Russian Propaganda in Macedonia after the Referendum until NATO Membership
This analysis documents the Russian propaganda after the consultative referendum on the Prespa Agreement in 2018, the turmoil in the political parties VMRO-DPMNE and “United Macedonia” due to Russian influence before the constitutional changes, Russian disinformation and other nervous reactions after the constitutional changes and the disappointment of the Macedonian nationalists by Russia’s recognition of the new constitutional name North Macedonia in 2019
Author: Zarko Trajanoski, media analyst
Russian propaganda after the consultative referendum on the Prespa Agreement
Russian official and unofficial propaganda after the failed consultative referendum on the Prespa Agreement were in harmony with the manipulative theses of VMRO-DPMNE and the “Macedonia Boycotts” camp, which declared the Dimitrov-Kotsias agreement null and void in celebration of the failed referendum. The most radical Russian propagandist Mirka Velinovska, after the referendum declared the Prespa Agreement dead and in a publication of the party bulletin of the veterans of VMRO-DPMNE claimed that:
On September 30, the Macedonian people in the country and the diaspora through the BOYCOTT rejected the ultimatum from Prespa, but also the membership in NATO, i.e. the EU.
The leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski declared victory to those who did not vote, manipulatively claimed that 1.2 million citizens said they were against the name change, and that the referendum was unsuccessful, the citizens said “no” to the Agreement with Greece. VMRO-DPMNE also claimed that “the Capitulation from Prespa has been rejected by the people” and that all institutions “must not trample on the will of over 1,200,000 voters who put an end to this Agreement.”
Following the referendum in Macedonia, the New York Times reported that the results of the referendum were “extremely unconvincing”, which led both sides to claim victory, although the Guardian claimed that “Macedonia’s referendum result is another victory for Russia” due to increased Russian propaganda impact. The propaganda magazine “Katehon”, which in 2016 published conspiracy theories to destroy Macedonia and after the referendum in 2018 continued to publish frightening forecasts for destabilization, making violent comparisons between Macedonia and Ukraine.
The official Kremlin meanwhile, pretended to be concerned about the “rule of law.” Similar to Mickoski, the Russian ambassador in an interview with “Sputnik” stressed the fact that the referendum is invalid and that “the vast majority, almost two-thirds of the citizens” did not support the Prespa agreement.
Baznikin pointed out that “Macedonian voters did not vote, because they are against the decision imposed from outside” and did not believe that after the failed referendum, Macedonia would join NATO. Zakharova, on the other hand, targeted Western countries that “declared” the referendum in Macedonia successful, arguing that for them “the position of over 63% of the population means nothing” (including the rejection by President Ivanov).
#Захарова: Според логиката на западните земји кои го “прогласија” референдумот во #Македонија за успешен, ставот на над 63% од населението не значи ништо. Ваквото западно разбирање на демократијата е цинично и лицемерно https://t.co/0c769NcU4b pic.twitter.com/0TEF9cR27q
— Посольство России МК (@Russian_Emb_MKD) October 4, 2018
However, such “mathematical analyzes”, which relied on “almost two thirds” of citizens who did not vote, fall into the realm of anti-democratic “mathematical propaganda”. Even after a low turnout, almost any party can claim to be the winner if it appropriates those who did not vote. The propaganda theses of Baznikin, Mickoski, and VMRO-DPMNE that “1,200,000 voters put an end to this Agreement” could have some basis only if those voters went to the Referendum and voted against it. The figure of almost 610,000 voters who supported the Prespa Agreement exceeds 50 percent of the 1.2 million voters – a threshold that was not reached either in the 1991 Referendum or in any parliamentary elections so far. As an analyst close to VMRO-DPMNE pointed out, during a consultative referendum, “the boycott was the worst possible solution for the opponents of the Prespa Agreement.”
After the referendum, Zaev referred to the “vast majority of those who voted” and said that “the will of those who voted should be translated into political activity in the legislature” (Zaev: Either a decision in parliament or early elections). The EU representative also concluded that “with a very significant ‘Yes’ vote, there is widespread support for the Prespa Agreement and the country’s Euro-Atlantic path.”
