For almost two decades, North Macedonia has been standing at the doors of the European Union, and although it has often flirted with anti-European and anti-democratic forces, the country has never completely changed its European direction. However, by not starting the negotiations of the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania with the EU, the EU, knowingly or unknowingly, left room for other powers, such as Russia, to lure these countries in the meantime and to increase Euroscepticism. What are the chances that Russia will take the place of the EU? Portalb.mk obtained opinions from experts on this topic
Russia has repeatedly used the “failures” of the European Union to lure states that have been victims of the EU’s protracted processes in order to change their course and turn them to their side.
It is no secret that the Kremlin has declared the Balkans an area of “strategic interest” for years, even though none of the six countries in the Western Balkans was part of the Soviet Union.
Declaratively, Russia through its media has repeatedly said that it has no problem with the membership of the countries of the Western Balkans in the EU, but it reacted fiercely when Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia joined NATO and when Bosnia and Herzegovina warned that it planned to join the North Atlantic Alliance as well.
However, despite Moscow’s statements that “there is no problem for the Balkan states to join the EU”, various analyses show that Russian propagandists have been propagandizing against the European Union and the values it represents over the years. This implies that Russia, apart from being very interested in the countries of the Western Balkans not entering the EU, is even working in this direction.
We remind you that the European Union, at the summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, decided that all the countries from the Western Balkans should have the prospect of joining the Union, but after 19 years – only Croatia managed to join in 2013, while other countries are constantly lagging behind. Thus, according to experts, the EU risks losing them.
While there are no negotiations, Moscow has indirectly made its mission clear: deliberate destructiveness
The blocking of the process by Bulgaria to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania exceptionally serves Russia’s goal for the Western Balkans, which according to all the studies of the Metamorphosis Foundation is to lose confidence in the EU and NATO.
There are indications of Russian influence in the nationalist political parties in the Republic of Bulgaria, which were among the most vocal in favor of the VETO. Prime Minister Kiril Petkov himself warned of this in March, who stated that “there are Russian spies in the country, who are working to prevent the agreement between Skopje and Sofia”.
In addition, NGOs and pro-democracy forces in Bulgaria have been warning about Russian influence in Bulgarian state institutions for several years. For example, in 2017 then President Rumen Radev was called pro-Russian, he also received the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the successor of the Communist Party. In extreme right-wing parties such as VMRO-SMD, there are cadres who were collaborators of the secret services while Bulgaria was a member of the Warsaw Pact, confirmed Filip Stojanovski from the Metamorphosis Foundation.
“One of the main goals of the campaigns in which there are external anti-democratic influences is the attempt to stop the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union and NATO. The strategy is not to evoke feelings of love for Putin’s regime (although this is done in some specific countries, such as Serbia) or to encourage any goodwill towards cooperation with Russia, but rather their propaganda is aimed at strengthening hatred of “the west”. And to also destroy the processes aimed at democratic reforms, which, if successful, could influence the Russians themselves to start looking for a better life,” added Filip Stojanovski, explaining the data collected from the various activities of the Metamorphosis Foundation.
Despite the efforts of pro-democracy activists in Bulgaria through protests and lobbying, according to Stojanovski, there are still political parties paid by Moscow to push their agenda through destabilizing and non-progressive scenarios.
“The pro-democracy activists in Bulgaria, who a few days ago organized protests in support of the pro-European goals of the Petkov Government, are trying to show the danger of this through social networks. For example, after the provocation of the deputies of the Bulgarian Nationalist Party, who in the Parliament used hate speech and slogans propagandizing the occupation of Macedonia by Bulgaria, some activists explained that “all nationalist parties in Bulgaria are sponsored by Moscow for the internal destabilization of Bulgaria, to generate quarrels with the neighbors and to prevent the modernization of Bulgaria”. “V’zrazhdane” is particularly influential in the Russian embassy in Sofia, because the party that organized counter-protests to the protests against Russian aggression in Ukraine, also organized protests before the visit of the American Minister of Defense, and opposed the change of the names of neighborhoods in which Russian diplomats live in Bulgaria,” added Stojanovski.
This is how an influential Twitter account in Bulgaria writes about this political party:
“Dear Macedonian friends, V’zrazhdane is not a Bulgarian party, it is directly dependent on the Russian embassy. The fact that these people are in parliament and not in prison is the result of our dysfunctional judiciary.”
