SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled his country to avoid a two-year prison term for corruption, has requested asylum in Hungary, the Hungarian government said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called on Hungary to extradite Gruevski, his bitter political rival.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's office said it considers Gruevski's asylum request "solely a legal issue" and views Macedonia as "an important ally."
"The Macedonian government of the day is a partner of Hungary in interstate relations, and therefore we in no way wish to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign countries," Orban's office said.
For his part, Zaev said he expects the Hungarian government to respect international law by returning Gruevski.
"What will be (Macedonia's) motivation to join the European Union if one of its member states becomes a shelter for criminals?" he said during a news conference in Skopje with visiting Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
Macedonia's justice ministry spokesman, Vladimir Delov, told The Associated Press that the ministry is preparing the necessary documentation for Gruevski's extradition.
Gruevski, prime minister from 2006-2016, fled after Macedonian police tried to arrest him to serve the prison sentence. He was convicted in May of unlawfully influencing interior ministry officials over the purchase of a luxury vehicle.
Delov said the formal extradition request will take some time as the documents need to be translated into Hungarian. Macedonia has no extradition agreement with Hungary, but can seek application of the European Convention on Extradition that binds members of the Council of Europe — to which both countries belong.
In Hungary, left- and right-wing opposition parties called on the Orban government to extradite Gruevski.
Earlier Wednesday, Macedonian authorities temporarily jailed two former government officials on trial for corruption following Gruevski's flight.
A criminal court on Wednesday ordered former transport minister Mile Janakieski and former government secretary-general Kiril Bozinovski to be held for 30 days. Prosecutors sought their detention amid fears they could also try to flee the country.
They are on trial on charges including corruption over public contracts and election fraud.
Gruevski's flight marks the latest dramatic episode in a volatile confrontation between his conservatives and Zaev's Social Democrats.
The two sides remain bitterly at odds over a proposed deal to change the republic's name to North Macedonia and end a dispute with neighboring Greece that would allow Macedonia to join NATO and start accession talks with the European Union.
Western leaders provided Zaev's government strong backing in supporting the deal, while Russia argued that it was the target of the alliance's expansion eastward.
Pablo Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary.