Руското влијание во Северна Македонија е големо и главните столбови се одредени партии во државава- вели политичкиот аналитичар Алберт Муслиу во интервју со Биљана Секуловска.
The Russian influence in North Macedonia is considerably large and the main pillars are certain parties in the country – says the political analyst Albert Musliu in an interview with Biljana Sekulovska.
Albert Musliu is a prominent political analyst, CEO of ADI (Association for Democratic Initiatives) and CEO of Balkan Network for Human Rights
Транскрипт на интервјуто/Transcript of the interview
Biljana Sekulovska: Mr. Musliu, Russian influence has been identified in North Macedonia, especially in 2017. Where do you see the main pillars of Russian influence in North Macedonia today?
Albert Musliu: I see these pillars in some political parties and in all those who declare themselves as Eurosceptics and choose to promote alternative opportunities or options for the future of this country. I must point out that North Macedonia, Serbia, and even Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, have some characteristics that do not allow direct Russian influence. In Serbia, the pro-Russian orientation’s characteristics are not far from the characteristics of national pride and national orientation. Serbia’s entire history since 1999, its relations with NATO, and the bombing have given an extra boost to pro-Russian politicians. Even a meeting between the president of Serbia with President Putin is considered a national achievement.
In our country, the structure of the population is such that Russian influence cannot be spread only as Russian because real Russian influence among Albanians can only be discreet and wrapped in another form. Any public influence of the Russian state on Albanian intellectuals would have negative implications. So, I think they have to associate forces with some other Eastern elements if they want to influence the Albanians. For example, the Ottoman element that wants to expand its influence in the Balkans, or some other element from the Middle East. All of the countries with a relatively similar narrative try to expand their influence in Macedonia. The Russian Federation has the same narrative, so these countries are united and have the same goal, which is to distance North Macedonia from the Euro-Atlantic goals.
Biljana Sekulovska: Given that there is Euroscepticism in North Macedonia, do you think that Russia has successfully influenced the Macedonian society, precisely because its goal is to distance North Macedonia through Russian influence from its NATO and EU aspirations?
Albert Musliu: North Macedonia is influenced by the mistakes made by the European Union. The procrastination of the country’s membership in the European Union that is persisting for more than three decades due to disagreements with Greece and the social catharsis we went through with the closure of the dispute with Greece opened new wounds in the last two years. For example, the issue with Bulgaria. It adds fuel to the fire bent by Euroscepticism, which has nothing to do with pro-Russian sentiment, but there is a possibility to become connected with that sentiment. We see the narrative. The first thing that these pro-Russian or pro-Eastern tendencies try to do so they can expand their influence is motivate Euroscepticism by saying that the Western powers have not been sympathetic to this country and its people, mentioning various historical agreements that have jeopardized the Macedonians or the Albanians.
By linking the irresponsible behavior of some European countries to our European integration path, it opens space for them to spread their influence. Those two influences are opposite. You cannot be pro-Russian and shaved. Those orientations are exclusive. Although they try to exert that influence a little more subtly, they point out that countries such as Germany and Hungary cooperate with Russia, and they do not say that the European orientation does not exclude cooperation with Russia or the whole East, but that it means a strategic orientation of the country in that direction. These individual states normally cooperate with all countries, including Russia, Turkey, and the Middle East. The narrative is similar – it may be in Albanian for the pro-Middle East population, it may be in Macedonian for the pro-Russians, but that is the narrative. The idea is to start questioning the EU’s tendencies. For example, none of them indicates that almost all European countries except Bulgaria insist that we hold the first intergovernmental conference and unblock our European integration processes. The European Union has its norms, principles, and consensus. Perhaps these protective mechanisms are weaker for smaller countries like North Macedonia. Maybe these mechanisms did not allow us to become a member of NATO in the past, but after we became a member of NATO, our voice and the voice of France, the USA, or Great Britain have the same value. Those who are anti-NATO and anti-EU, and unfortunately, those who are pro-EU, are not giving a suitable explanation of the advantage of being a NATO member to the citizens. We may be obstructed at the moment, but when we become an EU member, we will have the biggest protection mechanism, considering that North Macedonia is a small country in a group of immense and strong countries.
Biljana Sekulovska: At the beginning of this interview, you detected certain political parties and politicians who are under Russian influence and who are continuously spreading it in North Macedonia.
