Who’s been meddling in Macedonia? Not only who you think

Le Petit Journal
Cover of French periodical "Le Petit Journal" on the Bosnian Crisis featuring Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II

For more than a quarter of a century the Macedonia name issue has been arguably one of the most incomprehensible (and – yes! – boring) issues in Europe. Until suddenly it turned into a plot combining characters from le Carré Cold War novels with a House of Cards script: Local politicians tangle with foreign ambassadors; street protesters collude with foreign oligarchs; hackers antagonise foreign spies.

Greece and Macedonia had become the latest battlefield of the new Cold War between the West and Russia. Some of the world’s best media rushed on the crime scene to cover it. And yet, as this piece will try to demonstrate, to a large extent there was one-sidedeness in answering the main question: Who made the mess?

But first, an as-short-as-possible explainer to the issue itself. The name dispute between Greece and Macedonia is summarily dismissed by outsiders as “sentimental”. But for the two parties involved it triggers existential fears.

Macedonia, a new and tiny country, claimed that the name and identity are a matter of self-determination. Without them acting as a cementing glue, the fragile state might fall apart, given also that a quarter of its population is an Albanian ethnic minority.

Greece on the other side argued that the name Macedonia and the Macedonian identity foment territorial pretensions over the northern Greek province of Macedonia and that some of these pretensions are implied in the country’s constitution.

For more than 25 years, the two neighbours failed to reach an agreement. But despite the stalemate, Athens and Skopje had learnt to cope with the status-quo while at the same time enjoying an ever-growing economic relationship.

Greece was content that “official” entities such as the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations recognised the country only by its institutional name “FYROM” (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

Macedonia was content that over 130 countries recognised the name “Macedonia” and that was also the name used by all media (save the Greek ones).

It’s all about Russia

Around 2016 things abruptly changed. This time it was the outsiders that urgently wanted the issue to be resolved. What had changed? The West wanted to add Macedonia as one more member in its military alliance, NATO. But for this to happen the neighbours needed first to resolve the name issue.

According to the Western narrative, this would help contain Russia’s interference and aggression in the region.

According to the Russian narrative, this was yet another aggressive step taken by the West to encircle Russia, breaking promises made at the end of the Cold War that NATO would not expand eastwards.

The Macedonian issue became just another episode in the new Cold War between Russia and the West. George Soros, the controversial American hedge fund billionaire turned philanthropist* set the record straight in a New York Times op-ed: Solving the Macedonia dispute is all about broader geopolitics and Russia. It’s about making the Balkan states, as Soros wrote, “less susceptible to influence — economic, diplomatic or military — from Beijing, Ankara or Moscow.”

A deal against the will of the people in both countries

Following pressure to both sides from the West and after months of secret name negotiations, Greece and Macedonia reached a final agreement. The two PMs brought to their peoples and their parliaments (until that moment kept in the absolute dark) an agreement that suited perfectly the geopolitical objectives of the US, the EU and NATO but was extremely unpopular with… their own people.

(According to the latest poll in Greece, the Prespa Agreement is supported by a meagre 17% against the 65% who reject it. In Macedonia, the unpopularity of the agreement was proven by the failure of the referendum despite the promise that was attached to it: Voting “Yes” in the referendum would be the ticket for FYROM’s entry in NATO and eventually to the EU.)

In June 2018the agreement was signed by PM Zaev and Tsipras at the lake of Prespa.

According to the Prespa Agreement, Greece would be obliged to accept the existence of a “Macedonian” nationality and a “Macedonian” language. Last but not least, Greece, a full member of NATO, would agree not to veto Northern Macedonia’s entry in the military alliance. Macedonia from its side would be obliged to change its name to Northern Macedonia and delete from its constitution all irredentist references.

There was however a caveat: For the Prespa Agreement to be valid, it had to be adopted first by a referendum in Macedonia.

50 shades of meddling

The referendum was scheduled for September and in the months preceding it, Macedonia became the theatre for the new Cold War. But here’s another oddity, this time not Balkan: The western media, especially the Anglo-Saxon, were rife with allegations about Russia “meddling” (Reuters), “interfering” (Wall Street Journal), exercising “influence through corruption” (Foreign Policy), “funding violence” (Times of London), “orchestrating to wreck” (The Telegraph) and “slapping” (Washington Post). Yet the same media, while claiming they are independent, as opposed to Russia’s propagandist state media, stood silent when it came to the West’s (US, EU, NATO) role in the conflict.

