the public was amused or infuriated by Zaev’s behavior. Unknown to many, a terrorist plot directed from Kosovo was in formation, and opposition protest activity was visible.

Most importantly, the prosecutor’s office was also getting dangerously close to unraveling the whole network behind the failed coup. Although Verusevski was still in jail, Zaev had never been arrested (merely, his passport was taken). Things were becoming, as the EU noted, “urgent.” But for whom?

When asked about the perceived delay in taking action, the senior expert told us that “I do not think it took the Commission an unusually long time to enable us to go on our first mission to Skopje. The team had to be composed, people needed to be available, and some preparation work needed to be done in advance of the first meeting.”

Key Dates

According to the official report, the Priebe Team made only three trips to Macedonia: 20-22 April; 3-5 May, and 17-20 May. The fluidity of events also ensured that these visits coincided with different political and security circumstances as the overall drama unfolded.

The report was published finally on June 8, 2015. While the caveat was made that it represented the views of the (unnamed) authors, and not necessarily represent those of the Commission, the latter took every recommendation on board when Delegation leader Aivo Orav and the Commission negotiated with the four political parties (VMRO-DPMNE, SDSM, DUI and DPA) to reach the July 15, 2015 Przino Agreement.

Therefore, the Priebe Report is the founding document of the politically-negotiated settlement. And it has had serious ramifications for Macedonian politics and security, which include the creation of a parallel justice system (the Special Prosecutor’s Office, founded in fall 2015), and recommendations that, if followed, will severely impair national and international security.

Most recently, the Enlargement Committee indirectly referred to the Priebe Report at the June 15, 2016 Stabilisation and Association Committee meeting between Macedonia and the EU (led by David Cullen from the Hahn Cabinet). According to an official press release, the meeting discussed “the importance of the implementation of the Przino agreement and the Urgent Reform Priorities, without any further delay and in an inclusive manner, in order to return the country to an EU path.”

The so-called “Urgent Reform Priorities” refer to the findings of the Priebe Report, that were formally adopted in June by the Commission.

The History of Hahn’s First Decision: a “Two-Track” Approach Dependent on a Rule-of-Law Perception

According to background information sent to Balkanalysis.com from the Hahn Cabinet on May 20, 2016, the Commission decided from the beginning to take a “two-track approach to “the wiretap scandal.” This confirms that thinking in Brussels has never changed- their overall engagement was triggered following Zaev’s activities starting February 9, 2015. For them (and much of the media) that day constitutes the beginning of history regarding the Macedonian crisis. This is a false assumption, but one that is extremely significant, as we will see.

Our fully-documented timeline of official correspondence with the Hahn Cabinet and EU Delegation in Skopje was discussed in the first part of this series. As was true with our requests there, Hahn Spokeswoman Maja Kocijančič has failed to reply to key follow-up questions.

For instance, it is unclear who proposed, and when, the EU’s chosen policy path. The Hahn Cabinet told us that the “envisioned” ‘Track One’ involved political facilitation of “that crisis” by Commissioner Hahn. This process, it was noted, was at an (unstated) later date supported by the above-mentioned MEPs. This, according to the Cabinet, resulted in the Przino Agreement of July 2015.

Interestingly, considering the heavy overlap between the Priebe Report and the final Przino Agreement, the Cabinet continues to regard the second, “Track two” as somehow separate from the first. According to the Cabinet, this involved “sending a team of senior rule of law experts to examine, and make recommendations on, the serious systemic rule of law issues which were revealed or confirmed as a result of the publication of the illegal interception of communications (wiretaps) over preceding years.”

It is therefore clear that the Hahn Cabinet from the beginning understood the crisis as a rule-of-law issue, rather than a counter-intelligence failure, human resources problem, or even just a good old-fashioned mystery. The Commission’s perception, therefore, led the EU to a tacit endorsement of SDSM’s charges. The entire Priebe Report investigation would follow this trajectory- and not only due to EU preferences, but also due to several cover-ups that can be discussed later in the series.

