Media Narratives about EU as a Factor of Increased Russian Influence in North Macedonia
When assessing the influence that throws North Macedonia off the tracks from the proclaimed process of democratic development directed towards adopting the values of the European Union (EU) and EU accession, one cannot ignore the manner in which Macedonian media present the contribution of certain EU Member-States and how media and political interpretations impact the perception of the community itself as a separate structure between the citizens and the Republic of North Macedonia (RNM)
Author: Prof. PhD Mirjana Najcevska, legal state and human rights expert
At first glance, this sounds absurd. It can, however, be identified from the media presentation of actual and perceived opinions of specific Member-States that deviate from the general EU value system, realistically or seemingly contradictory opinions of the EU structure, misinterpretations (incorrect and/or malicious interpretations) of certain positions and actions of the EU by creators of public opinion in the RNM.
Disinformation and propaganda narratives presenting the EU as inconsistent or immoral, weak, disunited, collapsing, non-credible etc. are also part of the strategy of the current ruling structure in Russia for reinforcing Russian influence and undermining democratic and integration processes in the region of the Western Balkans.
Discouraging influence of some Member-States
Defined as a generally desired destination, the EU must not be perceived as a homogenous structure. Regardless of the fact that the accession communication implies relations-building between North Macedonia and the EU structures – not with specific states – some EU Member-States can have a negative impact and discourage the accession process of North Macedonia.
In conditions when the country is under strong pressure of Russian and Chinese influence using all internal conflicts and political party and societal groupings to strengthen their presence and distimulate the EU orientation of the country, the positions and opinions disseminated by specific EU Member-States find fertile soil and can be used for subverting the confidence of the citizens in the accession process.
One of the most prominent players of that kind is Hungary.
Media usage of news and statements by Hungary
Hungary is a EU Member-State that has been identified as a country under strong Russian influence for quite some time. For example, the GLOBSEC vulnerability of foreign influence Index points out that:
Compared to other EU Member-States included in Vulnerablity of foreign influence Index, Hungary is more vulnerable to foreign influence in several spheres.
The problem of Russian influence in Hungary is subject of comprehensive analysis and discussions in EU structures as well, similar to that in the European Parliament in October 2022:
The influence of Kremlin becomes visible in many areas in Hungary. Long-term consequences can be seen not only in Hungary’s foreign affairs, but also in the European Union’s security.
These analyses rarely reach the wider audience (not even the narrower – political, expert and scientific) public in North Macedonia. Quite the opposite, very frquently, and without special analysis, statements of Hungarian high officials are published directed against the general EU policies that support friendly relations or at least cooperation with the current Russian government.
The fact that the country is a EU Member-State is used by various circles, including media, as evidence or at least as an assumption for the credibility of specific high officials and even as examples for an appropriate response and action.
First channel for such influence coming from Hungary is media support for the growing nationalism in a package advocating the protection of the nation.
For example, on the portal Vecer, the headline: „HUNGARY HAS AN ANTIDOTE” – The world is facing a virus attacking the nation” says that:
A speech of Orban worth remembering and stressing that the Western world is infected with a virus created in “progressive liberal laboratories”, while Hungary has an antidote – saying “no” to immigration, gender ideology and war…
The article on the portal selects opinions from Orban’s speech attacking essential elements of EU’s value system, democratic processes, rule of law and especially the human rights concept.
Without appropriate analysis this and similar texts are simply anti-EU pamphlets, and can create problems related to the changes in North Macedonia that need to occur in the adoption of EU values, striking in favour of all movements advocating nationalistic approaches in building relations within and beyond the country.
When Hungary is concerned, some media make an additional step. Under the headline: “Hungary wants to leave the EU?”, medium “Faktor” transmits part of the article published in “Hungarian Nation”:
While fully aware, the West is violating Christian morality and world order and instead announces the establishment of a cosmopolitan, impersonal global society based on limitless self-satisfaction and self-destruction of the individual, we, the Hungarians, the Poles and Central Europe are strongly abiding by the millennium cultural and religious pillars.
