Barely two weeks ago Macedonian President Boris
Trajkovski met his death in the foggy hills of Bosnia, and already a charged
debate has arisen regarding not only the cause of the crash but also Trajkovski's
posthumous remembrance. Some foreign
critics are charging their leaders with hypocrisy for allegedly sanctifying
a president who was until recently "despised." Then there is the "international
community," whose reaction of undying praise has decisively
shaped the mass media's portrayal of the man, perhaps forever.
Yet through all this sound and fury, underlying everything is the
recklessness with which interested parties are rushing to oversimplify things.
Regardless of their differing reactions, these parties (who have multiplied
exponentially since the president's death) seem to be united in the desire to
justify the past and shape the future of Macedonia's political horizons by
extracting meaning from the event.
The Crash: a Synopsis
Thus far, fact is almost inseparable from speculation.
What we do know is this: The president's plane crashed approximately 10-15 kilometers
south of its destination, Mostar, while beginning its final descent in the midst
of a heavy storm. On the 1.5 hour flight from Skopje, the plane had to cross
the airspaces of 5 countries – Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and, briefly, Croatia,
before landing in Bosnia. Macedonia's civil aviation authority soon claimed
that it had warned the pilots not to fly because of treacherous weather conditions
in Bosnia. The storm did indeed cause other conference delegations to turn back.
The plane's black boxes are undergoing examination in Germany, and in about a
month the final report will be released. Preliminary findings are on their way,
government announced Tuesday. Now, in the absence of solid information, the
whole amorphous affair is already taking on uniquely Balkan conspiratorial
While a Bosnian newspaper blamed the crash on
pilot error, the son of lead pilot Marko Markovski, civil aviation official
Zoran Markovski rejected this
possibility. Experienced Macedonian pilots surveyed by Dnevnik newspaper
agreed that Markovski Sr. was "one of the best," a flight instructor and pilot
with 30 year's flying experience in both military and civilian aircraft, a man
who had wide experience flying intercontinental and European routes.
The expertise of co-pilot Branko Ivanovski, an experienced officer in the
Macedonian air force, is supported by a leaked US Air Force document that I have
seen. Dated April 7, 2000, the document records Ivanovski's attendance at a
5-week squadron officer course at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Signed by a
USAF colonel, the document commends Ivanovski's abilities, stating that he
displayed "top analytical and decision-making skills," and also "excelled in
extremely challenging, dynamic leadership situations."
Alternatively, some have argued for a communications
error between the ground controllers and the plane's pilots. On February 26,
French NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR) military officers were operating Mostar's
control tower. Bosnian media who spoke with investigators claim that audio tapes
record 25 minutes of recorded ground-pilot conversation – followed by a seven-minute
silence preceding the crash. An aviation expert told Skopje's
"…seven minutes is too long a period of time [to be out of contact]. The
position of the airplane in that time could change. The local Mostar control
team must inform the regional air control team that they have lost contact with
the plane. For sure the regional control would then intervene. They shouldn't
have waited so long to get in contact again."
According to Kire Kaevski, a former Macedonian government pilot, Markovski
and Ivanovski were relying on a combination of DME
(distance measuring equipment) and Mostar Airport's VOR (very high frequency
omni-directional range), a commonly
used navigation aid operating in the 108-118 Mhz band. This system allows
the control tower to transmit a two-phase directional signal which is picked up
by the aircraft's VOR receiver. The pilot can then identify his radial or
bearing, and changes his location upon instruction from the ground controllers.
The pilot depends on the control tower to "…give him permission to fly to other
points on the [aeronautical] map." Adds another pilot,
"…when it is very foggy there, you have to land 'blind.' You should listen
very carefully to the flight controller. …Mostar airport is very difficult for
Did NATO Kill the President?
On Friday, February 27, the day after the crash,
a Bosnian Interior Ministry official raised a provocative question:
"…at the moment when the plane hit the hill, it was 650 meters lower than the
minimally allowed flight height. Also, during the fall, the plane of the
Macedonian Government was only 15 air kilometers away from the airport in
Mostar. That radius vector is under direct control of SFOR's navigation
The implications were apparent. Mladen Ivanovikj, Foreign Minister of Bosnia
and Herzegovina, stated ominously on the 27th that "SFOR will be
requested to provide more information." The media jumped at the chance to
confirm NATO's biggest Balkan blunder.
