Despite its failure to keep VMRO DPMNE in power – or obstruct NATO membership – the Kremlin remains a ‘player’ in North Macedonia thanks to its new role as patron of Macedonian ethnic nationalism.
Membership of the EU and NATO has been the cornerstone of the Macedonian foreign ever policy since the former Yugoslav republic declared its independence in 1991.
Despite this being the only “game in town”, however, the country’s Euro-Atlantic positioning did not prevent it from maintaining friendly relations with Russia.
Therefore, the government in Skopje perceived Moscow as a “source of economic and diplomatic opportunities rather than a security threat”, Russian foreign policy expert Dimitar Bechev, argues.
In geopolitical terms, unlike many other Balkan countries, especially Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia did not see North Macedonia as part of its immediate strategic interests in the region.
However, as the dispute with Greece over Macedonia’s name was coming to its end, reviving the Euro-Atlantic integration prospects of the soon-to-be-renamed North Macedonia, Moscow became more vocal in its opposition to the country’s NATO membership.
In March 2018, the Kremlin warned the government in Skopje that its membership of NATO would have a negative impact on regional security and the bilateral relations.
Later that month, Oleg Scherbak, then Russian ambassador to North Macedonia, warned that if war broke out between Russia and NATO, North Macedonia would be a legitimate target.
Skopje did not remain silent, either. In August 2017, Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska accused Moscow of meddling in the country’s domestic affairs, while Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov expelled a Russian diplomat over the poisoning in Salisbury, England of Sergei Skripal.
To understand these shifts in Macedonian-Russian relations, one has to go a few years back.
After the fiasco of the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, when Greece blocked the country’s membership of the Atlantic alliance, North Macedonia underwent a period of significant democratic regression, which also endangered its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Under the populist, nationalist government of VMRO-DPMNE Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the country entered a phase of creeping authoritarianism with an increasingly silenced opposition and media as well as shrinking civil society. The result was widely seen as “state capture”.
In 2015, however, Zoran Zaev, then head of the opposition Social Democrats, SDSM, accused the Gruevski government of illegally wiretapping more than 20,000 citizens. Gruevski in turn accused Zaev of plotting a coup.
Moscow soon intervened, effectively supporting the VMRO DPMNE government and criticizing attempts to destabilize it.
Calling on “all political forces … to act in line with constitutional democratic institutions and address existing problems through dialogue”, the Kremlin warned that any destabilization of the government risked “escalating persisting inter-ethnic frictions”.
The Kremlin’s rhetoric sharpened as popular opposition to the Gruevski government grew.
Referring to the popular and anti-Russian “colour” revolts in Ukraine and Georgia, Russia accused the anti-government protesters of 2015 of being inspired by pro-Western NGOs that “have chosen to follow the logic of the streets and the notorious ‘colour revolution’ scenario”.
Moscow continued this stance before and after the 2016 early parliamentary elections, when VMRO-DPMNW won a plurality of votes but failed to form a government.
This then allowed Zaev to do so instead, as his Social Democratic Union, SDSM, had the second largest number of seats in parliament.
The then President, Gjorgje Ivanov, however, refused to appoint Zaev as prime minister-elect, although he had secured a majority to form a government.
According to Ivanov, this was because the new coalition forged between Zaev’s Social Democrats and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, and the Alliance for Albanians, contained a pledge to make Albanian the second official language – which Ivanov claimed was unconstitutional.
He claimed that this pledge formed part of the so-called Tirana-platform, an alleged plan backed by the governments of Albania and Kosovo, and by ethnic Albanian leaders in North Macedonia, to federalize the country and so open the way for the creation of a “Greater Albania”.
Unsurprisingly, Moscow made use of this tension to support the hysteria over the “Tirana platform”, stating that attempts “which are actively supported by EU and NATO leaders are being made to make Macedonians accept the ‘Albanian platform’ … based on the map of the so-called Greater Albania”.
It further claimed that “the West is trying to take advantage of the Albanian minority, to have the defeated opposition [SDSM], who have subscribed to the Albanians’ requirements – that sound more like an ultimatum and lead to the undermining of the country’s constitutional basis – come to power in Skopje”.