In a situation when the “West” is identified as the source of “evil”, what is left is the clear alternative applied by the “East” and the value systems that correspond to those requirements.
Even more clearly the promotion of the Russian orientation can be seen in the article published by the news agency Makfax under the headline: “Hungary will not support NATO’s decisions leading to direct conflict with Russia”. The portal has published a statement given by Hungary’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Peter Siarto, where he opposes directly every form of involving NATO in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict:
This is our obligation because every direct conflict between NATO and Russia is equal to the start of a world war and bears the risk of nuclear war.
Provocative statements of Hungary’s Prime-minister, Orban, culminate in the article published by the portal MKD titled: “Orban: Russia cannot be defeated” claiming that:
Orban emphasized the existence of a large number of Western economic circles, including American billionaire, George Soros, that have ”always dreamt about stepping foot on Ukrainian ground”.
They managed to come to Ukraine. Now they want to gain access to the natural resources of Russia. I remember very well when in the 1990-ies, at the time of Boris Yeltsin, the West and America wanted to invest in Russian manufacture thereby acquiring Russian natural resources on “business grounds”, he added.
As stated by Orban, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s accessor, put an end to that, throw them out of the country and regained control over the economic resources of Russia.
The impact of such statements in the media area, without appropriate analysis or presentation of the context expressed therein (especially the political context within Hungary itself) is reinforced with the statements of high officials of the Government who identify Hungary as a supporter of the EU accession process of North Macedonia.
The Macedonian news service of the Turkish State News Agency Anadolu, for example, transmitted the statement of President Stevo Pendarovski given during the official visit of the President of Hungary, Katalin Novak:
No doubt, Hungary is one of the most vocal and most active Member-States of the European Union supporting the enlargement process with the Western Balkan countries аnd a country that played a significant role in adopting the decision for opening accession talks with North Macedonia. The meeting just reiterated that such a support from Hungary will continue since Hungary deems Enlargement Policy as one of the most strategic policies of the EU.
However, the same article quoting the President of Hungary included a part dealing with the problem of illegal immigration:
Through North Macedonia and the Western Balkans, an enormous number of illegal immigrants are arriving in Hungary and their number became twice as much last year.
Illegal immigration, indeed, appears to be the leitmotif of public performances of Hungarian high officials and politicians which is identified as one of the reasons for continuing with the Enlargment Policy of the EU and the integration of the Western Balkan countries (platform TRT Balkan, operating as a branch office of Turkish Radio Television (TRT) on the Balkans).
The chief of Hunagarian diplomacy stressed that the Western Balkan region plays an important role in the fight against illegal immigration, adding that if the countries from the region do not cooperate with the EU, they will find themselves in a very difficult situation to stop illegal immigration.
The portal of the weekly Fokus published the statement given by the Chief of Cabinet of Hungarian Prime-minister Orban, according to whom:
Hungary will not arrest the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, if he were to enter the country, stated the Chief of Cabinet of Prime-minister Viktor Orban, adding that there would be no legal grounds for that.
Contradictory messages coming from Hungary are reinforced by the role the country played in the escapade of the former Prime-minister of North Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski and the close relations established with VMRO-DPMNE which is now in opposition.
Transmitting controversial statements by Croatian President Zoran Milanovic
Unlike the general policy of the ruling structure in Hungary, it is interesting to see the influence of the messages transmitted by the Croatian President, Zoran Milanovic. Although the statements of the Croatian President are minority opinions (often opposed with the general policies of the Croatian government), the influence imposed on the Macedonian public cannot be undermined. Even when the statements are given within context of his relations with the Croatian government, the citizens can hardly be expected to make a distinction as to mitigate his influence.
For example, in an article of the Macedonian news service of Radio Free Europe with a headline: “Croatian President criticising Western countries for armament of Ukraine” quotes the following:
I am against sending mortal weapons of any kind there, said Milanovic. According to him, sending arms will only continue the war. What is the aim? Disintegration of Russia, change of government? Even dissolution of Russia has been discussed. This is mad, he added.
