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Macedonia Changes Name, Moves Closer to NATO Membership

Changes from October 22, 2018 to February 19, 2019

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A September 30, 2018, referendum on changing Macedonia's name to the Republic of North Macedonia produced rival interpretations from the government and opposition. Despite voter turnout (37%) being lower than many expected, nearly 92% of those who voted approved changing the country's name to resolve a long-standing dispute with Greece and facilitate Macedonia's eventual membership in NATO and the European Union (EU). Based on this relatively high margin of victory, the government of Zoran Zaev claimed that the nonbinding referendum result was a clear mandate to move forward with a parliamentary vote on required constitutional changes. Yet many analysts believed the referendum's low turnout could bolster the opposition and ultimately jeopardize the agreement.

To the surprise of some observers, on October 19, Macedonia's parliament approved a motion to initiate the process of amending the country's constitution to incorporate provisions of the Prespa Agreement, a June 2018 agreement signed by the Macedonian and Greek foreign ministers whereby Macedonia would change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, Greece would no longer object to Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration, and both countries would promise to respect existing borders. The government secured the support of eight opposition members of parliament (MPs), including seven from the nationalist VMRO DPMNE, to reach the 80 votes required for a two-thirds majority. Although this vote is only the first step, observers see it as a crucial test of the Zaev government's ability to secure final passage of the amendments. The eight MPs who defied their parties' position on the Prespa Agreement declared that their further support depends on four conditions being met, the most controversial of which is a reconciliation measure that some view as a maneuver to amnesty VMRO DPMNE officials charged with abuse of office. If parliament does not pass the Prespa-related amendments in the final vote, some analysts believe it could be years before conditions are conducive to another Greek-Macedonian agreement on the name issue.

Recent Breakthrough in Name Dispute

For nearly three decades, Greece has wielded its veto power to block Macedonia's NATO and EU membership despite generally positive assessments of Macedonia's qualifications. The bilateral dispute dates back to 1991, when Macedonia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia as the Republic of Macedonia. From Greece's perspective, Macedonia's use of the name implies territorial ambitions toward northern Greece reflecting its claim to the cultural heritage of ancient Macedonia. Greece continues to refer to the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

In 2017, Macedonia's new Social Democrat-led government prioritized renewed efforts toward Euro-Atlantic integration. The presence of new leaders at the bargaining table, along with EU and NATO support and positive signals from Athens, provided an opportunity to compromise over the name issue, as evidenced by the signing of the Prespa Agreement in June 2018.

Nationalist protests broke out in both countries over the agreement. Prior to the referendum, key officials from Macedonia's opposition VMRO DPMNE party, including President Gjorge Ivanov and party leader Hristijan Mickoski, accused the government of betraying Macedonia.

Next Steps

For the Prespa Agreement to advance, Macedonia's parliament must pass constitutional amendments that incorporate its requirements, including the name change. Despite external pressure from U.S., NATO, and European officials, the VMRO DPMNE's opposition to the agreement remained steadfast. Some analysts believe that the party is loath to give a political victory to the Zaev government and instead hopes to author a more palatable agreement with Greece down the road, even though it could be years before this is feasible.

The amendment process entails three steps. As noted above, the first step was accomplished on October 19. Second, a simple majority of MPs must confirm the draft changes. Third, after a period of public debate, two-thirds of parliament must approve the final amendments.

For now, the Zaev government remains cautiously optimistic that constitutional amendments will be secured under the current parliament. Going forward, the government's key challenge will be retaining its partial opposition support and maintaining the momentum for change until the final round of voting, which could be months away.

If Macedonia's constitutional amendments pass, the next step would be ratification by Greece's parliament. The issue is also contentious in Greece, where nationalist protests and accusations of betrayal have mirrored the situation in Macedonia. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces opposition to the deal from his government's junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, as well as from the conservative opposition. Most recently, Greece's Foreign Minister, a key supporter of the agreement, resigned amid tensions with Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, who opposes it. Tsipras declared his continued support for the agreement and has assumed the Foreign Affairs portfolio on an interim basis.

U.S. Support for Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic Integration

U.S. Administrations and many Members of Congress have long supported Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration and backed its compromise with Greece to resolve the name dispute. A U.S. diplomat has been the key U.N. negotiator for over two decades.

NATO leaders have said that membership consultations with Macedonia could be finalized once the Prespa Agreement is fully implemented. Macedonia then could become NATO's 30th member, pending final ratification by member states, including by the U.S. Senate. During past NATO enlargements, the ratification process typically has taken from six months to one year.

U.S. officials and many Members of Congress believe that Macedonia's NATO and EU membership would help ward off the violence and interethnic tensions that have periodically flared in Macedonia. Some analysts speculate that the Prespa Agreement could set a powerful example of compromise for parties to other seemingly intractable disputes in the Balkans, such as Serbia and Kosovo.

Proponents of Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration also have stressed the importance of countering Russia's increased presence in Macedonia. This includes a heightened Russian media footprint, a proliferation of Russia-Macedonia friendship organizations, and cooperation between Vladimir Putin's United Russia party and the United Macedonia Party. Some analysts believe that Russia, which opposes Macedonia's potential NATO membership, may have supported the boycott campaign that dampened referendum turnout.

