Next Steps for North Macedonia
In 2019, North Macedonia finally succeeded in beginning its accession to NATO. This year, marking the 70th anniversary of the Alliance, was the year that this small country in the Balkans achieved an invitation for which it eagerly worked for many years. Reaching an important and vital compromise with Greece, resolving an almost 30-year name dispute, North Macedonia entered a new era in its history. In this era, the country will have an opportunity to prosper and develop as part of the NATO family.
The mission of the Alliance, which is to assure the security of its member states, has been successfully carried out for 70 years. This fact creates a promising precedent for North Macedonia in guaranteeing its security and stability for the foreseeable future. Being a country that peacefully left former Yugoslavia was assurance for the West that Northern Macedonia would work toward a peaceful future, too. Although the country has never faced external military threats since its independence, it has had to deal with many internal issues as well as outside interference from Russia. Firstly, its two major population groups have violently clashed in the past. Second, similar to all Western countries, North Macedonia is a target of misinformation and disinformation campaigns that threaten to destabilise the country. Finally, North Macedonia’s democratic processes and institutions have been put under stress and were tested by corruption and civil unrest.
There are many opportunities for North Macedonia in NATO. Initially, the Alliance can support its security institutions, giving them the knowledge, the motives, and the capacity to reform in order to work more effectively. By building the resilience of government structures, the resilience of the population will also increase, leaving North Macedonia less vulnerable to manipulation.
By Christos Smilianis
From independence to NATO accession
On 6 February 2019, the permanent representatives of the 29 NATO members signed a protocol on the accession of North Macedonia to the North Atlantic family. This protocol was but the last step of a long, uncertain, and turbulent journey for this small country in the Balkans.
In the early 1990s, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia dissolved. Following a financial crisis and decade-long austerity, the federation’s communist regime was not able to deal with the retreat of the communist ideology and the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. Nationalist movements soon capitalized on the fall of Yugoslavia, which led to a bloody dissolution of Tito’s vision. All federal republics of Yugoslavia, one by one, held referendums in which they voted for independence.
Similarly, on 8 September 1991, the citizens of the Federal Republic of Macedonia overwhelmingly voted to create an independent state, with 95.26% voting in favour of independence.[i] It was the only part of Yugoslavia that gained independence without facing any resistance from the Yugoslav army, and it peacefully declared its independence on 25 September 1991.
Nevertheless, the name of the new country created problems with its southern neighbour, Greece. Macedonia, as a geographical area, had been “the apple of constant discord” between Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria since the second half of the 19th century. During Ottoman rule, the area of Macedonia had a mixed Greek and Slavic population. While southern and urban areas had a Greek-speaking majority, northern and rural areas had a Slavic-speaking majority.[ii] Each of the three countries wanted to include Macedonia in their sovereign territories. This discord led to a series of guerrilla and full-scale wars that shaped today’s borders. After the Balkan Wars, the territories of historical Macedonia were incorporated into Greece, while the rest of the area of Macedonia (mostly present-day North Macedonia and a part of Bulgaria) was incorporated into Bulgaria and Serbia.
Following the end of World War II, Yugoslavia proclaimed that its southern republic would be called the “Socialist Republic of Macedonia”. Greece considered Yugoslavia’s choice of the name as a communist scheme to destabilize the country and the continuation of the conflict for control of Macedonia. Tito himself stated that he wanted to reunify all sections of Macedonia.[iii] The United States considered the issue as “a possible cloak for aggressive intentions against Greece”.[iv] In turn, Yugoslavia raised the issue as a matter of self-determination in which Greece was violating the nation’s fundamental rights and oppressing an “ethnic Macedonian” minority in its territories, which had been denied its very existence.[v]
When Greece’s northern neighbour gained its independence from Yugoslavia, Greece considered the declaration of independence from a country with the name “Macedonia” as a major threat. Furthermore, the newly “founded” state used an ancient Greek Macedonian emblem as its flag, and its constitution contained clear references to territorial claims in Greek and Bulgarian Macedonia. In 1991, Greece blocked the entrance of the country in the UN, and a severe diplomatic conflict started between the two countries. Bulgaria, although it recognized the state and its constitutional name, did not recognize the existence of a Macedonian nation and language.[vi] The European Community and the United States mediated in the crisis, and after a few years, a compromise was reached. The country would take the temporal name “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – FYROM”, the ancient emblem would be removed from the flag, and there would be a clear statement that no article of the constitution could be interpreted as a right or intent to interfere in Greece’s sovereignty.
