On the 4th of June the British newspaper The Guardian revealed that Russian spies and diplomats had been involved in a nearly decade-long action to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia. This is believed to have been a part of broader efforts by the Kremlin to increase its influence all across the states of the former Yugoslavia and to discourage them from joining NATO and moving closer to western influence.
The newspaper article stated that these activities began in 2008. This revelation arose through leaked classified documents from the Macedonian secret services that were obtained by the network for Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The findings of the documents show the efforts by Serbian intelligence to support “anti-Western and pro-Russian nationalists in Macedonia by using the assets and methods of so-called “soft power”, as part of the strategy of the Russian Federation in the Balkans, the goal is to isolate the country (Macedonia) from the influence of the west”, says one of the leaked documents.
According to the Guardian, Moscow intelligence activities were carried out by the Russian embassy in Skopje, by three agents of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and overseen by SVR’s sister station in the Serbian capital Belgrade, as well as four spies from Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, coordinated from the GRU base in Sofia, Bulgaria.
But why should Russia target this small Balkan nation, with a population of approximately two million people, and suffering form weak, agriculture based economics? And what is the role of Bulgaria, a member of the EU and NATO in Putin’s spy game?
At the first look the answer is easy – Macedonians are Slavic people, professing predominantly Orthodox Christianity. The country is one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, and connected historically and culturally with Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia.
But the problem is much deeper. First, we must admit that Macedonia has never been stable, either economically or politically. Macedonia has also one of the highest shares of people struggling financially, with 72% of its citizens stating that they could manage on their household’s income only “with great difficulty”. With a GDP per capita of US$9,157 at purchasing power parity and a Human Development Index of 0.701, Macedonia is less developed and has a considerably smaller economy than most of the former Yugoslav states. Corruption, and a relatively ineffective legal system also act as significant restraints on successful economic development.
The 2001 insurgency
A substantial part of the population are not ethnic Macedonians – the Albanians in the country are 64% and the ethnic Turks are 4%. 65% of the Macedonians are Christians and 33% are Muslims. Macedonia borders with Albania and Kosovo, so the fear from the creation of “Greater Albania” plays a huge role in Macedonian politics. In the period between February and August of 2001, a conflict took place in the north and the west of the country, between the government and ethnic Albanian insurgents. The war ended with the intervention of a NATO ceasefire monitoring force.
Strong Bulgarian ties
At the same time, Macedonians are a relatively “young” nation. Before the 19th century most of the Slavic population of the Macedonian territories, at that time part of the Ottoman Empire, considered themselves to be ethnic Bulgarians. Following the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the territory of the modern Macedonian state was annexed by Belgrade and named “Southern Serbia”. Following the partition, an anti-Bulgarian campaign was carried out in the areas under Serbian control. As many as 641 Bulgarian schools and 761 churches were closed by the Serbs, while the Bulgarian clergy and teachers were expelled. The use of Bulgarian (including all Macedonian dialects) was proscribed. Following this, and especially after the end of World War II, being part of Yugoslavia, the Macedonians determine themselves like a separate nation, distanced from the Bulgarians.
But most of the Bulgarians still cannot accept that. The unity of “the three parts of Bulgaria – Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia” is still a dream and a national ideal for the Bulgarians. The “Macedonian Question” is a main theme in the rhetoric and political plans of the Bulgarian nationalists. And at least one of the parties forming the Bulgarian nationalistic political block, the United Patriots, which at the moment is in a governing coalition with the Conservatives is financed and supported by Russia – this is Volen Siderov’s “Ataka” (Attack). But it must be said that the other two parties forming United Patriots, the VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, party-successor of the rebel movement formed in 1893 with the purpose of liberating Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire) and the NFSB (National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria) are also on Pro-Russian positions and spread Euroscepticism and NATO-phobia in their messages.
Being a regional power, Russia tries to keep an expand and influence position in the European Southeast. Macedonia and Serbia have strategic important territorial position, but they are locked in between the EU and NATO members, Greece and Bulgaria and the EU and NATO countries in Central Europe, Hungary and Croatia. The Greek and Bulgarian export and import of goods, and also the trade with Turkey and the Middle Eastern countries, transported by land, goes through the territories of Macedonia and Serbia.
Serbia always had been the closest Balkan ally of Moscow and Macedonia is the weakest point where the Russians can strike. With an undeveloped economy, ethnic problems and corrupted politics, Skopje is an easy target for Russian influence. Moscow also knows that the Bulgarians are very sensitive about Macedonia, and seems determined to play this card.