Many people wonder why the issue of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s name reappeared all of a sudden. The answer lies in the geopolitical game that is being played out in the Western Balkans. The European leadership – Berlin, Brussels and the other important players – believes that 2018 will be a crucial year for the bloc’s interests in this neighborhood. Russia, meanwhile, is playing a lone hand and sees the Western Balkans as the European Union’s soft underbelly and a possible foothold. This is more than apparent in the case of Serbia, which is vacillating between Russia and the West. China is attending to its interests in a quieter manner, with major infrastructure investments in the context of the Silk Road initiative. And even Turkey and some of the theocratic Gulf states are looking to control the Muslim population in the region.
The European Union and the United States understand the challenges and are determined that all or most of the Western Balkan countries join the EU and NATO. For Brussels, a major prerequisite is that the many historical differences dividing these countries are settled. This is a long list and includes Kosovo’s status vis-a-vis Serbia as well as territorial disputes. In FYROM’s case, it is all about the name and European leaders do not want to leave the country out in the cold. They believe that Nikola Gruevski’s defeat has presented a rare opportunity for a solution but also predict that his more moderate successor, Zoran Zaev, will face a lot of opposition inside the country.
The peculiarities of the Trump administration mean that America both is and isn’t involved in this game. The fact is that it took the intervention of a mid-level diplomat to unblock the political crisis in Skopje. The US has influence in and knowledge of the region, but it is not yet clear how much significance it wants to give it. So far, it seems that the Balkan “account” is being handled by Vice President Mike Pence.
What does all this mean? That Greece has to play what is by and large a European game – something that both the prime minister and the head of the opposition are well aware of. Europe and the US want FYROM in NATO and in talks (along with Albania) for EU accession within the year. This is no easy feat as the domestic pressures will be significant in both Greece and FYROM. Athens has a strong hand because of developments but is weakened by the economic crisis. And the international players will play hardball in this game of geopolitical poker that has only just begun.