The reports come from document reviews by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Investigative Reporting Lab Macedonia and allege that the former Russian politician paid more than a dozen FYROM politicians, members of nationalist organizations, and soccer fanatics from the Skopje-based Vardar club who had participated in recent riots.
FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has said he thinks joining NATO is an important step for bringing economic growth and stability to the country; meanwhile, Russia, which supported the previous administration, has openly opposed NATO’s efforts to grow its presence in the Balkans — a strategically significant area with historic ties to Russia.
Zaev had told BuzzFeed News on Friday that his government received reports about pro-Russian “Greek businessmen” that allegedly made $13,000-$21,000 payments to FYROM citizens to spark violence in opposition to the upcoming name change referendum; however, the latest reports implicating Savvidis suggest a broader effort amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Savvidis is a dual Russian-Greek citizen who initially made a fortune as the owner of Russia’s state tobacco company.
Since moving to Greece in the mid-2000s, the businessman has become a mogul in the north, acquiring the soccer team PAOK, multiple media outlets, and partial ownership of the port in Thessaloniki.
Boasting a net worth of approximately $2 billion, Savvidis reportedly has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin; likewise, the Georgian-born billionaire has also received recognition from leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Most recently, Savvidis made international headlines in March for rushing onto the soccer field with a holstered handgun during a Greek Super League match.
The FYROM Interior Ministry documents revealed that Savvidis’ sent money to the country through a series of payments — some were in cash carried by hand across the Greek border, whereas others were sent via other means such as transfers.
A soccer hooligan who in June participated in violent protests against the “Northern Macedonia” name deal confirmed to Investigative Reporting Lab Macedonia that he had received cash; in the same way, the FYROM-based lab also confirmed Savvidis’ transfers with a few recipients and with financial institutions.
Police investigations into the matter continue.
Prime Minister Zaev first spoke of the alleged politically-motivated payments during an interview in Skopje on Friday, when he had just returned from the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium where his country was invited to join the organization.
For a quarter-century, the Balkan nation’s use of the name “Macedonia” has caused diplomatic tensions with Greece, who accuses its northern neighbor of wrongfully appropriating the name from the Greek region of Macedonia — a region that has historical and cultural significance in Greece dating back thousands of years.
The two countries struck an agreement in June to change the name and end the longstanding dispute, which would open the door for FYROM to join NATO, but such an outcome would be less than ideal for Russia.
In fact, just days prior to FYROM being invited to join the alliance last week, news broke that Greece had expelled two Russian diplomats for allegedly encouraging rallies against the name deal and trying to bribe Greek officials in order to undermine it. Greece also banned two other Russian diplomats from entering its borders, thereafter prompting Moscow to deny Athens’ allegations and criticize its decision.
U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert tweeted that the U.S. supports Greece in upholding its sovereignty, saying that “Russia must end its destabilizing behavior.”
#Greece expelled two Russian officials and barred entry of two others for attempting to interfere in Greek politics. We support Greece defending its sovereignty. #Russia must end its destabilizing behavior.
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) July 12, 2018
On the other hand, the ultimate fate of the FYROM name change remains uncertain, as citizens will vote on the issue in a September referendum. The proposal must also receive parliamentary approval both in FYROM and Greece.
Greek leaders have pledged to normalize relations if the referendum succeeds, but the deal still faces fierce opposition from nationalists on both sides of the border.
The day after the agreement, 26 people in Skopje were arrested in demonstrations during which protesters chanted “Macedonia for Macedonia” and nearly 1,500 demanded that pro-NATO Zaev step down.
On the opposite side, trouble broke out when about 500 protesters waving Greek flags tried approaching Lake Prespa where the accord was being signed. The demonstrators ended up clashing with police who had surrounded them 16 miles away near the small village of Pisoderi, leaving 16 injured, including officers.
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