NATO takes a risk in adding North Macedonia to its ranks

Key players characterized the March 27 accession of North Macedonia to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a strategic destiny fulfilled. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg enthused that “North Macedonia is now part of the NATO family … family based on the certainty that no matter what challenges we face, we are all stronger and safer together.”

North Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said the move culminated a quest that began with “our fathers and grandfathers.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski also joined in.

However, these leaders’ celebratory words conveniently ignore the inherent complexities and risks associated with North Macedonia’s NATO membership.

Proponents argue that NATO’s expansion into North Macedonia will both further stabilize the historically conflict-ridden Balkans and integrate the region into the West. There is, of course, good reason to believe this will be the case. North Macedonia is currently in discussions to join the European Union, another critical Western institution.

Additionally, in the recent past, NATO has successfully ushered many Balkan states into the security alliance. Between 2004 and 2017, six countries from the region — Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro — joined the organization. Each of these nations is now firmly ingrained in NATO.

Still, critics argue North Macedonia offers little in terms of defense capabilities and brings a host of internal and external issues to the alliance. North Macedonia’s democratic institutions are weak. In fact, according to The Economist‘s Democracy Index, the country is home to the least developed political culture in Europe. In recent years, North Macedonia’s government has been accused of corruption in judicial affairs, public administration, and election processes.

Meanwhile, in 2018, North Macedonia spent just 1 percent of its GDP on defense. This means it will have to double its defense expenditures to reach NATO’s 2 percent of GDP threshold — a target that only nine of the alliance’s 30 members currently meet. Given the former Yugoslav republic’s small GDP and standing army, even if the country reaches this goal, its tangible contribution to NATO’s collective security will be negligible. 

Moreover, like many of its fellow Balkan neighbors, North Macedonia is divided sharply along ethnic and religious lines. While a majority of the country’s citizens are ethnic Macedonians who practice Christian Orthodoxy, more than a quarter of the population is ethnically Albanian — and primarily Muslim.

As recently as 2001, there was major internal conflict between these two ethnic groups. Acts of violence against ethnic Albanians continue to occur. For example, in 2017, 200 Macedonian nationalists stormed the country’s parliament in response to an ethnic Albanian being appointed speaker of the assembly. Fortunately, NATO has ample experience navigating new member states’ ethnic and religious tensions.

However, the South Slavic nation’s divisions go beyond ethnicity and religion, encompassing politics as well. North Macedonia’s accession to NATO was not universally welcomed domestically. Additionally, the government’s 2019 landmark Prespa Agreement with Greece, which changed the Balkan nation’s official name from the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia in order to gain Greek support for North Macedonian NATO and EU membership, remains a highly contentious issue among citizens and politicians. 

Polls show the incumbent pro-Western Social Democratic government in a near deadlock with the nationalist pro-Russian VMRO-DPMNE party in North Macedonia’s approaching elections, which were previously postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The VMRO-DPMNE vehemently opposes both the country’s decision to join NATO and its name alteration. 

It is clear that North Macedonia is rife with internal polarization that makes it vulnerable to antagonistic foreign actors. Enter Russia. Though North Macedonia’s accession to NATO was met with little public fanfare due to its inconvenient timing amid the pandemic, Moscow watched with disdain.

The Russian foreign ministry responded to the move by arguing that “Skopje’s membership in the alliance yields no added value to European, regional or national security.” It also claimed that by joining NATO, North Macedonia was “ceding its sovereignty on military-political and other matters.”

Since 1999, NATO has added 14 countries, each located in Eastern Europe. This period of rapid eastward expansion has been met with much Russian consternation and condemnation. Russian President Vladimir Putin views the alliance as a serious threat to his country’s national security. He feels the West has used NATO to penetrate Russia’s sphere of influence and encroach on Russian borders. North Macedonia’s accession to NATO will only reinforce Russia’s hawkish stance on the alliance. 

In North Macedonia, Russia may not only see a threat to its national security, but also a golden opportunity to test NATO’s resolve and damage the organization’s credibility.

In 2018, Russia’s ambassador to North Macedonia said the country was a “legitimate target” if tensions between Russia and NATO grew. Russia has a history of meddling in North Macedonia’s affairs. The Kremlin has worked to exploit North Macedonian ethnic tensions through online content vilifying the Albanian minority since well before the country joined NATO.

It has also circulated conspiracy theories alleging Western plots to split up the nation. In 2016, Moscow supported “troll factories” located in North Macedonia that worked in part to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Then in 2018, Russia attempted to impact the results of North Macedonia’s 2018 referendum on joining NATO. Now there are fears Russia will interfere in the country’s nearing elections.

Thus, it is reasonable to expect continued hostile Russian intervention in North Macedonia, and within the realm of possibility to envision outright Russian aggression against the small country. If Russia uses force against North Macedonia, NATO will be faced with existential choices.

In just the past few years, the transatlantic alliance has been faced with many pressing developments including criticisms from U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, declining popular support for the alliance in key member states, and Turkish courtship of Russia. 

Perhaps most concerning, there are only three European NATO members — the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Lithuania — where a majority of citizens have indicated they would support a military response to a Russian attack on an Eastern European NATO ally. Article 5 of NATO’s charter mandates that an attack on one member state be treated as an attack on all member states.

Yet present circumstances make it difficult to believe there would be a strong, unified military response by NATO to a Russian attack on North Macedonia — a small and largely obscure country located on Europe’s southeastern periphery. It is in this manner, however unlikely, that a country of just over two million people could render the world’s largest security alliance obsolete.

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