For a Balkan country of 2 million people, Macedonia has attracted an impressive roster of VIPs in the last few weeks.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini all descended on the capital Skopje to support what Mattis called the most important vote in the nation’s history.
This Sunday Macedonians will be asked in a referendum if they’re in favor of joining NATO and the EU and accepting an agreement with Greece to change their country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia. This is because Greece insists that only its own province of Macedonia — birthplace of Alexander the Great — can claim that name and has blocked its northern neighbor’s previous attempt to join the alliance.
The dispute has been a stumbling block in relations since Macedonian independence from Yugoslavia nearly three decades ago. The agreement on the name change signed by the Greek and Macedonian Prime Ministers in June is the first time a resolution has been within sight.
Many in Macedonia see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kick-start an economic revival, and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who brokered the deal, is banking on NATO membership bringing much needed investment to Macedonia.
“The referendum, in my view, is a make-it-or-break-it event for the country, because it’s an attempt to deal with the most important obstacle for continuing toward NATO and European integration,” said Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje.
But a large and organized disinformation campaign to boycott the vote is underway, said Goran Nikolovski, director of Macedonia’s Administration for Security and Counterintelligence, and Western officials are pointing their fingers at Russia.
Moscow openly opposes Macedonia’s NATO aspirations, having long been a major player in the Balkans. Mattis said on his way to Skopje there was “no doubt” Russia was transferring money and conducting a broader campaign to undermine the name change. “We do not want to see Russia doing there [in Macedonia] what they have tried to do in so many other countries,” Mattis told reporters.
Speaking in Washington this month Stoltenberg said Russia was trying to use disinformation and social media to prevent Macedonia from joining NATO.
The Kremlin has always denied it meddles in other nation’s votes, and Macedonia’s PM Zaev said there was no evidence Russia was behind the disinformation campaign, even though he acknowledged it clearly opposed Macedonia’s NATO accession.
But Moscow’s recent track record in the Balkans has caused diplomats to be on high alert.
Montenegro authorities accused Russian security services of being involved in a plot to assassinate their Prime Minister and stage a coup during 2016 elections to stop the country from joining NATO.
“Naturally, neither Montenegrin officials nor Western media are providing any evidences that could confirm these allegations,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in a briefing.
In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and barred entry to two more after they tried to bribe officials and “undermine its foreign policy and interfere in its internal affairs,” according to statements by the Greek foreign ministry. Greek media reported Russian diplomats were working to obstruct the deal with Macedonia — which the Kremlin denies.
And last summer Macedonian intelligence documents leaked to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project showed agents believed Russia had been trying to sow discord in Macedonia since 2008.
Michael Carpenter, former US National Security Council Russia director under the Obama administration, said the Kremlin has effective ways of subverting Balkan countries’ western integration.
“Both online propaganda but also channeling a few hundred thousand euros or even a few million euros to various ultra-nationalist groups in the region really doesn’t cost that much, doesn’t have any negative repercussions for Moscow. It’s a relatively cheap and easy way to assert its influence in the region,” he said.
While it’s unclear who the mastermind is, a disinformation campaign around the vote is in full swing, NGOs who monitor the cyber space say. Nikolovski told Skopje TV that security services are investigating a systematic attempt to undermine the vote though social media and fake news.
The Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a think tank co-founded by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said it’s found evidence Twitter bots are behind an effort to suppress voter turnout. In a statement the organization said it found accounts calling for a boycott and created two months ago make up 10% of the online conversation — a figure they say is almost three times higher than in the Italian election.
“There is a very structured and organized campaign to boycott the referendum and for the agreement with Greece to fail,” said Marko Trosanovski, President of the Skopje-based Institute for Democracy.
In one example, a still from a Croatian pop star’s music video in which she was portrayed as a victim of domestic violence was used as proof of police brutality against women protesting the referendum.
Another account posted a fake news report about a Belgian mayor who was murdered because he threatened to expose that the EU was led by “satanists.” The article used the actual image and name of a mayor of a Belgian town who was killed by a teenager who blamed his father’s suicide on the loss of his council job.
And Macedonia’s Ministry of Defense was forced to issue a strong denial after a fake news story that NATO troops used ammunition with depleted uranium during drills in Macedonia went viral.
“There are many new pages established in the last two months which are spewing fake news and hate speech,” according to Vladimir Petreski from the Macedonian NGO Vistinomer — meaning truth-meter, which works to debunk fake news on social media and right-wing websites.
“Some of them are straight up lies, but most of them contain a grain of truth and that grain of truth is twisted, it contains political spin so that it can be explained in a way that suits the writer,” he said.
Macedonia came last in a survey of 35 European countries measured for their resilience to false news conducted by Open Society Institute – Sofia this year.
“We have a very weak, fragmented media space, also media professionalism in the country has been an issue itself,” said Kacarska. “It’s a media space that’s very easy to penetrate with fake news.”
Even though authorities have set the turnout threshold at 50%, the referendum is consultative which means PM Zaev can trigger the process of constitutional amendments to rename Macedonia regardless of the outcome.
At least half the electorate voting in favor would give his government the legitimacy to seek the backing of two thirds of the Parliament needed to make changes to the constitution.
Trosanovski, Kacarska and Petreski all say this will be hard to meet because Macedonia last conducted a population census in 2002, and its electoral register counts people who are deceased or have emigrated.
And powerful voices within the government are urging citizens to abstain. Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov announced he will boycott the referendum, warning that the country is being asked to commit “legal and historical suicide.”
His views are echoed by the small but loud anti-referendum party United Macedonia, which has sprung up in the last few months and has close relations with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, according to party leaders.
Its leader Janko Bacev says the West wants to erase Macedonia from the world map and has been busy drumming up support for the boycott in rallies across the country.
”The yes campaign makes it seem like billions of euros are waiting at the Macedonian border, and as soon as we change our name we will all be rich and happy,” he said. Bacev pointed to Macedonia’s neighbor Bulgaria which has been an EU member for 11 years, but still struggles economically.
Marko Trosanovski said the constant stream of high-level visitors was initially a successful strategy for the yes camp but has started to wear Macedonians down.
‘It is time now to step back, because it’s starting to have a counter-productive effect. People have mostly formed their opinions, and it’s an emotional issue. People are aware of the sacrifice they have to give, but someone else coming to Macedonia and consistently asking them to vote for it, they find it pretentious,” said Trosanovski.
If the referendum succeeds and Macedonia’s constitution is amended to change its name, the agreement will need to be ratified by the Parliament in Greece, which has also seen violent protests against the deal.
But whatever the outcome of Sunday’s vote is, it will set in motion events which will shape the fate of the small Balkan nation.