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A Capital of Fake News and a Testing Ground for a Grey Technologies

About russian attempts “to isolate Macedonia c from the Western influence.”

In recent years, Macedonia is in the epicenter of Russian hybrid activities.

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in last two years served as a center of producing and spreading of fake news, and also as a testing ground for the miscellaneous Russian technologies of hybrid influence. What happened in this small Balkan state, and which lessons should learn Ukraine from Macedonian experience?

The Shangri La of Fake News

Macedonia made headlines of world media because of stories about fake news during the US presidential campaign of 2016. Journalists found that for some reason this was the country where hundreds (!) of web sites were created, in English, and aimed on American visitors, which were generating manipulative or just fake news in support of Donald Trump. In addition, thousands of fake accounts and a multitude of pseudo-groups in social networks to spread the content published by web sites. The most famous of all was the “media” web site “USA Politics Today”, which served as an imitation of a popular American media site.

Web projects were registered onto a citizens of few different Macedonian cities, though the center of disinformation and fake news were a town of Veles. In December 2016 media quoted Slavcho Chadiev, a mayor of this small town with about 50 thousand of population, who proudly spoke about local Internet resources which helped Trump to win the elections: “Noone can know this for sure, but it’s a nice thought to think that we managed to change the course of American History”.

First media wrote of Veles as of successful business project of young Macedonia developers, which managed to earn some big money monetizing the screaming headlines and made-up sensations — even though they haven’t had a slightest idea of politics or journalism. But later the joint investigation of BuzzFeed News, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) international consortium, and Investigative Reporting Lab Macedonia showed that what initially was presented as a “technological Shangri La in Balkan province” might just have been a well-thought through and professionally developed activity, controlled from one center.

In particular, investigators discovered that it is not a group of unknown IT specialists who are behind the creation of “fakes factory” in Veles, but also one of the well-known Macedonian media managers. IN addition, according to their information, at least one of the members of Russian “troll factory” (accused by a Special Counsel for the Department of Justice Robert Mueller in the possible interference with US presidential elections) visited Macedonia not long before first Macedonian web site specialized on political news from US was registered.

One of 13 Russians accused by Special Counsel for the Department of Justice Robert Mueller in the interference with American elections was Anna Bogacheva. The St. Petersburg “troll factory” of the “Internet Research Agency” was also mentioned. According to accusations, at some point Bogacheva was heading the “analytic department” of this organization. Investigating journalists present some evidences of Anna Bogacheva visiting USA in June of 2014, and then, a year later, she was visiting Macedonia. When journalists questioned her regarding the purposes of these visits, she answered: “I am sorry, I cannot discuss my job.”

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Reportedly Macedonia law enforcers were cooperating actively with the law enforcers of USA to get all the details of this suspicious information activity during the presidential campaign in US. There is still no confirmation as of the end of official investigation of Macedonian “fakes factory” and its impact on the Trump’s election presidential. In the meantime, in June 2017 a new scandal broke, again related to Russian hybrid activities in Macedonia, but now aiming on the solution of regional, Balkan issues.

SVR, GRU, TASS and “Rossotrudnichestvo”

The same consortium OCCRP and its partners (a NOVA TV channel and Crime and Corruption Reporting Network KRIK) was able to get the information of the Russian members of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) activities, which (joined by the employees of Russian Embassy in Macedonia) tried to influence the domestic affairs agenda in the country, not prevent it from joining NATO. Apparently the journalists came to possession of reports by the Macedonian counter-intelligence service.

According to the documents, a covert operations by Russian agents of influence started in 2008, when Macedonia was unsuccessful in joining NATO. Greece blocked the Macedonian application because of long-time dispute between these two countries regarding the usage of the word “Macedonia” in the name of former Yugoslavian republic. All the next years Macedonia remained to be an “object of mass subversive propaganda and intelligence, carried through the embassy of Russian Federation.”

The document by counter-intelligence forces emphasized that: “Using the resources and methods of so-called soft power, Russian Federation, according to its strategy in Balkan region, aims for isolation of the [Macedonia] country from the Western influence.”

The documents published by the investigating journalists claimed that the Russian intelligence actions were conducted through the embassy in Skopje by the three agents of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), which were reporting to the resident agents in the capital of Serbia, Belgrade, and also by the four members of Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). The actions of latter ones were coordinated from Sofia, a capital of Bulgaria. It is reported that employees of local office of TASS news agency were involved in the operative actions, and an employee of “Rossotrudnichestvo”. In particular, Russian agents tried to influence the Macedonian media, and to bribe them.

