Russian Disinformation Propaganda in Macedonia before the 2018 Referendum
While EU and US experts gave instructions on “How the Balkan should defend itself against Russian propaganda?” In 2018 Macedonia was targeted not only by increased Russian propaganda influence but also by Russian political influence by supporting the Macedonian clone of “United Russia” (see analysis). Russian influence, which was also noticeable in the political crisis of 2015-2017, intensified especially before the “name referendum”, as a significant part of the network of “offline” and “online” campaigns, which through spreading misinformation, intimidation and conspiracy theories, tried to delegitimize the Prespa Agreement and the government, reduce the turnout in the referendum and hinder Macedonia’s NATO membership.
Author: Žarko Trajanoski, media analyst
The Prespa Agreement: Russian misinformation, conspiracy theories and intimidation
Both before and after the publication of the text of the Prespa Agreement, it was the target of numerous misinformation “cracked” by pro-Russian propagandists and “experts”. For example, there were those who nebulously claimed that the agreement “Macedonia erases the word” or that “the English version of the proposed name (Republic of North Macedonia) does not mean the Republic of North Macedonia, but the Republic on the North of Macedonia.”
The Russian propagandist Andrew Koribko bombastically “analyzed” that the name agreement was nothing more than a threat to turn the Republic of Macedonia into a “postmodern protectorate of Greece” and sowed fear among nationalists for the “dramatic demolition of buildings and the demolition of monuments of Prime Minister Gruevski from Skopje 2014”. The columnist Kica Kolbe, in her analysis “The Russian connection” of the boycotters in Macedonia” pointed out that Koribko’s article “with bombastic terms suggests fear among Macedonians of their disappearance”, but also that “Koribko’s bombastic theses are also found in some of those Macedonian intellectuals, who appeared several times as signatories of petitions and letters in public against the name change and against the Agreement. “
Contrary to official statements by Moscow that Russia would not interfere in the Greek-Macedonian dispute, Russian propagandists (who in early 2018 did not rule out a “civil war” in the event of an agreement) were now announcing destabilization and street battles in Skopje and Athens. Immediately after the signing of the Prespa Agreement, when violent protests by pro-Russian groups took place in Skopje, Cargrad TV stated that “Greece and Macedonia became enemies because of the EU and NATO” and that Tsipras and Zaev lit the “barrel of gunpowder” of Europe (Balkans).
Fear of the disappearance of Macedonia was sown by the geopolitician Leonid Savin (Alexander Dugin’s colleague in the propaganda mission in Macedonia and trainer of “United Macedonia”), who had previously announced the destruction of Macedonia by joining NATO. Following the Prespa Agreement, Savin advocated a “repetition of the Kosovo scenario in Macedonia”, the partition of Macedonia by NATO, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania, and the elimination of Macedonia as a subject of international law.
Such intimidating Russian narratives paved the way for the demonization of the Prespa Agreement and its supporters, so it is not surprising that the thesis that the agreement opened Pandora’s box of evil was simultaneously advocated by Mickoski, President Ivanov, opponents in Greece, and Russian propagandists like Koribko.
The diplomatic conflict over Russian interference in Greece and Macedonia
After President Ivanov did not ratify the agreement voted by the Assembly on June 20, 2018, Russian propaganda glorified the “unwavering” Ivanov as a rock and stressed that only through his body Macedonia would enter the EU and NATO with the Prespa Agreement (although previously Ivanov twice hesitated and withdrew the amnesty in 2016 after sparking a “colorful revolution”).
While the official Kremlin claimed that Macedonia’s accession to NATO was a sovereign right of the country, oligarchic propaganda close to the Kremlin stressed that “Macedonia will join NATO with a forged passport.” In doing so, the Kremlin has used Macedonia’s case to reiterate its opposition to “NATO rapprochement”, although most countries in NATO’s fifth enlargement, which joined in 2004, are geographically much closer to Russia than Macedonia.
In early July 2018, during the period of political “warming up” for the announced referendum on the name, various websites and groups began to appear with the slogan “I Boycott”, calling for “Boycott of the referendum for self-destruction of MACEDONIA”, the boycott of “Historic betrayal” and “fake referendum”. Misinformation about plans to build refugee camps for migrants and migrants was spread on TV, pro-Russian portals and social networks, which was denied by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense (No one in the EU or NATO has asked for refugee camps so far ).
