Twenty years ago, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had narrowly avoided a civil war and NATO was collecting weapons held by ethnic Albanian rebels under an internationally backed agreement meant to shore up peace.
The tiny Balkans country was in economic and social turmoil and making international headlines. Averting a new conflict in the volatile Balkans was a strategic priority for both the European Union and the United States, and the EU foreign policy chief at the time, Javier Solana, told the North Macedonians that “the EU will always stand for you and will try to help you, because we want you to have a European perspective.”
Then the Twin Towers came crashing down, and with them much of the world’s interest in the country. It was the start of a series of setbacks, and while North Macedonia has joined the very NATO military alliance whose troops it once reluctantly allowed onto its territory, joining the European Union has proved a tougher nut to crack.
The prospect of EU membership is a major driver of democratic and economic reform in the Balkans. It’s brought jobs and relative wealth to a poor region. But 16 years after becoming an official candidate for membership, it remains unclear when North Macedonia and its 2 million people will be allowed to begin accession talks, let alone join Europe’s rich club.
EU leaders are meeting in Slovenia on Wednesday to examine the fate of North Macedonia, and of fellow candidate country Albania. But hopes for rapid progress are low, and it remains unclear how the country will react to yet another disappointment.
In 2011, a dispute with Greece over North Macedonia’s name blocked progress both at NATO and the EU. It led Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to begin a nationalist drive that even surprised many citizens.
A 22-meter-high bronze statue of Alexander the Great was erected in the heart of Skopje, in what was seen as a towering challenge to neighboring Greece’s claim on the ancient hero. Gruevski also pinned ancient names on the country’s airports, highways and football stadiums.
In the EU, whose common foreign and security policy developed from its failure to prevent the bloody wars in Bosnia in the early 1990s and its commitment to ensure that nothing like it should happen in Europe again, fears grew that North Macedonia had been lost to extreme nationalism.
In the end, however, a wire-tapping scandal brought Gruevski down, and the country seemed to be back on track. But two years ago, when Skopje already had a green light from Brussels to proceed, French President Emmanuel Macron’s insistence that the EU enlargement process should be revamped before more countries could join delayed things again.
North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called snap elections after the EU failed to agree to finally start the talks.
“Europe has not delivered what it has promised. A huge injustice has been done to us,” Zaev said. “I am disappointed and outraged.”
In the end, Zaev was re-elected and the membership bid continued. But that was not the end of the story.
Barely had the name row with Greece been resolved than the government of Bulgaria suddenly insisted that North Macedonia must recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots and stamp out what it claims is anti-Bulgarian rhetoric.
No sign has surfaced ahead of Wednesday’s summit that this deadlock might be broken, and the situation is affecting both North Macedonia and Albania. Questions remain over the future of the two EU hopefuls, and what impact any new rejection might have.
A draft summit statement seen by the Associated Press, says that “the EU reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process.” The leaders promise to “further intensify our joint engagement” with the Balkans. Membership, though, is based on the bloc’s “capacity to integrate new members.”
The draft could change, but for now it contains no specific reference to North Macedonia or Albania.
During a visit to Skopje last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen implored North Macedonia to show even more patience, saying that she supports its membership quest from “the bottom of my heart.”
“I call on you not to lose faith. We have gone so far, you have gone such a long way, you have made so much progress,” she said. “Now let us go this extra mile, it will really pay off.”
However, it is the 27 member countries that must decide unanimously who joins, and not the EU’s executive branch. Zaev tried Monday to temper expectations, saying that the meeting is not meant to launch negotiations but is more for EU leaders to send a “clear message” that they will be “maximally focused on Western Balkan integration into the European Union.”
Even amid conflict, it somehow seemed simpler 20 years ago.