Vladimir Putin - © Rokas Tenys/Shutterstock

Vladimir Putin - © Rokas Tenys/Shutterstock

The political world of North Macedonia has come together against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the belly of the country, however, there is no shortage of voices of support for Putin's "strong leadership", fuelled by resentment over the closed doors of the EU

24/03/2022 -  Aleksandar Samardjiev Tetovo

After the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, North Macedonia imposed sanctions on Russia, and politicians from both the government and the opposition made it clear that they support Ukraine and condemn the Russian military aggression. The government and the opposition seldom have the same views in the Parliament, but in this case they jointly adopted a declaration supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. Out of 120 MPs, only three voted against and one abstained. The eight-point draft declaration calls on the relevant institutions to work closely with NATO and EU member states to support diplomatic efforts for an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities.

President Stevo Pendarovski, who was elected with the support of the ruling party SDSM, expressed strong condemnation of the military actions that Russia is taking over Ukraine, emphasising that they will lead to irreparable loss of human life and material damage. "The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is […] a serious violation of the basic principles of international law, a blow to the democratic order, and a threat to the stability of Europe", he said.

The government has decided as a NATO member to donate military equipment to Ukraine, without sending troops. The Minister of Defense, Slavjanka Petrovska, did not give details about the equipment and weapons in question. She explained that these are classified data, but assured that the donation will not reduce the capacity of the Macedonian Army.

The Macedonian intellectual elite reacted harshly to the claims by Russian president Vladimir Putin that Ukraine is a nation invented by Lenin: similar views are in fact expressed by some Bulgarian politicians, that maintain that Macedonia is a fictional nation “invented” by Yugoslav president Tito and that is why Putin's words resonate so much in North Macedonia.

Among the few who support Russia we find the United Macedonia party, that emerged as a counterpart to Putins' United Russia and is considered a supporter of Russian policy towards Western European countries, NATO, and the EU. It is a small party, but its leader Janko Bacev is a quite recognisable figure who manages to make the news with his views on political and social issues. According to him, the Russian occupation of Ukraine is justified because the Russians were put in a position to have nothing to lose if NATO came to their border.

“The military conflict between these two countries speaks of the immaturity of Ukrainian President Zelensky, who went from television comedian to President of Ukraine […] Imagine a president with a bunch of advisers who could not understand that he was falsely forced by NATO to go to war with Russia and that they would eventually play him", Bacev told the local weekly Focus.

Some pro-Russian mood among citizens can be seen on social networks, mostly on Facebook. However, a fierce debate is going on, with people who react to Russia's supporters and emphasise that the aggression has no justification. In the ethnic Macedonian community many have pro-Russian views, while Albanians generally have a completely negative opinion of the actions taken by Russia.

One week after the start of hostilities, the Macedonian bureau of the Balkan Investigative Network (BIRN) conducted a survey of Facebook interactions (likes, other reactions, comments, shares) about popular news in some 40 Macedonian media outlets. They concluded that, in those seven days, the biggest support was gathered by the headline “America is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine”, which is part of a statement by the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The news was published on the official Facebook page of a national television with a photo of supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

Pro-Russian citizens also attacked President Stevo Pendarovski because of a post titled "I am worried that Macedonians support Russia", from one of his recent interviews. Many readers reacted by saying that the statement was ridiculous and angered hundreds. More than 1,500 users joined the discussion, criticising Pendarovski for not being a statesman like Putin, who they said had the courage to defend his country. Most comments are in line with the Russian interpretation of events – that an anti-fascist or "denationalisation" campaign is being waged against the "fascist" government in Ukraine "installed" from outside.

According to Tito Petkovski, leader of the New Social Democratic Party, Macedonians praise Putin on social media because they are looking for a leader who will protect them with a strong hand and who will oppose the injustices of the West.

“Only in this aspect is Putin supported. Our people are looking for a leader, who will protect them and open their perspectives and that is why they are looking for an authoritarian leadership. North Macedonia has been behind closed doors for 30 years and still doesn't have the right to join the EU. That is why people turn to someone [like Putin] who opposes such a world", Petkovski said in a TV interview.

In an interview for Deutsche Welle, though, Andreja Stojkovski, director of the Prespa Institute, said that “support for Russia is not so real but it's created by bots and fake news and reinforced by the failure of EU enlargement”.

At the same time, the Association of Ukrainians in North Macedonia organised a protest march against "war and boundless cruelty on the part of Russia towards Ukraine", which was supported by many Macedonians. Since the start of the war, around a thousand Ukrainians have already arrived in Macedonia as refugees.

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