Skopje, Macedonia: Five minutes after we meet in a hotel, Vasko Lazarevski whips out his cell phone to show me the latest threat sent to his Facebook account.
“We will strike the spies first in the next war,” it reads. “No more mistakes.”
He clenches his jaw as he reads the next line. “Luka is your dearest, so love him and Macedonia. Don’t make me fuck your dearest in the ass. Do you understand, spy?”
Luka is Lazarevski’s 11-year-old son.
Lazarevski is not a spy. He is a longtime activist and a colleague of mine at the Open Society Foundations, founded by financier and philanthropist George Soros. The Foundation Open Society Macedonia helps fund groups working in education, healthcare, community activism and independent journalism—innocuous activities, unless you start exposing the government’s theft of state funds allocated to them.
The message comes from a fake profile, set up using the name of the son of one of Lazarevski’s colleagues. The subtext of the message is as unsubtle as the threat itself. We’re watching you, your friends and your families.
Lazarevski thinks the message is from the Macedonian state security service—which doesn’t seem far-fetched, given that two government agents spend all day, every day, in his office, demanding documents as part of an ongoing investigation into an unspecified crime.
The agents arrived in December, just weeks after the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. That same week, more officers swarmed into another 21 NGO offices across the country. Eighteen of their search warrants specifically demanded the seizure of files documenting their work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“They made me sign every side of a 1,500 page submission,” says Uranija Pirovska, executive director of the Macedonian branch of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (MHC), an international organization that receives U.S. funding for its branches around the world. “It took me three hours. They tie us up in paperwork so we can’t do our work.”
Pirovska’s office has been attacked six times by hooligans heaving rocks through its windows—in one instance injuring Pirovska and a colleague. The authorities have shown no interest in investigation or protection.
The Macedonian government has made this tiny nation of 2.1 million people a crucible for Trump and Tillerson foreign policy, but the assault on USAID–backed organizations has so far been ignored by the White House.
Trump’s isolationist rhetoric on the campaign trail appears to have emboldened the country’s increasingly authoritarian ruling party, VMRO, to challenge an American institution that has been synonymous with American soft power for more than half a century. White House plans, revealed last Monday, to slash the USAID budget will only make VMRO more daring.
That daring is born from desperation. In the national parliament building across town, VMRO members have been filibustering for weeks to prevent a vote that would end its decade-long rule and bring a new coalition into government.
When lawmakers voted in favor of the new coalition on Thursday, pro-VMRO protesters stormed into the session chamber and assaulted its leaders. The head of the coalition, Zoran Zaev, left the hall battered and bloodied, with more than a hundred others reported injured.
Outside, electric saws scream through swirling dust as construction workers labor to finish “Skopje 2014,” announced by the party in 2010 as an $80 million euro government project to render the center of Macedonia’s capital into a neoclassical tribute to Alexander the Great.
Dozens of gleaming bronze statues, a whitewashed Greco-Roman facade and two faux-wood galleons face off along the banks of the Vardar River in a surreal competition for the city’s most kitsch object. Featuring work by a range of Macedonian poets, painters and patriots whose purpose is to evoke nationalist pride, yet its garish display largely ignores the contribution of Turks and Albanians to the city’s development as an Ottoman trade hub.
Now three years beyond its completion date and $480 million euros over budget, the unfinished project has become symbolic of rampant corruption and abuse of power in Macedonia—whose total annual budget is just $3.18 billion euros. Public debt has almost quadrupled while the project makes slow progress.
To make matters worse, recordings leaked in 2015 appear to show that VMRO leader Nikola Gruevski, who was then prime minister, ordered the wiretapping of 20,000 people and encouraged corruption and electoral fraud.
The revelations sparked mass protests and plunged the country into political crisis. The EU stepped in, describing VMRO’s rule as “state capture,” and persuaded Gruevski to resign, new elections to be held and a special prosecutor appointed to investigate. Yet despite Gruevski’s departure from office, he has remained the party leader and refused to allow a new coalition to take power.
