By Benjamin Shultz and Snezhana Stefanovska Shultz
Macedonia is in a part of world that is often overlooked. Approximately the size of Vermont and with a population of around two million, the country is impoverished, landlocked, and isolated in a corner of Europe that relatively few people visit.
While fellow ex-Yugoslav republics Croatia and Slovenia are now part of the European Union, Macedonia remains on Europe’s cultural, economic, and political periphery. As such, it is a country that rarely enters the international news cycle, much less that of the United States.
That changed in November 2016, when journalists descended upon the industrial town of Veles after a Buzzfeed investigation found that it was a leading hub of fake news production favoring the Trump campaign.
Some of the more than 140 websites traced to Veles attracted hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook. With clickbait headlines like “Pope Francis Forbids Catholics from Voting for Hillary” and “Proof Surfaces that Obama Was Born in Kenya, Trump was Right All Along,” the stories generated tens of thousands of shares.
After the U.S. presidential election, the Buzzfeed investigation itself went viral. Mainstream platforms like NBC News and the BBC as well as popular culture media like Wired Magazine and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert weighed in on the issue.
As the story unfolded, it became apparent that the driving force behind the creation of fake news was economic gain rather than political interference. Those responsible confessed that they had also attempted to lure supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but quickly abandoned their efforts after failing to generate enough revenue.
Still, the idea that a group of teenagers from an obscure part of Europe could influence the U.S. presidential election gained salience near the end of 2016, especially as allegations of Russian meddling and interference began swirling.
The production of fake news in Macedonia and the ongoing U.S. investigations into Russian meddling are unrelated, and the extent to which either phenomenon influenced the results of the 2016 election is unclear. In a strange confluence of events, however, Russia has been involved in Macedonian politics for quite some time. The tactics they employed, such as promoting highly partisan and sensationalist stories on conservative outlets, reflect those used to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States.
As a sign of the unprecedented political moment in which the country now finds itself, the Russian playbook to garner influence in foreign politics has found a receptive audience in certain sectors of the Republican Party, and Macedonia has found itself in the middle.
Russia and the Balkans
With a population of only two million, a low GDP, and no significant natural resources, Macedonia is an unlikely target for Russian political meddling. At the same time, it is one of a handful of European countries that are neither in NATO nor the European Union, which affords Russia an opportunity to counter Western hegemony on the continent by disrupting attempts to expand the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
Russia’s campaign of influence has been especially effective in Macedonia, where leaked documents reveal that the Russian Embassy has conducted “strong subversive and intelligence activity” for the past nine years.
During that time, the Kremlin had a ready and willing partner in VMRO-DPMNE (known simply as VMRO), Macedonia’s largest conservative political party that dominated the government between 2006 and 2016.
Nikola Gruevski, the party’s leader and Macedonia’s prime minister during that period, made Russian cultural propaganda a central component of his political agenda. After gaining almost complete control over the country’s media outlets, he used them to promote the cultural worldview that Putin champions, particularly the idea of a pan-Slavic identity based on ethno-nationalism and adherence to traditional social values. The narrative also presents the Eastern Orthodox church, which was marginalized during the communist time just 25 years ago, as a bulwark against the moral decay of Western culture.
Just as Putin did in Russia, Gruevski singled out non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for spreading liberal social values from the West, such as acceptance of gay rights, feminism, and multiculturalism. Both leaders portray George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist who funds a network of NGOs in Eastern Europe, as the devious mastermind who works with leftist civil society organizations to destabilize countries with conservative leaders.
In Macedonia, Gruevski and his party hold Soros responsible for a wide range of problems, including the country’s prolonged period of economic struggle and its failure to attract more new jobs. The former administration also accused Soros of financing a series of anti-government protests that gripped Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city, for most of 2015 and 2016.
Most importantly, Gruevski and his constituents claim that millions of American taxpayer dollars have been funneled through the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia to Soros-affiliated NGOs, which then finances the liberal opposition party. They also contend that Jess Baily, the Obama-appointed U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, “actively intervened in the party politics” by secretly working with Soros to benefit the opposition.
In the case of VMRO, the strategy was meant to deflect blame away from the government for declining civil liberties and towards an abstract enemy of the state. Doing so obscures the facts and sows enough doubt and distrust to render legitimate debate meaningless.
Despite the that fact that as recently as 2016 the U.S. State Department expressed concern about the Gruevski administration for abuses of human rights, failing to respect the rule of law, and conducting elections that were marred by “voter intimidation, widespread pressure on civil servants, vote buying, (and) coercion,” Gruevski has garnered substantial support in American conservative media.
A wide range of platforms, from established ones like the National Review and Fox News to upstart outlets like the Daily Signal and Breitbart, have eagerly supported the narrative that Soros is out to undermine the democratic integrity of a sovereign country.
