North Macedonia finds itself in uncharted waters following the resignation of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev after he assumed responsibility for the resounding defeat of his Social Democrats party in Sunday’s local election runoff.
A complex situation can be expected to develop in the neighboring country, even though the constitution allows the ruling coalition to stay in power for the remaining two-and-a-half years of its term as it continues to retain a majority, albeit a small one. If this were indeed to happen it would ensure some continuity in domestic and – what matters most to Greece – foreign policy.
Zaev’s presence certainly played an important symbolic, but also substantive role in the implementation of the Prespes Agreement, the success of North Macedonia’s NATO membership bid and expectations for a smooth European Union accession. His resignation changes the equation. Still, the positive outlook may remain alive if the governing coalition stays.
Nevertheless, the coalition has been dealt a heavy blow. It will be vulnerable and Zaev’s departure will make managing the situation much harder, as it will fuel the opposition’s rhetoric of a divide between the government and popular sentiment – as expressed in the local elections. The strengthening of the nationalist opposition, which is opposed to the name deal with Greece, does not bode well for bilateral relations or regional developments.
Athens, for its part, must project the message that it will uphold the Prespes Agreement in full – and actually do so.
It must also stress that despite the fact that New Democracy had opposed the agreement when it was in the opposition, today, as the government of a modern European state, it is committed to continuity and respecting its international obligations, and will fully implement the terms of the accord. This is a clear message meant for three different recipients.
The first is the international community and primarily the European Union and the United States, who have hailed the agreement as contributing to Balkan stability, while restoring confidence in Greece and elevating its role in regional developments.
Secondly, it is a message to the entirety of North Macedonia’s political forces that bolsters the agreement’s champions and compels its objectors to implement the deal or risk being exposed to the world’s international and regional institutions as well as influential countries.
Finally, it is a message to a part of Greece’s domestic audience. Beyond the liberal part of New Democracy that was in favor of the agreement, there are those in ND who feel that the Prespes Agreement was harmful to Greece and only served the interests of North Macedonia. They continue to react against the deal, thus inhibiting the Greek government’s efforts on the geopolitical and commercial level.
Zaev’s defeat and the strife that has come with it, offers them an “opportunity” to showcase the strong opposition in the neighboring country, which was confirmed in the recent local polls, to the important and not easily digested changes they had to accept, which makes one conclude that the Prespes Agreement might not have been so one-sided after all.