By Yordan Tsalov
This article was contributed by Yordan Tsalov as a series of analytical reports titled “Kremlin’s Favorites in Europe”, with the support of Journalismfund.eu.
Serious questions are raised by international observers about the reliability of the newest member of NATO and EU candidate, North Macedonia, while the country is heading towards its general election on July 15. The Balkan state has one of the worst measures of corruption in Europe per Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and the least developed political culture in Europe, according to The Economist’s Democracy Index.
On top of this, North Macedonia continues its ambitions to enhance its economic cooperation with Russia, and as the US Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, observed during the COVID-19 outbreak, the country is affected by a serious disinformation campaign from Moscow and Beijing, and does little to counter the propaganda.
This report attempts to present an overview of the Russian influence in North Macedonia’s political sphere, media and economy as well as identify some of the main operatives through whom the Kremlin is advancing its goals in the country.
The tumultuous path towards Western integration
Before its current Western course, North Macedonia has been in the grip of an authoritarian leader for a decade. From 2006 to 2016 the country was led by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski, who thrived in stoking internal divisions between the Christian majority and the Muslim Albanian minority, as well as on conflicts with most neighbors (Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania). This suited the Kremlin’s interests well. On one hand, the dispute over the country’s name with Greece made it impossible for Skopje to join the EU or NATO, on the other, Gruevski’s authoritarianism and nationalism allowed Russia to remain one of the main supporters of the regime. As expected, Gruevski’s fall also saw the beginning of a Russian campaign against any changes to the status quo.
In the 2016 general election the opposition forces, led by the center-left SDSM, had a shot at forming a coalition without Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE. For a ruling majority, the opposition needed the support of the ethnic Albanian parties, and the forces who wanted to uphold the status quo saw an opportunity for discord. When the new parliament elected an ethnic Albanian as its speaker, nationalists stormed the chamber.
Zoran Zaev, the opposition leader still on the brink of becoming Prime Minister, received two head wounds during the attack. He was quick to assert that there was evidence of Russian involvement in what he called Moscow’s “push to gain influence” in North Macedonia.
Save compared the situation to the attempted coup d’etat a year earlier in Montenegro, where prosecutors charged two officers from the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, for conspiring to overthrow the pro-Western government and prevent the country’s accession to NATO. “After the loss of Montenegro, the Russian Federation is making a final push for influence in Macedonia,” Zaev claimed.
If the Montenegro coup had been foiled, the influence campaign in Macedonia was just beginning with a focus on Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece. The country’s name was seen as the ultimate obstacle for Western integration. When Zaev and his counterpart in Athens, Alexis Tsipras, finally agreed on how to resolve the decade-long controversy (known as the Prespa Agreement), a diverse group of Russian agents, ranging from spies to Kremlin-connected businessmen, commenced a campaign in an attempt to shatter those diplomatic efforts.
In July 2018, weeks after the Prespa Agreement was signed, Athens expelled two Russian diplomats for inciting opposition to the deal in the country. This expulsion occurred despite Greece’s relatively friendly policy towards Russia. Indeed, four months earlier, Tsipras had refused to expel diplomats because of Skripal poisoning.
In the meantime, his North Macedonian counterpart Zaev raised concerns about the efforts of a Greek-Russian businessman, once an MP from Russia’s ruling United Russia Party, to provoke a nationalistic revolt in the country. The businessman in question, Ivan Savvidis, was accused of paying far-right Macedonian nationalists and soccer hooligans, as well as the Greek clergy and government officials, to stoke opposition to the Prespa Agreement. American intelligence was also able to intercept communications showing that Mr. Savvidis was working as a Kremlin conduit, as reported by the New York Times.
In June 2018, after violent demonstrations erupted in Skopje against the agreement, investigative reporters uncovered evidence that Savvidis provided at least 300,000 EUR to foment opposition to the deal, including a social media campaign aimed at stemming turnout for the September name-change referendum.
Hooligans from the Vardar football club also took part in the violence. The club is owned by the Russian millionaire Sergey Samsonenko, who lives in Skopje and is Russia’s honorary consul to the city of Bitola.
In the end, the turnout fell far short of the 50% threshold needed for the results to be binding. How much of this was due to Russian interference is hard to say, but it is also important to point out that much of the nationalist propaganda is also fueled and in some cases created by the Kremlin. That said, 90% of those who turned up to vote approved the deal, and in the end, the country changed its name to North Macedonia, and its path to NATO and EU was opened.
The story of Zaev’s political upheavals provides a vivid example of the ways and means by which Moscow meddles in North Macedonian politics. However, it is far from the only example.
Active Measures: a decade of state capture
In 2017, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its partners provided a tranche of intelligence documents showing that Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia as part of a region-wide endeavor to prevent Balkan countries from joining NATO and the EU.
According to a Macedonian counterintelligence briefing from 2017, over the previous nine years, the country had been “undergoing strong subversive propaganda and intelligence activity implemented through the Embassy of the RF (Russian Federation)”. The Russian operations started in 2008 when Macedonia was blocked from joining NATO due to its name dispute with Greece.
