A new front in Russia-West tensions

Macedonia is moving forward with securing membership in the EU and NATO, even though the referendum failed to meet the minimum turnout requirement. The damage, however, has already been done. Russia has gained clout and could potentially scupper the process. That would leave Macedonia in limbo, creating further instability.

Supporters of the boycott of Macedonia’s September 30 referendum celebrate the low turnout in Skopje
Macedonians opposed to changing the country’s name and its membership in the EU and NATO celebrate the low turnout of the September 30 referendum. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Macedonia’s failed referendum strengthened Moscow’s hand there
  • The country’s EU and NATO membership is almost sure to be delayed
  • The resulting strategic vacuum will cause domestic and regional instability

On September 30, 94 percent of voters in Macedonia’s referendum cast their ballots in favor of adopting a new name for the country and working toward European Union and NATO membership. The convincing result, however, was soured by a boycott. With just under 37 percent turnout, the results were legally invalid – a 50 percent minimum was required.

Russia applauded the referendum’s failure, while the West expressed concern for Macedonia’s strategic direction. The question now is whether the country will become a new East-West border state, continually tugged in either direction, or whether it will still achieve its Euro-Atlantic ambitions.

The referendum was consultative and not legally binding. Nor was it required by the so-called Prespa Agreement reached by Greece and Macedonia on the latter’s name in June 2018. Nevertheless, the impact was huge both on domestic politics and in the international arena, raising tensions between Russia and the West.

Russia’s role

The movement to boycott the referendum had a clear pro-Russian bent and was supported by some 30 NGOs, the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE and President Gjorge Ivanov. The Russian propaganda machine was running at full steam, mostly through Serbian media, including the Belgrade offices of the Sputnik news service and the RT (formerly Russia Today) television network. Over the summer, hundreds of new anti-referendum websites popped up and began disseminating misinformation. Such activity has not gone unnoticed: last year, the U.S. Congress allocated $8 million for Macedonia to fight Russian disinformation campaigns.

These activities have been ramped up now that Moscow has lost Montenegro from its sphere of influence. Finally, the CIA revealed to Greek officials the full extent of Russia’s attempts to scupper the Prespa Agreement, prompting Athens to expel two Russian diplomats. As the vote neared, the Russian embassy in Skopje seemed to gain more and more staff, while the number of Russian “tourists” in Macedonia increased.

Moscow sees its stronghold in Macedonia in its fight against the EU and NATO.

After the referendum, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the U.S. and the EU aim “to bring Macedonia into NATO at any price” and expressed “surprise” that the report from the OSCE’s observation mission found that the referendum was administered impartially. As the American analyst Janusz Bugajski has noted, “Moscow sees its stronghold in Macedonia in [the context of] its fight against the EU and NATO” and wants to turn it into “another Republika Srpska entity” – the autonomous, pro-Russian region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has worked to keep that country out of Euro-Atlantic structures.

The Kremlin’s official position is that the West is pushing Macedonia hard to resolve the name issue with Greece so it can become a NATO member. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has frequently lamented the West’s “external pressure” on Macedonia and its “interference” in the referendum, although he himself was in Republika Srpska just before the October 7 election in Bosnia and Herzegovina supporting presidential candidate and Moscow ally Milorad Dodik, who won the Serb seat in the country’s three-headed presidency with 55 percent of the vote. In so doing, Russia has attained its goal of blocking Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Euro-Atlantic integration for the foreseeable future. Mr. Dodik will have the right to veto any such moves.

Likewise, Moscow sees Macedonia as crucial. At the United Nations General Assembly just two days before the referendum, Foreign Minister Lavrov complained about states in the region being “insistently drawn into NATO.” After the referendum, he added that even if the country ends up agreeing to use the new name, it would have to be reviewed at the UN Security Council under Resolution 845 – implying Russia had a right to veto the decision.

Referendum-mania in the Balkans

Referenda are becoming a trend in the region: aside from Macedonia’s, Serbs in Montenegro are trying to organize a vote to rescind the country’s recognition of Kosovo, Mr. Dodik has called for a referendum on Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there may also be a plebiscite on any “border correction” in Kosovo.


Facts & figures

Macedonia: Euro-Atlantic ambitions

A map of the Balkans, showing Macedonia and Republika Srpska
Some analysts say Russia sees Macedonia as another potential stronghold against NATO expansion, like Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. © macpixxel for GIS

That latter possibility is a recent development. Just a month before the Macedonia referendum, the idea was launched that Serbia and Kosovo could exchange territory and normalize ties – thereby opening both countries’ paths to EU membership and Kosovo’s path to UN membership. The proposal alarmed many in the West due to fears that Moscow could use it to achieve three goals at once: creating interethnic tension in Kosovo; building momentum for other such destabilizing moves to remap the region (Albanians in Macedonia, for example, might ask for Srpska-style autonomy); and strengthening sentiment in Montenegro for a referendum on revoking recognition of Kosovo.

In Republika Srpska, the Kremlin accomplished its goal with Mr. Dodik’s win. In Macedonia, the situation is not so clear-cut, since authorities are moving ahead with the name change plans. Nor did Moscow get what it wanted in Kosovo or Montenegro. The West has generally reacted negatively to the Serbia-Kosovo border plan, and Serbs in Montenegro do not have enough political weight to push through an anti-Kosovo referendum.

Achieving this outcome was not easy. A day before Macedonia’s referendum, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic put army units stationed at the Kosovo border on high alert. (This was also three days before he held a meeting at the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin.) Only after NATO warned Serbia that it would face “open war” with its Kosovo Force (KFOR) did President Vucic order a stand-down. On Macedonia’s referendum, Mr. Vucic warned the West: “Somebody in the world is undermining the people of the Balkans, and they think that they can do whatever they want.”

