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Macedonians protest massive bribe scandal involving Israelis

Demonstrations follow nearly two years of political gridlock over corruption scandal that threatens the country’s fragile democracy

Protesters walk behind a banner reading "You spend for chocolate, while we don't even have enough for bread," in Skopje, Macedonia on May 10, 2016. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP)
Protesters walk behind a banner reading "You spend for chocolate, while we don't even have enough for bread," in Skopje, Macedonia on May 10, 2016. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP)

Some 30,000 protesters demonstrated in Macedonia in connection with an alleged bribe and wiretapping scandal involving Israelis that is threatening the Balkan country’s fragile democracy.

The May 12 demonstration in Skopje, the capital city of the landlocked republic of 2 million residents north of Greece, was organized by parties representing ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, the World Bulletin reported, amid a wave of popular discontent dubbed “the Color Revolution” that began last year over reports of illegal wiretaps and the release of an audio recording seen as proof of the bribe.

Macedonia’s main opposition party released the recording last year, saying it features the voice of Haim Hakeyny, a former senior official in the Israeli defense establishment; Svetlana Kostova, then a Macedonian interior ministry official, and Saso Mijalkov — Macedonia’s previous director of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence, or UBK.

Mijalkov resigned weeks after the release of that recording as Macedonia was plunged into turmoil amid accusations that its then-prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, and Mijalkov wiretapped more than 20,000 people, including rivals and journalists, without permission. They resigned in May 2015 and January 2016, respectively, over the scandal. It triggered a special investigation implicating dozens of suspects.

A protester wearing a mask uses a water gun to spray colored paint onto the facade of the Foreign Ministry building in front of the police cordon, during an anti-government protest in Skopje, Macedonia, on May 16, 2016, one of a series of anti-government protests over the past two years dubbed the Colorful Revolution. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP)
A protester wearing a mask uses a water gun to spray colored paint onto the facade of the Foreign Ministry building in front of the police cordon, during an anti-government protest in Skopje, Macedonia, on May 16, 2016, one of a series of anti-government protests over the past two years dubbed the Colorful Revolution. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP)

A new election was set for next month, but the opposition parties that organized the May 12 protest and the main opposition party said they would not participate, citing the president’s decision last month to pardon the suspects. Together they account for 64 of parliament’s 123 seats, raising concerns over the validity of polling planned for next month.

In one of the recordings, a man identified as Haim and another man named Alon can be heard speaking about Mijalkov to a woman identified as Kostova by the opposition party that released the recordings: the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia. The opposition party said the recordings were made two years ago.

“If he gives us the OK to send all the money, then this is movement,” Haim says, adding he believes that “Alex spoke with the company because he is a little bit shaky, he is under a lot of pressure.” Saso, Mijalkov’s first name, is a diminutive form of Alexander.

Protesters light flares and wave flags while marching through a street during an anti-government protest in Skopje, Macedonia, on May 16, 2016. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP)
Protesters light flares and wave flags while marching through a street during an anti-government protest in Skopje, Macedonia, on May 16, 2016. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP)

In other recordings of talks between Mijalkov and Kostova, they speak of a private bank account and an expected deposit of millions of dollars, according to a report last month in the Israeli daily Maariv. The Macedonian Netpres news agency reported the sum was $6.2 million, earmarked for transfer from Israel in the framework of equipment for a “special police unit.” According to Israeli business journal The Marker, the equipment may have been used for wiretapping.

Mijalkov told Macedonian media the money was a grant by the Israeli government for counterterrorist actions.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has declined to comment on the affair, Maariv reported. Hakeyny denied any involvement in bribes but would not elaborate, according to Maariv.

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