Interview with Tamila Velkovska: Pro-Russian Propaganda Skillfully Abuses the Weak Spots of the Macedonian Citizens
It is a fact that the Russian propaganda network is well developed in this country, including representatives of official Russian institutions, diaspora and paid political parties. Another fact is that they have been active in this region for quite some time now, therefore an operational network has been installed in the last few decades which, inter alia, is also well-paid, says Velkovska
Author: Ilinka Iljoska
Although the Association of Ukrainian Citizens in North Macedonia exists for more than a decade, the public heard about “Lesya Ukrainka” from the events related to the war in Ukraine that Russia started last year. Following the protest of support for Ukraine in Skopje in February 2022, the association started to organize humanitarian activities and events to inform the public about the military terror and suffering of the innocent citizens, including children, n Ukraine.
Nevertheless, this association is facing other challenges and fighting battles against fake information and malignant foreign influences that shape public opinion through various methods. How does this affect the work of “Lesya Ukrainka” and the Ukrainian community in the country in general, and what needs to be done, was the topic of discussion between Meta.mk and the Vice-President of the association, Tamila Velkovska.
Russian propaganda can be proven with modern technology
“It is a fact that the Russian propaganda network is well developed in this country, including representatives of official Russian institutions, diaspora and paid political parties. Another fact is that they have been active in this region for quite some time now, therefore an operational network has been installed in the last few decades which, inter alia, is also well-paid”, says Velkovska.
She stresses that Russian propaganda and aggression can be proved with modern technology and evidence, including videos and reports from independent journalists. Russian influence and atrocities, Velkovska says, are present not only in the case of Ukraine, but in other previous cases of occupation of foreign territory (Georgia, Chechnya, Finland, Poland, the Baltic countries).
“That is more than obvious and can be proven easily. I am not talking only about Ukraine, but also about Moscow’s previous “endeavors” directed towards occupying foreign territory. Today, when everyone has a telephone in their hands and there is plenty video-evidence and material, we did not think that we have to prove that Russia was the aggressor and that Russian soldiers were killing the peaceful inhabitants in Ukraine and bringing all populated areas to ruins”, stressed Velkovska.
Ukrainians are not applying for citizenship of North Macedonia
Regarding the status of the Ukrainians in Macedonia, Velkovska says it is important to clarify the terms, lest misunderstanding arise.
“The Ukrainians who fled to Macedonia due to the war do not enjoy the status of “refugees” which implies special rights such as – and above all – right to employment and healthcare. Here they are given a one-year residence permit of humanitarian nature with right to extension, which secures only the right of residence and a symbolic assistance package from the Red Cross and nothing else. Although they are called “refugees” for easier understanding, from a legal viewpoint they do not enjoy such a status in the Republic of North Macedonia”, said Velkovska.
She explained that these people do not wantr asylum, but want to return home or to go to countries with better social care. Velkovska added that a small number of Ukrainians remain in Macedonia, usually those who work online or have relatives here. She is convinced that North Macedonia did all that it could for these people.
Life in Ukraine under Russian occupation
Velkovska and the other members of “Lesya Ukrainka” use Internet to communicate with the Ukrainians who are still in the territories occupied by Russia, in order to get credible information about the situation there. She explains that this way they found out that the aggressor has imposed its rules and measures in the occupied territories, including enforced issuance of Russian personal identity documents. Apparently, the Ukrainians who did not want to accept Russian citizenship were treated as foreigners and as such they could be forcibly deported.
“There are so-called “torture rooms” in every populated place for confining activists and those who actively defy the occupation. As I mentioned, these testimonies do not come from television news or Telegram channels, but they are personally transmitted by the people who stayed behind in the occupied territories, whom we contact through the Internet. There are many cases of kidnapping activists and representatives of the Ukrainian administration – mayors, civil servants etc. and members of their families. The language of instruction in the schools is Russian and the students are exposed to “brain-washing” activities. Parents who do not want to send their children to school under such circumstances are risking to have their children taken away from them,” said Velkovska, adding that apart from the inflicted separations of families, people without Russian documents are deprived from sources of existence, since they cannot receive an Ukrainian pension or find employment.
According to the information she has now, Russian authorities are currently calling upon the population to evacuate itself without even knowing where that evacuation will end.
One of the most painful topics of the Ukrainian society – as Velkovska puts it – is the deportation of children. She pointed out the official statistics of the Ukrainian Ombudsman claiming that 11.337 children have been relocated in occupied Crimea and on Russian territory on the borders with Ukraine during the military invasion up to April 2023.
