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Changing Signs and Changing Times: North Macedonia Turns Over New Leaf

As FYROM officially changes its name in accordance with the Prespes Agreement, Greece is the first to approve its joining NATO. Economic ties have also been bolstered between the two states.

After the ratification of the Prespes Agreement, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has officially changed its name to North Macedonia. Since then, Greece – formerly the primary veto against North Macedonia joining NATO – was the first to ratify the country’s application to NATO. This comes after an arduous struggle with nationalists in both countries, each of whom thought the agreement was a betrayal of their country’s history. Greek premier, Alexis Tsipras, faced down the opposition in Parliament on January 25th, when the agreement was ratified.

“I feel we did our patriotic duty. We did what is right”, Tsipras told parliament during a heated debate.

The NATO ratification process takes about a year, so even though all 29 members signed the accession protocol, North Macedonia is expected to formally join the alliance in 2020. In the meantime, the country has already raised a NATO flag at its main government building.

Authorities have also begun changing signs on government buildings, as well as along the country’s border. Signs that read “Government of the Republic of Macedonia” are being steadily replaced with ones reading “Government of the Republic of North Macedonia”, as agreed to in the Prespes Agreement. The government must also change all the designations on official and internal paperwork, as well as establish diplomatic relations under the new name. The entire process must be completed within five years.

The results have already been positive. Trade has begun between the two states, and the markets have reacted positively. North Macedonia’s 2025 sovereign bond hit a one year high, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the Prespes Agreement “an important contribution to the stability and prosperity of the whole region”.

In addition, NATO accession opens the door to future EU accession as well. However, that is not likely to go as quickly as joining NATO. Speaking to Emerging Europe, Maximilien Lamberston, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said that while Greece will no longer veto North Macedonia, there is still some risk the European Commission will not open accession talks this year. “This could either be due to anti-enlargement sentiment, deepened by Eurosceptic parties performing well in the May European parliamentary elections, or due to concerns that North Macedonia has made insufficient progress on improving the rule of law. Paradoxically, the political bargaining involved in passing the constitutional amendments to change Macedonia’s name (which it did to unlock EU accession), included granting amnesty to opposition MPs facing trial, which critics say undermined the rule of law and judicial independence, key requirements for EU membership.”

“However, it would be a blow to Zoran Zaev if the EU were to demand more reforms before even opening negotiations, given the political capital Mr. Zaev spent in changing his country’s name”, he added.


NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Copyright: Alexandros Michailidis/ shutterstock.com

Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, called this moment a triumph, saying they had achieved a “historic goal”, and tweeted “Long live the Republic of North Macedonia!”

Nevertheless, former FYROM Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, who, along with his close associates, was convicted of corruption and authoritarianism, has harshly criticised his successor Zoran Zaev, claiming he had “scammed” the people with the Prespes Agreement.

“The people feel tricked: at rallies, Zaev would say there’s no chance of changing the name of Macedonia, he even swore that on his children on some show. That is a great scam,” Gruevski said.

The Russian Federation is also displeased, as this brings a would-be (or former) ally closer to Europe’s political orbit, as they become more tightly integrated with the rest of the EU. Russia invested heavily in trying to convince residents of North Macedonia to vote against the Prespes Agreement in a referendum. Blerim Reka, a professor at the South East European University, noted that,  “The Russian propaganda machine was running at full steam, mostly through Serbian media, including the Belgrade offices of the Sputnik news service and the RT (formerly Russia Today) television network. Hundreds of anti-referendum websites popped up and began disseminating misinformation. Such activity did not go unnoticed: the US Congress allocated eight million US dollars for Macedonia to fight Russian disinformation campaigns.”

It is very possible that Russia may attempt to derail North Macedonia’s name change by using the UN Security Council veto to torpedo the name change. Either way, Russia’s idea of turning the country into a “Republika Srpska” state, like the autonomous, pro-Russian region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has run aground.

In no uncertain terms, this deal is a win for the West. That being said, according to an Open Society Foundations report, the challenge going forward is proving to the Macedonian people that the decision made was the right one. According to the report, which was published shortly before the Greek vote, “If the EU is reluctant to unblock Macedonia’s EU accession path, even after the Prespa deal, then we return to the situation before the European political re-engagement of 2017 – where the Kremlin was free to spread its influence in the Western Balkans unhindered.”

And North Macedonia will hold a presidential election in April, and it is very likely an early parliamentary election will follow that summer. If ordinary Macedonians do not see concrete benefits from this name change – which was not as vigorously supported as Zaev might have wished, as the September referendum failed to achieve more than a 40% citizen turnout – the people may turn against him and his pro-European agenda. A nationalist government would halt, and even reverse the country’s progress, just as it has begun.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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