Under the so-called “name” deal signed on June 17 in the village of Pespa on the Greek-Macedonian border, Macedonia agreed to change its name while Greece agreed to lift its long-standing veto on Macedonia’s NATO and EU integration. In July, NATO leaders agreed to invite Macedonia to begin accession talks to join the alliance. On September 30, Macedonia will hold a referendum asking its citizens: "Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between Macedonia and Greece?"
On September 17, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accused Russia of attempting to influence the upcoming vote. More on that in the section on Macedonia's political parties.
An article published on August 8 by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti claimed that VMRO-DPMNE, the former Macedonian ruling party that is now the country’s largest opposition party, is boycotting the referendum. However, VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski recently said that the party would not tell people to boycott the referendum.
The Russian state media agency claimed the party signed a memorandum to cooperate on a referendum boycott. While 30 Macedonia political parties, groups and individuals signed such a memorandum, VMRO-DPMNE did not.
“The official stance of VMRO-DPMNE regarding the referendum is – we have no position. It is not our job to tell the people if and how they should vote,” Mickoski said during a recent rally.
At the latest VMRO-DPMNE meeting, convened Tuesday, September 11, the party leadership did not deliver any definite decision on the referendum.
A source in VMRO-DPMNE party’s leadership, who asked not to be identified, did confirm to Polygraph.info that around 100,000 members would refrain from voting.
“Of about 330,000 strong party membership, we expect that around 100,000 would boycott the referendum. This ‘quiet boycott’ is organized by the pro-Russian currents within the ranks of our party and from outside groups and forces paid by the Russians,” the source who leads one of the factions inside the party that is against the boycott.
The source, who asked not to be identified, is leading one of the factions inside the party that are against the boycott, and confirmed that the party did not sign an agreement, as RIA Novosti claimed.
Vladimir Petreski, a Skopje-based fact checking editor and political analyst, said VMRO-DPMNE cannot afford the image of publicly calling for a boycott of the referendum.
“That will be seen as undemocratic move, not respecting European values,” Petreski told Polygraph.info.
Once the country’s ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, which stands for Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, is Macedonia’s leading opposition party. While in power, it played on pro-Russian sentiments, and Moscow sought to use it in its campaign to stop NATO expansion into the Balkans.
Russia and Macedonia’s Political Parties
After Nikola Gruevski was replaced as VMRO-DPMNE leader – he is now awaiting trial on charges of embezzlement – the party’s new pro-Western leadership openly expressed support for Macedonia’s NATO and EU aspirations.
“Ultimately, VMRO-DMPNE lost the Kremlin’s favor. This led Moscow to create a pro-Russian party of extreme nationalists and ex-police officers, a scheme well known … all over Europe: if you cannot get the support of an established party, create a puppet one,” Petreski said.
Petreski was referring to United Macedonia, an irrelevant political group that embraces and welcomes Russian influence in the country. While the party borrowed its name from the ruling United Russia and includes extreme nationalists and ex-police officials, its leader claims it has not received any funds from Russia.
According to Britain’s Guardian, United Macedonia leader Janko Bachev is a fringe politician, and a Russian flag flies from the balcony of the party’s offices. The newspaper quoted him as claiming he has not received any funds from Russia.
On his visit to Macedonia on September 17, Mattis told reporters traveling with him to the Macedonian capital he had "no doubt" Moscow has been funding pro-Russian groups to defeat a referendum to change the Balkan country's name.
"They have transferred money and they are also conducting broader influence campaigns,'' Mattis said. "We ought to leave the Macedonian people to make up their own minds.''
In June, Polygraph.info reported a key figure in the Kremlin’s efforts to influence Macedonia, Leonid Savin, provided training for 50 members of the United Macedonia party. Savin is listed as chief editor of two agencies, including Katehon, a Web site funded by Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian businessman sanctioned by the U.S. for support of operations in Russian-occupied Crimea.
The Russian factor played a crucial role in both Greece and Macedonia in undermining the “name” agreement and preventing the country from becoming NATO member. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wes Mitchell warned about this during Congressional testimony days after the deal was sealed.
At the beginning of July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and banned two others from entering the country, saying they were threats to national security. According to the Greek authorities, they tried to bribe top government and Orthodox Church officials to foment violent protests against the name deal in Thessaloniki and other cities in northern Greece.
The Macedonian government has allotted over $1.5 million (U.S. dollars) for the upcoming referendum campaign, and these funds have been distributed to the political parties represented in the country’s parliament. However, the parliamentary representatives who oppose the agreement with Greece refused to campaign and returned their share of the money, or 41 percent of the originally allotted sum.
(Editor's Note: This fact check, originally published September 13, is updated with comments by the U.S. defense secretary on his visit to Skojpe, Macedonia September 17. The addition does not change the fact check, but adds context to this article).