From a controversy surrounding a flamboyant former entertainer-turned-businessman, Bojan Jovanovski, North Macedonia’s “Extortion” scandal has quickly grown into a major headache for Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrat-led government in Skopje.
The government that replaced the authoritarian regime of Nikola Gruevski on a promise to deal firmly with corruption and restore rule of law now faces the challenge of proving that it takes these promises seriously – and of countering claims that it either masterminded or was involved in an illegal extortion scheme.
The three releases of incriminating recordings by an Italian right-wing newspaper La Verita, from last Thursday onwards, have escalated matters, further tarnished the credibility of the crime-fighting Special Prosecution, SJO, and endangered the government’s own standing.
The country’s European allies are already concerned. “The fight against high-level corruption must continue uninterrupted. Concerning the latest revelations, it is important to establish legal accountability for all crimes,” the outgoing European Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, warned on Sunday.
On Saturday, prompted by the latest revelations, Zaev promised an uncompromising fight against possible wrongdoers in his own ranks, and urged the judiciary to speed up their investigation.
“It has been tough and traumatic everywhere in the world where governments resolutely and sincerely created conditions to allow the opening of investigations against anyone, wherever there was even the slightest suspicion [of crime],” he said.
“It won’t be easy in our case either. It will be hard and there will be traumas, but that is the only way we will become a country with a rule of law, as we all want it to be,” Zaev’s press release added.
But many think the government has handled the affair very poorly, by trying control the damage instead of trying to get to the bottom of things. The regular Prosecution for Organized Crime, which is investigating the case, is also accused of acting lethargically.
“This will be the moment of truth for this government, which came to power on a promise to restore the rule of law,” political analyst Borjan Gjuzelov told BIRN.
“If their actions convince the public that they are not hiding or protecting possible wrongdoers that may come from their own ranks, they will have a chance to at least somewhat redeem themselves,” he said.
“But, unfortunately, I have the impression that so far they have opted to deal with damage control, in the hope that things won’t get out of hand,” Gjuzelov added.
The affair comes at an unfortunate time for the government, after it failed to deliver true reforms in the judiciary, Gjuzelov said.
“Reforms have stalled and are stuck at strategies and drafts, and all the people [in the judiciary] are the same,” Gjuzelov explained.
He said that as a result of the government’s policy failure, it would now be hard to expect the system to do its job properly, or the vast majority of people to believe it.
“Right now there is a lot of ‘noise’. No matter what turns out to be the truth, if Zaev or anyone from his party is involved or not, due to the general failure of the judicial reform, the mistrust in judiciary and scarcity of any official information, people are prone to making up their own minds, believing in their own versions of what has happened,” Gjuzelov said.
The “Extortion” affair had begun to erupt long before La Verita published its first video last, though the published recordings certainly escalated things.
The affair had started to bubble up earlier this summer, after a series of journalistic articles raised suspicions that that ruling party officials participated in an extortion scheme that was made operational by the now detained former celebrity performer-turned-businessman, Jovanovski.
On July 15, the regular Prosecution for Organised Crime and Corruption opened an investigation against Jovanovski, putting Jovanovski and his suspected accomplice, Zoran Milevski, alias Zoki Kiceec, under arrest. It also seized Special prosecutor Katica Janeva’s phone to check suspicions that she had connections with them.
Jovanovski and Milevski are suspected of extorting money from a third person, the businessman Orce Kamcev, who is himself a suspect in another case run by the Special Prosecution, codenamed “Empire”.
It is alleged that they took cash from Kamcev in exchange for a promise to help him avoid a jail sentence, or get a lighter sentence, by using their alleged influence with the Special Prosecution –formed in 2015 to probe allegations of high-level crime.
Matters began to boil over when La Verita last Thursday started to publish sensational recordings on YouTube.
The first video showed the counting of banknotes, which were then placed in what appears to be a Louis Vuitton bag. Later, it showed the two suspects leaving what is reportedly Kamcev’s home with what appears to be the same bag.
The second batch of recordings, uploaded on Friday, contained eight audio recordings of what appears to be conversations between Kamcev, Jovanovski and Milevski.
It was then that La Verita claimed that, in one of these tapes, Janeva’s own voice could be heard.
The third batch of recordings, uploaded on Sunday, mainly focus on what appear to be conversations between Kamcev and Jovanovski, seemingly agreeing details about Kamcev’s release from house detention, the return of his passport and the closure of the Special Prosecution case, codenamed “Empire”, in which he is involved.
