Michael Carpenter is senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. He is a former a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia and foreign policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.
The small Balkan country of Macedonia, soon to be named North Macedonia if citizens vote to change the name in a referendum on Sept. 30, is finally being given a chance to join the community of Western nations. If the country’s citizens endorse the name change, Greece has said it will stop blocking its neighbor’s membership in NATO and the European Union.
The dispute dates back to 1991, when Macedonians declared independence from Yugoslavia by establishing a Republic of Macedonia, which led Greece to object that the new country was usurping its history and laying claim to its land by appropriating the name of its northern region, also called Macedonia.
At a summit in Brussels this July, NATO leaders pledged to invite Macedonia to join the alliance upon the resolution of its dispute with Greece, making it virtually automatic that North Macedonia would become NATO’s 30th member if the referendum were successful. Although EU accession would undoubtedly take longer, the positive momentum of NATO integration would put Macedonia on a much firmer path toward EU membership, particularly if the government used that momentum to push for additional rule of law reforms.
However, the outcome of the referendum is not a foregone conclusion. A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in June and July found that 57 percent of Macedonians backed the name change, but street protests against it have been fierce. Hardcore nationalists in Macedonia and Greece do not want compromise. Some Macedonians, understandably, dislike having Greece demand they tack on an adjective to their country’s name. Some Greeks worry Macedonians harbor irredentist sentiments, despite having a settled border and despite NATO’s collective defense guarantee. And Russia fiercely opposes the agreement between Macedonia and Greece that led to the referendum.
But neither distaste for the extra adjective nor the fear of irredentism justifies sacrificing the welfare of citizens in these two countries. The solution up for a vote this month, hammered out in June by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, is eminently reasonable and advances the broader geopolitical interests of both nations by bringing greater stability and security to the Balkans. The voters should not allow domestic or foreign opposition to stand in their way.
While tiny Macedonia’s integration into NATO would pose no military threat to Moscow, it would diminish the Kremlin’s ability to spread its corrupt influence in the region. This has led Moscow to use proxies—including oligarchs, priests, spies, and diplomats—to organize and finance opposition to the deal.
Having forged links with members of the previous nationalist government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (who is serving a prison sentence on corruption charges), the Kremlin is now actively supporting the nationalists’ campaign against the name agreement. According to a former head of Macedonia’s counterintelligence service, Vladimir Atanasovski, the country has long been a target for “strong subversive propaganda and intelligence activity” coming from the Russian Embassy in Skopje. In July, Zaev said that a Russian oligarch living in Greece was channeling money to radical Macedonian nationalist groups, opposition politicians, and even soccer hooligans to organize protests against the name agreement.
Meanwhile, in Greece, Russian intelligence officers were caught running a parallel campaign to oppose the name agreement by trying to co-opt conservative forces such as the Greek Orthodox Church, nationalist organizations, veterans groups, and military officers. Upon learning of these efforts, the Greek government expelled several alleged Russian spies and issued a tersely worded statement: “We want to remind our Russian friends that no country in the world would tolerate attempts to a) bribe state officials, b) undermine its foreign policy, and c) interfere in its internal affairs.”
Nevertheless, despite the exposure of this influence operation, the Kremlin continues to direct its army of internet trolls to bombard the social media space in both countries with anti-agreement propaganda.
By spreading hateful propaganda and financing violent demonstrations, Russia is actively stoking ethnic grievances, which sadly remain a powerful force in Balkans politics. Less than two decades ago, at the turn of the millennium, Macedonia stood on the precipice of a potentially devastating ethnic conflict. However, in contrast to what happened earlier in Bosnia and Kosovo, interventionist U.S. and European diplomacy prevented war and produced the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, which balanced the interests of the country’s (Slavic) ethnic Macedonian majority and its ethnic Albanian minority. The ultranationalist groups that Moscow is supporting are now attacking this remarkable diplomatic achievement, the source of stability and peace in Macedonia over the last 17 years. In stark contrast to this, the new government in Skopje governs with the support of parties representing the ethnic Albanian, Turkish, and Roma communities, a testament to the agreement’s vision of multiethnic democracy.
I traveled to Macedonia for the first time in 2002 as an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observer to monitor the first post-Ohrid parliamentary elections. Although the situation on the ground was still tense at the time, there was a palpable sense of optimism in the air: a belief, expressed by many younger people, that multiethnic democracy could take root and that Western integration would help erase the salience of ethnic tribalism. That optimism was eroded in the subsequent years as the promise of joining the broader Euro-Atlantic community faded and ordinary citizens’ hopes of building a state founded on the rule of law were dashed on the shoals of endemic corruption. Visiting the country again in 2016 as a U.S. Defense Department official responsible for Eastern Europe and Russia, I had the feeling I was traveling into a time warp, as if the country had regressed to an earlier time in its history as intractable political polarization fueled widespread demonstrations and pessimism about the country’s future. Fortunately, that changed in 2017, when a new government emerged based on a commitment to settling old disputes and integrating with the West. Today, once again, a sense of cautious optimism is in the air.
When U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Skopje last week, he delivered the right message when he told Macedonians this was their chance to join the club of Western democracies. It was a notably anti-Trumpian message. President Donald Trump has questioned the United States’ obligation to defend its NATO allies in the Balkans, disparaged EU integration, and viciously attacked the norms of multiethnic democracy. Indeed, Trump’s ideological ally and former strategist Steve Bannon has been active in the Balkans in recent months, supporting nationalist-populist leaders and movements.
The contrast between Mattis’s message and Bannon’s could not be sharper. When Macedonians vote on Sept. 30, they will have to choose between a compromise that opens the door to NATO and Western integration and a dogmatic nationalism that eschews international cooperation. Their future depends on the outcome.