Frustration over the delay in North Macedonia’s EU accession is creating an opening for Russia to sow discord in the country through an “arsenal” of hybrid warfare, the country’s foreign minister has warned.
Bujar Osmani told Euronews on Tuesday evening that Russia is using targeted disinformation campaigns – including online trolling and fake news – to “fracture the social fabric of society” in the country and the wider Western Balkans and stall their accession to the EU.
“Obviously Russia designed disinformation in order to keep North Macedonia from achieving its strategic goals, which is NATO and EU membership,” Osmani said.
“The frustration that is built up along the way (to EU membership) is being hijacked by malign forces trying to channel this energy of frustration into their windmill,” he added.
North Macedonia became an official candidate to join the European Union almost two decades ago along with Croatia and Slovenia, now fully integrated EU members.
Its accession path has been stalled due to disputes with Greece over the country’s name, and with Bulgaria over the the rights of minorities as enshrined in the constitution.
A further four countries in the region – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia – are also official EU candidates. Formal accession negotiations have opened with all nations except for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kosovo, which is not recognised as an independent state by all EU member states, is a ‘potential candidate’ for accession.
But their bids have been plagued with delays and difficulties. Osmani said that the region is now at a “geopolitical crossroads” where the political arena is becoming increasingly polarised between pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans.
The separatist movement in Bosnia’s Serb-majority Republika Srpska and the delays in normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo are all examples of tensions that are being exacerbated by Russian-backed actors, Osmani said.
“I believe that behind all those efforts to keep the region stalling, to keep the region in perpetual confrontation and conflicts, is the Russian Federation through its arsenal of means but also proxy state and non-state actors in the region,” he said.
“The only response is to unequivocally continue with our agenda for Euro-Atlantic integration.”
Osmani backs Brussels’ new approach of ‘phased’ integration, including the €6-billion growth plan for 2024-2027 designed to open the bloc’s common market to the Western Balkan candidates and tipped to boost their economies by as much as 10%.
“We have realised that the default concept of EU accession is all in or nothing. The road is long, the journey is difficult, and people and the candidates do not see any benefits from the road itself,” Osmani explained.
“What we want to see is a gradual integration of the region into the single market before membership and integration into the formal formats of the European Union before integration itself,” he added.
This could mean giving Western Balkan nations observer status at EU ministerial meetings such as the Foreign Affairs Council, an idea that his EU counterparts are supportive of, Osmani said.
“One of the most significant threats of our time”
Osmani spoke to Euronews following the launch of the European External Action Service’s (EEAS) second annual disinformation report, which named Russia as the primary culprit of spreading harmful misinformation on digital platforms, and Ukraine the main target.
The EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell described disinformation as “one of the most significant threats of our time,” and a “cancer that puts the health of democracy at risk.”
The report, which is based on an investigation of 750 cases of so-called Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI), says other states such as China also use interference to undermine democratic institutions and stoke polarisation abroad, as a means to “achieve their own political and economic goals.”
The most targeted individuals in the cases investigated were Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, French President Emmanuel Macron, Josep Borrell himself as well as celebrities such as Nicolas Cage and Margot Robbie, whose voices and faces were deliberately manipulated to sow misinformation.
Telegram and X emerged as the preferred platforms for FIMI attacks, with attacks also orchestrated on Facebook, TikTok, Youtube and Reddit as well as Russian social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki.
While the report notes it is “prudent” to prepare for potential interference ahead of June’s European elections, it also warns against “inflating the threat.”
Speaking during the event, Osmani said the Western Balkans was the “soft underbelly” of the EU when it came to foreign interference and the “fire line” in the disinformation war between East and West.