The document, prepared for Vladimir Atanasovski, director of the Macedonian Security and Counterintelligence Service (UBK), continues: “By using the assets and methods of so-called ‘soft power,’ as part of the strategy of the RF in the Balkans, the goal is to isolate the country [Macedonia] from the influence of the ‘West’.” and alleges several ways in which the Kremlin has been exerting its influence:
- Russian foreign policy is in tight correlation with the Kremlin’s energy strategy, whose goal is to control strategic energy resources through a partnership with the Balkan countries,” the document reads. For example, the Russian company Stroytransgaz began the construction of a pipeline network in the country in 2015, in order to keep Macedonia in the Russian energy orbit.
- Russian intelligence activities have been conducted from their embassy in Skopje by three agents of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), overseen by a station in the Serbian capital Belgrade, as well as four agents of the GRU, coordinated from Sofia, Bulgaria. In addition, the Kremlin has established a local crew of the Russian news agency TASS and Rossotrudnichestvo and the honorary consulates in the towns of Bitola and Ohrid are serving as “intelligence bases”, the document alleges.
- Attempts to recruit members of Macedonia’s military and police in order to create a “critical mass of military-trained persons,” the document says, that “at a certain political moment or situation are to be used for accomplishing Russian interests.”
- Attempts to influence and fund Macedonian media outlets, including those aimed at the country’s Albanian minority, in order to spread “information and disinformation” in support of Russian policy goals.
In addition, there has been a significant increase in Russia’s cultural influence in the country, pushing an idea of “pan-Slavic” identity and shared Orthodox Christian faith, the UMK document says, citing as an example the creation of roughly 30 Macedonia-Russia “friendship associations”, opening a Russian cultural center in Skopje and sponsoring the construction of Russian-style churches across the country.
Another aspect is the broader economic influence, not limited to the energy sector. ‘If Russian political influence aims to exploit the weaknesses in Central and Eastern European societies and erode liberal institutions, then Russian economic influence seeks to manipulate sectoral market dynamics and exploit governance loopholes to generate unfair profits and influence national decision-making.’, argues the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ report on the Russian influence in Eastern Europe The Kremlin Playbook.
An example of this in Macedonia is the mining company Solway Group, which, despite its positioning as a Swiss-owned group controlled by an Estonian citizen, has its economic roots in metallurgy and financial services businesses in Russia, some of which linked to circles close to Vladimir Putin. Solway Group is involved in many projects furthering Russian interests – to the extent that even the Moscow government has lobbied on their behalf, referring to it as a “Russian investment“. Indeed, although SDSM has moved westward on the strategic level, it appears to have kept the door open to Russian corporate interests. The party has championed an anti-mining agenda, canceling the concessions of four Western companies since 2017. Yet Solway Group has been spared the whip, securing a permit to extend its operations by another 10 years.
These developments suggest that the divide between SDSM as a pro-Western party, versus VMRO-DPMNE as the nationalist pro-Russian party, may not be quite as neat as it appears from outside.
A spy for all seasons
In April 2017, Russian Ambassador Oleg Shcherbak met with the senior Macedonian foreign ministry official Nenad Kolev and allegedly told him that Russia’s aim was to “create a strip of militarily neutral countries” in the Balkans, comprising of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia, as revealed by national security documents obtained by the OCCRP.
It is hardly a coincidence that those are also the countries in which one of the recently exposed GRU assets, Vladislav Fillipov, has operated. Currently serving as a military attaché at the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo, Filippov has been engaged for almost ten years in espionage activities in the region, Albanian media and Kosovo’s public broadcaster wrote in 2019.
Filippov was first sent to Macedonia in 2009. In 2012, he was dispatched to Albania and subsequently expelled by the government in response to the international response to the Skripal attack. Kosovar public media claims that during his tenure in Macedonia, Filippov recruited or partnered with Goran Zivaljevic, a Serbian intelligence officer. The two of them arranged the visit of the head of the Democratic Party of Serbs in Macedonia, Ivan Stoilkovic, to Moscow. They were also involved in the organization of the aforementioned 2017 attack on the Macedonian Parliament.
The duo of Russian and Serbian intelligence officers also formed a connection with the “journalist” and critic of Zaev’, Miroslav Lazanski, a frequent ‘analyst‘ for the Russian state-run outlet Sputnik and currently serving as the Serbian ambassador in Moscow. Macedonian counterintelligence also implicated Lazanski as one of the main pro-Kremlin propagandists in the country.
Wag the dogs: Russian presence in North Macedonian media
North Macedonia is not only an importer of Russian propaganda, but also an exporter. There are instances of Macedonian journalists participating in the Kremlin’s hybrid campaigns in other countries. Macedonian troll factories are widely used for spreading disinformation to other countries, including during the 2016 US election when over 100 websites were tracked spreading propaganda to American citizens, according to CNN.
