Nationalist supporters invade the Macedonian parliament last month  OGNEN TEOFILOVSKI

Macedonia came under direct pressure last month from Russian officials to detach itself from the West or “face reprisals”, The Sunday Times can reveal.

In a sign of the Kremlin’s growing ambitions in the Balkans, members of the Macedonian government were presented with demands by the Russian ambassador to shift their allegiance to Moscow.

The intervention came amid a political crisis that culminated about a fortnight later in the storming of the Macedonian parliament.

“Russia does not need Macedonia”, but Macedonia cannot “survive without Russia”, the ambassador, Oleg Shcherbak, reportedly said.

Moscow has publicly defended the 11-year rule of the conservative VMRO party, which has been refusing to hand over power to an opposition-led coalition that narrowly won parliamentary elections in December.

The Kremlin has also defended the actions of armed thugs who stormed the parliament and attacked opposition MPs, including Zoran Zaev, leader of the left-leaning Social Democratic Union, who hopes to become prime minister.

Behind the scenes, however, it seems Russia has been demanding a heavy price for its support, according to accounts of meetings presided over by Shcherbak and his deputy, Konstantin Bersenev.

The Russians demanded of their hosts — who included the former prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, who is still believed to be pulling the strings despite stepping down after the election — that they “reciprocate” Moscow’s support and set a more pro-Russian course.

Failure to do so, the Russians warned, could lead to a ban being imposed on Macedonian agricultural exports to Russia, which would be damaging for the country, one of the poorest in Europe.

The Macedonian government responded by commissioning a strategic analysis paper on pursuing closer ties with Moscow but a senior government source said Moscow had little to offer in return for abandoning attempts to join the EU and Nato, a policy in place since the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the EU, has justified the Kremlin’s interest in the Balkans, saying it is offering Macedonia an “alternative to Euro-Atlantic integration”. The West had “no monopoly on values”, he said.

Nikola Popovski, the Macedonian foreign minister, played down contacts with Moscow. “Russia can have its own interests, it is legitimate,” he said.

The stalemate in Macedonian politics stems from the refusal by Gjorge Ivanov, the country’s president, to swear in a new coalition, citing concerns about the separatist policies of ethnic Albanian parties included in the alliance.

British and European diplomats say Russia has been stepping up its activities in the Balkans, after having sensed a “vacuum”: the EU has been preoccupied with multiple crises, while the role of the US has been cast into doubt by the advent of President Donald Trump and his America First policy.

In October, prosecutors in nearby Montenegro, which also used to be part of Yugoslavia, accused two Russian spies of orchestrating turmoil and an attempted violent takeover of parliament after elections. Now Macedonia appears to be in Russia’s sights.

“What was meant to be happening last year in our country is now happening in Macedonia, only the Russians are supporting a pro-Kremlin government refusing to step down,” a Montenegrin cabinet minister warned.