Capital Skopje
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 389
Mobile Codes 70,71,72,75,76,78
ccTLD .mk
Currency Denar (1EUR = 61.5MKD)
Land Area 25,713 sq km
Population 2.1 million
Language Macedonian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Macedonian Migration Policy and the Future of Europe

By Chris Deliso editor’s note: even though Macedonia plays a crucial role on the so-called ‘Western Balkan route’ for migrants and refugees, no one has seriously analyzed actual state policies on this issue, or what they mean for the future.

Foreign media have instead chosen to focus on the emotive, ‘human-interest’ side of the story and ignored completely key events related to the crisis, inside negotiation details, and execution of state policy. What we thus have is a lot of people making judgments about something they do not properly understand. The following analysis aims to fill this coverage gap, and therefore to provide insight into actual realities on the ground.

On December 22, the International Organization for Migration announced that over one million migrants and refugees had entered Europe in the “record-breaking” year of 2015.

Some countries have been more affected than others in this regard. The migration challenge that has gripped Europe since May constituted a third major security challenge for Macedonia, which was already suffering from a significant political impasse and planned large-scale terrorist violence in the spring. Had the latter threat materialized, the migration crisis that soon followed would have presented far greater challenges- both for the country and for the entire continent.

Remembering the Key 2015 Security Events Bookending the Migrant Crisis

While few analysts (especially non-specialists) or foreign media spend time assessing a threat that does not materialize, it is important to recognize that the May 9-10 Kumanovo police action was the most important preemptive security operation, not only in the Balkans, but in all of Europe in 2015. It preserved the stability and territorial integrity of Macedonia, the key state in the Balkan migration corridor.

Had the country been destabilized – especially during an already hyper-charged period of organized protests and political crisis – security forces would have been unable to cope with the following deluge of migrants from Greece. There can thus be no proper appreciation of the migration crisis without consideration of this fact: Macedonia is where the security response to the migrant crisis began, even before that crisis had fully materialized.

A threat that unfortunately did materialize, the November 13 Islamic terrorist attack in Paris, bookended the May police action in Macedonia. The former logistically (if not ideologically) was executed in a manner identical to what could have happened in Macedonia six months previous.

Paris was the definitive moment when the previously moralizing and humanitarian-minded Western European countries started to take a different look at what the migration crisis could actually imply for their own security. It also benefited political parties’ rhetoric. The popular and political reaction to a possible terrorist threat accelerated EU and national-level efforts to find a solution to the migrant crisis, which is commonly agreed – even by diametrically opposed parties – to have been totally mishandled by a divided and incompetent Brussels.

Macedonian Policy Development in Light of Greek Policy and Execution

Unlike the Western countries, Greece was only too aware of the difficulties of dealing with migrants. It has been grappling with the problem of migrant penetration, albeit in much smaller numbers, for many years. has reported about this issue several times; one analysis, from March, covered illegal immigration and organized crime in Greece, and actually predicted a rising number of migrants and greater EU involvement in 2015. And, way back in 2011, when the root causes of today’s migrant crisis were in gestation, we interviewed the operations chief of Frontex, which had been deployed to the Greek-Turkish border. In a slightly earlier assessment of the organized crime aspect of illegal immigration in Greece, we also isolated the key role of Greece’s Schengen and euro membership in increasing the desirability of the country as a transit zone for migrants. The euro and Schengen are of course the two issues now most serious for Greece’s continued EU membership.

The other state that did get the concept was, of course, Italy- which lost its best guarantor of migrant restrictions when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and murdered during the NATO intervention in his own country in 2011. With the rise of Islamic State in 2014, the refugee totals from Syria and Iraq reached historic proportions, while jihadist links between Syria and Libya grew stronger too, as we also predicted in March.

However, the major story of maritime refugees from North Africa to Italy in the summer was soon overtaken by the growing numbers crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece- a much shorter and safer route, with better logistical connections to the Middle East and Asia.

Italy is not relevant for Macedonian policy, but Turkey and Greece are. Once the migrant crisis began in earnest in June, two things became clear. One was that well-organized groups (both migrant smugglers and supposedly humanitarian NGOs) were working the Turkish Aegean coast and Eastern Aegean Greek islands, expediting the movement of hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees. The second thing that became clear was that Greece had neither the capacity nor the interest to deal with them all, and that the EU was equally disinterested in providing solutions.

With no aid forthcoming from Brussels, and no cooperation from Greek authorities, Macedonia was thus left largely to its own devices. Thus from the very beginning, the country understood it would have to take responsibility for its own security and that Greece would continue ‘shipping the problem’ north unless its EU colleagues in Brussels intervened.