On February 12, 2019, Macedonia formally changed its name to become the Republic of North Macedonia. The name change resolves a long-standing dispute with Greece and is expected to clear the path for North Macedonia to become NATO's 30th member. U.S. and European Union (EU) officials believe NATO enlargement to the Western Balkans could help stabilize the region and counter Russian influence. Many Members of Congress have long supported Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration.

Prespa Agreement with Greece

North Macedonia's NATO membership bid was delayed due to a nearly three-decade bilateral dispute with neighboring Greece over Macedonia's name. The dispute stems from Macedonia's 1991 declaration of independence from Yugoslavia as the Republic of Macedonia. From Greece's perspective, the new republic's use of the name Macedonia implied territorial ambitions toward Greece's northern province of Macedonia and a broader claim to ancient Macedonia's cultural heritage. In response, Greece wielded its veto power to block Macedonia's pursuit of NATO and EU membership despite generally positive assessments of Macedonia's qualifications.

In 2017, newly elected Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev took office pledging to redouble efforts to resolve the country's bilateral dispute with Greece and further its overarching goal of Euro-Atlantic integration. In June 2018, Greece and Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement, whereby Macedonia would change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, Greece would no longer block Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration, and both countries would promise to respect existing borders.

The Prespa Agreement's enactment was far from certain. It required legislative action in the Greek and Macedonian parliaments, where both governments faced sharp challenges from nationalist opponents. To the surprise of some observers, in January 2019, the Macedonian and Greek governments were successful, albeit with slim vote margins. Prime Minister Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras expended political capital in the process: Zaev's government accepted a controversial amnesty of some opposition lawmakers to secure their legislative support for the Prespa Agreement, and Tsipras narrowly survived a no-confidence vote.

Although the country's name is now the Republic of North Macedonia, the agreement specifies that its language and citizens will remain "Macedonian." Some analysts believe the Prespa Agreement could set a powerful example of compromise for parties to other seemingly intractable disputes in the Balkans, such as between Serbia and Kosovo. Prime Ministers Zaev and Tsipras have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Next Steps

On February 6, 2019, Macedonia signed its NATO accession protocol. For North Macedonia to join the alliance, NATO's 29 members now must ratify the protocol in accordance with domestic procedures. On February 8, 2019, Greece became the first NATO member to ratify the protocol. In the United States, the Senate is responsible for protocol ratification (by two-thirds majority). If all 29 NATO members approve the protocol, the NATO secretary-general would formally invite North Macedonia to accede to NATO's Washington Treaty. In the final step, North Macedonia would be able to approve its NATO membership through a referendum or a parliamentary vote and submit this decision to the U.S. Department of State, which is the formal "guardian" of the Washington Treaty.

Although the ratification process typically takes one year, some analysts speculate that the allies may attempt to complete the process before a NATO summit scheduled for December 2019 to leverage the symbolic value of the alliance's 30th member joining in the same year it celebrates its 70th anniversary.

In addition to securing NATO membership, the Zaev government hopes to launch accession negotiations with the European Union this year. In 2005, Macedonia became the first country in the Western Balkans to achieve EU candidate status. However, its progress subsequently stalled amid domestic political crises and the name dispute with Greece.

Based on a positive assessment of North Macedonia's progress in 2018, the European Commission recommended that the EU initiate accession negotiations. However, in June 2018, EU member state leaders delayed the launch of negotiations until 2019, subject to North Macedonia's progress in implementing reforms.

Russian Influence

Proponents of North Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration believe NATO membership could help stabilize the Western Balkans and prevent renewed ethnic conflict within North Macedonia. Some analysts also argue that NATO membership could help counter growing Russian influence. Russia, which opposes NATO enlargement in the Balkans, continues to challenge the legitimacy of the Prespa Agreement and claims that the West "forced" North Macedonia into NATO.

In North Macedonia, Russian influence allegedly includes disinformation campaigns, a proliferation of Russia-Macedonia friendship organizations, and Kremlin support for nationalist forces that rely on disruptive tactics. In July 2018, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats who were accused of providing funding for anti-Prespa protests. In September 2018, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis accused Russia of backing a campaign to boycott a Macedonian referendum on changing the country's name.

Some analysts have expressed concern that Moscow could attempt to intervene as North Macedonia moves closer to the final stages of its NATO membership bid. Russia was accused of orchestrating an unsuccessful coup attempt in nearby Montenegro in 2016 to prevent it from joining the alliance. Macedonian officials have cautioned that a lengthy accession process would give Russia more opportunities to meddle.

U.S. Support for Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic Integration

Since 1991, successive U.S. Administrations and many Members of Congress have strongly supported North Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration and urged North Macedonia and Greece to resolve their bilateral dispute. With U.S. support, North Macedonia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1995 and launched its Membership Action Plan in 1999. North Macedonia has contributed to NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Many Members of Congress supported Greece and Macedonia's negotiations to resolve their bilateral dispute and continue to support North Macedonia's NATO accession. Many Members in both chambers welcomed the 2018 Prespa Agreement and urged both parties to finalize it. On February 6, 2019, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs wrote an open letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the Administration to back North Macedonia's expeditious accession.