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Ilian Vassilev

North Macedonia’s post-Yugoslav march towards the EU

The self-determination of the North Macedonian elite and the question of identity are not abstract concepts. They have concrete dimensions in the concrete steps that the (former-Yugoslav) Republic of North Macedonia (RNM) is taking towards the European Union (EU). The disputes over the constitutional changes necessary to start accession talks are a superficial expression of the political turmoil that is happening as the RNM shapes a new identity within the EU.

If there is a problem with self-determination, it has nothing to do with Bulgaria. Bulgaria has learned to live without North Macedonia, and North Macedonia has learned to live without Bulgaria. A few years will not make much difference. And frankly, even though Bulgarians are among the five new minorities that the revised constitution would recognise, there is little to warrant the facile media line that Bulgaria is “stopping the RNM from joining the EU”. Factually, that just isn’t true. And the notion that it might be conceals the deeper problems in the country’s EU accession.

The real problem is the incomplete process of self-determination and emancipation in North Macedonia in terms of “Post-Yugoslavia”, the centre of which is today’s Serbia. Can the RNM live without Belgrade, or in competition with it, if Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić should decide to drag his feet on the EU track? Can Skopje outgrow its nostalgia for communist-era leader Josip Broz Tito and adopt a higher, EU line of aspiration? That is the real question.

The issue is not whether Skopje should turn against Belgrade. On the contrary, it is whether the RNM has the will and self-confidence to pursue an independent path to the EU without looking to the “Yugo-Centre”, just as the former Soviet republics are now pursuing separate lines of development without looking to Moscow for guidance or veto.

The problem stems from similar “unfinished business”, an uncompleted process of self-identification in Belgrade, where the elite is trying to reconcile the European and Yugoslav paradigms while preserving Serbia’s role as the reference base.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this. In the Balkans, everyone can dream beyond their borders. However, there are two standards:

  • The European Union standard, according to which member states renounce the right to dictate to their neighbours. National self-interest rules out territorial gains for the nation state, but gives fully-fledged rights to citizens and businesses to move, settle, make transactions, and move goods and capital across borders unimpeded. Every EU citizen is free to “conquer” any market in the EU, to travel and live wherever they want.
  • The archaic nationalist standard, according to which nation-states strive to expand economic and political gains for themselves and their citizens and companies at the expense of neighbours. It’s a model involving zero-sum conflicts, winners and losers, conquests, and struggles regarding which state is to represent the region on the world stage. It’s the model implied by Yugoslav and Soviet doctrine.

Belgrade has yet to relinquish its dream of representing its neighbours to the world. This explains why it’s not a top priority for its leaders to join the EU quickly – and why NATO as a security framework is anathema. Consequently, the Serbian elite is looking for every opportunity to enlarge the “territory” it represents beyond the bounds of EU integration, balancing it with ties to China, Russia, Turkey, and anyone else who weighs in outside the EU and NATO. No doubt high-fliers in Belgrade are already looking at the possibility of BRICS membership – a natural extension of Marshal Tito’s ancient ambition for third-world leadership as a counterweight to the West.

Since Belgrade alone cannot realise the full extent of its current anti-Westernism, it needs a strategic alliance with Budapest. Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban needs Belgrade too: aspiring to be the standard bearer of illiberal democracy and social conservatism, he has no obvious natural allies among EU leaders – or none, anyway, that are not put off by his cosiness with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. So he has directed his ideological expansionism instead towards the Western Balkans. The Hungarian prime minister controls media and politicians across the region – not least in Serbia and North Macedonia.

At first glance, it seems strange that Budapest needs to speed up EU negotiations with Serbia, as the current snail-pace status quo suits Mr Orban. He does not believe that Serbia should join the EU as soon as practically possible; his interest lies in ensuring that his ideological soul-mate Mr Vučić joins his anti-Ukraine, anti-US and anti-EU gang. 

And it is quite a gang. There’s Mr Putin, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bulgaria’s Rumen Radev, as well as Messrs Vučić and Orban. Whether you can have an “axis” of five, I’m not sure. But, whatever you call this line-up, it’s no coincidence that it came to the fore as soon as the project to launder Russian gas through Turkey and deliver it to Central Europe via Turkey and Bulgaria entered its final stage.

This Russian connection – and the new whitewashing of Russian gas – could further feed Mr Putin’s war machine and help his ‘axis’ allies destabilise the Western Balkans and Central Europe. The growing stakes in this confrontation are eloquently illustrated by the announcement of Mr Orban – on his own behalf and also that of Mr Vučić – that their two countries “would view encroachment on the routes they use to receive Russian gas as grounds for war.”

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In other words, Mr Orban has announced that he could declare war on Ukraine, which has confirmed its intention to terminate Gazprom’s transit contract after it expires at the end of 2024. But, logically, this applies to any other country that interferes with the transit of Russian gas –including whitewashed “Russian-Turkish” gas – through its territory.

Which could include Bulgaria. For, despite President Radev’s ultra-obliging attitude to date on matters gaseous, Bulgaria has already proved to be a thorn in the Kremlin’s side in other respects. By supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine, for instance, and by generally thwarting the Kremlin’s plan for an “arms bridge” to Serbia and the Western Balkans. If political shifts transferred such awkwardness to the sphere of gas transit, Mr Orban could be mightily peeved.

The Republic of North Macedonia 

Meanwhile, the RNM is facing a difficult choice. It can either pursue its EU membership negotiations and accept that Serbia may have its own diverging interests. Or it can continue to play the nationalist card, align its policies with it and run the risk of being destabilised by Russia.