The diplomatic contest continued in the following years, alienating the people of the two countries, as one side would appear as the denier of the other’s national identity. From one side, Greece appeared to be denying a small nation the right to self-determination; on the other, the FYROM appeared to be falsifying and usurping part of the Greek legacy and ancient Greek history. One interesting point is that the name “North Macedonia” was negotiated in 1993 and was turned down by both sides, only to be accepted after 16 years of hard diplomatic struggles at great cost and with numerous lost opportunities for the development of close cooperation and mutual prosperity.
The concept of joining NATO is a very important matter for North Macedonia. In 1993, the country’s Assembly decided it wished to join the Alliance, and in 1995, the country became a NATO partner by joining the Partnership for Peace initiative. Since then, it has continually pursued accession in the Alliance. The year 2008 was a milestone for the FYROM. Although the country was considered successful in implementing important security reforms, no invitation to join NATO was given. Athens disagreed with accepting Skopje into NATO before it resolved the name issue. NATO, being an alliance of equals, would not give an invitation even if the country that disagreed was a small country, like Greece. In 2008, the FYROM turned toward nationalism and the so-called “antiquization” of the country, trying to relate even more with ancient Macedonian history. At the same time, Greece was hardening its resolve to block its neighbours’ entrance in NATO and the EU until an agreement could be reached.
Under the right political circumstances, the deadlock broke. Both countries had governments willing to accept painful compromises. These compromises were not dictated by the personal sentiments of the ruling parties but from the conditions that shaped the new reality. On the one hand, Athens had to deal with the fact that most countries had already recognized North Macedonia by its then-constitutional name. On the other hand, Skopje was driven by the necessity to join NATO. The Prespes Agreement, named after a lake that the two countries share, was the deal that solved the naming issue. The agreement added a geographical adjective in the name “Macedonia”. It secures North Macedonia’s right to self-determination and the national identity of the citizens of North Macedonia while acknowledging the Greek historical heritage in Macedonia. Moreover, it clarifies that no country can exclusively use the word “Macedonia” and its derivatives, which can mean different things in the two countries. Finally, it sets the rules and conditions for close political, security, and financial relations between the two neighbours. The deal was positively received by the international community, but it received severe criticism in both countries and caused mass protests. All the countries with close ties to both sides welcomed the deal. Distinguished personalities that had been working for the well-being of the region, including the “Ohrid group”, expressed their support and worked to show the people the benefits of the agreement.[vii] Former Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias stated, “with this settlement, no-one is happy, which means that it is a just and fair settlement”.
The Greek parliament immediately ratified the treaty, and Greece was the first country to ratify the accession protocol. Now, 28 out of the 29 allies have ratified the NATO protocol, and North Macedonia is about to become a full member of the NATO family.
Security challenges and NATO solutions
With the admittance of North Macedonia in NATO, the country will join an alliance with a mission to ensure the security of its members. For the last 70 years NATO successfully carried out this mission. During the Cold War, it deterred aggression from the Warsaw Pact, and its members in Western and Southern Europe managed to prosper in a safe environment that allowed democracy to thrive. NATO not only kept Europe safe from Soviet expansion but also from intra-continental war. Traditional enemies enjoyed prolonged periods of peace and the gradual erasure of past grievances. With NATO’s historically proven capability to provide security, North Macedonia will enjoy the privileged security of membership in the Alliance.
North Macedonia faces both internal and external security challenges. Its external security challenges are focused mainly on Russia’s reaction to NATO’s expansion. Russia has openly objected to Skopje’s accession to the Alliance. With the precedence of an attempted coup d’état in Montenegro, probably orchestrated by Russia,[viii] the danger of destabilizing the country’s institutions is clear. While NATO’s expansion in a small country should not be of great concern for Russia, the area where it is located, the Balkan Peninsula, has been of great significance to Russian security since the 19th century. This area encircles the Marmara straits and provides access to the “warm waters” of the Mediterranean making it of strategic importance to Russia. Furthermore, The Balkans has been called the “soft underbelly” of Europe. A controlled crisis there would provide Russia useful bargaining tools and a precious distraction from Ukraine.[ix]
Initially, Russia supported the former prime minister of the FYROM, Nikola Gruevski, who faced mass protests over corruption. In 2016, the prime minister was forced to call early elections, after which he was unable to form a new government. Then, Russia courted the president of the country who refused to entrust the opposition parties to form a government of their own. Gruevski was also pro-NATO, but since he was a hardliner in the naming issue, it would have been impossible for him to lead the country into the Alliance.[x] This constitutional crisis was ended only after Western mediation, and the road to accession opened.
