Hungary to Hear Fugitive Macedonian Ex-Premier’s Asylum Request

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban agreed to hear the asylum request of the fugitive former premier of the Republic of Macedonia on “security” grounds, in what’s bound to create a diplomatic rift with the Balkan nation trying to break away from Russia’s orbit toward the European Union.

Nikola Gruevski, who led Macedonia for a decade until 2016 and was widely seen as fueling a conflict with Greece that prevented his nation from joining the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, showed up in Budapest on Tuesday seeking asylum. He escaped from his homeland just as he was due to begin a two-year prison term for abuse of office.

“The former prime minister of Macedonia has made a declaration of his intention to submit a request for refugee status in Hungary,” Orban’s office said in a statement on Wednesday. “Given that he was prime minister of his country for ten years, for security reasons the Hungarian authorities have allowed Mr. Gruevski to have his asylum request submitted."

Tug-of-War

Macedonia has been at the center of a geopolitical tug-of-war, with President Vladimir Putin trying to keep the nation as a buffer between what he considers to be Russia’s sphere of influence and NATO. In a referendum in September, Macedonians overwhelmingly backed changing the country’s name to clear the path to joining both entities, though turnout was low.

Gruevski made an awkward ally for Orban, who has campaigned for him despite pushing for EU expansion into the Balkans. Still, they were ideological bedfellows, with both leading propaganda campaigns against Hungarian-born U.S. investor and philanthropist George Soros, who’s vilified by nationalists around the world for his advocacy of liberal causes.

Macedonia is seeking the extradition of Gruevski, who resigned as prime minister three years ago following a scandal triggered by leaked tapes that alleged his government illegally wiretapped more than 20,000 people. After losing a 2016 election, he was convicted for ordering the Interior Ministry to hold a tender for an armored Mercedes limousine worth 35.2 million denars ($643,000) for his personal use.

Sheltering Criminals

“It is expected that a country like Hungary should serve as an example that won’t protect criminals who did damage to the citizens of Republic of Macedonia,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in Skopje. “What would be our motivation, the candidate members, to join the EU if a member state becomes a haven for criminals and doesn’t recognize international practices and the international rule of law?”

Gruevski’s case complicates Orban’s strategy of being an ideological ringleader for Europe’s resurgent nationalist movements, while keeping a foot in the EU’s mainstream camp. Orban has been actively campaigning in eastern Europe to spread his ideology, which spurns the EU’s liberal democratic values. In September, the European Parliament triggered a sanctions mechanism against Hungary for being a “clear risk” to the rule of law.

Orban’s office said it would process Gruevski’s request according to Hungarian and international law and wouldn’t meddle in Macedonia’s internal affairs.

But that non-politicized approach appeared to be immediately undercut by Orban’s Fidesz party. Gruevski was “being persecuted and threatened by a leftist government backed by George Soros,” MTI state news service cited Fidesz spokesman Balazs Hidveghi as saying. He added that Hungary would grant asylum to those who are persecuted.

An EU spokesperson said the rule of law is a fundamental principle for the bloc’s "member states and candidate countries alike.”

“We expect all parties concerned to act strictly in line with the relevant rules," the EU spokesperson said. "This is a judicial procedure that must not be politicized.’’

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