In June 2018, an important agreement was reached between Macedonia and Greece, solving the legal name dispute between the two neighbors. As a consequence of the agreement, Macedonia acknowledged altering its official name as North Macedonia, while Greece promised to revoke its veto on Macedonian accession to NATO and the European Union. This historic agreement in the history of Balkans may accelerate the recovery of Macedonian democracy, which has been backsliding since 2010 and its aspirations on becoming a member of the European Union, as Macedonia has become an official member of the North Atlantic Alliance on 27th of March 2020.
Since its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, democracy in Macedonia has been challenged by many obstacles from ethnic conflicts to corruption scandals. However, the most striking impediment to the half a century old democracy occurred in 2015. Zoran Zaev, the head of the main opposition party, Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), alleged Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski with wire-tapping 20.000 government officials, rigging elections and covering up killings of the police. The allegations of Zaev led to massive protests in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, asking for the resignation of Gruevski and his government that had been in power since 2006. In due course, pro-government meetings were organized, risking a potential social uprising. Although some ministers of the cabinet resigned, the prime minister declared that he would not step down.
As a candidate country to EU membership since 2005, Macedonia has been under the supervision of the EU Commission. Therefore, when the 2015 political crisis occurred, the Commission issued a report titled Urgent Reform Priorities based on its previous progression reports on Macedonia and several new ones, determining the weak points in the political system. Moreover, in this context, the Commission and the European Parliament played a role as an intermediary between the opposition and the government which led the way to the Przino Agreement, ending the crisis with the resignation of Prime Minister Gruevski and his cabinet while creating a transitory government until upcoming elections.
This initiative of the European Union was significant in terms of restoring the democracy which had been backsliding since 2014, the 3rd term of Nikola Gruevski of the ruling party Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).
After Gruevski and his government stepped down, the opposition leader Zaev was elected the new prime minister in 2017. The elections were considered crucial and an example of a peaceful transition of power, one of the characteristics of a democratic environment. In addition, it was a promising development for Macedonian progress to becoming a consolidated democracy after years of democratic backsliding.
On the other hand, one of the main reasons that hindered Macedonia from becoming an integral part of NATO and the European Union was the Greek veto, arising from a name dispute between the two countries. The Greeks consider some parts of North Macedonia as their historical territory where Alexander the Great and the ancient Greeks were settled. Thus today, the Greek government claims that the use of the name Macedonia is irredentist and the symbols that are used in Skopje represent the Greek heritage, not the Slavic culture. As a retaliatory measure, Greece has been using its veto power against Macedonian accession into the European Union since 2004 and to NATO since 2008.
However, the novel Prime Minister Zaev held talks with Greek counterpart Tsipras to solve the long-lasting name dispute in 2018 under EU and UN supervision. Macedonia decided to alter its official name to North Macedonia, solving the dispute by adding a geopolitical indicator to its name, meanwhile, Greece announced that it will revoke its veto on Macedonian accession to NATO and the EU. The 2019 EU Commission Report narrated the agreement as sizeable progress and historical for the reconciliation of the region; while considering the approval of the name change by a plebiscite as bolstering the likelihood of Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership. In addition, North Macedonia is considered to be partly-free according to the “2019 Freedom Evaluation Report” by Freedom House, increasing its overall score by 6 points since the new government took office in 2017.
On March 27, 2020, North Macedonia officially joined the NATO alliance becoming the 30th member. Today, the incentives for restoring democracy and the rule of law in North Macedonia are plentiful. Becoming a member of the European Union seems to be much easier without the Greek veto if the government can implement necessary policies that converge with the membership criteria. As the 2019 Commission Report suggests, the (North Macedonian) government is “determined and prepared to improve the state of democracy” by restoring checks and balances, strengthening the rule of law, and fight against corruption and organized crime. If Macedonians can manage to reverse the democratic erosion, the country will have an intriguing political history in which democratic backsliding and consolidation occur in a short period of time.