Hahn Spokeswoman Maja Kocijančič has failed to reply to our query regarding whether the “two-track” approach was decided simultaneously from the beginning, or if the second came after the first at some later point. She has also failed to clarify whether the whole policy came from Hahn’s own brain or was a result of collective musings with others. These could quite conceivably have included Federica Mogherini, the Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Commissioner, and Dimitris Avramopoulos and his Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Commission. Both of these have powerful anti-Macedonian lobbyists within, and the competencies of both involved all of Macedonia’s converging issues of 2015, including the migrant crisis.

The Fatal Decision: Content over Provenance

The EU’s original perception that Macedonia’s ‘crisis’ was a rule-of-law issue rather than literally anything else has had serious ramifications for the trajectory of all crisis diplomacy. It has forced the EU and its Western cohorts to impose locally unpopular measures that have significantly damaged the credibility of these powers among the majority of Macedonians.

This is forcing some very frustrated foreigners to support increasingly violent protest actors, while enforcing political stagnation. Since summer is coming, there will be a two-month lull during which time the various sides will reappraise their strategies for fall. The tragedy is that all of this could have been handled differently and resolved from the beginning, though – for reasons only partly involving EU preferences – it wasn’t.

Rather, the fundamental preliminary question should have been this: whether to investigate where Zaev’s SIGINT material came from, how it was acquired and for what purpose (provenance), or what this material comprised (content assessment). There is no evidence to suggest that anyone in the EU ever seriously pondered this difference.

Johannes Hahn, the MEPs, and all the experts they assembled preferred the latter option, despite seriously problematic aspects including claims of content tampering (a technical issue) and active lobbying of a credulous EU by opposition leaders (a political one). A Dutch diplomat recently reaffirmed this for us, stating that the West perceived the crisis as “a clear rule-of-law issue” in a country where allegedly “a small group of leaders want to control everything.” Two months ago, a Greek diplomat in Skopje echoed this sentiment in comments for Balkanalysis.com.

New intelligence also indicates that several prominent Western embassies have, throughout the crisis, been coordinating their situation reports sent to their foreign ministries, so that any cross-checks between superiors of their various countries will not reveal any differences. Thus continues the echo chamber phenomenon concerning Western perceptions of Macedonia.

Observing the unfolding crisis from close-up on a daily basis, it was very clear that not only local opposition politicians, but Western diplomats in Skopje as well, were lobbying the EU to treat the whole affair as a rule-of-law issue in which the Gruevski government was the culprit.

And yet, incredibly, none of these people – not the diplomats, the technocrats, nor the media – ever stopped to ask the obvious question: why would the government make self-incriminating wiretaps of its own leaders?

Nevertheless, the foreign media and diplomats eagerly lapped up and repeated the Zaev allegation that “20,000 persons” in Macedonia had been wiretapped by “the regime,” without any critical inquiry into the veracity of the claim. And, despite the government’s insistence that the taped material had been manipulated, the EU decided that this was not relevant.

In short, the EU was (and is) not interested in discovering truth; rather, it saw the crisis as an opportunity to exert its political will, and thus to achieve a ‘result.’ The excuse provided at the time – and now – by the EU is that the prosecution would investigate any provenance-related issues, while the EU would research the content-related issues.

With an almost touching naiveté regarding the EU’s good intentions, Nikola Gruevski accepted the deployment of the EU’s Expert Team. Unless he should pen a tell-all memoir someday, we will never know what pressure he was put under to accept this team, or why he reneged on his early promise to the public, to reveal the foreign intelligence operators behind the coup attempt.

But one thing is clear: the moment when the government accepted the EU’s deployment, Macedonia relinquished its sovereignty, perhaps forever.

Whether or not the country ever implements the so-called “urgent reform priorities” dictated by the Priebe Report and the following Przino Agreement, both are deeply flawed and deserve intense scrutiny. It is unlikely that they will lead to truth, justice- and hardly the much-needed process of reconciliation. We will explore the reasons for this assessment when The Great Unraveling series continues tomorrow.