The Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, in an interview with Portalb.mk says that disinformation and propaganda are tools of war and that the Government treats them as such. He says that the state has difficulties in preventing the daily mass penetration of disinformation in the creation of public opinion. According to him, the fight against disinformation requires systematic work of state institutions in coordination with European and NATO mechanisms. In the current situation, to face this wave of disinformation that violates the security, but also the general state of trust in the country, it is necessary to mobilize all local capacities, he said, writes Portalb.mk.
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A few days ago, North Macedonia declared five Russian diplomats undesirable persons or Persona non Grata. What violations are we talking about?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the competent services certainly monitor the work of foreign representatives when they violate the basic principles of the Vienna Convention and the rules that must be observed by the representatives of other countries in the RNM. At the moment when any violation of this type is ascertained, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is notified and then we make decisions in this regard. With the recent developments in Ukraine, of course, all institutions are more sensitized because a deeper hybrid, the malignant intervention has been established, whatever you call it, to create a different opinion contrary to the objective facts and the values that we represent and promote, either as a country or as an Alliance. Based on the latest information received from the competent services about such proven violations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to declare five diplomats of the Russian Federation undesirable and ask them to leave the country. This is not a subjective and political assessment, but a decision based on specific data, on specific violations of procedures and rules that must be observed by all representatives of the countries in North Macedonia, as our representatives in other countries.
In particular, does this mean that they spread pro-Russian propaganda, can you give us more details?
I cannot talk about each case specifically and in detail about what violations are involved, although they are documented as such, and based on them we made a decision. It is about exceeding the competencies that a diplomat has. These excesses or rules of the game are very clearly defined by the Vienna Convention and various bilateral or international agreements. In this case, such a violation was found that endangers the security of the country, but also the security of all allies with whom we work and exchange information.
How do you assess the relations between Macedonia and Russia at the moment?
You know that the Russian Federation has put us on the list of enemy countries. We were absolutely resolute in our condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine. We consider that this unprovoked invasion was an obvious violation of international law and the international system based on rules, a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent country. We identified this act as such and condemned it in various forms, firstly in the Parliament by passing a resolution condemning the aggression with the general support of the MPs, regardless of whether they are in position or opposition. Secondly, by joining the corpus of sanctions of the European Union and other ways, such as solidarity with the Ukrainian people. There are no gray areas in this situation, it is black or white, either you are with the civilized democratic world or you are with the five countries that were pointed out in the General Assembly of the United Nations as supporters of this invasion.
What will be the Russian-Macedonian relations in the coming period?
Our bilateral relations are defined within the NATO Alliance, but also within our status as a candidate country in the European Union and these views are coordinated. I can not predict how the situation will develop there, but what the Russian Federation must do immediately is to stop the invasion and bombing of Ukraine for this negotiation process to get an epilogue. After that, naturally, the democratic world will decide what to do next concerning the Russian Federation and these actions that are contrary to the basic rules of international law.
What sanctions did RNM impose on Russia?
We have not only joined the sanctions in response to the invasion but also all the restrictive measures from 2014 onwards when Russia annexed Crimea. There are about 300 pages of materials that are approved by the Government every week as forms of concrete formalization of these sanctions. They refer to the Russian financial system, to the companies, to the individuals that the EU holds responsible for what is happening in Ukraine. Once formalized in the Government, the institutions are obliged to implement them through their mechanisms.
Will there be new sanctions?
This will depend on the decisions taken by the European Union. However, we have decided to have full compliance with the EU foreign and security policy, which means that in the future we will adhere to all decisions, whether it is a matter of taking restrictive measures against any country, RNM will join those sanctions.
We are witnessing the spread of a lot of disinformation about the current situation in Ukraine. How do they fit into the whole context?
