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.
Even as diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia remain decidedly chilly over the Ukrainian conflict, the State Department is reaching out to "up-and-coming" Russian journalists. A recent $150,000 grant offering from the U.S.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, collapsed in Moscow on Tuesday. A friend of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian dissident murdered in February, the 33-year-old showed no previous signs of illness.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told Bloomberg that the Russian reset was an "invention of Hillary Clinton" and the Obama administration.
"Well, if you take the original reset, it was not our invention, it was the invention of Hillary Clinton and Obama administrations because with their predecessors, George Bush Jr., Vladimir Putin had very good personal relations," said Lavrov.
Has NATO become a paper tiger, trying (and failing) to stand up to a resurgent Russian bear? A speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday addressed this issue, discussing both the challenges facing the 66-year-old alliance, and Stoltenberg’s vision for its future in what he termed a “changed” security environment.
It’s an especially tense time for the Baltic states and Russia’s other Western-leaning neighbors. Wariness with regard to Vladimir Putin and long-term Russian intentions toward the “near abroad” has long been the norm here, well before the 2007 cyberattack on Estonia and Russian military action against Georgia in 2008. But with the annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, general wariness has given way to focused concern about the new threat Russia poses.
When Hillary Clinton first ran for president eight years ago, it was not hard to anticipate problems inherent in the Clintons’ wielding political power while also accepting foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation. “If Hillary became president,” one prominent Democrat observed, “I think there would be all these questions about whether people would try to win favor with her by giving money” to the Clinton Foundation.
Last year Hillary Clinton called the Russia "reset" policy "totally transactional." The comments seem to take on a new meaning after last week's news about Clinton helping to approve the sale of uranium company to the Russians.
“When the Obama administration came into office, it was only months after Russia had invaded Georgia and taken over two provinces, which they declared independent states, which are totally dependent upon Russia," said Clinton.
The day President Obama believes relevant history began. Rather like the French revolutionaries who decreed that the establishment of their Republic be dated Year I of the French Republic. August 4, 1961 was the day on which Barack Hussein Obama arrived on this earth in Honolulu, Hawaii. Anything occurring before the world received this blessing is irrelevant, the President told the gathering of heads of state at The Summit of the Americas. Not directly, but in effect. “The Cold War has been over for a very long time.
A month and a half has passed since Boris Nemtsov, the Russian political activist who rose to prominence as a dynamic young reformer in the 1990s and later became one of the fiercest critics of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule, was shot dead a few blocks from the Kremlin. The shocking murder, which quickly raised questions about the Putin regime’s culpability, has largely faded from the headlines in the Western press.
Last week, Edward Snowden came out (or was let out) of his home in liberty-loving Russia to grant an interview to John Oliver, erstwhile Comedy Central Daily Show correspondent and current host of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. A few seconds in, the ever-so-earnest Snowden began to realize that Oliver, much like his mentors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, was actually less interested in conducting a traditional interview than in needling him.