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Is Russia Showing Special Interest in Macedonia?

The ceremony for the official opening of "Jane Sandenski" sports centre and Hotel "Russia" in Skopje, in August 2014, attended by Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (F-C) and Russian businesman Sergej Samsonenko (2-R).

Macedonia and other Balkan countries are seeing increasing warnings from US diplomats that Russia is seeking increased influence in the Balkans and Macedonian analysts warn Russia may play the Orthodox or pan-Slav card.

By Blagoja Kuzmanovski

Macedonia and other Balkan countries are seeing increasing warnings from US diplomats that Russia is seeking increased influence in the Balkans.

At a recent debate in Brussels about a danger from Russia, US Assistant Secretary of State Douglas Frantz warned Balkan countries that the United States’ attention is focused on the Balkans, and that the Americans are always there to offer assistance.

Frantz added that, just like other countries in Russia’s neighborhood in Moscow’s sphere of aspirations and influence, Balkan countries should also be concerned because of Russian ambitions.

Frantz’s comments came not long after US Secretary of State John Kerry told a US Senate subcommittee in late February that Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as Georgia, Moldova and Transnistria, are “in the line of fire”. During the hearing before the US Senate subcommittee that included Sen. Christopher Murphy, Kerry agreed with Murphy’s assessment that Russia is leading a successful propaganda war regarding the Ukrainian crisis.

Mersel Bilalli, a professor at Skopje’s FON university professor and former member of parliament, said such warnings raise the possibility that Russia will try to increase its political, security and economic influence in the Balkans.

“After they gave up on the South Stream, Russians practically lost their economic interest in this region, but they want to hold it as a bargaining chip, namely to balance interests in relation to Ukraine and Crimea,” said Bilalli.

Nano Ruzin, dean of political sciences at Skopje’s FON University, and Macedonia’s Ambassador to NATO for several years, said he believes that such statements have become more common because of the weak position of Balkan countries in the international arena, but also because of increased interest on the part of Russia. He stressed that Moscow appears prepared for military action in the countries that include a Russian minority population and that are in the first circle of its interests, but that it is also willing to treat the Balkan countries differently.

He added:

“They call us countries of special interest, and that includes countries such as Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia that have a certain type of sensibility to Pan-Slavism. And if we are talking about methods and means to express that special interest, [Russians] are certainly focused on economic, trade and cultural means, mainly soft power.”

Recently, Macedonia has seen more pronounced Russian investment in the country. Analysts interviewed said another factor in Russia’s favor is that Macedonia has been on the doorstep of the European Union for some time, but it is not making progress toward full accession. And, they said, doubts that Russia can use that for its political influence are justified.

They said that because Russia has found itself somewhat cut off from many friendly countries because of the Ukrainian crisis, it is trying even harder to ensure its presence on the markets in the world, including the Balkans. Most Russian investments in Macedonia are focused on mining and energy sectors, where they are present through the ‘Lukoil’ gas stations.

The construction of a church funded by Russian money has started in Skopje, and Leonid Lebedev, a Russian entrepreneur and member of Russia’s parliament has donated money for lighting the Millennium Cross above the capital.

Zore Temelkovski, a businessman and former member of parliament, said:

“Construction of a church that is supposed to be a sign of cooperation between Macedonian and Russian Orthodox Church groups shows that, aside from economy and investments, other tools are being used to strengthen Moscow’s position in the Balkan region. Russian capital, present on the Middle East up until now, will slowly move towards Europe and it will shift borders of the economic transversal.”

Macedonian experts on church issues say they think the most recent initiative — by an attempt by Russia to mediate the lawsuit between the Macedonian and the Serbian Orthodox Churches might represent another attempt by Moscow to increase its political influence.