Russia weaponizes cultural awards: It’s not all the same who is awarding a prize

Photo collage by Truthmeter.mk consisting of a promotional image of the Russian Golden Knight award and photo of civilians shot during Russian occupation of Bucha, Ukraine, created April 3, 2022. Screenshot by Ukrinform TV via Wikipedia (CC-BY 3.0).

This analysis by prof. Mirjana Najčevska, PhD, an expert on the rule of law and human rights, was originally published by Truthmeter.mk as part of the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.

The lack of public debate about the dispensing of various prizes by the Russian Federation to public figures in North Macedonia can have serious ramifications for citizens’ perceptions of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, and acceptance of authoritarian tendencies and anti-democratic value systems, in general.

According to the aggregator Time.mk, a dozen portals reported that the writer Venko Andonovski was awarded a “Golden Knight” of the International Literary Forum in Russia, including the portal Republika:

The writer Venko Andonovski won the greatest award for dramaturgy “Golden Knight” on the Thirteenth International Literary Forum that takes place in October in Russia ever since 2010. The forum awards prizes for several artistic areas, and this year 428 works arrived from 12 countries.

At first glance, this is very positive news: a Macedonian writer wins a prestigious award, cultural cooperation with a large country such as Russia is being further developed and North Macedonia is being promoted on cultural grounds to the wider public.

This is one of the pieces of news published in Macedonian media without any explanation or analysis of the current moment, the global context or events (even with disinformative remarks). Behind this ostensibly positive information, a propaganda attack is luring, to say the least, and confusing the public, securing space for far-reaching negative impacts on the development of democracy, promotion of liberty and civic rights as well as to the European orientation of North Macedonia.

These media reports fail to note the crucial context that the prize was awarded when Russia was identified as a military aggressor by all EU member states, almost all European countries and most of the global population, finally resulting in the recognition of the Russian Federation as a terrorism-sponsoring state.

In addition, Russia’s threats to North Macedonia are being ignored, from threatening bombing in 2018 to its embassy making black lists of Macedonian citizens this year, including the information that last March Russia put North Macedonia on the list of countries deemed “hostile.”

Secondly, absent from the Macedonian media reports is any kind of attempt to shed light on the organization awarding this prize, whose mission states that it aims at implementing national policy (Russian Federation):

The Slavic Art Forum “Golden Knight” is practically the embodiment of national cultural policy affirming traditional, spiritual and moral values. The purpose of the project is to consolidate positive creative forces of the art and cultural masters of countries from the Slavic World as well as all regions of the Russian Federation.

This organization states that it supports the regime of Vladimir Putin, which means that it supports the restriction of civic fundamental rights and freedoms policies and all forms of propaganda directed towards the promotion of this value system.

Moreover, one can see on the official website of the organization an “Open letter from film workers, participants on ХХХI ICF “Golden Knight” — against Nazism” to Putin, sent end of May.

The letter supports Putin to:

Continue the fatal planetary mission of denazification and demilitarization, including the fight against Russophobia in the World and proceed with the amendments of the Decree “On the Basics of National Cultural Policy.

The letter further states:

Nothing will change unless Russia adopts a NATIONAL IDEOLOGY, escaping from the lenient policy that prevails since the beginning of Perestroika and if the functionaries continue to award grants for anti-historic, anti-Christian films and plays such as “Matilda,” “Tanhaser,” plays promoting same-gender love, Russophobia and anti-Presidential attacks to the participants.

It even promotes an open call for censorship:

Liberals and representatives of the “fifth column” are terrified of the words “ideology” and “censorship” although these words mean the following: “ideology” — science of the ideal, and “censorship” — strict assessment, strict criticism.

To accept a prize awarded by an institution that supports the military aggression of Russia on Ukraine means extending personal support to this aggression. To accept a prize awarded from such an institution means supporting the values represented by the organization: restricting freedom of creation, thought and expression, state censorship, restriction of civic rights and freedoms, and denying equality.

The fact that, in this case, the award goes to a well-known writer, а full professor at the oldest university in North Macedonia, a regular columnist in the respectable newspaper “Nova Makedonija” and a current promoter of important cultural events in the country not only means direct and powerful influence over the Macedonian public which is opposed to the officially proclaimed position supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia's military aggression, but is also contrary to the fundamental value system accepted as the basis for the democratic development of the country.

Influence is multiplied through the media that even emphasizes that:

The founder and president of the International Literary Forum “Golden Knight” is Nikolay Burlyayev, known worldwide as a film artist who, inter alia, played the main roles in the films “Ivan’s Childhood” and “Andrei Rublev” of the great actor Andrei Tarkovsky.

