North Macedonia Wants To Go To the West

Eswatini (Swaziland), Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo. After 1989, only three countries changed their name without gaining independence or changing their borders. Recently they have been joined by another one, North Macedonia. What hopes are placed in this change?

“The first party, the Hellenic Republic (the “First Party”) and the Second Party, which was admitted to the United Nations in accordance with the United Nations General Assembly resolution 47/225 of 8 April 1993…” This is the start of the agreement that was concluded on 17 June 2018 at Prespa Lake by the representatives of the two states bordering it. It is rare that the name of a country is so enigmatically veiled. It is only on the third page of the document that the riddle is solved; Greece signed an agreement with the Republic of Northern Macedonia.

The reason is that the name of the state itself was at the heart of the dispute. The Greeks accused the Macedonians of usurping their right to the Hellenic heritage and, in the long term, of seeking to link the lands of today’s Bulgaria-based Pirin Macedonia, Aegean Macedonia around Thessaloniki, and Vardar Macedonia, basically the territory of the state known up until recently as FYROM.

The fears of the Greeks had been seen as exaggerated. Even if Macedonians entertained a covert nostalgia for Great Macedonia, none of its major political or intellectual forces had declared a desire to change borders. Above all, however, it was quite unusual that the fear of revisionism was greater in the country which had 5.5 times more inhabitants (nearly 11 million Greeks against 2 million Macedonians) and incomparably larger armed forces (143 thousand soldiers against 8 thousand; over 140 F-16 against a state without an air force), and was a member of the most powerful military alliance.

Greece’s argument could have been seen as exaggerated, with its actions towards the government in Skopje appearing as arrogant and, above all, the very substance of the dispute on a several-thousand-years-old matter as trivial. Athens’ consistent international attitude meant, however, that Skopje, wishing to move forward in Euro-Atlantic integration, realized that it was necessary to reach a compromise, albeit with a great sense of injustice.

Putting Relations with Macedonian Neighbors in Order

Macedonian politicians could keep excusing the lack of progress in European integration though Greek obstruction and sweeten the failure with bombastic monuments to Alexander the Great. Zoran Zaev from the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), who became Prime Minister in May 2017, decided to break with this approach. Putting relations with Macedonian neighbors in order is a prerequisite for becoming a member of NATO and the European Union, especially as two of the neighbors are already there and can effectively block the admission of new members.

Importantly for Macedonians, Bulgaria also indirectly admitted in the agreement that Macedonian was a separate language from Bulgarian. It may seem trivial, but it is not so.

In August of this year, Zaev consequently normalized relations with Bulgaria, concluding an agreement in which both countries renounced territorial claims and Bulgaria undertook to support Macedonia in its efforts to integrate with the European Union. Importantly for Macedonians, Bulgaria also indirectly admitted in the agreement that Macedonian was a separate language from Bulgarian. It may seem trivial, but it is not so. This example demonstrates how elementary issues had been neglected in the mutual relations of countries that have now been neighbors for 25 years.

This minor achievement in Skopje-Sofia relations was also a clear signal to Athens that the current “government in Skopje” (the Greeks avoided phrases that would include the word “Macedonian”) was indeed determined and ready to carry out all the most controversial and necessary reforms. Favorable circumstances occurred not only in Skopje. For the Greek elite, a solution to the dispute with Macedonia was necessary, and the vision of ending it was accepted with some relief. This regarded many aspects, from the international dimension, where Greece was losing out on its image of a country hampering the integration process, to the fact that the Greeks them- selves would finally know what to call their own neighbor, for whom they had invented wildly convoluted names.

For the Greek elite, a solution to the dispute with Macedonia was necessary, and the vision of ending it was accepted with some relief.

Tsipras Decided to go Against the Sentiments of the Greek “Street”

Working in favor of Zaev was the fact that it all coincided with a short moment when the actual goodwill of the government in Athens was greater than the declared one. This was due to the fact that the determination of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras from left-wing Syriza was paradoxically strengthened by the poor ratings of his party. The humiliation that the negotiations with the European Union and the overall relationship with Turkey experienced in the eyes of Greek society was definitely burying the chances of success for Syriza in the European and national parliamentary elections planned for 2019.

Tsipras therefore decided to go against the sentiments of the Greek “street”. Thinking that his party would have to relinquish power in 2019 anyway, he chose an unpopular, but necessary and statesmanlike solution regarding Macedonia. During the negotiations both sides chose “North Macedonia” out of a number of proposals.

The protests confirmed that both the Greek and Macedonian “streets” were not fully ready to accept a solution. Tsipras lost all its popularity because the agreement was seen as a sign of another failure of Athens in the international arena. Zaev, on the other hand, began to be accused of betraying the essence of Macedonia, especially in the context of agreements concluded with Bulgaria and concessions to the Albanian minority aimed at gaining its support.

It was not self-evident that the agreement would be maintained and ratified. Time worked against it—as any Greek government that emerged after the elections on 30 June 2019 would be less willing to accept the agreement. On the Macedonian side, the obstacles were as follows: President George Ivanov, who refused to ratify it, the referendum on 30 September 2018, with a too low turnout to be binding, and the negotiations in the Assembly of the Republic, which adopted the agreement after a few months, on 11 January 2019. Two weeks later, the Greek Parliament did the same, thanks to which the Macedonians were able to replace the nameplates of their country with new ones as of 12 February 2019.

A Positive Signal for the Whole Region

The efforts undertaken by both countries, supported by the international community (the USA is still very much involved in the region), reveal how much energy had to be put into the issue, which in tangible terms boils down to the exchange of plates, stamps and e-mail footers.

