This report analyses the major Russian propaganda, influence and disinformation narratives present in the online space in North Macedonia in the period July-September 2022. The methodology used in the preparation of the report entails monitoring, tracking and recording of Russian influence, propaganda and disinformation. The distinguishing of the cases takes into consideration the 5Ds (distort, dismay, divide, discredit and defocus) approach, propaganda, half-truths, disinformation and online information operations coming from Russian sources and pro-Russian voices, thus grouping the articles, the producers and amplifiers of such articles within the cases. The report uses a mix-method of qualitative and quantitative research through content analysis of the articles and headlines, thus taking into account the current but also the previous contexts relevant to the cases. This approach enables for analysing the trends and the state of Russian influence, propaganda and disinformation, thus providing the trends and the eventual changes in the strategy of the producers, publishers and amplifiers of such content.
The narratives related to the Russian invasion on Ukraine were grouped under five general topics: (1) Events related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (2) Economic Consequences of Sanctions, (3) Threats by Russia, (4) Military Aid to Ukraine and (5) Miscellaneous. Due to overlapping nature of the narratives within the topics, and tracking the regional context aside of the Ukraine war, two more chapters were added elaborating the anti-Western narratives, as a part of the main five topics, and narratives with regional context which are separate from the above datasets.
As it can be seen from the chart, within this period, the dominant topic was Events related to the Russian Ukraine War, which was also first in the other categories as well. Within this topic, the narrative Russia is not fighting at full capacity got the highest number of interactions.
The following trends through promotion of the narratives were recorded:: (1) The Balkans, through different prisms, has been regularly present in the statements of Russian officials, (2) Russian narratives were adapted to the local context, including the narrative NATO/The West is trying to divide Slavs/Orthodox Christians and (3) The concept of neutrality, mostly promoted by Serbia and the 14th BRICS Summit, was utilized to express support to Russia.
Topic: Events related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine
A total of 565 articles or social media posts were analysed. The articles were published by 102 websites and on Facebook, shared and amplified through 1.164 posts on 274 Facebook pages/groups, reaching 13.124.773 followers and triggering a total of 88.935 interactions on Facebook.
This topic had the highest number of interactions. Within this topic, there are three main narratives that were the most dominant within this period: (1) NATO/the West provoked the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, (2) Russia is not fighting at full capacity and (3) North Macedonia has become a legitimate target for Russia.
The narrative NATO/the West provoked the conflict between Ukraine and Russia was present in July and September. It was promoted through statements depicting NATO as an evil and adversary to “the normal world” thus making an effort through distortions to depict the US as a country that has engaged in most of the wars in history and as a threat to the global peace. Russian officials also blamed the US as responsible for the war in Ukraine and stated that the “special military operation” aimed at “eliminating the direct threats to the security of the Russian Federation that the USA and its satellites have been creating on the territory of Ukraine for years.” Another strain of this narrative was the claim that the eastward expansion of NATO was done contrary to assurances given to Soviet leaders, which was also promoted by local pro-Kremlin voice.
The narrative Russia is not fighting at full capacity had the highest number of interactions within this topic and was present in July and August. In July, the narrative was promoted through Russian President Putin’s statement that they “haven’t started in full yet [with the invasion]”, while in August the narrative was promoted through the statement of Russian Defence Minister Shoigu that the invasion was allegedly slowed down in order to avoid civilian casualties.
The narrative North Macedonia has become a legitimate target for Russia was triggered by the donation of a military aid from North Macedonia to Ukraine. First, Russian MFA spokeswoman Zakharova described it as a “big mistake”, after which the narrative was picked-up by local pro-Russian voices – among which were the political party Levica and the President of the World Macedonian Congress (WMC) Todor Petrov. Levica claimed that the donation weakened the army, while its MP Borislav Krmov managed to bring this event in relation to the inter-ethnic relations with a divisive rhetoric. On the other hand, Todor Petrov promoted the concept of neutrality [non-aligned] and appealed to the US and NATO to stop the military build-up and support for Ukraine, and to stop using its territory.
Topic: Economic consequences of sanctions
A total of 227 articles or social media posts were analyzed. The articles were published by 67 websites and on Facebook, shared and amplified through 557 posts on 195 Facebook pages/groups, reaching 9.258.404 followers and triggering a total of 61.432 interactions on Facebook.
Within this topic, there was one dominant narrative - Sanctions hurt the West more than Russia. This narrative has been present throughout the entire period, and was the strongest (according to the number of interactions) in July. A particular trend within this narrative is its strong emergence in this period.