Albert Musliu: There are analysts, public figures, politicians, and political parties. I must point out that they are marginal. There is not a single political party in North Macedonia that is publicly pro-Russian or that has managed to enter the Macedonian Parliament, which is an encouraging sign, although that does not mean that this will not change in the future. At present, there is not any party that identifies with Russian politics that has received as many as 10,000 votes. So, neither of these parties can become part of the Macedonian parliament and promote their encouraging narrative in the parliament. But on the other hand, all these subsequent disappointments – first with Greece, then with the blockade by France, and now, the absurd blockade by Bulgaria – all these disappointments can change the public discourse and the narrative in the society and possibly open the ground for these political parties. For them, even entering the parliament would be a great success. We have a political party with a vague orientation that is anti-NATO. It has already entered the Macedonian parliament. It did not enter because of its pro-Russian orientation, but more than half of its narrative is Eurosceptic, anti-NATO, and it is against all the agreements that this country has made, which define it as a European-oriented state. So, the pro-Russian discussion might enter the parliament indirectly.
In my opinion, this is due to the citizens’ disappointment in the continuous delay of the negotiations with the European Union and the feeling that it is not keeping its word when it has to deliver something. Perhaps this other pro-EU group is not elaborating on all these facts – that the EU is here for us and several serious European politicians are supporting and encouraging us throughout the entire process. The Prime Minister of the most skeptical country (The Netherlands) regarding the enlargement of the European Union visited our country. We also have the support of the longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was very clear about our European integration. Even the new German Chancellor supports our membership. All these elements are present, but on the other hand, the opposing narrative is much more concentrated and organized. The other side is more liberal and original. It is not a narrative that someone controls, but it is an original narrative that people are incessantly promoting. In this battle between organization and disorganization, there is always a tendency that those who function in an organized manner will remain superior.
Biljana Sekulovska: I asked this question because Prime Minister Zaev stated that there were certain funds from foreign countries during the local elections. He did not define or emphasize these countries, but the suspicion remained that he was speaking of Hungary or Russia.
Albert Musliu: In any case, when the Prime Minister stated this, our society was preoccupied with other issues – Zaev’s resignation, the new majority, etc. I believe that the government and other state institutions should act responsibly in the government and clear up that matter. If the Prime Minister was encouraged to speak of this matter publicly, there are some facts and evidence behind it and I think that they should be carefully processed because this will not simply stop if it is not handled by state institutions. It should be discussed publicly, and the authorities should process it because it is inadmissible and contrary to the publicly expressed will of the citizens in this country, and that is the Euro-Atlantic integration.
Biljana Sekulovska: How do you perceive the influence of the media and the media propaganda regarding the Russian influence through social networks and web portals in North Macedonia? Let’s not forget the scandal in Veles regarding the Russian influence on the US elections.
Albert Musliu: This is clearly an organized system. It is not a system that dwells on coincidence. It is a system that starts through web portals that will later start spreading misinformation that will reach the wider media, so a plethora of people gets involved in using this narrative. Later, it becomes news, no matter if it is true or false. It is a whole system. We cannot fight against it as individuals. In our partner countries, there are entire departments that deal with such issues. One should oppose false news that can hurt the social development with the truth, and not just by saying that the media is dishonest. On the other hand, we need to organize ourselves institutionally. We saw that even in Bulgaria, there was a reaction from the institutions to the offensive attitude about the accident that happened there. In our country, these situations are adjusting very poorly. Perhaps, free-minded citizens, the media, and some journalists are partly to blame for this because freedom of expression does not mean absolute freedom. In my opinion, this should be organized and sanctioned, and open-mindedness should be allowed to flourish. Open-mindedness flourished in Nazi Germany in the early 1930s but ended with World War II. We have such narratives in our society, and five to ten years ago they were even more present in society. All this is tolerated, and while it is being tolerated, these organized structures are introducing it in their programs with the intention to multiply and abuse it.
Biljana Sekulovska: North Macedonia is on a thin wire with its relations with Russia. There is the expulsion of Russian diplomats in Skopje. Official Moscow did the same reciprocally and expelled Macedonian diplomats from Moscow. Practically, we are waging a Cold War if we perceive this issue through that prism.