Hungary, on the northern end of the Balkan corridor, was the first EU country that had understood this, and decisions like building fences and using media to discourage migrants from coming were criticized sharply by more liberal European countries- though these measures have since been copied by the latter.

In the Macedonian-Greek relationship, it was only after the Paris attacks, and ensuing EU pressure, that some level of cooperation from the Greek side began. This caused great problems for Macedonian police who were not told when precisely to expect migrants, and in what quantities. According to official statistics, during the fall Macedonia recorded 9,000 cases of illegal entries or other incidents, such as migrant attacks on army and border police. This was not helped by events like a mass ‘clean up’ of Lesvos the day before Prime Minister Tsipras’ visit with his Austrian colleague in fall. It was important for Greek domestic politics, and EU relations that the government should appear to be in control of the situation. But on the receiving side, in Macedonia, the experience was a sudden and unannounced rise in migrant numbers overnight at the border. Once again, Greece was estimated to not be a stable partner.

Due to logistical problems, sheer numbers, and lack of cooperation from Greece or the EU, it proved very difficult to document incoming persons, though Macedonian and Serbian police have consistently tried to do so. However, the numerous ways in which deliberate misidentification could occur tend to make these efforts moot. What Europe has now is a ‘Generation Unknown,’ people who could be anyone and no one at the same time. This was an avoidable problem, had the EU been serious about addressing the problem from the beginning. For whatever reason, however, it wasn’t interested in doing so.

Strategic Thinking and the Macedonian Migration Response

Throughout the crisis, Macedonia’s main approach has been informed by the knowledge that northern countries would eventually close borders, and that the country should not end up as a holding pen for unwanted migrants trapped in between EU states to the north and south. So far, this scenario has successfully been averted by a combination of security measures and diplomacy.

In August, Macedonia declared a crisis situation (and not a ‘state of emergency,’ as has sometimes wrongly reported); it applies until June 2016 and will probably be extended if the migrant numbers show signs of once again increasing. Numerous local and international sources indicate that Brussels and some Western diplomats were surprised by this decision, and by the institutional (rather than political) execution of the national policy: they had assumed that because of the ongoing political crisis, Macedonia would be unable to mount a unified stance on migration, and that it would be relatively easy to force policies upon a small and weakened country.

Macedonia’s resolve has thus torpedoed unstated EU and UN plans for turning the country, and the Western Balkans in general, into a ‘migrant dump,’ as an abreaction to the bloc’s own failure to achieve consensus on migration policy. Of course, Macedonia and Serbia had been well aware of this ulterior motive since the beginning and took measures to stop it. A tacit foreign plan to create housing for up to 30,000 migrants (which a UN source confirms for will thus never happen, shifting the burden back onto Greece.

This is because of a strategic estimation frequently encountered in speeches by Macedonian leaders: since the migrant masses are coming from the territory of the European Union (Greece), the influx represents a potential security threat from the European Union itself. This unprecedented reality could affect the security of a sovereign, non-EU state. Macedonia therefore has understood the migrant crisis specifically in terms of sovereign law and in terms of security risks.

Institutional Implementation of Macedonian Migration Policy

Macedonia’s institutional response followed the law on crisis management, which mandates specific procedures. These procedures kicked in following the declaration of the crisis situation in August.

First, a risk assessment group delivered a report identifying security threats and risks to a crisis-management Steering Committee, which then gave its proposal to the president (commander-in-chief of the armed forces), the government (which has responsibility for finances) and the ministries of interior, defense, labor, transport and health, as well as to those municipalities affected by the crisis situation.

As commander-in-chief and head of the National Security Council, President Gjorge Ivanov then tasked the army with securing and protecting national borders and supporting police there. The fact that the state response was based on rule of law, institutional procedures and a broad-based number of individuals and groups eliminated the potential for politicization or partisan behavior. This would be crucial at any time, but particularly in the year of political crisis it became especially important.

After Paris

European perception of migration soon shifted sharply after the Paris attacks. It was clear that a pushback on inflows was imminent, not only because of terrorism but because of increasing politicization of the issue and domestic opposition in Germany and other European states.

Thus a Macedonian National Security Council meeting was called the day after the terrorist attacks in France. It was decided that when Croatia and Slovenia – pressured tacitly by countries north of them – indicated they would restrict the entry of economic migrants, Macedonia would follow suit. They did so on November 18. President Ivanov also reiterated a public call for Frontext to deploy to the Greek-Macedonian border, as would eventually happen.

Then, three days later, Macedonian police began to build a fence to better manage the flow of allowed refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while excluding other economic migrants. While certain foreign media breathlessly reported that Macedonia was ‘closing its border,’ this was never considered.

