Although relatively small, the Republic of Macedonia is very significant for regional issues. This mountainous, largely agricultural nation has for many years aspired to join NATO and commence negotiations on membership with the EU as soon as a long-standing dispute with neighboring Greece – over rights to the country’s constitutional name – can be resolved.
In the meantime, however, various turbulent events have left Macedonia in an unprecedented political crisis since mid-2014. The popularly elected center-right government has been the target of a local leftist opposition that claims support from Western governments and NGOs. As of early 2017, the conservative VMRO-DPMNE had won a close election but the crisis was expected to continue.
The only former Yugoslav republic to break away peacefully in the 1990s, Macedonia was nevertheless gripped by conflict in 2001, when an ethnic Albanian paramilitary force partly based in Kosovo forced international diplomats to broker a peace deal giving more rights and political powers to the country’s minority populations, and especially the 25% Albanian minority.
By the time of the forced 2015 crisis, Western diplomats had become surprised, and even alienated by the Macedonian government’s spirited defense of its positions, and palpable shift to the east – Turkey, the Gulf, China and Russia – which became part of the reason for the attempted opposition coup.
The crisis exacerbated among Macedonians the perception that the EU is not a credible or fair player, while the conduct of the Obama Administration infuriated large segments of the population. At the same time, Macedonia played the leading role in defending Europe’s external borders during the 2015 migrant crisis (and after), and has been thanked for this by countries like Austria and the Visegrad Group.
Orthodoxy Christianity is pre-eminent in Macedonia, though Islam has historic roots from the Ottoman period and is increasingly visible among the country’s ethnic Albanian population. The small Turkish and Muslim minorities are also predominantly Muslim, while a minority of Macedonians profess Catholicism, various Protestant denominations and Judaism.
The ‘name issue’ dispute with Greece; Western diplomats’ relations with the unresolved political crisis; security-sector reform; handling the migrant crisis; corruption and nepotism in general; inter-ethnic issues and manipulation thereof by foreign influencers; internal challenges to the legitimacy of traditional Islam from foreign-supported local Muslims; emerging role of Turkey as a leader.
Forward Planning: Points of Interest
- The name dispute negotiations with Greece, and EU and NATO membership relying on this, with effects on economic development
- Political intrigues from the opposition’s claimed ‘wiretapping scandal’ and the series of events since January 2015, sustaining a political crisis the ultimate causes of which remain unclear
- The migrant crisis and Macedonia’s role at the borders and in negotiations with EU bodies
- Discord within ethnic Albanian electorate over political leadership/ new party opportunities, and an expected larger role for Turkish influence
- Increased trade with Gulf States, Turkey and Russia; energy corridor participation in post-Greece privatization world
- Emergence as an important minerals producer for European and world markets