North Macedonia: Issues to Consider for Senate Ratification of an Amended NATO Treaty
July 17, 2019
No Guarantee of Success
More than a decade ago at the 2008 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Bucharest, North Macedonia was assured it could one day become a member of NATO, but the lack of a resolution with Greece over the country’s name prolonged the process and resulted in the country’s political drift away from Western institutional standards. Nonetheless, on June 17, 2018, the foreign ministers of Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia signed the historic Prespa Agreement, which paved the way for the Republic of North Macedonia to unlock the 27-year door to its stalled Euro-Atlantic integration. On July 11, 2018, NATO formally invited Skopje “to begin accession talks to join” the alliance on the condition that there is a full implementation of all the processes to officially change the country’s name.
It was not a given that North Macedonia would have a path to join NATO as its 30th member. The September 30, 2018 referendum in North Macedonia to support the Prespa agreement failed to reach the 40 percent threshold thus not making its results binding, although those who did participate were extremely enthusiastic (90 percent in favor). There were risks that the parliaments in Athens and Skopje would not approve the agreement in the former or make the necessary constitutional changes in the latter. There was a vote of no confidence against (now former) Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece over the Prespa agreement and recent presidential elections in North Macedonia (and potential future snap parliamentary elections) could complicate already difficult domestic politics. But both countries navigated the political costs, risks, and hurdles, and in February 2019, accession protocol with NATO was signed, and the process of ratification of an amended NATO treaty among the 29 allies began.
As of this writing, 19 NATO members have ratified North Macedonia’s membership with 10 more countries left to complete the process, including the United States. President Trump formally requested Senate ratification on April 30. In his letter, President Trump praised North Macedonia as “a steadfast security partner of the United States, and its NATO membership will directly benefit United States strategic interests and the NATO Alliance.” It is hoped that the Senate will complete the ratification process in July or no later than September. If the U.S. ratification process is delayed beyond 2019, it would greatly complicate the upcoming December 3-4 NATO leaders meeting in London and fuel doubts about U.S. support for NATO and its enlargement.
Key Issues for the Senate to Consider for Ratification
Internal Reforms and Promoting Multiethnic Society
Although the impetus for North Macedonia’s NATO membership was the resolution of the name issue, North Macedonia’s membership in NATO must be analyzed by its own right. North Macedonia should continue to implement a number of domestic reforms to fight corruption, strengthen democratic institutions, and actively promote a multiethnic society. Politically, North Macedonia was shaken following a 2015 scandal when hundreds of thousands of secretly recorded conversations were released in which top government officials discussed vote rigging and contract assassinations linked to former prime minister Nikola Gruevski. Gruevski fled the country in 2016 after being convicted of corruption charges and now resides in Hungary at the invitation of the government. Following the scandal, the United States helped facilitate a post-crisis political agreement. Skopje also established a special public prosecutor, supported by the European Union, tasked with investigating allegations in the aftermath of the Gruevski investigation as well as high level crime and corruption. As a potential extortion scandal prompted the recent resignation of Chief Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva, it is vital that the special prosecution team remain both credible and independent.
Moreover, in January 2019, the North Macedonian Parliament passed the Law for Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interests. The law enables two key reforms: First, it introduced a public, transparent, and merit-based selection of members for the Anticorruption Commission, and second, it strengthened the competences of the Anticorruption Commission and gave it the tools to enact anticorruption measures. While these efforts are encouraging—the European Union acknowledged them in its key findings for North Macedonia in its 2019 report—it is more important to see implementation, specifically both the investigation of politically sensitive high levels of corruption as well as lower-level, everyday corruption that erodes support for democratic institutions. This fight will continue well after NATO membership is secured, and it is critical for North Macedonia to prevent democratic backsliding similar to the 2015-2017 period.
North Macedonia should also promote a better integrated, multiethnic nation. Ethnic Albanians are the largest ethnic minority in North Macedonia, representing about 25 percent of the 2.1 million population. The ethnic Albanian community in North Macedonia seeks greater rights, including equitable representation of minorities in state institutions, parliamentary safeguards, and language use, among others. North Macedonia has worked to improve rights for its minorities and has made progress integrating ethnic Albanians into their armed forces, yet progress continues to be slow, incremental, and susceptible to setback particularly if there would be a significant change in political dynamics.
Susceptibility to Russian Malign Influence
The Western Balkans has historically been a region highly susceptible to Russian influence due to its Slavic population, economic relations, and religious ties through the Orthodox Church. Russian malign influence in the region has grown more provocative and aggressive, as witnessed in the 2016 attempted coup in Montenegro as the country prepared to join NATO. Similar efforts to thwart North Macedonia’s NATO membership occurred both within North Macedonia and the wider region in 2018. In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and banned entry to another two after they were accused of trying to undermine the Prespa Agreement. With the assistance of U.S. intelligence, Greek authorities uncovered efforts to promote opposition to the agreement, including encouragement for opposition rallies and offering bribes to opponents of the deal.
