Why is North Macedonia target of Russia?
Since 2016, when Skopje intensified its efforts to resolve the name dispute with Athens, Russia has significantly increased its diplomatic personnel in North Macedonia. It is clear that Moscow was not interested in resolving the issue with Greece because this opened the doors for the country’s membership in NATO. Until 2018, when the dialogue between the two countries took a positive epilogue, Russian influence was present in the country in the form of “soft power” through cultural centers, investments, education, etc. After the adoption of the Prespa Agreement in the same year, which finally settled the problem with Greece and lifted the NATO veto, Russia started a hybrid war against the country. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even publicly announced that with NATO membership, North Macedonia becomes a legitimate target of Russia.
This is indeed happening – the regime in Moscow is using all means to maintain and strengthen pro-Russian sentiment in the country. It needs this support in order to draw the citizens of North Macedonia to its agenda and build a dominant pro-Russian public stance on current security and geopolitical issues. The next step is to steer as many voters as possible to a party that is either pro-Russian or to an entity whose ideology fits the Russian agenda in the region.
That North Macedonia remains the focus of Russian interest is also evidenced by research conducted by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a think tank based in Sofia, Bulgaria. This center has monitored the number of posts published on Facebook by foreign embassies and diplomatic missions in the Balkans. Facebook was chosen precisely because over 90% of social media traffic in Southeastern Europe takes place through this network.
The research has shown that North Macedonia is the second in Southeast Europe according to the posts made by the Russian embassy in this country. The diplomatic missions of the European Union (EU), France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States in North Macedonia have published about 7,500 posts in 2021 and 2022, of which 3,943 are from the Russian diplomatic missions in the country. Ahead of North Macedonia with the most posts of Russian diplomats is Romania, where 7193 have been published in the last two years, which is about 70 percent of the total posts of all accredited diplomatic missions in the country.
In terms of followers, the US Embassy has more with 120,000, compared to the Russian one, which counts only 11,809 followers. But things change when it comes to interaction with these embassies posts. Although it has significantly fewer followers, the Russian embassy has 295,899 interactions, a number more than that of the U.S. embassy, which has 203,218 interactions.
Based on these interactions – meaning, likes, comments and shares – the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in North Macedonia is also at the top of the Balkans when we analyze it per capita. Bulgaria has the most user interactions from posts on the Russian Embassy website, thus 2.3 million interactions, followed by Greece with 770,000, Romania with 517,000, and North Macedonia with 296,000. When this data is divided by the number of inhabitants, it turns out that in Bulgaria every third inhabitant is in some way involved with the posts of Russian diplomatic missions, in Macedonia every seventh inhabitant, in Greece every 14th inhabitant, and Romania every 35th inhabitant.
In terms of the number of news items published in the media that originated from one of the state media controlled by the Kremlin regime, Bulgaria and Serbia top the list. In 2022, the media in Bulgaria published 6,090 texts, with RT, RIA Novosti, Sputnik or TASS as the source, while in Serbia 4,674 articles were published. Third on the list are Montenegro with 3,211 titles, Croatia with 2,362, Bosnia and Herzegovina with 1,349, Kosovo with 1,157, Albania with 649 and North Macedonia with 615 texts, having as reference the media controlled by the regime in Russia.
Based on these figures, it seems that Russia is using more Facebook and other social networks to exert influence in North Macedonia, and less professional media. The period of strong control of professional media by the government of Nikola Gruevski from 2008 to 2018 has weakened public trust in them, making them less attractive for spreading Russian propaganda. Even in North Macedonia, there are no media outlets, traditional or online, owned by a Russian company or citizen. Influence through open and closed groups, pages, influencers, and various forums on Facebook is considered the most efficient strategy, especially in spreading fake news.
Since joining NATO in March 2020, North Macedonia has been a constant target of hybrid warfare. And it will remain so in the next period. The reason for this is the fact that this country, as the youngest NATO member, is considered the “Achilles’ heel” of this Alliance.
Writes: Xhelal Neziri, associate of The Geopost from North Macedonia