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After North Macedonia’s NATO accession: Perspectives for European security cooperation in the Western Balkans

19 May 2020

While countries are closing their borders amid the COVID-19 crisis, the NATO alliance continues to reinforce itself. With North Macedonia joining the alliance on 27 March, NATO saw the thirtieth national flag raised at its Brussels headquarters.

After gaining independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the country had a longstanding diplomatic dispute with Greece over its name. The name dispute was an obstacle for joining Western international organisations that Greece was a part of, including NATO. The Prespa Agreement, entering into force in February 2019, resolved the situation by officially changing the country’s name to “Republic of North Macedonia”, thereby paving the way for EU and NATO accession.

With NATO accession successful, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is looking to accelerate North Macedonia’s process of joining the EU. After fifteen years of being a candidate country, North Macedonia received a green light for opening its EU accession talks this March. With the EU and NATO successes, it is an opportune moment to consider what North Macedonia’s deepening cooperation with international partners can contribute to the European security and defence architecture.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras following the signing of the 2018 Prespa Agreement.
Source: Flickr/Government of North Macedonia

Atlantic cooperation

North Macedonia has a history of cooperating with NATO and other international allies. For example, it supported the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. The country’s refugee camps accommodated over 100,000 refugees from Kosovo at the peak of the crisis, with many more transiting through the country (see US Committee for Refugees, 2000). Another example is North Macedonia’s support for the NATO-led ISAF mission in Afghanistan in 2002–2014. Currently, North Macedonia contributes 44 troops to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission to train Afghan security forces (NATO, 2020). Outside the NATO framework, North Macedonia has, for example, contributed to the American-led operation Iraqi Freedom during the Iraq War, with 490 soldiers (Army, 2019). Moreover, the country participated in the UN’s UNIFIL mission in Lebanon.

As a new NATO member, the expectations for interoperability between North Macedonia and other Allies are even taller. The 2020 Global Firepower Index estimates that the country has 13,000 military personnel, with conscription abolished in 2008 (CIA World Factbook, 2019). As of 2018, the country’s military expenditure represented 1.19% of its GDP, thereby falling short of NATO’s 2% target (ibid). Moreover, much of North Macedonia’s military equipment is a holdover from the Soviet era. As such, it is one of the target countries of the United States’ European Recapitalization Incentive Program (ERIP) which promotes the transition from Russian-made to NATO-interoperable equipment. As of March 2020, North Macedonia has been allocated $30 million from the programme, with the money earmarked for infantry fighting vehicles (US Department of State, 2020).

North Macedonia’s accession to the alliance fosters regional stability in the Western Balkans. As the Western Balkans are facing various security threats, this signal of stability is particularly significant. Moreover, the experience of multinational cooperation within the NATO framework may lower the threshold for the country’s future European cooperation in other areas, especially given North Macedonia’s relatively active participation in NATO operations and initiatives.

Trafficking, terrorism, cybersecurity: Addressing security challenges 

In line with its ambition to join the EU, North Macedonia has confirmed its strategic commitment to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. For example, the country has participated intensively in the EU’s ALTHEA mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, contributing more than 290 soldiers, a helicopter detachment and a medical team among others (Ministry of Defence, 2020). An earlier example of cooperation with the EU was the EU’s EUFOR Concordia mission deployed in North Macedonia, which supported the government in implementing the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement between the national government and ethnic Albanian insurgents. In other words, North Macedonia has already made itself available to cooperate with EU-led operations.

The EU and the Western Balkans face shared security threats, including human and drug trafficking. International cooperation in the region is necessary, especially as the presence of illegal weapons jeopardises security in the region. In order to tackle these challenges, the Republic is working with the Council of Europe within the Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey 2019-2022. Through this plan, North Macedonia assists victims of labour exploitation and child trafficking, as well as raising all actors’ awareness of the issue and combating trafficking in the region (Council of Europe, 2019).

North Macedonia has become the 30th member of NATO

Furthermore, there is the danger of terrorist networks expanding to Western Europe through the country, given that North Macedonia estimates at least 130 of its citizens to have fought alongside ISIS in Syria (Associated Press, 2019). Ethnic tensions are also a potential source of insecurity especially in the north of North Macedonia, with the 2015 Kumanovo clashes between an ethnic Albanian group and state security forces representing a relatively recent example. Within the framework of the Western Balkans Joint Action Plan on Counterterrorism, North Macedonia is addressing matters such as the return of terrorist fighters to the country (European Commission, 2019). Among other goals, the Joint Action Plan foresees North Macedonia and other participating countries developing their counter-terrorism practices to match the relevant EU legislation and encourages regional coordination on counter-terrorism (European Commission, 2018).

Finally, cyber-attacks are a growing challenge for both North Macedonia and the EU’s security. North Macedonia has had gaps in this area, with a 2018 report concluding that the country had no official cybersecurity strategy and that the notion of cybersecurity in critical infrastructure was underdeveloped, among other findings (Nagyfejeo, Weisser & Griffin, 2018). However, Skopje is now working closely with actors like the International Telecommunications Union to develop cybersecurity within the country and the region (ITU News, 2019). Indeed, after increasing its efforts in this sphere and adopting a national cybersecurity strategy for 2018–2022, Skopje aims to establish a Regional Cyber Security Academy based in Skopje for the Balkan region (World Bank, 2018). Meanwhile, both the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the US-NATO ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison have suggested that NATO is willing to help North Macedonia in terms of cybersecurity. Indeed, the Organization set up a Counter-Hybrid Support Team to help the country combat disinformation online, with the Secretary-General remarking that the country has long been a target of Russian disinformation campaigns (Stoltenberg, 2020; US Mission to NATO, 2020). In the field of cybersecurity, as with other fields of security, North Macedonia’s efforts continue, but the country now has the support of the Atlantic alliance.


North Macedonia’s deepening relations with NATO and the EU provide these alliances with a stronger foothold in the Western Balkans. The country has already exhibited its commitment to security cooperation by participating in various operations. All the while North Macedonia is still undergoing the long path to EU accession, it is necessary to continue joint efforts for tackling the shared security challenges faced by the Western Balkans and the rest of Europe, for example in the area of cybersecurity.

Written by Gaultier Fort, Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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