None of the media published the information that Nikolay Burlyayev was one of the intellectuals who in March 2014 (during the annexation of Crimea) signed a letter of support for Putin, regarding the military aggression in Ukraine, and is a current member of the Russian Duma. He is also on the EU's list for whom restrictive measures have been imposed.

This is not the only example of its kind, not even near. In the past year, several media stories can be found on awarded prizes, cultural and sports achievements, and recognitions that Russia has awarded to citizens of North Macedonia.

During the spike of military aggression on Ukraine, another professor was “honored” with a  Russian prize. What is especially striking is the fact that the prize was awarded within the framework of the celebration of the “National Unity Day” that, according to Russian media “will take place in the background of the special military operation.”

Professor Trajce Stojanov, winner of the award named after Dostoevsky

Screenshot of the Facebook post about the award for Prof. Trajche Stojanov by the Russian embassy in North Macedonia.

On November 5, the Facebook profile of the embassy of the Russian Federation in Skopje published the following announcement, which the portal Anthropol republished that same day:

As part of the reception on the occasion of National Unity Day of the Russian Embassy, Sergey Bazdnikin presented a commemoration medal from the Ministry of Culture of “the Great Russion writer Fyodor Mihaylovic Dostoevsky 1821–2021” to the Professor from the University Goce Delcev Trajce Stojanov — author of numerous scientific works and publications revealing the philosophical component of one of the pillars of World’s classical literature. As stressed by the Ambassador, this prize is a deserved assessment of professor Stojanov’s contribution to the preservation and popularization of the heritage of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky.

That same professor had offered public elaboration/justification of Putin’s actions on March 22.

Frequently Putin calls upon those same reasons when talking about the fall of the USSR as the biggest “geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century! In his last speech he mentioned somewhat of a variation just before the attack of Ukraine. Because with the fall of USSR and the irrational politics of the leadership at the time, Russia lost its strategic advantage in defending its fatherland by losing the Baltic countries and Ukraine. Hence, the enormous Russian territory, that could have been accessed only through its “heartland” was left undefended! Putin wants to correct, as much as he can, that “historical mistake” and “geopolitical disaster”! That is the reason why Ukraine for him is “to be or not to be”! … The only “gateway” that stares wide open towards the “heart of Russia” is through Ukraine! In a geopolitical sense, that is the essence of the happenings!

Exactly this kind of “explanation” of the aggression of Ukraine is diluting the perception of Russia as an aggressor, creating the seemingly shared-guilt vision as the basis of a future compromise.

And this is not the only such case.

Macedonian novel published in Russian

In the same period, the media reported that:

The novel “Phantom Foot” from  Blaze Minevski was published in Russian in Moscow. The translation from Macedonian into Russian for the publishing company “Rudomino” was done by  Olga Pankina, thoroughly knowledgable of both languages and a person who has made Macedonian cultural values popular in Russia.

And again, the problem is not that the work of a Macedonian writer has been translated into Russian. Indeed, Olga Pankina has translated several works of Macedonian writers into Russian. The problem, however, is that this was promoted as a cultural achievement of the Russian Federation amidst the Russian aggression on Ukraine and in a period when UNESCO was counting Ukrainian cultural monuments and libraries destroyed by Russia.

The contradiction of these events, the possibility of mystifying the happenings in Ukraine and the attempt to balance the destruction of the cultural heritage of a given country with the cultural promotion of another are elements not depicted in the media that affirmed the translation. And, again, it is a member of the Macedonian artistic community who has a great deal of influence in forming public opinion and the general public perceptions of his work and presence.

“Not leaving Russia”

In the same period, the media were promoting the achievements of the Macedonian handball player Sara Ristovska who according to the information:

Successfully wears the colours of CSKA Moscow, and expects that to be the case in the future. She extended her contract with the Russian Vice Champion for next season and will remain in Moscow at least one more year.

Ristovska and CSKA Moscow are continuously winning in Russia. CSKA with perfect five out of five is on the top of the list, i.e., shares first place with Rostov and Zvenigorod.

Screenshot of 24rakomet.mk article about Macedonian handball player Sara Ristovska staying at HBC CSKA Moscow.

Again, the media saw no need to put this story into the context of current happenings, nor analyze it through the viewpoint of possible influence on the public, especially seen from the value system promoted in the country. This is happening when “on the meeting of 18 clubs competing in the Euro-league, on the occasion of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it was decided, inter alia, to postpone the match between CSKA and Barcelona, scheduled for Sunday, February 27.”

Moreover:

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that all international sport federations should either cancel or re-schedule all sports events that should take place in Russia or Belarus because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the same period, many other athletes were leaving Russia (ready to bear the damage on their own that they need to pay in such circumstances) or were judged by the sporting public for covert support or a neutral attitude towards the aggression. And, of course, this was happening in the period when Ukraine was publishing the names of Ukrainian athletes who had been killed.

