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Timeline 23 Aug 17

Timeline: Macedonia-Serbia Relations Reach Low Point

From Belgrade's occasional barbs towards Macedonia's then opposition to a deep diplomatic rift once the opposition took power in Macedonia, relations between the two neighbours have soured sharply this year.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Macedonia's Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov. Photo: beta

"The Macedonian government has never had any intent, or given any order, to orchestrate any intelligence operations against any of our neighbours, including Serbia," Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said on Tuesday.

He was reacting to the recent diplomatic turbulence after Belgrade last Sunday abruptly withdrew its diplomatic staff from Macedonia, having allegedly received intelligence about "offensive actions" planned against Serbia.

Belgrade sides with Gruevski in Macedonian drama:

The potential for problems in bilateral relations were to be anticipated as Macedonia in December 2016 held early general elections amid a deep political crisis centered on allegations of abuse of power and corruption concerning former PM Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO DPMNE party.

During and in after the polls, which ended in a virtual tie between VMRO DPMNE and the opposition Social Democrats, SDSM, then Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic tried to remain reserved, refraining from commenting much on events in his southern neighbour.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: Beta/Milos Miskov

By contrast, however, Serbia's pro-government media published a barrage of articles supporting Gruevski against his opponent, Zoran Zaev, of the Social Democrats.

The articles fuelled paranoid claims that Zaev, working with Western allies in the US and EU, aimed to commit national treason and give undeserved rights to Macedonia's large Albanian community.

The articles, regularly republished by Russian media and by their equivalents in Macedonia, pushed the notion also that Macedonia did not have to take a Euro-Atlantic path and that Vladimir Putin's Russia might serve as an alternative ally.

Serbian tabloid Informer's front page from March claiming that the West plans to start a war in the Balkans and to split Macedonia

In January, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic added fuel to the fire when he said Serbia might have been wrong to recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name – to which Greece objects.

Dacic said Macedonia had always undermined the Serbian position on its former province of Kosovo [whose independence Serbia does not recognise] and that Serbia should not have accepted Macedonia's name without securing its own interests first.

In March, during the presidential election campaign in Serbia, Vucic annoyed Macedonia's then opposition SDSM by claiming that the opposition in Serbia was preparing a “Macedonian scenario” - meaning street protests of the kind that the opposition in Macedonia had been staging since 2015 against Gruevski.

Intelligence affair in April rocks relations:

The turning point in relations happened in April 27 when supporters of VMRO DPMNE stormed the Macedonian parliament, attacking and injuring MPs, including Zaev. At the time, he was already on the way towards forming a new government after putting together a majority in the legislature.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, then PM-designate, was injured in the April 27 attack on Parliament. Photo: Anadolu

After the violent events in parliament, which failed to prevent Zaev from forming the new government, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, OCCRP, in partnership with Macedonia's NOVA TV and Serbia's Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, KRIK, published an investigation which claimed to shed new light on the events.

They presented documents that appeared to show Russia had attempted to meddle in events in Macedonia.

The documents, a collection of reports allegedly from Macedonian counterintelligence, also described efforts by Serbian intelligence to support anti-Western, pro-Russian nationalists in Macedonia.

Macedonian MP Ivan Stoiljkovic, a representative of the Serbian minority close to the ousted VMRO DPMNE party, and the Serbian MP and publisher Miroslav Lazanski, were implicated in the affair. Allegedly, they had worked both to create and stir up media propaganda in Serbia and Macedonia. They have denied these claims.

Media also published photographs showing a Serbian intelligence officer, Goran Zivaljevic, who worked as an adviser at the Serbian embassy, present during the violent episode in parliament.

Serbian intelligence officer, Goran Zivaljevic is seen in the upper right corner, using his phone during the storming of the Parliament. Video caption by Telma TV

Belgrade denied that its agent has been present to stir up the tension. In May, Vucic said Zivaljevic's task had been simply to observe the situation. He said other foreign intelligence services also had people stationed inside the parliament building that day.

Ties sour further as Zaev takes power:

In mid-May, Zaev drew a furious reaction from Serbia following an interview in which he called Serbia's leadership nationalistic. Macedonia’s PM-designate added that he felt "uncomfortable" with the way Vucic had talked about his country - but was ready to improve relations.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic described Zaev's statement as a "brutal and scandalous attack" on Vucic.

Late in May, Macedonia's parliament finally approved Zaev's new government.

Macedonia's new government is led by Zoran Zaev. Photo: MIA

Zaev's election as Prime Minister marked a sharp turn in Macedonia's foreign policy, which until then appeared uninterested in solving the country's obstacles to joining NATO and the EU.

Zaev renewed Macedonia's drive for Euro-Atlantic integration and said he would try to solve all open issues with Macedonia's neighbours, especially with Greece and Bulgaria.

After a short calm, Serbian Foreign Minister Dacic in July reiterated that Serbia was wrong to have recognized Macedonia under its constitutional name, repeating this during a visit to Greece - the country that has blocked Macedonia's NATO entry and EU accession talks.

Macedonia did not reply.

Ivica Dacic. Photo: Beta/Dragan Gojic

In July 17, shortly after the EU-Balkans summit in Trieste, Zaev tried to bury the hatchet, saying during his subsequent visit to Sarajevo that at the summit he and Vucic had resolved their issues and agreed to build good relations.

"The leaders of the Western Balkan countries had a working dinner and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was present, together with the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic. We had a talk and decided to move forward,” Zaev said.

But the declared truce did not last long. Last Sunday evening, Serbia abruptly withdrew all its diplomatic staff from Macedonia.

On Monday, Vucic said Belgrade withdrew its staff after obtaining “evidence of very offensive intelligence against the institutions of Serbia” adding that "foreign powers" were also involved. He declined to provide more details on whether Macedonia was involved and which foreign powers were implicated.

On Tuesday, the Serbian media filled in the gap with speculation, accusing Macedonia of tapping Serbian officials’ communications.

Headline on the front page of Serbian daily Blic: Macedonian services following and intimidating serbian diplomats

Macedonia on Tuesday said it does not want to comment any further and make any rush conclusions. It reiterated that it would like to build good relations with all of its neighbours.

Serbian leaders promised to reveal more about the affair in the coming days, adding that part of its diplomatic staff would eventually return to Skopje.

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