Russia’s World War Two diplomacy scores a win in North Macedonia

Фото: овинаска агенција Мета.мк
Споменик на Јуриј Гагарин подигнат од општина Карпош, Скопје, во соработка со Амбасадата на Руската Федерација во април 2015 г.
Monument to Yuri Gagarin built in April 2015 in Karposh Municipality, Skopje, North Macedonia. Photo by

In 2015, another Skopje municipality, Karposh, erected a similar granite bloc in honor of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in a ceremony attended by then-Ambassador Oleg Scherbak.

In recent years, geopolitical controversies related to Victory Over Fascism Day have abounded, as countries blame each other for politicizing celebrations and distorting historical fact for propaganda purposes.

In Russia it is a major national holiday that is widely celebrated, even under lockdown.

However, citizens in neighboring countries such as Ukraine and the Czech Republic are often more more inclined to view the Soviet Union and the Red Army in a negative light.

Russian meddling in North Macedonia

Russian influence in the Republic of North Macedonia intensified after May 9, 2015, when then-President Gjorgje Ivanov attended the Victory Day Parade hosted by Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

NATO had recommended its members and allies to boycott the parade in protest over Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The Macedonian leader’s 2015 snub of NATO’s call for solidarity placed in doubt the country’s strategic goal of joining join NATO and the European Union.

In the years that followed, North Macedonia managed to become a member of NATO, in spite of obstructions put up by Ivanov’s right-wing political party VMRO-DPMNE.

The party lost power after the 2016 elections, despite receiving unprecedented support from Russia via diplomacy, political proxiespro-Moscow media outlets and troll armies.

Nevertheless, the pro-EU and pro-NATO government led by the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM) that came to power at the end of May 2017 has been careful to avoid antagonizing Moscow.

Skopje’s cordial tone towards Russia has been even more notable in the face of provocations, such as in 2018, when ex-ambassador Scherbak declared that the country would be a “legitimate target” for Russian retaliatory attacks in the case of any conflict, if it chose to join NATO.

Bogdanovikj, who oversaw the unveiling of the monument with Ambassador Bazdnikin, is a member of SDSM, along with most of the municipal council that supported its installation.

The Yugoslav experience

The Day of Victory over Fascism is celebrated in most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where the Red Army dominated liberation efforts, on May 9.

This is because the document of surrender was signed well before midnight in Berlin, but came into force after midnight, Moscow time.

In the Western allied countries the anniversary is celebrated on May 8, and is known as Victory in Europe Day, since for these countries, World War Two ended in August, with the Japanese surrender.

Despite sharing a timezone with Berlin and Paris, North Macedonia began celebrating Victory Day on May 9 as part of the then-Yugoslavia.

Unlike some other parts of the Yugoslav federation, including the capital Belgrade, Macedonian territory was liberated without direct intervention from the Red Army, in November 1944 by local partisans.

During the war, Macedonian anti-fascists had fought together with brothers in arms from neighboring Kosovo and Serbia, and other allies.

Yugoslavia soon defected from the Soviet bloc but didn’t change the date of the celebration, which became a traditional minor holiday during socialism, overshadowed by other celebrations such as May Day and Federation Day, as well as Uprising Day and Army Day.

In fact, Yugoslavs often used to note that the war in the country didn’t actually end on May 9, but a week later, since remaining Nazi and collaborationist forces tried to fight their way out of the country in order to surrender to Anglo-American forces in Austria.

This breakout attempt resulted in additional atrocities.

In North Macedonia, Victory Day is celebrated together with Europe Day, a celebration of European peace and integration promoted by the European Union, which isn’t a feature of the Russian calendar.

Top officials and activists alike often join the two days conceptually: