For Macedonia, Is Joining NATO and the EU Worth the Trouble?

Foreign Policy 

By Florian Bieber

When the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers signed an agreement on June 17 to resolve along-standing dispute between the two countries about Macedonia’s official name, it was clear that a long and bumpy road was still ahead. The Greeks have long found the use of the name “Republic of Macedonia” unacceptable. They see it as a way for the Balkan nation to assert a claim to the region in northern Greece that is also called Macedonia and as a way to imply ownership over ancient Macedonia, which Greeks claim as part of their own heritage. For Macedonians, Greece’s refusal to accept the name has been seen as unfair—a denial of their country’s national identity. Now that two leaders have come to a detente on the naming issue, the biggest hurdle ahead is an upcoming referendum on the issue in Macedonia on Sept. 30.

The government has urged citizens to vote “yes” on the following question: “Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between Macedonia and Greece?” The fact that the poll doesn’t even include the country’s new proposed name—Republic of North Macedonia—is telling. The new name of the country, which is now known as either the Republic of Macedonia (domestically and in bilateral relations with most countries) or “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (to Greece and in international organizations), is no secret. The fact that it has been left off the ballot, though, shows how contentious the issue still is among Macedonians.

Even as the referendum de-emphasizes the new name, it highlights what is at stake and why the Macedonian government invested considerable energy in resolving the dispute. Without an agreement with Greece, Macedonia cannot join NATO or the European Union. Its southern neighbor has vetoed previous such attempts. Macedonia was unable to sign on with NATO a decade ago, for example, when it was supposed to become a member aside Croatia and Albania. Similarly, together with Croatia, it was a front-runner for EU accession in the early 2000s, but its membership application got stuck due to Greek objections.

The blockages encouraged Macedonia’s previous government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, to effectively abandon Euro-Atlantic integration in the late 2000s. It instead engaged in a radical nationalist revamping of the capital, complete with a steep decline in democracy and the rule of law and a massive uptick in graft.

The current government, led by current Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and dominated by his Social Democratic Union party, came to power last year after massive protests, new elections, criminal proceedings, and international mediation. It immediately understood that the key to turning Macedonia around would be unlocking NATO and EU membership. Membership in those organizations, the new government believed, would revitalize and lock in place the country’s reform efforts and restore investor confidence.

But the challenge for the government lay not only in cutting a good deal with Greece, which has considerably fewer incentives to compromise than Macedonia, but also in getting domestic support. The party’s majority is narrow. From the onset, it has been hounded by the VMRO-DPMNE for its supposed lack of patriotism and for selling out to the Albanians, a large minority in the country whose support the party needed to form a coalition, although VMRO-DPMNE had also joined in coalition with the Albanian parties.

To give itself a greater mandate to negotiate a deal with Greece, the Social Democrats accepted the demand of the previous government that any compromise agreement would be followed by a referendum. That’s particularly tricky, because Macedonian law requires a 50 percent turnout for a referendum to be considered valid. The country’s existing voter register is believed to be widely off the mark. At the moment, it suggests that there are 1.8 million registered voters in a country of just over 2 million inhabitants. The number is impossibly high and is likely due to inaccuracies that have accumulated over the years as people who have died or migrated have remained on the roster. Either way, reaching 900,000 votes in a country that, at most, has about 1.5 million voters will be a challenge.

VMRO-DPMNE has been equivocal about the referendum. Although it opposes the agreement, it publicly favors both EU and NATO membership, and its new party president, Hristijan Mickoski, has neither endorsed the vote nor called for a boycott. It directed each individual to decide “with their conscience” whether to participate. Other opponents have openly urged their supporters to stay away from the polls, which will make reaching the 900,000-vote threshold all the more difficult. Their reasons are eclectic. The most common, advanced by nationalist groups and some diaspora organizations and intellectuals, is the supposed threat to national identity of changing the country’s name. Even though the agreement with the Greeks does allow the country to use the adjective “Macedonian” to describe its citizens and language, critics claim that adding the geographical designator “North” in front of “Macedonia” in the name of the country constitutes a real threat.

Others bemoan that the new international license plate abbreviation will no longer be MK or MKD, but NM or NMK. And it will surely be a headache for Macedonia to issue new documents—such as drivers’ licenses, stamps, and money—over a five-year period. The public, meanwhile, won’t like the ban on an earlier version of the national flag, which was based on the Vergina Sun, a symbol associated with an ancient Macedonian royal dynasty. Although that imagery has not been on the official Macedonian flag since 1995, it remains widely used in protests and can still be found in many public spaces, including on manhole covers.

Beyond these more quotidian concerns, the Macedonian government has also committed itself to review all monuments and buildings that evoke the country’s Hellenic heritage, with an eye toward removing them. The review will include many of the monuments that the previous government erected in the capital, Skopje, and elsewhere around the country, including most prominently a large equestrian statue of a “warrior on a horse,” widely understood to be Alexander the Great.

Up ArrowTop