Balkan Insight, 2 June 2017
If Macedonia’s new government, elected on Wednesday, works hard on democratization and leaves nationalism aside, it could use more favourable geopolitical circumstances to get an invitation to join NATO, political observers say. A former Macedonian Ambassador to NATO, Nano Ruzin, believes NATO is prepared to help Macedonia join as soon as possible, even if that means convincing Macedonia’s awkward neighbour Greece to allow its entry under the provisional UN reference, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM. “Having in mind political and geopolitical factors in the Western Balkans, we have a good chance of overcoming the issue of not having a consensus [with Greece] over the name, and of being invited [to join NATO] under the provisional [UN] reference, which could happen by the end of this year,” Ruzin said.
The reason, he says, is Russia’s growing clout in the Western Balkans, which is prompting the United States and its allies to increase their own presence in the region. In 2008, Macedonia narrowly missed the chance to enter NATO solely due to the long-standing dispute over its name with neighbouring Greece. As a result, Macedonia received a conditional invitation under which NATO was obliged to invite the country to join only once it had solved the dispute with its neighbour.
Greece claims that use of the word Macedonia implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of the same name. Athens has blocked Skopje’s attempts to join the EU over the same issue.Nine years on from 2008, Macedonia is deeply shaken by years of political crises, a weakened economy and “hijacked institutions”, as the European Commission put it in its latest report.
Much of this is attributed to the authoritarian former government led by the VMRO DPMNE party, which held power in the past 11 years. The new government, led by the Social Democrats, SDSM, under Zoran Zaev, is now expected to rectify all of this – which many see as a daunting task. During his government speech on Tuesday, Zaev told parliament that his government had three key goals: to boost the economy, to restore justice and the rule of law and integrate the country into EU and NATO. Under VMRO DPMNE Macedonia made many moves that Greece saw as additional provocations.
These include renaming the main airport in Skopje after Alexander the Great, the warrior king from classical antiquity, and erecting giant statues of Alexander and his father, Philip of Macedon, in the capital, Skopje. These actions further annoyed Greece, which holds these historic figures as an exclusive part of its own Hellenic heritage. Political analyst Bojan Maricic, from the Skopje-based think tank Eurothink – Center for European Strategies, agreed that Macedonia’s path towards Atlantic integration is starting to open up. However, he said getting a NATO invitation by the end of the year looks over-optimistic.
“From the standpoint where we are now, I don’t think it is doable … despite more and more people talking about it,” Maricic told the Sloboden Pecat daily. However, he advised key NATO member states to convince Greece to accept Macedonia’s NATO entry under the UN provisional reference. “For that to happen, we need measures for building trust between Macedonia and Greece and strong support from the NATO and EU partners,” Maricic said.
In the new government elected on Wednesday, the Defence Ministry went as expected to the SDSM’s Radmila Shekerinska. Some saw this as a good omen for Macedonia’s integration, as Shekerinska was Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs back in 2005, which is when Macedonia acquired EU candidate member status.