GLOBSEC: North Macedonia Has Pro-Western Ambitions, But Is Vulnerable to Kremlin and Beijing Influences
The GLOBSEC Vulnerability Index analyzes the vulnerability of eight Central European and Western Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia) to foreign malignant influence in 5 dimensions: public attitudes, political landscape, public administration, information landscape and civic and academic space. This index reveals soft spots in the influence of the Kremlin and Beijing in each of these countries, on a scale of 1 to 100.
Author: Simona Atanasova
According to research data, North Macedonia can be classified as the most resilient Western Balkan country examined by the GLOBSEC Vulnerability Index. The analysis shows that despite the result, the Macedonian society is polarized in antagonistic political camps and remains vulnerable.
While the majority of the population still supports the planned EU accession process since 2005, attitudes that favor pro-Kremlin and Beijing authoritarian regimes also play a significant role. Such attitudes are enhanced by the information space, which is largely a subject to foreign influence, via covert and overt media ownership, as well as certain channels and individuals that promote the Kremlin’s interests. The media landscape additionally suffers from a lack of different views, especially as the media are pressured by campaigns full of misinformation and manipulations, as seen from part of the Analysis dedicated to North Macedonia.
Attitudes of the public
The analysis concludes that North Macedonia’s enthusiastic support for EU and NATO membership could be toned down by the lengthy EU accession process.
The research showed that 46 percent of Macedonians, the largest number among countries surveyed, would like their country to belong to the West. In compliance with this view, 78 percent support their country’s entry into the EU, while 72 percent support the NATO membership. On the other hand, pro-Russian sentiments are significant. Only 10 percent think that Russia is a threat to North Macedonia, while 65 percent believe that Russia is North Macedonia’s Slavic brother.
Although Beijing is financing major infrastructure projects in North Macedonia, citizens are ambivalent to China – they see it neither as a threat nor as a partner.
The analysis recognized decisive steps by the government to limit the Kremlin’s influence in the country, including the decision to expel Russian diplomats in relation to the case of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, as well as two other expulsions in 2021.
As for China, the main driver of cooperation is the “Belt and Road Initiative”, an instrument of soft power reinforced by a number of memorandums of understanding (MoU) between the two governments. Concerns have also been noted regarding the infrastructure loans that are below the market level.
The public administration in North Macedonia has several shortcomings, including limited progress in key reforms, as well as a high level of politicization, the Analysis noted, adding that foreign interference awareness is still evolving.
The National Defense Strategy is the only strategic document that clearly recognizes the activities of foreign intelligence services as one of the most serious threats to the country.
Misinformation and malignant narratives tend to “flourish” online, with many portals registered in offshore destinations – thus avoiding legal repercussions for potential misuses.
While Chinese activities remain significantly limited, Russian and pro-Kremlin influence is of greater importance.
Although Russian-owned local radio station of the International Slavic University is the only example of open influence, several interviewed experts have indicated that Alfa TV and off.net.mk are spreading pro-Kremlin and anti-Western narratives, the analysis said.
The European Parliament has also expressed concern about the narratives shared in foreign-owned media in the country, especially by a group of media controlled by Hungarian investors close to Viktor Orban’s administration.
Civic and academic space
Russian influence is visible on a formal level as well. Its embassy oversaw the formation of some 30 Macedonian-Russian “friendship associations”, with more than 5,000 members that officially support Russia’s engagement in the country. Russia’s soft power strategy has increased Moscow’s cultural influence in Macedonia through these associations, especially the Russian Cultural Center in Skopje.
Twenty-three (23) out of 28 surveyed experts believe that the Kremlin’s influence on civil society is limited or non-existent.
On the other hand, it is said that China has not shown great interest in the Macedonian civil society sector and probably prefers to communicate with government officials rather than with the non-governmental sector or private businesses.