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Macedonia

Capital Skopje
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 389
Mobile Codes 70,71,72,75,76,78
ccTLD .mk
Currency Denar (1EUR = 61.5MKD)
Land Area 25,713 sq km
Population 2.1 million
Language Macedonian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Macedonia To Seal Southern Border, Employ ‘Unconventional Methods’ ahead of Anticipated Migrant Surge

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: those interested in regional security will find the following exclusive report useful. Hopefully, migrant-facilitation groups that have been teaching people how to illegally cross international borders will also incorporate the relevant data into their ready-made ‘travel guides’- if they in fact care about the safety of those they claim to support.

By Chris Deliso

After months of security planning and several weeks of diplomatic consultations with Austria, Visegrad and Balkan countries, Macedonia will seal its border completely from all refugees and migrants, Balkanalysis.com can report. Barring any unexpected developments, this will happen between February 23 and March 13.

Simultaneously, the Balkan country is employing a range of conventional and unconventional border security measures – reported here for the first time – that demonstrate a certain native ingenuity, in anticipation of a massive surge of attempted migrants due to the arrival of spring and ramped-up military activities in northern Syria.

This Macedonian policy is causing particular consternation and alarm in Berlin and Athens. It will thus attract great interest at the Munich Security Conference (February 12-14), to be attended by President Ivanov. The president recently stated that since border fencing has been built, some 33,000 illegal crossings have been thwarted by army and police.

As new information below reveals, Germany and Greece are in a secret alliance over the migrant issue; they are opposed by the Visegrad countries, which constitute the core of a second and rival European alliance. Macedonia, therefore, has become the front line in a struggle between much bigger powers, owing to its strategic position- as in several wars of the past.

Macedonian Policy in Context: Security Concerns, Psychology and Policy Calculation

Since January 2015, Macedonia has survived an unprecedented combination of security threats; these include an ongoing political crisis sparked by an attempted coup, a narrowly-averted terrorist plot (a threat which credible intelligence indicates may return), and finally the refugee/migrant crisis, in which the equivalent of half of the national population transited the country in under a year. Any one of these threats could have destabilized any other country, but Macedonia is not any other country.

In light of this combustible mix of threats, appropriate measures were taken within an institutional framework. Balkanalysis.com already discussed this in detail in December, here. Everything we are now seeing (and will see) derives ultimately from this institutionally-driven process, one driven by pre-emptive threat assessments beginning last spring.

A second factor critical to understanding Macedonian policy is the character of the people and their collective experience. Macedonia is a small, relatively conservative and family-oriented country (regardless of ethnicity). Foreign diplomats have mistakenly assumed that their ability to turn people against each other based on political differences gives them similar superpowers across all levels of society. However, Macedonians will not accept participation in any adventures that could compromise their family and national security.

This is what the Germans, EU and UNHCR failed to understand when thinking they could bribe the country’s leaders into accepting 30,000 refugees in camps. This opposition was reiterated on 10 February by Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki, who promised that Macedonia will “not turn into a refugee camp.”

Another psychological factor that must be considered is the fact that for the last 25 years, Macedonians have been continually blockaded, vetoed, lied to and betrayed by foreign ‘allies’ and neighbors. They do not have any reason to trust anyone, and thus they do not. Given its difficult history, Macedonia has decided not to entrust its own security to any outside forces.

Most fundamentally, regarding policy, Macedonian leaders know that Germany and the EU cannot even guarantee any migration deals they may reach- whether for Macedonia or anyone else. This is because everything ultimately depends on their own ability to negotiate with Turkish President Erdoğan, who can open the floodgates of migrants that would totally destabilize Europe whenever he chooses.

Being thus the most powerful man in Europe for the foreseeable future, Erdoğan should enjoy pressing his advantage to extract whatever financial and policy concessions possible in the months ahead. Erdoğan has considerable interests in Syria, where a multi-actor invasion seems more and more likely, meaning a greater concentration of refugees heading north in months ahead.

Macedonia is thus aware of this fundamental geopolitical reality and wants to avoid becoming collateral damage in this battle between today’s Great Powers.

Germany’s Double Game

International media has recently been reporting on the second layer of fencing Macedonia has started putting up along the southern border. This activity has angered Greek officials who, informed sources tell us, complained about it privately to Germany. Their unholy alliance owes to Greece’s (quite understandable) desire to pass on migrants arriving from Turkey as soon as possible, and Germany’s (less understandable) desire to keep taking them, as well as the whole euro-bailout Imbroglio in which the two countries are eternally entwined. At the same time, however, Germany has been publicly talking about the need to reduce migrant numbers, and privately leaning on Austria to get this done.

Yet after Greece complained to Germany about the new layers of fencing, the German foreign ministry on February 8 dispatched a ‘verbal note’ to numerous Macedonian ambassadors, in which it said that Macedonia should have asked for permission from Greece before building a fence on its own territory.

As if this was not distasteful enough, the German demarche also made the ludicrous warning that Greece “might not support” Macedonian Euro-Atlantic integration because of such decisions. Of course, it is Greece that has already been blocking such integration for the past 25 years. No one possibly believes that the Greek position can be affected by Macedonia building or not building a fence.

