In February 2019, North Macedonia signed the NATO accession protocol. Russia condemned the Macedonian government for taking this step, whilst themselves being accused of spreading disinformation and support for Macedonian radical nationalists, bogging down the country’s drive towards NATO. It is unlikely, however, that Russia will sustain its current level of interest and pressure on North Macedonia. With the Western Balkans ranking low on its list of foreign policy priorities, Russia seemingly shifts its attention to the region only when local crises allow for a low-cost intervention. Once these conflicts are resolved, it quickly loses interest.
There was good reason to expect Russia would not care about North Macedonia joining NATO at all – much like their reaction to Croatia’s and Albania’s accession to the alliance back in 2009. NATO is not a threat to Russia’s limited investment in the Macedonian energy sector, the country’s small and cash-strapped army is located far from its borders and hardly able to bolster NATO’s military capabilities, moreover, Russia lacks the historical affinity with North Macedonia in the same manner that ties it to either Serbia or Greece. Since 2014, however, the crisis in Ukraine has escalated tensions between Russia and the West and lead the Kremlin to fear that any expansion of NATO would eventually include areas deemed vital for its national security: namely, post-Soviet states. This has meant that the Kremlin now feels compelled to challenge the West wherever it can, including in North Macedonia – a country where all major political actors support its integration to NATO.
Russian tactics in North Macedonia have proved to be both highly opportunistic and nimbly adapted to the states’ rapidly evolving political situation. In 2015 the Kremlin threw its weight behind the country’s then Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, as he faced mass protests against protracted and corrupt rule. Though both Gruevski and his nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party advocated joining NATO no less than their opposition, Russia believed that keeping the increasingly authoritarian leader in power would safely isolate North Macedonia from the West.
When, in late 2016, Gruevski finally agreed to early parliamentary elections and failed to secure support to form a new government, Russia cozied up to then Macedonian President, Gjorge Ivanov. To whom they awarded a one-on-one, highly complementary, meeting with Vladimir Putin for his refusal to entrust opposition parties to form a new government, thus protracting domestic instability. In April 2017, Western mediation helped North Macedonia form a new reformist government, comprised of social democrat and Albanian minority parties. The new Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, enjoyed strong Western backing and appeared determined to bring the country closer to both the EU and NATO.
The Kremlin took steps to counteract Western backing by exploiting a main weak spot of Macedonia’s foreign policy – the country’s name dispute with Greece. When Macedonia split from Yugoslavia in 1992, Greece refused to recognize the newly independent country, arguing that its name implied claims over Greek territory of the ancient Kingdom Macedon. For decades, Greece obstinately vetoed Macedonia’s integration with both NATO and the EU, demanding the country’s government to change its name.
The West was eager to proactively mediate the name dispute and create a positive precedent of inter-ethnic reconciliation in the Balkans, and a change in national government in 2017 opened up a rare opportunity for compromise between the states. In 2018, Greek and Macedonian governments agreed to add “Northern” to Macedonia in exchange for the removal of Greece’s veto on the country’s accession to NATO and the EU. This process of resolving the name dispute was hardly smooth. Zaev’s government experienced numerous setbacks when securing support for the name deal during two votes – first by referendum, and later in Parliament.
Russia tried to take advantage of such difficulties to forestall Macedonia’s integration with NATO. The Kremlin condemned the name change as imposition by the West, and insisted instead that it be renegotiated in the UN Security Council – a forum in which it holds veto power. Yet both Greek and Macedonian governments were content with the existing deal, and neither had any desire to invite new mediators. In attempts to thwart the agreement Russia got closer to Macedonian radical nationalists, and the Kremlin was widely accused of providing financial and media support to these parties. As a result, Russia immersed itself into Macedonian domestic politics, yet consorted with political forces not sharing the wider pro-Russian agenda. Indeed, Macedonian nationalists from Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party, who emerged as Russia’s main ally on the name issue, still advocate for integration with NATO. Moreover, Russia’s involvement gave the dispute a new geopolitical dimension, making it impossible for the West to stand back. Annoyed by Russian meddling, Western leaders doubled down on their support for Macedonia’s NATO bid, which finally came to fruition in February, in the signing of NATO accession protocol.
The Kremlin’s attempt to prevent North Macedonia joining NATO created some difficulties but proved to be rather clumsy and damaging to Russia’s own interests. Not only did Russia fall out with Macedonian government, but also irked a historical ally, Greece, who expelled two Russian diplomats over interference in the name dispute.
With the accession appearing to be a done deal, Russia is now likely to lose interest in North Macedonia. Economic cooperation between the two countries is scarce, and political partnership is hardly possible after the acrimonious exchanges surrounding the name deal. Even Macedonian nationalist opposition still insists on a pro-Western course and has no plans to realign with the Kremlin should it come back in power. Russia has already toned down its public pronouncements on Macedonian issues – becoming far less frequent and aggressive – and has shifted its condemnation from North Macedonia to NATO for pulling Balkan countries into the alliance. When Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, Russia swiftly switched from fierce national opposition, to largely ignoring domestic angles after their accession. In North Macedonia, the situation is likely to develop in the same way, providing NATO remains committed to the country’s full admission.