A Kiev-based Ukrainian friend, after meeting a delegation of young Russians, emails me: "totally terrible, young Russian diplomats. Manipulation, propaganda, gloating over victory in Eastern Ukraine, this new generation even worse than before. We will have big trouble with Russia for a very long time."
That's what many Macedonians are thinking about Moscow and the Balkans. I'm here as part of a strategy group chaired by Macedonian Defense Minister Zoran Jolevski, a former Ambassador to the U.S. who also served as his country's chief negotiator in the "naming dispute" with Greece. More about this in a moment.
At first blush, Macedonia is lovely and lively. On a June summer night, the pedestrian streets of Skopje are jammed with young people, the capitol's copious cafés packed. The atmosphere reminds me of Thessaloniki -- the capital of Greek Macedonia -- on the other side of the Greek border. Except that while the Greek economy keeps sinking, the Macedonians have now, after Ireland, the fastest growing economy in Europe. The otherwise bitterly feuding center-right government and socialist opposition both support joining NATO and the EU. "It's not ideology that matters in this neighborhood," says one senior official, "it's survival."
Indeed. Bismarck mused, two and half decades before the start of World War I, that "one day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans." On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were were shot dead in Sarajevo, an assassination whose political objective was to split off Austria-Hungary's South Slav provinces. Hostilities soon began between Austria-Hungary and the Kingdom of Serbia, which then quickly led to that great European War. There has certainly been no end to the intrigues, treachery and violence. Borders were redrawn after World War I, and again after the Second World War (Hitler had promised the Balkans peace and "the greatest future conceivable"). And after the relative calm for Yugoslavia in the Cold War years, in the1990s the region was being torn up again, this time by Serbian strong man Slobodan Milosevic.
In 2001, Macedonia managed to elude civil war after armed insurgents -- the "Albanian National Liberation Army" -- began attacking the country's security forces (twenty five percent of the Macedonian population is ethnic Albanian). Which does not mean that internal tranquility has been for ever assured. Last month, there was a thirty-hour gun battle between police and ethnic Albanian militants in the northern border town of Kumanovo. More than three dozen were wounded, eight police officers dead. Fourteen from the militant's cell were killed, with another 44 captured.
It's recent domestic political battles, though, that have rocked this tiny, land locked nation. (Macedonia has a population of 2.1 million and borders Kosovo, Albania, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria). The opposition has accused the country's leadership of wide-spread wire tapping of judges and journalists and other government officials. Two senior government officials have resigned, investigations are ongoing, and Macedonia's Prime Minister has called for new elections by April. Meanwhile, a Balkan intrigue: how did recordings of surreptitiously monitored conversations come into the hands of the opposition? While the government believes it's the work of a foreign intelligence service intent on destabilising the country, no one in the government can agree whether it's the work of Greece -- which remains fixated and furious that Skopje lays claim to the treasured name Macedonia-- Bulgaria, Albania, Kosovo. Or Russia.
Here at first blush all this sounds a little like, to borrow from Neville Chamberlain, quarrels in faraway countries between people of whom we know very little. They are those who will surely reach for another quote from Bismarck who also said, "the whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian soldier."
But not so fast. Russia threw down the gauntlet last fall, publicly declaring that further expansion of NATO into the Balkans would be seen by the Kremlin as a provocation. Ukrainians found out that even modest steps toward EU accession are unacceptable for Moscow. Georgia was invaded by Russia in 2008 for the country's sin of wanting democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration.