The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement on June 6 denying that it interferes in Macedonia’s internal affairs and blaming Brussels and Washington for the long-standing political crisis in the country.
The statement comes the day after nearby Montenegro joined Nato - a move that Russia has long attempted to block - and highlights the struggle for influence in the Western Balkans between Moscow on the one hand and the EU and US on the other.
The ministry statement was published in response to reports from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) that Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in “in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia as part of a region-wide endeavour to stop Balkan countries from joining Nato”.
The OCCRP report is “yet another awkward attempt to shift responsibility for the deep crisis in Macedonia. Moscow is groundlessly accused of funding Macedonian media to spread disinformation that works in Russia’s interests,” the statement says.
It also claims the OCCRP’s “main sponsors” - US government agencies and George Soros’s fund (the body later confirmed it receives funding from USAID and Soros’s Open Society Foundations) - “have openly participated in orchestrating events in Macedonian politics and are now hurtling accusations at Russia”.
A separate statement distributed to local media by the Russian embassy in Skopje accuses the west of “shameless interference in the internal affairs of Macedonia”, according to the Macedonian Information Agency (MIA).
On June 5, OCCRP and its partners NOVA TV and the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) released a report that claims Russian agents meddled in Macedonia’s internal affairs.
The conclusion is based on intelligence documents obtained by its researchers, which, it says, provide one of the clearest views yet of Russia’s ongoing efforts to increase its influence in the former Yugoslavia and pry the region away from the West.
According to OCCRP, the leaked documents also describe efforts by Serbian intelligence to support anti-Western and pro-Russian nationalists in Macedonia.
“The Russian and Serbian efforts have contributed to a complex political crisis in the country, which is riven by deep divisions between its mainstream political parties and tensions with its restive Albanian minority. Ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of the population and their demands for autonomy have previously led the country to the brink of civil war,” reads the report.
Russia has increasingly weighed in on the Macedonian political conflict on the side of the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, which ruled the country from 2006 until the appointment of a new government led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) at the end of May.
Earlier statements from the Russian foreign ministry have accused the EU and US of interference in Macedonia and expressed support for VMRO following its victory in the December 2016 election. VMRO, however, was unable to find a coalition partner and instead a new government was formed by the SDSM backed by two parties representing the ethnic Albanian minority.
The foreign ministry statement continues in this vein, claiming there has been “unceremonious pressure from Brussels and Washington on Macedonia’s legitimate leaders”.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued the US and some EU countries were trying to recover their position in the region, Tass reported.
"We have already clarified our position on dragging Montenegro into Nato," Lavrov said. "Our western counterparts, first and foremost the United States and the leading EU countries, are obsessed with the idea of once again mastering the Balkans … The EU has some plans in this regard. Negotiating processes are underway which particularly involve Serbia, including Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro.