Thoughts on Macedonia's Phone Tapping Scandal
This comment by Victor Bivell was broadcast by SBS Radio on 11 March
Read and Print in Macedonian
There are many elements to Macedonia's phone tapping scandal, particularly
around the legality and extent of the phone tapping and around some
of the apparently corrupt contents. At the political level, for me four
issues stand out.
The first one is how much Macedonia could benefit from the strong independence
of the investigative and anti-corruption institutions that exist in
other democracies. If the phone tapping scandal had occured in Australia,
for example, there are several ways for the many claims and counterclaims
to be investigated: a Royal Commission, a Parliamentary or Senate Inquiry,
the Federal Police, and at the NSW State level the Independent Commission
Against Corruption and its equivalents in other states.
A Royal Commission, for example, has the power to summon witnesses,
and to compel them to testify under oath and to present documents and
evidence. Such powers are essential to get to the truth of what happened
in Macedonia. Among the questions are: was prime minister Nikola Gruevski
behind the phone tapping of 20,000 citizens or was it a foreign power,
did Opposition leader Zoran Zaev try to blackmail prime minister Gruevski
into sharing power, did Zaev work with another country to achieve power
or to bring on an election, have Gruevski or his government colleagues
interfered with the independence of the judiciary or the the media,
did Gruevski or his party cheat in the last election, and so on.
So serious are these accusations that they call for investigation by
the highest independent authority in the state. But does Macedonia have
such a body, and is its independence credible? So far accusations against
Zaev have been refered to the State Prosecutor, but this deals only
with one of the issues. All of the issues need to be investigated and
in due course any illegal acts by anyone refered to the State Prosecutor.
The second political issue exposed by the scandal is whether Gruevski,
now in his ninth year of office, has been in power for too long? Politicians
new to office generally have a positive agenda. And so did Gruevski.
But with time politicians can get hooked on power and become unwilling
to give it up or to suffer checks and balances. The American system
where presidents get a maximum of two four year terms is wise as it
solves this problem. In Australia, John Howard was in power for 11 years
but this was too long as some of his worst decisions came late in his
term as he clung to power, and this is one of the reasons the Budget
is structurally unbalanced. In Turkey president Erdogan has been in
power, first as prime minister then president, for 12 years. He is criticized
among other things for growing authoritarianism and what is said to
be a 1,000 room palace that looks big enough to be better used as a
state museum or art gallery. In Russia Putin was president for eight
years then played the system and came back, in the process lengthening
each presidential term from four to six years. More lately he is seen
to be behind the troubles in Ukraine where 6,000 people have died.
The question for Macedonia is whether Gruevski has passed his best
and is on the road to keeping power for the benefit of himself and his
associates rather than using power for the benefit of the people? The
image that the phone tapping scandal presents is of a prime minister
who starts the day reading phone taps rather than economic or social
reports. The decline of media freedom in Macedonia is not a good sign.
Nor are accusations of influencing the judiciary, cheating at elections,
and wide-spread phone tapping. Gruevski needs to have these accusations
independently investigated. That is the only way to clear the air about
himself and his government. But it will take guts to do it.
The third political issue is the judgement of Opposition leader Zaev.
Boycotting parliament is always a silly and counter-productive move.
It hasn't worked before and it hurts Macedonia most of all. If Zaev
has evidence of electoral fraud, a better strategy would have been to
use Parliament to investigate the evidence and to use Parliament to
put the evidence before the public. He could also have used parliament
to strengthen the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption and
the State Ombudsman.
If the accusation is correct that Zaev used the phone tapping to try
to get Gruevski to share power, then that would also be a serious error
of judgement. If he has evidence of illegal phone tapping and government
corruption, the first and best place for that evidence is parliament,
the public, the media and the investigative bodies of state. If instead
Zaev used the phone tapping to surreptitiously achieve power, he would
be unfit to be prime minister.
This brings us to the fourth key issue. Leadership. To be fair to Macedonia,
the quality of leadership is an issue around the world. I would go so
far as to say it is one of the key issues facing our species. All countries
want good leaders. All countries need good leaders. But outstanding
leaders are rare, and even good leaders are not common, even though
there are good people everywhere.
Good leadership is about good people with good policies. It is not
about power for power's sake. For Macedonia, the good policies are the
(relatively) easy part - grow the economy, solve social issues, find
and investigate corruption, ensure the independence of the judiciary
and the media, develop international relations, guard Macedonia's name
and good reputation, strengthen contacts with the diaspora, and so on.
It's not rocket science.
The hard part can be finding good people to implement these policies.
But that is what Macedonia needs. I hope both VMRO-DMPNE and SDSM have
succession plans and suitable leadership candidates in place as they
may need them. For the Macedonian public, now is the time to encourage
a new batch of potential leaders into politics. Whether they are young
and talented or middle aged with worldly success or experience, now
is the time to encourage them to step onto the leadership ladder.
I'm Victor Bivell. Thank you for listening.