Macedonia's new government is on a quest to improve ties with its neighbors and develop closer ones with the West. Facing a tenuous political situation at home, the government in Skopje, which has only been in power for two months, is looking for as much external support as it can get.
In June, Macedonia's foreign affairs minister met with his Greek counterpart to discuss possible solutions to their bilateral dispute. Athens does not recognize Macedonia's name, out of fear that it could lead to Macedonian claims over a Greek region of the same name. In July, Macedonia's defense minister visited Albania and pledged to increase cooperation between Skopje and Tirana. Macedonia is home to a sizable minority of ethnic Albanians (roughly a quarter of the population), and Tirana has accused Skopje of discriminating against ethnic Albanians on issues such as education and public sector jobs. Then on Aug. 1, Macedonia and Bulgaria signed a friendship treaty in which they renounced territorial claims against each other. The agreement was the result of nearly two decades of negotiations.
A Fragile Country
These moves are connected to Macedonia's domestic situation. In May, Zoran Zaev became the country's prime minister, putting an end to a decade of rule by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. But Zaev's position is precarious. His center-left Social Democratic Union is in a coalition government with two smaller Albanian parties, which push for improvement in the rights of the Albanian minority. Meanwhile VMRO-DPMNE, which left power only reluctantly and under international pressure, is a strong political player and still controls the country's presidency. Macedonia's political environment remains heated as well. In April dozens of men, some of them masked, stormed parliament to protest the appointment of an ethnic Albanian as parliament speaker. Several lawmakers, including Zaev, were injured during the attack.
With an eye on Macedonia's fragile domestic circumstances, Zaev has identified accession to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a way to secure as much international support as possible for his government. Macedonia is surrounded mostly by EU and NATO members, which means it cannot afford to have frosty relations with them if it hopes to join those organizations. Macedonia has been trying to become part of NATO since the late 1990s and the European Union since the mid-2000s, but a combination of issues at home and abroad have stood in its way.
Safety in Numbers
Though Macedonia peacefully seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, the decades that followed were difficult for the young country. Greece objected to Macedonia's name from the start, imposed a temporary trade blockade on its northern neighbor and threatened to block its accession to the United Nations. As a result, the country let the United Nations and other international organizations refer to it as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. During the Kosovo War of 1998-99, thousands of ethnic Albanians fled south from Kosovo to Macedonia; the influx threatened to disrupt the ethnic balance in the country. Then in early 2001, a group of insurgent ethnic Albanians took up arms against the Macedonian government to demand greater political rights. Under pressure from NATO and the European Union, a cease-fire was eventually reached, but the conflict led to hundreds of deaths and thousands of displaced people.
To this day, Macedonia remains one of the most fragile countries in the former Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia are members of the European Union and NATO, while Montenegro joined the latter bloc this year. In comparison, Macedonia's political frailty and unresolved ethnic issues make it a source of potential social and political conflict. To make matters more complicated, Russia is also active in the region. Earlier this year, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an association of investigative journalists, said that Russian spies and diplomats are involved in an effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia to prevent its accession to NATO. Montenegro's government recently said Moscow had tried to block it from joining the military alliance as well. After Zaev's appointment as prime minister, the Kremlin accused the new Macedonian administration and the West of trying to create a "Greater Albania" in the region.
Since Zaev took office, EU and NATO officials have visited Macedonia and expressed support for its membership in both institutions. But the process will not be easy, because name disputes and territorial conflicts are not the only issues holding back Macedonia's integration into the Western organizations. The European Union is concerned about the status of democracy and the rule of law in the country, and it has warned that corruption and crime remain important problems there. Moreover, Brussels has expressed concern about the frequent friction between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians in the country. So while warming ties with its neighbors is one of the most important items on Macedonia's to-do list, it certainly isn't the only one. And considering the union's ongoing political fragmentation, the bloc is unlikely to accept new members anytime soon. This is probably the greatest challenge for the entire Western Balkans: If these countries perceive that EU accession is not a realistic goal, they could easily lose interest in making economic and political reforms.