In the same period, the pro-Russian party “United Macedonia” accused the leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski, of constantly demanding the arrest of Janko Bacev for climbing a police vehicle and waving the Russian flag at a rally in front of Parliament on June 17, 2018. Even after the announcement that “NATO invites Macedonia to join the Western Alliance”, Bacev continued to repeat his political mantra that Macedonia “will neither become a NATO member nor change its name”, fueling fears that the government was trying to “erase everything which is Macedonian.”
After Greece expelled three Russian diplomats who “worked” against the agreement with Macedonia, an international scandal broke out, which implied Russian involvement in the violent protests not only in Greece but also in Macedonia. Some analysts said that “the Greek banging on the door of Russian attempts to influence the agreement between Macedonia and Greece came as a real shock to Moscow”, and the response from Moscow “shocked even the traditionally Russophile Greeks”. A few days later, based on a statement by Zaev, a Russian billionaire close to Putin, Savidi, was accused in the media of funding “Macedonian politicians and nationalist organizations,” which was denied by Savidi. Following allegations that a Russian businessman was behind the violent protests in Macedonia (later reinforced by the New York Times), the “emerging pro-Kremlin party called United Macedonia” immediately asked Zaev to apologize and then accused him of Russophobia.
The US propagandists bitterly accused Greece of “Hellenic unlove” – of provoking a diplomatic conflict and of being against Russia. The imperialist “Tsargrad TV” expressed the opinion of an expert that “Moscow does not care what Macedonia will be called in the future”, and historically misinformed that Macedonians and Greeks as Orthodox peoples were saved by Russia from the Turkish rule!? “Tsargrad TV” also accused the Americans of playing on a “Russian card” in Macedonia and transmitted a “contrast” to a “Vardar” fan, who called “complete nonsense” the information that the fans received thousands of euros for violent protests after the signing of the Prespa Agreement.
The expulsion scandal of Greek diplomats did not diminish the political ambitions of the pro-Russian “United Macedonia”. On July 21, 2018, Its leader Bacev announced that he would form a government and threatened to confiscate property, and a week later United Macedonia said that “Macedonians will never agree with the anti-Macedonian organizations NATO and the EU to remove us from the world map of nations.”
Preparation of the pro-Russian camp “Macedonia boycotts”
In addition to anonymous Twitter users and Facebook pages, the boycott of the referendum was openly advocated by pro-Russian intellectuals, such as UKIM professor of Peace Studies and the columnist Biljana Vankovska in “Ruska Reč”. She claimed that “the government should enable conditions for the peaceful conduct of the referendum and to call on the citizens to go to the polls to have their voice heard”. Contrary to the former democratic views on the referendum as a form of democratic expression, Vankovska in July 2018 openly advocated a boycott by not going to the polls. Her colleague Siljanovska, who in 2004 claimed that “Referendum is a democratic weapon” and that the then call of the government to abstain from voting in the upcoming referendum is a “paradox of Macedonian democracy”, in July 2018 claimed that not going to referendum is a personal position.
The leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski, who on June 13, 2018, announced that he would vote against in a referendum, claimed in early July that his party still had no position. For years, VMRO-DPMNE propagated a referendum on the name and programmatically committed itself to the following:
We will not allow any solution to the dispute imposed by Greece to be accepted by individual politicians, the government or the assembly, without first having the Macedonian citizens vote in a referendum, and the majority of the citizens who will go to the referendum will have to agree with the possible solution (Program 2014, p. 253).
However, such a pro-referendum stance was obviously not acceptable to the pro-Putin parties in the VMRO-DPMNE coalition, which openly agitated for a boycott of the referendum. For example, the GROM party – whose leader during his visit to Moscow and Putin’s “United Russia” stressed “support for the fight to preserve the name” – announced a boycott, noting that “the referendum question does not deserve an answer.” The president of the Democratic Party of Serbs in Macedonia, Ivan Stoiljkovikj (a signatory to the “initiative to establish a space of sovereign neutral states with the participation of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina”), said that they did not intend to be “godfathers” and that they would boycott the referendum.
After the Parliament decided on July 30, 2018, to call a consultative referendum, over 30 pro-Russian parties and associations signed a Memorandum of Strategic Cooperation on “Not voting and boycotting the referendum, which is a genocidal project against the Macedonian people”, agreeing to conduct public propaganda under the slogan “MACEDONIA – BOYCOTTS”. Before the start of the campaign, the “crisis headquarters” claimed that over 60 organizations were part of the “Macedonia Boycotts” camp, led by a pro-Russian politician, and during the campaign, that number grew to over 70 organizations.