Skopje has made some progress in its EU accession process. It has met all the political criteria and has made significant progress on the economic criteria. However, the negotiations are still awaiting a change in the RNM constitution providing for the explicit recognition of national minorities – including the Bulgarian minority.

The RNM is vulnerable to either direct or indirect, through Serbia, Russian interference. Russia is using the post-Yugoslav syndrome in Serbia and regular upsurges of nationalism in Bulgaria and the RNM to manufacture hatred and provocations. Over the centuries, the Kremlin’s classic and unchanged goal remains to divide and rule, preempting understanding and cooperation between these three countries.

The West has encouraged Serbia to shift its policy towards more active efforts to integrate into the EU. However, Belgrade has resisted reforms and stalled changes needed to align its domestic scene with EU integration criteria. Instead, it has maintained a high level of tension in the Republika Srpska (RS) – the ethnic Serb entity within the confederation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)– tacitly encouraging its destructive role within BiH while promoting Russian geopolitical and business interests in Europe.

The West needs to adopt a more balanced policy towards Serbia. It should offer some carrots and some sticks as well and clarify that Belgrade’s behind-the-scenes support of the RNM’s nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE will not be tolerated by the EU. The RNM must also be prepared to embark on its EU accession track without making it conditional on Serbia’s accession. I can hardly think of a better motive for Belgrade to move with greater dedication and resolution along the EU track than the fact that the RNM and Albania are making solid progress and their entry is not conditional on Serbia’s entry.

The Politics of the West

Another factor is that the West has been trying to encourage Serbia not only to beef up EU integration, but also to join in sanctions against Russia and the EU-mainstream policy towards Ukraine. For years, Western politicians and diplomats have perceived the problems in relations between Bulgaria and the RNM as the product of shortcomings in Bulgarian foreign policy without considering the bigger picture, the influence of Russia and Serbia, and their interests in the Western Balkans.

The West had hoped that Mr Vučić could be cajoled into solving the problems of EU and NATO in the Balkans. However, this strategy was flawed, as it relied too heavily on carrots and not enough on sticks. For example, Mr Vučić invited Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to visit Belgrade during the war in Ukraine, and the only reason the visit didn’t happen was that his plane was denied entry into Bulgarian, Montenegrin, and RNM air space. Serbia has refused to join the sanctions against Russia and continues to promote Russian and Chinese political and business interests in Europe.

This unbalanced Western policy has only encouraged Mr Vučić to pursue his agenda, in coordination with Mr Orban, of destabilising the RNM. As noted above, Serbia has also stoked tensions in the RS, threatening the stability of BiH. And tensions with Kosovo remain unresolved and align with the classic “frozen conflict” model that Russia uses in the post-Soviet space.

The result of this carrots-only policy is that Mr Vučić’s closest buddy is Viktor Orban, Serbia’s EU accession process is stalled, and Belgrade is not helping the achievement of internal compromise within the RNM on the issue of changes in the constitution, to which VMRO-DPMNE objects. And now Mr Vučić has even joined Mr Orban in threatening war against Ukraine and anyone who hampers the free flow of Russian gas. One can hardly think of a more brutal challenge to EU and NATO sanctions and the two organisations’ policy towards Russia.

The Choices that Need to be Made in Skopje

The choices that need to be made in Skopje are not limited to the specific vote to change the constitution. They also include a change in the RNM’s patterns of behaviour.

The dispute with Bulgaria is of secondary importance. As I said above, Bulgaria and the RNM can do without each other, as they did (under duress) in the years after World War II. A few more years of doing nothing in bilateral relations will impress no one. But the opposite would come as a surprise to the world and to the people of both countries. Bulgaria, in fact, has a very strong interest in the RNM achieving EU accession quickly and in a manner that doesn’t depend on externalities. There’s a very simple reason for this: if the RNM has met standard EU benchmarks for de-escalating exclusive nationalism that will in itself resolve bilateral disputes.

The End of the Exclusive Nationalism

There was a rather instructive incident in the Greek port of Kavala four weeks ago. A Bulgarian nationalist in his 30s took down a Greek flag that was flying on a jetty and ran up a Bulgarian one instead, shouting that the area (Eastern Macedonia) belonged to Bulgaria. He was (briefly) arrested for his pains.

Now, by the old standards of nationalism in the Balkans, this would have been seen as a heroic act (at least assuming his actions were not part of a deliberate operation by the Russian secret services). Now it’s a relic of the past, an anachronism – just plain silly, in fact. Why? Because our EU membership has changed everything. Hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians visit Greece, have property there, go on holiday, and shop. The same is true for hundreds of thousands of Greeks in Bulgaria. We get along fine. And we don’t need “heroes” to spoil our relations.

Every Bulgarian or Greek has the EU license – the opportunity to work, do business, and “conquer” new territories personally, with their families, and with their companies. And in the near future, when Bulgaria and Romania enter Schengen, the border will be even less relevant. The end of the story of the young man is telling, too: the Bulgarian authorities did not allow him to enter Bulgaria – so the Greek authorities are now reduced to prosecuting him in Greece. In short, he’s not a hero. He’s a nuisance and neither side needs him.

The RNM needs to learn from this example. It needs to change its behaviour toward its EU-member neighbours and instead opt for a win-win agenda. Instead of indulging in its exclusive local brand of aggressive nationalism, Skopje needs to be more cooperative and less introverted. It must focus on building trust and understanding, not stoking nationalist sentiments, as the latter will just lead to ever-increasing “sunken costs” in the EU. It needs to replace its own exclusive nationalism with a EU license to its citizens to make their dreams come true.

Only then will the RNM enjoy the full value of joining the EU. And the same logic applies to Serbia. But, in both cases, this will happen only if the two countries’ elites can reach beyond their nationalistic egos and prejudices.

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