Besides by Russian officials, a curiosity for this narrative is that was also promoted by officials from EU countries. Russian President Putin blamed the West for allegedly destroying the global economy with the sanctions, while Russia was safe from harm, concluding that the “economic blitzkrieg” had failed. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban repeatedly called for lifting the sanctions, claiming that the economic and energy crises were caused by the political decisions made in Brussels. What is surprising is that some of his statements were very similar to the ones given by Deputy Head of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev. For example, in July both of them said that Europe shot itself in the chest/in the head with the sanctions. This narrative was continued by other Hungarian politicians as well. Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament Laslo Kover continued this narrative, saying that the EU was working against its own economic interests, while Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó said that Europe was suffering more than Russia from the sanctions.
Topic: Military Threats by Russia
A total of 126 articles or social media posts were analysed. The articles were published by 57 websites and on Facebook, shared and amplified through 273 posts on 143 Facebook pages/groups, reaching 7.831.608 followers and triggering a total of 18.480 interactions on Facebook.
The narrative After Kyiv is captured, the war will expand beyond Ukraine was promoted in July, by the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov who is frequently present in the Macedonian online space, portrayed as “fierce” and “strong” warrior, and loyal ally of Putin.
Nuclear threats were present during the entire monitoring period. The narrative was promoted through the features of the SARMAT – 2 intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as through various threats issued by Russian officials towards European countries and the US and UK, among which Medvedev’s statements were the most notable and the most frequent.
Another narrative that sent direct threats to the neighboring countries of Russia was There will be a new Soviet Union, promoted by Minister of Defense Shoigu, who said that a new Soviet Union, greater and stronger, will be created.
Aggrandizing Russia and its military capabilities was broadcast by the outlets without providing prior context, thus continuing the trend of Russian propaganda to announce the same weapons several times, while in reality Russian weapons in Ukraine were described as “ineffective”, “obsolete” and “not meeting modern requirements”.
The narrative NATO/The West is trying to divide Slavs/Orthodox Christians was promoted in July by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who accused the US that they were against the Orthodox peoples in the Balkans. On the other hand, Belarus President Lukashenko blamed NATO and the West for the dissolution of former SFR Yugoslavia and said that NATO got itself between the Slavic nations and pitted them against each other. This is part of the Russian strategic narrative for the Balkans indicating the “Slavic/Orthodox brotherhood”.
NATO is a Satanist organization is a similar narrative to the previous. It was promoted by the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who blamed the Alliance that incited conflicts and was against countries with traditional values, continuing the narratives promoted by his sub-ordinates that are offensive toward the West and carry religious messages, such as “holly war”, “Antichrist” or the most recent one “Satan”.
All of the narratives within this section aim at uniting Orthodoxy and the Islam against the common enemy – the EU and the Western values, with emphasis on the European values.
Narratives with regional context
Amid the tensions at the end of August, he claimed that there were extremists from Chechnya (Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion) present in Kosovo and they were plotting the murder of Kosovo Serbs, called upon NATO to stop the incursions of the special Kosovo units in the north of Kosovo, and announced that he will send a letter to KFOR in Kosovo asking them “why don't you protect the people who are a minority, why are you helping the Albanians to oppress that minority?”. In the beginning of September, he continued with this narrative, saying that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo and he will not allow “pogrom” to happen. He also used the energy crisis to present himself as a friend to North Macedonia, saying that Serbia provide aid to North Macedonia during the winter, while in fact it is all about a trade [if the agreement is reached] – Serbia will provide North Macedonia with gas, while in exchange, North Macedonia will provide Serbia with electricity, which means that it is not about aid provided to North Macedonia by Serbia.
He stated that the West prepared an offensive against Luhansk and Donetsk with Ukrainian forces, trained their soldiers and sent a significant number of their mercenaries, so Russia was forced to retaliate. Additionally, he openly supported the Russian aggression against Ukraine, stating that it was necessary to protect Russians in Ukraine, thus strengthening the Russian narrative throughout the region. He also drew a comparison with Bosnian Serbs, saying that the Christian and Muslim communities couldn’t coexist together, that Serbs therefore had a "natural" desire to join Serbia and that they will take half of BiH’s territory. He concluded that all of this was a part of a war of the West against Orthodoxy, repeating the Russian narratives in relation to Christianity and the role of the international community, i.e. the West in the Western Balkans and BiH in particular. Coupled with the tensions in the Kosovo-Serbia relations at that time, these statements created uneasiness and incited dismay across the entire region.
Top 5 stories by number of articles, amplification and interactions
Top 10 websites by overall number of articles (promotion) and top 10 Facebook pages/groups by number of posts (amplification)
Authored by FN Team
This project was funded in part through a U.S. Embassy grant. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed herein are those of the implementers/authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.