Stoltenberg was targeted by Tsargrad TV as a “small Jesuit” after a “tweet” in which he welcomed the “Yes” vote in the referendum and said that “NATO’s door is open, but all national procedures must be completed.” NATO and EU representatives Stoltenberg and Tusk sent a joint message that “it is now up to the politicians in Skopje to decide on the way forward” and encouraged them to seize the “historic opportunity”. Moscow’s reaction was that “the obvious goal of Western countries is to bring Macedonia into NATO at all costs,” while denying Russian influence during the referendum.
Turmoil in VMRO-DPMNE and disunion in “United Macedonia” due to Russian influence
The indications of increased Russian influence and Skopje as a “new Russian stronghold”, as well as the “apparent swing of Russian influence in the region”, were not convincing enough for the Macedonian ambassador to Russia who claimed that “there is not the slightest evidence that Russia interfered in the name referendum. “
However, evidence of Russian interference was also provided by members of the parties who boycotted or abstained during the referendum. VMRO-DPMNE youth activists resigned, accusing their party of “serving as a platform for spreading Russian influence”. Mutual accusations by the leaders of the pro-Russian party “United Macedonia” indicated not only party dissatisfaction with the results of the formally failed referendum, but also Russian influence. Vlahov Micov accused the “man of Moscow” Bačev of being a “fake Russophile”, and claimed that his “United Macedonia” party was created and funded by the US embassy. “United Macedonia”, on the other hand, announced that Vlahov Micov was convincing that Russian tanks would come and start the Third World War, and Bačev in a TV guest appearance on one of the most-watched debate shows claimed that Vlahov Micov “continues the cooperation with our services”, embezzled money, compromised the idea of cooperation and alliance with Russia: “he lied to the people, here, that Russian tanks, Russian planes are already in Belgrade, almost to the Danube, they will come to Macedonia, they will occupy it.”
In the same show, advocating “For Eurasian Macedonia”, Bačev sowed hatred against European politicians, calling them “gays and lesbians”, and claimed that the country was attacked by “Shiptars” (Bačev had previously incited hatred by saying that “Shiptar parties in the state have already started to openly say that there will be a war “). After such inflammatory statements, which were in line with the Russian propaganda inciting narratives about Macedonia, Kanal 5 TV came out with a special apology for Bačev’s insults to European politicians (Bačev abused Kanal 5 TV), indicating that he would no longer be invited as a guest.
Disunion in VMRO-DPMNE and voting on constitutional changes
After the referendum, just like official Russia, VMRO-DPMNE tried to wage a manipulative campaign against the government and the Prespa Agreement, appropriating the votes of those who did not go out, boycotted or “abstained”. In an open letter, Mickoski accused that “by not giving up the harmful agreement, Zaev does not respect the will of the citizens and the message sent by the referendum is that the agreement is rejected.” SDSM replied that Mickoski wants to grant amnesty to Nikola Gruevski, and for “Macedonia to give up NATO and the EU” as top strategic interests. A high representative of the United States also sent a message to Mickoski (Mitchell to Mickoski: Give MPs freedom to decide how they will vote for the constitutional changes), but Mickoski replied that the Prespa Agreement “is UNACCEPTABLE for VMRO-DPMNE and the vast majority of citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, which in fact was shown in the last referendum “. Some pro-Russian columnists used this correspondence to say “fuck off” to the US High Representative, and the Russian Foreign Ministry assessed Mitchell’s letter as a gross interference, emphasizing that the goal was to bring Macedonia into NATO at any cost.
By deciding to side with the pro-Russian camp to boycott the referendum, VMRO-DPMNE re-factored in Russia’s role in the Balkans, much as it did during the 2015-2017 Macedonian political crisis. The formally unsuccessful referendum was a great opportunity for Russia, encouraged by strategic communications, to belittle the West again, using Macedonia, more specifically, the EU-NATO “Prespa Agreement” and almost 610,000 citizens. Although the “YES” votes in the referendum exceeded the best election victories of VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM, the Russian Foreign Ministry interpreted that “Macedonian voters preferred to boycott”, that “two-thirds of the Macedonian population did not support the Prespa Agreement”, but also that Russia, as a member of the UN Security Council, would have spoken out when the agreement was considered by the Security Council. The new Russian ambassador to Macedonia, meeting with the president, stressed that Macedonia was experiencing a “key moment in its history”, on which the future of the country depends.