“Macedonia boycotts” campaign – Russia misinforms
The Russian Ambassador to Macedonia in early August 2018 received a journalistic question about how many Russian businessmen and diplomats are involved in internal anti-NATO protests. Shcherbak denied any interference by Russia, which he said was the last country to be accused of meddling in Macedonia’s internal affairs. Shortly before he was replaced, Shcherbak was asked to comment on the accusation that “Russia is doing everything to prevent the name dispute from being resolved,” which he described as:
Pumping up Russophopia and hysteria, intimidating people with the “Russian threat”.
However, while Scherbak denied it, in August 2018, the “Macedonia Boycotts” camp was in full swing, led by the leader of “United Macedonia”, which advocated for EEC membership under the Russian flag throughout Macedonia.
Although Bacev publicly claimed that he had temporarily set aside these strategic goals, analysts described the “Macedonia Boycotts” camp as “the new Russian hope”.
What did Russia fall into? Its main hope in Macedonia will be the marginal Janko Bacev and his “United Macedonia” – commented the analyst Mirce Adamcevski, who pointed out that “it was Bacev and the 28 organizations of marginalized, desperate and middlemen found in the reports of Russian agencies that represent them as an unprecedented force.”
Indeed, the Russian state agency RIA gave a central place to the Russian flag bearer Bacev in the article “Macedonian opposition predicts failure of the referendum”, misinforming that the largest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, signed a memorandum of cooperation and the establishment of an election headquarters to boycott the referendum. Debunking such misinformation, Polygraph quoted an unnamed source from the VMRO-DPMNE party leadership that claimed that about a third of the party membership would boycott the referendum and that such a silent boycott was organized by pro-Russian party currents and “external groups and forces paid by “The Russians.”
The anti-referendum campaign, the Russian influence and the influx of misinformation
Two weeks before the referendum, senior US officials accused Russia of trying to influence the referendum, not only by transferring money but also by campaigning for wider influence. Other analysts also noted Russian interference in Macedonia ahead of the referendum. Some later analyzes, which mapped disinformation in the Western Balkans, concluded that “the disinformation was critical to undermining participation in the name change referendum.” The disinformation campaigns focused mainly on identity and name issues, and some of them had explicit Russian influence. This was undoubtedly in the campaign led by the leader of “United Macedonia”, who mobilized in the “holy struggle” for the “survival of an entire nation” and was accused of running an expensive “anti-Macedonian campaign” to “destroy the Macedonian people.” However, other later analyzes indicated that several intertwined campaigns undermined support for the name change referendum, pointing to a “complex network of actors intertwined in several countries”, including Orban’s “propaganda machinery” composed of right-wing media in the Balkans. For example, the widespread misinformation that Zaev sold the Macedonians for 30 billion Euros was initially published in a Hungarian-owned Slovenian media, and then the fabricated news was spread and repeated in Hungarian-owned Macedonian media, whose editorial policy is close to VMRO-DPMNE.
Researchers point out that the strong campaign to boycott the referendum was carried out both offline and online due to various political and non-political factors. They also pointed out that the online campaign for reducing the turnout and delegitimization of the consultative referendum was coordinated, with the participation of automated profiles (bots). Fabrications and misinformation originated to a large extent from organizations in the Macedonian Diaspora. Some of these, that in June 2018 led their own campaign to end the name negotiations, launched a new campaign in August with the slogans “Boycott” and “I Boycott, and I do not vote”, and, according to some allegations, financially supported the #Boycott campaign.
— Macedonian HR (@mhrmi) August 16, 2018
Researchers point out that during the referendum campaign, bots and machine guns played a key role in promoting anti-Western narratives, but that anti-Western, anti-referendum and anti-NATO rhetoric was not used only by pro-Russian groups. The impact of such rhetoric is largely due to the use of media “online” infrastructure inherited from the propaganda machinery of Gruevski’s government. Denied misinformation about Krivolak and “depleted uranium”, for example, came from pro-Russian spokesmen and the World Macedonian Congress but was disseminated on social media by an editor of the Russian news agency Sputnik in the United States, who demanded “People, Ivanov and DPMNE should leave the Parliament!, аnd was a spokesman for the boycott of the referendum. The same misinformation was republished and reinforced by portals close to Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE, which during the campaign favored the #Boycott option.
