Ahead of last year’s decisions on changing the name and disputed symbols in what was then commonly called Macedonia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made clear the stakes. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Stoltenberg warned Skopje. “Either [Macedonians] support the agreement and they can join NATO, or they don’t support the agreement but then they won’t join it. They cannot get both.” Government representatives of North Macedonia working the issue confirmed they had been informed in no uncertain terms it was now or never.
Although turnout in the non-binding referendum was lower than hoped , the parliament of North Macedonia approved the landmark Prespa Agreement on January 11. From there, compared with the twenty-seven years of diplomatic wrangling with Greece over these matters, it was a mere blink of the eye until the leaders of [soon-to-be-called] North Macedonia were getting a standing ovation at NATO headquarters as they and allies signed the formal accession agreement in February.
Price of Prespa
The price of compromising was high — many citizens remain opposed to it — but the cost of not doing so, the government concluded, would have been infinitely higher. Radmila Šekerinska, the defense minister of North Macedonia, is unapologetic about that decision. “Difficult compromises have to be made,” she said firmly. “And what we have learned the hard way is that a missed opportunity in 2008 cost us a lost decade. The country has paid an enormous price in terms of stability, political situation and economy.” Šekerinska was referring to NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit where the Alliance could not invite Skopje over Greek objections.
“We believe that leaders are elected to make these unpopular decisions sometimes and then convince the public that there is a greater reason for this and I believe that we are doing it,” Šekerinska added. “It was very important last year that immediately after the signing of the Prespa Agreement we could come back home with a deliverable and that was the NATO invitation. So I think that even though some people back home will continue to criticize the compromise, they will all enjoy the benefit and this is a better more secure and more prosperous North Macedonia.”
But this is less one-sided than it may appear; there would also have been costs for NATO in leaving North Macedonia out in the cold in a region where Russia continues to wield huge influence. As with neighboring Montenegro’s NATO accession in 2017, Moscow has made clear its opposition to North Macedonia’s steps toward the West.
Šekerinska said it wasn’t just Russia they had to worry about as it was always touch and go whether the Greek government would ultimately go along with the final deal. “The whole process was full of unknowns and the risks were incredible,” she said. “This is why we have worked last year very hard on defense reforms, on domestic reforms, to convince even the biggest skeptics that this is not just about the name issue, that this is a country going through an incredible transformation, which is rare these days, which is rare in the Balkans, which is rare in Europe and that this change needs to be supported. It has to be appreciated. And NATO understood that message and they have they have delivered big time.”
As much enthusiasm, energy, and ambition as Šekerinska exudes, she feels the Alliance has demonstrated the same. “It’s not just our desire to join, it’s how NATO has dealt with the challenge of enlargement that shows that this is a strong, forward-looking, and dynamic organization,” she explained. “The opportunity with the Prespa Agreement was presented in the middle of the year but then it was up to NATO how to deal with it and they have jumped on the opportunity! They didn’t waste their time; they didn’t drag their feet. And that’s remarkable for an organization of twenty-nine members.”
Entering NATO at a time when the 2 percent defense spending-to-GDP expectation hangs over most allies’ heads is something North Macedonia has already factored in. In advance, the government asked the United States and the United Kingdom to help with its strategic defense review. Šekerinska said Skopje is committed to “delivering a plan that will be viable, that will meet the 2 percent [goal] by 2024, and that will show that we are a dedicated partner that the Alliance can count on.”
Both sides are hoping the accession agreement can be ratified by all allies in time to hold the ceremony at the December leaders’ summit in London. Šekerinska urged NATO allies to make that happen. “The big lesson from our agreement with Greece, from our challenges back home,” she said, “was if you have a chance, go for it. Don’t stall. Don’t wait. Don’t waste time because vacuums are dangerous these days.”
Teri Schultz is a freelance journalist based in Brussels. Follow her on Twitter @terischultz.