Disinformation and propaganda are the tools of war and we treat them as such. They are absolutely active here in the region, in some countries in the region more and some less. They are present and have been constantly present in the past in various forms, but now they are even more intense. In this regard, the Government has taken certain measures, as you know, has stopped broadcasting Russian state television in the country, but of course, through various regional platforms, but also local platforms they continue to operate in our country. An NGO made an analysis comparing the number of publications on Ukraine and Russia and it can be seen that there is almost a balance in this regard, which means that as the facts and truths are published, untruths and misinformation are published with the same intensity. This is a dangerous intensity that affects the creation of public opinion and the abuse of feelings in people. All this is happening on an inappropriate ground due to the frustrations that people have about the blocked European path, the many compromises that the country has been forced to make over the years, and all this energy of discontent, of frustration among people, is now precisely channeled to achieve specific goals. And those goals are to reduce the trust of the people in the institutions, and I think this was one of the main goals because at the moment when the trust of the people in the institutions disappears, then they can be easily manipulated. Institutions then become irrelevant in decision-making and this makes governance much more difficult.
What can the Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do in the fight against Russian disinformation, especially for their spread in the Balkans?
I am not an expert in combating disinformation, but I can say that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the framework of the cooperation in the Alliance and the EU, is included in the European mechanisms for the fight against disinformation. Of course, there are those in the institutions who are directly responsible for dealing with these matters. There is also a National Strategy that defines the steps to be taken by the state and the specific institutions, but they must be coherent and implemented as defined. This is a challenge that the whole world faces and does not always win.
What do you think about the EU response when it comes to the fight against Russian propaganda now and what measures and steps do you think the EU should take to mitigate the effects of disinformation by the Kremlin?
Of course, the EU itself is a victim or target of this propaganda and therefore the fight against disinformation requires supranational or European mechanisms I believe that the countries of the Western Balkans, as well as our country, are involved in the use of these mechanisms. How successful these mechanisms are is a pending question. We are having a hard time preventing the daily massive penetration of disinformation into the creation of public opinion. Take a look at the polls and you will see what the attitude of the people about the war is. In this situation, they are completely misinformed and poorly informed. I am not saying that all this is done through local platforms, many platforms come from the region. Russian propaganda is not established uniformly in the whole region, it is larger in the places where it has found a more appropriate place, and somewhere it is smaller. But when we are already in the region, it is much easier to spread the influence in it. This requires systematic work of state institutions in coordination with European and NATO mechanisms. The current situation requires the mobilization of all our capacities to face this wave of disinformation that violates the security, but also the general state of trust in the country.
Part of the public opinion polls show that 45 percent of Macedonians would support a Russian-led Eurasian Union? What are the reasons for such attitudes of the citizens of Macedonia?
The results of recent polls are disappointing. Not only that, but confidence in the European Union has dropped from 49 percent in 2019 to 8 percent this year. This is a drastic and very disappointing decline. I want to believe that this emotion as such is not original or inherent to humans. Rather, it is frustration due to not following the European path, the constant blockades on our country which at times are unreasonable, because the country has really met all the conditions for starting negotiations and now this disappointment is expressed by people in various forms, including anti-Western or pro-Russian mood. The constant influence of propaganda, regional or direct from Moscow, nurtures this mood. It all did its thing. Of course, some people have such beliefs for cultural, religious, and other reasons, but I do not think that the dominant attitude is inherent and that it is more frustration and protest than a belief in an alternative cause different from that of the European Union. That is why when I talk to my friends in the EU, I say that this is the diagnosis and the treatment should be following the diagnosis, or that the therapy should be causal and not symptomatic. We should not treat the symptoms but the cause. And what is the cause? The cause is the blocking of the European road. Let’s heal this moment first, and then it will be much easier to resist these instruments that pump up that mood created for other reasons.
And what does the European Union say about this?
I think recent events have raised the awareness of some skeptics in the EU who see enlargement as a threat to the EU. They began to realize that enlargement was the main security policy for the European Union. They understand that if we had not acted strategically in 2000 with the accession of Eastern European and Central European countries, today we would have had a completely different situation in terms of European security. But that strategic leadership showed how important enlargement is. They realize that they must do the same today for the Western Balkans.
How do you assess Russian-Chinese relations?
The People’s Republic of China abstained from the United Nations, did not oppose the resolution condemning the aggression, but did not support it. We hope that China will join the world in condemning this invasion and will not take a position with Russia on this aggression. I think that China also has an interest in economic cooperation with Europe and I certainly would not want these economic interests, which are very essential for both China and Europe, to be disrupted due to an unfounded, illegal and unprovoked cause.