In North Macedonia, the drop in pro-EU sentiment opens the door to malicious intentions
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and in no way represent the editorial position of Euronews.
I remember how, less than a decade ago, many eyebrows were raised in Brussels when US Secretary of State John Kerry pointed to Russia’s growing influence in Europe and said: “As far as Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, [North] Macedonia… they are in the line of fire.”
Those of us who live in the Western Balkans weren’t shocked; we have been aware of Russia’s malign intentions in the region for decades. For most of history, the southeastern part of the continent has had little respite from being the scene of geopolitical competition between those who wish to absorb the territories and peoples under their influence.
In North Macedonia, the strongest defense mechanism against malicious actors rested on the fervent pro-European belief of its citizens. We have distinguished ourselves among the countries of the region by the volume and intensity of the compromises and reforms we have made to join the family of the European Union.
Today, amid Russia’s act of aggression against Ukraine, when pro-EU sentiments are expected to be strongest as the continent faces unprecedented unity, passion for EU in North Macedonia has almost completely eroded.
During the Cold War, Yugoslavia did not suffer from complete isolation behind the Iron Curtain. He was also not part of the western democratic bloc. A violent split tore apart the old socialist federation, and the Socialist Republic of Macedonia was thrown into the nation-building project overnight, having to change its political system, its ideology – and above all, its flag and its name – to be part of the international community.
From the moment he split from the federation, his neighbors decided it was a prime season to unravel his identity. In 1991, very few people were willing to bet on the country’s future even as its name seemed temporary to outsiders – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – a compromise meant to reduce it to a former part of a country they once recognized.
The first decision made by the newly born state president would become a model for the poise of a country that would always try to take the high road trying to survive in an unstable region.
A decade later, efforts by post-communist elites to continue building the nation-state have been met with armed resistance from the local Albanian community. The grand political coalition accepted EU and NATO mediation and reached a compromise, becoming the only post-war country in the Balkans to implement a blanket amnesty to minimize the possibility of ethnic conflict continuous.
The implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement – an atypical inter-ethnic compromise – laid the groundwork for extensive protections for all ethnic communities in the country and was instrumental in Brussels’ decision to nominate the country as a candidate for the accession to the EU.
A series of hard-to-swallow pills
Our actions in the beginning should have been an indication that the country took its responsibilities as a state seriously, including the heavy burden of making unpopular or difficult decisions for the nation’s long-term well-being. Instead, new challenges arose as Western allies expected North Macedonia to be the perpetual adult in the room.
In fact, the derailment of NATO integration, and EU membership with it, by Greece in 2008 due to a dispute over the country’s name ushered in a decade of authoritarian rule. We were no longer the top student in the Balkan class, as the country’s government decided to spend money and time on lavish statues, among other things, instead of its reform process.
Once again, the progressive spirit of the country’s people shone as the Color Revolution – so named for the paint that was thrown on the aforementioned statues – lifted the country out of a glut, and the subsequent elections ushered in a government eager to step up the pace. of European integration.
The small country of 2 million people made headlines around the world when it accepted what many would consider the very essence of its existence – its name – to settle the dispute with Greece.
It was not an easy pill to swallow. While the two sides came to a mutual understanding of their interpretation of certain historical events, nationalists in the Diaspora and at home were annoyed, given that the agreement with the qualifier “North” differentiated the identity of the state of the identity of the Macedonian people.
As expected, the cumulative impact of these arrangements was visible in the presidential and legislative elections of 2019 and 2020, when nationalists and populists fared much better than the pro-European bloc. The latter still managed to remain at the head of the country, waiting for the promised reward to materialize – not only in the form of NATO membership but also the start of negotiations with Brussels.
Unfortunately, an unfavorable scenario began to unfold. First, the German Bundestag delayed its approval of the progress report on North Macedonia due to the European Parliament elections. Then, the French request for a new negotiation methodology was based on two additional years.
And finally, our eastern neighbor Bulgaria has raised several official complaints against our case, citing an archaic Balkan understanding of identity politics on issues such as history and language.
Brussels took the easy way out by insisting on a bilateral format, asking North Macedonia and Bulgaria to sort out our problems on our own. It showed a blatant disregard for the imbalance in the relationship between the two: Bulgaria was a member using its right of veto not to let us in, when we depended on the unanimity of the EU.
The Bulgarian position was and remains totally incomprehensible to Macedonian citizens because its core had nothing to do with professed European democratic values and principles. After all, imposing its national narrative on others is a failure, especially for a continent that created the Union to end the historical revisionism that had caused so much suffering and wars in the past.
When the war in Ukraine ends, will Brussels return to business as usual?
Two years of political obstruction in the form of a veto on North Macedonia’s accession negotiations have weighed heavily on the government and all Europhiles. This whole endeavor has been widely seen as a betrayal of our most important national dream since independence. In 18 months, support for the EU has fallen sharply by 25%.
The ethnically heterogeneous structure of Macedonian society was deeply affected by the situation, and for the worse: Macedonians and Albanians began to differ sharply in their support for EU membership.
In all honesty, people were right: if the country that made an unprecedented series of compromises was not rewarded at the end, there is no guarantee that the whole journey would ever end in full membership during its lifetime. .
The Russian invasion of Ukraine fundamentally changed the security, political and economic structures of the European Union. It has also changed the logic of the enlargement process, and the EU has now turned membership into a bulwark against the harmful influence of Russia.
To that end, many analysts agree that if the Kremlin were to consider diverting the Western alliance from the war in Ukraine, the Balkans would be a much more vulnerable arena than the Baltics because the Baltics are firmly integrated into the NATO. But the question remains: when the war in Ukraine is over, will the EU return to the status quo?
Even as NATO’s newest member, North Macedonia is one of Ukraine’s top five defense contributors. Yet despite generally more positive messages from Brussels since the grim launch of the new invasion of Ukraine, North Macedonia’s European path continues to be reduced to bureaucratic rhetoric about filtering and clusters.
This did not fail his fellow citizens, whose enthusiasm was considerably undermined.
Until recently, despite all the difficult compromises, pro-European political forces could still win elections. However, nationalists and populists have steadily gained ground in recent years, and their resurgence now seems irreversible.
In all fairness, North Macedonia is certainly not a perfect European country when it comes to living standards or the rule of law. However, compared to the starting point of seven years ago, it has taken a leap forward from an internationally isolated state to a state integrated with the West.
The engine of change has been the determination of its citizens to act for the transformative powers of European integration. At a time when a war is being waged over interpretations of history, Macedonian citizens should be rewarded for rejecting historical narratives of blood and borders. Yet to do this, external incentives – mainly from the EU – must continue to flow into the country.
A lesson learned in recent history is still valid in the Balkans: by default, less EU presence means less democracy and more corruption and autocracy.
If the bloc is again absent from the region after the end of the war in Ukraine, the next time it returns, it will find the Western Balkans with barely ten million inhabitants. And those who will remain will not be the ambitious and committed generations that we still have in the region.
The other eight million will inevitably integrate into the EU moving one by one to its member states rather than waiting in their home countries – where someone else might be happy to step in and offer a much worse “alternative” to a united Europe.
Stevo Pendarovski is the fifth and current President of North Macedonia.