31 March 2020

North Macedonia, a small state with big pro-West European ambitions

Stelian Teodorescu

North Macedonia is one of the countries in the Western Balkans’ region that is placed at the border between the West and the East, respectively between Europe and Asia. During its history, today’s North Macedonia territory was marked by other states’ significant interest for it, as it is a state placed in a region targeted by conquerors. Therefore, Macedonia’s independence declaration, in 1991, can be referred to as a crucial moment in the history of the new entity establishment and its international recognition. The issues generated by the introduction, in the 1991’s independence declaration, of the name “Macedonia” and the attainment of the international recognition under its constitutional name, but also the problems generated by the provision process of Albanese minority’s full rights have raised serious questions, which have worsen this entity’s accession to international organizations. Hence, it is important to underline that neighbour countries, but also other states, have come to terms on the name of the new Macedonian state, respectively the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM), this name being used internationally rather as a temporary name, until adopting a new official name for the Western Balkans’ Macedonian state.

Image source: Mediafax

North Macedonia – short pro-West option history

In April 1993, Macedonia joined UN and, after that, other international structures (like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) have adopted UN’s terminology and, therefore, a great number of countries within the international community have recognized FYROM. However, Greece did not agree with this political decision and refused to recognize the FYROM name, asking for a trade embargo against it until 1995, seriously affecting the Macedonian economic situation. Still, the 1995 interim agreement led to Western Balkans’ relations’ stabilization and so this treaty defined some basic frameworks for the establishment of diplomatic relations between FYROM, Greece and the neighbour countries. Athens unlocked Macedonia’s accession to international organizations and conditioned this state to access the international community under the name FYROM. From that moment on, Greece became an important economic partner and one of the main foreign investors in Macedonia, their relations being improved between 1995-2008, marking their intense collaboration through an increased commerce and direct Greek investments flux.   

Given its significant will, North Macedonia asked to access EU, in March 2004, and the Stabilization and association agreement signed with EU came into force starting with April 2004, making this Western Balkans country a candidate state for the EU accession since December 2005.

Consequently, since 2009, the European Commission constantly recommended the accession negotiations opening, which was not always supported by the European Parliament, but Skopje could not manage to open the accession process, mainly due to the dispute with Athens on Macedonian state’s use of the old name, “Macedonia”.

This conflict was successfully solved through the “Prespa Agreement”, related to country’s new name – North Macedonia – an agreement that came into force in February 2019. Therefore, the European Council agreed on the possible opening of negotiations with North Macedonia, starting with June 2019, if all necessary conditions would be met, but, just like in Albania’s case, the adoption of such decision was surprisingly postponed for October 2019, with no clear previous sign. Moreover, internationally, it was suggested that they may cancel the negotiations opening and accept a possible separate opening with Skopje’s authorities based on recognized performances to a higher level.

So, there is no secret that, besides the dispute with Greece on the new state’s name, emerged after the collapse of former Yugoslavia, Skopje’s leaders had to convince EU and NATO to start the accession discussions, by improving its situation in terms of rule of law and the fight against corruption and organized crime.

North Macedonia – irreversible process for the EU and NATO integration

From 2015 to May 2017, the Macedonian state went through the deepest political crisis, facing also significant mass demonstrations. After the 2016’s elections, a new government composed of a coalition led by social-democrats had to take state’s leadership by June 2017. Then, a group of EU experts, led by the German lawyer Reinhard Priebe had presented, in September 2017, a detailed and extremely critical analysis of the Macedonian juridical system situation, a document that simultaneously revealed the tasks to be further implemented. Hence, North Macedonia has exchanged the political regime, in 2017, and adopted a significant transformation, after a decade the country had been led by the political group VMRO-DPMNE.

Therefore, it is expected for the new reformist government led by the former prime-minister Zoran Zaev to act as the European Commission established. So, the government led by Zoran Zaev immediately introduced a reform package, known as the 3-6-9 Plan, which included recommendations both from the 2015 R. Priebe’s report  and the urgent reform priorities, transmitted by the European Commission.  

Concurrently with the reform process agenda, the Macedonian government focused almost exclusively on solving the current issues in the relations with the neighbour states, as it became essential to accomplish this condition in order to unlock and accelerate the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of North Macedonia. Hence, the Macedonian state signed historical agreements with Bulgaria and Greece, making sure the two neighbour states will not use their veto right within the EU and NATO accession process.

