Shekerinska for Bloomberg

Republic of Macedonia Eyes NATO to Ward Off Russian Interference

By Slav Okov
August 8, 2017, 1:00 AM GMT+2 August 8, 2017, 2:41 PM GMT+2

The Republic of Macedonia’s new government is stepping up its efforts to join NATO, arguing that membership in the military alliance will protect the Balkan nation from Russia “interfering” in its affairs, the country’s defense minister said.

“Influences interfering in this strategic goal aren’t helpful, and they’re not friendly,” Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska said in an interview in Skopje last week. “We’ve seen some leaks, even before the government was elected, about Russian attempts for influence in key political and security areas. And we have been concerned about them. We believe Macedonian NATO membership can put an end to these attempts.”

After undergoing the first change in leadership in more than a decade in June, the nation of 2 million people is trying to rejuvenate its efforts to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As part of that push, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government is trying to rebuild regional ties after accusing the previous administration of deliberately fueling a naming dispute with Greece dating back to 1991, when the nation broke away from Yugoslavia and called itself Republic of Macedonia. Greece, which blocked its neighbor’s attempts to join NATO because of the dispute, believes that to be a territorial claim on its neighboring northern province of the same name.

Power Struggle

While some countries that gained independence after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s have joined the EU and NATO, laggards like the Republic of Macedonia are now caught in a power struggle between Russia on one side and Europe and the U.S. on the other. Tensions escalated after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, prompting the biggest standoff with the U.S. since the Cold War. They deepened further after U.S. President Donald Trump raised questions about the future of NATO and relations with Moscow.

Russia remains opposed to NATO expansion in Europe and has been accused of trying to derail the region’s western accession efforts. Last year, Montenegro’s government said the Kremlin led a failed coup during parliamentary elections, allegations that Russia denies.

Sekerinska, the 45-year-old deputy chairwoman of the ruling Social Democratic Union, said the cabinet was seeking to improve ties with Greece and commit to domestic reforms within nine months to be able to join NATO “as soon as possible.”

The yield on the Republic of Macedonia’s euro-denominated bonds maturing in July 2023 fell two basis points to an all-time low of 3.87 percent at 2:03 p.m. in Skopje.

Reforms, Budget

The country needs to address issues regarding the rule of law and judicial independence that are now “seen as a problem for Macedonia’s NATO entry,” Sekerinska said.

“We’ll stay committed to making these reforms a reality, but we’ll keep asking NATO member states to appreciate these efforts, take into account the results and make decisions as soon as possible,” she said.

As it strives to follow the example of Montenegro, which joined the alliance in June, the country will start boosting defense spending in 2018 from below 1 percent of gross domestic product, she said.

The government’s efforts may not be rewarded soon, said Dimitar Bechev, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

“Greece has given no indication that it will step back on the name dispute any time soon,” he said by phone.

Sekerinska, who also serves as a deputy premier, hailed last week’s visit of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Montenegro, which she said delivered a “key message” that removed all doubts from earlier this year about whether the U.S. remains committed to NATO and the region.

“Those doubts have disappeared,” she said.