The statements of the Croatian President are interesting for the Macedonian media because of the controversy and opposed positions with the official policy of Croatia towards the EU. For example, in Sloboden Pecat (Free Press):
Until yesterday, Putin and the those people were cool. They were successful with the higher level of German politics. Eventually, they are the biggest enemies. German tenks in Russia? Good luck with that, says Milanovic.
Similar is the statement of the Croatian President published by the newspaper Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia) under the headline: ”I had no idea that Europe was at war with Russia, and without a Moscow-Washington Agreement, Third World War will follow”, deems the Croatian President.
Presenting the role of France as negative
Another country whose media presentation indirectly influences the perception of the citizens of North Macedonia (especially ethnic Macedonians) towards the EU integration process which can increase the chances of Russian influence, is France.
On many occasions France has been identified by most media in North Macedonia, but also by experts and some representatives of the academic community as supporter of the Bulgarian assimilation policy. Just for an example, the portal MKD, under the headline: “Shameful French proposal for overcoming the dispute between Macedonia and Bulgaria” lays down the response of the expert public to the proposal for resolving the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria offered by France:
Macedonian red lines should be transformed into specific – not declarative – principles and solutions that must be respected by politicians as to secure long-lasting, real and sustainable solution with Bulgaria. Back in March, as a warning, this was stated by the Institute for Democracy (IDSCS) and the European Policy Institute (EPI) by developing a paper. “The Macedonian State should not stop talking with Bulgaria, but it should never agree to an EU negotiation process that could become the basis for disolving our statehood, thereby risking the internal and regional stability with unforeseeable ramifications either. The obligations undertaken will irreversibly determine our future and the role of the EU. We should be aware that by accepting the Bulgarian requirements, they become part of the Accession Agreement of the country with the EU, if, and when, that moment comes.”
On several occasions, the portal Expres.mk published articles on the problems related to the EU accession process of North Macedonia, especially in light of the role of France in that process. Such is the article with the headline: “Klekovski: “ЕУ-front” against Croatian EU-preambule is a conflict about whether Macedonia is a national state of the Macedonians”.
The same article was taken over by the newspaper Nova Makedonija.
The article is an analysis of an interesting problem. However, indirectly EU integration is presented as the best alternative for North Macedonia at the moment. This can especially be identified in the part where the author points out the historical roots of the required Constitutional amendments.
The controversial role of France is also covered in other articles like that in the Macedonian version of the German Broadcasting Service Deutsche Welle (DW) with the headline: “EU as a destabilizer” providing a mini analysis of the negative impact of specific EU solutions, especially the particular politics of France in regards to the Western Balkan countries.
EU disunity presented as a weakness factor
The negative impact that pushes North Macedonia off the tracks from the declared EU orientation is especially reinforced by insinuations regarding disagreements that exist/occur within the EU (regardless of the issue or the problem for which these non-harmonized opinions of the Member-States appear).
Such articles can frequently be found in the newspaper Vecer (Evening). For example, the article titled: “EUROPE IS DISUNITED; THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH RUSSIA! – Isolation or conflict with Putin?” states:
German government sources also expressed their concern that someone from the West may encourage Ukraine to set unrealistic military goals, including reconquering Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, which might continue the conflict.
The leitmotif of EU’s disunity (as a disincentive in the European integration process of North Macedonia) can be also derived from the headline “Politico: EU-countries cannot agree from where to purchase ammuniction for Kyiv” of an article published in Nova Makedonija (although the text of the article itself has no indications of the kind).
Some of the media “reinforce” the negative relations towards the EU (especially in terms of the assumed disunity) by taking over statements of Russian high officials. For example, on the A1 portal, the statement of the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, according to whom 10 development lines in the New 2023 can be foreseen and each of them separately as well as all of them jointly predict the fall of the EU, defeat of EU policy, especially its value system.
Indirectly, the EU idea is promoted as an inappropriate aim of North Macedonia, but also as evidence that EU Member-States themselves have different opinions regarding the conflict in Ukraine which also makes a problem out of the North Macedonia’s share in the assistance provided to Ukraine.
