Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg View reports on Western-Russian competition in Macedonia, noting that a Russian policy that depends on weak and corrupt government is fragile.
Macedonia is a poor, landlocked Balkan country of about 2 million. To the Kremlin, it’s also the newest front in an ideological battle, with the U.S. fomenting regime change to counter Russia’s influence. As is often the case, that view is correct to the extent that Russian interests are aligned with those of a corrupt authoritarian ruler.
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As for Macedonia, two months after the Turkish Stream plans were broached, the opposition leader Zoran Zaev started publishing secret recordings of officials’ conversations. Zaev said the recordings, made by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government as part of a sweeping surveillance operation, were handed to him by a whistleblower. The frank, and sometimes coarse, conversations cover a lot of ground, from violence against political opponents and electoral fraud to the purchase of a Mercedes for Gruevski using the Interior Ministry as cover (the interior minister, who has since resigned, is heard discussing the massage function of the car’s rear seats with the chief of intelligence, who has also quit in disgrace).
Macedonians were not amused, and even the country’s Albanian minority, which had never made common cause with the Macedonian opposition, joined huge rallies in the capital, Skopje. Last weekend, tens of thousands of protesters turned out in the town center, which Gruevski recently decorated with kitschy neoclassical buildings and statues at a cost the tiny nation could ill afford. On Monday, the prime minister, who has been running Macedonia for almost 10 years, staged his own counter-rally. He called the intercepts “a great lesson” and denounced Zaev as a foreign puppet with a “script writer,” and called on supporters to “imagine a prime minister brought to power by foreign services.”
To Team Putin, this is familiar ground: Events are following the same course as in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014, when Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime was ousted by a popular uprising. The Kremlin believes the U.S. fomented similar revolutions in Georgia in 2003, in Ukraine in 2005 and in Moldova in 2009 and made several less successful attempts to bring down pro-Moscow regimes in former Soviet countries. Waves of regime change such as the Arab Spring also fall under Putin’s definition of U.S.-engineered revolutions. The word he uses to describe them is, curiously, the same as Gruevski’s description of the incriminating recordings: “a lesson” for Russia on what to avoid.