The most controversial, and, therefore, most popular, charge is that SFOR air
traffic controllers demonstrated negligence either by ignoring the incoming
Macedonian plane or by allowing it to fly too low. This theory has been aired by
various Bosnian Interior Ministry officials, Macedonian investigators, and the
media in both countries.
Some also allege that the plane was locked into a dangerous air corridor, too
close to another, safe, corridor. Mostar was a popular destination on February
26 because of the international investment conference to which President
Trajkovski and other regional leaders were headed. Several of the delegations,
including that of the Albanians, who shared the Macedonian's flight path turned
back because of the bad weather. Is it possible that the SFOR controllers
mistakenly allotted a dangerous route to the Macedonians in their haste to
prepare for so many planes all arriving nearly simultaneously?
Another much less credible possibility – that the pilots couldn't communicate
with the ground controllers because the latter were French and speaking in their
own language – was thankfully laid to rest in Tuesday's
statement from the government.
The Apparent Justification: A Late and Faulty Search
The principal evidence against SFOR, for Macedonian
and Bosnian critics, is the fact that it took over 24 hours for the wreckage
of the plane to be found. The plane disappeared at 8:20 AM on the 26th,
and for an entire day, SFOR, citing dangerous weather conditions, didn't allow
air searches. Only ground searches were conducted, but slowly and ineffectually
(the area remains heavily mined from the Bosnian War). SFOR Spokesman Captain
Dave Sullivan stated on Tuesday, March 2, that, "…because of the bad weather,
the investigation was limited to visual searching of the area. Even infrared
searching was not possible."
This explanation was attacked at once. Given that the air traffic controllers
knew the plane's last coordinates, and that it should have
automatically emitted an emergency radio signal upon crashing, critics
argued, why did SFOR fail to locate the wreckage quickly? And why were the
Bosnian search teams – the world's best at working in minefields – prevented from
According to the above-mentioned Bosnian official,
"…the question arises as to why SFOR, being the direct controller of the
flight during the whole day and night, didn't announce the exact location of the
plane crash and why the search for the missing plane took 24 hours, if they saw
on the navigation system where the plane had crashed."
Zoran Markovski, himself an air traffic controller, agreed:
"…they [Mostar's SFOR controllers] can register the exact geographic position
of the plane, its height and speed. Yet the plane was found 26 hours after the
accident and was only 10 kilometers from the airport, and crashed during the
landing phase. Why wasn't the Bosnian search team activated – the one which during
the war found a crashed plane and saved the pilot in just 17
The mutual mistrust was compounded by unverified
statements that the French air traffic controllers in question had fled Bosnia
after the crash. On 1 March, Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski
thundered, "…I don't know whether they are out of Bosnia or not but wherever
they are they cannot avoid being investigated."
Two days later, SFOR spokesman Norbert Hoerpel was claiming that the French
air controllers had already
been interrogated by investigators. However, Bosnian State Prosecutor and
chief of the investigation Vaso Marinkovic rebuked him: "…no one from our team
has talked with them. I do not have information [as to] whom they have…talked
[to], but certainly they have had no talks with us."
In response, Hoerpel stated, "…I know that they [the alleged interrogators]
were members of the Air Accident Investigation Committee, but I do not know
their names." Simultaneously, damage control was being carried out by Bosnia's
Europolice spokesman, Kirsten Haupt, who "…denied accusations that Europolice
might be responsible for the disinformation…on the day of the accident."
A Conspiracy – Or Just a Bad Plane?
A final explanation offered was that the 26-year-old
Beechcraft King Air 200 suffered mechanical failure. A former foreign minister,
Casule, claimed that the windshield of the very same plane had once blown
out during a flight over Romania. In fact, it is said that President Trajkovski
himself once refused to take the plane, deeming it unsafe. There was also a
claim of a pre-clash explosion on the plane.
Slobodan Casule, a former Foreign Minister, claimed
that the crashed plane had almost endangered his life on one occasion. Stojan
Andov of the Liberal Party is on his right.
