Ibraimi: There Are Indications that Russian Influence Will Continue in the Balkans Despite the War in Ukraine
In general, I do not believe that the Russian disinformation campaign and the current support of the misperception about the war in Ukraine will affect the possible change of the foreign policy of N. Macedonia. There are currently no real opportunities for war in the Balkans. Russian disinformation by hybrid means continues to spread, giving a vain hope to a certain layer of citizens that one day Russia will save them from the West. This, among other things, was argued by an international policy expert, author and journalist, focusing on geopolitics and security issues in Europe and the Balkans, Selim Ibraimi, in an interview with Portalb.mk.
Interviewer: Suad Bajrami
Recently, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov informed that Russian agents in Bulgaria are continuously working against the good relations between Bulgaria and N. Macedonia, thus closing the European future of our country. If we look in perspective, how successful are such influences and how likely is it that such activities will “bury” our European future?
Ibraimi: Russian influence in the Western Balkans gained momentum in 2008, and in 2017 the country manifested itself in a hybrid form, in Montenegro 2016 and in Bulgaria through political parties, universities and the Bulgarian media. The same thing happened in N. Macedonia during the previous government of Nikola Gruevski, presenting itself as a blocker of all integration processes and the development of hostile relations with neighboring countries. Russian influence at the time, both in Skopje and in neighboring countries, was invisible and no one believed that Russia was one of the external factors that took root in Skopje’s government policies and decision-making. From today’s point of view, we can freely say that Russian influence had its consequences with the return of outdated views in policy-making in the Balkan countries.
Were it not for the United States, which finally intervened to find a quick solution to the dispute with Athens, the situation today would be miserable or fatal for Nort Macedonia, Bulgaria and the Western Balkans as a whole. Regarding the Russian factor in Bulgaria and North Macedonia, not only the Bulgarian Prime Minister but also the Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, said that there are people in Skopje and Sofia who are working against reaching an agreement between the two governments. It must be acknowledged that the consequences of Russia’s previous influence in North Macedonia have deep roots here as well, despite the fact that the country is a NATO member and an EU candidate. Mixed, multiethnic and religious countries are one of Moscow’s moving points in the region. This tacit support we see in the Balkans for Putin’s war stems precisely from Moscow’s long-term strategy of interfering in many things and keeping the “Orthodox Brotherhood” together. However, with the war in Ukraine and the Russian aggression, it is time for the “Orthodox world” to wake up and take into its own hands its unity and cooperation with other religions and other peoples.
There are indications that Russian influence will continue despite the war in Ukraine. This influence should be seen in the way the peoples of the Balkans are misinformed, not only by Russia and its supporters but also by Serbia, which unfortunately supports this false campaign. From now on, progressive governments in the Western Balkans must continue to work to resolve conflicts and find lasting neighborly and internal solutions, regardless of the role of Russia and its actors in Skopje and Sofia or elsewhere.
How much did the Russian disinformation affect the perception of the population in N. Macedonia about what is really happening in Ukraine and is there a danger that this perception will be channeled over time towards easing the policy of sanctions against Russia?
Ibraimi: Dissemination of disinformation and use of hybrid tactics by the Kremlin in the Balkans and in N. Macedonia was made and developed earlier. We now have the opportunity to see only the consequences, which, unfortunately, have a one-sided effect on the minds and hearts of a significant segment of the country’s population. It is not surprising that a certain category of an age group not only in N. Macedonia but beyond, openly expresses support for the Russian war in Ukraine on social networks and through other forms. In the long run, with the revelation of the Russian military’s crimes against humanity in Ukraine, human rights abuses and war crimes reports, the Orthodox population in the Balkans and in countries where Russia still has influence will change its perception of the Kremlin war. This decade is not the time for the works of Stalin and Bolshevism.
The multiethnic societies and countries of our region must clearly state that the war in Ukraine does not bring any good to the Macedonian citizens, the Serbs and any other people in the Western Balkans.
In general, I do not believe that the Russian disinformation campaign and the current support for the misperception of the war in Ukraine will affect the possible change of the foreign policy of N. Macedonia. Only in a scenario without reasonable thinking about the spread of a general war in Europe could we think of developments that would bring changes in the defence policies and, of course, the foreign policy of our country. For now, in the context of the war in Ukraine, this influence will continue to have these different levels, manipulating only the heads of those individuals and politicians who want to see reality differently from the democratic and civilized world.
