North Macedonia’s NATO membership: Decades-long ambition finally becomes a reality

Ceremony held in Skopje on 31 March 2003 which marked the end of NATO’s peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; Photo: NATO

Twenty-seven years after North Macedonia first expressed its desire to join NATO, there are now only a few days left before this happens. This finally closes an important chapter in the history of this country and the ambition of several generations of North Macedonian politicians finally becomes a reality.

Since gaining independence, one of the strategic goals of the country was to join NATO, as was stated in 1993, and the relationship with Alliance was always marked by close cooperation. North Macedonia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1995, and in 1999 the country submitted its first Membership Action Plan.

Furthermore, North Macedonia deployed troops in support of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2002 to end 2014 and is currently supporting the follow-on Resolute Support mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces. Before that, the country was a key partner in supporting NATO-led operations in Kosovo in 1999, as well as to provide logistical support to the Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission.

The 20th NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008 was more than symbolic, as it was expected that Albania, Croatia and (then) Macedonia would receive an invitation to join NATO.

However, although Albania and Croatia did receive the invitation and became members a year later, this was not the case with Macedonia, as it was blocked by Greece because of its name. Greece considered that using that name, Macedonia had territorial claims against the Greek region of the same name.

“It is very regretful for the principles of democracy that Macedonia’s bid for NATO membership was punished, not because of what we have done but because of who we are”, Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milošoski said on the occasion. All Allies eventually agreed that Macedonia will join NATO only when it solves its dispute with Greece.

Ten years and one historic agreement later, after a lot of political quarrels, finally, a Copernican revolution happened. Under the agreement, the country changed its name into North Macedonia, but Macedonians remained Macedonians and Greek Macedonia remained part of Greece. Moreover, according to officials from both sides of the border, North Macedonia and Greece have become close partners and North Macedonia has started participating in all NATO meetings as an invitee after the signing of the Accession Protocol in February 2019.

Less than two years after the Prespa Agreement was signed and the whole process unblocked, President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski has put his signature on the final accession document on 20 March after Spain ratified the membership of North Macedonia three days earlier.

“In accordance with this document, I, as head of state, officially declare that the Republic of North Macedonia joins NATO and undertakes to comply with and implement all provisions of this treaty”, reads the document signed by Pendarovski.

So, with Pendarovski’s signature, we are not exaggerating when we say that the long dreamt dream of the membership is finally becoming reality. However, there is still one more step left.

Just one more step…

Radmila Šekerinska and Jens Stoltenberg; Photo: Government of North Macedonia

On 20 March, the same day when President Pendarovski signed the accession document, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sent the official invitation to Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski.

“On behalf of all the Parties, I am honoured to communicate to the Government of North Macedonia an invitation to accede to the North Atlantic Treaty”, stated Stoltenberg in the letter.

This means that in accordance with the Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, North Macedonia will become a NATO member on the date it deposits its instrument of accession to the North Atlantic Treaty with the US State Department in Washington DC.

“With that admission of the ratified document of the Macedonian Parliament – we are officially becoming a member of NATO. Usually, there is ceremonial part and there was such one planned for Washington on 26 March and then one in Brussels by raising the country flag in front of the NATO headquarters, but is postponed because of the pandemic”, said Aleksandar Kržalovski, Executive Director of the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation (MCIC).

EWB contacted NATO Headquarters about possible dates for the deposit of the instrument of accession and the flag hoisting ceremony in Brussels, and we received a response saying that the dates were still unknown, but that NATO would inform the public as soon as possible. Interestingly, Spanish senators voted electronically on the ratification of the protocol, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, even if the official date of accession is still unknown, Marko Pankovski, Researcher at Institute for Democracy „Societas Civilis“ – Skopje, thinks that even before officially joining NATO, North Macedonia took an active part in NATO-led peacekeeping and crisis management operations, exercises, and interoperability and capacity building programmes.

