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Challenges to Self-Determination: North Macedonia’s Difficult Journey to Joining International Organ

About the author: Julia Wang (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2024) is a contributor to Travaux. Her interests include international trade and development, cultural heritage law, and intellectual property. Julia holds a B.A. in Economics and Art History from Rice University. Before law school, Julia served as a Peace Corps volunteer in North Macedonia and conducted policy research on issues relating to migration, education, and innovation. She speaks French, Mandarin Chinese, and conversational Macedonian.

"Ceremony marking the accession to NATO of the Republic of North Macedonia" available here.


New Governments, New Approach?


With the recent change of governments in North Macedonia and Bulgaria, North Macedonia may finally be able to begin negotiations to become a European Union (EU) member after 17 years of being an EU candidate country. On January 18, Prime Ministers Kiril Petkov and Dimitar Kovachevski met in Skopje to find common ground and establish intergovernmental working groups on the economy, infrastructure, EU integration, history, and culture.


North Macedonia has welcomed Bulgaria’s willingness to negotiate as North Macedonia has faced a veto from its neighbor in the EU accession process since 2020. Previous Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev stepped down in December 2021 partly due to failing to lift the Bulgarian veto, highlighting the importance of the country’s ability to attain membership in international organizations. However, North Macedonia will likely continue to encounter numerous challenges in its attempts to join international organizations like the EU due to continued disputes over recognition of its language and national identity. Despite these debates over self-determination, organizations like the EU should work to bring in states like North Macedonia because other powers, particularly Russia and China, are gaining greater influence over their geographic areas the longer they wait.


Contention Over Macedonian Language & Identity


International Disputes

The United Nations Charter explicitly recognizes the principle of “self-determination of peoples.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights both state that “[a]ll peoples have the right of self-determination.” However, despite the well-established right to self-determination, North Macedonia has repeatedly faced obstacles to joining international organizations due to historical and cultural disputes with other countries.


When the country declared independence in 1991, Greece perceived the adoption of the name “Republic of Macedonia” as a threat to its territorial integrity. To exert pressure, Greece closed its consulate in Skopje and imposed a trade embargo on the new country. The 1995 Interim Accord helped ease tensions, and the countries agreed to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of its neighbor. Furthermore, Greece specifically agreed not to object Macedonian accession to or membership in international organizations. Despite improved relations in the late 1990s, Greece maintained that Macedonia had no claim to Hellenistic history in the use of the term “Macedonia” and continued to seek ways to force Macedonia to change its name.


In 2008, Greece vetoed Macedonia’s invitation to join NATO because of the name dispute. Macedonia sued Greece in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), arguing that Greece violated their 1995 agreement by blocking Macedonia’s accession. In retaliation, Greece blocked the launch of Macedonia’s EU accession talks in 2009. In 2011, the ICJ ruled that Greece had breached its obligations under the Interim Accord by vetoing Macedonia’s NATO accession; however, the decision did little to change Greece’s stance. Ultimately, the 2018 Prespa Agreement resolved the longstanding dispute by changing Macedonia’s name to “Republic of North Macedonia,” recognizing the Macedonian language as part of the group of South Slavic languages and distinguishing Macedonian and Hellenistic history and culture. Although the agreement was domestically unpopular in both countries, it paved the way for North Macedonia to become a NATO member in March 2020.


Bulgaria’s 2020 veto to North Macedonia’s EU accession again brought a challenge to recognition of the country’s national identity. Unlike Greece, which argued that North Macedonia and Greece have nothing in common, Bulgaria contends that North Macedonia and Bulgaria have everything in common. Bulgaria has long claimed that the Macedonian language is only a Bulgarian dialect and that the inhabitants of Macedonia are ethnically Bulgarian. Meanwhile, North Macedonia accuses Bulgaria of refusing to recognize the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.


While Bulgaria initially supported Macedonia’s efforts to join the EU and NATO, Bulgaria declared that it would not support Macedonia unconditionally for historical and geographical reasons after Greece’s veto at the 2008 NATO summit. In 2012, Bulgaria also got involved in the name dispute by opposing the name “North Macedonia” on the grounds that it could result in territorial claims on the Bulgarian region of Pirin Macedonia. Despite the two countries’ 2017 friendship treaty, Bulgaria now demands that North Macedonia meet three conditions in order to begin EU accession negotiations: naming Bulgarian Macedonians as an equally protected minority in its constitution, representing the “realistic number of Bulgarians” in Macedonia in the recently finished census, and ending anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. Recognition of the asserted 120,000 Bulgarians is particularly contentious because the “minority” is largely made up of Macedonians who say they are Bulgarian in order to get an EU passport.


Internal Conflicts

These international challenges have also been compounded by domestic ethnic tensions. While its neighbors have challenged the validity of its national identity and language, North Macedonia has also struggled to recognize minority rights within its borders. Following an armed conflict between Albanian groups and Macedonian security forces in 2001, the Ohrid Agreement stipulated that Macedonia would decentralize its government and revise municipality boundaries based on a new census conducted under international supervision.


Based on 2002 census data, 36 percent of Macedonians belong to a minority ethnic group, with the largest minority being Albanians who make up 25 percent of the population. The Macedonian constitution provides for certain minority rights like inclusion in official languages only if the community comprises at least 20 percent of the population. Granting rights based on population numbers has made processes like the census politically fraught. The 2011 census was canceled, as both Macedonians and Albanians were concerned about political manipulation that would unfairly lower their numbers. While Albanians have seen increased political power and rights in the past 20 years, any changes in numbers still directly affect their political and social representation. These tensions lingered during the latest 2021 census, the results of which should be released next month.


Implications for the Western Balkans


The challenges that North Macedonia faces in joining international organizations are echoed in other Western Balkan countries. Delays in EU accession have led to a rise in ethno-nationalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro, despite broad support in the region for EU membership. The continued delay in EU accession has led to a rise in Euroscepticism and a resurgence of nationalist parties like VMRO-DPMNE in North Macedonia.


At the 2021 Brdo Summit, the EU declared its commitment to future membership for the Western Balkans but rejected presidency chair Slovenia’s proposed timeline for membership by 2030. This leaves the door open for superpowers like China and Russia to have greater influence in the region.


Since 2009, China has already invested over 30 billion euros in infrastructure, energy, and finance projects across the Balkans and particularly in Serbia and Montenegro. It now has a notable share of several countries’ national debt with around 15 percent in Serbia and Bosnia, over 20 percent in North Macedonia, and over 40 percent in Montenegro. Beijing has also increasingly diversified its interactions with Balkan countries through cultural diplomacy and academic cooperation.


Russia has asserted its influence in the Balkans as part of its strategy to weaken NATO and the EU. It attempted to derail both Montenegro’s and North Macedonia’s accession to NATO and threatened retaliation if Bosnia were to join NATO. Moscow’s strongest relationship in the region is with Serbia, where it has leveraged long-standing cultural and religious ties to inflame nationalist rhetoric and destabilize Serbia’s neighbors. Russia has also made it clear that recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia will be impossible without its approval.


Conclusion


Like much of the Western Balkans, North Macedonia has a history of competing domestic and international claims for self-determination. Its dispute with Greece caused an 11-year delay in its accession to NATO, and its current dispute with Bulgaria has stalled EU accession for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that North Macedonia was a regional frontrunner when it applied for EU membership in 2004. Allowing countries to block accession over contested views on the existence of a national identity and language has troubling implications for a region so rife with ethnic tensions. To respect the right of self-determination, as well as mitigate the increasing influence that external powers have in the Balkans, the EU should act quickly to bring in countries who have repeatedly expressed their commitment to joining the union.


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