The deal between Greece and what may soon be called the Republic of North Macedonia is about much more than a name. The bilateral agreement finally opens the door for North Macedonia’s integration into the EU and NATO and could make Greece a serious regional player. Political challenges could delay the implementation process.
In a nutshell
- Procedures and politics could delay implementation of the Greece-Macedonia deal
- Even so, Athens appears determined to mend fences with its northern neighbors
- These events could tilt the Western Balkans toward the West, if the EU doesn’t dither
It took 27 years of tough, UN-sponsored negotiations for the Republic of Macedonia to secure an agreement with Greece on a new name. The deal reached on June 17, 2018, opens the way for what could soon be The Republic of North Macedonia to join the European Union and NATO. Both processes had been blocked by Greece’s veto since 2006.
Even with the bilateral accord, though, a complex implementation process will take at least two years to complete. Procedurally and politically, it will be a difficult task. Opponents in both countries (including Macedonia’s president) are already rallying populist opposition to the deal. Regionally, warmer relations between Athens and Skopje – and potentially, between Greece and Tirana as well – will not be welcomed by Turkey, which has used these tensions to expand its influence in the Balkans. Russia will not be happy, either, since it opposes NATO membership for Macedonia.
It is quite likely that implementation will require more time. Yet, significant steps have already been taken. The Macedonia parliament ratified the agreement on June 20 and then did so a second time on July 5 after President Gjorge Ivanov refused to approve the deal, arguing that it violated the constitution. On June 25, Greece’s Foreign Ministry officially notified the EU and NATO by letter that it was lifting its veto on Macedonia’s application to join these organizations.
Perhaps not coincidentally, just five days after the agreement between Athens and Skopje, euro-area finance ministers agreed on a plan to allow Greece to exit its eight-year bailout program. “The Greek crisis ends here tonight,” said EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici. Very quickly, the deal for both sides appears to be turning into a win-win.
A long road is just beginning. This autumn, Macedonia is expected to hold a referendum on the name change – with the support of more than half of its 1 million voters needed. A constitutional amendment should be ready before the end of the year. But it will require a two-thirds majority to pass parliament, and right now the government has only 69 of the required 80 votes. Only after these two hurdles are successfully cleared will the Greek parliament ratify the same agreement.
Macedonia is expected to be formally invited to join NATO at the alliance’s July 11-12 summit in Brussels, but ratification of the country’s membership will probably take at least two years (as was the case of Montenegro in 2015-2017). As Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on June 29, after meeting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “First implementation of the agreement, then NATO membership.”
It cannot be taken for granted that enlargement will remain on the EU’s agenda for the next decade.
As for the EU, Macedonia (and Albania) will not get to start accession talks this year. On June 29, the European Council formally approved a recommendation that the start date be delayed until June 2019. Once the EU’s “screening process” begins, accession can be expected to take about eight years (until 2027), with another year or two for ratification. This assumes that enlargement remains on the EU agenda for the next decade, which cannot necessarily be taken for granted given its unpopularity in many member states – including France, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Even admitting Macedonia to the UN will be tricky since the name change will require further action from member states that had already recognized the country under its current constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.
Even with these complications, Macedonia’s procedural path forward is relatively well-delineated. The political aspects, however, are much less predictable – both domestically and internationally. How will opponents of the deal in Macedonia and Greece react, and what will the regional and big powers do?
In Macedonia, it appears that at least two political parties will continue to oppose the “new name agreement.” One is VMRO-DPMNE, the main opposition party, which has called the deal a “capitulation” and “national treason.” A smaller opposition party, United Macedonia, has organized demonstrations against the agreement with Macedonian and Russian flags, and its leader, Janko Bacev, has made no attempt to conceal his party’s links with the Kremlin.
Finally, President Gjorge Ivanov, a member of the VMRO-DPMNE party, has twice refused to sign off on the agreement, saying it is unconstitutional. This action set off a constitutional crisis since the president cannot refuse to sign into law legislation that has been approved by parliament for the second time. His boycott, combined with regular street demonstrations organized by the opposition parties, will keep the political atmosphere tense and volatile as the autumn referendum approaches.
Two vital foreign partners did not disguise their displeasure. Russian officials claimed they had “nothing against the agreement,” but were careful to underline their concerns that it would allow Macedonia to join NATO. Serbia was more pointed, refusing to congratulate the Macedonian government on the diplomatic breakthrough. “We have nothing to congratulate,” huffed Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic.
Greece has similar internal issues. The main opposition party, New Democracy, has been critical of the deal, while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s coalition partner, the Independent Greeks (ANEL), says it will oppose the agreement unless it is approved through a national referendum or new elections. Discord on this issue within the government is significant since Mr. Tsipras had to survive a no-confidence motion in parliament just a day before signing the “new name agreement.” The Greek Constitutional Court has also received a request to overturn the deal. However, the prime minister does enjoy one advantage over his Macedonian counterpart – Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos has declared his support.
The regional impact of the bilateral deal is another story. Greece may have settled one issue with Macedonia, but remains very much at odds with two other neighbors – Albania and Turkey. Both concern territorial disputes, particularly over rights to offshore oil and gas reserves. In the case of Albania, the bone of contention is a 140 square-mile part of the Ionian Sea; with Turkey, it is the Aegean Islands and North Cyprus.
