The latest news made me think that it’s probably about time for a new regular feature on this blog, recounting the latest dastardly deeds for which Russia has been deemed responsible, and titled ‘The Russians Done It’ . I suspect that if I keep doing this over a while and then tally up the results, it will create a picture of an all-powerful, omnipresent Russia which poses a deadly threat to Western civilization. I suppose that I could counterpoise this with another regular feature – one which recounts all the stories about Russia’s decline and imminent collapse – but the contrast between the two Russias (one astonishingly powerful and efficient, and the other decaying and incompetent) might cause too much cognitive dissonance, so for now I’ll stick with ‘The Russians Done It!’
What sparked this new venture was a couple of stories I read in the British press, one in The Guardian and the other in The Daily Mail. I realise that finding ‘fake news’ in the Mail is very much a case of picking low hanging fruit, but it purports to be a genuine newspaper, so I think it’s fair game. Anyway, these are the stories which sparked my interest.
The first concerns the weekend’s referendum in Macedonia concerning the country’s official name. I have no personal stake in this particular issue – if it’s Macedonia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia [FYROM], Northern Macedonia, or whatever, it’s all the same to me. It’s for [Northern] Macedonians to decide, which was kind of the point of the referendum. But as I’m sure all well-informed readers are aware, Greece doesn’t agree with me on that and thinks that it isn’t entirely up to [Northern] Macedonians to decide, and that Greece should have a veto over the name. Which is why the Greeks have been pressing their neighbours to drop the name Macedonia, and have been blocking their entry into NATO and the EU as long as they don’t.
It seemed as if the issue had finally been resolved, with an agreement that FYROM would be renamed Northern Macedonia, in return for which the doors to NATO and the EU would open. The problem is that only 34% of FYROM’s citizens turned out to vote in this weekend’s referendum, rendering the whole thing legally invalid. FYROM’s prime minister has promised to press ahead with the name change regardless, but it’s not clear that he’ll able to do this, so for now the Macedonians’ efforts to join the Western world’s favourite clubs seems in jeopardy.
How did this happen? You know the answer – ‘The Russians done it!’ That, at any rate, is the view of The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, who reacted to the referendum result with an article entitled ‘Result of Macedonia’s victory is another victory for Russia.’ It couldn’t be that Macedonia’s didn’t like being pressured to change their name and independently boycotted the referendum en masse out of genuine indignation. No, that would be too simple. They must have been manipulated into it by an outside power intent on sabotaging their entry into NATO and the EU. Tisdall notes:
For students of the 2016 US presidential election, Russia’s methods in Macedonia look highly familiar. Disinformation campaigns and “fake news”, cyberwarfare and hacking, phoney Facebook and Twitter accounts and secret cash payments – the modern equivalent of communist-era “red gold” – are all alleged to have been used.
Russia denies interfering. But western diplomats claimed last month that 40 new posts a day were appearing on Facebook encouraging a referendum boycott. Postings asked “are you going to let Albanians change your name?” – a blatant attempt to stoke tensions with majority-Slav Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority.
Tisdall cites US defence secretary James Mattis as saying on a recent trip to Skopje that there ‘was no doubt they [the Russians] have transferred money and conducting broader influence campaigns.’ Then, without a trace of irony, Tisdall continues:
Mattis’s attempt to bolster the yes vote, backed by $8m in US congressional funding, were complemented by visits by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief. Britain’s Foreign Office reportedly provided referendum funds. All sought to assure Macedonians their future security and prosperity were best served by closer integration with the west.
‘Who’s carrying out the ‘influence operation’ here?’, one might ask. Tisdall comments that Western states ‘were out-thought, outspent, and outmanoeuvred by Moscow’. This is odd, as his article mentions $8m of American money, but no Russian funds, only $21,000 allegedly paid to nationalist groups by ‘Greek businessmen sympathetic to the Russian cause.’ I don’t know how Tisdall comes up with ‘outspent’. As with so many other stories I’ve discussed on this blog, the author appears to be making it all up.
As also does veteran BBC journalist John Simpson in the Daily Mail article I mentioned. Some of you may recall the salacious case of British MP Stephen Milligan, who killed himself in a bungled case of erotic auto-asphyxiation back in 1995. Now Simpson, who was Mulligan’s friend, is having doubts about the official verdict of ‘misadventure’. As the Mail reports:
He [Simpson] said he thought little about it until much later when he spoke to another close friend of Mr Milligan’s. Simpson added: ‘He said “I’m thinking of writing a book about it because it was so obvious that he was murdered by the KGB. What better way to kill somebody without there being any form of investigation than this?” Many people just thought it was funny or savage or were too embarrassed to have anything to do with it. Then he came up with the fact that at least two people, critics of the Yeltsin government, had died in the same way in Russia.’
Putting aside the fact that the KGB no longer existed in 1995, what is the evidence to support this theory? Simpson produces none, other that the fact that in his previous career as a journalist Milligan ‘had successfully reported on the new Yeltsin government in Moscow for The Sunday Times and the BBC.’ I guess that’s all the proof you need.
Things happen for all sorts of reasons. Someday British journalists are going to have to learn that Russia isn’t usually one of them. Until then, expect more headlines telling us that ‘The Russians done it!’ Apparently it sells newspapers.