“These documents are one of the most striking illustration of the never-ending attempts of Russia to improve its influence in the republics of former Yugoslavia, and do everything to lead the region off from the Western orbit”, the web site of OCCRP says.

Perhaps the most important result of disclosure of this information was the intensification of negotiations between Macedonia and Greece regarding the compromise and some positive solution to the question of re-naming the former Yugoslavian republic in the June of 2018. Then both sides signed an agreement which would solve the crucial problem of the last decades — the renaming of “Macedonia” into a “Northern Macedonia”. As a result, Greece was supposed to stop the blocking of Euro-Atlantic integration of their neighboring country.

But at this moment the Russian hybrid influence was intensified, in the even more hybrid forms.

For” Against the Boycott

After the start of investigation of Russia interfering with US elections, after the scandal with Cambridge Analytica, after the following tightening of Facebook regulations and guidelines, the activity of Macedonian “fakes factory” ceased. But the experience from US election campaign became needed again — this time inside the country.

At September 30th the citizens of former Yugoslavian republic had to come to a voting stations and answer the question: “Do you support the membership in European Union and NATO, while accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greek Republic?”

As the NATO expansion is “one of the worst nightmares for Russia”, no wonder that the leaders of the anti-referendum initiative “Macedonia Boycotts” were organizations “United Macedonia” and “Christian Brotherhood”, which are considered to be the most pro-Russian in the country. Initiators of boycott called the upcoming referendum to be a project of genocide (i. e. the destruction of identity) of Macedonian people, and proclaimed that they will go door to door to convince people to not take part in referendum for the change of constitutional title of the country.

Though they never went door to door, instead the main campaign on opposing the referendum took place in the underground, in the virtual dimension.

On the eve of referendum the Macedonian segment of Internet was bursting full of disinformation, aimed on the sabotaging the vote. Every day dozens of pages appeared on Facebook, which publications encouraged people to boycott the referendum; dozens of posts were published which suggested voters would burn their voting bulletins. A mass spreading of fake news took place, with the fictional “catastrophic” consequences to Macedonians because of their country being renamed.

The government of Zoran Zaev, which was aimed on reaching the agreement with Greece and on start of proper Euro-Atlantic integration, relied on open, “white” information campaign. Government of Macedonia financed the advertisement of positive voting on referendum, organized a promotional concerts of the local stars. Members of the government, headed with the Prime Minister himself, personally called for citizens to vote “for” on mass events and while meeting with electors.

In the meantime, West was not icily observing the unfolding of events, and actively tried to oppose the negative Russian influence. A numebr of Western leaders joined the agitation campaign for voting “for” on referendum. Enough to say that on the eve of voting Skopje was visited by the US Minister of Defense James Mattis, Secretary General of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and other high profile figures.

The result of campaign “for” and anti-campaign of boycotting was almost a draw.

On one side, more than 94% of those taking part in the voting at September 30th, supported an agreement with Greece on renaming Macedonia. On the other hand, only about 37% of registered voters took part in the referendum, thus it had no legal consequences. Despite of this, after the overly complicated battles, Macedonian Parliament with constitutional majority gave a start to the amending of Constitution, which aimed for implementing of agreement with Greece, and changing the name of the country to “Republic of Northern Macedonia”.

At this moment the draft of the document is being approved in Parliament committees, and then Parliament must ratify it finally.

At this stage the opponents of the referendum decided to come out of the underground, and at November 19th they held a protest action in Skopje against the amending of Constitution and the renaming of the country into “Northern Macedonia”. Among the protesters a members of the same pro-Russian organizations were spotted — a non-parliament party “United Macedonia” and nationalist party “Bhristian Brotherhood”. The action itself was organized by the movement “Bojkotujem ustavne izmene”. A new series of propaganda is spreading in the Macedonian segment of Internet under the same hash tag.

Few Notes on the Margins

Which lessons should learn Ukraine, while studying the Macedonian experience of collision with the Russian hybrid machine?

West is well aware of hybrid activity of Russia all throughout the world. But it takes a different approach in every particular case.

Investigating journalists in fact can closely cooperate with the counter-intelligence forces of their country, in the case of the threat to national security.

And finally, once again it is proven that “white”, open communications, saldy, are not able to win over the shady manipulative technologies.

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