In an attempt to harm the legitimacy of the referendum to ratify the Prespes Agreement, thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts used the hashtag “boycott” in order to urge citizens to abstain from voting. Many rallies were organized along with misinformation campaigns in the media. Outside North Macedonia’s borders, the Russian minister of foreign affairs stressed, “Macedonia should not change its name, in order to join NATO”. In Greece, pro-Russian media posted that Russia is the only power blocking “Skopje” from officially taking the name “Macedonia”, and massive rallies were organized, allegedly with Russia’s support. Consequently, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and forbade two more from entering the country.[xi] Zoran Zaef, the prime minister of the FYROM/North Macedonia since 2017, accused a Russian oligarch living in Greece of funding radical groups with the aim of organizing violent protests.[xii]
Political interference in the decision-making processes of the country showed that external actors were indeed threatening North Macedonia. Once NATO began the process of North Macedonia’s accession, Russia’s campaign ended. As Samorukov posits, “Russia is attracted to low cost conflicts in order to counter the west, wherever the opportunity arises. But since a conflict is resolved, it quickly loses interest.”[xiii]
North Macedonia’s internal security challenges stem from the different ethnic groups inside the country. The size of the country’s Albanian minority remains uncertain. The 2011 census was never concluded, as there was no agreement on which methodology to follow in calculating the population of the Albanians living in the country.[xiv] According to the internationally monitored census of 2002, the FYROM’s Albanian population exceeded half a million.[xv] Albanians, accounting for a significant percentage of the population, have wanted more rights and privileges since the independence of the country from Yugoslavia. The minority considered themselves oppressed because of a ban on the public display of the Albanian flag and the repression of the Albanian language in public institutions.[xvi] In February 2001, Albanians, assisted by National Liberation Army (UÇK) fighters, started an armed insurgency. Although many believe that the goal was to secede, top Albanian leaders denied this.[xvii] The insurgency led to a series of unsuccessful battles against the country’s army and police forces. With the successful mediation of NATO, the two sides agreed to a truce preventing the escalation of the conflict into a civil war. The Ohrid Agreement settled the differences among the two ethnic groups, but today tensions still occasionally lead to violence.[xviii] The Albanian minority in North Macedonia is in general pro-American and pro-NATO. For them, it is important that the country join NATO, especially since Albania had already joined the Alliance. For this minority, the naming issue was of smaller importance than being part of NATO. If North Macedonia would not resolve the name issue for the purpose of joining NATO, then there would be worries over the unity of the country and peace among the two ethnic communities.[xix] NATO not only provides mediation and a framework for peace, but the presence of the country in the NATO family ensures that internal peace in North Macedonia is lasting.
The road to the future
North Macedonia now has the privilege to enter a historic organization. NATO weathered the Cold War and successfully provided a peaceful and secure environment for its member states. NATO has an important say in matters that happen around the globe. A “small country” like North Macedonia will soon be part of the decision-making structure of this powerful political organization. NATO is an alliance of equals. The need of “one” unanimous vote to protect the rights of members is respected by all Allies. Similarly, before the name dispute was resolved, Greece had the power to defend its national interests during the Bucharest Summit in 2008, despite stronger nations wanting different outcomes.
In answer to the question of what makes a country pass the test of time, many solutions can be found. The most important criteria that must be met is not the location, the climate, or the culture of the country but the institutions that run and regulate it.[xx] When a state is relatively new and the population is haunted by the past, it is difficult to form institutions that will create the appropriate conditions for the country to prosper and to provide freedom and safety to its citizens. In addition, when an institution does not properly function, there are forces within the society that profit from this situation, thus creating obstacles to reform. Participation in international organizations, such as NATO or the EU, offers countries the motivation required to reform their institutions in a proper and democratic manner. North Macedonia has wanted to join these two organizations since its independence. The motive to be part of an Alliance that ensures the security of its members was strong enough for the country to have completed all the prerequisite reforms since 2008. Being part of NATO will further increase the efficiency of North Macedonia’s institutions thanks to the expertise and means that Allies provide. Moving forward into a more efficient and transparent democratic system will further increase North Macedonia’s chances to start accession talks with the EU.
Finding a solution to the name issue should not be considered as a price that was paid but as an opportunity that was motivated by the desire to join NATO. Until now, North Macedonia had to waste diplomatic resources in order to counter Greece’s position in the international community. These resources could now be allocated to more important issues. From now on, instead of developing competitive relations with Greece, there is a new opportunity for a strong and reliable partnership. Economic relations between the two states were already in place, with hundreds of Greek businesses operating in Skopje and many North Macedonian workers with jobs in Greece. Before, these relations were not immune to the negative consequences of a prolonged dispute; now, however, relations can be amended and deepened. The two cultures will be able to focus on things that unite them instead of differences, and all this thanks to North Macedonia’s membership in NATO.
