Three events became the root of foreign-sourced information and disinformation spread in North Macedonia in June – the collapse of Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine, the rebellion of Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenary group and the actual Russian economic power and the impact of the sanctions imposed by the West. We have analyzed these three topics, together with the dominant national topics that instigated disinformation narratives in the Macedonian language media space such as the protest of MOC-OA related to gender policies, the Constitutional amendments and corruption
With a two-day drama and ten-day suspense brimming with information and disinformation, Russia shocked the world with the rebellion of the mercenary group Wagner, which on 24th July 2023 started its march towards Moscow with thousands of fighters and military equipment, but the greatest part of the group just a few days later ended in Belarus.
On 22nd and 23rd June, the group leader and founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin accused Russian military forces of shelling his troops in Ukraine. In the evening hours, he took to the border, and with his forces “without shooting a single bullet”, as he claimed, took over the airport and the center of Rostov-on-Don, including the command center of the Russian forces in Ukraine. Macedonian media reported about this affair saying that there is chaos happening in Russia.
After a short break in Rostov-on-Don, Prigozhin turned to Voronezh on 24th June. According also to Russian official sources, skirmishes with Russian forces took part and several pilots of Russian combat helicopters, including a pilot of military aircraft, were killed. At the same time, anti-terrorist measures were introduced on the whole territory of Moscow, and barricades were put up and trenches dug on the motorway to Moscow. Macedonian media space was bursting with news on the happenings. That same day, in the morning hours, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a five-minute address to the nation, describing Prigozhin’s rebellion ”as a knife stabbed in the back of the Fatherland in the most difficult moments” and that “the rebels are going to be most severely punished”.
In those dramatic moments on 24th June, no one expected that the rebellion would end in the late evening hours, when several sources – Kremlin, Belarus, and Prigozhin himself – confirmed that an agreement was reached for him and his troops to withdraw to Belarus and participate no longer in the military operations in Ukraine, with an option for those who had not committed a crime against the Russian troops to return to Russia or sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and will not be prosecuted. All these details were reported in the Macedonian media space partly on the 24th, but mostly on the 25th of June.
The media were – and still are – full of information that Prigozhin actually went to Belarus and that in a military base 200 km from the Ukrainian border, a camp for several thousand soldiers was being built. The disinformation dilemma, however, was what were they going to do there and what really happened in those three days from 22 to 24.06.2023. Was the rebellion real or was it staged, and if so – what was the intention of such an action?
In that respect, one could have read (dis)information that it was real, with the thesis that the reason for the rebellion was the fact that Prigozhin feared for his power once Moscow announced that all “Wagner-boys” will have to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense if they wanted to continue fighting, effective 1 July 2023. At the same time, however, one could come across (dis)information that the rebellion was staged to allow Putin to deal with the top military brass who were not deemed loyal, a thesis that can be supported by the news surrounding the unknown destiny of the Russian general Sergey Surovikin.
And the third option is purely military – tactical and those talking about it say that the whole rebellion was staged with the ultimate goal to transfer the whole Wagner group to Ukraine so that in the future it can threaten Kyiv with quick penetration from the north. Few sources in the early days presented this option as possible. For example, the position of the former general of the British Army, about the possibility of Prigozhin attacking Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, provided most of the troops remained loyal to him (approximately 25.000 mercenaries). The analysis was by General Richard Dannatt, and published by Sky News. The same medium published a column by Diana Magnay, its correspondent from Russia, which speaks of a possibility of a plan of the Kremlin to deceive the Western public and military analysts, because it was unclear how after Putin’s speech about punishing most severely those who stabbed a knife in the back of Russia in the most difficult times can be granted amnesty after just a few hours. This position too was transmitted by some of the Macedonian media. Regarding this option, Macedonian Brigade General Metodi Hadzi Janev, in a statement given for Sloboden Pechat for the analysis produced by the medium, says that if it happened, then ”most probably it would be one of the maneuvers that will be studied in the future as part of the big manipulation and fraud game, aimed at accomplishing strategic surprise”.
In actual fact, the confusion surrounding the whole event and the possibility of a third scenario continues. So, the British newspaper Telegraph was still developing that option in an article quoted on 30.06.2023 by some Macedonian media. So was the information from the same day that Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko invited the “Wagner boys” to train the Belarus army… The chaos stemming from the information and disinformation of the entire event continues and can be seen from the news cluster on Time.mk dated 30.06. and 01.07.2023, where one can also find information from Ukrainian sources about Putin ordering the execution of Prigozhin.
Who demolished Kakhovka?
On the night of 06.06.2023, the enormous dam on Dnipro River, close to Nova Kakhovka in South Ukraine, was demolished, thereby giving the war in Ukraine a new form, unseen up to date, that includes ecocide i.e., environmental disaster. Both sides, Russian and Ukrainian, claim that the other side was responsible.
