Russian Influence in Western Balkan and North Macedonia

Michal Vit

Russian diplomatic and media narratives underline that the Balkans is of a significant historic, cultural, and religious importance for Russia.[1] The region’s importance to Russia stems from geographical location, ongoing diplomatic and internal challenges as a source for targeted active measures in the geopolitical game against the EU. The quest for warm water access seen through the Black Sea, even the Adriatic Sea as an opportunity, has historically driven Russia to the region.  Culture and religion are usual pre-text in the information campaign but also in a diplomatic and to a certain degree economic efforts’ narrative to facilitate Russian active measures in the Western Balkan.

This paper conceptualizes penetration of Russian influence in the region of Western Balkans with focus on North Macedonia. Macedonian case shows limits of Russian influence in terms of development of long-term strategic presence. This is put in context with fragile commitment of the EU to support North Macedonia on its path to the EU. As argued below, the strength of Russian influence relates to the ability to utilize structural and institutional weaknesses of countries being in kind of influence uncertainty.[2] In this case, not granted opening of EU negotiations to North Macedonia in December 2020 and as consequence possible emerge of Russian or Chinese (soft) power. The case of North Macedonia shows real impact of both EU and Russian influence in Western Balkans generally. On one hand, there is politicized interest to tighten up the region to one or other side, on other hand there is very little to be done to materialize the interests into action. The case of North Macedonia is thus good example to analyze how Russian influence is (possibly) filling up the space that decreased interest of the EU left to “the others”. In following part, the Russian influence is divided in following areas: economic impact, media, and political one. Each area focus on key elements of Russian presence/influence in North Macedonia.

 

Conceptualizing Russia as source of power

 

Russian ambitions to reintroduce global influence have put the Balkans in their (soft) power projection loop. Converging active measures through diplomacy, economy, (dis)information campaigns and to a certain degree military and security sector Russia’s ambitions in the Balkans, for now, is to steer the Western attention from its immediate focus and more disturbing objectives elsewhere. Tailored to stay below the threshold of direct conflict Russian’s active measures are exploiting the power vacuum in the region while crafting contingencies through fomenting political divisions and elite capture games. Common wisdom among the prominent Western experts is that for now, Russia has no intentions (and does not have the capacities) to install itself as preeminent power nor to launch direct military operations in the region. Nevertheless, the lessons from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine do not match the Western-based op-ed conventional threat assessment matrix and are raising the alarm for two reasons.

First, Balkan is a perfect match for Russia’s hybrid strategy and its endgame with the West for now. The main source that drives this strategy is nested underneath the West approach toward the region and therefore is hard to identify and to fight. Corrupt governance and unresolved disputes flawlessly amplify Russian efforts to craft mayhem in the Balkans as a punching line against the West. Long term Western approach toward WB by changing the stability and immediate short-term results for transparency, legitimacy and meaningful participation have nurtured captive states across the region. Under the pretext of pro-Western agenda, WB regimes have corrupted the transformative drivers in the civilian sector (CSOs and media) and have started to use them against the opposition which in turns sets up the scene for Russian active measures  with almost no resources to fit-in across different sectors of society.

Second, unlike the West, Russian active measures through different sectors of government have adjustable end-state; highly centralized command and are quasi-democratic (free of democratic accountability). This allows them to conceal real intentions, secure operation’s continuity from peer competitor’s actions and exploit the time. By weaponizing, diplomacy, economy and information Russia could easily escalate active soft measures to sabotage and subversive actions. Practice to employ proxies across the different sectors of the society (from criminals and contractors to disappointed local patriots) have also been seen in the WB as elsewhere. Combined with the previous challenge, the risk from zero to maximum could escalate in no time.

