After changing its name to the "Republic of North Macedonia” under the Prespa agreement with Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic finally cleared the way for its admission to Nato.
On February 6, 2019 the protocol of accession was officially signed in Brussels. In the next year, after completion of all necessary procedures, Macedonia will become the 30th “jubilee” member of the Alliance.
Macedonia is a long-time partner of Nato, but the country's path to the Alliance has been thorny. Its accession process was on the verge of collapse more than once.
Ever since the proclamation of independence of the republic in 1991, Macedonia been chasing Nato membership. The country has participated in numerous Nato programs, such as Partnership for Peace (1995), Science for Peace and Security (1998), Nato Membership Action Plan (1999), and Operational Capabilities Concept. Macedonia has also supported Nato-led operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, among others.
In 2001 Macedonia formally applied to Nato authorities for permission to join the Alliance and expected to receive an invitation during the summit in Bucharest in April 2008. However, for many years Greece blocked Macedonia’s accession, demanding its northern neighbour change its name, since the Greek state also has a province called “Macedonia”, which borders the country of Macedonia.
It took another 10 years for a decision on the matter to be made. In the summer of 2018 the prime ministers of the two countries reached a compromise, where Macedonia was renamed the “Republic of Northern Macedonia”.
The Macedonia-Russia-US Triangle
Now Macedonia is on the threshold of Nato membership, which raises the question: what does membership in the Alliance really mean and what are the positions of Russia, the United States, and Macedonia itself?
It is difficult to formulate strong geostrategic arguments in favour of the admission of Northern Macedonia to Nato from the point of view of the Alliance. This country didn’t do anything remarkable in the Balkan conflict. It is small, rather poor, and doesn't have an outlet to the sea.
From the Macedonian point of view it is obvious why a small country in an unstable region would want to join a big military alliance. Skopje’s accession will ensure internal stability and protect the country from a hypothetical attack by Serbia or its other neighbours.
However, the security benefits aside, the main goal of Nato membership is simple: to make it easier for Macedonia to join the EU because historically, all post-communist countries that have joined the EU have first joined Nato. After all, the economic future of a poor country significantly depends on how quickly it will move along the European path. From the former socialist block countries, by far the most successful transition strategy has been to join the EU, thanks to both the grants it brings, but equally important are the ready-made institutions that are part of the package.
Regarding the Balkan question, the goals of Russia and the West are quite transparent and diametrically opposed. Russia's seeks to maintain its position in the Balkans. The West wants to squeeze Russia out.
The accession of yet another Slavic country to Nato will be considered a defeat by the current Russian leadership, since countering Nato expansion is one of Moscow’s strategic goals. Obviously, Russia is dissatisfied with Macedonia’s move into the Euro-Atlantic structures, not only because it considers Nato an opponent and the Slavic Balkan countries as historical allies, but also because the Turk Stream gas pipeline has to pass through Macedonia – a key piece of geopolitical infrastructure for Moscow.
Russia's machinations in the Balkans have caught the headlines, but in truth the significance of Russia’s influence is exaggerated. There aren’t any political forces in Macedonia that are striving for an alliance with Russia. The Russian diaspora in the country is small. And the volume of Russian investments is negligible. The influence of neighbouring Turkey (a member of Nato) is much stronger, for example.
It is worth noting that despite Western fears, there were no scandals associated with the alleged Russian intervention in recent months in Macedonian internal affairs.
So, why does Nato need this small country, which possesses a very modest military budget and will bring nothing but expenses to the Alliance without being able to give much in return?
For the US, the dominant member of Nato, Macedonia appears as a grey zone in the region that is not clearly aligned with anyone, and Washington seeks to eliminate such zones in Europe, and especially in the Balkans.
Nato’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, assures that accession of North Macedonia to Nato will bring a lot of benefit to the Alliance and will bring more stability to the Western Balkans, highlighting the fact that Macedonia has already contributed to the mission in Afghanistan and promoted regional cooperation in Southeast Europe.
But behind all this rhetoric is the obvious fact that Macedonia is also being allowed into Nato to “give Moscow a flick on the nose”. The US and the Alliance are trying to stake out a claim on more new territories in the Balkans, creeping closer and closer to Russia’s borders and creating a “security zone” to counter the Kremlin’s “aggressive policy” (as they see it). By these actions the expansion of the Alliance is as much about impeding a possible expansion of Russian influence as it is about adding new members. The main goal then becomes a complete ousting of Russia from Europe to prevent Russia's economic, energy, political, cultural, and military presence in any part of the continent.
Who is next?
There is no doubt that despite any possible protests from Belgrade, in the future Bosnia and Herzegovina will be also drawn into Nato’s net. The next candidate after that is Kosovo.
The final destination in Nato’s Balkans process is to bring Serbia into the Nato family as well – traditionally a friend of Russia. Will the Alliance succeed in weakening the Serbs, who maintain close ties to Russia, and remove them from Russian influence? Today, Belgrade officially has a number of agreements with Nato that make Serbia a de facto member of the Alliance without being a member state. But at the same time, Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, has good relations with President Vladimir Putin and was a guest of honour at last year’s May Day parade. Vucic seems to be playing both sides of the game adroitly. No one has yet spoken about the official membership of Serbia in Nato, which remains unlikely; to declare it at this point in Serbia would be tantamount to political suicide.
Elena Sulimova is a research associate with the Dialogue of the Civilisations in Berlin
Elena graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations University of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, specialising in European Regional Studies. Contact the author here.