The Agreement Over Macedonia’s Name Is a Glimmer of Hope in Europe
Greece and Macedonia have just scored a victory for democracy, stability, and their future economic prosperity in Europe. Today, the latter took a leap forward by signing its accession protocol with NATO, strengthening its security and place in the Euro-Atlantic community. Following Montenegro’s hard-won accession to NATO in 2017, the two neighbors have shown that Democrats can beat bullying and interference by Russia in what it now considers its Balkans backyard.
This historic step would not have been possible without Greece’s parliament voting on January 25 to ratify the Prespa agreement between the two governments, which ends an almost three-decades dispute over the name of the Macedonian state. For years this was the main stumbling block to Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the European Union. In 2008, NATO issued a conditional invitation to the country contingent upon it and Greece resolving their differences.
The Prespa agreement, which was reached last summer, has held despite internal challenges in both countries and attempts by Russia to thwart it in order to prevent Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and democratic progress. Russian actions have included funding opposition groups, disinformation, and aggressive diplomacy. They sparked a rare public rebuke from the Greek government, which expelled two Russian diplomats and barred two others from entering the country and charged the Kremlin with attempting to bribe officials and foment demonstrations against the agreement. During a visit to Skopje in September 2018, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis asserted, “We do not want to see Russia doing [in Macedonia] what they have tried to do in so many other countries.”
The prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev deserve credit for their tenacity, courage, and foresight to resolve this long-standing dispute. Their efforts will enable NATO to make good on its July 2018 invitation to Macedonia to join the alliance and paves the way to formal ratification by all alliance members. The United States, the EU, and Macedonia’s other international partners now need to turn up the level of support to move this deal across the finish line. Greece and Macedonia also need support to push back against unwanted Russian aggression in southeast Europe and to bring the latter fully into NATO and further along a path to integration into the EU.
A top priority is to complete the NATO accession process for Macedonia as quickly as possible in 2019. The signing of the accession protocol today in Brussels is essential. The next step should be immediate ratification of the protocol by Greece, which is expected this week, and the other NATO member states. Greek ratification is key as it will officially trigger the change of Macedonia’s name to North Macedonia, the main result of the Prespa agreement.
Stepping up Support for Macedonia
The United States has a long bipartisan history of supporting NATO expansion, including in the U.S. Senate where the accession protocol will need to be ratified. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Defense Tom Shanahan must continue to lead U.S. efforts to support Macedonia and consult closely with Congress to manage the ratification process.
The Senate should hold hearings on Macedonia’s NATO membership as soon as possible and urge the administration to move this process forward. The administration and Congress should also increase assistance, in coordination with the EU, to Macedonia to support needed democratic, economic, and energy reforms. This should include resources to strengthen the country’s independent media to confront the onslaught of Russian disinformation. Prime Minister Zaev has made democratic reforms, including implementing anti-corruption measures, a top priority. He recognizes that the health, well-being, and future of his country, and its membership in the EU, depend on such reform efforts.
The implementation of the Prespa agreement and the resolution of the dispute will have a dramatic impact on the future of the Western Balkans and a Europe “whole, free and at peace.” It will directly impact peace and stability in an economically stagnant region that needs deeper integration with the EU, its largest trading partner. NATO integration will provide greater security at a time when Russia and other malign actors are working to destabilize and create conflict in the Balkans and Europe. It will also provide a form of recognition for Macedonia’s long-standing contributions to global security in the form of its support to NATO-led operations and missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.
The United States has made significant diplomatic, and military investments in democratic transition in the Balkans over the last 30 years. Backing Macedonia builds on U.S. efforts that led to Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro joining NATO. The resolution of the dispute between Greece and Macedonia provides hope and a good example to those working to resolve the ongoing dispute between Kosovo and Serbia and to address the troubled political and economic landscape in Bosnia Herzegovina. Macedonia joining NATO will also demonstrate to Georgia and Ukraine that the door to the alliance is still open, provided countries can meet the membership criteria.
The United States and its NATO allies have a lot at stake in supporting Macedonia. The country gaining NATO membership will send a strong signal internationally that the United States remains committed to strengthening democracy in the face of spreading illiberalism and ongoing Russian aggression.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.