Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia, according to a leak of classified documents from the country’s intelligence agency.
The documents suggest that Moscow has been seeking to step up its influence all across the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The Kremlin’s goal is to stop them from joining Nato and to pry them away from western influence, the reports say.
The files were obtained by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Projectand shared with the Guardian. They also show efforts by Serbian intelligence to support pro-Russian and anti-western nationalists in Macedonia.
The collection of secret reports comes from Macedonian counter-intelligence.
On Wednesday, the country’s Social Democrat leader, Zoran Zaev, was sworn in as prime minister, after six months of political crisis. His new centre-left coalition has the backing of two ethnic Albanian parties.
Zaev has promised to fight corruption and to introduce economic reforms. He wants Macedonia to join the EU and Nato. About a quarter of the country’s population of 2 million people are ethnic Albanians.
Macedonian nationalists and supporters of the former conservative prime minister Nikola Gruevski have accused Zaev of giving too much power to the country’s Albanian minority. In April pro-Gruevski crowds stormed the parliament building in the capital, Skopje. They beat up Zaev and injured others.
Russian and Serbian efforts to push Macedonia away from the west have contributed to the country’s long-running political and ethnic crisis, the leaked documents suggest.
For the last nine years, Macedonia has been “undergoing strong subversive propaganda and intelligence activity” directed from the Russian embassy, according to a briefing prepared earlier this year for Vladimir Atanasovski, director of Macedonia’s administration for security and counter-intelligence (UBK).
That influence operation began in 2008 when Greece blocked Macedonia’s attempt to join Nato. Greece, its southern neighbour, disagrees with the use of Macedonia as the country’s name.
The document says: “By using the assets and methods of so-called soft power, as part of the strategy of the Russian Federation in the Balkans, the goal is to isolate the country [Macedonia] from the influence of the west.”
It says Russia’s foreign policy in the region is “in tight correlation” with its energy strategy. The Kremlin’s aim is to control “strategic energy resources through partnership with the Balkan countries” and to make Macedonia “exclusively dependent”.
The leaked files also shed light on how the Kremlin conducts espionage.
It says three agents from Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service are based in Skopje, and overseen by the SVR’s sister station in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The Russian embassy in Macedonia is also home to four spies from Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, with their activities coordinated from the GRU’s base in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Journalists for Russia’s state news agency TASS and representatives of Rossotrudnichestvo, a state cultural body, worked with Russian intelligence. The FBI has investigated Rossotrudnichestvo on suspicion of trying to recruit Americans as “intelligence assets”.
The documents say Russian diplomats are “extremely cautious” when meeting contacts; frequently “change locations at the last minute”; do not use mobile phones; and employ passwords and legends (fake cover stories which mask real identity or purpose). Russian agents have offered cash to Macedonian media to spread “information and disinformation”, the files allege.
Russia has also drastically stepped up its cultural outreach in Macedonia, pushing an idea of “pan-Slavic” identity and shared Orthodox Christian faith.
Its embassy has overseen the creation of roughly 30 Macedonia-Russian “friendship associations”. It has opened a Russian cultural centre in Skopje and sponsored the construction of Orthodox crosses and Russian-style churches across the country, the documents say. It adds that Russian consulates in the towns of Bitola and Ohrid function as “intelligence bases”.
The results of Moscow’s influence efforts appear mixed. Russia has been a vociferous supporter of Gruevski, who was forced to step down as prime minister in January after allegations he had thousands of Macedonian citizens wiretapped.
Gruevski and scores of senior Conservative party figures are under indictment by a special prosecutor on charges that include abuse of power, money laundering and corruption. They deny any wrongdoing.
An election in December produced a hung parliament. Russia accused the US and EU of meddling in the poll and said the west, by supporting Zaev, wanted to carve up the Balkans and create a “Greater Albania”.
On Nato, the Kremlin has experienced setbacks. In April, Montenegro’s parliament voted to become the military alliance’s newest member. Bosnia and Herzegovina are candidates for entry. Even Serbia has deepened ties with Nato, despite the resentment many Serbs feel towards the alliance because of airstrikes against Serbia in the 1990s.
A separate leaked document details a meeting in April between the Russian ambassador to Macedonia, Oleg Shcherbak, and the country’s top foreign ministry official, Nenad Kolev. Shcherbak reportedly said Moscow’s goal was to “create a strip of militarily neutral countries” in the Balkans that comprised Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia.
The ambassador described the EU and Nato as “jackals” and said Russia was now “leading global politics”. He reportedly warned that Macedonia needed to support Kremlin policies publicly or possibly face economic and diplomatic consequences.
Zaev did not comment directly but referred to a warning he made in April, in which he said that unless the EU and US showed an interest in the region Moscow would have “more space to impose its own interests”.
Additional reporting from Maja Jovanovska, Borjan Jovanovski, Biljana Sekulovska, Stevan Dojčinović and Aleksandra Denkovska