During the referendum campaign, it was clear that the “Hungarian” media in Macedonia were calling for a boycott, reinforcing pro-Russian narratives and spreading misinformation. From the numerous misinformation, we can single out the news about the deletion of the Macedonian language by Google, the news that the Constitutional Court will annul the referendum, the republished fake news about Ban Ki-moon, the use of a fake poll, sensationalists and shocking headlines and false accusations and slander.
The use of misinformation and other manipulative strategies during the referendum campaign was also noticeable on open “pro-Russian” portals: for example, the news about the ban on Macedonian songs on MRT, the news that Trump handed over the Balkans to Putin! Trump will not expand NATO with Macedonia, but will overthrow it! or that NATO is past and Greece will never ratify the Tsipras-Zaev Agreement. The same pro-Russian portal ignited interethnic tensions and unjustifiably sowed fear of an “illegally stolen referendum” and a “civil war”. He praised the anti-Western campaign of “I Boycott” and the popular “President Ivanov”, who is boycotting, and promoted the boycott as an anti-fascist act. At the same time, he criminalized the referendum vote as a “grand betrayal” and in Goebbels’s manner denigrated the “hated of the Germans” Merkel and the “Fascist Soros” as supporters of the referendum.
The connections of the “#Boycott” campaign with VMRO-DPMNE
Following the referendum, investigative journalists tried to locate some of the people behind the “Boycott” online campaign and assess the impact of their “bot” activities on Twitter. One of the activists in the “Boycott” campaign in a TV interview pointed out the connection of “Boycott” with a controversial intelligence officer and security adviser to President Ivanov. It was also pointed out that “Boycott” convinces with “borrowed” videos from VMRO-DPMNE.
Although the #Boycott camp was a very heterogeneous group, some of them were very close to the VMRO-DPMNE leadership. For example, the former MP and current president of the patriotic institute of VMRO-DPMNE, Aleksandar Pandov, called on the leader of VMRO-DPMNE to campaign for not going to the referendum, and he himself openly called for a boycott of the referendum. Also, the chairwoman of the VMRO-DPMNE Political System Commission, Tanja Karakamisheva, who sat next to Mickoski at the referendum leadership meeting, publicly advocated a “failed referendum” and was publicly perceived as a spokeswoman for the “boycott” of the self-destructive referendum. On the day of the referendum, Karakamisheva agitated “I AM NOT VOTING and I am not answering a genocidal question”, and later publicly advocated for joining the Eurasian Union, because “that is the future of the world”. The former minister, MP from VMRO-DPMNE, Antonio Milososki, by addressing on his Facebook profile, appealed for a boycott of the referendum. In the article “The masks fell: VMRO-DPMNE openly called for a boycott!,” the statement of the vice-president of VMRO-DPMNE, Aleksandar Nikoloski, was emphasized, that “Most of the citizens decide to stay at home and that is what we expect on Sunday.”
Although at the beginning of the campaign VMRO-DPMNE did not have a clear message to its membership whether to boycott the referendum or to vote “against”, VMRO portals triumphantly promoted the “Boycott” option. When Mickoski announced that they had made a decision for “every citizen to act according to their own conviction”, it was interpreted with the title “VMRO-DPMNE legalizes the silent boycott”. Pro-Russian portals also celebrated that VMRO gave the Right to Each of its Members to #Boycott!
Despite the assessments that during the campaign the largest opposition party VMRO-DPMNE neither officially boycotted the referendum nor supported it, it was quite clear to the party supporters that Mickoski would not go to the referendum that VMRO-DPMNE had insisted on for years. Mickoski publicly claimed that “the Prespa Agreement defaced and erased the Republic of Macedonia” and that “the referendum will not succeed – no VMRO-DPMNE MP, in that case, will vote for constitutional changes.”
Also, President Ivanov, actually elected by VMRO-DPMNE supporters, said he would not vote in the referendum, which was interpreted by some domestic and Russian media as Ivanov calling for a boycott of the name referendum in his speech at the UN in New York. After the message that Ivanov will boycott, it became clear that the largest opposition party, in fact, supports the position of the citizens to boycott the upcoming referendum scheduled for Sunday, September 30.
