By BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – The new accord by Athens and Skopje for a permanent name for “FYROM” (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) is a welcome bit of positive news in an altogether gloomy political environment hanging over the transatlantic community.
Agreed late on 12 June by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, it blesses “The Northern Republic of Macedonia” as the new name for FYROM, thus removing a very deep thorn in the Greco-Macedonian relations for the last 20 years.
More important for the stability of the Western Balkans, it now throws open the door to membership for Skopje in both NATO and the EU.
“EU and NATO member states should embrace the agreement and welcome it as a chance to extend the enlargement process to all countries of South Eastern Europe, making them active players in fostering cohesion and stability throughout our continent,” said former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group of MEPs, in a 13 statement issued after the announcement.
Similarly, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on both countries to finalise their agreement as quickly as possible. “This will set Skopje on its path to NATO membership. And it will help to consolidate peace and stability across the wider Western Balkans,” said Stoltenberg on 13 June.
From a military point of view, Skopje’s NATO application dossier – known as its “Membership Action Plan” – has long been ready to go.
The country has been a full and active Partnership for Peace participant from the start; its defence ministry reform and parliamentary control over the military is done; it has met the requisite NATO training and operational standards, etc. And, as announced in December 2017, Skopje plans to boost its defence budget in 2018 by 15 percent to reach a total of MKD 6.4 billion (EUR 104 million).
The country suffered a bad set-back last year in terms of global image, however, when several hundred nationalists stormed its parliament in April 2017 – an act that was severely condemned by NATO and the EU.
Fearing instability in a region where instability can spread quickly, both institutions quietly stepped up their pressure on Greece – which had objected to any use whatsoever of the word Macedonia to denote Skopje’s territory – to find a solution. Bringing the country into those institutions as quickly as possible to strengthen Macedonia’s democratic foundations was the argument.
How soon Macedonia could join the alliance is the issue. NATO’s next summit is in several weeks – far too sudden to arrange for something as important (and politically inflammatory for Russia, of course) as enlargement by then.
Also, the timing of enlargement will turn on position of NATO’s biggest ally, the United States. Skopje’s 15-percent defence spending increase will surely please US President Donald Trump. It also said it intends to reach NATO’s 2-percent-of-GDP defence spending guideline, but not when. That will not please Mr. Trump.
At any rate, NATO loves a ceremony and will undoubtedly reserve Northern Macedonia’s induction into the alliance for its next summit, wherever that will be.