 

Russian influence in North Macedonia

 

The dissemination of Russian influence in North Macedonia has a significant political component. Unlike in the case of Serbia, Montenegro, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, the economic presence cannot be used and the most relevant perspective due to the weak economic presence of Russian capital in the country. In this context, the size of economy and political importance is – from Russian perspective – too small to be considered as very relevant as it is in case of Serbia. In addition to that, the political landscape is not in a similar position as the case of Republika Srpska where the president, Milorad Dodik, is extensively operationalizing the cooperation with Russia and Russian entities.[3] As it is argued below, the economic presence of Russian capital in North Macedonia has limited capacity to create significant impact/pressure on relevant political figures. Nevertheless, the strength of Russian influence is in shaping political and media narratives when it comes to political figures who are in need of both political and financial capital.

 

Economic presence of Russia in North Macedonia

 

Russian’s economic presence in North Macedonia is very limited, especially in comparison to other Balkans like Serbia or Montenegro.  Moreover, after Zoran Zaev (SDSM) government took power in 2017 cooperation on new infrastructure project (i.e. Turk Stream) was halted. The big Russian state companies, which are the main tool of influence in other Balkans countries are barely present on Macedonian market (except from Lukoil). Therefore, the pool of economic tools in case of Macedonia is the volume of common trade between two countries has been small with only minor ups and downs in the last years. Russia used to be an important trade partner for North Macedonia due to import of crude petroleum for OKTA Refinery. Since the production in this facility was halted in 2013 the value of Russian imports has decreased significantly.  In 2014, North Macedonia did not join the EU’s sanctions against hopes for increase of the export of agriculture products to huge Russian markets. However, there hasn’t been any significant raise in export and due to overall increase of Macedonia export capacity the role of Russia decreases. The Russian companies mainly invest indirectly through off-shore entities so the presence of the Russian companies on Macedonian market is bigger, but still insignificant. The best example is Lukoil, which is registered in the Netherlands. The plans of Russian companies to gain a dominant position on Macedonian market have failed. While entering the market, Lukoil Macedonia’s plan was to gain 20% of the market. Attempts of Balkan Petroleum Holding to take over Makpetrol were blocked by Macedonian Securities Commission. Holding allegedly belongs to Russian investors Aleksander Kaplan and Aleksandar Smuzikov. This is in sharp contrast with situation for example in Serbia where presence of Gazprom (in NIS company) is followed by channeling of political interests using Serbian political representatives. Russia – in this case Gazprom – has direct access into Serbian politics. Such a modus operandi is not present in North Macedonia.

The specific case is Sergey Samsonenko millionaire of Russian origin, who came to North Macedonia in 2006 and currently lives in Skopje as one of wealthiest businessmen in the country. His main activities are betting (BetCity Balkans) and sports clubs (the football club and handball teams Vardar). Samsonenko has very good relations with the political elite close to ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski and VMRO – DPMNE as well as to current prime minister Zoran Zaev (SDSM).[4] Samsonenko was also declared honorary consul of Russia in Bitola and his company has vast interest in Russia. All these businessmen have various interests in many European countries, so it’s hard to assess to what extent they are supporting the Russian interest in North  Macedonia or just protecting the business model they developed, which was based on close and non-transparent relations with the former governing party and its political elite.

 

Russian influence in political space

 

