Macedonia's Former Government Tried to Cover Up Its Own Wiretapping Operation, With Help from a Foreign Company

The fictional “yellow van” became part of Macedonian political folklore. Satirical group “Foreign Services” used it in the header photo of their Twitter profile, featuring caricatures of top members of VMRO-DPMNE regime: Ilija Dimovski, Gjorge Ivanov, Gordana Jankuloska, Nikola Gruevski, and Sasho Mijalkov.

Recent revelations have shed new light on the depths of corruption perpetrated by Macedonia's former populist regime, in its attempts to cover up abuses of power.

On December 19, 2017 in the capital city of Skopje, the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) announced a new investigation related to the 2015 wiretapping scandal that uprooted the populist government that ruled Macedonia from 2006 to 2017.

In 2015, a massive trove of audio files and archives released by then-opposition leader Zoran Zaev, of the Social Democrats party (SDSM), revealed that the communications of more than 20,000 individuals in Macedonia — including more than a 100 journalists and civil society activists — had been secretly recorded.

The former government, ruled by Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party, had long asserted that foreign intelligence services were the perpetrators of the massive illegal surveillance operation. Their claim was debunked in 2015, and the information from the SPO suggests that they went to unusual lengths to manufacture false documentation to support their claims.

Last week, the SPO announced that it found new evidence that former government officials had hired a foreign company to fabricate a report asserting that foreign agents — not the government itself — were responsible for the wiretapping operation. Later media disclosures indicated that the secretive company is from Israel.

In September 2014, the then-opposition SDSM announced that they had obtained leaked information proving a massive abuse of power by the ruling government. They asked the VMRO-DPMNE government to resign and to provide conditions for fair elections. Then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski refused, and several months later–in February 2015–the Social Democrats began publishing excerpts of the leaked wiretaps. These completely undermined the government's credibility and incited a wave of protests by citizens.

In an attempt to stop the proverbial bleeding, in January 2015 Gruevski made a speech warning his followers not to believe the allegations of the Social Democrats. He then claimed that foreign powers supplied the Social Democrats with illegal wiretaps, saying that conversations were monitored from yellow vans with mobile equipment for eavesdropping. These accusations of collusion with foreign spies also implied high treason by opposition leader Zoran Zaev, who later became and currently serves as Macedonia's Prime Minister.

But according to new information from the SPO, this was all part of a plan to shift the blame away from the government.

Прибраниот доказен материјал упатува на околноста дека во текот на октомври и ноември 2014 година, по барање на еден од осомничените, кој во тој период бил началник на Одделот за оперативна техника при УБК, странска компанија изготвила извештај во кој е наведено дека на подрачјето на Град Скопје, „со своја опрема“ детектирале нелегална активност со клонирани (дупли) базни станици. Овој извештај требало да ја потврди тезата на тогашниот државен врв дека масовното незаконското прислушкување го извршиле странски служби.

The obtained evidence indicates that during the months of October and November of 2014, upon the request of one of the suspects who, during that time, was holding the position of Head of the Operational Technology Department within the Security and Counterintelligence Agency, a foreign company issued a report stating that they had detected, “with their own equipment”, illegal activities with cloned (double) base stations in the region of the City of Skopje. This report was supposed to confirm the hypothesis of the authorities in power at the time, that the mass illegal interception was conducted by foreign intelligence services.

The foreign company, which has not yet been named, was compensated through a tender issued by the Ministry of Interior, in what the SPO characterized as “the quickest procedure for public procurement” of equipment from December 16 to 24, 2014.

The details of the investigation, including the kind of equipment purchased and the sum of taxpayer money put towards the purchases, remain classified. But the information that SPO has released indicates numerous violations of relevant laws and regulations by two officials of the Security and Counterintelligence Agency, which at the time was headed by Sasho Mijalkov, the former Prime Minister's cousin.

Former members of Gruevski's coalition government stated that he had tried to persuade them by showing them the fabricated report at a meeting, but without providing them with copies.

Anonymous sources used by independent media alleged the company is from Israel. The company's name has not been disclosed yet, just the information that it's not the Israeli company that has previously been involved in corruption related to purchase of other surveillance equipment for the Ministry of Interior.

Many Macedonians never believed the “yellow van” story. It was considered so implausible that it immediately became a subject of ridicule and irony.

This was further corroborated in a key report by former European Commissioner Reinhard Priebe issued in June 2015, as part of EU efforts to investigate the wiretaps. The report stated that “The recordings are also of a quality, scale and number to be generally acknowledged to have been made inside the national intelligence service's facilities.”

A 2016 political discourse analysis by local fact-checking site Truthmeter noted that after a certain point in time, the regime also stopped using the foreign services story:

The details revealed by the former Prime Minister on 31 January [2015], were never explicitly mentioned again during his public speeches that followed afterwards (and there were plenty of them).

But that this apparent attempt to mislead the public did not disappear from memory. For instance, a group of anonymous artists adopted the moniker “Foreign Intelligence Services” in 2015. Over the next few years, they produced some of the most influential satire online, by repeatedly using yellow van imagery as a symbol and as a logo. Here are some examples of caricatures spread through Twitter, some providing wider social commentary:

Little Anastasija [the name of one of Gruevski's daughters] showed us how to make a yellow van. She says her father got mad when he would see such a toy in the house :)

SOON: Old-timers exhibition of Foreign Intelligence Services which are no longer in use, used in the past for dismemberment of Macedonia! Photo: Van made by Yugoslav car factory Zastava Automobiles, long before 1990.

We follow the recommendations of the City of Skopje about air pollution. From now on you will only see electric yellow vans on the streets…

The following montage pits the transformed yellow van against one of the bronze lions made as part of the controversial Skopje 2014 project.

Foreign Intelligence Services Megatron against the VMRO Grimlock. Who will win?

The new revelations from the Special Prosecutors Office had ignited even more public discussion about the wiretapping incident and subsequent fall out.

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