Friction over the so-called Tirana Platform escalated on 27 April, 2017, when a pro-VMRO DPMNE mob stormed the Macedonian parliament in response to the election of an ethnic Albanian, Talat Xhaferi, as speaker.
One day after the attack, instead of condemning it, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the newly formed parliamentary majority under Zaev of “attempting to seize power … by force on its own initiative and in violation of established procedures”.
After a new government under Zaev was nevertheless appointed in late May 2017, relations between Skopje and Moscow continued to deteriorate.
To re-start the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration process, Prime Minister Zaev rapidly buried the hatchet with Bulgaria and Greece by signing the Good Neighborly Relations Treaty and the Prespa Agreement respectively.
The two agreements effectively unblocked the country’s Euro-Atlantic path – but at the cost of major concessions over the country’s constitutional name.
While the government, the liberal intelligentsia as well as a considerable portion of the population welcomed the treaties as a “European” way of dealing with open disputes, many others, largely ethnic Macedonians, denounced these concessions as treasonous and shameful.
Russia soon took advantage of the political cleavage in the country to position itself as a patron of the “humiliated Macedonian people”.
Bechev adds that Moscow established diverse channels of influence, including “associations, social media platforms, and even a political party”– Janko Bachev’s United Macedonia.
According to the existing research, the Kremlin’s anti-Western narrative has been pushed also through “bots and automation tools”, while similar proxies were “particularly active within the boycott campaign during the [name] referendum”.
After the referendum on the Prespa Agreement with Greece failed to reach the required threshold, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement backing the boycott camp, and insisting it had won.
It argued that “Macedonian voters have chosen to boycott the solutions imposed on Skopje and Athens externally [by the EU and NATO]”, and warned that, “the desire to ensure and speed up Skopje’s accession to NATO despite the will of the people of Macedonia is evident”.
In truth, Russia has created some sympathy for itself among key segments of Macedonian society.
A public opinion analysis conducted by the Societas Civilis Institute for Democracy, IDSCS, showed that, in 2016, Russia was seen as the second-best foreign ally of North Macedonia (25%). This opinion was shared by the majority of the ethnic Macedonian respondents (29%).
This percentage dropped to 18 per cent in 2017 but rose again in 2018 to 26.4 per cent, putting Russia in third place, behind only the EU and the US.
This trend is understandable, perhaps, given Moscow’s new role as “protector” of the interests of ethnic Macedonians, as opposed to the so-called “Tirana platform” or the “imposed” treaties with Bulgaria and Greece.
Furthermore, IDSCS analysis from 2017 shows that VMRO-DPMNE supporters saw Russia as the second greatest ally of the country.
According to another analysis done by the Institute, the number of VMRO-DPMNE supporters who perceive Moscow as the country’s greatest ally also increased by almost 20 per cent compared to 2017, to 41.3 per cent.
Bechev argues that, “VMRO-DPMNE has increasingly come to view Moscow as their principal foreign patron. While the party leadership itself is formally pro-EU and NATO, the grassroots have turned anti-Western, partly as a result of the internal polarisation fanned by the media loyal to Gruevski during the crisis between 2015 and 2017”.
However, overall, the population has remained generally pro-European and largely supportive of EU and NATO membership.
Existing research suggests that, in 2018, the majority of citizens preferred the EU and the US over Russia as North Macedonia’s greatest ally. Also, only 3.1 per cent of the population believes that Moscow has much influence in the country.
Moreover, despite opposing the Prespa Agreement, Russia has recognized North Macedonia under its new constitutional name. What is more, since the new name entered into force at the beginning of 2019, leading to the start of North Macedonia’s NATO accession, the Kremlin has remained largely silent.
This perhaps confirms Becher's theses that Russia does not have a grand geopolitical strategy for the Western Balkans beyond hindering the EU and NATO enlargement.
Therefore, one conclusion might be that the West should not play “Russian roulette” with Skopje’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, as this would probably bring Moscow back into the game.