As Macedonians prepare for the most important vote in their nation’s history, scores of Facebook posts are urging voters to burn their ballots. Hundreds of new websites are calling for a boycott. And one news article, widely shared online, warns that Google may eliminate Macedonian from its list of recognized languages, depending on the vote.
In a disinformation age, Macedonian and Western officials say the flurry of social media activity is just that — disinformation directed by Russian-backed groups trying to stoke fears and depress turnout in a vote that could put this Balkan nation on a path to join NATO.
And the West is trying to fight back, albeit unevenly: A congressional effort to confront Russian disinformation has been hamstrung by divisions in Washington. To fill the void, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will travel to Skopje, the country’s capital, on Monday to show American support. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO general secretary, has already visited, as have Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Politico gives a context and reports that the Russian Embassy in Skopje is a spies’ nest, the third and smallest vertex in a triangle that also includes Belgrade and Sofia. Led by the mythical Oleg Scherbak, a classmate of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the embassy developed a powerful espionage machine. Officially it boasts five intelligence officers: one specializes in the energy question, and two speak perfect Albanian and are in charge of dealing with the national minority.
Is this a game — a new Great Game — between Russia and the West? Not quite. There’s another player at the table.
The next day I meet another of the main political figures fighting the name change. As we sit down sipping caffè freddos in the pleasant Manda Kafe, Ljupco Palevski tells me Macedonia is a battlefield between two powers. On one side, the West. On the other … China.
China or Russia? I ask. “Russia is only muscles. The mind is China, and the money is China.” The Chinese wants to build a road, he explains, a new Silk Road between Central Europe and their port in Greece. “The way to stop this road is to create conflict in the Balkans.”