And the results of the referendum with a turnout of only 36.91% practically proved that not one third, but most of the membership of VMRO-DPMNE followed the messages of Mickoski and Ivanov, which suggested not going voting, although they explicitly called for a “boycott” of the referendum. Although a small part of the VMRO-DPMNE leadership voted in the referendum, Mickoski’s message that “The agreement did not get the green light, got a ‘stop’ from the people” was practically in line with the messages of the pro-Russian camp “Macedonia Boycotts”, which before the end declared the referendum a failure because “the people are en masse against changing the name and NATO membership.”
How successful was Russia’s influence on the turnout?
If we rely on official statements from the Kremlin, then Russia did not interfere in the referendum at all because Lavrov categorically stated: “We are not saying anything that could be interpreted as agitation in the voting in one way or another.” Of course, the systematically organized campaign of the pro-Russian camp “Macedonia Boycotts”, led by politicians and agitators trained by Russian propagandists close to Putin, denies Lavrov. The assessments of the Russian “geopolitics” that the essence of the referendum was in voting for or against the “European path” of Macedonia are also symptomatic, as well as the explanations that the referendum failed because people understood the “geopolitical game of the West” and the people of Macedonia showed solidarity with Ivanov.
The question “How successful was the Russian influence on the turnout at the referendum?” can be transformed into the question “How successful was the Russian influence on VMRO-DPMNE?” as a political factor on which the turnout and success of the referendum depended. Polls showed that in July 2018, 19.8% of respondents (38.9% of VMRO-DPMNE, compared to 47.8% who said they would go to the polls) boycotted the referendum, but in August 2018 28.8% said that they would not go to the referendum (from which 57.7% of VMRO-DPMNE, as opposed to 29.8% who said they would vote). Such data suggested that the intensified “Boycott” campaign significantly affects VMRO-DPMNE supporters, that the number of “boycotters” is increasing, especially in that party, but also that the census is uncertain, “given the active campaign calling for a boycott.”
Undoubtedly, the leadership of VMRO-DPMNE was faced with a difficult dilemma: If the membership was called to vote in the referendum AGAINST, the polls showed that a census would probably be reached, but that the FOR option would win the referendum. If they called on the membership to boycott the referendum, then the referendum would certainly not have succeeded, but they would have been blamed for the failure. Mickoski and most of the VMRO-DPMNE leadership chose “abstinence” instead of an open boycott, in order to blame the “delegitimized government” for the failure of the referendum, and not to disappoint the Russophile membership, which was attracted to the “Boycott” camp, and their EPP partners, who did not support the boycott. Of course, the decision of VMRO-DPMNE was also influenced by the pro-Russian coalition partners, who actively promoted the “boycott” and the “Ajvar-day”, but also the decision of the party “Levica” to boycott the referendum. The “Levica” party then promoted itself as an anti-NATO and anti-imperialist party, and today forms a coalition with VMRO-DPMNE at the municipal level, supporting the Russian imperialist war in Ukraine, claiming it was a special military operation to “denationalize”.
After all, in 2018 the political interests of VMRO-DPMNE and its coalition partners coincided with the anti-Western interests of Moscow, just like during the political crisis in 2015-2017. That is why several researchers, as well as the candidate for president in 2019, claimed that the movement to boycott the referendum was pro-Russian and supported by the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE and President Gjorge Ivanov.
Russia has been accused of seeking to sabotage the Prespa Agreement, but also of having “strategic communications” against the referendum, resulting in reduced turnout and failure.
Russia has managed to “intensify dissatisfaction” with the Prespa Agreement by promoting violent protests and “online” campaigns to reduce turnout. Just as the pro-Russian campaigns in 2015-2017 instilled fears of cantonization, federalization, division of the country and its destruction, the 2018 campaigns created a worldview of perceptions that the Prespa Agreement and the referendum lead to “self-destruction”, “suicide”, “self-abolition”, “disappearance”, “genocide”, etc.
Such intimidating propaganda undoubtedly incited suspicion and distrust of the democratic institutions and government, which was campaigning positively for the referendum. The propaganda campaigns with the hashtag #Boycott created a polarization of “patriots” and “traitors”, radicalized the political discourse and incited negative feelings and hatred towards “traitors”. Disinformation and conspiracy campaigns that provoked fear, mistrust, insecurity, and incited hostility and hate speech proved to be a powerful weapon – to passivize voters, undermine the referendum as a democratic process, and to strengthen distrust of the EU and NATO in Macedonia.
(continues: Russian disinformation propaganda in Macedonia and NATO membership)