North Macedonia Gets Coveted Seat at NATO’s Table

The small Balkan country hopes to officially join the alliance by year’s end, the foreign minister says in interview.

Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev hands the NATO flag to an honor guard during an official flag-raising ceremony in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Feb. 12. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev hands the NATO flag to an honor guard during an official flag-raising ceremony in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Feb. 12. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, North Macedonia had watched from the sidelines as neighbors and former Soviet bloc countries came into the fold of NATO and the European Union. Its own bids to join the institutions sputtered and stalled, primarily over a bitter and decades-long name dispute with neighboring Greece.

Now, North Macedonia will get a first taste of membership, following a historic deal that resolved the dispute last June. Its foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, will attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Washington on Thursday—ahead of what North Macedonia hopes will be full membership by the end of the year.

“It is quite a privilege to finally be around the table,” Dimitrov told Foreign Policy in an interview. “Those on the inside forget how cold it is outside.”

Dimitrov’s spot at the NATO table is a significant step for the small southeastern European country of 2 million. It also represents one of the few feel-good stories for an alliance embroiled in tense standoffs with Russia and suffering from internal divisions—including regular swipes from the U.S. president.

“I think there is a great measure of enthusiasm and excitement also among the allies,” Dimitrov said.

The deal between Athens and Skopje also brings a new dynamic to the Balkans region, still mired in political tensions two decades after the devastating wars of the 1990s and suffering setbacks to democratic reforms.

North Macedonia’s NATO membership would be a blow for Russia, which has tried to strong-arm smaller Balkan countries into staying out of the West’s orbit. Moscow was reportedly behind a botched coup plot in Montenegro in 2016, ahead of elections there widely viewed as a referendum on the country joining NATO. The plot was foiled, and Montenegro became the 29th member in 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly questioned the utility of NATO and pushed allies to spend more on defense, cast doubt in an interview last year on whether having Montenegro in the alliance was valuable. Some U.S. officials are nervous that he may take a similar view of North Macedonia.

In the interview in July 2018, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked Trump: “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”

“I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same questions. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people,” Trump said. “[They have] very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and then congratulations, you’re in World War III.”

When asked about this exchange, Dimitrov said he believed there was “very strong bipartisan support” in Washington for North Macedonia joining NATO and that the alliance would strengthen its hand by bringing new members into the fold. He added that Trump recently sent his prime minister a letter praising the name deal with Greece as “probably the biggest achievement in the region since Dayton,” referring to the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

Trump has latched onto laggard defense spending in NATO as his top priority. Currently, only eight of 29 NATO members are set to meet their target for spending 2 percent of GDP on defense this year, a fact that has long been a point of contention between Washington and its NATO allies. North Macedonia spends 1.35 percent of GDP on defense, but Dimitrov said it planned to meet the 2 percent pledge by 2024, a target date NATO has set for all its members.

Amid the success story North Macedonia hopes to bring to the Balkans, the specter of Russia still looms large over the region. In July 2018, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats after accusing Moscow of trying to stoke opposition to the Macedonia name deal. The Russian government denied the allegations and expelled Greek diplomats from Moscow in response.

Asked whether Russia had interfered in North Macedonia’s internal affairs ahead of the agreement with Greece and its bid to join NATO, Dimitrov said: “I cannot talk publicly with credible evidence as to concrete forms of interference.” He did cite “nongenuine internet traffic” in the run-up to his country’s vote and parliamentary measures to ratify the deal with Greece. He also mentioned Russian flags at opposition rallies.

“When you compared the reality on the ground, walking on the streets, in the capital, for instance, and the level of emotion and anger that was visible in the internet world, social media, etc., those were hardly reconcilable,” he said.

Russia, for its part, has accused the United States of meddling in domestic affairs in Greece and North Macedonia and questioned the legitimacy of the agreement—charges Dimitrov flatly dismissed.

North Macedonia, previously called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, resolved the nearly three-decade name dispute with Greece last year. Athens saw its neighbor’s name as a historical affront and feared it connoted territorial claims over its own region called Macedonia. After leaders of both countries brokered the landmark agreement last year, Greece ended its opposition to its neighbor joining Western institutions. The deal, known as the Prespa agreement, is named after a lake that bridges the two countries where the two leaders met for the signing ceremony.

Both countries had to overcome domestic political opposition to push through the peace deal. Only about one-third of voters turned out for then-Macedonia’s referendum in late 2018 to change its name, falling well short of the 50 percent turnout required. (Among people who did cast a ballot, about 90 percent voted in favor of the change.) Skopje pressed on with the name change, despite the turnout.

Dimitrov said national polls showed overwhelming support for joining NATO, though he conceded that the deal with Greece didn’t enjoy the same levels of domestic support. “We still have things to do to unify our society. And I think the same applies to the Greek society,” he said.

“It took quite a lot [of] thinking about the next generation and not so much about the next elections, on both sides, to do this,” he added.

Joining NATO requires a yes vote from all current NATO members’ parliaments. The prospective new member country must also enact a series of technical reforms aimed at solidifying democratic practices in its military, political, economic, and judicial sectors.

Dimitrov said nine of NATO’s 29 members have voted to accept his country so far, and he hoped all 29 would do so by the end of the year, when NATO heads of state are expected to meet again in London.

Congressional aides and U.S. officials told FP that they expected the U.S. Senate to vote this fall on North Macedonia joining NATO. The Senate is widely expected to pass the vote. Since Greece lifted its opposition to membership, most Western officials don’t foresee any other major roadblocks to North Macedonia’s membership.

“Of course, we still cannot afford to be complacent,” Dimitrov said. “We have to continue to do what we promised in terms of continuation of the domestic reform agenda on the rule of law and defense issues.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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