10 April 2017

Russia’s new Macedonia offensive

Moscow has opened a new front in the Balkans with a concerted effort to inflame Macedonia’s political crisis. The goal is not only to diminish prospects for Macedonia’s entry into NATO and the EU, but even more menacingly to turn the Balkans into a conflict zone that illustrates Western weakness and intensifies Russia’s influence.

When Yugoslavia began its violent breakup in 1991, the main danger to regional stability was a potential conflict over Macedonia that would pull in several neighboring states. Twenty-six years later the prospect of a wider conflict generated from Macedonia is again looming across the region.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov precipitated the most recent domestic crisis when he blocked the formation of a Social Democratic (SDSM) government. Following tight elections in December, SDSM managed to assemble a viable coalition with an Albanian partner – the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI). If Ivanov’s decision is not unblocked by parliament the crisis will deepen and take on ethnic dimensions.

Ivanov objected to the Albanian Platform – an agreement signed between three Albanian parties containing specific conditions for entering the government. Its main elements are recognition of Albanian as a second official state language and more equal distribution of resources to the country's regions, including western districts of Macedonia where Albanians predominate.

The Albanian DUI decided to enter a coalition with the opposition SDSM for two main reasons: dissatisfaction with the governing VMRO party in implementing Albanian demands and VMRO’s involvement in a major wiretapping scandal and other abuses that further estranged Macedonia from NATO and EU membership. VMRO does not want to lose control of the government as its leaders could face criminal indictments. But without an Albanian partner, VMRO does not have the required majority of seats to form a new administration.

There are two main risks for conflict escalation: political divisions between Slavic Macedonians and ethnic polarization between Macedonians and Albanians. In the most hazardous scenario, Albanian leaders may abandon the planned coalition and turn to other political solutions such as territorial federalization if the political standoff continues indefinitely.

VMRO has tried to distract attention from investigations into its abuse of power by claiming that the Albanian Platform would shatter national unity and destroy the state. It also claims that Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who hosted the signing of the Platform in Tirana, is interfering in Macedonia’s internal affairs and pursuing a greater Albanian program. And this is where Moscow enters the stage.

For the Kremlin, Macedonia provides another valuable inroad for widening national rifts in the Balkans and spawning anti-Western sentiments. Its revved up propaganda offensive contains two major messages, which may be contradictory but are designed to appeal to different audiences. For their own citizens and foreign partners such as Serbia and Greece, Russian officials dismiss Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova as American “projects” designed to serve U.S. and NATO interests. All three states are depicted as artificial and temporary constructs and must be blocked from entering both NATO and the EU.

Simultaneously, to appeal to the Macedonian public, Moscow claims that an anti-national coup is being conducted in Skopje under U.S. direction. Even more menacingly, according to Russian disinformation that penetrates the region’s media and social networks, Washington supports carving up Macedonia and Serbia and creating a greater Albania. The Kremlin thereby presents itself as a defender of the Macedonian state in combating Albanian irredentism and alleged Muslim terrorism.

The more desperate VMRO becomes in its exclusion from government, the more it is likely to buy into Kremlin accusations against Albanians. Such an approach could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Albanian parties are excluded from government while the two major Macedonian parties continue to battle, leaving the country adrift from Western institutions and exposed to Russian intrigues.

VMRO has organized anti-SDSM protests in most major cities and formed “patriotic associations” that fulminate against purported Albanian domination of the country and condemn subversive foreign influences. Such movements are ripe for Moscow’s covert manipulation, including through funding and media exposure.

A conflict within Macedonia may rapidly escalate to involve both Albania and Kosova in protecting their ethnic kindred, revive the Serbian government’s regional anti-Albanian campaign, and potentially draw NATO members Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey into the fray on the side of different protagonists. Any territorial demands by one party will precipitate revisionist demands by others with the potential for outright violence.

To defuse the Macedonian crisis and prevent any destabilizing spillovers, Washington needs to become more active and visible. The Balkan region is fast developing into a test for the Trump administration in wielding both carrots and sticks to defend Western interests and European security.

Strong diplomacy can be combined with a pledge to finally bring Macedonia into NATO regardless under which provisional name. This will necessitate the unblocking of two obstacles to Macedonia’s progress: the obstruction of a new bi-ethnic coalition government that remains committed to state integrity and Greece’s veto of Macedonian membership in NATO. Such moves would dissuade both pan-Albanian and pan-Serbian temptations. And most importantly for the United States, it will curtail Russian meddling and provocations in a still volatile peninsula.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: TASS/Alexander Shcherbak