President Vucic, Foreign Minister Lavrov and Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov remain the only three statesmen who welcomed the “failure” of the referendum as a demonstration to the West that it cannot decide for people in the region.

The agreement with Greece did not end the political crisis in Macedonia, as some had predicted it would, raising the question of whether this might be Macedonia’s last chance to join Western structures. This new, unpredictable period will determine Macedonia’s strategic future. At least three post-referendum scenarios are possible: one “idealistic,” one “realistic” and one “chaotic,” though the third scenario must be regarded as next to impossible.

Under the idealistic variant, the Prespa Agreement will be implemented soon. The constitutional changes needed to do so require a two-thirds majority, and until mid-October the governing coalition was eight votes short. VMRO-DPMNE offered those votes in return for amnesty for its former leader and former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who has been sentenced to two years in jail on corruption charges (he has since absconded to Hungary, where he says he is “seeking asylum”), as well as for those involved in an April 2017 brawl in the parliament. If the government were to agree, it would put the country’s EU candidacy in danger – just three days before the referendum, Macedonia had begun the screening process on EU chapters 23 and 24, on the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

If the constitution is not amended by the end of January, the country will go to early elections.

In the end, the government secured the votes it needed to begin the constitutional amendment process. Russia accused the EU and U.S. of being behind the “last minute” change. The procedure will require at least three months to complete – meaning that all changes will be implemented by the end of January 2019 at the earliest, unless something unexpected occurs in the meantime. During that period, several more votes will be held in which a two-thirds majority will be needed, and much could turn the tide against a successful conclusion. The opposition will likely try to introduce legislation to change the process, while Albanian opposition parties could propose constitutional amendments, including making Albanian an official language. So while the first steps toward the “idealistic” scenario have been taken, it still remains impossible to predict whether it will come to fruition.

So far, the government has adopted four amendments, including on the name change. These will have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament.

If the constitution is not amended by the end of January – a probable outcome – the country will go to early elections. The European Commission has voiced its opposition to such a step: Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Johannes Hahn said he did not “see any need” for new elections, adding it would “only be drifting from the road” to joining the European Union. However, it remains a last-resort move for the pro-Western forces to secure a two-thirds majority.

This “realistic” scenario still presents several domestic and external challenges. The opposition will insist on the same deal imposed by the EU-brokered Przino Agreement before the previous early elections in December 2016. This would involve giving the opposition parties key posts in a technical government to be formed for the 100 days before the elections – potentially including the positions of state prosecutor, minister of interior and minister of social affairs. Doing so would certainly delay the constitutional changes beyond January.

It would also be difficult for the governing coalition to hold together during the election campaign. The senior government coalition partner, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), favors forming a broad pro-European coalition in such an event. However, the diverging interests of the various political parties – especially the Albanian ones, which want special constitutional guarantees for ethnic Albanians – mean that each party would likely run on its own platform. This risks that the elections would simply result in a new government that would still be short of the two-thirds majority.

Opposition strengthened

That, in turn, would strengthen VMRO-DPMNE. Whether or not it returns to power (which it held for 11 years before the current government took over), the party will certainly redouble its efforts to prevent Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic alignment.

The pro-Russian forces in Macedonia will be strengthened as Moscow looks to fill the strategic vacuum.

Even if VMRO-DPMNE does not manage to block moves toward NATO and EU membership, reaching these goals will certainly be delayed for another year, possibly two. With early parliamentary elections and the presidential election (scheduled for spring 2019) being held just a couple of months apart, the government will be unable to focus on its Euro-Atlantic agenda.

Under such a scenario, the pro-Russian forces in Macedonia will be strengthened as Moscow looks to fill the strategic vacuum. The nascent EU screening process will be postponed until after the elections, putting the start date of accession negotiations sometime in the summer of 2020, instead of the currently scheduled June 2019. It will also delay NATO membership for at least another year, since Greece will only agree to let Macedonia in once it completes the constitutional changes.

Domestic reforms will also be set back and economic stability will take a hit. Last year Macedonia noted 0 percent economic growth, compared to an average of about 2.4 percent in the Balkans overall. The World Bank predicts Macedonia’s gross domestic product (GDP) will grow by only 2.3 percent in 2018 – the lowest rate in the region.

All this could spoil Macedonia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, since the EU will have a lot on its plate in 2019. Brexit is due to take place in March, the European Parliament elections take place in May and Greek elections in September. The Macedonia issue would be put on the back burner in both Athens and Brussels.

In fact, a new government in Greece could scupper the deal. The main opposition party there, New Democracy, opposes the Prespa Agreement. On October 17, Nikos Kotzias, one of the deal’s main architects, resigned as minister of foreign affairs. Defense Minister Panos Kammenos has repeatedly threatened to leave his post if the Greek Parliament ratifies the agreement.

Of course, there always remains a third scenario: chaos –not just for Macedonia, but for the Balkans as a whole. If the pro-Western forces in Macedonia’s government cannot maintain a two-thirds majority through the rest of the constitutional amendment process, either by reaching an agreement with the opposition or through new elections, the country and the region will venture into troubled waters. With Serbia trying to keep Kosovo a frozen conflict, sentiment against Kosovo rising among Serbs in Montenegro and Milorad Dodik’s election to the federal presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Prespa Agreement’s failure would not only halt Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory – it would add fuel to the regional fire.

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