The countries of the region perceived the agreement as a positive signal. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had refused even to meet the Macedonian President Ivanov when he announced his refusal to ratify the agreement. The approval was not received, however, as a signal to resolve the remaining disputes in the region. Moreover, in Albania fears were expressed about arousing Greek appetite for the so-called bilateralization of Albanian-Greek disputes in the context of negotiations with the EU.

This is a situation when a country that is already a member of the Union starts to bind the integration process to bilateral issues with a candidate. An example of such an attitude in earlier years was Slovenia’s placing conditions on Croatia’s accession because of their border dispute. At present, Croatia, as a member of the EU, is showing a similar attitude towards Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The efforts undertaken by both countries, supported by the international community reveal how much energy had to be put into the issue, which in tangible terms boils down to the exchange of plates, stamps and email footers.

The end of the Greek-Macedonian dispute was unequivocally welcomed by Western countries. For the European Union, this is not only a good thing in itself. It showcased to the other countries in the region the hope of obtaining a spillover effect on other disputes, headed by the Kosovar-Serbian conflict. Permanent stabilization of the security situation in the Western Balkans is necessary in order to fill a geopolitical gap within the European Union.

In addition, on a wider international forum, it demonstrates the continuing attractiveness of the European integration path, for the sake of which the candidate countries are ready not only to embark on demanding reforms, but also to resolve important image issues. Meanwhile, China, Arab countries, Turkey and Russia are ready to step up their engagement in the Western Balkans.

Moscow Consequently Torpedoed the Agreement

Moscow, in particular, was the main target of this message. Officially, it also supported the conclusion and implementation of the Prespa Agreement. In reality, however, it benefited from the instability created by the very existence of the Greek-Macedonian conflict. Russia would like to see the Balkans as a sphere of its influence, and is certainly against the inclusion of the six Western Balkan countries in NATO and the EU. The failed coup d’état in Montenegro in autumn 2016 and the country’s accession to NATO confirmed the weakening of Russian influence in the region.

The end of the Greek-Macedonian dispute was unequivocally welcomed by Western countries. It showcased to the other countries in the region the hope of obtaining a spillover effect on other disputes, headed by the Kosovar-Serbian conflict.

Moscow consequently torpedoed the conclusion of the agreement, and its actions including recruiting an army of Internet trolls in the pre-referendum campaign. In Greece, it reached for instruments which led in July 2018 to the expulsion of two Russian diplomats by Athens (a few months earlier one diplomat was also expelled by Macedonia in response to an attempt to poison Sergei Skripal).

This was an unprecedented cooling down in the relationship between these two traditionally friendly countries. Moscow, unable to block the agreement, began to play at delegitimizing it. It criticized it as “an artificial change of the name of the state” or “an externally imposed process”. In order to weaken it further in the eyes of Macedonian nationalists, it stressed the role of Albanian MPs in the ratification of the agreement.

Russia was right about one thing. The change of name made the NATO accession process much faster. On 6 February 2019, Macedonia signed the accession agreement without even waiting for the Prespa Agreement to formally enter into force. Zaev’s policy of normalizing relations with neighbours brought the expected results: in February, NATO’s neighbors, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece, were the first to ratify the act session act. By the end of May, eight more Alliance members had done so. As a result, North Macedonia will most likely become a full member of NATO by the end of 2019.

China and Russia Are Waiting for the EU’s Failures

From the point of view of the average Macedonian, membership in the Euro-pean Union is much more important. But here the situation is not as clear-cut. There is some confusion on the part of some EU Member States. In accordance with the Union’s intentions, North Macedonia has taken a very specific step, which should be met with an equally specific response. Although EU representatives, headed by Federica Mogherini, recommend opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania (with Serbia and Montenegro they are already open), some Member States, headed by France, are clearly unwilling to do so.

This is justified by the reluctance of EU societies to further enlargement of the community, which is strengthened by the image of Bulgaria and Romania, judged to have been prematurely accepted. Albania is in a similar position and has also made significant progress in reforms (including in the area of the judiciary).

Moscow, unable to block the agreement, began to play at delegitimizing it. It criticized it as “an artificial change of the name of the state” or “an externally imposed process”.

For Macedonians, the Prespa Agreement means a significant act of goodwill and sacrifice on the road to Euro-Atlantic structures. They agreed to concessions on an issue as elementary for every community as their own name and identity, which is treated as a painful, but the pragmatic price to pay for the possibility of accession to the European Union. They confirmed this move on 5 May 2019 by electing Stevo Pendrakovski from the SDSM as President by a majority of 53.6%. His competitor, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova (VMRO-DP- MNE), calling for a repeat of the referendum and the restoration of the old state name, convinced, however, 46.4% of Macedonians to vote for her.

Failure to open negotiations with Skopje and Tirana relatively quickly would be a mutual failure. In the case of the candidate countries, it would mean halting or even reversing reforms and dampening the current pro-European attitudes of their societies and governments. It would also be a signal to current and future governments that the Union is not a credible partner keeping its word. Explanations stating that accepting two countries the size of Warsaw would exceed its absorption capacity would show that the Union is simply a weak organization.

Failure to open negotiations with Skopje and Tirana relatively quickly would be a mutual failure. It would also be a signal to current and future governments that the Union is not a credible partner keeping its word.

Undoubtedly, China and Russia are waiting for this to happen in order to be able to fill the geopolitical void and demonstrate the superiority and greater attractiveness of their development model.

Miłosz Pieńkowski

is an analyst at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland. He graduated from International Relations and Law at the University of Warsaw. He also studied in Prague and Saint Petersburg. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Ministry.

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