Albert Musliu: Whatever happened on April 27th, the expelling of Russian diplomats or officers did not proceed in secret and for no reason. Surely, if this move was wrong, their reaction would have been much stronger. The fact that they expelled Macedonian diplomats reciprocally is part of the balance they maintain, but the very fact that they do not react through public appearances or statements that the diplomats have been expelled unnecessarily indicates that all those expulsions were proceeded because of serious reasons. I do not believe that our diplomacy would allow such a luxury to expel Russian diplomats without valid reasons. So, those expulsions happened because of indications that they have exceeded their powers and have not been acting in accordance with the legal and international standards that define their rights and obligations. On the other hand, there were not any violent reactions, but a classic reciprocal expulsion. This indicates that their tendencies were contrary to the norms, and certainly part of the extent of their influence was being used to slow down or possibly reorient our international tendencies from west to east, i.e., to Russia and other countries.
Biljana Sekulovska: Do you think that expulsion is the only way to prevent Russian influence, even though the Macedonian official policy is aware of that propaganda, given that other diplomats from North Macedonia have not been expelled?
Albert Musliu: That is not the only way. Another plausible way is to expel diplomats who exceed their powers, as well as to control the flow of funds and its direction, or if there are subversive activities, such as the ones that took place in Veles. An encouraging step for us as a society would be if Prime Minister Zaev’s statement on the elections day is further processed through the system and the judiciary because that type of demeanor is not permissible. We also have a specific law on financing political parties. Since we are a member of NATO, we have had serious help from much stronger countries during this whole process. I think such issues would not be ignored in the future. It is much harder to break that system now than it was in 2017. Today, we are members of a serious system that knows how to share and intercept any information.
There were rumors about suspected terrorist activity these days, but I am certain that our country did not receive the news in a letter, but through channels of cooperation. As a society, we are now much more secure than we were before we became a member of NATO. After all, it is the most powerful military alliance in the world. Although we, as a small country, take this membership nonchalantly, it is a serious benefit and it is certainly of great help from the aspect of security or the fight against so-called “anti-elements” in our society.
Biljana Sekulovska: Russia is spreading its influence through the Russian Cultural Center. For several years now, thousands of students are learning the Russian language for free. They do not have to pay any money to learn Russian, and with that, some serious influence is exerted later.
Albert Musliu: Russia’s cultural influence is not something that is illegitimate. Russia has an excessive culture and considering that it is Slavic, it is not foreign to us. I believe that the state should interfere if politics that might influence our strategic orientations start to become noticed in Russia’s cultural influence. After all, people are reading and commenting on Dostoevsky’s work even in the United States, or the “balalaika” and the renowned Russian dolls. However, we have to make a slight distinction. Of course, our European partners should also offer such opportunities in their cultural centers. English is being taught everywhere – starting from primary school, and I believe that Russia cannot balance its influence here. Russia also provides student scholarships, which is also an extended part of Russian influence. Cultural influence is not something this country should be afraid of. There is also Turkish, Oriental, and Latin American influence in our country. All of these impacts should not be seen as risky. However, if a narrative that would distance us from our European partners starts to interfere, then the state should find ways to intervene.
Biljana Sekulovska: Do you think that investing in free language courses can later lead to spreading propaganda?
Albert Musliu: I do not believe that learning a language can lead to propaganda. For example, I cannot be influenced by all the languages I know. Hypothetically, if the European Union treats us as correctly as it should, considering that we have tried so hard to become part of that European family, the chances of spreading propaganda will certainly diminish. Our society, and especially the younger generations are pro-West. Of course, cultural and literary romance are part of that. Everyone reads empty books. Knowing how to speak a foreign language is beneficial in the 21st century. It makes you more competent. There are young people here who learn Chinese, which is not an easy language. They do not learn it to become Chinese exponents, but to become more competent participants in the labor market. It is not disputable if cultural and linguistic values are promoted. On a global level, the Russian cultural influence cannot compete with the English cultural expansion. They won the fight against the Francophonie, let alone the Russian culture. But, on the other hand, the promotion of Russian culture is a legitimate right of the Russian state. Consequently, young people can learn from a large number of writers, artists, composers, etc. So, I do not see any serious risk in shifting the social course of our society.
Biljana Sekulovska: Mr. Musliu, thank you for this conversation.
Albert Musliu: Thank you too.
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