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I remember how, less than a decade ago, many eyebrows in Brussels were raised when US Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the growing Russian influence in Europe and said, “when it comes to Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, [North] Macedonia … they are in the line of fire.”
Those of us living in the Western Balkans were not 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 rarely had any respite from being a theatre for geopolitical competition among those eager to absorb territories and peoples under their influence.
In North Macedonia, the strongest defence mechanism from malign actors rested in the fervent pro-European belief of its citizens. We have stood out among countries in the region for the sheer volume and intensity of the compromises and reforms we have made to join the European Union family.
Today, amid Russia’s act of aggression against Ukraine, when the pro-EU sentiments should be the strongest as the continent faces unprecedented unity – the passion for the EU in North Macedonia has become almost completely eroded.
During the Cold War, Yugoslavia did not suffer from complete isolation behind the Iron Curtain. It was not part of the Western democratic bloc, either. A violent breakup tore apart the once socialist federation, and the Socialist Republic of Macedonia was thrown into the project of nation-building overnight, having to change its political system, ideology — and most importantly, its flag and name — to become part of the international community.
From the moment it broke away from the federation, its neighbours decided it was a prime season to pick apart its identity. In 1991, very few people were ready to bet on the country’s future when even its name sounded temporary to outsiders — the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — a trade-off meant to reduce it to a former part of a country they did once recognise.
The first decision the president of the newly-born state made would become a blueprint for the level-headedness of a country that would always try to take the high road when trying to survive in a volatile region.
One decade later, the efforts of the post-communist elites to continue building the nation-state were confronted with armed resistance by the local Albanian community. The grand political coalition accepted the mediation by the EU and NATO and reached a compromise, becoming the only post-war country in the Balkans to implement a widespread amnesty to minimise the possibility of continued ethnic strife.
The implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement — an atypical interethnic compromise — set the basis for wide-ranging protections for all of the country’s ethnic communities and contributed by and large to Brussels’ decision to designate the country as a candidate for EU membership.
A series of tough pills to swallow
Our actions early on should have been an indication that the country was taking its responsibilities as a state seriously, including the tough burden of making unpopular or difficult decisions for the long-term well-being of the nation. Instead, new challenges mounted as Western allies kept expecting 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. No longer were we the best student in the Balkan classroom, as the country’s government decided to spend money and time on lavish statues, among other things, instead of its reform process.
Again, the progressive spirit of the country’s population shone through when the Colourful Revolution — named so for the paint that was thrown on the abovementioned statues — pulled the country out of a glut, and subsequent elections ushered in a government eager to pick up the pace of European integration.
This small country of 2 million people made headlines worldwide when it agreed to what many would consider the very essence of its existence — its name — to put the dispute with Greece to bed.
This was not an easy pill to swallow. While both sides achieved 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 state’s identity from the identity of the Macedonian people.
As expected, the cumulative impact of these arrangements was visible during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 and 2020, when nationalists and populists performed much better than the pro-European block. The latter still managed to stay at the country’s helm, waiting for the promised award to materialise — not only in the shape of NATO membership but the start of negotiations with Brussels as well.
Unfortunately, an adverse scenario started to unfold. First, the German Bundestag delayed its approval of the progress report on North Macedonia due to the European Parliament elections. Next, France’s demand for a new negotiation methodology tacked on additional two years.
And finally, our eastern neighbour Bulgaria raised several formal complaints against our dossier, invoking an archaic Balkan understanding of identity politics over matters 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 issues on our own. This exhibited a blatant disregard for the disbalance in the relationship between the two: Bulgaria was a member using its veto power not to let us in, whereas we were dependent on the EU’s unanimity.
The Bulgarian position was and remains utterly incomprehensible for Macedonian citizens because its core had nothing to do with the professed European democratic values and principles. After all, imposing one’s national narrative on others is a nonstarter, especially for a continent that created the Union to end the historical revisionism that had caused so much suffering and war in the past.
When war in Ukraine ends, will Brussels return to business as usual?
Two years of political obstruction in the form of veto on North Macedonia’s membership negotiations took a heavy toll on the government and all Europhiles. The whole endeavour was widely perceived as a betrayal of our most significant national dream since independence. In 18 months, support for the EU fell sharply by 25%.
The ethnically heterogeneous structure of Macedonian society was deeply affected by the situation, and for the worse: Macedonians and Albanians started to differ sharply in their support for EU membership.
In all fairness, people were right: if the country which carried out an unprecedented set of compromises was not rewarded in the end, there is no guarantee that the whole voyage would ever end in full-fledged membership in their lifetime.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally altered the European Union’s security, political and economic structures. It has also changed the rationale of the enlargement process, and the EU has now transformed membership as a bulwark to protect from Russia’s malign influence.
To this end, many analysts agree that if the Kremlin planned to distract the Western alliance from the war in Ukraine, the Balkans would be a far more vulnerable arena than the Baltics because the Baltics are firmly inside NATO. But the question remains: the day the war in Ukraine is over, will the EU return to business as usual?
Even as the newest member of NATO, North Macedonia is one of the top five contributors to Ukraine’s defence. Yet despite the generally more positive messaging from Brussels since the grim launch of the renewed invasion of Ukraine, North Macedonia’s EU path continues to be reduced to bureaucratic rhetoric about screening and clusters.
This was not missed by its citizens, whose enthusiasm has been significantly undermined.
Until recently, despite all the difficult compromises, pro-European political forces could still win elections. However, nationalists and populists have continued gaining ground in the past few years, and now their resurgence seems irreversible.
In all honesty, North Macedonia is certainly not a perfect European country regarding the standard of living or the rule of law. However, compared to the point of departure seven years ago, it has made a quantum leap from an internationally isolated state to one integrated with the West.
The driving force for change was the determination of its citizens to act in favour of the transformative powers of European integration. At a time when a war is being fought over interpretations of history, Macedonian citizens should be rewarded for discarding historical narratives of blood and borders. Yet to do so, the external incentives – primarily from the EU – need to continue to flow into the country.
A lesson learnt in recent history still holds in the Balkans: by default, less EU presence means less democracy and more corruption and autocracy.
If the bloc is absent again in the region after the war in Ukraine is over, the next time it returns, it will find the Western Balkans with barely ten million people. And those left will not be the aspirational, committed generations we still have living in the region.
The other eight million will inevitably integrate themselves into the EU by moving to its member states one by one rather than wait 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.
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