Russian propaganda narratives are increasingly influencing anti-European sentiment in North Macedonia

 “NATO membership is harmful, expensive, but also treacherous, as Greece takes control of North Macedonia’s airspace.” “Russia has military and scientific superiority over NATO and the EU”. “The military power of the EU and the US cannot withstand the military power of Russia.” “Russia and China have handled the COVID-19 pandemic crises best, these two countries are the most solidarity, while the West is selfish to help others.” “The West is divided in its efforts to make decisions against Russian aggression in Ukraine.” “The sanctions imposed by the EU, the US and other countries against Russia will not be effective and will be canceled because only Western countries will suffer from these sanctions.” “Putin is a strong leader who defends the interests of the Russian people and the entire Orthodox world.”

Such narratives have been prevalent in the North Macedonian public since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and declared the terrible war that is now taking place in Ukraine.

What are narrative and propaganda?

Narrative and propaganda are not the same things as most people think. 

A narrative is a set of interconnected real or fictional events, facts, or impressions that make up a narrative text.

Propaganda is a form of communication aimed at disseminating a worldview, theory, statement, facts, arguments, rumors, and other information in society to influence public opinion in favor of a particularly common cause or public position.

What kind of propaganda is active in Macedonia? 

Data on media ownership from the Central Register of Macedonia (CRM) show that no media outlet in the country is owned by a Russian citizen or company. However, an analysis of four Macedonian-language media outlets shows that Russian narratives are more than present in the local media landscape. For this analysis, coverage was monitored on the portals Russia Beyond (RB), Think, Antropol, and Kukuriku. These online media outlets promoted Russia’s position on aggression against Ukraine, Russia’s position on NATO and the EU, and at the same time glorified the figure of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s openly expressed position on major geopolitical issues is mainly represented by the portal owned by Daniel Kralewski. This portal was created on February 28, 2022, just one day after the start of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The portal is owned by the ANTROPOL Skopje association, and is owned by the RADAN ADVERTAJZING DOOEL Skopje service company.

Russia Beyond (RB) is a multilingual online media outlet that promotes Russia’s interests in several language areas. According to the media outlet’s description, RB is an international multimedia project run by the autonomous non-profit organization TV-Novosti. However, Western media called RB another tool of Moscow’s propaganda, which differs from state media in its coverage but plays the same role. This media outlet has publications in a total of 14 languages, including Macedonian.

The local pro-Russian media do not hide their preference for two marginal parties on the political scene in North Macedonia – the first is Levica and Dimitar Apasiev, which has 2 MPs, and the second is Janko Bacev’s United Macedonia, which is not currently represented in the parliament.

In addition to the portals, Facebook pages and groups are dynamic and quite active. They were most active in the direction of deepening disputes with Bulgaria, especially after an agreement was reached to lift the veto to start negotiations with the EU in mid-2022. The protests in Skopje against this agreement were promoted by such online media, which aimed to turn these protests into ethnic clashes between Macedonians and Albanians.

In contrast to the Russian-controlled media, the North Macedonian media outlets are less involved in promoting Russian interests in the country and the region. Some of these media outlets have been more reluctant to spread narratives about Russia and more open to news that promotes the constructive role of NATO and the EU after the adoption of the Prespa Agreement and constitutional amendments in 2018. Overall, RB focused on publishing commentary, interviews, analysis, and news that emphasized Russia’s military superiority over NATO countries and Russia’s cultural proximity to the Macedonian people.

Propaganda against the EU and NATO

Russian propaganda has sought to create narratives aimed at damaging the image of NATO and the EU and strengthening the Macedonian people’s ties to Russia. Since its inception, North Macedonia has had a strategic orientation toward integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. Its membership in NATO on March 30, 2020, and the date of the start of membership negotiations with the EU were conditioned by the signing of the Prespa Agreement with Greece. The compromise process, negotiations, signing of the agreement, referendum, adoption of amendments to the Constitutional Amendment Agreement, and the process of its implementation was accompanied by powerful anti-Western propaganda. After the adoption of the constitutional amendments resulting from the Prespa Agreement, the pro-Russian narrative consisted of information about Russia’s superiority over NATO and the EU, especially before and after the start of the aggression against Ukraine.

As the Russian aggression against Ukraine entered its second year, it created a new geopolitical reality that transformed the media from an information tool into a sophisticated weapon. The Russian presence in the media space of North Macedonia has intensified since the beginning of the aggression against Ukraine in February this year. In parallel with the military operations on the ground, the parties also launched a media war to create a global audience in support of their agenda. In response to the intensification of this propaganda, the government banned Russian state media RT and Sputnik from being broadcast by cable operators in the country. However, Russian influence continued to spread through several Serbian and Bulgarian TV channels present on the country’s digital and cable platforms.

However, Russia’s influence through the construction of pro-Putin, anti-NATO, and anti-BD narratives remains a major challenge to the country’s security and democracy. Recent reliable polls show a significant increase in anti-European sentiment: 34% of North Macedonian citizens oppose EU integration. This is the highest percentage of anti-European sentiment in the Western Balkans, ahead of Serbia with 32%. This has naturally triggered a reaction in Brussels, especially in Skopje, where it seems that the media and the non-governmental sector, supported by European funds, have failed to produce the expected results.”

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