There was Russia meddling, no doubt about it.

In July 2018, a few weeks after the signing of the Prespa Agreement, Greece, historically much more reluctant than its European counterparts to take strong steps against Moscow, expelled two Russian diplomats. Athens accused Moscow of attempts “to bribe state officials” and to “interfere in its internal affairs”. The Russian efforts, according to the Financial Times , were focused on bribing “local government officials, Orthodox clergymen, and members of cultural associations and far-right groups” at the north of the country in order to bolster opposition against the name agreement.

“US spycraft” against Ivan, the oligarch

A few days later, on July 17, more evidence of Russia meddling surfaced. Ivan Savvidis, a Russian businessman of Greek origin with rapidly-growing financial interests in Greece’s economy (ports, media and football) was accused of covertly channeling payments of 300,000 to 350,000 euros to opponents of the name agreement.

The Savvidis story was first revealed by OCCRP, an investigative reporting outlet. (Trying to undermine the credibility of the scoop, detractors of the Prespa Agreement have pointed to the fact that OCCRP receives state funding by the US.)

Several months later a new story about Savvidis’ actions, this time inside Greece, broke in the New York Times. As it turns out the “irrefutable” evidence upon which Greece based its decision to expel the Russians was the product of “US spycraft”. It consisted of “intercepted communications” by the US in Greece that showed that Mr. Savvidis “was working as Russia’s conduit”. It was also based on “financial data” collected by American agencies that showed Savvidis “had been paying the protesters”. According to the NYT, the Americans “turned over the intercepts” to the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who responded by making a rare break with Moscow.

Savvidis vs Soros, the symmetry

In the eyes of the West, Savvidis’ soft power initiatives in the region have turned him into an agent of, as the New York Times put it, “Russian subversion”.

The analogy with George Soros is worth noting.

Soros and Savvidis are different figures and of a different calibre. However the way they are perceived by their detractors presents an intriguing symmetry: A foreign billionaire and philanthropist who is accused of using his wealth to provoke unrest, influence elections and destabilise democracies.

Even the allegations are symmetrical: both were accused by successive prime ministers of Macedonia of financially supporting the protests against them: First, it was PM Gruevski who in 2015-2017 repeatedly accused Soros of funding protests in collusion with the US in order to foment regime change. And now it was the turn of PM Zaev to make an almost identical allegation but against the “other” side, against Savvidis as a businessman “sympathetic to the Russian cause”.

(There is one difference though: Soros’s funding via his Open Society Foundation is seemingly transparent as opposed to the rather opaque structure of the “Ivan Savvidis Charitable Foundation” – dead link referred to from his personal webpage.)

Nevertheless, the parallel between Savvidis and Soros begs the question of double standards: If one is a well-intentioned benefactor (both are philanthropists), then how can the other one be a dark force agent of a foreign power? — and vice versa.

How the West fares

The allegations about Savvidis’ actions and Russian meddling seem plausible, albeit with a grain of salt, given that all evidence is sourced back to western intelligence services – whose record regarding accuracy of information is far from impeccable. But how has the West fared in regards to its own measure of meddling?

For a start, we know by their own admission that US agencies have been conducting (illegal) intercepts in an allied country (Greece) against foreign nationals, and then passed on this “intelligence” to achieve the expulsion of diplomats of a third country (Russia).

“American diplomacy has played a lead role”

The US doesn’t hide its own meddling. In his August 2018 testimony before the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Wess Mitchell, US Assistant Secretary of State, said that “American diplomacy has played a lead role in resolving the Greece-Macedonia name dispute” (pdf of Mitchell’s testimony).

Mitchell’s testimony reads like a hard-core relic of Cold War tactics: To face Russia in an effective way, Mitchell says,“US diplomacy must be backed by military power that is second to none and fully integrated with our allies and all of our instruments of power.” Mitchell said that the State Department takes the Russia threat very seriously “countering it in both overt and covert form.” An indication of this: all 49 US missions located in Europe and Eurasia are required to develop, coordinate, and execute tailored action plans for rebuffing Russian influence operations in their host countries”.