In one of these conversations, what is assumed to be Jovanovski’s voice mentions his acquaintance with Prime Minister Zaev to Kamcev – alleging that he won’t make any problems.
In her reaction, Janeva has confirmed that it was indeed her voice on the tapes but has insisted that her actions were legal, as at that time she was negotiating with Kamcev to become a witness in another case.
Zaev, meanwhile, has categorically denied any involvement in the affair, insisting that Jovanovski misused his name to impress his interlocutor.
At a first glance, the affair mainly revolves Jovanovski, aka, Boki 13, and does not seem to implicate the government.
But the former performer and talk show host is not just anybody in the country. Since the new government took power, Boki 13 has reinvented himself as a businessman, and as an outspoken supporter of the new government.
At the grand opening of his new private TV station, 1TV, many government ministers and people from the new political establishment could be spotted.
He has also opened a humanitarian organization, the International Alliance, through which he gained access to the offices of many prominent office holders, including Zaev’s office.
Over the past two years, he has frequently published photos on social networks of his casual and formal meetings with prominent politicians – and he once said he was proud to call Janeva his friend.
It has created an impression that he is close to government circles, and his photos, which are now swarming all over the internet, are causing major damage to the government’s image.
Political analyst Borjan Gjuzelov calls the scandal a multi-layered affair, which, although seemingly centred on Jovanovski’s dealings, is also being used for political purposes, to undermine or even topple the government.
At the moment, many details of the affair are still not known, Gjuzelov said.
“However, the government is failing to wash away the public impression that he [Jovanovski] was close to them. This creates an impression that there must be a political background to his wrongdoings,” he observed.
The political aspect to the affair has been illustrated in the writings of both La Verita and the author of the videos, Laris Gaiser, who does not conceal his animosity to the new pro-EU government and to the Special Prosecution.
After the first video was published, Gaiser wrote on Facebook that his story was “proving how European Union, after supporting a regime change in Macedonia in order to limit its sovereignty, has championed the establishment of a Special Prosecutor’s office that from the beginning has not only illegally interfered in politics but is also racketeering people”.
He further alleged that this “mafia system” worked under the direct control of top politicians in North Macedonia – which he claimed had been installed by the “EU and [liberal billionaire and right-wing hate figure George] Soros”.
He went on to accuse former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and outgoing commission president Jean Claude Junker of “humiliating a whole nation [Macedonian]” and of “supporting everything but the normal rule of law”.
The newspaper is seen as close to Italy’s far-right Interior and Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, who is a bitter foe of Mogherini’s on the Italian political scene.
While the Italian newspaper’s political agenda is plain to see, Gjuzelov said: “Whatever the possible background and the source which published these videos, the government [in Skopje] should not be focused on that aspect but should work on allowing a proper investigation into the case”.
Since it opened the investigation, the regular Prosecution for Organized Crime has faced criticism from legal experts for not doing enough to speed up the inquiry.
The escalation of the affair with the publication of the recordings has evidently caught the prosecution off guard; most of the prosecutors, including the chief prosecutor for Organized Crime, Vilma Ruskoska, have been on their summer recess.
Lawyer Suzana Joshevska-Anastasovska told BIRN on Saturday that Ruskoska had been far too relaxed about the entire affair. She said Janeva should have had her passport taken away by now as a precautionary measure, for a start.
“While they are taking their vacations, the prosecution has allowed itself to be overtaken by a foreign portal with suspicious political motivations, which is now contaminating the case and the evidence,” Joshevska-Anastasovska said.
“What kind of case theory will the prosecution offer now, when evidence has been published, because everyone can now tweak their statements about what they were doing, what they were thinking and what their intent was?” she complained.
“Statements [from the suspects or witnesses] are being taken without them knowing what the case holds for them!” she added.
Stung by the criticism, over the weekend, the prosecution announced that Janeva and the special prosecutor handling the “Empire” case, Lile Stefanova, who was also mentioned in the audio recordings, would be summoned to give statements this week.
Meanwhile, the gravity of the scandal seems to have awoken some within the ruling political alliance as well.
On Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrej Zernovski compared the escalation of the affair to a musical crescendo.
“We will either deal with the situation by uncovering all who are involved, or we will leave [power]”, Zernovski, from a junior coalition party, the Liberal Democratic Party, wrote in a column for Plus Info news portal.
With the next regular elections not so distant, expected in the second part of next year, time may be running out for the government to get its own version of the story across – and salvage its damaged reputation.