Furthermore, since 2019, Greece has provided air policing in the skies of its northern neighbour. Although it is unlikely that the Greek air force will be called to deal with a threat against North Macedonia, the symbolism is strong and clear. The ties that are created between Allies are real and meaningful. The people of North Macedonia may one day look to their southern neighbours as protectors and guarantors of their security. It will take time for the grievances of the past to be forgotten and state propaganda to erase outdated prejudices. But now, there is an opportunity to improve both countries’ security and to focus on real issues that concern the average citizen.
NATO played an important role in the transition of North Macedonia from an unstable, newly independent state into a secure and modern country. The ascension of North Macedonia in NATO will guarantee a peaceful future, with the grievances and obstacles of the past left behind. In this new environment with increased security, surrounded by Allies and friends, the people of North Macedonia will be able to improve their living conditions and build a better future for the generations to come, assured that it will never face any danger or peril standing alone.
Christos Smilianis is a public affairs instructor and training manager in the Greek Army. He holds his MA in Digital Media, Communication and Journalism from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author.
[i] Dieter Nohlen and Philip Stöver, Elections in Europe: A Data Handbook (Nomos, 2010).
[ii] Hans Vermeulen, “Greek Cultural Dominance among the Orthodox Population of Macedonia during the Last Period of Ottoman Rule,” in Cultural Dominance in the Mediterranean Area, ed. Anton Blok Sc Henk Driessen, 225–255 (Nijmegen, Katholieke Universiteit: Vakgroep Culturele Antropologie, 1984).
[iii] George Koukoudakis, “The Macedonian Question : An Identity-Based Conflict,” Mediterranean Quarterly 29, no. 4 (2018): 3–18.
[iv] U.S. State Department, Foreign Relations Vol. vii, Washington, D.C. Circular Airgram (868.014/26 Dec.1944).
[v] Christian Voss, “Language Ideology between Self-Identification and Ascription among the Slavic-Speakers in Greek Macedonia and Thrace,” in The Pomaks in Greece and Bulgaria: A Model Case for Borderland Minorities in the Balkans, edited by Klaus Steinke (Munich: Verlag Otto Sagner, 2007), 278.
[vi] James Pettifer, “The New Macedonian Question,” International Affairs 68, no. 3 (1992).
[vii] “The Ohrid Group: Now Is the Time - Atlantic Council,” 2018, https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/now-is-the-time/.
[viii] Ben Farmer, “Russia Plotted to Overthrow Montenegro’s Government by Assassinating Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic Last Year, According to Senior Whitehall Sources,” The Telegraph, 18 February 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/18/russias-deadly-plot-overthro....
[ix] Ivan Krastev, “The Balkans Are the Soft Underbelly of Europe”, Financial Times, 2015, https://www.ft.com/content/2287ba66-8489-11e4-bae9-00144feabdc0.
[x] Maxim Samorukov, “Double or Quits: A Russian Approach to North Macedonia and NATO,” Carnegie Moscow Center, 14 May 2019, https://carnegie.ru/2019/05/14/double-or-quits-russian-approach-to-north....
[xi] Georgi Gotev, “Greece and Russia Exchange Furious Statements over Macedonia,” Euractiv, 15 January 2019, https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/greece-and-russia-ex....
[xii] Nick Squires, “Russia ‘Orchestrating Covert Campaign to Wreck Macedonia Name Change Vote,’” The Telegraph, 27 September 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/27/russia-orchestrating-covert-....
[xiii] Samorukov, “Double or Quits: A Russian Approach”.
[xiv] Risto Karajkov, “Census Fails in Macedonia”, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa, 20 October 2011, accessed 29 January 2020, https://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Areas/North-Macedonia/ Census-fails-in-Macedonia-105372.
[xvi] “BBC News - Timeline: Macedonia,” accessed 29 January 2020, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/1410364.stm.
[xviii] Robert Atanasovski with Jasmina Mironski, “NATO, EU Urge ‘restraint’ as Macedonia Clashes Leave 22 Dead,” Yahoo! News, 10 May 2015, https://news.yahoo.com/sixth-police-officer-dies-macedonia-clashes-00143....
[xix] Stojan Slaveski and Ljubica Pendaroska, “The Impact and the Role of NATO on Political and Security Situation in Macedonia: ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’”, 2014.
[xx] James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail (London: Profile Book Ltd., 2013).