For Macedonia, Is Joining NATO and the EU Worth the Trouble?

A referendum could decide whether the country will change its name to gain entrance. But those prizes have lost their shine.

A demonstrator holds a banner in front of the parliament building in Skopje on June 13, 2018 during a protest against an agreement with Greece to change Macedonia's name. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator holds a banner in front of the parliament building in Skopje on June 13, 2018 during a protest against an agreement with Greece to change Macedonia's name. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers signed an agreement on June 17 to resolve a long-standing dispute between the two countries about Macedonia’s official name, it was clear that a long and bumpy road was still ahead. The Greeks have long found the use of the name “Republic of Macedonia” unacceptable. They see it as a way for the Balkan nation to assert a claim to the region in northern Greece that is also called Macedonia and as a way to imply ownership over ancient Macedonia, which Greeks claim as part of their own heritage. For Macedonians, Greece’s refusal to accept the name has been seen as unfair—a denial of their country’s national identity. Now that two leaders have come to a detente on the naming issue, the biggest hurdle ahead is an upcoming referendum on the issue in Macedonia on Sept. 30.

The government has urged citizens to vote “yes” on the following question: “Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between Macedonia and Greece?” The fact that the poll doesn’t even include the country’s new proposed name—Republic of North Macedonia—is telling. The new name of the country, which is now known as either the Republic of Macedonia (domestically and in bilateral relations with most countries) or “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (to Greece and in international organizations), is no secret. The fact that it has been left off the ballot, though, shows how contentious the issue still is among Macedonians.

Even as the referendum de-emphasizes the new name, it highlights what is at stake and why the Macedonian government invested considerable energy in resolving the dispute. Without an agreement with Greece, Macedonia cannot join NATO or the European Union. Its southern neighbor has vetoed previous such attempts. Macedonia was unable to sign on with NATO a decade ago, for example, when it was supposed to become a member aside Croatia and Albania. Similarly, together with Croatia, it was a front-runner for EU accession in the early 2000s, but its membership application got stuck due to Greek objections.

The blockages encouraged Macedonia’s previous government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, to effectively abandon Euro-Atlantic integration in the late 2000s. It instead engaged in a radical nationalist revamping of the capital, complete with a steep decline in democracy and the rule of law and a massive uptick in graft.

The current government, led by current Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and dominated by his Social Democratic Union party, came to power last year after massive protests, new elections, criminal proceedings, and international mediation. It immediately understood that the key to turning Macedonia around would be unlocking NATO and EU membership. Membership in those organizations, the new government believed, would revitalize and lock in place the country’s reform efforts and restore investor confidence.

But the challenge for the government lay not only in cutting a good deal with Greece, which has considerably fewer incentives to compromise than Macedonia, but also in getting domestic support. The party’s majority is narrow. From the onset, it has been hounded by the VMRO-DPMNE for its supposed lack of patriotism and for selling out to the Albanians, a large minority in the country whose support the party needed to form a coalition, although VMRO-DPMNE had also joined in coalition with the Albanian parties.

To give itself a greater mandate to negotiate a deal with Greece, the Social Democrats accepted the demand of the previous government that any compromise agreement would be followed by a referendum. That’s particularly tricky, because Macedonian law requires a 50 percent turnout for a referendum to be considered valid. The country’s existing voter register is believed to be widely off the mark. At the moment, it suggests that there are 1.8 million registered voters in a country of just over 2 million inhabitants. The number is impossibly high and is likely due to inaccuracies that have accumulated over the years as people who have died or migrated have remained on the roster. Either way, reaching 900,000 votes in a country that, at most, has about 1.5 million voters will be a challenge.

VMRO-DPMNE has been equivocal about the referendum. Although it opposes the agreement, it publicly favors both EU and NATO membership, and its new party president, Hristijan Mickoski, has neither endorsed the vote nor called for a boycott. It directed each individual to decide “with their conscience” whether to participate. Other opponents have openly urged their supporters to stay away from the polls, which will make reaching the 900,000-vote threshold all the more difficult. Their reasons are eclectic. The most common, advanced by nationalist groups and some diaspora organizations and intellectuals, is the supposed threat to national identity of changing the country’s name. Even though the agreement with the Greeks does allow the country to use the adjective “Macedonian” to describe its citizens and language, critics claim that adding the geographical designator “North” in front of “Macedonia” in the name of the country constitutes a real threat.

Others bemoan that the new international license plate abbreviation will no longer be MK or MKD, but NM or NMK. And it will surely be a headache for Macedonia to issue new documents—such as drivers’ licenses, stamps, and money—over a five-year period. The public, meanwhile, won’t like the ban on an earlier version of the national flag, which was based on the Vergina Sun, a symbol associated with an ancient Macedonian royal dynasty. Although that imagery has not been on the official Macedonian flag since 1995, it remains widely used in protests and can still be found in many public spaces, including on manhole covers.

Beyond these more quotidian concerns, the Macedonian government has also committed itself to review all monuments and buildings that evoke the country’s Hellenic heritage, with an eye toward removing them. The review will include many of the monuments that the previous government erected in the capital, Skopje, and elsewhere around the country, including most prominently a large equestrian statue of a “warrior on a horse,” widely understood to be Alexander the Great.