Such statements are taken over and reinforced by domestic politicians who openly advocate a change of the EU path of the country (medium Naroden Glas (People’s Voice)):
APASIEV: EU WILL DISOLVE, LET’S JOIN THE EUROASIAN UNION WITH RUSSIA AND BELARUS
Fortunately there are new options. He who thinks that only EU is the world is stupid. New options are out there. The geopolitical system that we knew is falling apart in front of our very eyes and we need to catch the wave.
The contradiction of the arriving messages is not only related to the different statements of specific EU Member-States, but within the Member-States themselves (between the political representatives of the Member-States and their citizens).
Quite direct disapproval of the “blind” affection of North Macedonia towards the “wasted” EU (that according to the author, is becoming shapeless on its own), opposed to the “bright” examples such as China, can be found in the article of Biljana Vankovska for the newspaper Nova Makedonija under the headline: “How China “Stole” the European Fairy-tale. In this, and in similar articles, the Chinese political system is glorified opposed to the EU without any objective parametres on the basis of which a realistic outlook of the value systems of both options available to North Macedonia – according to the author – can be developed.
The last example disseminated in the Macedonian media is the research in Austria presented in North Macedonia under the headline: “The Austrians do not want the Macedonians in the EU” on the portal of the weekly Fokus.
A convincing majority of Austrians are against enlargement of the European Union that, opposed to the verbal advocates of high officials in Vienna, is true for all Western Balkan countries – shows the research of Austrian Society for European Politics (OGfE), reported Beta Agency.
Growing perceptions of EU as the culprit
The increase of Euroskepticism in North Macedonia is obvious and evidence-based from many research projects.
The findings indicate that only 17 percent of the citizens believe that the EU has fair, amicable and just relations, opposed to 65 percent who deem the relations are unfair, arrogant and extorted.
This corresponds with the findings of other research projects implemented in the same period.
For example, the newspaper Nova Makedonija communicates the findings of the public opinion poll of the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” and the Foundation “Konrad Adenauer”:
We have been monitoring this for seven consecutive years. What can be concluded is that the support of the people for EU membership is on the lowest possible level i.e., in the last three years it has been at the bottom with insignificant variations in the numbers. That is the case and that is what other research has discovered – stated Marko Trosanovski, Director of the Institute for Democracy.
According to the last opinion poll of the Institute for Political Research Skopje, conducted by telephone within the period 2 – 6 May,
55,7 percent is against the negotiations framework adopted by the Government and the European Union and believe that the country is placed in a subdued position.
While 70 percent of the Macedonians are against the negotiations framework, 75 percent of the Albanians give their support.
The blame for the growing skepticism of the citizens is frequently put on the actions of the EU.
The statement of the President, Stevo Pendarovski, given for the media is in the same direction. For example, in the article of the Macedonian Service of news by Radio Free Europe related to the visit the German President Steinmeier he stated:
You cannot explain to the Macedonian citizens why 17 years – from various reasons -the EU is postponing the start of accession talks. If we are not good in those negotiations -provided they started – if we are not effective, then the blame could be identified predominantly on our part. However, it seems to me that if the door really opens wide for the whole region, then better results would be seen in the support of our citizens for the Euro-integration process…
In connection with the same visit, in the medium CIVILMEDIA the following statement of President Pendarovski was published:
It is true that the public opinion polls in the last 18 months in our country and in the region indicate a drop in the support for the EU. I would like to excuse all of us local and regional political players – of course we also have a degree of responsibility. However, my impression – my analysis – is based on the fact that the main reasoning, the main argument for this drop of Euro-enthuisiasm, let’s call it EU support, is on the side of Brussels, because in the last three, four and even five years or more, we do not, objectively, see the process of European integration moving forward, stressed Pendarovski.
The response to the reinforced pressure by the EU is becoming more and more open and negative. For example the medium Sloboden Pecat stated:
The reason for such an approach by the EU is much more complex and it is connected with the internal issues related to the functioning, and the failure of the EU to impose itself as a single, unified player on the global political scene. Today, noone can be pro-EU or anti-EU, because the meaning of that, in terms of European values, has been – the least to say – agitated – deems Rangelovic.