While the story fits the anti-globalist and populist narrative of that now permeates conservative media, its ability to garner such widespread circulation is the result of an intense lobbying and public relations campaign on the part of VMRO.
Diplomatic Lobbying in Washington
Publicly available records from the Department of Justice indicate that since January 2016, the VMRO political party has spent over $1.2 million hiring various D.C.-based lobbying firms to “support VMRO-DPMNE with general government relations support, including educating United States government officials about the (party’s) positions.”
Diplomatic lobbying is an established practice that allows foreign leaders to circumvent normal diplomatic channels, which can be slow and tedious. Although both large and small countries engage in the practice, it is especially useful for politically peripheral countries that may have a more difficult time getting direct access to Washington insiders who can influence policy.
In the case of VMRO, diplomatic lobbying seems to have produced the access the party was seeking. On two separate trips to Washington during 2016, Gruevski secured a Jan. 11 meeting with then-Vice President Joe Biden and an Oct. 6 meeting with U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.
Although Macedonian media reported that the meeting with Vice President Biden was successful, Rep. Smith proved to be far more receptive to VMRO’s primary objective of sidelining the opposition back home.
On Jan. 17, 2017, three months after his meeting with Gruevski, Rep. Smith joined five other Republican members of the House and submitted a letter to Ambassador Baily “asking whether there was collusion between the Embassy and left wing parties during the elections.”
The timing of the letter, just three days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, was not a coincidence. Trump’s election emboldened nationalist and populist forces that were already on the rise in Eastern Europe, and gave Gruevski and his allies a sense of vindication after years of being rebuffed by the West for his authoritarian tendencies and appeals to populism.
For the traditionalist and anti-globalist factions of the conservative movement in the United States that Trump has empowered, Macedonia became a symbol of a larger struggle between political parties with a conservative ideology and those “with an ambitious agenda that includes liberal drug and sexual orientation policies as well as trans-nationalism.”
On March 14, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, along with five other conservative Republican members of the Senate, joined the calls for an investigation into the U.S. Embassy’s activities in Macedonia. In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, they wrote that they had received “credible reports” of funds from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is under the auspices of the State Department, being directed to Soros-affiliated NGOs to “push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left.”
Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog organization, joined their cause on April 19 by filing suit against the State Department and USAID for access to the agency’s spending records.
The letters from Congress and the lawsuit were widely covered in conservative media from the United States. They claimed that Ambassador Baily was “trying to shut out the strongly pro-American, pro-capitalist VMRO-DMPNE” and that Soros had been “spending part of his considerable fortune to create groups in Macedonia that would further his socialist agenda.”
Contrary the hopes of VMRO, the Trump administration has expressed very little interest in foreign affairs beyond a select few issues, and has almost completely neglected the State Department. Despite the groundswell of support for VMRO and its positions in conservative media, there have been no significant policy or personnel changes at the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia. Jess Baily is still the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, and there are no indications that he will be removed.
Most importantly for Gruevski, Zoran Zaev, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats who allegedly benefited from shadowy links to Soros, since May 31 began serving as prime minister of Macedonia.
Although Macedonia entered the American news cycle for being a voracious producer of fake news, that story obscures an important corollary to the ongoing investigation concerning Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Russia attempted to influence the electoral process in Macedonia by exploiting vulnerabilities inherit in democracy. Fostering anti-Soros hysteria was a way to weaponize information favoring a candidate that they estimated would have a more favorable disposition towards the Kremlin. Various reports, including analyses conducted by the United State intelligence community, point to a similar campaign of influence favoring Donald Trump at the expense of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.
Russian involvement in Macedonia also demonstrates that garnering foreign influence no longer requires an occupying military force. It is far cheaper, and perhaps more effective, to craft a narrative during an election cycle and allow the voters in the target country to give it a life of its own. In the case of the United States, they correctly identified the country’s growing openness to right wing populism and exploited the increasingly secluded echo chamber through which most people receive news.
PARADOXICALLY, THOSE TACTICS have received broad support from conservative media in the United States and from some elected officials in the House and Senate, even as the Trump administration and those around him deny similar collusion with the Russians.
As the investigation concerning Russian meddling heats up in the United States, conservative media has devoted less attention to Macedonia and Soros. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, brought Macedonia back into the discussion with a passing reference late last month.
With Russia taking on an increased role in Eastern Europe and the new prime minister’s expressed intent to accelerate the process of Euro-Atlantic integration, Macedonia is unlikely to be absent from the news cycle for long.
Benjamin Shultz, a graduate student in the Student Affairs and Higher Education program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Mount Sterling, Ky. He lived in Macedonia for three years, teaching American Studies at a small private university.
Snezhana Stefanovska Shultz, a graduate student in the Sport Management program at IUP, is originally from Macedonia. Prior to moving to the United States in 2016, she worked as a broadcast journalist in Macedonia covering sports.