February 2019

By Sally A. Painter and Pero Jolevski

On February 6, 2019, Macedonia signed its official protocol for accession to join the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO). After years of waiting, the country will finally join the Alliance at the upcoming December Summit in London. In this time of transatlantic skepticism, this is welcome news—particularly after the historic failure of the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit when Macedonia’s accession was vetoed and Georgia and Ukraine’s Membership Action Plans (MAP) rejected.

Most importantly, this accomplishment underscores the abiding notion that NATO is first and foremost a community of values—for which any country’s rightful accession cannot be held hostage to political interests.

Macedonia’s path to joining NATO has not been easy. And while the international community continued to view the long-standing blockage of Macedonia’s NATO accession by Greece as unfair, successive Macedonian governments did not rest easy. Each worked to ensure that their country remained ready to join. Despite the excessive waiting period and numerous obstacles, Macedonia’s NATO accession should be viewed as a tremendous achievement—one that portends immense contributions to regional security and stability.

While it can be asked whether the final compromise deal brokered between Greece and Macedonia was fair in the end—given domestic opposition in both countries—it is undeniable that both countries’ political leadership, at the highest levels, took significant political risk to create a path forward to overcome the name barrier. Indeed, Macedonia’s pending membership in NATO is seen as an important step towards its full Western integration, culminating with membership in the European Union.

The road to NATO

When Macedonia received its first NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 1999, its neighbors held varying degrees of anti-NATO sentiment relating to the Kosovo War with Serbia. Nearly 10 years later, in October 2018, the country began its 18th consecutive MAP—a record number by any country to date. Throughout the ensuing years, Macedonia remained staunchly pro-NATO, pro-EU, and was vocally committed to the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Importantly, the country played a key role during the Kosovo refugee crisis with the stationing of NATO and UN peacekeeping missions.

Tragically, at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, Macedonia’s NATO accession was vetoed by Greece, even though it was on target with its reforms and its EU accession protocols. Still, all hope was not lost and the country continued to push to join NATO, while supporting the Alliance whenever called upon. Last week’s achievement is a testament to the steadfast commitment by four successive Macedonian governments since the late 1990s. The fact is that despite political leadership changes, the NATO issue—and pro-Western integration—has proven to be a priority across the Macedonian political spectrum.

Ultimately, it is the people of Macedonia who stand to benefit from the country’s NATO membership, which promises long-term security guarantees, stability, and border protection. NATO too benefits by having a strong ally with a proven track record of support.

Regional politics

The integration of South Eastern Europe into the European Union and NATO is a fundamental part of finally achieving a “Europe whole, free and at peace,” the famous phrase first used prominently in 1989 by U.S. President George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War. This vision is ever more important as Russia attempts to develop strong ties in the region. 

But while Macedonia is moving forward with its reforms for joining NATO and the EU, other countries in the Balkan region also need to work towards resolving their own issues. Serbia and Kosovo need to find a solution to their disputes, and Bosnia and Herzegovina needs more support from the EU and the U.S. to implement heavy structural reforms.

Ultimately, Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration stands to play a crucial, stabilizing role in the region. As a neutral country from the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia can act as a regional leader and mediator in Central and Eastern Europe to help other countries address their shared challenges.

Kudos to Macedonia and welcome to NATO!