It has been a year since North Macedonia became a member of NATO. The membership has been praised and celebrated as a huge success, even more so, when it is compared to its lengthy EU integration process. After solving an almost two-decade-long dispute with Greece, which resulted in changing the name of the country, North Macedonia received a green light to start its NATO and EU accession talks. While NATO membership became a story of success for the country, its EU membership is still facing obstacles, namely – Bulgaria’s veto.
The European Western Balkans spoke about these challenges and their security implications with the Minister of Defence of North Macedonia, Radmila Šekerinska, on the margins of the Prespa Forum Dialogue, held from 1 to 2 of July.
European Western Balkans: What influence has the membership in NATO had on North Macedonia so far?
Radmila Šekerinska: The membership in NATO represented a joint success that unified the nation. It has been one of those goals that we kept mentioning for almost three decades, and many people have lost confidence that this is achievable. So, I think that first, it was important as a point, or as a goal that unifies a country and that gives a small nation a sense of direction and a sense of success. I do believe this is important. Secondly, it has answered some of the questions that are frequently asked in the Balkans – what are the security challenges and what are the different scenarios that we hear and read. Many of the crises, political crises and military crises in the Blanks were a result of fear, people being afraid that someone’s scenario will destroy them as a nation or as a country.
NATO membership has put an end to the speculations that the fate of a small nation can be seen as undecided yet.
Thirdly, it has also allowed North Macedonia a say on a table of nations, where we do feel we belong. It is an opportunity to present your country in a new way, as a respected ally, as a country that sticks to its words and its promises, and as a country that can deliver. And I believe that within NATO we have managed to deliver. We have also shown that NATO still has the recipe to support the sound and wise political decisions that require compromise. The Prespa agreement would have been impossible without NATO, and I think this is a complete deliverable to NATO.
EWB: Speaking about security challenges, how do you perceive the slowing down of the European integration process for North Macedonia? What impact does this situation have on regional stability?
RŠ: I think that the stalemate of our EU accession is creating a security vacuum in the region because it creates a dilemma. The old promises of the EU since 2000 or 2001 are old and forgotten. Are they for real? Is enlargement a process with a visible goal? Or is it just a toy that is being tossed to Balkan nations so that they might believe that this is a reality? I think that, once we start doubting the strategic choices – because EU integration was a strategic choice of the region, but it was also the strategic decision of the EU when talking to the region, these doubts are creating obstacles for all reform-minded individuals and politicians in the region.
It is also lowering the positive pressure on politicians to solve the problems because they might always use the example of North Macedonia and say – look even when you deliver there is a delay. There was this tradition, almost this stereotype vis-a-vis the Western Balkans, that they keep giving promises to Europe and they do not match the promises with action. Now, the situation is a bit reversed.
We have seen the promises from the Western Balkans delivered to a large extent, and we have seen a lack of action from Europe.
EWB: How has the situation in international security relations changed with the change of Government in Washington? Has there been any direct consequence for Skopje?
RŠ: I just listened to a debate dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Ohrid framework agreement, and I have met some dear friends who have helped us in those times, and I think we have all said the same thing independently of each other, and this is that the success of the Ohrid framework agreement very much depended and was a result of a unified position of the West – of the EU, the US and NATO. The swift response and this unified approach was the beginning of the success. I think the same necessity exists today.
We need a transatlantic unity, and I think this is the first deliverable of the new Biden administration – the focus on transatlantic unity. Of course, the interests of the US are not only in Europe, and this is what we as Europeans must understand and adjust to. They are shifted very much towards the Pacific, but the need for unity with European partners not only can help NATO, but it can also help us in the region. Whenever Europe and NATO, Europe and the US spoke with one voice, that voice was heard, and it did help the region.
EWB: And how would you assess the regional cooperation regarding security matters?
RŠ: We have come a long way with regard to regional cooperation. The level of cooperation among presidents, prime ministers, dealing not with technical stuff like in the past, but with political issues, is remarkable. I think that the region has changed dramatically. The same thing happens in the security domain. Of course, we have more cooperation with the allies, within NATO, but even outside of NATO, we do have different initiatives like A-5 (The Adriatic Chart) and SEEBRIG (South-East European Brigade), and I think that in due time these things will become the norm.
For example, two months ago, we had one of the big exercises, the biggest post-COVID, with the US and North Macedonia leading the way, but with the presence of Bulgaria and Greece. We have had our parachutes in Athens doing incredible special operations exercises. This was considered impossible just two years ago, and I think that defence cooperation plays a certain role in lowering the guard, especially in countries that have become used to having some obstacles, having a distance. I think that defence cooperation was a leader in changing the paradigm in bilateral relations.