North Macedonia at a Geopolitical Crossroads

North Macedonia at a Geopolitical Crossroads

The parliamentary and presidential elections in North Macedonia to be held on April 24 and May 8. In fact, it supposes to be a referendum on the country’s future course. Further European integration, robust NATO membership, stable relations with neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria – all these depend on the decision of the voters. The forecasts do not optimistic so far.

According to the latest sociological researches, the opposition candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova from VMRO-DPMNE (full name – Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) is ahead of incumbent President and candidate from the SDSM (full name – the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia), Stevo Pendarovski, and VMRO-DPMNE is ahead of SDSM. The results of the polls show that there is a possibility of a change of power in North Macedonia, which makes it possible to correct the country’s further direction of development.

It should be noted that VMRO-DPMNE does not position itself as an anti-European or anti-Euro-Atlantic political force. Its candidates do not call for immediate withdrawal from NATO, do not see the European Union as evil. The only thing the party offers is not to make new concessions related to European integration, to suspend the implementation of already reached agreements, and, if possible, to sabotage the previous compromise decisions that Skopje agreed to in order to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The basis of this position of VMRO-DPMNE is a commitment to the protection of the Macedonian national identity, and even more so – a national pride.

The main direction of this policy is the protection of the right to use the name “Macedonia”, which the country renounced at the urgent request of Greece, by signing the Prespa Agreement. Thus, the accession of the former Yugoslav republic to NATO was unblocked, as well as there was the refusal to make changes to the Constitution, which were agreed by the authorities heading by the SDSM in order to overcome Bulgaria’s veto on negotiations on joining the EU (it concerns, in particular, the inclusion to the Preamble of the Basic Law of a reference about the Bulgarian national minority and the Bulgarian people as the state-creators).

During the pre-election debate, VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski said that if elected prime minister, he would refer to the country solely as “Macedonia,” regardless of the Prespes Agreement. “For me, Macedonia is and will remain Macedonia. My ancestors would be proud of me for what I do for my people and my country,” Mickoski emphasized.

This statement has no any legal obligations, but, in fact, means changes in political course, which may eventually lead to legal consequences, and to new disputes with Greece, and to problems within NATO. (It is indicative that Mickotski’s statements are quoted by the Greek media).

In its turn, the Vice-President of VMRO-DPMNE Aleksandar Nikoloski has expressed his position on the amendments to the Constitution.

“We will not accept constitutional changes under Bulgarian dictate,” he said in an interview with Macedonian television.

“In 2024, after 35 years of different concessions, people are tired of them and they no longer want to make concessions. We feel these signals when we meet people… So, if Bulgaria wants to build good neighbourly relations, they should be on an equal, parity basis and it should be a two-way street. If they think that they will blackmail us, it won’t work with VMRO-DPMNE,” the politician emphasized.

“I just want to be able to walk down the street tomorrow with my head held high. I don’t think that to conduct politics means to make concession,” he emphasized.

The presidential candidate from the VMRO-DPMNE Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova also makes statements in the spirit of the party’s policy. She accuses powerful politicians of “taking away our name, endangering our identity, erasing our history”…

As can be seen from survey, voters support the patriotic position of VMRO-DPMNE. The implementation of this policy will definitely stop the European integration process due to Bulgaria’s veto. One can argue about the fairness of the Bulgarian demands, but this is the reality in which North Macedonia lives.

The participants of the election race emphasize that the refusal from the integration with the EU will not even lead to stagnation and isolation, but to the country’s turning to the East, even NATO membership is not excessive here. “The smaller the EU is in the Balkans, the bigger Russia is. If we leave a vacuum in the strategic sense, then others will fill it,” President Pendarovski emphasized in a recent interview.

“The Russian ambassador in Podgorica clearly expressed the position that membership in the European Union is already considered a threat to Russia’s national security. This is a serious “change” in the attitude of the Russian Federation towards the country’s membership in the European Union. When you see parties in the Republic of North Macedonia and politicians openly conspiring to block the process of European integration by undermining the Prespa Agreement, the Agreement with Bulgaria, the Framework Agreement [Ohrid Agreement], it becomes clear that the Russian Federation has found elements in countries that want to hinder the European integration of the country, since, this poses a threat to national security, as they claim,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs (of the previous and current technical government) and candidate for the presidency of the European Front led by the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) Bujar Osmani reminds.

“There is a serious involvement of the Russian Federation in the internal political and institutional system. Centers of strong influence have already been created in the region, and also in our country. They have a strong influence on political parties, the Russian Federation has a strong influence on presidential candidates,” he said, referring to “some information that NATO has.”

Earlier, NATO officials warned about Russian interference in the election campaign in North Macedonia. In mid-February, addressing the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Security and Defense on Wednesday, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană expressed concern about what was happening in terms of disinformation and Russia’s hybrid attempts to influence the parliamentary and presidential elections in North Macedonia. “This is of great concern to us. We see how the regional players play, and we also see how the Russian players play,” he said.

At this stage, the Russians use hybrid, covert methods, indirectly interfering in internal affairs of the country. Open Russian lobbying, as it was a few years ago (when Aleksandr Dugin held a joint conference with Macedonian politicians in Skopje titled “Strategic union of the Republic of Macedonia and Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union membership”) does not happen today. Pendarovski explains the change in Russian methods as follows: “With this great disaster that happened with the invasion of Ukraine, Russia is not fully focused on the Balkans, because it has concentrated all its resources on Ukraine … and has not been active in the Balkans in the last two years as it was. But that’s why there are so-called regional proxies that work directly instead of the Russians.”

The Minister of Internal Affairs of the current technical government and a member of the VMRO-DPMNE Panche Toshkovski categorically rejects accusations of Russian influence on his party. It is “frivolous”, “political maneuvering, as well as political abuse,” he said in an interview with Radio Free Europe, referring to the constant accusations by the SDSM and DUI in his party opposition to the EU.

“VMRO-DPMNE is the first party, which clearly defined in its Statute where it sees itself and where it sees the state, and this, of course, as part of the European family and part of NATO and nothing else,” Toshkovski said.

But the problem is that on its European and European integration path, which led to the change of the name of the former Yugoslav republic and ensured its membership in NATO, top VRMO-DPMNE politicians opposed any compromises, making joining NATO and the EU impossible. This position was openly, at the official level, supported by Russia.

When the agreement with Greece was still being discussed, the then president of Macedonia, Gjorge Ivanov (the representative of the VMRO-DPMNE, held this position for 10 years, from May 12, 2009, to May 12, 2019), in his speech at the UN General Assembly in 2018, stated that changing the name of Macedonia was a “trap” and a “gross violation of sovereignty”. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately supported such a statement, noting that the Prespa Agreement “contradicts international law and the Macedonian constitution, which Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov has repeatedly emphasized, including from the UN General Assembly.” Then, the Russian Federation even threatened to use its right of veto in the UN Security Council to prevent Macedonia from changing its name in accordance with the agreement with Greece. But in the end, the Russians lost: VMRO-DPMNE lost power, the name was changed, the country joined NATO.

Now there is a second round of the story, but already with the accession to the EU. The patriotic position of VMRO-DPMNE, suitable and positive in other geopolitical conditions, can today lead North Macedonia to a termination of European integration, confrontation with the West and the transition under Moscow’s influence, even if this is not and has never been the goal of this party and politicians.