Russian influence in Macedonia: A credible threat?

Skopje, Macedonia; Photo: WikiComons/Raso mk

After Montenegro joined NATO, the new Macedonian government expressed a strong attitude towards joining NATO, but also worries about Russian vociferous reaction. Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev said that membership in the EU and NATO is the only possible choice for Skopje, and that he expects a strong reaction of Russia when it comes to Macedonian aspirations to become a member of the Alliance. In his interview for Montenegrin radio Antena M, Zaev stressed that the Macedonian government is ready for a counterwork coming from Moscow. “We are ready, because my country does not have an alternative, our choice is the EU and NATO,” said the Prime Minister.

When it comes to the Western Balkan countries who aspire to join the EU or NATO, there are stories about Russian attempts to stop the region from integration. According to the leaked documents obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Kremlin’s goal is to stop the Western Balkan countries from joining NATO and to detach them from the Western influence. In April, nationalist protesters stormed the parliament attacking Zoran Zaev and other members of the parliament. These documents reveal strong efforts made by the Serbian intelligence to support pro–Russian and anti–Western nationalists in Macedonia.

Even though Macedonia has been a Western partner since becoming independent, Russia has increased its influence in the country in last years. “By using the assets and methods of so – called ‘soft power’, as part of the strategy of the Russian Federation in the Balkans, the goal is to isolate the country from the influence of the West”, the leaked documents states, as well as that Russia has increased its cultural outreach in the country, pushing an idea of “pan–Slavic” identity and shared Orthodox Christian faith.

Another example of increased influence is the establishment of honorary consulates in Bitola and Ohrid. Also, Russia’s embassy has overseen the creation of many “friendship associations” between Macedonia and Russia in the country, as well as opening a Russian cultural centre in Skopje and sponsoring Russian–style churches across the country, documents reads. Russia uses domestic news outlets as propaganda which is predictable, primitive and contains a gap between what it reports and the reality. There are also some Serbian websites (Pravda, Vaseljenska, Webtribune) that serve as sources for Russian propaganda in the whole region. Serbia is perceived as the Russian propaganda base in the Balkans. A number of articles serving Russian propaganda agenda were published during and after the political crisis in Macedonia.

A large amount of these articles discusses the state of war or imminent war and refers to Macedonia as a ‘powder keg’. It seems like Russia is aware that it is not able to stop Macedonia’s strategic priorities, joining the EU and NATO, especially after the new government was established.

There are several goals of Russian propaganda in Macedonia. One is sowing doubts about joining the EU and NATO, another one is strengthening their own political and economic interests. The third very important goal is creating a public opinion that will have a positive reaction about Russia in Macedonia.

On the other hand, Russia is releasing ghosts from the past by accusing the US and the EU of carving up the Balkans and creating “Great Albania” through secession of a part of Macedonia. The future of Russian propaganda will mostly depend on the political crisis.

An intensification of a political crisis is expected to lead to a stronger impact of Russia. But in current conditions and the new government, it is hard to say and predict the impact that Russian propaganda will have. Russia tries to expand the influence in Southeast Europe, especially in Macedonia and Serbia with their strategic position, being locked in between the EU and NATO members. Although Serbia has always been one of the closest Balkan allies of Moscow, Macedonia is an easy target for Russian influence in a divided society. This April in his interview for Euronews, Zoran Zaev said that “in the last public poll it can be seen that the number of citizens supporting Macedonian integration towards NATO and EU has decreased.” “I believe that if special measures are not taken, Russia will get more space to spread its interests,” stressed Zaev.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States