Nearly two months later, Russia was accused of fomenting opposition to the agreement and voter suppression in the leadup to a September referendum in North Macedonia. Accusations of interference included the spread of disinformation through new websites calling for a boycott of the vote and Facebook posts urging Macedonians to burn their ballots. There were also false stories claiming that U.S. troops used ammunition containing depleted uranium during a bilateral military training exercise at the Krivolak training center. Finally, the Interior Ministry of North Macedonia uncovered payments made by Ivan Savvidis, a Russian-Greek oligarch based in Thessaloniki, Greece, to North Macedonian politicians, radical nationalist organizations and soccer hooligans to stage violent protests in front of the Parliament building in Skopje.
North Macedonia’s formal membership in NATO does not mean Russian malign behavior aiming to sow ethnic conflict, raise questions over the legitimacy of government institutions, or paint leaders as corrupt will end. The Kremlin will continue to adapt and exploit political and economic weaknesses to destabilize North Macedonian society. North Macedonia should remain highly vigilant to anticipate and deter Russian malign influence.
Impact of Chinese Infrastructure and Telecommunications Investments
China’s economic and cultural influence continues to grow throughout the Western Balkans via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the 17 + 1 dialogue (the first 16+1 summit was held in Warsaw, Poland in 2012), which serves as an alternative to EU- or U.S.-supported regional infrastructure initiatives. China’s influence is also amplified by the growing funded presence in universities and through the support of an estimated nine Confucius Institutes across the region. Huawei is also active in the Balkans region through such initiatives as the Safe City project, which deploys surveillance technology in Belgrade; “One Thousand Dreams,” which provides technology training for youth in the Balkans; and thinktank initiatives through the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
For the moment, Chinese infrastructure investment in North Macedonia is not as significant as in other Western Balkan nations. The most notable investment is a 2013 loan worth €580 million to fund two highway projects—Miladinovci-Stip (completed) and Kicevo-Ohrid (under construction). While alarm over the debt burden is not high, any unexpected increase in costs for the Kicevo-Ohrid project could cause concern. As North Macedonia’s NATO membership increases its domestic economic activity (i.e., investment has reportedly increased over threefold over the past 12 months), North Macedonia’s commitment to anti-corruption efforts and national security protection should remain paramount.
Could Turkey Prevent North Macedonia’s NATO Membership?
In April 2019, Turkish defense minister General Hulusi Akar visited Skopje to reaffirm Turkey’s support for North Macedonia’s NATO membership while also pressing the government to be more supportive of Turkey’s fight with Fethullah Gulen and his Gulenist movement (FETO). The Turkish government has not yet ratified North Macedonia’s membership and is currently pressing Skopje to extradite 15 Turkish nationals it accuses of terrorism. Although both Prime Minister Zaev and President Stevo Pendarovski insisted that people will not be extradited without due process, Defense Minister Radmila Shekerinska recently admitted that Turkish ratification of North Macedonia’s accession protocol might depend on extraditing those accused by the Turkish government of being part of FETO. During a visit to North Macedonia on June 30, however, Mustafa Şentop, Turkey’s speaker of the National Assembly, stated that Turkey anticipates ratifying North Macedonia’s membership by the end of July. Recent statements by Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu describing North Macedonia as a “natural ally” of Ankara is a positive sign that efforts to approve the ratification of North Macedonia are moving forward.
Final Thoughts on North Macedonia’s NATO Membership
North Macedonia has pledged to meet NATO’s 2 percent defense spending commitment by 2024 and already spends 18 percent of its defense budget on modernization with plans to reach NATO’s goal of 20 percent next year. North Macedonia also participates in over a dozen NATO and U.S. exercises each year, provides logistical support for the NATO mission in Kosovo (KFOR), and offers its largest training area, Krivolak, to U.S. and NATO forces. North Macedonia’s NATO membership would enhance stability and security in an increasingly volatile Western Balkans.
As senators weigh North Macedonia’s future ability to implement critical internal reforms, address its vulnerability to foreign malign influence, and ensure its continued political stability, as well as its contributions to NATO’s security, it should do so with the understanding that North Macedonia’s NATO membership is no more problematic than other previous NATO aspirant countries with similar challenges. But the important difference is that post-ratification, Congress and the Trump administration should substantially increase U.S. diplomatic, development, and economic investment in North Macedonia to ensure continued momentum behind critical reforms as well as remain engaged in a stable and prosperous North Macedonia rather than instinctively withdrawing U.S. investment after a foreign policy success, which has been too often the case with previous NATO enlargements.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Matthew Melino is a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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