Russia's Foreign Ministry on Monday dismissed as baseless accusations that Moscow has been meddling in Macedonia's internal affairs.
The Kremlin response followed a report in The Guardian on Sunday that says documents leaked by Macedonian intelligence agents to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) show that "Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia."
The leaked documents indicate that efforts to isolate Macedonia from Western influence are part of a broader Russian campaign to stop all republics of the former Yugoslavia from joining NATO and succumbing to Western political interests.
It was shortly after Greece blocked Macedonia's bid to join NATO in 2008, OCCRP says, that Russia's foreign policy, “in concert with its energy strategy,” sought to control “strategic energy resources through partnership with the Balkan countries” and to make Macedonia “exclusively dependent.”
The leaked files also describe how the Kremlin conducted espionage, stating that three agents from Russia's SVR foreign intelligence service — formerly known as the Soviet-era KGB — “are based in Skopje, and overseen by the SVR's sister station in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.”
OCCRP also says Russia's embassy in Macedonia houses a quartet of Russian military intelligence (GRU) agents whose “activities are coordinated from the GRU's base in Sofia, Bulgaria.” And It says journalists for Russia's TASS state news agency and officials from Rossotrudnichestvo, which promotes Russian culture and interests abroad, collaborated with Russian spies.
A Washington-based cultural center funded by Rossotrudnichestvo was investigated by the FBI in 2013 for attempting to recruit Americans as spies.
Sunday's Guardian piece on OCCRP findings are “nothing but another clumsy attempt to shift responsibility for bringing about a profound crisis of the Macedonian state,” said a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry information and press department.
“Hollow accusations against Moscow for funding Macedonian media with the purpose to spread disinformation in Russian interests are stemming from an organization whose main sponsors are U.S. state structures and the George Soros foundation.”
The statement goes on to accuse EU and American actors of failing to “condemn the infamous ‘Tirana platform,’ which is a manifestation of the ideology of Greater Albania” — a reference to Macedonia's domestic ethnic issues. Part of a recent coalition deal to elect an ethnic Albanian to be legislative speaker led to protests by nationalists who stormed parliament and beat some deputies, including Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.
On Tuesday, Macedonia's Ministry of Foreign Affair issued vaguely worded response reaffirming its “strong strategic commitment to pursue EU and NATO membership.”
“We will maintain constructive relations, based on good will, with all our partners and friends of the Republic of Macedonia, including our friends from the Russian Federation,” the statement said.
Risk of 'serious deterioration'
In an interview with VOA's Bosnian Service on Thursday, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Yee said Balkan politicians seeking EU and NATO integration need to make “hard sacrifices and reforms necessary to help their citizens move closer to Europe.”
Yee added that the United States remain a committed partner for countries wishing to join the Euro-Atlantic community, but “it is up to the leaders to deliver on their commitments to their people.”
Yee's comments come at a time when countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Macedonia, and Serbia are stumbling on the path to European and NATO integration, despite widespread popular support. Well-educated Balkan youth in particular have been emigrating in response to political dysfunction, lack of employment opportunities, decreasing freedoms and an abandonment of hope for a better future.
In Bosnia, Yee said, “we have a situation in which the electoral system is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, in violation of several decisions of the Constitutional Court of BiH, and that a major city [Mostar] has not had elections in eight years.” Lack of structural and institutional reforms, he warned, could result in “serious deterioration in BiH.”
On Saturday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier addressed a European Union-backed meeting of Balkan leaders in Slovenia designed to boost European cooperation in the troubled region.
Despite Europe's own problems, he warned, what happens in the Balkans “is going to concern us and is going to have an impact on us.”
“Peace, stability and economic development in the region should be high on our agenda,” he was quoted as saying in a Reuters report. “We have not forgotten the conflict. We have not forgotten the violence in this region.”
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo make up the western Balkans, where the wars in the 1990s left some 100,000 people dead and millions homeless.
The EU has hoped that the prospect of EU membership will help steady and prevent conflicts in the Balkans.
However, there have been concerns that the bloc has been too busy with its own problems, enabling Russia to increase its traditional influence in the region.
This report originated in VOA's Bosnian Service. VOA's Macedonian and Albanian services contributed reporting. Some information is from Reuters.