Tucked between Greece and Serbia and often overshadowed by its larger neighbours, Macedonia has a low media profile. Though it is composed of less than two million people, Macedonia punches far above its weight in the breadth and depth of its political scandals. In power since 2006, the Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) steered the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction – the European Commission called it ‘state capture’ in the most recent progress report on EU accession progress – amidst accusations of corruption, media control and electoral irregularities. The opposition party, Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), launched a boycott of Parliament and other state institutions after VMRO won early parliamentary elections in 2014.
The real battle began in early 2015, when SDSM disclosed dozens of leaked wiretaps, which SDSM leader Zoran Zaev dubbed ‘bombs,’ owing to the impact he expected them to have on the ruling party. It later emerged that the ruling party had recorded more than 600,000 separate conversations while illegally monitoring at least 20,000 people.
In these wiretaps, VMRO Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his ministers, among them the secret police chief – his cousin – were featured blithely rejoicing over successful election rigging (including turning off elevators in high-rise buildings to prevent elderly opposition supporters from getting to the polls), negotiating corrupt business deals, using media and police to disgrace and intimidate opponents, persecuting journalists, instructing judges on how to rule, and even covering up a murder committed by the PM’s bodyguards. The revelations ignited the country’s largest protest movement in recent years – dubbed the ‘Colourful Revolution’ because of its practice of launching paint-bombs at official buildings and monuments – but the government fought back as prosecutors charged SDSM’s leader Zoran Zaev with dubious counts of ‘cooperation with foreign intelligence,’ espionage, and treason. EU and US intervention yielded a settlement, in which Gruevski was to resign six months before new elections, the SDSM was to return to Parliament and stop publishing ‘bombs,’ and a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the crimes revealed by the wiretaps.
The elections agreed to as part of the settlement in mid-2015 were only held after repeated delays on 11 December 2016, and resulted in a near tie between VMRO (51 seats) and SDSM (49 seats), with the ethnic Albanian parties holding the balance of power with 20 seats. Although SDSM has successfully built a 67-seat majority with three Albanian parties, the President has defied the Constitution by refusing to grant Zaev the mandate to form a government. The ugly stalemate in the capital, Skopje, has entered its fourth month, amidst an upsurge in VMRO-led rhetoric castigating Albanian demands for enhanced linguistic and cultural rights (Albanians are estimated to comprise at least 25 per cent of the population).
Amidst this upheaval, VMRO has made a bizarre choice of villain. In January 2016, only a few days before his scheduled resignation, Gruevski sat down to an interview with the newspaper Gazeta Express. Many might have expected him to address growing division in Macedonian society, ongoing protests or perhaps the country’s unemployment rate. What actually topped the agenda was neither Macedonia – mentioned 37 times – nor its parties – VMRO and SDSM were brought up 12 and 15 times respectively. Instead, at 57 mentions, the word that topped the list was not Macedonian but Hungarian: ‘Soros.’
Born 1930 to Jewish parents in Hungary, George Soros escaped World War II by immigrating to the United Kingdom. He later became one the world’s most successful investors and has donated billions to various political and social causes through his international grant-giving Open Society Foundations (OSF). Its self-stated goals, among others, are democratic governance, public health, justice and accountability, and independent media.
Despite this cheery manifesto, Soros and his foundation have few fans among Eastern Europe’s leaders. For its actions in Russia and especially in support of a pro-EU Ukraine, Russia banned the OSF in 2015 as an ‘undesirable organisation’ that threatens ‘the security of the state.’ Hungary’s crackdown is even more recent. Though long an enemy of foreign influence as dastardly as the Norwegians, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s self-professed ‘illiberal state’ has singled out Soros and the OSF. The recent bill that sets conditions that would force the closure of the well-respected Central European University in Hungary – funded through a £700 million Soros endowment – has been widely publicised in recent days.
In characteristic style, the Macedonian PM and his government have taken this to extremes both Orwellian and Pythonesque. Though their claims are mostly incoherent, they have variously suggested that: Soros controls all media opposing VMRO; Soros has conspired with SDSM to destroy Macedonian democracy; he has opened 70 NGOs to ‘bribe most of the media;’ Soros spends tens of millions in Macedonia alone and is therefore in control of Macedonia’s army; Soros manipulates media of the Albanian minority to induce ethnic conflict; and most alarmingly, that he is a ‘Jew-Nazi with a God complex’ and complicit in a globalist conspiracy. To combat this, VMRO has vowed nothing less than the ‘total de-Sorosisation’ of the entire country.
One final accusation deserves special mention, namely that Soros ‘installations’ have waged a ‘destructive mercenary revolution,’ wounding over 50 police officers and have conspired to ‘destroy cultural monuments.’ As evidence for the last, a high-ranking Macedonian police source quoted by Radio Free Europe pointed to two Czech men deported for vandalism. These Czechs admitted to vandalising historical monuments during the Colourful Revolution on the pay of the OSF. According to this account, these men were paid mercenaries who ‘will be dispatched to another location tomorrow, depending on where their employer wants them.’ Yet the Czech embassy in Macedonia has no record of any deported Czechs.
Moving away from the fictitious Czechs and their mercenary revolution, a brief glance at OSF’s portfolio in Macedonia shows a somewhat more subdued reality. Of the total £3.5 million (not tens of millions) spent by the Foundation’s Macedonian branch, £600,000 was allocated to integration of the Roma minority, £200,000 to legal assistance to migrants, and some £700,000 to programs including public health, combatting corruption, and human rights monitoring. This leaves the remaining £2 million to fomenting revolution – or rather to promoting civic empowerment and free media. The latter is sorely lacking in Macedonia. According to Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, Macedonia ranks among the lowest in Europe in terms of freedom of the press. This too is the work of saboteurs, for according to the Macedonian Ambassador to the EU, ‘that Freedom House is an organisation directly funded by George Soros.’ However, donors listed on the organisation’s website do not include George Soros.
VMRO is not alone in Southern and Central Europe. In Slovakia and Hungary, governments have proposed mandatory registration or even closure for foreign-funded NGOs. Some are not so careful to hide their targets; the leader of Poland’s governing party, Jarosław Kaczyński, said that Soros’ aim is ‘societies without identity.’ In Romania, a leading politician accused Soros of ‘financing evil.’ Those who would demonise Soros – and there are many, not just in Eastern Europe – should keep an eye to reality. To be sure, shadowy billionaires financing political causes are easy targets of criticism, yet we should remember to separate fact from fiction and view such caricatures as what they are: crude justifications of creeping authoritarianism.