Former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled the country to avoid prison, used a Hungarian diplomatic vehicle to escape through Albania, police in Tirana said on Thursday (15 November) after Budapest formally denied any involvement.
Gruevski left Albania on Sunday “at 7:11 pm using the border crossing Hani i Hotit, to enter Montenegro”, a police statement said.
The former political strongman, who dominated the country for nearly a decade until 2016, travelled in a car with the number plate CD 1013A, it said.
Montenegrin police confirmed that Gruevski entered the country on 11 November “and left Montenegro the same day”, adding that they had “fully respected legal procedures in this case”.
Facing a jail term for abuse of power, Gruevski fled to EU member Hungary, where he sought asylum.
Earlier on Thursday, the Hungarian government formally denied having actively provided assistance in Gruevski’s escape.
“The Hungarian state authorities had nothing to do with him leaving the territory of his own country,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet chief Gergely Gulyás told reporters.
Now we know Orban's Cabinet Chief Gergely Gulyás lied to the world saying "Budapest had nothing to with his fleeing his country" ab. #Macedonia's Gruevski escape.#Albania & #Montenegro both confirmed he passed through them in a Hungarian Embassy in Tirana diplomatic vehicle.
— Vladimir Petreski (@VPetreski) November 16, 2018
“The Hungarian state had nothing to do with him leaving Macedonia,” he added.
A Hungarian government representative told AFP in the evening it did not want to comment on the information released by Albania.
It was also reported that Gruevski is accommodated as a VIP in Orbán’s villa.
Former Bulgarian foreign minister Ivailo Kalfin tweeted: “Can’t believe Orbán is hosting a refugee in his own villa!”
The European Parliament’s rapporteur on Hungary, Judith Sargentini, also tweeted that she once asked whether one can ask for asylum in Hungary outside the detention centres at the country’s border with Serbia.
“No” was the answer. “Is there a VIP asylum procedure possible in Budapest”, she quipped.
I once asked the Hungarian authorities wether one can ask for asylum outside of the detentions centres at the Serbian border. ‘No’ was the answer. Will they lock #Gruevski up or is there a VIP-asylum procedure possible in Budapest? https://t.co/6mgCRXZSEQ
— Judith Sargentini (@judithineuropa) November 13, 2018
In the past, Gruevski has indicated he was close to Orbán.
In 2017, Orbán publicly supported Macedonia’s former leader during his campaign for municipal elections, in which Gruevski’s rightwing VMRO-DPMNE party (EPP-affiliated) lost to the ruling Social Democrats.
More recently, Orbán supported Macedonia’s VMRO-DPMNE party’s position against the Prespa deal to settle the name dispute with Greece. Gruevski was the leader of VMRO-DPMNE from 2003 to December 2017.
Both have accused US liberal billionaire George Soros of stoking illegal immigration – claims that Soros denies.
Hungary has said it would “consider the assessment of the former Macedonian prime minister’s asylum request to be solely a legal issue”.
Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party (EPP-affiliated) said Wednesday that Gruevski was “persecuted and threatened by a left-wing government, which clearly has the support of George Soros”.
Gruevski’s request will test Budapest’s willingness to apply harsh asylum rules and anti-migrant measures like border fences and detention camps for asylum seekers that have drawn fierce criticism from Orbán’s opponents at home and abroad including Brussels.
On Wednesday, Macedonian premier Zoran Zaev urged Hungary to “respect international practice, international law” and not provide “a refuge shelter for criminals”.
Macedonia has meanwhile issued an international arrest warrant.
“Macedonia is a strategic partner and an important ally of Hungary,” the government in Budapest said in a statement.
Gruevski was convicted in May of using a €600,000 government Mercedes for personal travel. A Skopje court upheld the sentence in October.
He also faces a number of other charges of corruption, abuse of power, electoral fraud as well as illegal wiretapping. Gruevski claims that the cases are politically motivated.
His passport had been confiscated during the probe and Macedonian media has questioned how he managed to leave the country.
According to reports, he used his identity card.
Hungarian opposition parties have warned the government against giving protection to Gruevski.
“Corrupt criminals who steal their own people are usually granted asylum only in the worst dictatorships in the East and in the banana republics and not in the EU,” said the Democratic coalition party.
The US authorities said Gruevski must be held accountable within the Macedonian justice system.
But a Fidesz spokesperson said asking Gruevski to be tried to his country amounts to breach of sovereignty.
The European Green party took position that Gruevski should return to Macedonia to face justice.