The price tag

It is hard to attach a price tag next to this commitment but according to the New York Times the US Congress has allocated $8 million specifically for Macedonia “to fight Russian disinformation campaigns”. Additionally, the US provided Macedonia with an extra $2 million to “promote the rule of law” in the country. (PM Zaev has recently said that the amount the US government has spent to promote democracy in the country is more than $1.75 billion!)

From Kiev to Athens

Mitchell’s testimony was celebrated on Twitter by US ambassador in Athens, Geoffrey Pyatt, who according to the New York Times had been instrumental in the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Greece. When Pyatt talks about playing “a lead role” in other countries’ affairs, he knows what he’s talking about: Before moving to Athens, Pyatt was the US ambassador in Ukraine. In an intercepted telephone conversation from 2014 (almost certainly leaked by Russian secret services) Pyatt is heard in an exchange with Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State, on moving top Ukrainian politicians of the opposition inside and outside the Kiev government as if they were “pieces” on a chessboard. (Full transcript by BBC here).

British PR agencies to “infiltrate and divide”

A fragment of what this “covert form” of action in Macedonia might consist of was revealed in a groundbreaking investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It revealed that British PR agencies were hired by the “Yes” camp (which was supported by the Macedonian government and by the US, EU, NATO alliance) to influence voters in “under the radar” operations and to create misleading social media accounts to “infiltrate and divide the pposition”. One of the British firms was funded by the Foreign Office for its work there.

And yet, despite the Bureau being considered a credible and independent investigative outlet, its scoop about concrete actions by the West to meddle in Macedonia’s politics had no traction in Western media.

A Parade of Statesmen

There was also “overt” action. In the weeks preceding the referendum, Macedonia witnessed an unprecedented parade of some of the most powerful people in the West: On 6/9 NATO’s chief Stoltenberg, on 7/9 Austria’s Chancellor Kurz (Austria holds the EU Presidency), on 8/9 Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, on 9/9 US Senator Johnson, on 13/9 EU High Representative Mogherini and US Assistant Secretary of State Mitchell, on 17/9 US Defense Secretary Mattis, on 18/9 EU Commissioner Hahn, all visited Skopje to bolster the “Yes” vote. It was a typical carrot and stick approach: The Western statesmen and women alternated praise and promises with veiled threats and ultimatums.

So who won the referendum?

The first impression in the referendum of 30 September that the “Yes” vote had won was just an illusion. The opposition had called its supporters to boycott the referendum. The turnout (37%) fell far short of the 50% required by the country’s constitution for the referendum to be declared valid. The opposition celebrated while some pundits estimated it was time to bury the deal. And yet a significant part of the western press had a different perception of reality.

According to a tweet by the Financial Times “voters overwhelmingly” supported PM Zaev’s proposal, backed by a long article that failed to refer to the constitutional threshold. Readers were left with the impression that the “Yes” vote won.

No, said columnist Simon Tisdall in the Guardian: Neither the Yes nor the No won because the result of the referendum “is another victory for Russia” and “Western leaders […] were outmanoeuvred by Moscow”.

This editorial line is deeply problematic. Voters are infantilised. Either they vote as we wish (in this case, as NATO wishes) or – if they vote differently – then this must be happening because they were brainwashed by Moscow or Russians hacked the election. This line of thinking becomes a worrying pattern, from Trump’s election to Brexit, to the French and Italian elections (suspicions of Kremlin ties to Le Pen and Salvini) — and now to Macedonia.

Fact-checking Russia’s “dirty tricks”

So what has been the impact of Russia’s “dirty tricks” (e.g. fake news factories, propaganda Facebook groups) in the Macedonian referendum?

The West’s suspicions about Russia’s meddling are reinforced by a true, yet not so relevant story: In 2016, it was reported that a “fake news factory” was operating from a tiny Macedonian village, Veles, where students had been fabricating fake news stories in the US presidential race, favouring candidate Trump. Yet there are two “buts” in that story:

According to Bloomberg there was never an established link between that fake news factory and Russia interests.

Even those who hyped the Veles fake news story as a factor in the US election concede that there was no trace of fake news factory (Russian or not) sprawling in the Prespa Agreement affair.

Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), a NATO-affiliated project that tracks disinformation across Europe, concluded that stories by Russian state-funded media “pushing one-sided narratives” ahead of the September 30 referendum had generated nothing but “low traction” in the country.

