Moscow has opened a new front in the Balkans with
a concerted effort to inflame Macedonia’s political crisis. The goal
is not only to diminish prospects for Macedonia’s entry into NATO
and the EU, but even more menacingly to turn the Balkans into a
conflict zone that illustrates Western weakness and intensifies
When Yugoslavia began its violent breakup in 1991,
the main danger to regional stability was a potential conflict over
Macedonia that would pull in several neighboring states. Twenty-six
years later the prospect of a wider conflict generated from
Macedonia is again looming across the region.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov precipitated
the most recent domestic crisis when he blocked the formation of a
Social Democratic (SDSM) government. Following tight elections in
December, SDSM managed to assemble a viable coalition with an
Albanian partner – the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI). If
Ivanov’s decision is not unblocked by parliament the crisis will
deepen and take on ethnic dimensions.
Ivanov objected to the Albanian Platform – an
agreement signed between three Albanian parties containing specific
conditions for entering the government. Its main elements are
recognition of Albanian as a second official state language and more
equal distribution of resources to the country's regions, including
western districts of Macedonia where Albanians predominate.
The Albanian DUI decided to enter a coalition with
the opposition SDSM for two main reasons: dissatisfaction with the
governing VMRO party in implementing Albanian demands and VMRO’s
involvement in a major wiretapping scandal and other abuses that
further estranged Macedonia from NATO and EU membership. VMRO does
not want to lose control of the government as its leaders could face
criminal indictments. But without an Albanian partner, VMRO does not
have the required majority of seats to form a new administration.
There are two main risks for conflict escalation:
political divisions between Slavic Macedonians and ethnic
polarization between Macedonians and Albanians. In the most
hazardous scenario, Albanian leaders may abandon the planned
coalition and turn to other political solutions such as territorial
federalization if the political standoff continues indefinitely.
VMRO has tried to distract attention from
investigations into its abuse of power by claiming that the Albanian
Platform would shatter national unity and destroy the state. It also
claims that Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who hosted the
signing of the Platform in Tirana, is interfering in Macedonia’s
internal affairs and pursuing a greater Albanian program. And this
is where Moscow enters the stage.
For the Kremlin, Macedonia provides another
valuable inroad for widening national rifts in the Balkans and
spawning anti-Western sentiments. Its revved up propaganda offensive
contains two major messages, which may be contradictory but are
designed to appeal to different audiences. For their own citizens
and foreign partners such as Serbia and Greece, Russian officials
dismiss Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova as American
“projects” designed to serve U.S. and NATO interests. All three
states are depicted as artificial and temporary constructs and must
be blocked from entering both NATO and the EU.
Simultaneously, to appeal to the Macedonian
public, Moscow claims that an anti-national coup is being conducted
in Skopje under U.S. direction. Even more menacingly, according to
Russian disinformation that penetrates the region’s media and social
networks, Washington supports carving up Macedonia and Serbia and
creating a greater Albania. The Kremlin thereby presents itself as a
defender of the Macedonian state in combating Albanian irredentism
and alleged Muslim terrorism.
The more desperate VMRO becomes in its exclusion
from government, the more it is likely to buy into Kremlin
accusations against Albanians. Such an approach could become a
self-fulfilling prophecy if Albanian parties are excluded from
government while the two major Macedonian parties continue to
battle, leaving the country adrift from Western institutions and
exposed to Russian intrigues.
VMRO has organized anti-SDSM protests in most
major cities and formed “patriotic associations” that fulminate
against purported Albanian domination of the country and condemn
subversive foreign influences. Such movements are ripe for Moscow’s
covert manipulation, including through funding and media exposure.
A conflict within Macedonia may rapidly escalate
to involve both Albania and Kosova in protecting their ethnic
kindred, revive the Serbian government’s regional anti-Albanian
campaign, and potentially draw NATO members Bulgaria, Greece, and
Turkey into the fray on the side of different protagonists. Any
territorial demands by one party will precipitate revisionist
demands by others with the potential for outright violence.
To defuse the Macedonian crisis and prevent any
destabilizing spillovers, Washington needs to become more active and
visible. The Balkan region is fast developing into a test for the
Trump administration in wielding both carrots and sticks to defend
Western interests and European security.
Strong diplomacy can be combined with a pledge to
finally bring Macedonia into NATO regardless under which provisional
name. This will necessitate the unblocking of two obstacles to
Macedonia’s progress: the obstruction of a new bi-ethnic coalition
government that remains committed to state integrity and Greece’s
veto of Macedonian membership in NATO. Such moves would dissuade
both pan-Albanian and pan-Serbian temptations. And most importantly
for the United States, it will curtail Russian meddling and
provocations in a still volatile peninsula.