It’s the kind of public redemption that does not happen nearly enough, but one that may become more commonplace as respect and admiration for whistleblowers continue to grow.
Gjorgji Lazarevski and Zvonko Kostovski, the former Macedonian intelligence officials who exposed mass-scale illegal surveillance of political opponents and journalists, have received the country’s highest human rights award. Standing and smiling before the National Assembly in Skopje, Lazarevski and Kostovski accepted the Meto Jovanovski Award for Human Rights on December 10, coinciding with the UN’s Human Rights Day.
Known as “The Edward Snowdens of Macedonia,” Lazarevski and Kostovski are among the very few whistleblowers whose disclosures led directly to the ousting of a national leader and the formation of a new government.
Their 2015 revelation that then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was spying on an estimated 20,000 people forced Gruevski to resign a year later. The explosive case led to the indictment of 94 people and seven companies, and the conviction and sentencing of several high-ranking officials including Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska and spy chief Sasho Mijalkov. Though also sentenced to prison, Gruevski managed to escape the country and obtain asylum in Hungary from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
As retribution, Lazarevski and Kostovski were jailed for 11 and 15 months, respectively, before being freed. Following an international campaign by anti-corruption activists, they were reinstated to their positions at the Macedonian intelligence agency in December 2018.
Known for his humility and patriotism, Lazarevski said he was gratified to receive the inaugural award named for the late Macedonian author who served as the first chairperson of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of Macedonia.
“Exactly 11 years ago we decided to do what we thought was the only right thing to do. We were fully aware of the risks, and we did not think or care about awards and recognitions. But today we are proud that we are the winners of this recognition,” Lazarevski said.
“We are proud that everything we went through personally was not in vain,” he said, “and that we helped to bring about more positive social changes. We are sure that in our homeland there will never be a massive violation of the rights of thousands of citizens.”
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who was elected after Gruevski’s resignation, called Lazarevski and Kostovski heroes of democracy. “Their courage and their values were a strong blow to the undemocratic shackles of the regime and started the path to the liberation of our society,” Zaev wrote on Facebook. “Their sacrifice places high on the pedestal the morality and responsibility that a citizen can show. I could not imagine a more appropriate and deserving selection for this award. I bow to you. You are the pride of our society.”
“The fight for human rights is impossible without courage, determination and risk-taking,” said Uranija Pirovska, chairperson of the Meto Jovanovski Award and current director of the Helsinki Committee. “The human rights fighter must be a person with integrity who is ready to take action at the cost of violating personal security.”
In 2018 Lazarevski and Kostovski received the Free Speech Award from the Southeast Europe Coalition on Whistleblower Protection and the European Center for Whistleblower Rights.