U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis attended a welcoming ceremony in Skopje last Monday, where he warned that Russia is attempting to meddle in the September 30th referendum, in order to change the Balkan country’s name from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to the Republic of North Macedonia. “We do not want to see Russia doing there what they have tried to do in so many other countries,” he said, referring to various Kremlin disinformation campaigns in the post-Soviet space as well as in broader Europe.
It is widely reported that pro-Russian groups are actively working to undermine national consensus through cyber disinformation and funnelling funds to buy off individuals in political groups. Russian disinformation works by suppressing voter turnout by manipulating public narratives on the subject, often utilizing what is deemed as ‘fake news’ and social media ‘trolling.’ U.S. officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin accelerated his hybrid warfare campaigns in southeast Europe from 2014 onwards, after illegally annexing Crimea from Ukraine. Russian officials, on the other hand, completely deny and deflect the accusations back onto the West.
FYROM is particularly vulnerable to being exploited of its social, political, and cultural tensions with Greece. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government have long pushed for the Prespa Agreement. Yet, nationalists in both Greece and FYROM have continued to vehemently oppose any constructive dialogue. The name change, encouraged by a number of world leaders — including U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — would open the door for FYROM to join NATO and the European Union. Greece had previously blocked all attempts in a decades-long stalemate because it objected to any reference of ‘Macedonia’ in FYROM’s name, as it alludes to territorial and identity ownership of what Greece considers part of its own nationality. However, with the unprecedented compromise regarding the name change, this conflict could finally come to an end.
“We’re just looking at how do they shape their own future… not shaped by someone else,” declared Mattis in Skopje. One of Putin’s top foreign policy objectives is indeed intended to oppose NATO encroaching at his doorstep by any means necessary. In fact, just this July, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) exposed a Russian oligarch with strong ties to the Kremlin, who actively funded Macedonian politicians and protesters in creating domestic instability over the upcoming referendum.
Mattis did contend that it is unclear how effective Moscow’s efforts in Macedonia have been thus far. Nevertheless, any attempt to undermine the still-fragile democracies of southeast Europe through malicious cyber activity is strongly condemned. According to the New York Times, the U.S. Congress allocated $8 million in January of 2017 to fight Russian disinformation in Macedonia. However, the country still struggles with rule of law and rampant corruption, creating even more obstacles for public consensus on national questions. The U.S., in this regard, should continue funnelling not only security support against hybrid warfare, but also provide logistical support to organize effective usage of these funds.
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