European Western Balkans

North Macedonia is in NATO! Now what?

NATO and Macedonian flag; Photo: Government of Macedonia

In the midst of one of the most serious world crises of our lifetime, North Macedonia experienced a week of major policy successes. The country’s NATO accession protocol was finally adopted by the last of the 29 allies, Spain. After months of political uncertainty and turmoil, the Spanish Parliament held a session that ratified North Macedonia’s membership bid.

North Macedonia officially became NATO’s 30th ally once the ratification document was deposited in the U.S. State Department, on March 27th. Earlier in the week, the Council of the EU agreed to start accession negotiations.

What does this mean for the country internally? In terms of the policy, two major areas are notable.

First, the defense budget has increased and will likely continue to increase under the alliance’s pressure to meet the 2% spending pledge. The Armed Forces in North Macedonia have suffered several years of underspending and overall lack of equipment. The pressure to meet the 2% threshold, as well as to spend 20% the defense budget on equipment, will act as an additional, international pressure on future governments.

Second, the sharing of intelligence and information that occurs within NATO has acted as an incentive for the country to review and amend its own provisions and coordination on information gathering and sharing. These reforms were undertaken as part of a wider attempt to rein-in the power of the security services after the wiretapping scandal of the previous government. However, as in the case of defense spending, the need for harmonization within NATO will add an additional level of security against authoritarian tendencies.

In terms of political fortunes, the NATO accession is one the three jewels in this government’s foreign policy. In its three years of governing, the SDSM-led coalition managed to also resolve the decades-long bilateral issue with Greece over the name and start accession negotiations with the EU.

Given that these have been strategic goals of every government for the past 20 years, achieving them in one mandate is remarkable. It is also a testament to the momentum that civic mobilization of the 2015-16 political crisis brought to everyday politics.

The international factor has been mostly unanimous in supporting the government’s work, with the exception of France’s opposition to the start of accession negotiations in October last year.

The delay didn’t bring anything significant in terms of reform, either on the national or EU level, but it did plunge North Macedonia into early elections, initially scheduled for early April. The spread of COVID-19 has delayed the elections for the foreseeable future, leaving a technocratic government in place.

Becoming NATO’s 30th member state will definitely boost the government’s domestic image. As much as the foreign policy agenda has shown stellar results, some domestic reform areas have been disappointing for many voters.

Part of the reason is insufficient management of expectations before this government was even formed. The wave of euphoria convinced many that reform is easy and will take place overnight once VMRO-DPMNE is out of power. The past three years have shown that reform doesn’t happen overnight.

Part of the reason for the disappointment is also the government’s slow pace or insufficient progress on some key issues. The judiciary remains problematic and very few of the biggest corruption cases related to state capture have been finalized. The main figures of VMRO’s (let alone DUI’s) corruption are not serving sentences.

The former Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, is not behind bars but leads an exciting nightlife in Budapest. The fall from grace of the Special Prosecutor who was caught in her own corruption scandal, also implicating high government officials, crippled the already shaky public confidence.

The government also didn’t do itself any favours by backing out of some of its most popular campaign promises, like the progressive income tax. By introducing it, and then withdrawing it after less than year, it showed political immaturity.

When the elections do come around, NATO accession will be one of the big success stories on the campaign trail. And rightfully so. It accomplished what many had promised before. Will it be enough to get the votes and MP seats? I certainly hope so. Despite its domestic reform shortcomings, it has propelled the country forward.

But despite its domestic reform shortcomings, the alternative is still very scary. VMRO-DPMNE has resisted any sort of internal reform, and it hasn’t recognized its own criminal past and that of its officials. The idea of a publicly-known organized corruption group coming to power again is cringe-y, but not impossible.

Having accomplished NATO membership, the next government will have to concentrate on domestic reform, in order to meet the requirements of EU negotiations. And if France’s behaviour can teach us anything, it’s that the process will be anything but easy. Major obstacles will have to be overcome and tectonic shifts will have to take place.

In a way, NATO membership and starting EU accession talks have cleared the way for major reforms to take place. There are no more excuses of the they-don’t-want-us-anyway kind.

COVID-19 has upended our plans and projections. But elections will eventually take place and someone will have to form a government eventually. SDSM’s willingness to hold accountable some of its sinful figures has been respectable, but will it be able to do the same with the less-than-hardworking ones? If it wins the elections, it will have to. For the country’s sake.

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