Rather, Macedonia sought to continue to channel the inflows through the plain of Gevgelija and straight up the highway to Serbia, and prevent irregular crossings elsewhere. In addition to the 9,000 illegal entries and incidents recorded in the previous two months, the discovery that 8,000 migrants had illegally crossed at Lake Dojran was a factor in the country’s decision to better protect its borders- regardless of what advocacy groups or other states might say.

The Key Role of Donald Tusk in Making Brussels Understand Macedonian Migration Policy

The only European Union executive who has made careful considerations of local reality has been Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has also played an engaged role in the last couple months.

When Donald Tusk visited Skopje on November 22 and met Macedonian leaders, he came away with a much more informed understanding of local realities, which is reflected in his official comments (below). He also became aware that an official request for EU technical assistance made by the interior and foreign affairs ministries had been stalled for over two months. Tusk, who had until then been unaware of the request, immediately promised EU technical assistance for the borders, which arrived the following Monday.

At the post-meeting press conference with President Ivanov, Tusk stated that “Like any country, you do not only have a right but an obligation to secure your borders.” This was the first statement made by any EU official to that point confirming the country’s sovereign rights, supporting the consistent state policy on migration. And, in comments perhaps meant for Greece, Tusk added that “I urge all countries on the transit route to communicate with one another as much as possible.”

President Ivanov, Foreign Minister Popovski and Serbian President Nikolic again met Tusk and his team on December 16 in Brussels. Serbia’s awareness of Macedonian policy has allowed it to play ‘good cop’ on the issue: “unlike Macedonia,” Nikolic stated, Serbia would be willing to house up to 6,000 migrants during winter. This clever diplomacy owes partly to the realization that with Macedonia manning the southern border, such hosting might not even be called requested. But it no doubt won Belgrade – which is opening accession talks – some points in Brussels.

At the same time, an informed Serbian source says that the costly and detailed efforts Serbia has made to database arriving migrants seems just for show; the EU “has not asked to check our database,” despite the danger of criminals and terrorists penetrating the country. The act of registering people is “just to slow the flows, so the northern countries have time to deal with it better.”

The Macedonian Advantage

Macedonia and Serbia have a crucial advantage over other European states: being outside of the EU, they are not bound by Brussels-enforced obligations, unless they agree to them. And UNHCR officials admit that international law on refugee and migrant issues is vague and can apply differently on a national level, in accordance with local law.

Macedonia, through its clear policy, seems determined to not become subject of any further experiments. It remembers full well that the last time it hosted larger numbers of migrants (during the 1999 Kosovo bombing), it never received promised reimbursement from NATO- but rather, was repaid by getting a war led from Kosovo two years later.

Because of its exclusion from the EU – something that is most often presented as a disadvantage – Macedonia enjoys the luxury of being able to choose its own migration policy. Unlike Serbia, it wisely also avoided participating fully in certain EU “mechanisms” that would take some control over migration policy in the interest of “the common good,” which would perhaps involve housing migrants and restrict bilateral cooperation initiatives.

Rather, Macedonia has taken the route of bilateral cooperation. It has invited police from several Central European and Balkan countries to help man the border- in addition to better policing, this means greater awareness of the real situation will be funneled back to more influential actors in Europe. There will be oversight of any possible discrepancies between Greek border registration efforts and general cooperation, since police from other EU countries will be reporting home what they see. This is an absolute nightmare for the Greeks, but the Germans as well, who are the main sponsors of the open-door migrant policy.

Zero International Leverage, Disadvantage Greece

Macedonia’s institutionally-grounded and non-partisan response to illegal migration from Greece has confounded EU and UN representatives, who had (wrongly) assumed it would easily succumb to demands, due to perceived weakness in a year of political crisis. However, foreign officials have consistently failed to understand that the leverage they assume they have over sparring local politicians has no effect on key state policies such as migration. Neither is there manipulation, stratagems or half-measures when it comes to migration policy: what you see is what you get.

While flummoxed by Macedonia’s unprecedented national unity, international officials have no influence here; unless they plan to sponsor a proxy war to destabilize the country, which is unlikely, they have zero leverage. This means their pressure will have to focus on Greece regarding migration matters in months ahead. Indeed, since Macedonia consolidated its position in late November, Greece began unhappily bussing some economic migrants back to Athens.

In the weeks that have followed, Greek police have moved to completely remove economic migrants (who had been blocking the border for refugees). They have also restricted access to media and NGOs that had been for months aiding the masses of migrants and refugees logistically.