Albanian and Greek working groups appear to be very close to finalizing an agreement on the Ionian Sea – so much so that the Albanian opposition is already criticizing Prime Minister Edi Rama for “giving away” the disputed territory. Initially, both sides had hoped to sign a final agreement at the European Council meeting in Brussels on June 28-29, but reportedly there was a last-minute scheduling holdup. The two prime ministers are to discuss progress on the sidelines of the West Balkans summit in London on July 10, 2018.
Greece making up with its neighbors will shift the focus to Athens and Ankara, as both vie for regional primacy.
A possible rapprochement between Athens, Skopje and Tirana will be carefully watched from Ankara. Over the past decade, Turkey has emerged as the key regional power in the southern Balkans – both economically, through substantial foreign trade and investment, as well as culturally, through programs to promote Turkish language and culture through local Turkish schools.
In the first five months of 2018, Turkey’s exports to the Balkans grew by 22 percent year-on-year, while the Turkish Agency for Cultural Affairs stepped up its donations for culture and education in the region. Senior Turkish officials enjoy close personal links with their counterparts in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia. The pro-Turkish sentiment is also noticeable among portions of the population, as was attested by street celebrations in some Western Balkans cities after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the June 25 presidential elections in Turkey.
The significance of Greece mending fences with its neighbors will be to shift the geographical compass toward Athens and Ankara, as both vie for regional primacy. Turkey has already made a massive financial and cultural investment in the region. By unblocking the Euro-Atlantic integration process for its northern neighbors, Greece could become a more prominent player and reshape the regional balance.
The third element in this regional puzzle is the involvement of outside powers. Russia has strongly opposed Macedonia’s membership in NATO, exerting leverage through its biggest regional ally – Serbia. Yet, the recently warmer relations between Moscow and Ankara will tend to work against Turkey’s influence in the Western Balkans – especially now that Greece is reemerging as a constructive player.
This can also be seen from the friendlier tone in U.S.-Greek relations. At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Wes Mitchell said: “we are cultivating Greece as an anchor of stability in the Mediterranean and Western Balkans.” Washington was one of the first to congratulate Macedonia and Greece for their bilateral agreement. These signals should be ringing alarm bells in Ankara.
The resolution of Greece’s disputes with Macedonia and Albania clears the way to pursue a Euro-Atlantic strategy.
Moscow should be worried, too. Once the Greek-Macedonian and Greek-Albanian disputes are resolved, the way is clear to pursue a Euro-Atlantic strategy in the Balkans. With Greece, Turkey and Albania already NATO members and Macedonia set to join Montenegro as a new entrant, the regional mathematics will shift decisively against the Kremlin.
That is why some EU members are complaining about the decision to delay accession talks with Albania and Macedonia, arguing that it will only help foster Russian and Turkish influence. It is evident that EU enlargement policy in the Western Balkans has an essential geopolitical impact. To leave this conflict-ridden region out of the Euro-Atlantic sphere would represent a substantial geopolitical risk.
The most likely scenario is that Greece will succeed in resolving its bilateral disputes with its northern neighbors. This will close and solidify NATO’s southern tier but will challenge relations with Turkey. Until now, Ankara has wielded decisive influence in Macedonia and Albania. Even in Greece, Turkey is an important trading partner.
Turkish influence is growing in Serbia, where the government is keen to attract investments. Both Moscow and Ankara would prefer to build up Belgrade as a regional leader, in part to counter the U.S. effort to cultivate Athens.
Turkey’s NATO membership makes it awkward for the country to appear to be working too closely with Moscow. As a result, there will probably be no Turkish opposition to Macedonia’s NATO aspirations. Instead, Ankara will concentrate on blocking Athens from becoming a regional player.
A second, less likely scenario is that Turkey and Greece agree on their respective spheres of influence in the Western Balkans. The two key parameters for any such division would be energy and culture.
Regarding energy, the division could be made based on their respective pipeline projects – Russia’s Turkish Stream and the EU’s Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), part of the larger Southern Gas Corridor. For Ankara and Moscow, one of the keys to the Turkish Stream project is cooperation with Macedonia and Serbia, allowing gas to reach the EU market via Hungary. As for TAP, Greece needs to work with Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro to ensure deliveries to Italy.
Culturally, the Western Balkans could be divided between Turkey and Greece along religious lines. If this happened, it would create sectarian cleavages along the lines of the Middle East in Europe. The predominantly Orthodox countries – including Serbia and parts of Macedonia – would be dominated by Greece, with significant Russian influence. The Islamic Balkans (Albania, Kosovo and part of Macedonia) would be dominated by Turkey, again with Russian influence.
In practice, this scenario is less plausible because of the complicated religious map – which cuts across almost all political borders. For example, Serbia contains at least two compact territories with majority Muslim populations – Sanjak (ethnic Bosniak majority) and Presevo (ethnic Albanian majority). Bosnia and Herzegovina is even more complex since it is divided along both religious and political lines. Sectarian division is virtually unthinkable in Albania and Kosovo, the most pro-American countries in the Balkans. Perhaps because Albanians belong to three religions, they have never engaged in a religious war.