By Leonid Bershidsky
For many Americans, fake news, or, specifically, a lively cottage industry that produced it for the U.S. market, was what put Macedonia on the map. But as the small Balkan nation holds a fateful referendum on Sunday that may unblock its path toward membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, disinformation will play a smaller role in the outcome than an authoritarian, corrupt party’s failed, 10-year-long nationalist project.
The referendum asks citizens to vote on a deal reached in June by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras. They agreed that Macedonia, a former part of Yugoslavia, would change its constitutional name to North Macedonia, while its people and Slavic language would continue to be known as Macedonian. In exchange, Greece, which has long insisted that the word “Macedonia” can only refer to its northern region, would drop its opposition to the neighboring country’s NATO and EU membership.
Macedonia, a landlocked, poor country with an official population of 2 million, perhaps isn’t important enough in geopolitical terms to call the deal historic. Yet that description isn’t overblown.
“We’re the first to solve an identity conflict by peaceful diplomatic means,” Ljubomir Frckoski, a law professor who was one of the principal drafters of Macedonia’s constitution and served as the nation’s interior and foreign minister, told me on Wednesday in an interview in Skopje. Well, perhaps not the first in history — but, indeed, nothing of the kind has ever happened in the explosive Balkan region, where the Zaev-Tsipras deal has awakened hopes that most of the seven splinters of the former Yugoslavia will be in the EU in the foreseeable future. It is this agreement that spurred more intensive resolution talks between Serbia and Kosovo.
Macedonians overwhelmingly favor both EU and NATO membership, and they’ve done so for years. A majority supports the renaming deal, too, believing that it brings the country closer to those goals and an increase in prosperity. There’s not even a visible campaign against the name change. “Yes” dominates the billboards in Skopje.
It’s doubtful, however, that Sunday’s vote will make Macedonians’ Euro-Atlantic dream come true without further tribulations. Nationalist forces, including some politicians from VMRO-DPNE, the party that ruled the country between 2006 and late 2016, are calling on voters to boycott the referendum. If fewer than 50 percent of the country’s 1.8 million registered voters turn out, making the plebiscite a failure according to the Macedonian constitution, there’s a chance that the forces behind the boycott, including the Kremlin and Macedonia’s homegrown far right, can outlast the Zaev government.
Fake News Central
During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, dozens of websites registered by young residents of Veles, a decaying industrial city on the Vardar River, grew wildly successful at spreading fake news stories mostly favorable to candidate Donald Trump. Mirko Ceselkoski, an internet marketing consultant who runs courses for people wishing to earn cash as webmasters, hands out business cards with the legend, “The Man Who Helped Donald Trump Win U.S. Elections.” He said that his students from Veles, a town with a lot of young computer science students and not many jobs, had been experimenting with various types of content for the English-language market — stuff about muscle cars, health and fitness, celebrities — when they hit on conservative “news” as a more lucrative idea.
“With the same budget, this content got 10 times the engagement of any other,” Ceselkoski told me. “Take a story from a U.S. site, change it a little bit, come up with 10 versions of the headline to make sure you have the best one, advertise on Facebook — and you’re making serious money from ads for a teen or someone in your early 20s.” Ceselkoski said that he, too, got in on the craze for a time through “some partnerships” with his students. Then, of course, Facebook and Google cracked down and ad money stopped flowing; some of the Veles industry’s leading lights even lost personal Facebook accounts. They’re back to experimenting with stories about pets, parenting and cars. Ceselkoski brags about a particularly viral article his wife made up, about markings on toothpaste tubes.
Not everyone believes this story of enterprising, apolitical youths hitting an American jackpot. Saska Cvetkovska, a Skopje investigative journalist who researched the Macedonian fake-news industry for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, is convinced that the Veles phenomenon was an organized effort. She disputes that Ceselkoski or his students started the craze. Neither she nor the Macedonian government, which is investigating the U.S.-targeted fake news business, too, have been able to link it definitively to any foreign or domestic political actor, however.
Still, Macedonia is a country ideally suited to both producing and consuming fake news. The Veles industry has accumulated a lot of experience at generating items that work. The local media industry is fragmented, with traditional newspapers all but dead. Macedonians get news from Facebook and aggregators that pull together items from dozens of websites run by lone journalists or teams of up to five people. The social networks don’t have enough Macedonian speakers, or don’t pay enough attention to the tiny nation, to kill off fake reports.
This is a fertile environment for a vote-suppression campaign, the kind Russian trolls and their alt-right allies are said to have targeted at U.S. supporters of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the referendum boycott campaign is strangely subdued, even “creepily silent,” Cvetkovska told me.
Of course, Vladimir Petreski, who runs Macedonia’s only dedicated fact-checking operation at Metamorphosis Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, finds quite a few fake news items to debunk, including many spread by the boycott campaign (for example, wild numbers circulate for the military expenditure NATO would supposedly demand from Macedonia). Petreski and his colleagues report them on an EU-funded website and to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which follows global disinformation flows. But Petreski said there has been no explosion of new fake-news websites as there was during the 2016 U.S. election.
Petreski said that Facebook is the biggest playground for the boycott campaign, but the main Facebook group for the boycott has fewer than 11,000 followers — not many for a country with a million Facebook accounts. Numerous referendum-related items produced by the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik — which, of course, wants the vote to fall through — are not getting any traction, though in the U.S. presidential campaign, content-hungry fake-news sites did brisk business with the product of Russian propaganda outlets.