Such attitude from the Macedonian authorities, which proved to be extremely decided in terms of integration, within the new and intense discussions with Greece on the name of the Macedonian state, the European Commission offered North Macedonia, but also the other Western Balkans countries, a trustable enlargement perspective.  

When Europe proved to be divided in terms of finding solutions to certain problems and when the geopolitical tensions grew, North Macedonia kept its promises and, after signing the Prespa Agreement with Greece and normalizing the relations with Bulgaria, proved that it is the Western Balkans’ entity which made the greatest efforts to access EU and NATO.

North Macedonia’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, underlined the importance of the new agreements with the neighbour states and the support of the Macedonian citizens for the Prespa Agreement, through their votes at the referendum. He reminded, also, that his country makes many progresses in showing its multiethnic identity – turning the Albanese language into the second official language and getting important support from the multiethnic political parties. However, President S. Pendarovski warned that the process is far from being done. So, despite the fact that some EU member states were circumspect on the accession discussion, he stays optimist and reminded everyone that no EU member state ever opposed North Macedonia’s accession. Asked if he has a “Plan B” to EU’s integration, the Macedonian official underlined that the “Plan B” is the EU accession, reiterating his full commitments to turning North Macedonia into the next EU member and, also, he also showed optimisms in making North Macedonia the 30th member of NATO. Asked if the Alliance could generate tiredness, he reminded that “tiredness has two directions”, highlighting that by not keeping his promises, he could disappoint many Macedonians who voted for the Prespa Agreement.

Within the enlargement strategy, the European Commission foresaw financial assistance for North Macedonia to accomplish all the conditions for becoming an EU member. It is important to highlight that during the referendum campaign on the Prespa Treaty, EU increased its official visits to North Macedonia and also the “accession discussions”. Furthermore, after the agreement on Macedonian state’s name with Greece was adopted and came into force, the European Commission proposed the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and declared that this country made a great effort to make such reforms.

A firm integration process for North Macedonia – documents and moments

The stabilization and association agreement is a framework-document for Macedonia’s following path on the EU integration progress. It is important to underline that in this agreement it was foreseen that during the negotiations they must respect all terms and conditions their country has to accomplish to become and EU member state. Also, this document defined the general guideline and principles for the political dialogue, international cooperation, free circulation of people, goods and capital management, internal legislation alignment with EU directives, the improvement of free market competitiveness, the cooperation policy etc. It is noteworthy that this file gave Macedonia the candidate status for the EU accession in 2005, but its completion is still in the process.

The Ohrid Agrement is a key tool to keep an interethnic harmony in the former FYROM, the current North Macedonia.  Precisely, the conflicts the Albanese minority faced were solved through a process of constitutional changes, led by many international organizations and states like EU, NATO, OSCE and the US. This agreement was signed on 13.08.2001 and ended the armed conflict in Macedonia between rebel Albanese groups and the Macedonian security forces. We can say that this agreement was the main pillar for the establishment of country’s progress, in the transformation process into a multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious and stable society, objectives that are essential in accomplishing the EU and NATO integration goals.

At the NATO Summit in Bucharest, from April 2008, despite the fact that the Macedonian government and the UN mediator, Matthew Nimetz, have presented concrete measures, including on the state’s name, “Macedonia Republic”, Greece rejected all the proposals and used the veto right to refute Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic accession.

 The agreement on good neighbourhood and cooperation between Bulgaria and North Macedonia was created, signed and ratified, being noteworthy that the treaty came into force during the EU Bulgarian presidency, in 2018. Thanks to this agreement, both countries recognized their territorial integrity, even if there were different historical opinions and have focused on economy, culture and infrastructure cooperation. Therefore, the agreement signed with Skopje can be regarded as the fundamental element for the materialized Bulgarian political action to support neighbour countries to access EU and NATO.

The Berlin Process was a summit dedicated to the Western Balkans, "whose main objective was to reach a common agreement on strengthening regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and establishing a four-year framework (2014-2018) for the settlement of all unsolved problems in the region", including Macedonian state’s ones.