Vladimir Petreski, a researcher working for DFRLab, told Bloomberg that “there has been no explosion of new fake-news websites as there was during the 2016 US election.”

The same lack of any indication of (Russian or other) foul play applies to Facebook groups. Petreski from DFRLab again: “The main Facebook group for the boycott has fewer than 11,000 followers — not many for a country with a million Facebook accounts.”

An offer they can’t refuse

The referendum’s fiasco meant that the Prespa Agreement had either to be buried or to have it adopted by the Skopje parliament where the government lacked the required two-third majority to pass the deal. The conservative opposition remained equivocally against it. And eight crucial MP votes were missing.

A senior Greek politician said: “Now it’s up to the embassies to raise their game…”

A new round of pressure started but this time the gloves were off.

On October 8, EU-Commissioner for European Enlargement Johannes Hahn appeared optimistic in an interview to Austrian newspaper Kurier (interview in German) because “only eight or nine opposition votes are needed. […] So, how to secure the votes? I believe in the combination of the Balkan and rational approach,” Hahn told the Kurier.

The US are “disappointed”

On October 10, according to a source from the European People Party, EPP President Joseph Daul had a phone conversation with Hristijan Mickoski, leader of the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE that had governed the country from 2004 to 2016). Daul warned him in an “undiplomatic manner” that if VMRO didn’t vote in favour of the Prespa Agreement, the party “would bear full responsibility for the consequences”.

On October 16, Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell, in a letter published by the embassy of the US in Skopje, wrote to the leader of the opposition in Macedonia that the US “have been disappointed with the positions of VMRO-DPMNE’s leadership”.

Finally, on October 19, the parliament was summoned to vote. The government froze the procedure for ten hours as it struggled to find the eight missing votes. And then, late at night, a miracle happened: Eight (not nine or ten or eleven) MPs changed their mind, despite their party line, and voted in favour of the deal.

“Blackmail and bribes”

What had happened? We will probably never know.

Some of the country’s top political figures spoke openly of “blackmail” and “bribes”. (So did Russia, unable to hide its bitterness at the outcome). Out of eight MPs who switched sides at the very last moment: Three were released from house arrest prior to the vote. The government dismissed rumours that it would trade-off the votes of another two MPs by providing them amnesty from charges they are facing. But as this article went online, on December 13, the government pushed forward with a selective amnesty law, thus making it more likely that an under-the-table bargaining of the votes had indeed taken place.

And what about the remaining three MPs?

Igor Janushev, secretary general of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, claimed that three MPs had been offered bribes of between 250,000 and 2 million euros. One of the party’s vice-presidents, Mitko Jancev, was dismissed “for organising a group to pressurise, blackmail, threaten and bribe VMRO DPMNE legislators”.

“A great day for democracy”

Both the US and the EU, so vocal against violations of the rule of law in Hungary, remained silent in this case or even celebratory of the process. (“A great day for democracy in Skopje,” tweeted Commissioner Hahn.)

Allegations by VMRO officials about the MPs being bribed can be routinely dismissed given that VMRO has lost its credibility after years of corrupt governing. Its former leader and Macedonia’s former PM Nikola Gruevski was recently granted asylum by Viktor Orban’s Hungary to avoid imprisonment in Macedonia. However what seems to be forgotten is that “corrupt” and “nationalist” Gruevski was for years the West’s politician of choice in Macedonia, hailed as a pro-European reformer, a staunch euroatlantic ally, and the man who “solved” North Europe’s migration “problem” by shutting the Balkan route — all that before geopolitics changed the tide…

“Unfinished business”

The Atlantic Council, a NATO-affiliated think tank, has been quite present in the Macedonian issue. Resuscitating a Cold War vocabulary 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, in an event about Macedonia on October 22, Damon Wilson, the Atlantic Council’s vice president said:

“The free world is facing a pretty serious challenge from an alternative model,” of growing authoritarianism. A key to pushing back against this threat is “resolving the unfinished business,” Wilson argued, and there is clearly “unfinished business in southeastern Europe.”

Matched with Russia’s similarly belligerent statements and given the legacy of both camps conducting “business” in the neighbourhood, this is is a bad omen for what comes next.

*Disclaimer: Investigate Europe is partially funded by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of all members of Investigate Europe.