On August 21, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that staff from the Serbian embassy had been withdrawn from their posts in Macedonia for consultations in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. This decision was taken after Serbian intelligence agencies allegedly “received sufficient evidence of many offensive intelligence activities against Serbian authorities and institutions.”
In response, pro-government media in Serbia started a new wave of warmongering front page announcements aimed at Macedonia and the Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev, including titles such as, “Macedonians Are Stabbing Us in the Back!” and “Zaev Declared a War on Serbia.”
Analysts from the region consider two main factors which may be behind this unprecedented move by the Serbian government. The first might be due to Serbian interest in Macedonia as indicated by a nearly decade-long effort by Russian and Serbian secret services to support anti-western and pro-Russian nationalists in Macedonia. Leaked documents, obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and partners NOVA TV and the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), included reports by Macedonian counterintelligence about “strong subversive propaganda and intelligence activity” aimed to disrupt the country's entry into NATO.
This, added to reports that a Serbian intelligence officer was present during the April 27 coup attempt in the Macedonian Parliament, also known as ‘Bloody Thursday’, has created tension in the region. The incident occurred when a mob organized by the former ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, a right-wing populist party with reported ties to Russia and to Serbian intelligence services, attempted to lynch the soon-to-be Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, other MPs and journalists.
Another reason may involve the ongoing efforts by the Serbian government to prevent Kosovo's bid for membership to UNESCO. Kosovo is a former Serbian province which declared its independence in 2008. Since then, international recognition of Kosovo has been mixed. Vučić's administration had been lobbying other countries to vote against Kosovo's membership within the relevant UN bodies. Some journalists have been speculating that this is a form of pressure intended to intimidate Macedonia into stopping support for Kosovo's bid.
The Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs was quick to respond to an inquiry from a citizen about this issue:
Macedonia cannot possibly be in the driving seat on an issue that is both very important and divisive for our neighbors.
— Nikola Dimitrov (@Dimitrov_Nikola) August 21, 2017
Other commenters have noted that this development is a part of the proxy war between Russia and the USA, which also initiated hostile moves at diplomatic level lately. In this respect, Serbia is seen as attempting to destabilize the new Macedonian government which came to power at the end of May with clear a pro-western platform.
Former Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremić, who currently works as an analyst, criticised the events via a much-quoted tweet:
Šta god se desilo u Skopju, povlačenje celokupnog osoblja ambasade je diplomatski dilentatizam i šarlatanstvo, svojstveno banana državama.
— Vuk Jeremić (@jeremic_vuk) August 21, 2017
Regardless of what had actually happened in Skopje, withdrawal of the entire embassy staff is a diplomatic dilettantism and charlatanry, which only occurs in banana republics.
The Macedonian government, in turn, issued statements aimed at de-escalation, stating it will not jump to hasty conclusions and will wait for an explanation from Serbia.
Reactions to the sensationalist headlines from both sides of the border
Social network users have been sharing the warmongering headlines from pro-government media in Serbia, as a way to criticize the state for their control of the media.
Kao što sam vam sinoć najavio, plaćeni urednici – bruka za profesiju, afirmišu diplomatsko glupiranje AVučića. 2/2 pic.twitter.com/PzBMM8y81m
— Зоран Живковић (@ZoranDirektno) August 22, 2017
As I noted yesterday, the mercenary editors who shame their profession promote the diplomatic stupidities of Aleksandar Vučić.
Common citizens on both sides of the border refused to take this rhetoric at face value, and initiated a dialogue affirming their abhorrence to political manipulations.
Braćo Makedonci, nema veze sa mnom i normalnom Srbijom, ali evo ja se izvinjavam u ime te sakrivene normalne Srbije zbog ludaka na vlasti.
— QQLELE #ZaDuleta (@ajmeiQQ) August 21, 2017
Brother Macedonians, this has nothing to do with me and the normal Serbia, but I hereby apologize in the name of that hidden normal Serbia because of the madmen who rule her.
Some have been pointing to the absurdity of starting the war between the two nations, especially because of the asymmetry of their size and military power. For instance, one social media user posted a photo of a hotel in the shape of a ship that had been built as part of the Skopje 2014 project, mocking the sensationalist tone of the warmongering media:
[Foto] Uzbuna ljudi!!! MAKEDONCI KRENULI BRODOVIMA NA NAS!!!
cc @unexploded_yet pic.twitter.com/eHZHu8lpDR
— Dobrica Veselinović (@dobrinacelnik) August 22, 2017
Alert people!!! Macedonians had obtained sailing ships and are going to attack us!!!
Macedonian journalist Borjan Jovanovski also mocked the headline's rhetoric by mentioning Vranje, the biggest Serbian city in the vicinity of the border with Macedonia:
До кај стигнавме со офанзивата? дали падна Врање бар?
— Borjan Jovanovski (@BorjanJovanovsk) August 22, 2017
How goes our offensive? Did Vranje fall, at least?
Social media users from the region also reacted to the scandal. For instance, Bosnian film director Dino Mustafić commented:
Medijski naslovi u Srbiji u vezi Makedonije pokazuju kako je Vučić kreirao paranoidnu-šizofrenu realnost u koju ubjeđuje cijelu naciju!
— Dino Mustafic (@MdinoDino) August 21, 2017
Media headlines in Serbia regarding Macedonia show that Vučić created a paranoid-schizophrenic reality and tries to persuade the whole nation to accept it.
Psychologist and political analyst Srđan Puhalo posted an “advertisement” about the vacant embassy, mentioning the Serbian minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić as a sort of secret agent from the James Bond 007 series:
Izdaje se namjestena ambasada u Skoplju, osvestana!!!
Sifra: Dacic 007
— Srđan Puhalo (@SrkiPuhalo) August 21, 2017
Embassy in Skopje for rent, fully furnished and blessed by an Orthodox priest.
Code: Dačić 007.
In spite of any political turmoil, the relations between the populations of Macedonia and Serbia have remained friendly since the break up of former Yugoslav federation in 1991. In times of need, the regular people of both countries have shown tangible solidarity through grassroots humanitarian aid actions for Serbia in 2014 and Macedonia in 2016, to name a few.