Identification of direct and relevant political influence of Russia on political parties in North Macedonia shows a blurry picture. On the one hand there are numerous examples of accommodation of Russian friendly narratives in political competition, on the other hand due to weak institutions and high level of institutionalized corruption, clear identification of the structure is hard to be proven. This is the case of participation of Serbian authorities on violent accidents in Macedonian parliament in the 2016 allegedly initiated by VMRO-DPMNE. According to the investigation, the support has been provided to develop and disseminate the dangerous narratives in the Macedonian media space to indicate that that time main opposition party, SDSM, supports projects such as “Greater Albania”, or is that the party is not properly defending pan Slavic heritage and culture. At the same time the Kremlin openly supports less relevant political party Edinstvena Makedonija, whose leader, Janko Bachev, was one of the key figures of the referendum’s campaign against changing the name to North Macedonia.[5] Bachev was also one of the main organizers of the visit of Alexander Dugin in North Macedonia in the 2018. Accessing the relevance of such political formations, the real influence heads towards the media landscape with limited political impact. In the same logic, the support to opponents of name change during the referendum on name change held in September 2018 was channeled via Greek businessman of Russian origin Ivan Savvidi in an estimated amount of 300,000 USD.[6] As was elaborated above VMRO-DPMNE is the most prominent example of cooperation of Macedonian political parties with Russian entities. That time prime minister of North Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, initiated formal cooperation Russian political counterparts back in 2014.[7] Current leader of the party, Hristijan Mickoski, has been personally participating in this policy shift towards Russia as one of close collaborators of that time leader of VMRO-DPMNE.[8] The cooperation has been motivated by search for new international allies given in context of Gruevski’s decline of support by key Western partners, mainly within European People’s Party.[9] However, beside adopting “Russia friendly” narrative during the 2020 election campaign, there is no hard evidence of financial benefits resulting for VMRO-DPMNE. Despite the fact that VMRO-DPMNE is often using the rhetoric of national identity and so-called conservative values that fit into the framework of Russia spread narratives. At the same time, this rhetoric is a result of domestic political competition than as a result of extensive political cooperation. In this context, the party currently seeks its new ideological orientation, which makes the party vulnerable towards aggressive narratives originating in Russia.[10] Similar patterns offer a closer look on the newly established political party Levica (The Left). The party has been formed as a result of search for an authentic social democratic alternative in North Macedonia. The party profiles itself as opposing NATO, the EU in its current composition, but mainly targets domestic corrupt political elite. The party has been targeted by extensive attention by SDSM supporters who identified the party as a challenger for SDSM as well as for VMRO-DPMNE. This has resulted in labelling the party as Russia friendly, disseminating Russian propaganda etc. Secondly, the party is short of financial resources for further expansion. Given the fact that the party stands currently outside European political networks, again, potential Russian financial support would be of great help for the party. [11]

 

Assessment of Russia’s influence in media

 

Assessing the indirect influence of political parties’ friendly media, the assessment of political influence of Russia mixes up with diverging interests of other stakeholders involved. In this context, the media support goes hand in hand with changing international environment. This is the case for example of Adria Media Group under which belongs Sloboden Pecat newspaper.[12] Similar pattern can be observed in case of media such as TV Alfa or republika.mk who are Hungarian TV (MTV) and Viktor Orbán close allies Peter Schatz and Agnes Adamik.[13] However in case of republika.mk or TV Alfa it is easy to identify the ideological closeness, still, the intention to penetrate Macedonian media and political space remains unclear. Closer look at media cooperation offers also different perspectives. According to the portal necenzurirano.si, the volume of money invested in media space on line Budapest – Ljubljana – Skopje is roughly around 4 to 5 million EUR. In this context, when distributing finances for all sides involved, the direct financial benefit is rather low. Therefore, deeper investigation is needed on the source of money channeled through this line. Even more important it is to assess the impact of this cooperation when it comes to the political landscape in North Macedonia. In the same logic, the assessment is needed when analyzing political implications when it comes to gambling business in the country (with participation of high level of EU member states political representatives).[14] Comparing it with Hungary led media vehicles, the volume of money and both direct and indirect political implications are of high significance. This is also the case of participation of EU based companies on suspicious trading and reexporting arms and ammunition to conflict zones with direct or indirect participation of Russia based companies.[15] This shows the complex vulnerability of Macedonian institutions when it comes to deeply rooted corruption and clientelism across political parties. In this context, Russian influence – if needed – can be easily spread not because of economic and political engagement of Russia in North Macedonia, but due to fact is it not financially costly to build influence in order to “troll” the West and the EU integration process. North Macedonia has become discussed in context of fake news issue. It has been extensively reported that North Macedonia has been used as spot for producing and disseminating fake news during the 2016 US presidential elections. Given vulnerability of Macedonian media market the issue of fake news has severe consequences for the media’ credibility. The donors – often political parties’ linked companies – push the media outlets to run “fake news” campaign instead reporting on actual and fact-based events.[16] The costs of turning media outlet into fake news outlet counts in low thousands of EUR per month. This obviously effects the personal relations within journalist community and increase a camp of motivated and thus vulnerable journalists.

