European Western Balkans

Name deal, EU, NATO, and Russian meddling: Will “North Macedonia” get past Russia?

Nikola Dimitrov, Zoran Zaev, Alexis Tsipras and Nikos Kotzias; Photo: Tanjug / AP Photo / Yorgos Karahalis

“The Republic of North Macedonia” —this is the new name that the Macedonian government agreed to on June 17 in an effort to unblock the country’s integration into EU and NATO. For the Macedonian government, joining the West warranted the prefix North. Finding the country’s true North, however, will be up to its citizens, for the renaming is conditioned on a referendum: Will Macedonians—as their government — choose NATO and the EU over the country’s current constitutional name? It is impossible to say with certainty how Macedonians will vote. What is more definite, however, is that upholding the prefix “North” is dependent on the Macedonian citizens’ ability to shield themselves from Russia’s disinformation operations.

Greece has challenged Macedonia’s name ever since Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. According to Greece, it is unacceptable for a country to have a name that has ancient history attached to it—history shared with, if not possessed by, Greece. To Macedonia, on the other hand, Greece is a bully that abuses an asymmetric power relationship to deprive Macedonians of their right to self-determination, a fundamental principle enshrined in international law.

The international community has been sympathetic to the Macedonian side. To date, over 140 countries have recognized Macedonia under its constitutional name, including 4 of the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council (the exception being France). This, however, has not stopped Greece from wielding its veto power to block Macedonia’s accession to the EU and NATO.

But the Prespa Agreement signed on June 17 is supposed to do so. Upon ratification in Macedonia’s Parliament, which happened on June 20, Greece promised to no longer brandish its veto prerogative. Macedonia’s incorporation into the Western alliance, therefore, is again on the horizon.

Yet, this prospect is at odds with how Moscow envisages the Balkans. The Kremlin has made it clear that it wants to render Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia “a strip of militarily neutral countries.” That said, last year Montenegro became NATO’s 29th member. Moscow’s eyes, therefore, are now on Macedonia—the most serious contender for becoming the 30th state to accede into the military alliance.

In Macedonia in recent years, Russia has established over 30 Rus­so-Macedonian cultural associations and has increased the number of its embassy personnel by 25 percent. Furthermore, it has been funding local media outlets, coercing government ministers, and courting Russophile parties and exponents of the Kremlin.

Pro-Russian arguments often permeate Macedonia’s information landscape through sources like Sputnik News Agency and TASS, whose content is regularly republished in Macedonian media. This is expected to increase now that Hungarian media companies backed by Viktor Orban have acquired right-wing web portals and TV stations in the Balkans, and especially in Macedonia and Slovenia. The civil society sector worries that these acquisitions present an effort by Orban to fortify his brethren right-wing populists by helping them adopt “government communication following the style of Russian propaganda.”

This style relies on Moscow’s time-tested tactic of exploiting “regional stereotypes, ethnic tensions, and unresolved legacies of conflicts.” During Macedonia’s recent political crisis, for example, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the EU and NATO support a “Greater Albania” in the region. The West, Moscow maintained, is “grossly interfering” in Macedonia’s internal affairs, forcing Macedonian political leaders to accept an agreement designed by politicians in Albania. The populist authoritarian party, VMRO-DPMNE, echoed this rhetoric, emboldening their supporters to storm the parliament and send rival MPs to the emergency room. For Russia, these MPs were pawns of the West tampering with “the will of the citizens with the aim of removing the legitimate government [led by VMRO-DPMNE] from power.”

In general terms, Moscow is trying to push an image of itself as a benevolent partner and a protector of sovereignty and Orthodox Christianity—an antithesis of the interfering West. Russia’s endeavors to foment confusion and disenchantment with the West by playing on nationalist and nativist sentiments will likely intensify as we approach Macedonia’s referendum on its name.

To thwart Montenegro’s bid to join NATO, Russian agents reportedly went as far as orchestrating a coup. The question is: how far will Russia go to forestall Macedonia’s NATO accession? Will it, for example, use—as it appears to have done with Brexit and the US presidential elections—its sophisticated machinery of bots and trolls to spread disinformation? Will it go even further—as it did in Ukraine with the NotPetya ransomware attack—and try to debilitate Macedonia’s critical infrastructure systems?

It could. Macedonians are remarkably susceptible to fake news, and the country’s cyber space is weak and vulnerable to cyberattacks. So far, however, no hard evidence exists to indicate malicious cyber activities by Moscow in Macedonia. Russia’s political meddling, as described above, has largely relied on more mainstream methods—fanning the flames of Balkan ethno-nationalism through funding media and supporting Russophiles.

Currently, one of the de-facto leaders of the ongoing protests against the name change is the leader of a Russophile party that advocates for Macedonia’s reorientation towards the Eurasian Economic Union. During Sunday’s protests, he clambered onto a police vehicle, waving the Vergina Sun flag and the flag of the Commander-in-chief of Russia.

Only a few hours earlier, the Macedonian and Greek governments signed the agreement in the sight of the Macedonian and the EU flags. Time will tell which flags are waved in triumph on the day of the referendum.

The article was written as part of the project “Western Balkans at the Crossroads: Assessing Non-Democratic External Influence Activities,” led by the Prague Security Studies Institute. You can find more information here.

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