Greece had expected that its power as an EU member, and the presence of a Greek (Avramopoulos) in the Home Affairs commission would inevitably mean their migrant dumping would continue indefinitely, and that Macedonia and Serbia would bear the brunt of it. When Greek media recently reported that the country’s problem was the existence of two sovereign states, Turkey and Macedonia on either side of it, these anonymous words were actually coming directly from Avramopoulos, who a Commission source says is “deeply frustrated” by the inability to change Macedonian policy.

Another, related thing that turned the tide against Greece happened at the second meeting with Tusk, in Brussels. This was a question that arose from the presentation of UN data about a sudden surge in Moroccan nationals attempting to cross the border in October. The block on economic migrants from November 18 had prevented many others from crossing the border, with the discrepancy reflected in UN internal statistics.

Greek authorities were tasked with investigating this, and soon discovered that a number of Moroccans traveling with false Syrian passports had indeed come through, and that several were presently stuck in Thessaloniki and nearby border villages. According to Greek security sources, they had reportedly been planning an armed attack on border police.

The possibility of Islamist attacks on a border where a pan-European Frontex mission was just deploying changed the tenor of the debate for Tusk and the Council. The border was rapidly cleared, and will finally be monitored much more carefully by the Greek authorities, who until recently had been content to let most people pass through largely unchecked.

The Frontex deployment is not popular among all Greeks, who see it as a violation of sovereignty. Yet here the country is trapped in a catch-22; Europe wants it to remain in the Schengen zone, but a condition for that is the ability to secure one’s borders. And this is impossible in maritime Greece because of the continental shelf/territorial waters debate with Turkey. The latter has cleverly offered to help police the seas with the Greek coast guard, but this is a non-starter as Greece does not trust Turkey’s intentions, considering its perceived predatorial behavior since the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

As we reported in 2011, Greece’s migrant issue is ineluctably tied to its Schengen membership and euro participation- the latter being the issue that almost caused an existential crisis earlier this year. In fact, both issues are inextricably interwoven, considering the impact that removing Greece from the Schengen Zone would have economically (and for other European countries as well). In short, if Greece leaves Schengen, it also leaves the euro, and most likely, the EU as well.

What the country is therefore left with is a series of humiliations that will rile up both left and right-wing factions. With Frontex, it gets a foreign policing operation not of its choosing. There is also the requirement to serve as a migrant ‘warehouse’ for the indefinite future, as Tsipras recently alluded in the WSJ. ‘Hot spots’ and housing centers for tens of thousands are going to be a fact of life, stretching resources further, while criticisms of these mount from both the right and left-wing anarchists, as we have recently discussed.

Meanwhile, Greeks are extremely resentful that Turkey has been given over 3bn euros as a sort of award for facilitating the problem in the first place; only the most naïve of Brussels politicians would believe that Mr Erdogan will not continue exploiting his advantage to turn on and off the flow as he wishes. Greece is now left trying to strike deals to deport North Africans to Turkey, which further increases the political leverage of the latter.

Incidents like that at Palaio Faliro in Athens on December 12 will become more frequent in such centers: there, 100 migrants were detained for attempting to shake down other migrants for protection money. This behavior pattern, already established in migrant ghettoes in Western cities, follows ethnic and class differences, and is a microcosm for the future of European society wherever such people are massed in close proximity.

Expectations of such risks explain precisely why Macedonia refuses to host migrant camps. While there has been tremendous pressure from Brussels, and a sort of bribery attempt in which the country would be given money to house migrants, Macedonia will not let itself be exploited to shore up Angela Merkel’s controversial policy.

What to Expect in 2016: Consistency of Policy

This unexpectedly resolute stance may be the key factor in the EU’s eventual fatal policy fracture. Our analysis of an unchanging Macedonian policy, at least, is also supported by recent official statements.

The most significant document regarding Macedonia’s migration policy, and general state security policy, is the transcript of President Ivanov’s annual state of the union address before parliament on December 22. A close reading of this indicates that the present migration policy is going to remain the same going forward.

In his speech, the president noted that despite severe pressure coming from outside (the EU and UNHCR) the country would not house more than 2,000 migrants, and these on a temporary transit basis. “I have been defending this position at every meeting,” stated President Ivanov, “because every increase of these figures would mean a multiplication of security risks for Macedonia. And this we shall never allow.”

In addition to thanking Donald Tusk for his role, the president also confirmed that “even in conditions of political crisis and security threat, we did not allow the undermining of the security of our citizens and integrity of our country. We did not and we will not allow Macedonia to be a collateral damage and our citizens to be the sufferers of the consequences [of] the failure of European institutions.”

