The flight of former Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Hungary Nikola Gruevski to Hungary took on wider implications as Budapest reportedly granted Gruevski’s asylum request.   In view of the difficult relationship between Budapest and Brussels, the issue is now substantially larger than just a minor sidebar to the Name Despite between Greece and Macedonia/FYROM, currently undergoing extended ratification procedures in both countries.

Had hardline nationalist Gruevski remained in power past 2017, the Prespes Agreement signed in June could not have happened; accordingly, his fate is seen as an indication of how hard the agreement’s supporters in Skopje, Athens, Brussels and elsewhere are willing to fight to see it ratified and implemented next year.

Gruevski flees Skopje and is granted asylum in Hungary

More details have emerged on how Gruevski fled Skopje to evade arrest on November 11-12.  Local press sources indicate he left via Albania and Montenegro, apparently in a Hungarian diplomatic car, having had his passport confiscated.   His presence in Budapest was confirmed on November 14 amid reports that he had filed an asylum request.

On November 20, Gruevski posted the following statement in his Facebook page: “Today the Republic of Hungary, an EU and NATO member state, responded positively to my previously submitted request to obtain political asylum due to political persecution in the Republic of Macedonia.” Gruevski noted he had explained to the Hungarian authorities that he was seeking protection because of political persecution by Macedonia’s social democratic government headed by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, as well as a potential murder plot against him.

By way of background, on November 12 a Skopje court issued a new arrest warrant for Gruevski, who served as prime minister until 2016 and had been ordered to start a two-year jail sentence November 9 over an illegal purchase of a luxury car, despite the failure of the Zaev government to strip him of his parliamentary immunity via vote in parliament.

Sharing hardline nationalist views, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán enjoyed a warm relationship with Gruevski when he was in power (2006-2016) and loudly supported Skopje’s decision to close its land borders to Syrian refugees moving northward from Greece in 2015 and later.

Brussels reacts

The European Union requested an explanation from Hungary as soon as reports that Budapest granted political asylum to fugitive Gruevski surfaced.  On November 21, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted that if Hungary had actually decided to grant Gruevski asylum, he expected a “sound explanation of its grounds” from Orbán.

Zaev essentially powerless to react

In Skopje, the country’s Justice Ministry indicated it would be sending Budapest a request for Gruevski’s extradition and issued the following statement: “The government expects that the authorities in Budapest will unconditionally accept the request for extradition and in accordance with international law, as a member state of NATO and the EU, will facilitate the return of Gruevski to Macedonia.”

In terms of real action Zaev appears essentially powerless to demand the extradition unless he is energetically supported by major EU and NATO countries.  If provoked further either by Skopje, Brussels, or Washington, Orbán’ s Hungary could easily generate numerous obstacles which could at a minimum delay or possibly even freeze Skopje’s EU and NATO accession processes.