Harmful External Influences Present in Media in North Macedonia
The new geopolitical reality has transformed the media, once a means of information, into a sophisticated weapon. Although none of the media outlets in the Republic of North Macedonia are owned by legal entities or natural persons from Russia, China, or Iran, their narratives are still present in the media sphere. The new media, utilizing the internet as their platform, are most commonly used to promote the agendas of non-democratic centres of global political and economic power
Author: Xhelal Neziri
Russian presence in the media space in North Macedonia has increased since the start of the aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. Parallel to the military actions on the ground, the parties have also started a media war to shape global opinion in favour of their agendas. In response to this intensified propaganda, the state-owned Russian media outlets RT and “Sputnik” were banned from being broadcasted by national cable operators with a decision of the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia. However, Russian influence continued to spread through certain Serbian and Bulgarian TV channels present in digital and cable platforms in the country.
Data on media ownership obtained by SCOOP from the Central Registry of North Macedonia (CRRNM) shows that no media outlet in the country is owned by any Russian citizen or business company. However, an analysis of four Macedonian-language media outlets, one of which is state-owned by Russia while the other three are closely affiliated with political parties in the country, which are also regarded as pro-Russian by certain government or expert representatives, revealed that Russian narratives are more than present in the local media sphere. For this research, the coverage of the portals Russia Beyond, Think, Antropol and Kukuriku was monitored. These online media outlets promoted Russian positions regarding the aggression against Ukraine, Russia’s stance against NATO and the EU, and simultaneously elevated the figure of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As for traditional media, the sphere of influence is narrower.
Influence through Narratives
Russian positions and viewpoints on key geopolitical topics were explicitly promoted, primarily by the portal think.mk, which is owned by Daniel Kraljevski. This portal was created on 28.02.2022, just one day after the start of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The portal antropol.mk is owned by the Association ANTROPOL Skopje, while Kukuriku.com.mk is owned by the Company for service activities, RADAN ADVERTISING DOOEL Skopje.
Russia Beyond (RB) is an online multilingual media outlet that promotes Russia’s interests in several language spaces. According to the description provided by the media outlet itself, RB is an international multimedia project managed by the autonomous nonprofit organization “TV-Novosti.” However, Western media has described RB as yet another tool for Moscow’s propaganda, which differs in its reporting style from state-owned media but still plays the same role. This media outlet has editions in a total of 14 languages, including Macedonian.
The domestic pro-Russian media outlets do not hide their inclination towards the two marginal parties in the political landscape of North Macedonia – the first being “Levica” and Dimitar Apasiev, with 2 MPs in the Assembly, and the second being “Edinstvena Makedonija” and Janko Bachev, which is currently not represented in the Assembly.
In addition to the portals, Facebook pages and groups are dynamic and quite active, with maximum activation aimed at undermining relations with Bulgaria after reaching an agreement in mid-2022 to lift the veto on starting EU accession talks. The protests in Skopje were incited by such online media, and they tended to escalate into Macedonian-Albanian ethnic clashes. The lack of transparency from the government regarding the entire negotiation process with Sofia undoubtedly contributed to such unfolding of these events. While government representatives justified their actions by citing the sensitivity of the topic being negotiated, the absence of information about the actual negotiations and the exclusivity of state institutions in this process contributed to the dissemination of half-truths or fake news in the public sphere. These narratives were then used to build anti-European and anti-Albanian sentiments within a portion of the Macedonian public. Their aim was to convince Macedonian citizens that “Europe doesn’t want us with our identity” and that “Bujar Osmani, the Albanian, is collaborating with Bulgaria to sell Macedonian identity.”
The same groups and online media attempted to construct narratives aimed at damaging the image of NATO and the EU while strengthening the connection between the Macedonian people and Russia. Since its formation, North Macedonia has strategically been oriented at integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. Its membership in NATO on March 30, 2020, and the start date of EU accession negotiations were conditioned upon the signing of the Prespa Agreement with Greece. The process of reaching a compromise, negotiations, signing the agreement, the referendum, adopting amendments to the agreement with changes to the Constitution, and the process of implementation in practice were accompanied by strong anti-Western propaganda. After the adoption of constitutional amendments resulting from the Prespa Agreement, pro-Russian narratives consisted of information that implied the superiority of Russia over NATO and the EU, especially before and after the onset of aggression against Ukraine. Some of the most prevalent narratives were:
1. Membership in NATO is harmful, expensive, and a betrayal, especially since Greece gained control over North Macedonia’s airspace;
2. Russia has military and scientific superiority over NATO and the EU. The military power of the EU-US cannot withstand Russia’s military power;
3. Russia and China have dealt best with crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Their solidarity contrasts with the selfishness of the West towards North Macedonia;
4. The West is divided in its efforts to make decisions against Russian aggression in Ukraine;
5. Sanctions imposed by the EU, the US, and other countries against Russia will not be effective and will eventually be lifted because these countries themselves will suffer the most;
6. Putin is a strong leader who protects the interests of the Russian people and the entire Orthodox world.
With the onset of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the list of narratives expanded as the media war intensified to shape the “truth” about the events in Ukraine. According to an analysis by “Vistinomer” published last October, the new narratives aimed to justify or relativize the aggression through the following constructions:
1. It is a special operation that follows as a result of events that started in 2014 with the Maidan revolution and contributed to the consolidation of anti-Russian policies in Ukraine.2. The West is double-faced, biased, and unprincipled – it supported Kosovo’s secession from Serbia to become an independent state but opposes Donbass following the same path.
