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North Macedonia’s Success Story May be About to End

Promising election results aside, the country is poised for a fall.

Zoran Zaev, leader of the ruling Social Democratic Union party, celebrates victory in the general elections in Skopje, North Macedonia, on July 16.
Zoran Zaev, leader of the ruling Social Democratic Union party, celebrates victory in the general elections in Skopje, North Macedonia, on July 16. Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

If the Balkans has a success story, it is probably Macedonia. In the 1990s, the country was praised for its peaceful separation from Yugoslavia. More recently, in June 2018, its prime minister, Zoran Zaev, signed a historic treaty with neighboring Greece to resolve a long-standing dispute over the name “Macedonia.” The rebranded “North Macedonia” reaped rewards. In short order, it was allowed to join NATO as the organization’s 30th member. North Macedonia is now on the verge of opening accession talks with the European Union, too. Support for Western institutions runs high. Capping things off, on July 15 this year, Zaev’s Social Democratic Union party won the largest share of the vote in a hotly contested election, held amid a regional spike of COVID-19 to boot. The party will hold two parliamentary seats more than its principal rival, a right-wing party known as VMRO-DPMNE, and has a fair chance to lead the next government. That’s good news for both the EU and the United States.

But on closer inspection, North Macedonia’s success story is less convincing. And, if anything, the elections shone a light on the very real challenges the country faces.

Populist nationalism appeals to voters. Backed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the self-appointed torch-bearer of “illiberal democracy” in Europe, VMRO-DPMNE finished the race a close second. One of the party’s talking points was resentment against the treaty with Greece. Party leader Hristijan Mickoski and his supporters shunned the use of the name “North Macedonia” during the campaign, and they will continue to do so in opposition. In the same vein, VMRO-DPMNE is pulling no punches when it comes to efforts to tackle long-standing disputes with EU member Bulgaria, which has been piling pressure on Skopje for concessions with regard to what the two sides now call “shared history,” including the legacy of historical figures celebrated in both countries as national heroes.

Populist nationalism is not a monopoly for the right. Levica (“the Left”) made it into the legislature with a little over 4 percent of the vote, which translated into two seats. It promised to cancel the agreement with Greece, pull the country out of NATO, and even derecognize neighboring Kosovo.

Corruption likewise continues to be a grave concern. VMRO-DPMNE capitalized on scandals tainting the Social Democratic Union, including a bribery case that implicated Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva, who was appointed to investigate high-level graft. But the country’s right wing is hardly cleaner. Nikola Gruevski, prime minister from 2006 to 2016, was accused of embezzlement and influence-trading, and was sentenced to a jail term but escaped justice by finding refuge in Hungary. North Macedonia’s Special Prosecution Office, created by the EU in 2015 as a means to hold high-level officials to account, proved a flop because of the Janeva affair. Meanwhile, a new law empowering the public prosecutor to go after corrupt politicians and their business cronies, which legislators in the North Macedonian government adopted as precondition for EU accession talks, is yet to prove its worth. The incoming cabinet will no doubt rhetorically support rule-of-law reform, if only to please Europe, but implementation will remain a challenge.

In part, the corruption problems relate to the fact that there is a trade-off between interethnic peace and good governance. Sharing the spoils of government among political representatives of the country’s ethnic groups has been key to North Macedonia’s model, even prior to the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement constitutionalizing power-sharing. Albanians are the second-largest community, and, in the latest election, the Democratic Union for Integration retained its lead among the Albanian community. And now the Social Democratic Union needs the party’s support to form a cabinet. The Democratic Union for Integration is far from graft-free, and it is once again a kingmaker. Its leader, Ali Ahmeti, outmaneuvered competitors, including the Besa Movement, which is aligned with the Social Democrats, by playing the nationalist card. The party insists that North Macedonia should have its first Albanian prime minister. Even if this is a negotiations ploy, the demand may fan ethnic tensions.

Lastly, North Macedonia may be leaning West, but the West itself is undergoing real change. NATO’s commitment to the country is not really in question, but the trajectory of the EU is reason for caution. Enlargement is no longer a priority. For French President Emmanuel Macron as well as other leaders, internal consolidation, starting with the reform of the eurozone, comes first. That is why France vetoed the start of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia last October and gave a green light only after the European Commission agreed to reopen some already closed agreements with Macedonia. The EU-Western Balkans Summit in May—conducted over video conference call—spoke of “European perspective” rather than membership, a detail that did not go unnoticed in the region. All in all, there is a good chance North Macedonia will be stuck in talks for a large part of the coming decade. Its reformist zeal and willingness to comply with Brussels’s demands may wither away as time passes.

For now, North Macedonia is playing along the Western script. Yet it is fighting an uphill battle with no easy victory in sight.

Dimitar Bechev is Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (Yale University Press, 2017).