Yet although less conspiratorial this explanation is just as politically
charged as the others. Indeed, even if a Macedonian president could never hope
to have a jet like the one George W. Bush enjoys, should he really be condemned
to fly on a twin-engine relic? Casule claimed that "public outcry" had prevented
the country from spending more money on a better plane.
No wonder then that the government has diverted public attention by taking
the offensive against SFOR. If it turns out that mechanical and not human error
was behind the crash, it will be hard to avoid the embarrassing conclusion that,
all heartfelt expressions of sympathy aside, the country actually cares very
little for the well-being of its leaders. And this is where we leave the
investigation behind and enter into the still more shadowy realm of
Sympathy for the Deceased
Macedonia is a small and vulnerable country, whose
very future remains an open question. No matter what individual Macedonians
may have felt about Boris Trajkovski, the sudden elimination of their most visible
public leader could only increase the latent pessimism of a people who feel
their country is living on borrowed time.
PM Crvenkovski (center) with Speaker of Parliament
and Acting President Ljubco Yordanovski (left) and Supreme Court head Ljiljana
It is nevertheless remarkable that the president's death has sparked so much
emotion. Despite his oft-criticized pandering to Albanian interests, and apparent
clownishness, Trajkovski was neither controversial nor hated. Those who loved
him in both life and death are the exception
– and that is why the mass outpouring of emotion has been so remarkable.
President of the European Commission Romano Prodi
addresses the funeral crowd.
In actuality, the public's widely sympathetic reaction to the president's death
indicates that no one was particularly offended by him. In fact, even the criticism
of Trajkovski over his frequent concessions to the Albanians, such as the recent
legalization, were meted out with a grain of salt. Embittered Macedonians
know the score. Any president of their compromised little country is duty-bound
to serve the United States and European Union. And if ethnic federalization
is part of the larger plan, then not even he can stop it.
Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski speaking at
President Trajkovski's funeral last Friday
Still, the charge of "hypocrisy" has been
levied. Yet for the majority of Macedonians, jaded, despairing and fatalistic
as they are, their posthumous about-face amounts to merely a display of regretful
embarrassment. Of course, we can be sure that plenty of other regular citizens
suffered true remorse of conscience for having once disparaged the deceased.
Yet this is a thoroughly universal reaction that can be observed when anyone
dies, anywhere in the world. As such, there was little worth interpreting so
far as Macedonia's public reaction went.
Pallbearers of the military guard salute and
carry the president's casket towards the grave.
What was telling, however, was the differences
between foreign and local laments. Macedonians repeatedly voiced their sadness
for Trajkovski, "first
as a man, and then as a president," – the implication being that they felt
sympathy for the president as a person, and for his father, brothers, widowed
wife, and two children. Yet judging
from the Western reaction, one would think that the sublime Boris Trajkovski
was instead fond of kissing Human Rights and Ethnic Tolerance on the cheek before
tucking them in to bed at night.
Thousands of people from all over Macedonia waited
to watch the president's casket be brought out from the parliament building.
True, the president's cooperation with Western plans for hackneyed
inter-ethnic harmony made him a butt of jokes in the Macedonian'media.
One weekly magazine's cartoon often depicted Trajkovski in his bed, dressed in
red white and blue boxer shorts, taking his orders by phone from Washington.
This allegiance to American wishes was seen when the
"peacemaker president," as the Western media has eulogized him, gave his full
support for the Iraq War. Yet, when not even larger and more established
countries don't dare oppose the Empire's will, who could really hold this
Sadly, this compliance did little for either Trajkovski or for Macedonia. In
the weeks before his death, the president was increasingly being regarded as
politically irrelevant, and was even forgotten by the fickle Americans. According
to Dnevnik, Trajkovski had recently solicited the major Macedonian and
Albanian parties, and found no one willing to support his candidacy for re-election
The funeral procession gets underway from the
Yet now that the president is truly gone, the Western media and diplomatic
corps are not willing to let him go. He has just too many uses. And so a man
whose political survival was in doubt only two weeks ago has become unbeatable
in death. The legacy of Boris Trajkovski is now being manipulated, with
neither fairness nor reason, to symbolize every abstract valuethat the
West would like to instill in the Balkans. And the president's successor will be
obliged to adhere to these values, and the rhetoric employed in their
defense – regardless of the effect on Macedonia's future