After the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the thesis that the war could spread to the Western Balkans was circulating in the public, but lately, this thesis has not been mentioned. Was there a real opportunity to spread the war or it was just part of Russia’s disinformation strategy?
Ibraimi: The news that spread in the online media before and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, initially aimed to promote the formation of opinion in favor of the Russian attack and to continue deepening the gap or mistrust between ethnic groups and religions in the Balkans, that the war will spread beyond Ukraine to the Western Balkans. The thesis was old and aimed to test the security environment and whether radical Russian forces and intelligence services, along with local members of Russian policy-makers in the Balkans, had the opportunity to take covert action to destabilize N. Macedonia or Bosnia and North Kosovo. Initially, the media or social networks, along with their “trolls”, made constant attempts to spread false information about Putin’s allegedly just war in Ukraine and the repetition of the same situation in the Balkans. This fact is supported by the concrete actions of the Russian diplomacy.
And the threat of the Russian diplomat in Bosnia was not in vain – if Sarajevo officially tries to join NATO, according to him, Bosnia will bear the same consequences as Ukraine. Contrary to popular narratives of Russian propaganda, the Kremlin’s strategy, along with its infrastructure, has failed to tighten the atmosphere. It is now up to the pro-reform governments to prevent the online actions of non-state actors, and here we must act quickly with law enforcement. There are currently no real opportunities for war in the Balkans. Russian disinformation by hybrid means continues to spread, giving hope to a certain layer of citizens that one day Russia will save them from the West. In fact, this is false propaganda and sometimes prevents progressive governments from implementing reforms. Only general war in Western and Eastern Europe leaves room for terrifying scenarios for the Western Balkans.
Over the past few days, the world has been shaken by horrific scenes in Bucha, Ukraine. How do you assess Russia’s approach to denying the facts of crimes committed against the civilian population in Ukraine, even accusing the images of being edited?
Ibraimi: For Putin’s policy specialists in the USSR and Russia, lying or denying facts is nothing new. During the Red Famine of the 1930s, more than 3-4 million Ukrainians died because of Stalin’s policies, later linked to plans to collectivize private property. In fact, it was a deliberate death or mass death of the Ukrainian people caught on close by the Soviets. This genocide was never recognized by the Kremlin. In another case called the Katyn Massacre in Poland, Soviet troops shot dead more than 22,000 Polish officers and soldiers and intellectuals in the early spring of 1940 on the orders of Stalin and the Soviet army. Stalin tried to portray this Soviet massacre as the work of German soldiers. The massacre was never accepted by the USSR. It was not until 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Yeltsin accepted it as the work of the Soviets, but no one was held accountable. And the massacres in Bucha, Ukraine and other cities are just a continuation of the old Russian policies toward the neighbors. With this act, Putin’s Russia becomes forever hostile to all nations, isolating the Russian people from the world. Yet despite all of Russia’s denials, the United States, NATO, and Britain have well documented Russia’s crimes and genocide.
For example, “MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES” with intelligent satellite images, accurately and clearly showed the mass graves and other acts against humanity of the Russian army in Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s objections to displaying fake images and falsely edited photos with the software, the massacre in Bucha and other cities are in vain. Russia will no doubt continue to deny all the facts and massacres committed in Ukraine, accusing the United States and NATO of obstructing an agreement between the two countries.
Because the Russian population is deprived, even by law, of information from sources other than those controlled by the state about what is happening in Ukraine, how likely is it that the same population will topple Putin? Or, perhaps, can its decline be expected from the consequences of the war?
Ibraimi: It must be acknowledged that the Russian population is in isolation, and the new laws passed by the Kremlin will further aggravate the internal state of individual freedoms of expression and freedom of the press. It is known that the already difficult situation with the media in Russia is aggravated by the new restrictions. Russian editors and journalists have resigned from the state media in protest of Ukraine’s editorial and military policies. As for domestic political developments, the Russian government will continue to put pressure on Russian citizens with harsh methods to the point of extreme isolation. It remains for the Russian people in the coming months to disagree with this war and demand change, just as it did in 1990. Democratic Russia, reconnected with the developed world, remains in the hands and minds of the Russian people, who must work to overthrow autocrats and restore freedom. Otherwise, the further continuation of this Russia will have consequences for the future of the people and their well-being. Change in Russia must start from within. And the war in Ukraine, which found Russia unprepared, should serve the Russian people as a historic moment for radical change, with the overthrow of autocrats, with the end of the evil mentality of Russian rule in neighboring countries and the world. Real change for an open Russia away from the events of 1917.