One staggering example of interference in the US is Krum Velkov, a Strumica-based freelance journalist who in 2016 wrote an article about the ‘PizzaGate’ conspiracy, alleging that Hillary Clinton had run a child sex ring in a pizza shop. The absurdity of the story did not stop it to gain wide coverage. In Velkov’s own words, his article was translated into many languages and shared on many ‘alternative’ websites. The article was initially published on the website ‘Katehon’ – a self-proclaimed think tank, run by a group of Russian imperialists that have supported many other hybrid campaigns; namely, Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, Putin’s economic advisor Sergey Glaziev and the former head of the Kremlin’s Strategic Institute, General Reshetnikov. Konstantin Malofeev’s role in stoking the war in Eastern Ukraine has been well-documented, as has been his and Reshetnikov’s involvement in hybrid, pro-Kremlin activities in the Balkans. In 2016, the CIA also concluded that ‘Katehon’ was part of Russia’s interference efforts, as reported by the New York Times.
Russian propaganda is also heavily present in the country. Not surprisingly, Velkov’s social media presence is filled with anti-Western, anti-NATO propaganda and “New World Order” conspiracy theories. Recently, he also claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic is a geopolitical hoax.
One of the articles published by Velkov on the Katehon subsidiary, Geopolitica, in March 2017, is entitled “The Final Battle for Macedonia” and depicts the country as being “attacked frontally (so far politically and by means of hybrid war and special psy-ops) by the dying demons of the Anglo-American deep swamp state, who are now losing control over the world with each passing day.”
Velkov is not only writing about geopolitics, he also seems to be promoting Russian economic interests. Velkov and his acolyte Angel Nakov are leading campaigns against Western commercial projects such as Canada’s Reservoir Minerals on Kozuv mountain and the Kazandol mining project, which is operated by the Ukrainian-British venture, Sardich. He is also a major supporter of one of the anti-mining groups campaigning against the Ilovica-Shtuka mine concession, who call themselves Healthy Valley. Ultimately, one of the concession contracts was revoked by Zaev’s government in 2019, in part due to pressure by these campaigners.
Proponents of the deal claimed that disinformation and anti-Western propaganda were an important factor in the turn of events. Some of the claims may be attributed to legitimate environmental concerns, however there are also obvious examples of propaganda and outright lies. Such as apocalyptic claims that the project would destroy the soil, water, and air, irrespective of all the environmental standards which are obligatory for the project.
Another duo of Kremlin apologists is also representative of the type of people on which Moscow relies – propagandists of former authoritarian leaders. Some of the most prominent defenders of Nikola Gruevsky, the country’s former authoritarian leader, turned into hysterical pro-Russian conspiracy theorists after his fall. Mirka Velinovska and Milenko Nedelkovsky who had a significant presence in North Macedonian TV media and press are also contributors to Malofeev’s Katahon, and Velinovska is a recipient of a Russian honorary award precisely for her contribution to the ‘education of the youth’.
They continue to spread misinformation, including for the coronavirus. In a recent article, Velinovska described the pandemic measures as ‘Corona fascism’ comparable to the concentration camps of the Nazi regime. Implying that the entire virus is all part of a plot by Bill Gates, the EU, NATO, and several others to include Macedonia in a war between Europe and Asia. Velinovska continues to be considered as an influential voice, related to the former leader Nikola Gruevski and hence to one of the major parties VMRO-DPMNE.
She and Nedelkovsky are also fearsome proponents of the Macedonian cultural wars with its neighbors, Bulgaria and Greece, which are seen as one of the main obstacles for the country’s Western integration.
Blunt statements such as that by the Russian Ambassador, Oleg Shcherbak, that Moscow wants to “create a strip of militarily neutral countries” in the Balkans often do not correspond with Russia’s real potential for geopolitical significance in the region. This raises questions about the real intent behind the Kremlin’s strategy.
“The Western Balkans are part and parcel of Russia’s strategy to establish itself as a first-rate player in European security affairs, along with other major states such as Germany, France, and the UK.” writes Dimitar Bechev, a Research Fellow of the Atlantic Council and author of Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe. The region has always been of strategic significance, standing between Western Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, and in the center of the debate for NATO and EU enlargement.
“Having a foothold in the Balkans means having a say on those strategic matters, which are of direct consequence to Russia. Moscow is driven by geopolitics, with other concerns such as economic interests or historic bonds with the South Slavs or the other Orthodox nations playing a secondary role. It sees the Balkans as a vulnerable periphery of Europe where Russia can build a foothold, recruit supporters, and ultimately maximize its leverage vis-à-vis the West,” continues Bechev.
Russia cannot stop the Western integration of the Western Balkans. Indeed, it is doubtful that they even offer a real alternative to it. However, Moscow uses its leverage both to impede the progress of those countries, sow discord, retain its economic and political connections and ultimately boost its own geostrategic importance.
This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu (www.journalismfund.eu)
Yordan Tsalov is an investigative analyst focusing on security threats, hybrid warfare, and Russian clandestine operations.