The Macedonia Question

Posted on June 8, 2017

A series of leaked documents have exposed attempts by the Russian security services to interfere in the internal politics of Macedonia in order to block its ascension to NATO.  In light of growing ethnic tensions in the Balkans, the Kremlin has set its sights on a ‘pan-slavic orthodox alliance’ to counter NATO and EU expansion in the region. 

 

On April 27 Macedonia attracted international attention as an organised mob stormed parliament and began attacking members of the opposition party.  Macedonia, not often a feature in international political discussion, has become the centre of a growing ethnic and political crisis in the Balkans that looks set to stand Russia off against the West.

Macedonia’s ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, had governed with a majority for over a decade until its leader, former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevsky, was ousted as the result of a wiretapping scandal and numerous charges of corruption.  The 2016 elections forced the ruling party into a controversial coalition with the left-leaning Social Democratic party, led by Zoran Zaev, who is now Prime Minister.

This unexpected coalition led to political tension among the nationalist DPMNE and Macedonia’s large Albanian population.  The Social Democrats had for a long time been jeered at by nationalists like Gruevsky as ‘national traitors’ for their support of European Integration and further rights for Albanians in Macedonia.  Zaev’s party has been characterised in Russian media, as well as right-wing media across the Balkans as a puppet of American billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who, according to them, wants to sell out the country to Albania.

Albanians make up roughly a quarter of Macedonia’s population, and the large ethnic minority has rallied behind the Social Democrats as the only party that can represent its interests in government.  This stark ethnic division between two political parties has led to a souring of discourse between the Macedonian Slav population and the Albanian minority, a division that has been significantly played up in the right-wing media from Moscow to Belgrade.

The European Union, while for a long time hinting that Macedonia was on track for integration into Europe, has been hesitant in committing to the task.  As tensions begin to rise in the region and the EU continues to stall on its commitments, the Kremlin has moved in to support the ruling DPMNE party in an attempt to block its NATO ambitions and bring Macedonia into a Russian sphere of influence.

According to research conducted by Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Russian security services have been attempting to create a “critical group of people who are military trained and ready to act in Russian interests at the right political moment”

The Kremlin has significantly increased the tempo and strength of its propaganda across the Balkans in recent years in order to sway the country towards embracing Russian interests.  A report produced by Macedonian counter-intelligence services stated that “Macedonia has been under the influence of the most destructive propaganda, as well as the activities of the Russian security services which are carried out through the Russian embassy.”

The report also mentioned the Kremlin’s desire to use Russian “soft power” to steer the Balkans away from western influence in order to “take control of strategic energy resources”.

Oleg Scherbak, the Russian ambassador to Macedonia, was quoted by Macedonian counterintelligence as saying that Russia’s goal is to “create a neutral buffer zone in the Balkans” which would include Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Macedonia.

The key culprits in this propaganda campaign are a number of mainstream media outlets in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and Belgrade, the Serbian capital.  According to leaked documents, the Kremlin is coordinating these activities through the Russian embassy in the Macedonian capital of Skopje.

This so-called “soft power” is an appeal to a shared cultural heritage between the Balkans and Russia, drawing on the idea of a “pan-slavic identity and united Orthodox faith.”  This narrative is not dissimilar to Vladimir Putin’s March 2014 speech immediately after the annexation of Crimea in which, standing on freshly conquered soil, he stressed the common cultural ancestry between Ukrainians and Russians.

The tone of this cultural project has worrying implications for a region in which memories of ethnic conflict are still exceptionally vivid.  The push towards a “pan-slavic alliance” risks isolating Macedonia’s quarter ethnic Albanian and mainly Muslim population and is paving the way for confrontation between Russia and the West.

The Kremlin was quick to lay the blame for the storming of parliament on the USA and Europe, accusing them of fuelling ethnic conflict and intending to organise a coup through Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.  This view has become the backbone of pro-Russian propaganda in the region, and has even found support among American right-wing media broadcasters.

Leaked documents also exposed collusion between Russia, the Serbian security services and pro-Russian member of the Macedonian parliament Ivan Stoilkovic.  Serbian security official Goran Zhivaljevic had been found giving instructions to Stoilkovic, and had even coordinated a smear campaign with him against prime minister Zaev which was broadcast in the Serbian media, advancing the view that western “interference” could lead to war.

As the Trump administration distances itself from European affairs and Europe’s leaders shift their focus to domestic issues, it seems likely that tensions in Macedonia will continue to grow.  As Europe steps back, the Kremlin moves in.  Unity based on blood and faith have a terrible history in the Balkans, even within living memory; if politicians continue to fan this fire, it could lead to long-lasting divisions, or worse.

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