North Macedonia’s PM plays down gullibility over prank phone call

Zoran Zaev said on Tuesday that he sees no reason for resignation as a lengthy telephone conversation published last night on YouTube by the Russian pranksters reveals no state secrets, sensitive information or harms national interests in any other way.

“I was a victim of a prank by a well-organised structure which benefits from new tactics, forms and tools in an attempt to publicly discredit people and countries with Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” Zaev said told a press conference in Skopje.

“This is one of those attempts to directly harm our strategic interests to complete our NATO membership,” he added.

Zaev was the latest target of Vladimir ‘Vovan’ Kuznetsov and Alexei ‘Lexus’ Stolyarov, a pair of Russian comedians who gained notoriety for their high-profile pranks of politicians worldwide, including Britain’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

North Macedonia’s right-wing opposition VMRO DPMNE party had called on Zaev to resign because it claimed he had damaged national interests, revealed sensitive information and agreed to criminal activities.

Zaev told Tuesday’s press conference that while the conversation with the comedians posing as former Ukrainian President Poroshenko and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was genuine, he had noticed that some parts of it had been tampered with.

He said that he fell victim to his own sincerity and gullibility as well as to being open to having a conversation with anyone.

In the more than 50-minute-long telephone conversation that was published on YouTube on Monday evening, Zaev and the pranksters discussed a number of issues, from foreign policy to the historic ‘name’ agreement between North Macedonia and Greece.

They also talked about Serbia-Kosovo relations, Ukrainian affairs, relations with Russia, the EU and NATO as well as the bid by the Macedonian Orthodox Church to get recognition from other Orthodox Churches.

In one part of the conversation, the comedian posing as Poroshenko brags to Zaev that he has discovered family ties with the ancient warrior king Alexander the Great, to which Zaev oddly responds that he has heard about it.

In another part of the conversation, Zaev urges the fake Poroshenko to lobby the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople for the recognition of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

The pranksters succeeded in persuading Zaev that he has to pay a personal financial contribution to Bartholomew in order to sweeten his plea for recognition of the church.

Throughout the conversation, Zaev reaffirmed his firm pro-NATO and EU orientation.