A nation of two million is trying to revive its efforts to become the 30th member of the North Atlantic Alliance. Croatia and Albania joined the alliance in 2009; Montenegro became a member last year. The process of NATO expansion in the Balkans seems to be unstoppable now that Macedonia is rushing to jump on the NATO bandwagon as well.
“I expect for Macedonia to finally join NATO at the upcoming summit of the alliance,” reads the statement made by Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov on Jan. 1, 2018. He also expects to finalize a date for EU accession talks – another issue being discussed with Brussels.
A NATO summit is scheduled to take place July 11-12, 2018. The alliance’s foreign ministers will decide by April 2018 which candidates have made enough progress to begin the procedures for bringing them on board. Macedonia was given its Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 1999.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is negotiating with Greece to solve a name dispute, which is holding back its NATO membership efforts. Athens claims Macedonia has no right to the name, which has its historical roots in Greece. A region of northern Greece is also called Macedonia. Delegations from the two states met with UN mediator Matthew Nimetz in New York on Jan. 17 to resume talks over Macedonia's official name. Optimism is in the air about the outcome of the US-sponsored diplomatic effort. A provisional name might be one option. According to a survey held in Macedonia last May, 71% of respondents voiced their support for NATO.
Otto von Bismarck, the legendary chancellor of Germany, dismissed the Balkan region as “not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” The US sees things differently. Last April, Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a far more robust US commitment to the region. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US Permanent Representative to NATO, believes that the country is fully up to NATO’s standards and is very close to membership even though the Balkan nation struggles with rampant corruption and lingering ethnic tensions.
The eight-thousand-strong Macedonian military has a long way to go to meet anyone’s standards. The country has no navy or air force to contribute to the alliance. NATO will have to shoulder the burden of bringing the Macedonian military up to its requirements.
Once FYROM has been incorporated, the alliance will extend its security umbrella over a country that has nothing to contribute toward a common defense or out-of-area operations. In addition NATO would then be responsible for the interethnic conflicts and plethora of problems Macedonia faces. With Skopje in, NATO will become weaker, not stronger. An alliance of member states that is divided by greatly divergent levels of economic development and foreign-policy goals is a weak partnership. It’s doomed to become what President Trump called an “obsolete alliance.”
As a full-fledged member, Skopje will further complicate the decision-making-process for reaching a consensus. The country will pursue its own interests, which may not align with the interests of NATO’s leaders, including the United States.
There can be no question that joining NATO would damage its relationship with Moscow, which is opposed to the alliance’s expansion. Its membership would help weaken European security. And Macedonia would have to pay a price, in the form of significant limitations on its freedom of action in foreign policy.
Russia is one of Macedonia’s biggest trade partners. If Skopje joins the EU, it will be forced to take part in the ongoing war of sanctions, which will cost the country dearly. In turn, NATO membership entails involvement in distant armed conflicts in which Skopje has no interest. There will be casualties.
So the US is clearly revving up its efforts to eliminate the problem of the country’s name so it can join as quickly as possible. The valley of the Vardar River is an important transportation route linking Central Europe and the Aegean Sea. If the Turkish Stream gas project is ever to be expanded, the best direction would be toward Macedonia. The pipeline will have to cross Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary to reach Central Europe. The US wants to deny Russia this route while promoting its own shale gas exports. The two countries are on a collision course as they vie for the European energy market.
The alliance wants no “grey zones” in the region, as it pursues its goal of pushing Russia out in order to bring NATO in. Serbia is a hard nut to crack, since it sticks to neutral policies that include friendly relations with its historical ally. Skopje is more pliant. It would be much easier to exert pressure on Belgrade if it were surrounded by NATO states.
NATO is using the “Albanian factor” to further its own goals. It would be overly naïve to believe that the activities of Kosovo separatists, the interethnic violence in Macedonia involving ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, and the efforts of Albanians in Serbia’s Preševo Valley to seek union with Albania and Kosovo are isolated events. The idea of creating Great Albania is not dead. And Albania is a NATO member.
So, neither Macedonia nor NATO would have anything to gain if the alliance grew to 30 members. The country would become a pawn in a US game aimed at squeezing Russia out of the region. Like Serbia, Macedonia has a problem with its ethnic Albanian community, which makes up a quarter of Macedonia’s population. It’s a fragile state. NATO took Kosovo away from Serbia. In the same way, Macedonia may one day lose some predominantly Albanian areas in the northwestern part of its country. In the end, will dancing to Washington’s tune advance the country’s security? Will it benefit the nation in any way at all? Look before you leap, they say. Indeed, it’s better to look at all the pros, if any, and cons before making a final decision.