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Putin's Prowl
Bear in the Balkans Sniffing at Macedonia

Could a scandal in Macedonia push the Balkan state towards Russia? An alleged whistleblower recently dropped “information bombs” on the country’s political scene that show near-total government corruption. Hundreds of thousands of leaked recordings paint a picture of bribery, purges of members of the political opposition from government jobs, the buying and selling of the judiciary, and so on. Foreign Affairs lays out the whole grimly unfolding story in this article, which we encourage you to read in full. Russia, for its part, is seizing the moment:

Since the crisis began, Macedonia has been distancing itself further from the EU and the West—President Gjorge Ivanov’s travel to Moscow for Victory in Europe Day is one indication of this trend. This comes after Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki expressed reservations about EU’s sanctions against Russia last September. Russia is wooing Macedonia for strategic reasons, as well, since Moscow is attempting to build natural gas pipelines to Western Europe that bypass Ukrainian territory. […]

However, there is little popular support in Macedonia for a reorientation toward Moscow. Unlike in Serbia, where many blame the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign for the loss of Kosovo, the majority of ethnic Macedonians regard the West favorably, believing that the United States was instrumental in keeping the country together during the 2001 armed conflict with ethnic Albanians and seeing membership in the EU as the top foreign policy objective of the country.

But for Gruevski, EU membership is a low priority. With his political and personal fortunes at stake, Russia’s friendship might prove irresistible to him as he frantically searches for ways to cling to power. This clash—between political and public wills—may pose a grave risk for the stability of the country.

From Russia, it must sometimes appear as if the West’s position in the eastern Mediterranean is falling apart. Even given this weekend’s election news, Erdogan’s Turkey is a less and less likely leader for a NATO country, Greece is in the hands of a pro-Russia, anti-EU party, and a number of other countries in and around the Balkans seem to be drifting away from European bureaucratic democracy and toward something like Putinism.

The counter to this would be an engaged western policy in the Balkans and elsewhere. But both the U.S. and the EU seem to be suffering from Balkan fatigue. It remains to be seen whether the Russian threat can accomplish what common sense and prudence failed to do: to energize Europeans and also Americans to work harder at the intractable and frustrating problems that the region contains.

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  • Fat_Man

    Once again. A worthless country, in an unimportant place. If the Russians want them, the Russians can have them.

    • Dan Greene

      Hey Fat Man,

      The State Department called and they’d like you to be our goodwill ambassador to Macedonia. Are you up for it?

  • Dan Greene

    Another cri de coeur from TAI about another impending disaster in another corner of the globe. You guys need to start taking something for these panic attacks.

    Of course, there isn’t really any move towards Russia in Macedonia. Gruevski wants to balance relations with all the big boys around him. But the real issue with Macedonia is barely mentioned here: Pipelines. If you take a look at a map of the Balkans, you see that Macedonia sits like a cork in a bottle between Albania to the West and Bulgaria to the East.

    In June 2014, a banking crisis emerged out of nowhere in Bulgaria. The Economist described it this way:

    “The central bank said runs on First Investment Bank (FIB) and Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), the country’s third and fourth largest lenders, in the past two weeks were part of a “deliberate and systematic attempt to destabilise Bulgaria’s banking system”. According to the authorities, criminals tried to disrupt the system by sending e-mails and text messages urging people to withdraw their funds from several large banks. The banking crisis was made worse by political instability. Bulgaria’s political parties recently agreed to a snap election and the Socialist-led government of the prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, is expected to resign soon. Mr Oresharski’s cabinet was in power for barely a year, plagued by street protests demanding its resignation and by a controversy over the South Stream gas pipeline. The attackers’ plot seemed to work, at first. On June 27th, rattled depositors withdrew around €400m ($547m) from FIB in a matter of hours. A week earlier, the central bank took control of CCB after customers rushed to withdraw their savings unnerved by media reports about one of its owners.”

    This engineered bank crisis played a key role in unseating the PM who had been a supporter of the South Stream pipeline and installing a replacement who was willing to toe the line against the pipeline. Putin then cancelled South Stream and replace it with Turk Stream in December 2014. Turk Stream runs under the Black Sea to European Turkey, but it may be linked into another pipeline that runs up through Greece and Serbia to Hungary and Austria and perhaps Italy. Albania will not host such a pipeline, and, as I showed above, Bulgaria, the desired route is now unavailable. That leaves little Macedonia as the key conduit into Central Europe.

    If you understand these facts, you understand the crisis that is now threatening Macedonia.

    Gruevski has survived one destabilization attempt already in February.

    Now, Gruevski is faced with the leaked recordings of his conversations. Of course, the notion that the leaker was a “whistle blower in the secret police” is absolute nonsense. I bet I know who he is. His initials are NSA (or maybe his good friend, GCHQ.) Of course, it does show some malfeasance on the part of the Gruevski government, but nothing we couldn’t (and don’t) excuse from much worse actors like el-Sisi.

    I don’t like the anti-Russia policy we have single-mindedly adopted, but clearly we are doubling down on it, so we’ll see how it turns out in Macedonia. Bottom line is that the pipeline is what this is about, not the fairy tale in the TAI piece.

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