Role of the intellectual and cultural public

At the moment when Russia was intensively bombing Ukraine and when such actions threatened the lives of millions of people in Ukraine, the question about the traditionally established relations or events involving representatives from Russia can be put forward.

One such event was the International Slavistic Science Gathering organization of the Faculty of Philology of the University “Ss. Cyril and Methodius” in Skopje that took place end of September. Visibly dominant were the representatives from Russian universities, and no message was sent — not even a symbolic one — from this gathering related to the Russian aggression on Ukraine, despite the fact that Russian representatives were present at this gathering who openly opposed the military aggression.

Similar is the case with the Facebook page of the Macedonian-Russian Economic Chamber where information on the economic movements in Russia is shared. Their website has an analysis that emphasizes that:

The Macedonian-Russian Economic Chamber had significant and close contacts with the Economic Chamber of the Russian Federation, with chambers of specific internal regions. These links have been cherished for a long time, but now they will subside. A great deal of time and effort will be required to revitalize these links.

The positive trends in the relations with Russia are stressed:

“For months now a high value of the exchange between the Republic of North Macedonia and the Russian Federation is being maintained. At the end of July, the exchange was two and a half times bigger compared to the same period last year. In this period, Russia is the thirteenth trading partner of the country, before, for example, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, USA … For the seven months this year, the total exchange between the two countries amounted up to 245,8 million US Dollars (in the same period last year 99,5 million US Dollars), which is an increase of 247,2 percent.”

The support that Russia has supposedly “extended” to North Macedonia can be identified in various places. The media published that Russia supports “Open Balkan,” quoting unverified claims by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov relayed by Serbian media:

“Apparently, Brussels leaders did not want Russia to confirm its position on Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), to express support for Belgrade’s initiative for Open Balkan and to talk about the interests for improving the relations between the countries in the region.”

This could be put in the context of the analysis related to the possibility of influencing Russia through this structure and of the recent EU reservations stated for the initiative.

What are the consequences of this trend?

This and such activities related to Russia by Macedonian individuals but also institutions and non-governmental organizations, topped by the uncritical and unanalytical approach of the media or even their disinformative approach in the course of disseminating the information can have long-term and very serious consequences on the perception of the citizens of Russian aggression of Ukraine, but also, in general, the value systems offered by EU and Russia (Vladimir Putin’s regime).

Firstly, these kinds of activities, especially of famous persons in North Macedonia, create elements that will be embedded in the historic memory of this period and acts of the Russian Federation diverting attention from the Russian military aggression on Ukraine. Exactly these activities can further be utilized for making an issue out of the term “aggression,” for ambiguous interpretation of the events happening, on the level of denying the existence of the Holocaust or the occupational character of the presence of the Bulgarian Army in the area of Macedonia during the Second World War. They change the general perception of the entire situation and shift attention from the current homogenous and unambiguous judgement of the aggression by democratic countries.

Second, is the relativisation of the role of a significant portion of the intellectual and cultural public in Russia in relation to the survival of Putin’s regime, while the aggression against Ukraine continues. Every prize-winning event and every cultural, sport and scientific activity by organizations that publicly support Putin's aggression policy or the policy that does not condemn such aggression represents a form of support of this regime, thus the value system that is opposed to the human rights concept i.e., a value system that, allegedly is respected and applied in Macedonia.

The third consequence is normalization: establishing a seemingly normal outlook. By presenting activities that are usual for normal relations between countries, a situation is created that seems like everything is the same as always, while the aggression of Ukraine is some kind of a side effect (very partial and with limited influence) that has nothing to do with relations with Russia. Seemingly, the “normal” relations and those of a “side” effect that does not concern these relations and dealings are separated.

Fourthly, the cumulative consequence stemming from the overall sum of activities and the media presentation thereof is the creation of conditions for accepting the aggression of Ukraine as something that requires argumentation, for which both justification and explanation exist. The illusion of equity/guilt-sharing for the “undesired” situation is created by both sides, including the possibility of divided opinions with an equal weight of the arguments in conditions when the EU has proclaimed Russia as a threat to Europe and global peace, and Russia itself has officially declared North Macedonia a hostile country.

Finally, the public is deprived of the means and opportunities of condemning the aggression, along with the tools and possibilities to support intellectuals and artists from Russia who oppose the aggression, thereby distracting attention from the ongoing great violations of human rights and fundamental liberties, the enormous destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage, and the devastation of a country, with far-reaching ramifications for the development of the whole continent and wider.

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