Result of Macedonia’s referendum is another victory for Russia
The refusal of Macedonia’s voters to endorse a change in their country’s name seems, at first glance, to be a matter of purely local interest. But the result of Sunday’s referendum will be widely seen as a significant victory for Vladimir Putin, a setback for the EU and Nato, and another disturbing example of Russia’s ability and willingness to influence the democratic process in western countries.
Western officials warned before the vote that Moscow was trying to depress turnout in the referendum in order to invalidate the outcome. In the event, more than 90% of those voting backed the name change.
But turnout was about 36%, short of the 50% required to make the decision binding on parliament. Zoran Zaev, Macedonia’s prime minister, has vowed to press ahead, but will face stiff opposition from nationalists.
Increased instability and division suit Russia’s game plan, according to western analysts. If the referendum had been successful, it would have resolved a dispute with Greece that has blocked Macedonia’s route to EU and Nato membership. As elsewhere in the western Balkans, notably Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro, Moscow is determined to prevent further expansion of western influence.
For students of the 2016 US presidential election, Russia’s methods in Macedonia look highly familiar. Disinformation campaigns and “fake news”, cyberwarfare and hacking, phoney Facebook and Twitter accounts and secret cash payments – the modern equivalent of communist-era “red gold” – are all alleged to have been used.
Russia denies interfering. But western diplomats claimed last month that 40 new posts a day were appearing on Facebook encouraging a referendum boycott. Postings asked “are you going to let Albanians change your name?” – a blatant attempt to stoke tensions with majority-Slav Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority.