A lot of topics are in the focus of the public interest in a time of growing domestic and international challenges - health, regional, integrative, and all of them have one common denominator - security. We talked about some of them with Erold Musliu, Director of the Intelligence Agency (IA), an institution under the authority of the President of the country. It is authorized to collect, analyse and process intelligence information relevant to the security, defence, political, economic and other interests of the Republic of North Macedonia.
DW: Did the hybrid strategies that used the pandemic to draw trajectories for their influence succeed, mostly through a needle - from vaccines, through donations, to media propaganda and everything that can be included under that anti-pandemic package, but with a visible geopolitical label?
Erold Musliu: The countries which perform hybrid influence over regions which are in their sphere of interest abused the pandemic to promote their state interests. So far, such an approach has had an effect on certain segments of the public opinion in favour of certain countries and vaccines and in relation to their donation procedures. In the short term, it can be said that such an approach is fruitful, but in the long run such behaviour and action are not sustainable, and in the future they cannot be used as a platform for implementing hybrid strategies. Of course, the success in opposing such action is how much the countries will recognize it as a threat, and consequently oppose it and develop resistance. As a NATO member, together with our allies, we quickly identified and recognized this strategy and set ourselves up accordingly. It is necessary in the coming period, in cooperation with other stakeholders in the field of security, to influence jointly on the raising of the security culture in the institutions and in our society in general, in order to become more resistant to influences which are part of the hybrid strategies of the geostrategic actors.
During this pandemic period, numerous non-papers appeared, which sent a message that the problems and frozen conflicts can be solved by drawing new borders in some of the countries of the Western Balkans. Does the Intelligence Agency have knowledge of who is behind them?
The constellations in the Western Balkans region are far more complex and complicated to be solved with a non-paper. The Intelligence Agency monitors their publication and I can conclude that they did not achieve the desired effect. We identified that it was a matter of interest to the professional public, but the politicians did not have the courage to express their views. The main interest of the Intelligence Agency is who is the creator of those documents and what is their purpose. The findings point to an intelligence conclusion that some politicians in the region are trying to go beyond their limits in an attempt to present themselves to the EU as a relevant address which can help in the process of resolving outstanding issues in the Western Balkans. Some of them overestimate the power, and they rely on good contacts with various lobby groups which exist in the EU. I see the danger, above all, the politicians from the Western Balkans region to enter the matrix of the hybrid strategy, and thus be a tool for the realization of the scenarios of so-called non-papers. The non-papers easily draw solutions based on ethnic principle, although it is crystal clear to everyone that after the disintegration of the SFRJ, the new countries were formed on the basis of the then administrative borders, and not on the basis of ethnic principle. The appearance of such unofficial documents with bold proposals is a warning of the prolongation of the official dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and other talks on open issues in the region.
On an occasion, you said that Bulgaria is not a security issue. Yes, it is our partner in NATO, but its blockade of the Macedonian European path affects the stability here and in the region. When we have a partner opposite us and this partner inhibits us at the same time, how do you approach the treatment of this issue?
It is true that I stated and I still am of the opinion that the relations of Republic of North Macedonia with Bulgaria are not a security issue. It is a political issue that is being discussed at the bilateral level and within the EU. The Treaty on Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation with the Republic of Bulgaria from 2017 is a solid basis for resolving the problem, with the EU having to take a proactive position for its implementation. However, since your question refers to the stability of the region, and not only to Republic of North Macedonia, it can be concluded that the blockade of the European path of Republic of North Macedonia will affect negatively the region and will give room for operation of other geopolitical forces, to which the growth of Euroscepticism will positively affect the realization of their strategic goals.
Was the recent expulsion of a Russian diplomat an act of solidarity or was there another background? One medium also published information about an incident in a restaurant in Skopje, in which a person from the Russian embassy was involved.
It is a fact that our NATO allies expelled about 40 Russian diplomats from their countries for involvement in illegal intelligence-diplomatic activities on their territories. Regarding the case in our country, it is not an act of solidarity, but the mentioned Russian diplomat did not respect the diplomatic code and the integrity of our institutions. The case was processed in detail in cooperation with several institutions in our country, of which the Russian Embassy was duly informed. In the second case, it is an official at the Embassy of the Russian Federation, who had an incident with the employees of a restaurant in Skopje and resisted the official actions taken, thus disrupting public order and peace. The Russian Embassy was duly informed about this misconduct of the Russian official. In relation to such cases, the fact that Republic of North Macedonia is a small country in terms of geographical area is irrelevant, but it should be known that our geostrategic position has value for NATO and the EU. Our services may seem small, but I assure you that we are efficient and we will never allow our institutions and employees in sensitive positions to be disrespected.
Following the case of the 215 illegally issued passports of drug lords and persons dangerous to ours, and to the security of other countries, the question arose - how is it possible that the operational services in the Ministry of Interior, ANA and the Intelligence Agency did not have indication that something was happening - that persons of such a profile come here, stay and get passports without any problems? What are the implications of this case?
The implications of this phenomenon of illegal issuance of passports to persons, members of criminal and extremist groups are expected to appear. The fact that such persons possess a "legal" passport seriously hinders efforts to track them operationally, to identify their location and activities. The Intelligence Agency informed the competent institutions and the partner services about the information at its disposal. It is worrying that such passports have been used by extremists with experience in Syria, members of criminal gangs involved in liquidations in Ukraine and Greece, and individuals involved in serious forms of organized crime related to drug trafficking and money laundering. Of course, this case should be a lesson in the future to strengthe the security standards in the state institutions, greater professional integrity of the employees and effective protective mechanisms.
The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, referring to unnamed analysts, announced that there was an intelligence operation called "Knight’s Jump" (Коњски скок), the ultimate goal of which was the return of Nikola Gruevski to the country and the overthrow of the current government by destabilization of the country by constant production of numerous scandals. Do you have any knowledge about such an operation?
According to the law, the Intelligence Agency is the competent institution for gathering information on external threats and conducting operations abroad. I assure you that at the moment we do not have information, nor are we informed by the partner services that an operation is underway with a registered code name ""Knight’s Jump". The text of IFIMES refers to serious knowledge that does not give a clear picture of the manner it is collected, but it refers to unnamed analysts from international circles. The managers of IFIMES were frequent guests in our country, on this occasion I would like to invite them if they have more specific information about this operation to discuss it together. It is our obligation to send such an invitation, because as protectors of the national security we have an obligation to defend ourselves from possible destabilization announced in their text. In reference to the case of Nikola Gruevski, I believe that all international legal assistance and communication takes place through the Ministry of Justice, while in the cooperation part with Interpol through the Ministry of Interior.
What are the biggest security risks for Republic of North Macedonia at the moment?
There are currently several important security challenges for Republic of North Macedonia. But we must keep in mind that with the entry of Republic of North Macedonia into NATO, the security challenges for NATO became security challenges for our national security as well. We would first mention the geopolitical rivalry which is developing hybrid strategies for operation in the region. This includes spreading false news, political-diplomatic operation, intelligence operation, promotion of economic and business interests, cultural diplomacy, and more recently covid diplomacy. Another security challenge is in the domain of terrorism, where the issue of foreign terrorist fighters is still relevant, in terms of their location of armed remnants, return of the prisoners and those who are in humanitarian camps. These are several ISIS members who are in prison under the control of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), as well as several women and children in the humanitarian camps, also under the control of the SDF. For a long time, this structure has been a challenge for our institutions in terms of their repatriation, i.e. taking over and transferring them from the current locations from Syria to our country. During this period, we are actively working on this plan, together with the competent institutions in our country and the international partners, and I hope for a quick and positive result. When we complete this activity, the Intelligence Agency within its competence will continue to work on locating a few of our remaining citizens who are fighting in the ranks of the HTS (Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham). Our priority is to gather information on other asymmetric threats in the field of organized crime, on this point I refer primarily on illegal migration, not only as a phenomenon, but also as a tool in the hybrid strategy of geostrategic and regional geopolitical players. The international drug trafficking channels are of no less interest in the operation of the Agency and the cooperation with the partner services. Needless to say, we remain focused on providing relevant information related to the pandemic, which has lasted for more than a year and its impact on the regional security.
How much did the country's membership in the most powerful military-political alliance affect the improvement of the standards of operation of the Intelligence Agency and the cooperation with the partner services?
The country's membership in the most powerful military-political alliance has fundamentally changed the position, operation and philosophy of the Intelligence Agency. Our goal is, through the information and the analyses of the Agency, to influence the decision-making process of strategic interest and related to the policy for protection of national security, which is a strategic priority of NATO. Internally, we have improved the organizational structure and raised the security standards, which are regulated in the new Law on Intelligence Agency. Within the Alliance, the Intelligence agency became an equal partner with access to information, it increased its efficiency, new opportunities for education and participation in conferences opened up. At the same time, the Intelligence Agency has the opportunity to contribute to the identification of threats and to exchange information, express views and exchange opinions with its counterparts from the Alliance, hence upgrading the personal and capacities of the institution.