Velkovska also stressed that the children were deported under the pretext of treatment, recreation, social and psychological rehabilitation and participation in cultural and educational activities.
“They are deliberately placed in smaller groups, making it more difficult to find and returned them to their motherland. The illegal adoption or foster care of Ukrainian orphaned children continues for those previously taken from Ukrainian territory to Russia by force. The children are submitted to anti-Ukrainian propaganda – greatest attention paid to learning Russian language and history, seen from the perspective that suits the Russian aggressors,”, Velkovska explains.
Macedonian media and the pro-Russian propaganda: Distorted perception
Velkovska believes that Macedonian media – to a large extent – publish truthful information regarding the war in Ukraine, however, she has noticed an increase in the number of paid articles with pro-Russian inclination. She deems that the media and the chief-editors are responsible for that, but also that the problem appears in the online media that provide for pro-Russian propaganda and comments, that – according to her – opens wide space for bot-activities and creates the wrong perception and distorted public opinion.
“Some time ago, our association sent an appeal to all the media outlets in the country to close the comments for the articles and materials related to the war in Ukraine. That has nothing to do with freedom of speech. On the contrary, that way thousands of pro-Russian bots would loose a large area of their harmful influence on the Macedonian public, thereby it them to form a real opinion about the war”, stressed Velkovska.
According to her, the pro-Russian elements skillfully abuse the “weak spots” of the Macedonian citizens – ethnic issues, neighborly relations, historic events and the undefined European future.
Velkovska stated that the idea about Russia being a “brotherly country” is engraved in the subconscious of the people and exactly because of that we should be reminded of the historical events, i.e. how many times Russia attacked its neighbors under the pretext of “protecting the Russian population”.
“I would also like to remind the public that in 1939, the main German rationale for attacking Poland used by Adolf Hitler was “protecting the Germans in Poland”. That reminds you of something, doesn’t it?“, stated Velkovska and added that Russian propaganda was realized with money smeared with Ukrainian blood.
“Russian Brotherhood” is also influential through the finances – I would rather not mention their origin – and that way wrong public opinion is formed, that serves the purpose of Moscow. This is a small country, and we know where that money ends up, smeared with the blood of the Ukrainians”, stressed Velkovska.
Russian propaganda in Macedonia and Ukraine – need for a national strategy
According to Velkovska, Macedonia, just like Ukraine, is facing challenges due to Russian propaganda that is harmful for both the Association “Lesya” Ukrainka” and to the Republic of North Macedonia. However, she also thinks that this influence should be dealt with on a national level with special strategies and resources, because young people are especially exposed to the hybrid war and propaganda.
“A strategy is required along with resources and, above all, will. This problem in the country is undermined, while we – Ukrainians – felt the consequences of subverting the enemy”, said Velkovska and advises to pay attention to the ramifications of “Russian peace”, messages transmitted through Russian cultural centres and Russian language learning, promotion of Russian music and culture, especially among young people.
The columns and statements made by the Russian Ambassador in the country are not surprising for Velkovska, because he is representing the interests of his country. But, she said, that she believed in justice, although the attack on Ukraine cannot be denied in an era of open information and evidence.
“Everyone serving a criminal government becomes a criminal who – I believe – will get his/her deserved punishment as well as everyone who is helping and advocating killings of Ukrainians and justifies the military aggression of the Ukrainian people”, stressed Velkovska.
Velkovska stated that the Russian Ambassador, on events such as Victory Day used military appeals like “The enemy will be defeated. Victory will be ours!”, which is a criminal offence even in the Macedonian legal system.
She added that the associations of Macedonian-Russian friendship and the Russian educational and cultural centres are operational and they continue to promote the cuture of the aggressor-country through teaching Russian language, concerts, competitions and investments in Macedonian political parties. Velkovska calls this “brain-washing of Macedonian youth” with Russian propaganda and emphasizes that the Russian propaganda machinery spends lavishly to attract new supporters.
The resolution of “Lesya Ukrainka” to be active continues
Velkovska stated that the Association “Lesya Ukrainka” will continue to fulfill its duties regardless of the provocations and pressure exerted and will proceed with organizing events, be present in the media and act otherwise to protect its fatherland.
Although expressing gratitude for the assistance provided to Ukraine in all of its forms, Velkovska, as one of the representatives of the Association, says that she would like to see stronger action against pro-Russian propaganda on the side of Macedonia, which would also be in favour of Macedonian national interests.