Several members of the US Congress seem to have taken a peculiar (and some say unprecedented) sort of interest in Macedonia recently. Why might that be and where might it lead?
It’s a warm evening in May, and I’m sitting in a garden in Skopje listening to Toni, the elderly owner of the place where I’m staying, tell me about how the United States is about to destroy Macedonia. Between sips of Macedonian rakija, he explains that the north-western part of the country where most of the Albanian minority lives would break away and merge with neighboring Albania. The rest of Macedonia would be divided up between Bulgaria and Serbia. It would all unfold, in his words, “just like Yugoslavia”. Macedonian people would no longer be called or considered Macedonian. Instead, they would be forced to become either Serbs or Bulgarians. The “Albanian-American” plan was to ensure that the very notion of Macedonian nationhood ceased to exist. To complete this mission, the US embassy had enlisted the assistance of George Soros to pay the thousands of anti-government protesters of the “colorful revolution” who gathered in the city center to march through the capital at six pm every evening.
Incredibly, over the course of the last week, several members of the US Congress have been publicly perpetuating this paranoia (which like most paranoia contains within it some truth) in what is arguably now the most politically fragile country in Europe. One Congressman, perfectly echoing Toni’s fears, gave an incendiary interview calling for the complete dissolution of Macedonia as a state. Six other members of Congress accused the current US Ambassador to Skopje of George Soros-aided conspiracies to destroy Macedonia using paid protesters and, according to some interpretations, of laying the political groundwork for a creeping federalization that would ultimately lead to the ethnic partition of the country.
A few days ago, I received a copy of a letter six members of Congress had sent to US Ambassador to Macedonia Jess Baily, who has had the misfortune of becoming the despised figurehead for the alleged “American-Albanian” plan to dismantle Macedonia — or at least oust its “center right” ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE led by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Indeed, much of the letter focuses on Baily’s supposed support for the “center left” opposition party, SDSM (and by extension, the Albanian minority, which it courted in the last election and comprises an estimated 25 percent of the country’s population). The letter states:
“Unfortunately, we have heard credible reports that, over the past two years, the U.S. Mission to Macedonia has actively intervened in the party politics of Macedonia, as well as in the shaping of its media environment and civil society, in a manner that consistently favors the parties, media, and civil society groups of the center left over those of the center right.”
The Congressmen then go on to demand answers as to how much influence and power George Soros through USAID has in the country, echoing VMRO-DPMNE talking points critical of anti-government protesters and opposition media exactly. If the message wasn’t printed on the official letterhead of the U.S. Congress, you might be forgiven for believing that parts of it had been written by some Kremlin hack.
But blaming Russia for all the ills in the Balkans today is a mistake many seem keen to make. In addition to its obvious dishonesty, it obscures other longstanding and more powerful local interests, and in the case of Macedonia and the Balkans, the machinations of powerful diasporas and lobbyists in Washington.
The most prominent member of Congress to give his irresponsible opinion about the future of Macedonia this week was Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who represents California’s 48th Congressional district (which covers a county founded by a member of the Ku Klux Klan), home to Richard Nixon and sprawling beachfront mansions. Rohrabacher somehow still chairs the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, and was recently proposed as a possible nominee for Trump’s new Secretary of State.
In a new interview with the Albanian TV Channel Vizion Plus, Rohrabacher said that he believes Macedonia isn’t really a state, and that he thinks the country should be broken apart and cease to exist.
“Kosovars and Albanians from Macedonia should be part of Kosovo and the rest of Macedonia should be part of Bulgaria or any other country to which they believe they are related,” Rohrabacher told the Albanian TV channel. When asked whether or not his proposal would be supported by Trump, the Congressman from California stated that he “had influence” and planned on continuing with his Congressional hearings on Balkans affairs which he’s held for many years.
Rohrabacher even took to Twitter yesterday in an embarrassing attempt to defend his proposal to dismantle Macedonia. “Mine was suggestion 2 Macedonian people…If they can’t get along let them follow Czechs & Slovaks.”
In addition to being one of Trump’s many early candidates for Secretary of State, a recent profile in Politico described Rohrabacher as “Putin’s favorite congressman”. Last month he told the Washington Post that he plans to lead a congressional delegation to Russia in the coming weeks to discuss areas of cooperation with the Duma.
A high-ranking US official in the region told me last night that the Congressman from California was “a surfer guy Reaganist who likes tough Russians.”
But Rohrabacher has other allies. Among them are Albanian lobbyists and diaspora in Washington. Rohrabacher has worked closely to advance Albanian interests with the controversial leader of the Albanian American Civic League, Joe DioGuardi, for many years. DioGuardi once praised Rohrabacher as “the first member of Congress to insist that the United States arm the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA).” DioGuardi, who Gawker linked to possible involvement in a medical Ponzi scheme worth $1 billion in 2010, remains a regular fixture and “witness” at Rohrabacher’s hearings on Kosovo-Serbia affairs.
Rohrabacher has also been agitating for the swapping of part of Kosovo and Serbia’s territories more or less since Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. In an October 2011 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Rohrabacher wrote:
“One option that would … bolster long-term stability would be for an honorable transfer between Serbia and Kosovo of roughly equal pieces of territory and population. In North Kosovo the ethnic Serbs would, should they choose to do so by a vote, be transferred to the sovereignty of Serbia. Simultaneously, the Kosovar majority in southern Serbia could become part of Kosovo should they so desire.”
Rohrabacher briefly touched on this point in a letter to Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic dated January 31. The Congressman suggested that “both sides should seek a mutually beneficial alteration of the northern border that would result in more Serbs in Serbia and more Kosovars in Kosovo.”
In any case, with the old Clinton alignment gone, many Albanians likely welcome “new-old” allies within Trump’s orbit.
Meanwhile, back in Macedonia, the country has failed to form a government nearly two months after the latest parliamentary elections. These were agreed upon after many marathon midnight talks involving major political parties, mediated by EU officials with the aim of curing the country of its chronic political crisis, a crisis initially triggered by revelations by SDSM leader Zoran Zaev that Gruevski had been illegally wiretapping 20,000 people.
VMRO-DPMNE managed to win the election, albeit by a very slender margin. “This is the tightest election in [Macedonia’s] history,” opposition candidate and activist Pavle Bogoevski told me on an anxious election night.
With such close results, Macedonia’s biggest Albanian party, DUI, emerged the kingmaker. DUI has long partnered with VMRO-DPMNE to form Macedonia’s governing coalition, but this time the process appears to be working a bit differently.
Just days after the election, Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama controversially hosted the leaders of Macedonia’s Albanian parties in the capital of Tirana. The goal was to advance Albanian rights in Macedonia. But many Macedonians felt the organization of a platform for Albanian parties from Macedonia in a foreign capital was unacceptable, and it further fueled concerns about the possibility of a future partition of the country along ethnic lines.
What appears undeniable now is that all parties in Macedonia are ramping up their lobbying efforts in the current uncertain international context. The recent actions of members of Congress in Macedonia have all ultimately served the interests of Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE. Though Rohrabacher has been an unwavering advocate for Albanian interests in Washington going back to the Clinton years, his recent remarks will only lend legitimacy to VMRO-DPMNE’s claim that US Ambassador Baily and the Albanian lobby have long sought the destruction of Macedonia and Macedonianess.