SKOPJE, Macedonia — It’s a typical morning in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia or, as the country will likely soon be known, North Macedonia.
I wake up in the sleeping chambers of a galleon docked in the Vardar River — a nod to European imperialism in this city of architectural marvels — and remove the chair I had propped up against the door the night before. At the reception someone quips: “Do not be fooled. This may look like a hotel, but when the time arrives, we sail down the Vardar and conquer Greece.”
Just outside stands the Bridge of Civilizations with its endless statues to all the heroes — real and invented — of Macedonian history. Then the main square with its giant statue of Alexander. And then the hotel where I am meeting Janko Bacev, the president of the small United Macedonia party, the only openly pro-Russian party in the country.
Bacev is fighting against the proposed name change for the country. Together with other small parties, United Macedonia will boycott the referendum scheduled for September 30, but Bacev is ready to do much more. He is close to Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian philosopher and propagandist known for his ties with every reactionary movement in Europe.
Bacev’s bodyguard, sitting next to him, tells me that when the party brought Dugin to give a talk in Skopje, the Russian was asked how his countrymen would respond to the suggestion of changing Russia’s name. We would kill, he answered.
The name change is important because it opens the way for Macedonia’s membership in both NATO and the European Union, overcoming Greece’s objections to the use of a toponym it considers its own. The recent agreementbetween the two governments leaves us tantalizingly close to that outcome, provided the voters in the referendum are convinced.
Brussels wants to turn Macedonia into a normal country. Russia also has an interest in the outcome of the referendum. To lose Montenegro — the small Balkan nation joined NATO in 2017 — might be deemed a misfortune. To lose both Montenegro and Macedonia would look like carelessness.
The night before, I had gone to the protests in front of the parliament building. Bacev was there too, of course. From a distance I could see how he moved to the frontline, facing the riot police and waving a Russian flag. In another protest a few days later, he would be roughed up by a group of youths close to the former ruling party, unhappy that opposition to the name change was being given a bad name by a foreign agent. The experience left him undaunted.
The Russian Embassy in Skopje is a spies’ nest, the third and smallest vertex in a triangle that also includes Belgrade and Sofia. Led by the mythical Oleg Scherbak, a classmate of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the embassy developed a powerful espionage machine. Officially it boasts five intelligence officers: one specializes in the energy question, and two speak perfect Albanian and are in charge of dealing with the national minority.
Is this a game — a new Great Game — between Russia and the West? Not quite. There’s another player at the table.
The next day I meet another of the main political figures fighting the name change. As we sit down sipping caffè freddos in the pleasant Manda Kafe, Ljupco Palevski tells me Macedonia is a battlefield between two powers. On one side, the West. On the other … China.
China or Russia? I ask. “Russia is only muscles. The mind is China, and the money is China.” The Chinese wants to build a road, he explains, a new Silk Road between Central Europe and their port in Greece. “The way to stop this road is to create conflict in the Balkans.”
Palevski was alleging that the West is creating havoc in his country — stirring up passions with the name change — in order to block or disrupt the Belt and Road project. If Macedonia is thrown into chaos (or brought into NATO), China will lose the only available road to Europe, because the road can only go through three countries and both Albania and Bulgaria are solidly within NATO.
Palevski immediately strikes me as more serious than Bacev, and more dangerous. Any mention of his name in Skopje evokes the story of how he came in possession of illicit recordings made by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (who was driven out of office by the ensuing wiretapping scandal).
Armed with taped conversations between politicians, diplomats and high-level officials, Palevski quickly proceeded to deploy them against many of those whose crimes they exposed. For that, he was rewarded with at least two assassination attempts and a late-night visit from the intelligence services.
At one point during our conversation, Palevski removes a memory stick from his key chain, plugs it to his phone and shows me a conversation between a Macedonian politician and a foreign ambassador that he says will cause a political earthquake. Looking up from his phone, he suggests that the Chinese should support the new party he is creating, “a nationalist party in favor of a multipolar globalization.”
Later that day I asked an agent of a European intelligence service operating in Skopje what he thought of this. The answer: “The Chinese will never get involved with someone like Palevski.”
The agent told me he is less optimistic than his political masters that Macedonia will have a European future. China, although cautious and methodical, is increasing its economic influence here, while Russia has a limited goal in mind: not to stop Macedonia from joining the Western club but to make sure that it does not succeed after it becomes a member. As Skopje moves toward NATO and EU memberships, there will be plenty of opportunities to pour yet more sand into the West’s engine.
If the Macedonians accept the new name, North Macedonia will start a prolonged accession process to the EU. Negotiating chapters will be opened. Large teams will arrive from Brussels and fill up all the chambers in the Vardar galleon, with some officials perhaps sleeping in hammocks on the deck. They will meet with ministers and bureaucrats to negotiate procurement rules and telecom laws, among many other things.
Meanwhile, in the shadows, other chapters will be opened, other communication plans will be discussed and money from secret coffers will continue to flow.