 

Conclusions

 

The assessment of Russian (soft) power in North Macedonia offers very interesting perspective. Based on above mentioned assessment, it is evident that Russia is not using full spectra of its potential. The legitimate question here is the fact, what motivates Russia not to use the opportunity to actively step in Macedonian politics. The failure of opening negotiations with North Macedonia in December 2020 opens space how to deeper and more intense penetrate Russian influence using card of political and social dissatisfaction. In this context, Russia can easily use its already developed means of influence – actively supporting media outlets, political representatives and actively participate on shaping political agenda. This happens in light of ever ongoing EU integration process that is less and less capable to stream the transformative power of the EU enlargement process. This leaves country like North Macedonia extremely vulnerable to whoever comes with better offer to cooperate. Russian influence in Western Balkans should be thus understood in greater context of EU Russia relations in terms of willingness to engage and participate in competition of influence and real political impact.

 

Michal Vit, Metropolitan University Prague

 

 

[1] See for in depth analysis in: Zakem Vera, Saunders Paul, Hashimova Umida, and Hammerberg P. Kathleen, Mapping Russian Media Network: Media’s Role in Russian Foreign Policy and Decision-making”, CAN, available at: https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/DRM-2017-U-015367-3Rev.pdf

[2] For more details see Rettman Andrew, Does North Macedonia really exist?, available at https://euobserver.com/enlargement/150370

[3] See for example Kovacevic, Danijel Bosnian Serb Opposition Demand Dodik’s Resignation Over Icon Scandal, available at https://balkaninsight.com/2020/12/21/bosnian-serb-opposition-demand-dodiks-head-over-icon-scandal/

[4] According sources from think tank community, Samsonenko cultivates good relations also with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

[5] PSSI, “EXTERNAL INFLUENCE IN THE POLITICAL SPHERE”, available at: https://www.balkancrossroads.com/bp-ii-politics

[6]  PSSI, “EXTERNAL INFLUENCE IN THE POLITICAL SPHERE”, available at: https://www.balkancrossroads.com/bp-ii-politics

[7] Petsinis Vassilis, “From pro-American to pro-Russian? Nikola Gruevski as a political chameleon” available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/from-proamerican-to-prorussian-nikola-gruevski-as-political-cha/

[8] necenzutitano.si, “Finančni tokovi razkrivajo: Orbanov denar v Slovenijo in Makedonijo” available at: https://necenzurirano.si/clanek/preiskovalne-zgodbe/nov-orbanov-denar-za-medije-sds-in-napad-na-makedonsko-vlado-757754

[9] According to the interview with the OSCE representative, Novemer 2020.

[10] According to the interview with VMRO-DPMNE representative, December 2020.

[11] According to an interview with a journalist familiar with internal issues of Levica, November 2020.

[12] More details here: https://meta.mk/srpskata-adria-media-grup-go-kupi-sloboden-pechat/

[13] OCCRP, “Right-Wing Hungarian Media Moves Into the Balkans” available at:  https://www.occrp.org/en/spooksandspin/right-wing-hungarian-media-moves-into-the-balkans

[14] Scoop.mk, “Macedonia becomes Balkan Las Vegas: low standards and too much gambling” available at: https://en.scoop.mk/macedonia-becomes-balkan-las-vegas-low-standards-and-too-much-gambling/

[15] This is the case for example the Czechoslovak Group participated in activities in Albania and North Macedonia in relation to suspicious trades with ammunition that was originally from China and had been stored in Albania. More details here: https://www.investigace.cz/vykup-balkanskych-tovaren/

[16] Occpr.org, “The Secret Players Behind Macedonia’s Fake News Sites”, https://www.occrp.org/en/spooksandspin/the-secret-players-behind-macedonias-fake-news-sites