But, two-thirds of the MPs on October 19, 2018, confirmed that the Prespa Agreement is quite alive, voting to start the process of constitutional changes. MPs from the VMRO-DPMNE coalition also voted, who were immediately expelled from the party and denounced as “traitors” by the pro-Russian-Hungarian portals close to VMRO-DPMNE. “The will of the referendum was trampled by two-thirds of the MPs, but also by eight of the opposition who went against the will of the people,” Mickoski again manipulated with numbers. The Russian Foreign Ministry again accused the United States of leading the process in parliament, manipulating similar theses as VMRO-DPMNE, that two-thirds of lawmakers shamelessly ignored the opinion of “two-thirds of Macedonians who refused to support the Prespa Agreement.” However, such mathematical propaganda manipulations were also exposed by excluded VMRO-DPMNE officials, who publicly asked Mickoski why he did not call on the people to vote “against” in the referendum if indeed the majority of Macedonian citizens are against the agreement with Greece.
In November 2018, the main political affair was Gruevski’s sensational escape to Budapest after facing a prison sentence for corruption, which Tsargrad TV claimed was a consequence of his persecution for sympathies with Serbia and Russia. A few months later, Gruevski from Budapest said that he was not initially in favor of boycotting the referendum, but of voting “against” the Prespa agreement.
At the end of 2018, Russia was trying to make the most of Mickoski’s non-acceptance of the Prespa Agreement, which led to a party split in VMRO-DPMNE. Lavrov has repeatedly stepped up accusations of “gross and systematic interference by the United States and the EU in Macedonia’s internal affairs” during the vote on constitutional changes, with the aim of “forcibly involving Skopje in NATO”. The eight MPs from VMRO-DPMNE who supported the constitutional changes categorically stated that they made the decision with free will and according to their convictions (Оpposition MPs who voted for the constitutional changes deny Lavrov’s claims).
Pro-Russian geopolitics sought to portray the constitutional changes as a genocidal process, and the “renaming and erasing of Macedonia” as an “anti-god act” to help “Satan establish an anti-god kingdom.”
In December, a senior US official sent a message from Skopje that “we are not surprised by the Russian influence on the path that Macedonia has chosen” (Sullivan: Russia wants to undermine the Prespa Agreement as it interfered in the US elections). The Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated its strong reaction and accusations of “unproven anti-Russian rhetoric”, which on a pro-Russian portal funded by Hungary was interpreted as “the Russians raised their voice”. The pro-Russian propagandists in Macedonia promised that in the new 2019 they will work on “annulment of the Prespa Agreement”, “termination of negotiations with the EU”, and “termination of negotiations with NATO criminals” and “return of Macedonia to the Macedonians”.
Russian disinformation and other nervous reactions after the constitutional changes
After the Assembly adopted the constitutional amendments at the beginning of 2019 with 81 votes “for” the Republic of North Macedonia, intimidating and sensationalist misinformation was spread in the Balkan media – THE PRESIDENT UNDER THREAT FROM A COUP?: Zaev will arrest Ivanov, a coup d’etat will happen in Macedonia? And that was not the only misinformation that the Russian propagandist Dugin tried to spread, who in 2018 actively acted in Macedonia to obstruct an agreement with Greece and satanize the West. The same month, Dugin shared on his profile Infomax disinformation that “AUSTRIA WILL BLOCK THE ZAEV-TSIPRAS AGREEMENT”, and previously spread misinformation that “Albanians are preparing for clashes, and even mobilizing their Macedonians.” The Ministry of Interior denied such statements as “typical misinformation and propaganda, which harm both mutual relations and security in the region” (Lipkovo under attack by Serbian-Russian propaganda). The Russian propagandists also manipulated that because of NATO, “the state of Macedonia has officially disappeared from the political map of the world”, that “the state of Macedonia has officially ceased to exist, North Macedonia has appeared in its place”, as a temporary creation that was “doomed”.
Following the constitutional amendments that legalized the Prespa Agreement, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that “the issue should be considered by the UN Security Council in accordance with Article 3 of UN Security Council Resolution 845” (which did not happen), as well as the sharp reaction of the Greek Foreign Ministry which accused Russia of interfering in the internal affairs.
