This article was previously published by Coda Story.
By Dan McLaughlin
Macedonian TV producer Boris Damovski perhaps put it best: Politics in the Balkan state of Macedonia may not have hugely interested Russia in the past, “but now the bear has woken up, he’s seen the situation, and he wants to mate … with Europe!”
The coupling is clearly not consensual, yet Damovski’s quip captures a geopolitical view shared by many in the Balkans, of a revitalized Russia trying to take advantage of a distracted and vulnerable Europe.
As the European Union and NATO coax ex-Yugoslav republics toward membership, Russia is now accused of using everything from disinformation to a coup attempt to destabilize a region still haunted by the wars of the 1990s.
In Macedonia, where Damovski has helped organize ongoing, large-scale street protests against a proposed new government, critics claim Moscow is exacerbating the country’s ethnic and political divisions and turning this state of 2.1 million into a new diplomatic battleground for global powers.
Macedonia’s December parliamentary elections were supposed to end political deadlock caused by a spying and corruption scandal that engulfed the government of Nikola Gruevski, a right-wing populist who ran the country for a decade until last year.
Three months on, however, thousands of Gruevski supporters and other members of Macedonia’s Slav majority are now demonstrating against a proposed coalition between the Social Democrats and parties from the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, which makes up about a quarter of its population.
Damovski and fellow protesters say the coalition’s plan to boost the rights of ethnic Albanians and the status of their language could pull Macedonia apart. They ask why the minority parties discussed their policies with Albania’s leaders and received an endorsement from Hashim Thaçi, the president of mostly ethnic-Albanian Kosovo.
The United States, the EU, and NATO support the formation of a multi-ethnic government that would have a clear majority in parliament, but Russia backs the protesters, Gruevski, and his ally, President Gjorge Ivanov, who has refused to give a mandate to a coalition that he calls a threat to Macedonia’s sovereignty.
“We are, unfortunately, a target in the Balkans,” Zoran Zaev, the leader of Macedonia’s Social Democrats, said in an interview in his party’s headquarters in Skopje. “We see what has been happening to countries that are not in the EU, like Montenegro, Bosnia, and Serbia, and we see the same sort of thing happening here.”
“The intentions of our Russian friends are not good,” and not disinterested, he claimed.
As EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini visited Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, on March 2, Russia accused the West of trying to install a Macedonian government that would help Albania pursue alleged claims to “vast regions” in Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, and Macedonia itself.
Support for this supposed scheme “may lead to the destruction of Macedonian statehood and destabilization of the whole of the Balkans,” the Russian foreign ministry alleged darkly, in the first of two Macedonia-related statements between March 2 and 3.
At the same time, Kremlin-controlled media outlet Sputnik published lurid articles about Macedonia’s future prospects. One was headlined: “NATO Willing to See ‘Blood in Streets of Macedonia’ for Greater Albania Project.” Another argued that changes in geopolitics and the White House had made the country’s pro-Western alignment obsolete: “It’s time to trust Russia, not Trump, on Macedonia,” it declared.
Russia offered no evidence for a “greater Albania” conspiracy, but its verbal support for Gruevski, Ivanov, and the protesters registered strongly in Skopje.
“Now we can feel that Russia is interested in our political movement,” said Cvetin Chilimanov, a prominent Macedonian journalist and conservative commentator.
“People don’t know the specifics of this [coalition] deal. It could be a recipe for disaster. We don’t know where the U.S. under Trump stands on this. The Russians are asking about it, the Serbs are watching closely,” he said.
“People are saying, ‘Russia will come and help us.’ It’s not 2001 anymore. It’s really dangerous.”
In 2001, a NATO-brokered peace deal dragged Macedonia back from the brink of civil war. Two years earlier in neighboring Kosovo, NATO bombing had ended a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels and paved the way for the region’s independence from Belgrade. At the time, Moscow was powerless to intervene.
But as Russia once more projects power from Ukraine to the Middle East, it is also reaffirming its historically close ties with the Balkans’ Orthodox Christian Slavs.
Given that all the region’s states seek EU and/or NATO membership, this revived interest has not been without controversy.
Montenegro has accused Russian agents of masterminding a coup plot with Serbian and local accomplices to overthrow and kill its former prime minister, Milo Djukanović, and derail the country’s NATO membership bid. The Kremlin denies the claims, but has long warned Montenegro against joining the alliance. One recent poll showed that less than half of surveyed Montenegrins would support such a move.
In Bosnia, which also aspires to join both NATO and the EU, Russia’s closest friend is firebrand populist Milorad Dodik, the Republika Srpska leader, who threatens to seek independence for his autonomous, Serb-majority region rather than heed Western calls for deeper integration with the country’s Muslim and Croat communities.
Serbia, however, offers still stronger opportunities for exerting Russian influence. Long Belgrade’s staunchest ally in rejecting Kosovo’s independence, Moscow recently agreed to give the Serbian armed forces six MiG-29 fighter jets, 30 T-72 tanks, and 30 other armored vehicles. Serbia will only pay for upgrades.
Tensions with Kosovo already had soared in January when Belgrade dispatched a passenger rail service to northern Kosovo, a mostly ethnic Serb area, for the first time in 18 years. It sent a Russian-made train emblazoned with Serbia’s national colors, images of Orthodox churches and icons, and the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages.
Kosovo deployed special police units to block the train before it reached the border, but Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić said Kosovo’s actions had brought the neighbors to “the brink of conflict.” His Kosovar counterpart, Thaçi, accused Belgrade of scheming to annex northern Kosovo in the same way Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine three years ago.
Now, Russia calls Thaçi a key player in the secret “greater Albania” plot to destroy Macedonia, which Moscow’s foreign ministry held up as “further proof that the artificial quasi-state Kosovo entity is one of the chief sources of instability and the main carrier of conflict potential in the Balkans.”
For Macedonia’s Social Democrats leader Zaev, such claims are part of a dangerous campaign to stoke enmity between Slavs and Albanians, and to discredit the kind of multi-ethnic government that he hopes to lead.
“It is easy to cause trouble in a multi-ethnic country like ours, in a region like ours.”
Dan McLaughlin is a journalist specializing in Eastern and Central Europe, where he is a roving correspondent for The Irish Times.
[Photo courtesy of mariusz kluzniak]