While on the first day of the disaster much more attention was paid to the allegations and the possible assessments, on 7 June the determined fallout was appended with precise numbers. The Ukrainian Government, as published by DW in Macedonian language, was precise to claim that more than 80 sites were threatened by floods and that approximately 42 thousand people were facing flood threats. Apart from that, DW published details from the assessment of the competent Ukrainian company, according to which the dam cannot be reconstructed and made operational due to the degree of damage inflicted:
16 separation gates, the hydro power plant and the dam between the power plant facility and the gate were destroyed. The power plant cannot be reconstructed, Ihor Sirota, Director of the share-holding company Ukrhydroenergo, owner of the hydro power-plant, stated for DW.
More details about the initial reactions to the event can be found in the summary information of “Truthmeter” originally published in Macedonian on 07.06.2023.
On 09.06.2023, the Ukrainian Security Service announced that it had a telephone conversation proving that a Russian sabotage group blew up the dam. The telephone conversation – that Ukraine claims to possess – was allegedly between two Russian-speaking soldiers talking about the consequences from the explosion of the dam.
It was not them (the Ukrainians) that hit it… It was our sabotage group. They wanted to scare the people with the dam, but it did not go as planned – they did more than planned, says one of the interlocutors, as quoted by the Security Service, while the other expresses surprise.
The Ukrainian Security Service did not provide other details. The news from Reuters was republished by most of the Macedonian media, but here we are quoting the version of 360 Stepeni (360 Degrees).
On 13 June 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with military correspondents and reporters and spoke about – as he claims – the failures and enormous losses suffered by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the counteroffensive that started during the weekend of 10/11 June, mentioning the Kakhovka Dam demolition incident. As reported by some of the Macedonian media, he claimed that it was illogical for Russian troops to have done that because the damage caused was greatest in the part of the territories controlled by Russian military and civilian authorities, thereby pinpointing the benefits gained by the Ukrainian armed forces.
That same day “Truthmeter” published another analysis of some information, clearly identifying there is no evidence nor logic that Ukraine has blown the dam. Truthmeter’s analysis can be read here.
Finally, “New York Times” on 18/19 June published an article claiming that Russia was to blame for the collapse of Kakhovka Dam. The newspaper quoted experts who believed that the demolition was in the part controlled by the Russians and that such damage could be caused only by placing explosives within the dam itself. This information was widely spread in the Macedonian media space.
When and did really Russia return to the Top-10 economies list?
Another Russian disinformation narrative was registered in the media space in June, related to the Russian economic power and the impact of the sanctions against Russia imposed by the West. A large part of Macedonian media, especially online media outlets, published the information that Russia, after a several-year break, returned on the list of the top ten economies in the world, with approximately US$ 2.2 trillion. This information concerning the Russian economy – that by the way, Putin at the Sankt Petersburg Forum assessed as very well-performing – has two aspects.
The first aspect is the information manipulation exercised upon Macedonian media, which carried it over from the Serbian and Montenegrin media without checking the information. Namely, the series of news published by Macedonian news sites on 10th, 11th, and 12th June rarely had any source quoted. However, having checked the data, Truthmeter determined that the Macedonian public, by taking over news from Serbian media (“Politika” being the source), was informed about this “novelty” one month after the original publication in RIA Novosti. The second aspect is whether the original information published by RIA Novosti was true at all or was it a semi-information, disinformation Russian narrative developed on expectations instead on final figures about the size of accomplished GDP for 2022.
Truthmeter, in the article titled ”When Did Russia Return among the Top-10 Economies in the World – If at All?” analyzed the two aspects of these manipulation techniques and disinformation narrative.
MOC disinformation related to gender issues
On 29th June, upon the invitation and organization of MOC-OA, a large protest took place in front of the Cathedral Church “St. Kliment Ohridski” in Skopje against the draft laws on gender identity and civil registration, with a strong conservative taste, appeals to oppose the order and decorated with church and Macedonian flags. Several Russian flags were also noticed and reported by the News Agency Meta.mk.
The address of the Head of the Church, Archbishop of Ohrid and Macedonia Stefan, on the protest rally was the final event of the several day – long war with information and disinformation, mainly by the Church, connected with these two laws advancing women’s rights and the rights of persons facing difficulties with their gender identification in the country overcome those issues (sex change, and without any kind of physical transformation the right to healthcare and a series of other human rights issues).
Disinformation expressed during the announcement of the protest by the Head of the Church and Bishop Stobiski Jacob who presented himself as the spokesperson of such a policy, continued during the protest with the rhetoric that the Church demands protection for the 99 percent of the people for whom the laws were unacceptable. Speaking during the protest, the Archbishop stressed that the “laws were a disappointment”, while the Church “will defend the children (and women) from unacceptable and offensive ideologies”.