Deputy Foreign Minister Grushko joined the avalanche of statements by Russian officials following the constitutional changes. Grushko, who had previously announced divisions in Macedonia, said at the time that “on issues within the competence of the UN Security Council, Russia will express its opinion”, and later stated that “NATO’s policy of expanding control at all costs leads only to increased tensions.” Grushko was followed by his boss Lavrov, who received a specific question to clarify the mentioned procedure in the UN, and whether it means interference in the Prespa Agreement, which coincided with the call of an emigrant organization Russia and China to veto any change in Macedonian name and identity. The nationalist Russophiles in Macedonia were astonished when Lavrov replied that “We are not against the name that eventually appeared and was published. We are asking questions: is this process legitimate?”, while expressing disagreement with “those who say that Russia has no place in the Balkans” (Mogherini). According to one analyst, Lavrov made a “sharp turn” to preserve Russia’s image after it became clear that North Macedonia could not be prevented from joining NATO.
Lavrov’s boss, Vladimir Putin, also used the Prespa Agreement as a target for propaganda slander of the West, during a visit to Belgrade where he promoted the Eurasian Economic Union. Asked by a Vecernje Novosti reporter how he would comment on statements by Western politicians that Russia is a destabilizing factor in the Balkans, Putin accused the West of destabilizing the Balkans and seeking domination. In addition, Putin attacked the Prespa Agreement with misinformation, accusing that the Constitutional changes are a revision of the foundations of the Macedonian national identity and that the will of the Macedonian voters to change the name of the country was ignored. However, a former Macedonian Foreign Minister, commenting on Moscow’s nervous political offensive, reminded us that the will of Macedonian citizens for NATO membership is not something new, but “was expressed 27 years ago.” Commenting on Putin’s accusations, analyst Ivan Krastev said Russia had sensed the critical vulnerability of positions in the Western Balkans, and that Russia was not just a party pooper: “Moscow wants to replace the European Union as a mediator in resolving regional conflicts.”
As soon as Greece ratified the Prespa Agreement (which was considered a victory of the West against Russian influence), on February 6, 2019, NATO ambassadors signed the accession protocol. It was already clear then that North Macedonia would join NATO despite Russian opposition. Moscow has reacted with nervous propaganda manipulations in an attempt to sow the seeds of discord with Kosovo. In an interview with TASS on February 9, 2019, Ambassador Baznikin explained Russia’s position, again manipulating that “almost two-thirds of the population boycotted the referendum on September 30, 2018”, even though the votes in favor were over 50% of the turnout in all referendums and parliamentary elections. Baznikin, like Lavrov, accused of a Russophobic campaign and argued that there was and could not be any “evidence” of Russian interference in internal affairs, because “a cat cannot be found in a dark room if it isn’t there.”
But often a cat cannot be found in a dark room even if it is there and its intention is to remain hidden, as was the Russian subversive influence in Macedonia from 2015 to 2019. As we have seen in all of the analyses so far, the official statements of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin were just the tip of the iceberg, composed of numerous regional and local propaganda-political actors who tried to create insurmountable obstacles in the process of joining NATO. We are not just referring to Russian subversive tactics of influence through propaganda channels (such as Sputnik Serbia or the influential Russia Beyond Macedonia) and through pro-Russian political parties, experts, journalists, local media or columnists. We are not only referring to disinformation campaigns on a number of Facebook pages, groups and anonymous social media profiles, but also to Russian pranksters, Russian alternative medicine magazines, pro-Russian bikers and fan groups, and part of the diaspora that has been put into service of Moscow, building a cult of Putin with video montages or music compositions that for years called on “Putin Duke” to save Macedonia from the EU and NATO. We also take into account the Macedonian nationalist intellectuals, who with letters, petitions, manifestos and proclamations participated in the process of declaring “traitors”, incited hatred towards “Northerners” and unfoundedly accused of “identity genocide”.
Macedonian nationalists disappointed by Russian recognition of Northern Macedonia
Of course, the Russian obstructionism and the attempt to sabotage Macedonia’s NATO membership was in the function of confrontation with the EU and the USA in the Balkans, and not because of the authentic concern for the Macedonian pro-Russian nationalists who tried to boycott and block the process with new campaigns and disinformation of NATO membership. This became clear soon after the failure of such campaigns, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced the recognition of the new name, although Russia had previously announced that the Prespa Agreement should be considered by the UN Security Council. After Ambassador Baznikin handed Zaev a document where Russia recognizes North Macedonia, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted that the “boycotting” camp had been accused of “siding with Soros and the neoliberal quasi-fashion” and that it had stepped aside to the fascists and that they stabbed Macedonia in the back.