What we are therefore likely to see is a sustained German diplomatic and media offensive against Macedonia, as German leaders become increasingly angry that a small and unimportant country would resist Merkel’s orders. This offensive will involve planting doubt about national capacities, spreading disinformation about the country, and generally fomenting unrest. For example, Deutsche Welle on February 10 called Macedonia “a questionable choice” as Europe’s actual land border, following Greece’s inability to guard its own borders. Predictably, the report contextualized this by saying that Macedonia is amidst “a deep political crisis.” The title of the article was “Macedonia’s refugee dilemma.” But as we will see, there is no dilemma- the plan is already in action.

Conventional and ‘Unconventional Methods’: Securing the Border

Almost all foreign media coverage of Macedonia’s role in the refugee crisis has revolved around emotive, human-interest stories of refugee suffering. This is simply because it drives political pressure for big players, and because it makes money. This kind of reporting sells newspapers, gets clicks, and also boosts fundraising for aid groups, from the smallest NGOs to the biggest UN aid agencies. Indeed, in the cynical business of humanitarian relief, the photographing and interviewing of suffering refugees in the wild is the ideal form of ‘product placement.’

So, since no one has yet offered a simple factual analysis of the hard security aspects of Macedonian border security, we provide the following information about the combination of creative measures being used, which has a disproportionate effect when compared to the modest budget and personnel used.

In short, if you’re thinking of illegally crossing into Macedonia- good luck.

Personnel: along with numerous police and border police, 1,000 Macedonian Army soldiers can be strategically placed across the long border. According to a February 5 interview on Telma TV with presidential advisor Ivica Bocevski, the original planning for this began when the president declared a crisis situation in August. “At present, around 150 of the soldiers are regularly active at the border,” said Bocevski, adding that the number “grew to around 600 when placing the protective barrier.” It was decided that the country had the means to deploy, feed and accommodate 1,000 soldiers for as long as necessary and this estimate remains the same currently.

Additionally, small numbers of international police from Visegrad and Balkan countries have been deployed to the border following bilateral agreements- scuppering any fantasies the EU might have had for taking control of the situation. These officers are mostly being deployed at Gevgelija and taking part in inspecting and verifying refugee documentation. There is also serious talk of sending Austrian soldiers to the border.

This large number (and variety) of personnel gives Macedonian security forces the ability to react rapidly to small or large-scale disruptions across the long and mountainous border. Since Macedonia is not an EU member, it also provides valuable diplomatic support.

For example, since November Macedonian border police have seized from incoming refugees approximately 8,000 false passports which had been stamped as legitimate by Greek police in the islands, when these people had come in from Turkey. Of these documents, some 885 have been witnessed and documented by the partner police forces from EU states. The latter can therefore confirm the long-time Macedonian argument that Greece has not been effectively or carefully identifying people entering its own EU border.

Police Dogs: Specially-trained police dogs are being used to sniff for intruders, explosives and drugs. These dogs are quite friendly, of course, once you get to know them.

The Defensive Fencing System: this extends not only around the most heavily transited route near Gevgelija and the highway/railway; there is now fencing across the River Vardar, and in the internationally-divided waters of Lake Dojran to the east and Lake Prespa to the west, as well as in other vulnerable areas.

Stretches of razor-wire fence extend in some places to 3.3 meters in height. The new layers of supporting fencing are being added as a preventative measure, since traffickers were occasionally cutting the first fence and escaping through. The new fencing layers allow police and army time to react in cases when traffickers get through the first layer.

However, things do not end there. Between two (and sometimes three) layers of fencing, Macedonian security forces have irregularly placed culverts and ditches, so that an unfortunate trespasser might not even make it to the second layer. Further, at some points within the defensive system, a trespasser will set off high-pitched sonic emissions that disorient and stop an individual, forcing him to return to where he came from or be immobilized until police arrive.

Helicopters and Drones: Macedonia currently has six drones monitoring the skies over the border, which is useful in inaccessible forested areas. Army helicopters are also used when necessary in the border area.

Thermal Imaging Cameras: the Macedonian security forces currently operate 11 trucks mounted with thermal imaging cameras, for use during night operations.

Camouflaged Watchtowers: traffickers trying to cross the border through mountainous areas and other uninhabited places should consider that the army has established numerous watchtowers from which it can observe all movement over a wide swath of territory.

Other Special Measures: the mountainous border that comprised the ‘Macedonian Front’ 100 years ago is too expansive to be fully manned, so it’s reassuring to know that some 3,300 booby traps have been hidden here and there along the way. These range from simple stick-and-rope apparatuses to bear traps.

This provides a viable and cost-effective measure against traffickers. Local hunters have been advised about the precise areas to avoid. By the way, local hunters have a tendency to consider themselves deputized, like their peers in southern Texas.

There is also said to be a network of underground tunnels and other things that “we can’t discuss for now,” one official says. The general concern, again, is to preserve the element of surprise against traffickers who will probably be armed and dangerous.

Finally, there is always the chance – especially during summer – of exploding grenades and shells left over from the First World War. (These collector’s items are primarily found in the Mariovo mountain area, where people still go in search of similarly buried French army cognac and gold from that period).

Wildlife: wild animals such as bears, wolves and wild boar all inhabit Macedonia’s southern mountains. The country’s snake population includes three poisonous viper species. Especially in aqueous areas, snake populations generally increase in springtime.

Along with the risk of physical injury accompanying contact with wild animals, aspiring trespassers should also consider that some of these creatures have been fingered in organized crime- as with the bear found guilty of stealing honey from a beekeeper by the Bitola court in 2008. The bear remains at large.