The latest diplomatic gossip from the Balkans, where Serbia has abruptly withdrawn its entire embassy staff from Macedonia and then accused the country’s prime minister of “betraying Serbia” and illegally bugging the Serbian president.
On Sunday night, Serbia pulled its entire embassy staff out of Macedonia. President Aleksandar Vucic claimed authorities had discovered that Skopje was engaging in some “very offensive activities” with the help of an unnamed third party.
Almost every news publication in Serbia subsequently ran stories alleging that Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had “betrayed Serbia” by “bugging Serbian officials…with the assistance of western intelligence operatives”. They also claimed that Vucic was among those who’d been bugged.
Relations between Belgrade and Skopje have been in bad shape ever since the current government led by Zaev came to power this spring. Zaev enjoys close ties with the west and his government has pledged to make joining NATO a top priority. Since assuming office, Zaev has become the region’s undisputed darling of the west, a crown Vucic once wore himself.
The allegations that Zaev had wiretapped Vucic and other Serbian officials are noteworthy given Zaev’s recent path to power in Macedonia. Beginning in 2015, when former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party was still in office, Zaev began releasing a series of recordings or “bombs” of Gruevski and high-ranking members of his inner circle on tape discussing their participation in all manner of lurid criminal activity, including coordinated electoral fraud and the cover up of a murder. It’s widely believed that Zaev had assistance from a western intelligence agency in procuring the sophisticated surveillance equipment.
Some in Belgrade believe the recall of Serbian diplomats and wiretapping allegations are mere theatrics from Vucic, who has staged aggressive and attention-grabbing stunts irritating to Serbia’s neighbors before. One memorable example was the kitsch “Kosovo je Srbija” midnight train to Mitrovica. It’s believed that Vucic uses these provocations to get the the attention of the west with whom he is then able to increase his bargaining power. Vucic continues to court the approval of both the west and Russia.
There are some who believe that Zaev really is in possession of compromising wiretapped recordings of Vucic, possibly in conversation with Gruevski. In the unlikely case that is true, Zaev probably would not threaten to release the tapes without the blessing of his western partners. Regional stability is at stake.
Regardless, recent developments indicate that Serbia-Macedonia relations have continued to deteriorate, and that Vucic remains a factor of chaos and instability in the region rather than its “factor of stability”, as several dim EU and US diplomats have described him.
Vucic has never approved of Zaev. The current Macedonian leader assumed office following a bloody confrontation with nationalist protesters in the parliament building on April 27th. Later it was discovered that an advisor at the Serbian embassy named Goran Zivaljevic had been present for the clash in which several then-opposition politicians were badly bloodied, including Zaev.
Investigative journalists from the Serbian portal KRIK later revealed that Milorad Lazanski, a prominent “pro-Russia commentator” and member of Vucic’s own Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), had been in contact with embassy officials in Skopje for help with articles critical of Zaev and Macedonia’s NATO aspirations. Lazanski would then publish these pieces in Serbia’s pro-government press.
International media suggested on Monday that the recall of Serbia’s embassy staff was somehow linked to Macedonia’s decision to support Kosovo’s bid for UNESCO membership. But Gruevski’s government recognized Kosovo’s independence years ago. More recently, when Kosovo’s membership in the International University Sports Federation (FISU) was up for vote, Macedonia abstained while Russia voted in favor of Kosovo’s membership. So the idea that news of Skopje’s alleged support for Kosovo’s renewed UNESCO bid would prompt such a dramatic diplomatic withdrawal from Belgrade seems like a stretch.
Regardless of what’s really going on at the Serbian embassy in Skopje, Vucic has assured everyone that within 7 – 10 days, “everything will be back to normal” — whatever that means anymore.