“In addition to this involvement, North Macedonia submitted a record 18 National Membership Action Plans, which are crucial tools in getting the aspirant countries closer to NATO. The country continuously reformed its armed forces to meet NATO standards. Despite the obstacles in the membership process, the collaboration and coordination with NATO continued which allowed the armed forces to incrementally increase their capacities and interoperability with NATO, especially through the Partnership for Peace programme and the Operational Capabilities Concept”, says Pankovski.

On the other hand, Kržalovski thinks that until now the participation of North Macedonia in NATO mission was symbolic.

“We have also increased defense part of the budget, though we are not at the level of 2% of the GDP yet. As a small country, both the requirements and expectations from other members are not so high, and our participation so far in NATO missions were rather symbolic, although we have participated with a relatively high number of soldiers in proportion to the overall size of the Army”, explains Kržalovski.

The budget increase that he mentions is DEN 10,133,000,000 for 2020, or about 1.4% of North Macedonia’s total GDP, which is an increase over 2019 when it was about 1.19% of total GDP. Interestingly, this is a third year of the defense budget increase, but it is still far from the prescribed 2% of BDP. However, this is not a major problem, as many current NATO members have not fulfilled this provision.

What our interlocutors agree on is that the spending must be aimed at modernizing and equipping the military in order to reach the capacity targets.

“While the structure of the budget is shifting towards NATO requirements with 20% allocated for modernization and equipment, still a significant amount of the budget is spent on personnel costs and maintenance. As defense procurement is expected to increase, the government must adhere to the NATO Building Integrity Policy and ensure integrity, transparency, and accountability in the process”, points out Pankovski.

Only time will show if these goals will be reached.

The “same old” security architecture and EU integration

Skopje; Photo: WikiComons / Raso mk

Over the years, it has been shown that whenever NATO enlargement occurs in the Balkans, everyone looks at Serbia, and then shyly, at Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, the reality is that relations and security in the region will not change that much, think our interlocutors.

Pankovski explains that all the Western Balkans country have interdependent security architectures and security in one country has an inevitable positive effect.

“This positive effect has an additional value in times when we witness regional or even global proliferation of values, illiberal tendencies, and overall uncertainty. Being a NATO member will strengthen North Macedonia internally and will allow to finally become a so-called exporter of security”, says Pankovski and adds that membership will not negatively impact its relations with Serbia, nor with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Quite the contrary, the official NATO membership of North Macedonia could de-securitize the mutual relationship by decreasing the manoeuvring space and limit it to an economic and cultural exchange”, concludes Pankovski.

On the other hand, Kržalovski thinks that NATO membership of North Macedonia will not change that much in practice, except perhaps a bit in the perception of North Macedonian citizens. He adds that North Macedonia is surrounded by NATO members and that there is also a NATO military base in Kosovo, which is a guarantee for security by itself.

With a recent green light by the General Affairs Council of the EU for the opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia (and Albania), which leaves European Council (Heads of State and Government) to make a decision on the issue, EU integration of North Macedonia looks more certain. Both Kržalovski and Pankovski think that NATO membership will be beneficial to North Macedonian EU path.

“The membership in NATO could be beneficial as it is expected to bring political stability and security, and increased volume of domestic and foreign direct investment thus strengthening economic output. It could also serve as a socialization platform between North Macedonia and key EU member states by both by sharing security challenges and expanding cooperation in defense”, thinks Pankovski.

Kržalovski is also optimistic when it comes to the economic effect of North Macedonia joining NATO.

“I do though expect much bigger economic effects for the country due to NATO membership, based on other recent members accession pattern (esp. Bulgaria and Romania) where the biggest GDP growth was seen in the years after NATO and prior to EU accession”, he says.

Kržalovski also agrees that membership will help North Macedonia on the EU path.

“I expect that we will finally start negotiations this year. Hopefully already in June, realistically by September, and for sure by December”, concludes Kržalovski.

Although Skopje should soon become a member of a large “family” by meeting the basic criteria for membership, undoubtedly the state needs to continue investing in its armed forces. On the other hand, the long-mentioned investments are yet to happen, and the start date for EU membership negotiations is still unknown. What is certain is that by completing this historic goal, Skopje has succeeded in resolving its problems with its neighbours and attracting valuable partners from whom it will benefit in the future.