The Russian embassy tweet, denying previous popular statements about the unacceptability of the constitutional name change, was attacked by a number of disappointing nationalist commentators, who accused it of treason and shame. Even the well-known Russian propagandist, part of Sputnik’s office in the United States, described the move as a “huge disappointment” and the acceptance of a “solution to Western Nazi-Fascism.” After “VMRO-DPMNE became the biggest disappointment among Macedonians for the Russophiles,” after the vote on the constitutional changes, they expected “furthermore serious steps from official Moscow regarding the overall name change process “, and no official recognition of” North Macedonia “.
In response to outraged comments that Russia had turned its back on pro-Russian political options in Macedonia, the leader of the pro-Russian United Macedonia party said that “Russia has not stabbed us in the back!” “Russia respects the decisions and policies of the countries themselves, and the policy of this government is an alliance with NATO and the EU,” Bačev said, blaming “Ivanov who begged Russia to raise the issue in the UN, but did not do so.” Bacev’s former political partner, Vlahov Micov, also tried to pass the blame to Macedonian politicians: “Macedonian political caste betrayed and sold Macedonian national interests”, “That is why Russia was one of the first countries to recognize the idiocy of the new name.”
Russian propagandists were also struggling to explain Russia’s recognition of “North Macedonia” to Russophiles who until just a few months ago were being convinced by Moscow that Russia recognized the Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name more than 26 years ago and its position does not change.” For example, Russian propagandist Koribko, who wrote in October 2018 that “Almost two-thirds of Macedonian voters boycotted the painstaking referendum to change the constitutional name”, in March tried to justify Russia’s recognition of “North Macedonia” with “speculation that Moscow plans to take the lead in shaping the “New Balkans”. Koribko, who introduced himself as a “Moscow-based American political analyst”, continued to spread frightening conspiracy theories about Macedonia, envisioning cantonization, federalisation and “eventual division, after which the divided state would either remain geopolitically irrelevant or annexed by neighboring Bulgaria. “
Russian influence in the recognized “North Macedonia”
After the Russian recognition of “North Macedonia”, it became clear that the Russian propaganda influence failed to cause political destabilization and interethnic tensions. After the 2020 presidential election (won by NATO National Coordinator Stevo Pendarovski) all (pro) Russian propaganda illusions that an overwhelming majority of the people were against NATO and the Prespa Agreement disappeared. The opposition-backed presidential candidate was a former SDSM government minister, prof. Gordana Siljanovska, PhD, from UKIM, signatory of the pro-Russian Proclamation # I BOYCOTT CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES (which demanded “Unilateral legal annulment of the so-called and already rejected so-called Prespa Agreement”) and the letter from the intellectuals (who claimed that “the Prespa Agreement does not promise sustainable peace” and “NATO membership will not lead to social and economic progress or security for the small Macedonian state”). However, after expressing confidence that Macedonia would join NATO after the Prespa Agreement and that she would sign the new name herself (“the name is a legal fact, not only real, I will also sign the new name”), Siljanovska was boycotted by part of the movement “I boycott”, and the pro-Russian party” United Macedonia “, which called on the Macedonian people not to go to the polls.
Although the pro-Russian propaganda network provoked political and social polarization over the Prespa Agreement, the desired political turnaround in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections 2020 was lacking and hate speech between “traitors and patriots” (which remained a feature of political discourse in both the 2019 presidential election, the 2020 parliamentary elections, and the 2021 local elections).
Russian propaganda continued to play the role of inciting inter-ethnic tensions and the “division of Macedonia”, exploiting internal divisions and conflicts for its own ends, advocating “pan-Slavic” and “orthodox brotherhood” and promoting the Eurasian Union in Macedonia. For example, a week after Emmanuel Macron vetoed the date for Albania and North Macedonia’s negotiations with the EU, the Russian representative to the EU invited the two countries to the Eurasian Economic Union, which showed a greater understanding of them than the EU.
But Russia’s ambitions to expand its energy and political influence in the Western Balkans following the delay in EU integration of North Macedonia and Albania were no longer so focused on “annulling” the Prespa Agreement, which was seen as a done deal. Probably this was understood by the politicians from VMRO-DPMNE, who played patriots condemning the signing and implementation of the Prespa Agreement, who boycotted the referendum they demanded, who chanted “Never North” during and after the presidential elections in February 2020 together with their party members branded as “traitors” to jointly vote for the ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty – for the membership of “North Macedonia” in NATO.
(to be continued)