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Opinion is still out on whether the charismatic boss of Macedonian A1 TV is a champion of free speech, or just a business mogul with secrets to hide.
One of Macedonia’s most controversial business moguls, Velija Ramkovski has found himself at the centre of a political storm, since police and financial inspectors raided the building of his TV station, A1, on November 25.
Police came in search of alleged financial misdemeanors committed by some of his various companies, registered at the same address.
While A1 itself was not in the frame for tax evasion, both the station and its owner screamed murder.
Ramkovski claimed that the ruling VMRO DPMNE party of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski had come looking for excuses to shut down A1 because it criticized government policy. The financial inspections were a form of political pressure being used against him, he claimed.
“I was proud of my employees and journalists,” he told A1’s staff after that evening of high drama. “I knew you would do your job flawlessly.”
Over the past 20 years of political pluralism in Macedonia, Ramkovski has been one of the main movers and shakers in the media. Since he formed A1 in 1993, it has consistently drawn the highest viewing ratings in the country.
Ramkovski has also set up another TV channel, A2, which he intends to turn into a Albanian language station, thus tapping into the ethnic Albanian market. Albanians make up a quarter of the country’s population.
Ramkovski also publicly said that he owns three daily newspapers Spic, Vreme and Koha e Re, attracting claims that he has violated the country’s monopoly laws through unlawful media concentration.
However, inspectors have never formally charged him with that offence because the companies running the three newspapers are officially registered under the names of other people.
Despite his long involvement in the media, Ramkovski only became widely known to the general public in 2006 before the general elections, when he set up a political party, the Party for Economic Recovery.
Defending the interests of tobacco growers and producers, A1 strongly criticized the policies of the then Social Democrat-led government.
Shortly after, financial inspectors tried to probe the work of the broadcaster – only to retreat when the TV station reacted, as it did recently, by claiming it was being made the subject of politically motivated inspections.
Another controversy surrounding Ramkovski and A1 TV involves a eight year long lawsuit with the US Media Development Loan Fund. A1 TV received a 1,5 million dollars loan in 1995 to invest in the station, money which allegedly was spent for buying chicken meat.
The dispute, which became an issue between the governments of Macedonia and the US, was resolved on March 17, 2006 when A1 TV signed a contract to return 1,8 million dollars in four installments.
Ramkovski was one of the biggest supporters of the current Prime Minister, Gruevski, after the 2006 elections that brought his VMRO-DPMNE party to power. Ramkovski's party failed to gain any seats in parliament.
He claims that he made a deal with Gruevski to disband his party and support VMRO DPMNE after Gruevski promised to carry forward his party’s agenda, which led with demands for bigger subsidiaries for agriculture.
But the love-in between the two men broke down in 2008 when A1 attacked the government over the failure of the Swedmilk dairy company.
Many farmers had seen the opening of this factory in Skopje as a good opportunity to invest in dairy production and were ruined by its subsequent collapse.
A1 turned from fan into noisy critic of the Gruevski government, drawing ire from the ruling party.
In June, while celebrating the 20th anniversary of VMRO DPMNE, Gruevski accused the TV station of bias and urged his supporters not to trust its reporting.
Meanwhile, A1 picked a fight with two other national TV stations, Kanal 5 and Sitel, whose owners are sons of political leaders and parliamentary deputies in the ruling coalition.
In August, A1 gave jobs to several ex-journalists from Kanal 5 and offered them “a democratic ambient for their work” after they accused the government of engineering their sacking. Kanal 5 then retorted by accusing Ramkovski of tax evasion.
Police on November 26, showed the cash they had seized from Ramkovski’s companies during the inspection on the 25th. Police said the money was found in the apartment of one of the directors of the audited companies. They now say they suspect that he owes million of euros in back taxes.
Ramkovski has replied with a counter-argument, accusing the Prime Minister of paying him some 4 million euro, taken from the state budget, to air VMRO DPMNE commercials on A1 from 2006 to 2008.
“Gruevski and his VMRO DPMNE have committed a crime, not me” Ramkovski said.
Opinion is divided on who the “real” Ramkovski really is.
To some, he is an unscrupulous but successful businessman who has used his media empire to flirt successive governments and so avoid financial inspection of his other businesses, such as his chain of stores and trading firms.
To others, such as this former editor-in-chief of A1, now working in A2, he remains a hero. “If there was not for Velija Ramkovski … we would not be able to talk today about a democratic environment or democratic standards in Macedonian journalism,” Aleksandar Comovski said.
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