Putin’s Macedonian Gambit

Macedonia, a small, impoverished Balkan state, has appeared in the newspapers lately, which it seldom does outside of Southeastern Europe. Macedonia was the only Yugoslav republic to escape the collapse of Tito’s federation in the early 1990’s without bloodshed, but its history since then has been a tale of woes. As everywhere in the Balkans, crime, corruption and ethnic politicking have rendered Macedonia a less than fully functional state, and all-out war between the Slavic Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority was narrowly averted in 2001. Diplomatic intervention by NATO and the EU cooled heads and a bloody conflagration was headed off, but only just.

Now Macedonia is in turmoil again. Earlier this month, a massive cross-border raid led to the deaths of eight policemen and fourteen terrorists, said by the government in Skopje to be Albanian radicals who infiltrated the border city of Kumanovo to perpetrate mass murder. The country’s fragile ethnic balance has been thrown into chaos by the spectacular raid, the actual events of which remain shrouded in a good deal of mystery, in best Balkan fashion.

Macedonia has a long history of such never-solved major crimes. Back in 1995, President Kiro Gligorov, who got his country independence without bloodshed, was seriously injured by a car bomb, yet nobody was ever charged in the spectacular crime, though most Balkan spy-watchers detected more than a whiff of shadowy networks controlled by UDBA, Tito’s nasty secret police, behind the assassination attempt.

Similarly, it seems safe to expect that the real story behind the Kumanovo raid will remain shrouded in mystery, as some wish. In the absence of evidence, rumors have spread like wildfire. Most Slavic Macedonians attribute the attack to Albanian radicals bent on creating Greater Albania to include western Macedonia — it doesn’t help that some Albanian politicians state their goal openly — while most Albanians believe the raid was a “false flag” operation by Skopje to discredit them. Since false flag terrorism really does happen in the Balkans, it’s difficult to say with any certainty what really transpired in Kumanovo.

It should be noted that the Kumanovo atrocity was exceptionally well timed for Skopje, where the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is facing mass protests against crime and corruption during his near-decade in power. Confronted with public outrage, Gruevski has retreated into ethnic politics, per standard Balkan practice. On cue, the Kremlin has backed Skopje, suddenly remembering that they represent Russia’s Slavic Orthodox “brothers,” with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov bluntly stating this week, “The events in Macedonia are blatantly controlled from the outside.”

According to the Kremlin, Macedonia is being lined up by the Americans and NATO to be the next “color revolution” which, like the alleged “coup” in Kyiv early last year, will install a pro-Western government in power against the (alleged) popular will. It must be said that, as in Ukraine, Moscow is lining itself up with a coalition of corrupt cronies that, if widespread Balkan rumors are to be believed, is tracking to fall from power, and soon. The recent resignation of top officials, including Macedonia’s interior minister and intelligence chief, over revelations of their deep corruption has been taken as a bad sign by most impartial observers.

Never wanting to miss a crisis that could be geopolitically useful, the Kremlin has dispatched numerous “diplomats” — in reality, Russian intelligence officers — to their embassy in little Skopje, and they have been busy disseminating disinformation aimed at maligning the West and Macedonians who want a less corrupt government. A popular Russian rumor is that the Kumanovo terrorists were, in reality, American and British special forces who infiltrated Macedonia from the NATO base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel. Of course there is no evidence for this fairytale but that only makes it more popular among Macedonians who like spooky conspiracies.

Upping the ante in Kremlin Active Measures, to use the proper Chekist term, is a new piece in the right-wing Macedonian outlet Fakti by the Russian political strategist Sergei Markov, which posits a grand conspiracy theory about Western manipulation of recent Macedonian events. The root issue, he explains, is pipeline politics being orchestrated by the Americans and the Europeans, and Western intelligence is pulling the strings behind anti-government protests in Skopje, while NATO spy agencies were behind the Kumanovo terrorist raid. There is no evidence for any of this, but Markov goes one step further and explicitly fingers the National Security Agency and its partner the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, as the culprits behind the nefarious destabilization of Macedonia. Thanks to the Snowden Operation that Moscow has orchestrated over the last couple years, NSA is now the all-purpose boogeyman for Kremlin agitprop, though as the former technical director for NSA’s Balkan operations, I’m confident in stating that nobody at Fort Meade is “really” behind Macedonia’s grave crisis.

The Kremlin’s hand behind this Active Measure is revealed by the author of this hit-piece. Sergei Markov is not, as one might suspect, a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy monger, some sort of Russian Alex Jones webcasting from his basement. Instead, he is a very prominent Moscow academic and politician who just happens to be the guy Putin drags out to sound scholarly when propagating absurd Kremlin lies. He has denied that Moscow had anything to do with the assassination of FSB defector Sasha Litvinenko in London, while Tallinn has fingered him as a suspect in the massive 2007 cyber-attacks on Estonia; as a result, he has been banned from that country, and Ukraine has done the same over Markov’s vicious anti-Ukrainian statements. He has recently warned of deep Russophobia in Stockholm, threatening that Russia may start World War III if Moscow feels “backed into a corner” — by Sweden.

Moscow’s equally outlandish talking points in Macedonia have been made clear by Professor Markov. I explained a few weeks ago that Putin’s Kremlin has initiated a secret offensive in the Balkans, in both Bosnia and Macedonia, using Special War to open up another front as Europe slides towards greater crisis and perhaps wider war. Appealing to Slavic Orthodox “brothers” in Southeastern Europe, while sending spies and cash to stir up trouble, is a surefire way to exacerbate ethnic tensions in already damaged societies, but Moscow does not care about consequences. Russia seeks to cause problems for NATO and the EU in the Balkans, and it is doing so successfully. Shattering the fragile settlements of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession in the 1990’s, maintained with difficulty by the West, will be easy for the Russians. That the cost of this dirty and unnecessary war will be borne by innocent people in Southeastern Europe is no concern of Vladimir Putin’s.