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A Perennial Candidate Waits for NATO to Open its Door

The Republic of Macedonia was included in NATO’s Membership Action Plan process at the Washington Summit in 1999 and has since remained in the waiting room. Nonetheless, the people and political elite’s enthusiasm for the Alliance has not declined, as its core values connect closely to Macedonians.

As a newly emerged state from the former Yugoslavia, we have been preoccupied with overcoming the security deficit. The complex internal and regional setting demanded we take into consideration three interdependent variables: security, democracy, and interethnic co-habitation. The geopolitical competition as a relevant factor appeared much later, only after the annexation of Crimea.   

The strongest bond with the Alliance was forged in the period 1999–2001. During the NATO air campaign both sides cooperated in the Kosovo Force Rear Headquarters in Skopje, and in 2001, when the government issued an invitation to NATO to be honest broker during the internal conflict. The ensuing three military missions immensely contributed to the calming of tensions and created an atmosphere for the peace implementation. As a result, the country rebounded quickly and instead of importer became the net exported of security. Macedonia’s continuous involvement in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan since 2002 speaks volumes to its army’s professionalism, but, even more about the democracy consolidation.  

Back to Democracy

Regrettably, after our membership bid was vetoed during the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008, democracy started to deteriorate and in due time the country was classified as a hybrid regime and captured state. Though, the powerful Colorful Revolution had brought down the autocratic regime and put the country back on the Euroatlantic route. Unlike some other candidates, the NATO aspiration of Macedonia has always been able to amass strong support by all ethnic communities, which, in return sustained the internal cohesion of the heterogeneous society, as a precondition for prosperity.  

The new reformist government has made a strategic opening to all five neighbors as a contribution to the stability of the region. In the first months of being in power, the historic bilateral friendship agreement on good-neighborly relations and cooperation with Bulgaria was signed, which eased the tensions between the two states and solidified the strategic Corridor 8 running from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. In the same time, after years of inactivity, the negotiation process with Greece on the name dispute was revitalized within which the Government in Skopje displayed previously unseen flexibility and constructive approach.    

The Republic of Macedonia in the last year has been through a brief second transition toward democracy and effectively absolved all the additional criteria assigned to in 2016 by the Warsaw Summit Communiqué. Even more, the country has positioned an additional 20 percent soldiers in the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan and decided to reach the long-standing NATO standard of allocating 2 percent of the GDP for the military by 2022, despite the demanding economic situation.    

Sharing the Future

The geopolitical competition in the region was practically not visible up to 2014, but, since, the illiberal models of democracy and their autocratic leaders got under way more aggressively. However, they stood slight chances to make significant inroads into the country’s political realm. The major counter argument is utilized on two levels: first, the political elites in power and in the opposition, had not changed their declared strategic goals; and second, and more important, massive and persistent support for Euroatlantic integrations by the citizens who are not ready to contemplate alternative options.

The frequently asked question is what we should get from NATO membership in an era when the traditional territorial threats are largely absent from the horizon? As the territorial wars are slowly but steadily going down to the archives of history,  terrorism, religious extremism, illegal migration, cyber-attacks and, in general, hybrid wars, are here to stay. The politicians and the citizens alike are aware that the most effective way to deliver against the non-traditional security threats — which figure prominently on the NATO agenda — is to confront them together. All sides benefit from being a part of the common endeavor through sharing the information and pooling the resources between the members and partner countries.

The latest tangible threat is coming from the Balkan nationals fighting in Syria, bringing their military experience back to their counties or transferring it to the West. The profile of this challenge is cross border by default, so the effective response should not be individual. Official records reveal that in the last 18 months there have been two instances when the threats to facilities on Macedonian territory were avoided due to intelligence-sharing with our partners from NATO and one case when a terrorist threat to Western Europe was thwarted following an initial intelligence lead from Skopje.

The new global phenomenon of fake news urges imminent common response, as well. If disinformation campaigns could inflict damage on the elections in big countries, their potential to do harm to small countries is much larger. In this regard, no one could underestimate the statement of Marc Zuckerberg that in 2017 during the special election for the senate seat in Alabama, that Facebook “found a lot of different accounts coming from Macedonia.” According to the reliable sources, in the last three years the effect of this propaganda is visible not only via dissemination of the fake news on the domestic soil, but, through “dirty money” from suspicious tax havens financing dozens of Internet portals.   

When debating mutual benefits, the last but not the least important task from the strategic point of view for NATO and the Republic of Macedonia is to complete enlargement on the south flank of NATO, which is serving as a bridgehead toward the key regions of Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.   

During all the crucial crossroads after our independence, the Alliance and its key countries have been instrumental in sustaining Macedonian integrity and stability. The Framework Agreement in 2001 in a large part was possible due to the personal efforts by the than Secretary General of NATO, George Robertson. Lord Robertson has recently visited Skopje for the first time since 2001 and was plain that the country is transformed beyond recognition. The majority of Macedonian citizens are more than ready to uphold his observation since they have waited for so long to see their country transform from “frontline state” to the 30th member of the Alliance.

Stevo Pendarovski 

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