In the Balkans, Russia and the West Fight a Disinformation-Age Battle

SKOPJE, Macedonia — As Macedonians prepare for the most important vote in their nation’s history, scores of Facebook posts are urging voters to burn their ballots. Hundreds of new websites are calling for a boycott. And one news article, widely shared online, warns that Google may eliminate Macedonian from its list of recognized languages, depending on the vote.

In a disinformation age, Macedonian and Western officials say the flurry of social media activity is just that — disinformation directed by Russian-backed groups trying to stoke fears and depress turnout in a vote that could put this Balkan nation on a path to join NATO.

And the West is trying to fight back, albeit unevenly: A congressional effort to confront Russian disinformation has been hamstrung by divisions in Washington. To fill the void, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will travel to Skopje, the country’s capital, on Monday to show American support. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO general secretary, has already visited, as have Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.

All have a simple message: It’s now or never.

“There is no going back from this,” said Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of Macedonia. “Each attempt to hinder these processes takes the Republic of Macedonia back to a state of complete uncertainty about its future, a society in which the authoritarian values and instability could be reintroduced.”

Congress allocated money in January 2017 to fight Russian disinformation campaigns, including $8 million specifically for Macedonia. But the money did not arrive for more than a year, and it has yet to be effectively deployed, according to a Western official who agreed to speak about the subject only on the condition of anonymity. An additional $2 million, meant to promote the rule of law in Macedonia, which is still struggling with endemic corruption, had not arrived as of August, the official said.

American officials also note that millions in security assistance flow to the country.

NATO officials, for their part, say they provided information to help Macedonia counter the Russian campaign. “We see Russia is trying to meddle, to spread disinformation,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in an interview. “But Russia is not winning.”

He added that opinion polls continued to show majority support for the country’s name change, despite the Russian campaign. The challenge, he said, was that Moscow “operates on many different levels with many different tools.”

When he arrives in Skopje on Monday, Mr. Mattis will urge Macedonians to vote in the referendum. He will also emphasize the $5 million in annual security support the United States provides, Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

“Russia seeks to convince the Macedonians that the West is going to abandon them, that Russia is the stable influence in the region,” Mr. Pahon said. “That is just not true.”

Changing Macedonia’s name and bringing the country into the alliance, Mr. Pahon said, would reduce Moscow’s influence. “Macedonian accession to NATO is one of Russia’s worst nightmares,” he added.

In Macedonia, officials blame Russian-backed online groups for proliferating false articles and Facebook posts as a way to heighten social divisions, drive down participation and amplify public anger. This spring, football hooligans opposed to the name change clashed with police officers outside Parliament in Skopje — an episode quickly seized on by people who produced false stories claiming government brutality.

“There is a famous Balkan singer, and they took an old picture of her beaten and bruised in a domestic violence incident, and tried to claim she was beaten by police at the protest,” said Marko Troshanovski, who works for Societas Civilis, a research institute focused on promoting democracy. “The misinformation was later countered, but it was in the blood stream.”

After the clash, Mr. Zaev, the prime minister, blamed Moscow and expelled a Russian diplomat. In response, Oleg Shcherbak, the Russian ambassador to Macedonia, offered a stark warning.

“If it came to a conflict between Russia and NATO,” he warned ominously, “you will have the role of a legitimate target.”

To an outsider, the dispute can seem puzzling, but it has proved diplomatically explosive and intractable. Like so much in the Balkans, it is a conflict complicated by history and war.

Western diplomats say that 40 new websites are popping up each day on Facebook to encourage people to boycott the referendum. These websites, originating outside the country, fit a pattern of Russian interference in other elections, diplomats say.

In a country largely divided along ethnic lines, some websites deliberately stoke tensions with the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, evoking memories of a yearlong armed conflict in 2001 between the government and a faction of Albanians.

“Are you going to let Albanians change your name?” is a common theme.

American intelligence officials say Russia has also co-opted local football fan clubs and motorcycle gangs opposed to the name change.

Assuming Macedonian voters agree to the name change, and Macedonia’s Constitution is amended to reflect it, the deal would then be subject to approval by the Greek Parliament. Greek officials have also accused Moscow of interference and have responded by expelling two diplomats.

“They are spending money in Greece, trying to add to the resistance to the Macedonia name issue,” said Ben Hodges, a former United States Army commander in Europe, who is now at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “Wherever there is a seam or a crack, that is what they will exploit.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Mattis’s visit on Monday is meant to signal American resolve — even as some Republicans in Washington are increasingly resistant to expanding NATO. Montenegro’s membership was opposed by the Republican senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, and conservative publications have produced articles in recent weeks questioning the wisdom of further NATO expansion, specifically citing the case of Macedonia.

President Trump recently described Montenegro as a “tiny country” with “very aggressive people,” raising doubts about whether the United States would come to its defense.

“They may get aggressive, and, congratulations, you’re in World War III,” he said.

Officials in Skopje nervously took note of Mr. Trump’s comments but said that they believed the United States stood firmly behind their bid to join NATO.

And the prime minister said his government had placed its “entire political capital to solve the dispute with Greece.”

“This is our big chance,” Mr. Zaev said. “Citizens know that the moment has to be seized. This is how they will shape their future and the future of our country.”

Follow Marc Santora and Julian E. Barnes on Twitter: @MarcSantoraNYT and @julianbarnes.

Marc Santora reported from Skopje, Macedonia, and Julian E. Barnes from Washington. Alisa Dogramadzieva and Aleksandar Dimishkovski contributed reporting from Skopje.

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