A few months later, Mark invited me to Macedonia (along with the woman who is now John Kerry’s campaign manager) to do a number of training sessions and also meet with the party leaders. We met with VMRO, the main opposition party, in a branch office in a prefab building on the outskirts of Skopje (no dount dationg from shortly after the 1963 earthquake), in a rainstorm. The leader, Ljubco Georgievski, was clearly a bit of a nut even then. The famous Boris sat beside him and was charming in fluent English; I felt that he was loyal but also slightly embarrassed.
Well, VMRO won the 1998 parliamentary elections in coalition with the corrupt former Yugoslav politician Vasil Tupurkovski. Georgievski became Prime Minister with Tupurkovski as his deputy in charge of international affairs, and Boris had to be satisfied with the post of junior foreign minister. The understanding was that Tupurkovski (nicknamed “Jumper-ovski” because of his habit of wearing woollen pullovers) would be the agreed presidential candidate of the government coalition when the post came up at the end of 1999.
But two things happened to screw that plan up. The first was that Tupurkovski’s cunning plan to get loads of money from a secret source to revitalise Macedonia’s economy backfired massively in January 1999, when it turned out to be a secret deal to recognise Taiwan as the “Republic of China” and cut off diplomatic ties with Beijing. The old president, an octogenarian communist who had been Tito’s best finacne minister back the 1960s, refused to allow this to go ahead, and Tupurkovski was left with much egg on his face and no good explanation (apart from the obvious) for his own sudden and visible increase in material well-being after his negotiations with Taipei. To cap it all, the Chinese took their first ever action at the UN on a Balkan issue and, in sheer revenge for Tupurkovski’s flirtation with the Taiwanese, vetoed the renewal of the UN preventive peacekeeping forces that had been successfully deployed in Macedonia for the previous five years.
The second was the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo which peaked in March 1999 as the NATO bombardment began. Boris was the most senior foreign affairs official who was not disgraced (as Tupurkovski now was) but did speak English, and so was responsible for presenting the Macedonian government’s reaction to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who flooded across the border – a difficult position, which did not make him universally popular with humanitarian aid workers, but did massively increase his standing with his own party which had otherwise seen him as a bit of a lightweight.
So when the elections came round at the end of 1999, Boris was the obvious candidate from his own party. He still had to fight off stiff opposition from his coalition colleagues and the former speaker of parliament, and in the end only won the election because he got a vast number of votes from the country’s ethnic Albanian minority under circumstances whose legitimacy remains murky and meant that his term of office started under something of a shadow, but was duly inaugurated as Macedonia’s second president in December.
I next saw him in Brussels in early 2000; I was by now working at the Centre for European Policy Studies, and had helped produce an ambitious plan for EU policy towards the Balkans (of which about a third has since been adopted). I had noticed that he was due to visit the EU at the start of February, and called the embassy to see if any press conference was planned that I might attend. They called back and said, er, could the President come and visit our thinktank instead? So he did, and had a surprisingly good discussion of the ideas we had put forward; he wasn’t completely in favour, but I guess this was the point where I registered as an interesting person with him. We had another good chat at a conference in Ohrid that July (I mentioned that my wife, like him, had qualified as a Methodist local preacher), and I stayed in touch mainly through his chief of staff.
The following year, 2001, brought Macedonia to the brink of civil war. By this time Boris was increasingly estranged from the erratic Georgievski, whose approach to government was a mixture of hysterical anti-Albanian bigotry in public and a cold-blooded carve-up of the economy with his Albanian coalition partners in private. In April, in the midst of the crisis, I visited Skopje again as part of an international team reporting on the conflict, we had a very good meeting with him (unlike some of the meetings we endured) and our report praised his initiative in starting inter-party dialogue. Over the next few months he took a strong lead in getting the peace talks going before the violence could escalate, in selling the eventual Ohrid peace agreement to the party leaders, and then also in putting through the legislative parts of it despite the opposition of the speaker of the parliament.
He then invited me to Macedonia again in 2002 as part of another dialogue process he had initiated, on security issues post-Ohrid. It turned out to be the first weekend of my current job; we were quite heavily stuck in to criticising the Georgievski government’s corruption and our report on the subject was thought by some to have had a role in VMRO losing the September 2002 elections (myself I think they were on the skids anyway). That brought the ex-Communists to power again, and put Boris in a position of cohabitation where basically the initiative lay firmly with the Prime Minister; from then on, he was really searching for a role.
This next bit is particularly sensitive and not-for-quotation. At the time the EU was gearing up to look once again at its Balkan policy post enlargement, and in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit in December 2002 Boris had the idea of writing a joint letter from all five presidents of Western Balkan states to the European Union asking that they be at least mentioned in the final declaration. I myself wrote the letter, and Boris and his staff finalised the wording with me in a meeting in Brussels during one of his increasingly frequent visits. The letter had the desired effect and the Western Balkan leaders got a nod to their European aspirations from the EU.
It was rather amusing to reflect that Vojislav Kostunica, then President of Yugoslavia, who was fulminating against us because of the rude things we were saying about him, was now putting his name to a text that I had written. I resolved that I would not ever write this down until I was sure that Boris could not be embarrassed by it politically (since I’m quite sure that he presented it to the other four presidents as his own text rather than mine); that day has arrived, alas, much sooner than I expected, but I’m still keeping it in a friends-only post.
We saw each other twice last year – it should have been three times, but I cancelled on another invitation to Skopje from him which was due to take place the weekend Zoran Djindjic was assassinated. But I bumped into him (literally) at a conference in Greece in May where he greeted me with a warm embrace (they’re very physical, these Balkan leaders) and then we had an excellent meeting with several of my colleagues in June, where we briefed him and his staff on what was going on in Kosovo and Serbia (to the point where I wondered what, if anything, they were getting from their embassy in Belgrade. There was another draft EU declaration doing the rounds at the time and he requested (and got) instant feedback from me on what I thought he should say on its contents; sadly less successful in June than we had been six months before.
And so we come to yesterday, when despite unfavourable weather and an aging plane, he and his team set off to Bosnia, only to be killed flying into a hillside, not twenty miles from where Clinton’s Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, met the same fate back in 1996. The corrupt and useless prime minister of neighbouring Albania was due to go to the same conference, but didn’t like the look of the weather and turned back. Boris was always more determined to meet his commitments; and unfortunately he was too conscientious for his own good.
So it goes.