Macedonian PM publicly apologizes after he was deceived by pro-Kremlin Russian pranksters

Prime Minister of Republic of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev at the press conference about ‘Russian pranksters’ on 9 July 2019 in Skopje. Photo by Arbnora Mehmeti/ CC-BY.

This story originally appeared on News Agency, a project of Metamorphosis Foundation. An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

On July 7, Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev spoke to journalists in Skopje about a YouTube video in which he appears talking to two Russian pranksters pretending to be the former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The Prime Minister said he was deceived by “well organized and inventive structure, which is directed at persons and countries that are aligned towards Euro-Atlantic aspirations in order to cause damage.”

The conversations with the self-described pranksters Vladimir Kuznecov (Vovan) and Aleksej Stolarov (Lexus) happened in August 2018, January 2019, and April 2019, and in them Zaev openly talks about current political affairs such as the border between Kosovo and Serbia, autocephaly of Macedonian Orthodox Church, and EU integrations. He also gives out the phone number of the former US Assistant Secretary.

The PM said during a press conference on July 7:

„Тоа е добро организирана структура на ширење на влијание на трети страни, манипулациите по правило извираат од анти-НАТО пропаганди и дезинформации. Овие напади се насочени кон земји-членки на ЕУ или земји-аспиранти. Во разговорите повторувам наши официјални ставови, верував дека постои тој состанок и зборував како премиер“, вели Заев.

It’s a well-organized structure for spreading influence over third parties, and as by rule, the manipulations come from Anti-NATO propaganda and disinformation centers. These attacks are directed towards countries members of the EU or countries candidates. The conversations contain our official stances as I believed the meeting existed and I spoke as a Prime Minister.

Zaev emphasized that he wasn't the first the victim of this kind of mockery: the French President Emanuel Macron, the former British Minister of Foreign Affairs Boris Johnson, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and musician Elton John have all been duped by the same group.

„Ова покажува дека сум во добро друштво. Јас сум жртва на мојата отвореност. Постојано сум достапен на граѓаните, лидерите на европските држави. Неопходно е да се преиспита протоколот за безбедност на комуникацијата, која постојано е на удар на инвентивните групи. Паралелно со реформските процеси неопходен е итен план против ширење на дезинформации“, рече Заев.

This shows that I’m in good company. I’m a victim of my openness. I am constantly available for the citizens, the leaders of the European states. It is necessary to reassess the security protocol of our communications which is always under attack by those inventive groups. In addition to the reforms, it is also necessary to come up with an urgent plan against the spread of disinformation.

He added that he will not resign because of the incident as he didn’t reveal any state secrets in the conversations — he has only repeated publicly known opinions, he said. Finally, he said that similar incidents have happened in other states with much stricter security systems.

„Во тој момент лично верував дека разговарам со Столтенберг и Порошенко и зборував како премиер. Ги повторив ставовите кои секогаш јасно сум ги кажувал. Секој ден сте во машина, установи, разговори и затоа се случуваат пропусти, за што искрено се извинувам“, додаде Заев.

In those moments I personally believed that I was talking to Stoltenberg and Poroshenko and I spoke as a Prime Minister. I repeated the opinions and stances that I have always stated clearly. Every day I am in the machine with talks, and that is why lapses happen for which I sincerely apologize.

Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of the largest opposition party, the right-wing populist VMRO-DPMNE, responded to the PM's comments by saying that, with a scandal such as this, Zaev should have resigned and called for early elections.

On social media

Supporters of the VMRO-DPMNE, the Russia-backed party that ruled North Macedonia from 2006 to 2017 (a period of sharp democratic decline), had a field day ridiculing Zaev after he made the comments above.

Many of those accounts are anonymous and regularly amplify each other's content. In November 2018, a former VMRO-DPMNE official revealed the party had and was still actively running a “troll farm.”

Among those accounts, there are a few real users, such as the former Minister of Culture Ganka Samoilova, who shared the controversial Russian video with a comment:

Some time ago I asked [Zaev] to refrain from speaking English [without a translator]. I now ask him to not talk at all!!!

Some netizens who are not necessarily associated with the now-opposition right-wing party have also reacted. The official profile of TV comic personality Mile Panika tweeted:

They took our job. I am about to resign.

Some commentators agreed with the PM's position considering the case a serious security breach rather than an inoffensive prank. Blogger Jane Gjorgjioski wrote on Facebook:

Само едно да знаете, она не е пранк. Би бил пранк, ако на крајот од разговорот ‘комичарите’ му кажеле на Заев дека е пранк и дека наседнал. Она е чиста пресметана злоупотреба за политички цели и многу опасна манипулативна алатка која во иднина со сите овие гаџети на располагање, фејк колс заедно со фејк њуз ќе се валкани инструменти со страшен манипулативен потенцијал од кој би паѓале влади, претседатели, селебрити…

You should know one thing, this isn't a prank. If it was a prank, then at the end of the conversation ‘the comedians’ would tell Zaev it's a prank and that he had been duped. This case is clearly calculated abuse for political purposes and a very dangerous manipulative tool that has the terrible potential to ruin governments, presidents, celebrities with all those new gadgets at their disposal, fake calls together with fake news as dirty instruments…

Others have contributed to the debate by sharing a story by BBC Monitoring from 2018 on how the two famous pranksters practically only target Kremlin foes while receiving ample airtime and support in Russia's state TV channels.

Some people dismiss this as Russian government ploy, claiming they have nothing to do with this…
Meanwhile the fake news machinery is doing its job, and we like greedy babies swallow its products whole.

Another Twitter user cheekily referred to the content of the conversation, which they think isn't actually that controversial in the first place:

The talk with the Russians is ‘so explosive’ that they waited for a year, allowing the referendum and the name change to pass, so they can release it IN THE MIDDLE OF SUMMER at midnight, benefiting the VMRO profiles who got top spots for the day on [Twitter aggregator] list with this Russian bombshell.
Resignation resignation resignation resignation resignation resignation resignation resignation resignation OK Miloshoski keep it cool.

Analyst Dragan Alcinov tried to point out a silver lining of the embarrassing incident, quoting a lyric from a historic song that is widely employed as a metaphor for hypocrites:

Even though this joke is in a very bad taste, the published conversations show that there's no big difference in Zaev's discourse between how he speaks in private and how he speaks in public.
Compared to certain others who show “the faces of saints, but have the hearts of wolves.”

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