These monuments have been controversial since their inception, not just for their cost and the corruption surrounding them but also for their nationalist message, dubious aesthetic value, and low quality. Their implicit claim—which is not backed up by any serious historical evidence and was not part of national narratives until a decade or so ago—is that today’s Macedonians are linked to ancient Macedonians like Alexander. That idea has hardened the conflict with Greece. When the Gruevski government lost power, it was assumed that some of these statues—hundreds crowd the center of the city—would be dismantled. However, for the nationalists, such a concession is now unacceptable.

Other opponents reject the agreement not so much for its content as for the very idea that Greece has managed to get its way. As they see it, Greece, a much larger country and a member of NATO and the EU, used its leverage with those institutions to bully Macedonia over the last 27 years. Any compromise would thus be unacceptable. This position found support in a 2011 decision of the International Court of Justice, which ruled that Greece should not have blocked Macedonia from joining NATO under the name “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” But it does not resolve the actual conundrum on how to join NATO or the EU.

Finally, opponents on the left and some on the nationalist right oppose the agreement on the grounds that NATO membership is not even desirable for Macedonia and EU membership is not realistic.

It is true that NATO membership might seem to offer few tangible benefits to citizens. For critics, joining the club will come with major costs—including necessary upgrades for the army. It would also involve Macedonia more deeply in the dispute between Russia and the West, an uncomfortable place for a small country in the Balkans. Supporters, meanwhile, emphasize the stabilizing effects of membership and a possible reduction of Russian influence. Either way, membership may well be within reach. NATO invited Macedonia to begin accession procedures on July 12, just weeks after the initial agreement was signed. If it is ratified, Macedonia could join in the coming year. That would require ratification in all NATO member parliaments, which seems fairly likely.

EU membership turns out to be more complicated. The European Commission hoped to start accession talks quickly as a reward to Macedonia. The commission received Greece’s support at an EU summit in late June. But France and the Netherlands objected to beginning talks this year and insisted that Macedonia and Albania both be given June 2019 as prospective start date. The difference is mostly symbolic, because the EU can already begin preparing for what will be a long, complicated procedure. Yet the organization’s failure to offer an immediate start to talks weakened the Macedonian government’s ability to gain domestic support for the deal with Greece. If the referendum were to fail, the prospect of beginning talks next year would be off the table. No wonder that 22 percent of citizens, according to a recent Regional Cooperation Council poll, do not believe that their country will ever join the EU.

What’s more, the EU is no longer as attractive as it was 15 years ago, when Macedonia was a front-runner. Well before the global economic and financial crisis, the Greek bailout, Brexit, and the refugee crises, citizens of the Western Balkans widely saw joining the union as a guarantee for prosperity and stability. Today, it is seen somewhat differently. The EU is certainly no longer an automatic economic gold mine, but it is still probably safer to be inside it than outside. Somewhat paradoxically, joining may be way to enhance sovereignty, because it protects from Russian meddling. And so, unlike Serbia, where citizens’ interest in EU membership has sharply declined in recent years, it remains strong in Macedonia.

For now, a recent survey suggested that 57 percent of Macedonians do support joining the EU and NATO under the new name. And a slightly lower 49 percent have declared their intent to actually turn out and vote in favor. With most opponents calling for a boycott, it seems clear that the referendum is likely to end with “yes” in the lead, but with turnout below the threshold for the referendum to actually count. If the referendum does end ambiguously, it will be hard to predict the consequences. Formally, the referendum is merely consultative and the parliament will decide what to do independently of the outcome. However, it would need a two-thirds majority to ratify the name changes, which the sitting government lacks. A “yes” vote, even one that doesn’t cross the 900,000-vote threshold, might persuade opposition deputies to vote in favor. International pressure will also be key.

If the hurdles in Macedonia are cleared, Greece will then have to ratify the agreement as well, and the current Greek government also lacks a clear mandate for doing so. Its junior coalition partner, the far-right Independent Greek party, rejected the agreement on the grounds that any future name for the country that includes the word “Macedonia” is unacceptable. With parliamentary elections around the corner, it is hard to see that party backing down. Still, the Alexis Tsipras administration is likely to muster enough support from centrist members of parliament to carry the vote. Considering the strong international support for the agreement and the fact that Macedonia will have already done the heavy lifting, it seems likely to pass.

Whatever happens next, it is clear that the June deal is an opportunity to transform the relationship between Macedonia and Greece. Not only was Greek support for Macedonia strong and heartfelt at the June EU summit, as EU officials have noted, the agreement also outlines a whole range of cooperation between the two countries, which suggests that the governments are committed to making the agreement not just a cold peace but rather a starting point for a friendlier future. If that happens, it would be a real turning point in the region, where too often tensions are just tools for political elites who enjoy having nationalist conflicts to distract from the real business of governing.

Correction, Sept. 17, 2018: According to a recent Regional Cooperation Council poll, 22 percent of Macedonians do not believe their country will ever join the EU. A previous version of this article misattributed this poll result.

Florian Bieber is a professor of Southeast European history and politics and Jean Monnet chair for the Europeanization of Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Austria. He is the author of Debating Nationalism: The Global Spread of Nations. Twitter: @fbieber