Negative impact can be identified from the meeting of the EU Commissioner Varhelyi with the citizens of North Macedonia who percieve themselves as Bulgarians which was covered by a large number of media (24Vesti, Fokus, Alfa MK, Nova Makedonija, NovaTV, Kanal5 …). Apparently, this meeting provoked a response from foreign experts who understand the relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria.
Portal Republika is one of the media that shared one of those responses under the headline: “Van den Berg: EU is losing its credibility with its double standards towards the Bulgarians in Macedonia and the Macedonians in Bulgaria”.
It is no news that even some foreign politicians openly criticize the EU for the policy practiced towards North Macedonia and stress the negative impact of this and such policy. For example, back in 2015, on Television Kanal5, under the headline: “Petir: EU is to blame for everything going on in Macedonia” the Croatian Member of the European Parliament, Marijana Petir, shared her opinion:
The stability in Macedonia is important for the stability of the entire region and the whole European Union. Macedonia must not be placed in the waiting room any longer, not only for the sake of the Macedonian people, but also for the credibility of the European Union, said the Croatian Member of the European Parliament about the state of affairs in the Republic of Macedonia.
Macedonia fulfilled all of the requirements and deserves to start accession talks, stressed Petir and demanded the bilateral issue with the name to be resolved within the framework of the negotiations as was the case with the Croatian-Slovenian model used for resolving a bilateral problem which proved to be successful.
The public of the RNM connects the perception of negative influence of the EU with the growing skepticism of the citizens of North Macedonia but also with the impact of complicating or making inter-ethnic relations worst along with the stability of North Macedonia.
For example, the pressure exerted by the EU for amending the Constitution of North Macedonia (in accordance with the French proposal for which the Parliament of North Macedonia has adopted Conclusions) is used for making additional demands by the representatives of the ethnic Albanian parties in North Macedonia as part of the Constitutional amendments to establish bi-ethnic instead of civic, unitary and multicultural model of the state. National Television Alfa TV, in a news article with the sensational and shocking headline: ”With a Constitutional proposal for two peoples, five communities and many minorities nothing will be left from Macedonia” stressed the following:
The opening of the Constitution opened Pandora’s box – the preambule is not even drafted, but the appetites of the Albanian political factors are growing. According to the analysists, by equalizing the Macedonian and Albanian people in the preambule Macedonia is becoming a binational state which will result with an even deeper intervention of deleting the “20 percent” qualification therein. The increased appetites and the issue concerning who will get what with the opening of the Constitution, according to Atanasovski, might bring about a political crisis.
Ramifications from negative media interpretations of messages coming from the EU and the EU Member-States
The ramifications of the above-stated media presentation of EU influence and specific Member-States in North Macedonia can be identified in the growing Euro-skepticism of the citizens, the hostile relations towards the EU and certain Member-States, the retrograde processes related to the fight against corruption and the rule of law, the growing nationalism and reduced support for the efforts of the Government of the RNM to help Ukraine or to participate in the joint processes initiated by the EU, such as the sanctions against Russia.
- First consequence of media presentation of contradictory and often conflicting messages coming from the EU and specific EU Member-States is the growing Euroskepticism of the citizens,
- Media presentation of the negative influence of the EU results with an increase of inter-ethnic differences (especially between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians) and causes new inter-ethnic tensions,
- Unilateral transmission of messages of specific politicians from EU Member-States, without analysis of the concrete societal context thereof, opens the door for negative generalization of relations within the framework of the EU,
- The opinions of high officials of specific EU Member-States in a given moment is percieved as specific position and politics of the country concerned,
- Exaggeration of historical conflicts and/or relations with specific EU Member-States becomes the basis for developing negative relations towards the EU,
- EU value system is being made a problem or disputed,
- The door is half-open for alternative solutions that go beyond EU orientation moving North Macedonia closer to Russia/China.