At the end of March North Macedonia managed to reach the goal it strived for the whole period of its independence and become the thirtieth member of NATO alliance. Together with Albania, North Macedonia keeps strengthening ties with the West and is on the way to joining the EU. The integration of Balkans into the Western economic and military system promises stabilization of the region and provokes Russia to meddle in inner affairs of Balkan states for the purpose of gaining the control over the region.
To prevent North Macedonia’s NATO accession, Russia supported Macedonian radical groups as well as authoritarian political forces. To join the Alliance, the country had to put an end to years-long historical name dispute with Greece. The process, aimed to reach arrangement between two countries, was accompanied by large protests in Athens. Later Greece blamed two Russian diplomats for the sponsorship of the protesters, for meddling in the internal affairs of Greece and expelled these people from the country. The other two Russian ambassadors were banned from entering Greece. Besides, the accusation of promoting Russian interests on the territory of Greece was made against the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.
In its turn, North Macedonia pointed at Russian disinformation campaign, financing radicals and violent protests aimed to obstruct the name deal. Earlier a Russian-Greek businessman Ivan Savvidis, “sympathetic to the Russian cause”, appeared at the center of a scandal when Macedonian investigators blamed him of illegal application of more than $350,000 to interfere with referendum on the name change. Moscow also uses its embassy and consulates in North Macedonia as bases for intelligence-gathering operations.
After North Macedonia eventually joined NATO, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a comment saying that this membership gives “no added value to European, regional or national security” but “creates new lines of separation.” Wherever it possible, Russia pays extra attention to the increase of funds spent on defense, required by the Alliance, emphasizing on inability of North Macedonia to fulfill its obligations. Compared to other NATO members, North Macedonia is a weak country of only 2 million citizens, 8,000 active-duty soldiers armed primarily with outdated weapon; a landlocked state, with poor developed political institutions. As of 2018, it spent only 1% of its GDP on defense – being a member of the Alliance, each country is obliged to spend 2%. Within NATO, only neighboring Albania has a lower per capita GDP. Moscow is not able to hide its resentment at North Macedonia’s accession. In spite of gaps in economic and defense industry of North Macedonia, the expansion of NATO’s influence in Balkans weakens Russian one in the region.
Russia exacerbates ethnic conflicts to destabilize Balkan countries. In 2017, when North Macedonia experienced prolonged political crisis, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the EU supports a so called “Tirana Platform”, the idea that would lead to the federalization of the country through the creation of separate Albania region. “Greater Albania” was used as a part of disinformation campaign to strengthen disagreement in the region in the context North Macedonia’s prospects of joining the EU. In the same way Russia may provoke conflicts in Serbia, in unstable Presevo Valley directly bordering with North Macedonia; or the unresolved Kosovo dispute. In any case, North Macedonia remains vulnerable to any process of such a kind.
Despite the fact that the most countries on the Balkans have already become NATO members, the region is still highly vulnerable to disinformation and violent conflicts based on ethnic diversity. The escalation may take place on the eve of significant decisions, like the upcoming parliamentary elections in North Macedonia. Once declaring the intention to join NATO, a country becomes an object of “close attention” of Moscow. In 2008 and 2014 Russia invaded two countries that declared in prospect to join the Alliance. And even though military aggression towards Georgia and Ukraine was not a direct attack on a NATO member, it further demonstrated Western impotence in the face of Russian arbitrariness. Meanwhile, the citizens of only three countries, the Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Lithuania, of 24 European NATO members said their country should respond with military force if Russia were to attack a NATO member in Eastern Europe.
Strengthening the relationship of North Macedonia with NATO and the EU will help these alliances to maintain and expend their influence on the Balkans. To ensure the safety of Europe, it is necessary to “displace” Russia from the region.