North Macedonia Joins NATO

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 28.3.2020 09:14

North Macedonia is joining three of its Western Balkan neighbours in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Despite hurdles with Greece and Russia’s attempts at preventing its accession, the country is ready to turn the page on its Yugoslav past and further pursue its pro-Western foreign policy.

On March 17, North Macedonia cleared the final obstacle to becoming the 30th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation after Spain ratified its accession to the military alliance putting an end to over a decade long journey towards finally entering NATO. The bill was unanimously endorsed by Spanish Members of Parliament in a videoconference session due to the recent outbreak of the coronavirus, a pandemic which failed to prevent NATO’s enlargement in the Balkans.

The accession of North Macedonia to the military alliance was warmly welcomed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg despite initial hurdles related to a rather bitter name dispute with its southern neighbour Greece

A NATO dream for the former Yugoslav republic became reality when Skopje ended a long-standing dispute by adding the geographic qualifier “North” to its name in 2019. Prior to this surprising compromise, Athens had vetoed Macedonian membership into NATO and the EU, citing fear of territorial and cultural takeover of the Macedonian administrative region of Greece. 

The diplomatic compromise led Greece to open the door for a North Macedonian membership by being the first NATO member State to ratify the country’s accession to the military alliance. As a result of this, North Macedonia will be following in the footsteps of its US-Adriatic Charter counterparts – Albania, Croatia and Montenegro – thereby increasing the West’s efforts to establish stability, cooperation and security in the Balkans while curbing attempts by both Russia and China to increase their influence in the region. 

It is no surprise that while North Macedonia counted the days before its formal accession to NATO, European Union ministers have recently approved (on March 24) membership talks with North Macedonia (and Albania), because in German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth’s own words, “if we allow there to be a political vacuum in the Western Balkans, then others who do not share our values will try to fill this political vacuum”.

 

“If we allow there to be a political vacuum in the Western Balkans, then others who do not share our values will try to fill this political vacuum.”

Michael Roth, German Minister of State for Europe

 

While North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski signed the instrument of accession on March 20, this historical moment has been greeted with very little reaction overshadowed by the US presidential campaign and now an unprecedented health crisis which caught the world off guard; meanwhile 5,000 kilometres away Russia has continuously and closely been monitoring events. 

Moscow has for years openly opposed North Macedonia’s NATO aspirations as this will only weaken its influence in Skopje and in the region as a whole. North Macedonia’s accession will contribute towards further driving off Russian malign activities in the region, as evidenced by recent events such as an attempted political coup in Montenegro in 2016 and an aggressive disinformation campaign and proactive measures to sabotage the  Macedonian-Greek dialogue and to foster nationalist sentiments in both countries to prevent a NATO accession. 

 

“It is clear that Russia will pursue an aggressive subversive and coercive campaign against pro-Western Balkan governments which are considered to be in Russia’s sphere of geopolitical interest.”

 

Lastly, Bosnia and Herzegovina will most probably be the next Western Balkan centre of a turf war between Brussels and Moscow, as the country - along with Serbia - will remain the only non-NATO member State in the region. While Serbia carries on asserting a so-called military neutrality under President Aleksandar Vucic despite maintaining a friendly and strategic relationship with Russia and constantly voicing opposition to NATO membership. Bosnia and Herzegovina on the other hand has consistently embraced a more pro-Western approach and will most likely become the 31st member to join the Alliance. 

A further attempt at NATO enlargement will not only challenge Serbia’s military and political position but will certainly see Bosnia become a battleground in which Russia will try to prevent, or obstruct at the very least, any attempt to join NATO. While Moscow’s proxies failed to overthrow a pro-NATO government in Montenegro and were unsuccessful in preventing North Macedonia and Greece from signing the Prespa Agreement ultimately forging the way for a North Macedonia NATO membership, it is clear that Russia will pursue an aggressive subversive and coercive campaign against pro-Western Balkan governments which are considered to be in Russia’s sphere of geopolitical interest. 

To make matters worse, the region remains greatly affected by provincialism and sectarianism, and just like for the Macedonian-Greek dispute, Moscow will most likely try to exert influence by exacerbating and nurturing religious and ethnic tensions between Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs by championing nationalist movements in Bosnia and Herzegovina through aggressive disinformation campaigns, interference in domestic politics, and by covertly supporting anti-Western movements and political parties.

 

“This latest expansion will serve as a clear message to other potential aspiring members that NATO membership will remain open to all countries that share common values with the transatlantic organisation and are willing to endorse necessary democratic reforms.”

 

North Macedonian’s membership to NATO is an encouraging step towards the further establishment of stability and security in this part of Europe which has been at threat of renewed violence and secession. Yet, future expected NATO membership in the region will be met with fierce resistance from the Kremlin and its regional proxies. Time is of the essence and NATO cannot afford to spend as much time as it did for North Macedonia if the alliance is committed to further expanding to Bosnia and Herzegovina which has been plagued by internal divisions, political instability and a renewed serious threat of secession by Moscow-backed Republika Srpska from the rest of the country.

This latest expansion will serve as a clear message to other potential aspiring members that NATO membership will remain open to all countries that share common values with the transatlantic organisation and are willing to endorse necessary democratic reforms. 

While the North Macedonian accession to NATO will be an opportunity for the alliance to reinforce stability and security in Europe’s most vulnerable and volatile region which has been increasingly affected by external influence, it will also be NATO’s newest testing ground for cooperation between all members. This will be crucial in order to counter future attempts by the Kremlin to destabilise the region by carrying out additional hybrid warfare in retaliation to what it sees as the encirclement by the West of its long-time ally Serbia together with the forced alignment of the region with NATO, and the cultivation of closer ties with other states aspiring to join the military alliance.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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