In the teaching and in the life of the Church, women are not seen as powerless. On the contrary, it is her, with her delicate motherly hands that holds Him, who sustains the existence of the entire universe, the Almighty God… They are saying that they will liberate women from the bonds of the Church, but they are reducing her to a subcategory by putting her on an equal footing with men who will never be women in the real sense of the word. And, exactly in such a manner, they legitimize violence against women. Women in Macedonia – I trust – do not want such fake equality and fake rights. They do not want to be liberated from the Church, because it is within the Church where they exercise their real freedom, stated Archbishop Stefan as published by 360 Stepeni.
Further information about the entire event, including the disinformation expressed in relation with the topic can be found on the link of the aggregated news on Time.mk, while the link of the news connected with the photo gallery by 360 Stepeni shows the politicians or other public figures who were present on the protest.
A clear message that the Church was spreading disinformation was sent by the Minister of Labor and Social Policy, responsible for the two laws – the Law on Gender Equality and the Law on Civil Registry. Minister Jovana Trenchevska clearly stressed that the law was not even in the governmental, nor Parliamentary procedure – as the MOC claimed – and it aims to improve the role of women in society. The second law – Law on Civil Registry – provided for sex change in accordance with the expressed feeling of the person, thereby enabling him/her to acquire the right to change their entry in the Civil Registry.
As a human-right advocate, I cannot say that such a protest should not happen. Protest is a legitimate right, but a legitimate right is also to tell the truth about both laws, including the definitions and instruments. A protest can be organized – in accordance with the Constitution and the law – by anyone in the country, said Trenchevska.
The term gender and sex are not the same as gender identity. They are defined in compliance with the current legal regulations of the country and according to the obligations stemming from the Istanbul Convention. The definitions in the Draft Law on Gender Equality and the Law on Protection and Prevention of Violence against Women are identical. If we have various definitions in different laws we will have legal insecurity in the country, added Trenchevska.
The day before that, the human rights activist, Irena Cvetkovikj, also accused MOC of spreading disinformation. She stressed the difference between the two laws and the course of the procedure in her column titled “MOC –We’re Sorry for Existing”.
Also in its counter spin titled “Bonds, lynch and, totalitarism are only in the perception of Bishop Jacob Stobiski”, Truthmeter stressed the disinformation tactic of the MOC-OA or its representatives clarifying the statement given by the bishop who called civil society organizations mercenaries and pinpointing why the statement was disinformation and a spin.
(Dis)information related to the German support of Macedonian identity
On 15 June 2023, in the late night hours, Germany presented its Resolution on the support of Macedonian language and identity, adopted by the Bundestag on request of the Government in Berlin.
This incited a series of statements by the politicians of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE who tried to minimize the significance of the Resolution, emphasizing that the party expected different type of guarantees to give its consent to the Constitutional amendments. Two days after that, they consolidated their positions thereby giving statements that welcomed the Resolution of the German Government and Parliament, followed by a BUT…
Even after the official visit of Berlin by Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski, which occurred at the end of June, when at a press conference prior to the talks, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said that, according to him, other bilateral conditions should not be imposed on the EU path of Macedonia, adding that nothing was agreed at the European Council meeting. VMRO-DPMNE interpreted it as an insufficient guarantee, poor translation in Macedonian, misunderstanding Scholz, etc. SDSM responded to that by stating that only VMRO-DPMNE was not satisfied with the political guarantees of official Germany. Unlike VMRO-DPMNE, Bulgarian media – as transmitted in the Macedonian media area – unanimously quoted Scholz with the statement that Bulgaria will not be able to impose new bilateral obstacles in Skopje’s EU accession process. All news related to this issue can be found on Time.mk news aggregator.
Disinformation narrative about SCPC concerning the nephew of Ali Ahmeti
Finally, another large disinformation is related to the ocean of information and disinformation surrounding the topic of Drin Ahmeti, the son of the brother of the BDI leader Ali Ahmeti, who acquired 39 percent of the Trade Center Soravia.
This piece of news appeared shortly after placing the Mayor of Struga, Ramiz Merko, on the American “black list”. The Mayor himself was also a source of numerous information and disinformation, therefore BDI was expected to respond after the initial silence, especially following the information about Ahmeti’s nephew. The First Deputy Prime Minister, Artan Grubi, communicated the position that corruption was not practiced in BDI and gave himself as an example of the check performed by the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPC), thereby spreading disinformation about the capacity of the institution:
Recently, the SCPC rejected the report against me submitted by VMRO-DPMNE. An enormous number of cases are either lost in the administrative procedures or rejected by judges. I hope that the next composition of the institution will perform better… I trust the institution, but I doubt the capacity of the people. In a four-five year term, is there a single case that was successfully completed in terms of the procedures?, asked Grubi.
Truthmeter with a counter-spin titled “How did Grubi see “respectable” in DUI and “incapacity” in SCPC” debunked this disinformation narrative of DUI immediately, expressed through the specific spin of Grubi. In the course of June, Truthmeter also debunked other disinformation or disinformation narratives in its regular rubrics, especially the sections Fact-checking and Counterspin.