The Prespa Agreement, is considered the most important document for establishing a new name for the state in the Western Balkans (North Macedonia), this document being signed near Prespa Lake, on 17.06.2018, highlighting the final agreement with Greece. Therefore, this agreement is ratified by the Parliament of North Macedonia and Greece, on 25.01.2019, and entered into force on 12.02.2019. As a result, on this date, the country’s name was changed from "Republic of Macedonia" or "FYROM", as it was recognized by various states, in the Republic of North Macedonia, the citizens being called "Macedonians" who speak the "Macedonian" language.

The former Macedonian Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, Foreign Affairs Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, and the Macedonian government have pledged to accept a compromise solution to ensure their country's integration into NATO and the EU.

Stances of the main international actors

At EU level, within the Vienna economic talks, from May 2019, former European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, said "if the historic Prespa Agreement and the major reform effort in North Macedonia are not successful, the EU will cause great damage to its nearby attraction, especially in the Western Balkans". He concluded that the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia is a matter of "EU self-interest".

Germany

The German state, as an important player on the international political scene, has supported the European and Euro-Atlantic integration process of North Macedonia, making important efforts to manage the political crises from 2015-2017 in this country.

Thus, Germany has decided to support the EU accession negotiations opening with Northern Macedonia, considering, however, that "opening the first negotiation chapters should be conditional on the implementation of certain reforms (in justice and public administration fields, the fight against corruption and organized crime). It is worth noting that Skopje's EU accession process has significant support in most EU member states, the most important coming from Germany, which increased its presence in the Western Balkans, including in North Macedonia, starting with 2014. Under the auspices of the Berlin Process, the German government has pledged its support for region's integration into the EU, giving all Western Balkan countries an opportunity to join, if they meet the necessary conditions. Furthermore, Germany showed availability to help the Western Balkans build a "a peaceful, stable and democratic future" based on the "rule of law". After the Greek Parliament's approval of the Prespa Agreement, the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, reaffirmed Germany's support, saying that the solution of a new name "clears the way for the Republic of Northern Macedonia to join NATO and open accession talks with the EU".

The Russian Federation

When talking about the Prespa Agreement, Russian Federation’s attitude towards it can be defined as duplicitous, because while the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, welcomed the accepted compromise, on the other hand, Russia continues to express oppose the integration of North Macedonia into NATO. Hereof, Russia's interests are expressed in disinformation campaigns and in taking proactive measures to stimulate nationalism in both North Macedonia and Greece and, at the same time, is in line with its policy in the competition with the West in the Western Balkan region. In Therefore, North Macedonia’s integration into NATO is a major political victory in the competition with Russia, and it is also important to emphasize that the NATO integration will contribute to narrowing ethnic disparities and, implicitly, it will stimulate and ensure the security of the Macedonian state both internally and externally.

US

US Deputy Secretary of State, Matthew Palmer, emphasized that Belgrade and Prishtina should take North Macedonia as an example in solving the Kosovo problem. Moreover, in an interview for Radio Free Europe, M. Palmer pointed out that "the purpose of the US, EU and regional entities is the same - to achieve progress, but corruption and unrealized conditions in these countries in the region are favourable to Russian influence, North Macedonia has being the best example of how a country can withstand negative influence, assuming responsibility for this state can be an excellent recipe for Kosovo and Serbia".

As for the unique US and EU policy towards the Western Balkans, Mr. Palmer emphasized that "the purpose in terms of the Western Balkans is to help the region move towards EU and NATO integration", the US official said, underlining the fact that Russia "would see the region divided and divided if tensing the situation".

Conclusions

North Macedonia’s pro-Western process can be defined as a historical accomplishment and it is a “new chapter” in North Macedonia’s relations, both globally and regionally.

Although it had to make certain compromises, North Macedonia is an excellent example for the Western Balkans and it is a role model for solving other regional and international difficult disputes. Solving the dispute with Greece, on the name of the Macedonian state, sent a clear international message that “nationalism can be defeated” and that it was obvious that a 27 years old conflict can be solved through political dialogue and collaboration, using history as a lecture, not a past mistake.

By signing the Prespa Agreement and the normalization of relations with Greece, North Macedonia is a state that does a lot for the improvement of the regional stability, expressing its own perspective by which the NATO and EU accession is the best way to keep peace and stability in Western Balkans’ region.

English version by Andreea Soare