GOP congressman worries: Russia might move in the Balkans

Russia might take advantage of instability in Macedonia to recover some of the Balkan territory lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to a Republican lawmaker.

“At the very least you can imagine them playing a provocative role,” Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., told the Washington Examiner.

The small Balkan country is going through a political crisis, born of ethnic and political rivalries, that has made it the scene of new contretemps between Russia and western powers. The United States and the European Union support a political process that would have the effect of elevating a western-leaning government to power in Macedonia, while Russia is siding with the embattled incumbent president’s party. And so, although Macedonia hardly dominates American political debates, U.S. leaders are starting to wonder if it could become the next flashpoint with Russia in Europe.

“Outside interference in the internal affairs of the Republic of Macedonia is taking more and more outrageous forms,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said Friday. “Despite all the manipulations, the opposition, openly supported by the European Union and the United States, had to face a defeat.”

The crisis developed after a corruption scandal forced a new round of parliamentary elections in December of last year, but no political party won a majority of seats. So the second-place party cut a deal with the Albanian ethnic minority party to form a majority in exchange for giving the Albanian language official status in Macedonia. President Gjorge Ivanov, whose party won a 51-49 majority over the leading opposition party, responded by refusing to allow the new Macedonian-Albanian coalition to form a government.

“In any normal democracy, a president with only ceremonial powers would give a mandate to form a government to those who have a majority,” Zoran Zaev, who would be the new prime minister if Ivanov allows him to form a government, told the Irish Times.

“The president decided, using ridiculous excuses, not to give us the mandate. It is an unacceptable situation.”

But Russia is echoing Ivanov’s concern that Zaev will give the Albanians, who comprise a quarter of the Macedonian population, too much influence in the country. In a pair of statements attacking western powers for supporting Zaev’s coalition, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Albanians in Kosovo and other neighboring Balkan countries of trying to form a “Greater Albania” state that cuts across current political borders. “This is yet further proof that the artificial quasi-state Kosovo entity is one of the chief sources of instability and the main vehicle of conflict potential in the Balkans,” the Russian statement said.

Those kinds of comments trouble Roskam, who visited Kosovo two weeks ago with a congressional delegation, by raising the specter of a Russian invasion of Macedonia.

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“It seems like this is the old playbook: Russia either creating a false impression of turmoil or exploiting turmoil,” he told the Washington Examiner. “And so, in this case, Macedonia is an unstable place, and it seems like the Russians exploit those sorts of difficulties. And that kind of talk is the same type of talk that you hear before invasions of South Ossetia or Donetsk and these other areas in Georgia or Ukraine.”

Macedonia has outsized importance to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The country was formed out of the breakup of Yugoslavia, a Soviet satellite state that was lost to the Russians after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. More recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been building ties with the incumbent Macedonian government based on their opposition to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Bearing in mind “Macedonia’s non-alignment to the EU policy of sanctions against Russia, the two sides pointed to the mutual interest in further development of Russian-Macedonian cooperation in a wide range of spheres,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in September.

The parliamentary coalition formed by Zaev and the Albanians would be less likely to undermine Western sanctions against Russia. “Albanians are very American-leaning right now,” a senior administration official told the Washington Examiner.

Russia intervened in Ukraine, in part, as an attempt to prop up a pro-Russian leader who was set to be replaced by a Western-leaning government. “I don’t have any more insight into Russian plans than anyone else does, but if past is prelude, then it does seem like it’s the type of environment where the Russians can say ‘We’re choosing to move,'” Roskam said.

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