Opinion Politics, 24/09/2018

Ukraine and Macedonia: More in Common than You Think

Maria AVDEEVA

Macedonia is much closer to Ukraine than one might think – especially when it comes to the constant and persistent interference of Russia into the geopolitical choice of both countries.

Ukraine has been learning on how to counteract this influence for a long period and has already developed reliable mechanisms against Russian attempts to meddle into the voting process.

Ukrainian example could be especially valuable for Macedonia now, when in less than one week the country is going to have a historic referendum. On September 30, Macedonia will vote on the name change, which will allow the country to start the process of the NATO accession.

The referendum follows an agreement between Greece and Macedonia in June, which resolved a long-standing dispute between the two countries about Macedonia’s official name and stumbled Macedonia’s integration with the West.

The government has urged citizens to vote “yes” on the following question, “Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between Macedonia and Greece?” Membership in those organizations, the Macedonian government believes, would revitalize and lock in place the country’s reform efforts and restore investor confidence. The deal with Greece also is an inspiration for the resolution of all other bilateral conflicts in the Western Balkans.

Greece objects to its neighbour being called Macedonia because it has the province of the same name in northern Greece and sees it as a way for Skopje to assert a claim to its territory and as a way to imply ownership over ancient Macedonia, which Greeks claim as part of own heritage. Because of this reason, Athens blocked Skopje from joining NATO or starting EU accession talks.

If the vote goes in favour of the agreement with Greece to change Macedonia’s name, it will remove the biggest obstacle on the country’s Euro-Atlantic path.

Western allies are fostering the country’s movement towards NATO accession and EU membership. During the short period, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, US defense secretary Jim Mattis and a number of European foreign ministers visited Skopje to show a support for the government ahead of an upcoming referendum to change the country’s name and qualify for NATO membership. High-level visits offer support to the Social Democrat-led government in Skopje and its effort to end the longstanding name dispute with neighbouring Greece.

Russia is opposing to any NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and Washington has accused Moscow of leading an online disinformation campaign in Macedonia. Kremlin is believed to conduct a broad influence operation, including malicious cyber activity. Moscow has been seeking to step up its influence all across the countries of the former Yugoslavia by using the assets and methods of so-called soft power. Moscow’s ambassador to Skopje has criticized Macedonia’s ambitions to join NATO, saying it could become a “legitimate target” if relations between NATO and Russia deteriorate further. At the same time last Monday, September 17, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis scolded the Kremlin on amid concerns that Russia is funding groups to influence the upcoming crucial vote.

Macedonian law requires a 50 percent turnout for a referendum to be considered valid. The country’s voter record has 1.8 million registered voters. Reaching 900,000 votes will be a challenge, and Russia takes its chance to exploit this. Polls indicate that Macedonians will back the deal, but it remains unclear whether turnout will meet the required 50 percent threshold. Nevertheless, the votes for renaming Macedonia even in case of a low-level participation in the referendum may induce the Macedonian parliament to vote for changes in the constitution. International pressure will also help.

Russia, through controlled and financed organizations and parties, encourages voters to boycott the referendum. In Macedonia, the actual satellite of the Kremlin is the party “United Macedonia,” whose members took part in the last year’s assault of the Macedonian parliament. Not surprisingly, the usual topics for the members are the identity of the Macedonians and Russians, eternal friendship and other things familiar to those who have encountered the “Russian world” concept.  Very soon we can witness the triggering of pro-Russian groups in Macedonia. Combined with soft power, cyber-attacks, we should not be surprised also with massive street protests and clashes. Moscow, again, will desperately resist the loss of its influence over the Balkans as it has resisted the Ukrainian aspiration towards NATO.

In July, Athens expelled two Russian diplomats over what it said was meddling with the intention of disrupting the negotiations with Skopje. In March, Skopje expelled one Russian diplomat, alleging the individual had tried to obtain classified national security information and in solidarity with the UK over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury. Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia, according to a leak of classified documents from the country’s intelligence agency that was published in the media.

Further, on September 19, 2018, Macedonia’s Constitutional Court has rejected two bids to declare the September 30 referendum on changing the country’s name illegal and unconstitutional. Judges voted to reject the two lawsuits filed by Skopje-based diaspora group the World Macedonian Congress and the small left-wing Levitsa party.

With joint systematic efforts, Russian influence in the region, always considered by Kremlin as a part of the empire where it has a privileged position, is diminished. Montenegro successfully joined NATO in 2017, despite opposition by Moscow. Ukraine also can share lessons it has already learnt from counteracting threats going from its Northern neighbour. Strong, stable and prosperous Western Balkans and Ukraine will benefit all of Europe.

Photo: Maria Avdeeva