The Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, continues to address the Balkans in the statements he gives to the media. In the last interview for the Russian news agency TASS, he says that the West manipulates the citizens of North Macedonia and Montenegro, turning them against Russia. According to him, there is a big difference between what “Montenegrins and Macedonians feel about Russia” and what “their politicians are forced by Brussels to do”. “This is an attempt to turn them into a ‘tool’ in the anti-Russian game,” Lavrov said.
In 2016, when a political structure was expected to come to power in North Macedonia that would resolve the name issue with Greece to become a member of NATO, Lavrov warned the authorities of the small Balkan state that with the integration into the Alliance the country was becoming a “legitimate target of Russia”.
Similar scenes that led to NATO integration, it seems that they will also be seen during the country’s progress towards the EU. The structures of Russia at that time operated from Serbia, but also from Bulgaria.
In this context, why is Russia so interested in the strained relations between Skopje and Sofia? Does Moscow see Bulgaria as a safer player in the Balkans than Serbia?
Apart from the creation of Saint Stephen’s Bulgaria in 1878, the answer can also be found in the post-World War II period (WWII).
A secret document of the American intelligence service CIA, dating from February 17, 1950, i.e. only five years after the end of the WWII, proves that the genesis of the problem between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia of that time, where Macedonia was also the sixth republic. So it is the first document of the American agency on this topic, which will continue to be monitored and reported in detail in the following decades.
At the beginning of the report, it is noted that the issue of Macedonia has started to be a primary topic for the entire communist government of Tito’s Yugoslavia due to its different views with the Soviet Union on this topic. The Soviet Union wanted to create a “Macedonian Republic”, which would also include the part of Pirin in Bulgaria and the Aegean in Greece. In a word, to bring to life what is known as the folklore project, or dream, for “Greater Macedonia”, which would include the borders of this country before the Bucharest Agreement of 1913, which ended the Second Balkan War between Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Romania, on one side, and Bulgaria, on the other. According to the Soviet plan, this republic would not be part of Yugoslavia, but part of Bulgaria.
According to the CIA Document, the annexation of North Macedonia and the attachment of this republic to Bulgaria would help the Bulgarian Communist Party to win the sympathy of the people. The Bulgarian communists did not enjoy much mass support at that time because of the small role they had played in the anti-fascist war, so they were empowered and ascended to power with the help of the Soviets. The goal of the Soviet Union did not stop in Bulgaria – Moscow planned to empower the communists in Italy as well, and then return the region of Trieste, also taken from Yugoslavia, to them. This entire Soviet project was not aimed at strengthening national ideologies, but the communist ideological one. Therefore, Tito opposed this policy by strengthening the nationalist feelings of ethnic Macedonians in this republic. At the same time, property was nationalized as a measure to narrow Moscow’s sphere of influence.
On the other hand, the document states that the Macedonian Communist Party was more in favor of the Soviet project and prepared a Resolution for this. Most of the Macedonian people, too. By uniting with Bulgaria, they thought they would win the complete Macedonian republic. Even the People’s Parliament of Macedonia was ready to vote to secede from the Yugoslav federation and join Bulgaria. However, they have estimated that it is early as Tito and the Yugoslav Communists were still powerful. The epilogue of all this was the dismissal and trial of many communist ministers and functionaries, some of whom fled to Bulgaria. Almost everyone who supported the Resolution was arrested. This is where the division of people in Macedonia into pro-Serb and pro-Bulgarians begins. The document states that more Macedonian communists have been pro-Bulgarian than pro-Serbian, more nationalist than communist or proletarian. Their ties with Sofia have been stronger than with Belgrade. With this, Macedonia has become a nightmare for Tito since the former has shown separatist tendencies. The people of this republic wanted to create “Greater Macedonia” which would be part of the Balkan Federation. The CIA report says that while Macedonian intellectuals have been associated with Bulgaria and the Soviet Union, most ordinary Macedonians have loved America. Most of them have had the desire to immigrate to the USA, and the new houses of most of them have been built from the money sent by their relatives who have immigrated to work and earn in the American soil.
If we return to the present, we can say that Moscow continues to support the old project by exerting influence on the parties that emerged from the Bulgarian communists, such as the BSP of President Rumen Radev. There are other actors in Sofia who are lured by Russia with this very offer – the return of North Macedonia to the Bulgarian sphere of influence. Ethnic Macedonians, meanwhile, are today more anti-Bulgarian than ever before. Most of the polls show that Serbia is perceived as their friendliest country. What changes the picture today compared to 1950 is the fact that both Bulgaria and North Macedonia are part of NATO. This fact further narrows the scope of Russian penetration, even though it continues to be powerful in both countries.
Written by: Xhelal Neziri – associate of The Geopost from North Macedonia