Macedonia’s fugitive former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski claims he has been granted political asylum in Hungary, a week after he fled his country to avoid serving a two-year jail sentence for a corruption conviction, according to multiple reports. (Note: This report is updated to include comments by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó.)
Gruevski, Macedoniaʼs prime minister from 2006 to 2016, is considered a close ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, although the government has insisted that the asylum request is purely a legal matter, not a political one.
In a Facebook post, Gruevski claimed he is a victim of political persecution by Macedonia’s current Social Democrat government.
"The courts and the prosecutor’s office have been turned into an instrument of political blackmail and calculated (attacks) against political opponents," he wrote. "Today in Macedonia, there are conditions of government repression, discrimination, persecution, politically-motivated arrests and full control by the government."
Authorities in Hungary did not immediately confirm if Gruevski has been granted asylum. However, government-linked daily newspaper Magyar Idők reported that Gruevski’s application has been approved.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday morning in Budapest, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó confirmed that Gruevski had been accompanied by Hungarian diplomats in his escape through the Balkans to Hungary, news site Index. hu reported.
"Former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski had to cross three borders to get to Hungary, and in all three cases he did so in full accordance with regulations," Szijjártó was cited as saying by official government website kormany.hu.
Index.hu noted that Szijjártó did not reveal the type of document Gruevski used to enter Hungary in lieu of a passport, which had been earlier confiscated by the Macedonian authorities, but speculated that earlier reporting indicates that he received a special permit for a one-time entry.
According to multiple press reports, the Macedonian government submitted an extradition request for Gruevski on Tuesday afternoon. Hungaryʼs Ministry of Justice said the request noted that Gruevski is facing trial in at least three other corruption cases, including charges that stem from a major wiretapping scandal. The extradition request, the ministry added, also noted the "serious nature of the crimes" in question.
Lawmaker Ádám Mirkóczki, of the nationalist Jobbik party, called for a special session of Parliament’s National Security Committee, claiming Hungary’s immigration officials misled lawmakers about the Gruevski case.
Other opposition parties accused the Orbán government of siding with a "criminal," and authorities of breaking Hungarian and international laws during the asylum procedure. Tímea Szabó, a lawmaker with the green Párbeszéd (Dialogue) party, said it would seek legal options to ensure that Gruevski does not stay in Hungary.
Macedonia has been wracked by political crisis for more than three years, marked by a bitter rivalry between Gruevski and current Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Western leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, traveled to Macedonia to express support for Zaev and the agreement with Greece on the country’s name change prior to the September 30 referendum on the matter. Voters overwhelmingly backed the proposal, although the process was marred by a low turnout.