3. The special operation aims not to conquer Ukraine but to denazify it from elements that use Nazi methods against ethnic Russians in the country.
4. Ukrainians are victims, and Zelensky is a “useful idiot” to the US and the United Kingdom. Through Ukraine, NATO wants to threaten Russia and jeopardize its security.
5. NATO developed biological weapons in Ukraine.
6. Europe is the biggest collateral damage in the war between the US and the United Kingdom against Russia, using Ukraine as a tool.
7. NATO is not the strongest military alliance; it is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that includes Russia, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea as an observer.
8. The Russian army is invincible, superior to NATO, and has only utilized a small portion of its military potential.
Unlike Russia Beyond, as a media outlet based in Russia, the observed media outlets in North Macedonia are less dedicated to promoting Russian interests in the country and the region. Some of these media outlets, after the adoption of the Prespa Agreement and constitutional changes in 2018, became more reserved in spreading narratives about Russia and became more open to news that promotes the constructive role of NATO and the EU.
In general, Russia Beyond focuses on publishing commentaries, interviews, analyses, and news that highlight Russia’s military superiority over NATO countries and the cultural closeness between Russia and the Macedonian people.
Is there Chinese and Iranian influence in our media sphere?
Due to their classification as non-democratic countries, China and Iran are considered to have malign influence in less consolidated Balkan democracies. Observations have shown that the goal of Chinese media, which broadcasts content in regional languages, is to promote their country’s culture, history, and economic development. They have not shown tendencies to influence local political factors or interfere in the creation of national policies. Their main objective is to promote a better image of China.
Their interest in exerting influence in the Balkans, including North Macedonia, has grown in recent years. In an interview with “Vistinomer,” David Plášek, a doctoral student at Charles University in Prague discussed Chinese influence in Southeast Europe and the Balkans. North Macedonia is mentioned as being involved in Chinese infrastructure projects, and it is also featured in programs aired by the Chinese University in Budapest.
According to recent public opinion research, China’s influence is increasing, while the influence of Persian Gulf countries remains constant. China utilizes internet platforms, social media, as well as radio and television to promote itself as an ideal state with the world’s greatest technical-technological development.
At the same time, China is attempting to influence public opinion through its state-owned media outlets operating at a global level, such as CCTV, Xinhua, CGTN, and others. The most present company in the Balkan languages is China Media Group (CMG), which consists of all state-owned companies. Since 2013, Radio Ejani has been functioning in Albanian, targeting all ethnic Albanian areas in the Western Balkans and beyond.
In their coverage of events in and around Ukraine, China exhibits a certain synergy with Russia. In the First Report on Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference Threats by the European External Action Service (EEAS) published in February of this year, it is stated that during the period of October-December 2022, Russia and China utilized their diplomatic networks to spread disinformation and demonstrated synergy in their efforts to discredit the West and justify Russian aggression. While Russian propaganda primarily focused on Ukraine, Chinese propaganda mostly revolved around relations with the United States.
According to the report, the most common Chinese narrative among the analyzed incidents was the narrative of “the West as an aggressor towards Russia,” employing messages that portrayed the West as antagonistic to Russia, accusing it of provoking and profiting from the war in Ukraine, criticizing military mobilization, and engaging in actions that fuel tensions between Ukraine and Russia. This narrative, as stated in the report, was observed in 17 incidents. There is also overlap with Russian narratives in other instances, such as “Ukraine as the aggressor directed at Russia,” “Sanctions against Russia having a counter-effect,” “The West being hypocritical,” and “Ukraine as a fascist and terrorist state.”
The influence of Iran is mainly realized through Radio IRIB, Radio IRIB, which produces news content in the Albanian language. This radio station is a state-owned media outlet in Iran. The content primarily consists of propaganda against the West and the promotion of Iranian government activities worldwide. The content is broadcasted from local radio stations in Balkan countries, aiming to have a greater impact on the local population. The goals of Iranian influence in North Macedonia, as well as in the region, depend on the ethnocultural characteristics of the people or individuals. The target audience is the citizens espousing the Islamic faith, with the promotion of Shiism as a branch of the religion among the believers, who predominantly belong to the other branch, namely Sunnism. By spreading this religious school, the way is paved for greater influence, bearing in mind that religion is an effective and cost-efficient means of expanding and solidifying influence in politics, the economy, and other spheres.
Due to geopolitical partnerships in the Middle East, Iranian influence often synergizes with that of Russia, particularly when it comes to cyber-attacks. Such attacks also targeted Albania due to its decision to provide shelter to around 2,000 fighters against the Iranian regime. Through cyber-attacks, Iran managed to penetrate several key electronic systems of the Albanian state, gaining access to crucial state secrets. Following these attacks, Albania decided to sever its relations with Iran.