Despite its attempts, Russia cannot take the place of the EU because it has nothing to offer
Selim Ibraimi points out that, as before, people paid by Moscow worked to prevent the Skopje-Sofia dispute from being resolved. According to him, there will be such propagandists even after the settlement of the dispute, because Russia is comfortable with any possible conflict in the region.
“The Russian intelligence and the persons recruited by them in the Balkans and in both countries made sure to find loopholes and excuses so that nothing would move in the Sofia-Skopje dispute. Currently, Russian ideologues are concentrated everywhere. Now the ball remains in the hands of the Macedonian side, which, despite expecting answers from France about the demands, must be flexible in bringing the Bulgarians into the Constitution and fulfilling the demands from the previous agreements. The same applies to Sofia, who has already withdrawn the veto and is waiting. Regardless of the end of this problem, Russian elements will continue to remain hidden in both Skopje and Sofia. Of course, frozen conflicts and new issues or vetoes favor Moscow’s policies,” says geopolitics expert Selim Ibraimi.
“North Macedonia must resolve the delicate issues with Bulgaria because these are serious issues that Europe does not need. It is understandable that Russia is using the Western Balkans to distract from the war in Ukraine. However, there is the West to moderate this game. There are pro-Russian forces in North Macedonia and Bulgaria, but they are under control. Nevertheless, the Russian rabbit inside can awaken feelings for the Russian brotherhood in both Skopje and Sofia. However, the orientation of these countries is towards Europe”, said Arsim Sinani.
On the other hand, political scientist Naim Ilyazi emphasized that Russia sees every “failure” of the European Union as an opportunity for influence and potential for de-Europeanization of the region.
According to university professor Arsim Sinani, Russia’s efforts to divert attention from the aggression in Ukraine do not redirect the orientation of the Western Balkans towards the European Union.
“Europe must organize the political processes with a concrete strategy for the future of the Union, ensure stability and influence the progress of the Western Balkans. The short-sightedness of some countries in the European Union harms more than they positively influence the development of unitary policies. Undoubtedly, these actions benefit the Russian Federation. If we stop for a moment and say that the non-opening of negotiations between North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania with the European Union is correct and fair, then the whole work of the Union to start the negotiations is questionable. In this case, everyone should ask themselves whether the European Union is acting in the right way to include the Western Balkans in the Union,” says Naim Ilyazi, a political scientist.
He added that the European Union is a political organization, not an archaeological museum. “Therefore, I don’t know what made Bulgaria take the right and demand a blockade of North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania. The borders of isolation in the Western Balkans are nothing but a continuation of Russian policy, where the seriousness of the European Union is lacking. In addition, when you think it cannot get worse, Russian influence is spreading from the member states of the European Union, “blackmailing” the Western Balkans, which sees integration into the Union as a distant dream.”
Bulgarian political scientist and Balkanologist, Anton Pančev for Portalb.mk: As long as the RNM is in NATO, the rhetoric of “increasing Russian influence” is not valid, Bulgaria’s conditions are clear
“One of the most absurd points in the propaganda of the Skopje authorities is that slowing down the development of the First Intergovernmental Conference with the European Union will strengthen Russian influence in this country. In other words – these Macedonian politicians and journalists are trying to “extort” the countries of the European Union and the USA, to put pressure on Bulgaria. What will happen if Bulgaria also uses this instrument – if pressure is not put on North Macedonia to protect the rights of Bulgarians there, then Russian influence would increase in Bulgaria! In such a case, Western countries would have to choose which country they want as an ally, and which one will go with Russia. So one can calculate the economic and military weight, the geographical position and in Brussels/Washington declare their advantage! The Republic of North Macedonia is a member of NATO, which guarantees the pro-Western orientation of this country. It is unfortunate that politicians and journalists question NATO’s ability to protect its member countries and question the Euro-Atlantic sentiments of the political and intellectual class in North Macedonia,” said Anton Pančev from Sofia.
According to Pančev, only by fulfilling the Bulgarian demands, would RNM completely avoid the possible Russian influence.
“Bulgaria’s goals are clear – inclusion of the Bulgarian community in the Constitution of North Macedonia, protection of all the rights of Bulgarians in this country, which includes identity rights, deep reform of North Macedonia, which includes the opening of files, the punishment of the crimes of communism, good neighborliness, etc. Only in this way will North Macedonia leave the Russian influence and be on the path of Euro-Atlantic values”, Panchev added.
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