Petreski’s explanations are that the referendum has been called too recently for the fake news machine to gear up, and also that domestic disinformation is by definition less lucrative than fooling Americans and funding it with U.S.-targeted ads. Macedonia’s internet ad rates are lower than U.S. ones by a factor of 50, Petreski said, and Ceselkoski seconds that; he said that he doesn’t know anyone involved in producing Macedonia-targeted content. Indeed, there are no signs that anyone from the Veles industry is involved; the most active amplifier of boycott content on the social networks is a Macedonian nationalist software engineer who lives in Norway.
Though Petreski said that the Facebook-based campaign may help suppress the vote, the referendum is more likely to fail simply because too many people — up to a third of registered voters — have left Macedonia, mainly in the last decade. “The boycotters’ quiet behavior is strategic,” Cvetkovska, the investigative journalist, said. “They know and the government knows the numbers are just not there.”
The man responsible for Macedonia’s lost decade, former Prime Minister Nikolai Gruevski, was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption earlier this year. His party, VMRO-DPNE, came to power in 2006 and gradually tightened the screws, gaining control over the most popular media and attacking Western-funded nongovernmental organizations. It professed to do all of that for the sake of a bizarre nationalist project, which originated in 2008, when Greece blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO even under the name it recognized — FYROM, or Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
“Gruevski made a huge mistake then,” Frckoski, the former foreign minister, said. “He decided to show muscle to the Greeks.”
He did it with a long-term campaign known as “antiquisation,” which linked the Macedonian national identity to the heritage of two ancient warrior kings, Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. Skopje owes to this drive, which Greeks predictably hated as an attempt to appropriate the Hellenic heritage, its stunning collection of recently erected, enormous faux-antique statues of helmeted warriors and kitschy columned buildings. The density of statuary in central Skopje is the highest I’ve ever seen, beating imperial Vienna by a long shot.
The sculpture and construction mania cost Macedonia hundreds of millions of dollars; the exact number isn’t known. But everyone I talked to in Skopje rolled their eyes when I asked them about the monuments and Alexander the Great. Gruevski’s project has failed miserably: Most Macedonians still see their heritage merely as Slavic, and the country’s large Muslim minority — Albanians, Turks, Roma — was excluded from the Alexandrian narrative from the start.
“All Gruevski did was sow confusion,” Frckoski said. “It was disidentification; he was making people who perceived themselves as Slavs adopt an essentially Hellenic culture.”
Publicly preoccupied with trying to build a new identity for the nation, the Gruevski government was famously corrupt. In 2016, the year VMRO-DPNE was driven out of power, Macedonia stood lower in Transparency International’s corruption perception rankings than all of its former Yugoslav neighbors except Kosovo. Though under VMRO-DPNE unemployment dropped from the 2005 historic high of almost 39 percent, it’s still close to 22 percent today. No wonder emigration has been massive; a recent International Republican Institute poll showed that 46 percent of Macedonians have seen a member of their household leave the country.
In 2015, a scandal broke when it became known that the government had been eavesdropping on thousands of citizens, including politicians, journalists and activists. That and the unabated economic hardship resulted in the nationalists’ loss of power in 2016, when the country’s biggest Albanian party switched allegiance to the center-left opposition led by Zaev.
The new prime minister moved to mend fences with Greece, and his diplomatic success has drawn a lot of flattering Western attention. On a visit to Skopje, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis called for a “yes” vote and warned of Russian interference with the referendum. Zaev, however, was more cautious, saying no hard evidence of meddling had been uncovered.
Zaev’s caution has an explanation. He knows he may have to live with the Kremlin’s increased attention for some time, especially if the referendum fails due to insufficient turnout.
Gruevski was neither anti-NATO nor anti-EU nor pro-Russian. “This isn’t Serbia,” said Petreski, the fact checker. “No mainstream politician here will declare allegiance to Russia.” Yet the nationalist government flirted with the Kremlin in a bid to bring Western pressure on Greece. Russia responded by setting up dozens of friendship organizations, starting free Russian-language courses and offering scholarships to Russian universities. The Russian embassy in Skopje has expanded in recent years, turning from a dusty outpost to a visible presence in Macedonia’s political and cultural life. A Russian millionaire acquired the country’s top soccer team.
A successful referendum, a quick accession to NATO and decisive steps toward the EU could quickly render all the Russian efforts pointless. But if the vote fails — that is, if a majority votes for the name change, as polls indicate it almost certainly will, but the turnout is lower than 900,000 — Zaev’s options will shrink.
The name change needs two-thirds approval by parliament, and an unconvincing referendum victory for the government won’t compel VMRO-DPNE, which controls more seats than Zaev’s center-left coalition, to lend its support. An early election is one of the possible outcomes. Both the Kremlin and the hardcore Macedonian nationalists, who won’t accept any name for the country other than Macedonia, plain and simple, would benefit. They’d gain time to play a longer game and at least delay Macedonia’s entry to Western institutions.
Meanwhile, perhaps right-wing forces will undermine the EU; it’s no accident that the referendum boycott campaign uses familiar alt-right symbols, including the ubiquitous Pepe the Frog. Macedonian nationalists are sincere Trump supporters, too; they’re proud that the Veles fake-news machine may have helped him win.
Zaev’s best hope is for a high turnout on Sunday, especially among young people; billboards advertising “yes” feature fresh young faces. But the inertia of a decade of grotesque misrule is doing far more to undermine his hopes than the relatively understated boycott campaign, which uses only a fraction of Macedonia’s formidable potential for producing and consuming disinformation.