Judging from these comments and the president’s general emphasis on self-reliance – and political responsibility among politicians to fulfill the Przino Agreement – it is reasonable to assume that current policy will continue and be intensified.

The president also called for an increase in defense spending to meet future risks, which also indicates recognition of the need to take national security more seriously. This is especially acute considering that, while Montenegro has been invited to join NATO, Macedonia continues to be blocked by the Greek veto. Ivanov reiterated Macedonia’s main policy goal continues, as always, to be EU and NATO membership.

What Does Macedonia’s Consistent Migration Policy Mean for Europe?

Macedonia’s unchanging migration policy has two implications. The first is that it will build trust among partners, as the latter will known what to expect: there will be no surprises. Whether they agree with it or not, the EU and others will have to accept a clear and consistent migration policy. Despite some muttering, this will inevitably mean an increased level of trust in cooperation, strengthening the Macedonian image as an ‘honest partner.’

The second and more important aspect of Macedonian migration policy is that it will lead to an eventual broad migration policy alliance with Western Balkan and Visegrad Group countries; eventually, they will be joined by Romania and Bulgaria. It would not be surprising to see police from at least six Eastern European countries join Macedonian colleagues at the border. We can also expect the border fence to be expanded to other vulnerable, low-lying areas.

Depending on the weather, snow might help police by making it impossible for illegal crossings in the Belasica, Kozuf and Pelister mountain ranges, as well as parts of Galicica near Prespa. All indicators are that Macedonia will continue to restrict migrant inflows, following the decisions of countries to their north, and in any case will increase its border patrols across the southern frontier. One must never forget that this geographic region was the area of protracted sieges during the First World War and has historically been a defensive asset against invaders, for thousands of years.

There is yet another aspect of the migration crisis that will make Eastern European cooperation with a strong Macedonia on the front lines more appealing.

Aside from security concerns related to migration, some of these countries are indignant that their citizens were prevented from totally free movement and work opportunities in the EU, even after joining the bloc. For example, between 2007 and 2014, Romanians and Bulgarians did not have full rights, despite being EU members.

The ban was lifted in January 2014 (ironically, under the Greek EU presidency). At the time, the BBC reported that “some in wealthier western EU nations fear mass migration from the two countries.” With memories of this saga fresh in their mind, Romanians and Bulgarians can hardly be expected to show enthusiasm for mass migration from non-EU states. There is also anger that migrants in countries like Germany will be given financial support greater than the average salary for citizens of some Eastern EU countries.

The hypocrisy and double standards perceived will have a long-term negative effect on trust in EU policies.

Thus, the development of an Eastern bloc consisting of EU and non-EU states will affect the power balance in migration policy between Western and Eastern European countries. Germany, which has been insistent on other countries’ accepting designated migrant quotas, is increasingly going to be seen as obtuse and authoritarian, as it already is perceived in financial matters such as austerity measures.

The East-West policy divide has already been noted by media. In reporting that Hungary is now suing over migrant quotas, Deutsche Welle noted that “in September, when the quota system was agreed, Hungary, as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania voted against the scheme. Their move highlighted a strong divide between western and eastern bloc members.”

Stress Factors for European Decision-Making

If another major terrorist attack in the style of Paris occurs, this will dramatically intensify national-level debates over real or perceived links between security risks and migration. At the same time, entrenched discord over member states’ policy will continue to build. In addition to the Eastern discord, there is also the potential for Brexit looming. Considerable internal lobbying in the year ahead will be devoted to these issues.

The question for Europe will be, in the end, whether the survival of the Schengen Zone is worth keeping Greece in it. Perhaps a mini-Schengen consisting of the wealthier states will eventually happen, which would be a hassle for many but would eventually suit the others just as well, considering that the majority of dangerous, terrorist-linked migrants already live in, or are headed to, these wealthy countries. Isolating such people within a walled-off mini-Europe would actually benefit the security of all other European countries.

Any deteriorating in Western security could cause a new ‘refugee crisis’: the exodus of young and skilled workers from Western countries to Eastern ones. Economic migration, the so-called ‘brain drain’ has also led hundreds of thousands to seek out their fortunes in the Americas, the Gulf and Australia in recent years. Now, onerous security restrictions, daily fear of attacks and an increasingly polarized and extremist-dominated political landscape could additionally influence young Europeans to seek new homes. Those who can’t afford or don’t want to relocate far away would find a warm welcome in the East.

Ironically, the Balkans – allegedly in a constant state of instability – might prove much safer for daily life than some Western countries in the future. With European leaders now warning for the first time that the whole European project might be nearing its death, the old Macedonian joke that ‘we will join the EU when the EU ceases to exist’ might actually be no laughing matter.