The stakes are high—should VMRO give up power, Gruevski and his allies face ending their political careers behind bars. Instead, they have consolidated their control over the country’s law enforcement, judges and the media.
They have also backed a faux–“international movement” known as Stop Operation Soros, which operates only in authoritarian Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia. The group is, in fact, staffed by employees on the government payroll and publishes confidential data provided by the NGOs exclusively to the Macedonian police, making their collusion with the government clearly evident.
Now Republican senators and certain right-leaning media outlets have stepped into the fray. Six Republican senators—Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Jim Inhofe, Thom Tillis, David Perdue and Bill Cassidy—wrote a letter to Secretary of State Tillerson accusing USAID and the Open Society Macedonia of conspiring to support left-wing political groups.
It would appear that without even bothering to check their sources, or take the time to read a VMRO manifesto, the right-leaning American press have bought into this narrative, depicting the struggle between USAID–funded transparency campaigners and corrupt leaders as an ideological battle between conservative leaders and liberal activists. George Soros’s endorsement alone is considered evidence enough to support this view.
Those pundits may be surprised to read the VMRO party’s latest blog post, which criticizes its opponents for planning to privatize state assets left over from communist Yugoslavia: “The [opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) party] was defeated in the elections, but are proficient in easily selling off the state and national interests,” the post reads. “Without effort they aim to dismantle the statehood which other generations have built with blood, sweat and tears.”
Clinging to socialist-state institutions is typically not considered a conservative trait. Applying the U.S.-centric “liberal versus conservative” frame simply doesn’t work in most central and Eastern European countries, where politics are often defined by clans and personality cults.
In Macedonia, the struggle is between an authoritarian kleptocratic regime and groups of all political stripes fighting for the rule of law. It’s through this prism that the work of USAID here should be viewed.
Journalists who criticize the government have been spat at, attacked in the streets and prosecuted, prompting the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative for Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, to intervene on numerous occasions.
Meanwhile, the state-controlled media pillory NGO leaders who criticize the government as “enemies of Macedonia.”
“In the morning, we would receive the bulletins from headquarters [VMRO Center for Information],” explains Ubavka Janevska, a former journalist at Macedonian national television. “They gave us the day’s talking points. Sometimes we didn’t even bother to adapt them or make them more creative, we just read them out on air.”
The process has become so automatic that journalists often don’t add bylines to their stories published on the pro-government news portals. TV reporters cover the stories simply by referring to unattributed pieces as their sources.
The propaganda effort in Macedonia is aided by another kleptocracy that has begun to show an increased interest in the country.
“The Kremlin is siding with Gruevski—it has published more press releases about Macedonia in the last two years than it had in the previous twenty,” says Vladimir Petreski, a veteran journalist with Media Fact Checking Service, a USAID project for strengthening media in Macedonia. “The number of diplomatic staff at the Russian Embassy has increased fivefold since the wiretapping scandal broke.”
Macedonia has even sprouted a local chapter of the infamous Night Wolves biker gang, whose Russian members helped annex Crimea and are fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine.
Amid the instability, Moscow appears to have spotted its chance to wreak havoc with a prospective EU and NATO member. Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, is even reported to have endorsed a concept called the “B4 strategic solution”—a plan to unify Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a neutral bulwark against NATO expansion.
However, the plan probably comes too late, since the U.S. approved Macedonia’s regional neighbor, Montenegro, to join NATO earlier this month. This occurred despite an attempted coup plotted by Russian agents and two “no” votes in the Senate—from Rand Paul and Mike Lee, the lead signatory in the letter attacking USAID activities in Macedonia and Albania.
But if President Putin can’t stop U.S. hard power in the Balkans, it doesn’t mean he can’t seize this opportunity to kill U.S. soft power. Even if Congress blocks Trump’s budget, Tillerson’s failure to respond to the attack on USAID in Macedonia could spell the beginning of the end for foreign aid as we know it.
For Lazarevski, his colleagues and his family, it could spell something much worse.
* The name of Lazarevski’s son has been changed to protect his identity.
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