Russia’s Reaction to the EU Integration Process of the Balkans: The Example of North Macedonia

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Besides the Cold War, the Balkan geography has witnessed a struggle for influence between Russia and Western powers after the end of the period. However, the Balkans have historical, cultural and religious significance for Russia. One of the important countries in Balkan geopolitics is North Macedonia. North Macedonia, which gained its independence in 1991 after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, has implemented a policy that has turned its direction to the West since its establishment. [1]

In this context, the Skopje administration, which applied to become a member of the European Union (EU) in 2004, gained the status of a candidate country in 2005. On 24 March 2020, the EU decided to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia and the first Intergovernmental Conference on the initiation of negotiations between the parties was held on 19 July 2022.

On the other hand, the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are the two main elements that play an important role in the integration process of the Skopje administration with the West. However, It can be argued that the integration of North Macedonia with the West rather than the EU took place through NATO. [2]

The problem between the parties regarding the name of the country prevented North Macedonia from joining NATO. However, Athens and Skopje resolved the problem between them within the framework of the Prespa Agreement, which entered into force in 2019, and Macedonia joined NATO in 2020, changing the country’s name to North Macedonia. Therefore, the accession of the Skopje administration to NATO was an important defeat for Russia’s policy towards the Western Balkans. Because the main goal of Moscow is to prevent the integration of the Balkan countries with NATO and the EU.

In addition to all this, it is useful to mention which instruments Russia used during its policy towards North Macedonia. In this context, Russia’s economic presence in North Macedonia is much more limited when compared to other Balkan countries such as Serbia or Montenegro. In other words, the limited economic presence of Russian capital in North Macedonia has limited Moscow’s capacity to exert pressure through political figures. [3]

On the other hand, it should be underlined that North Macedonia has a serious energy dependence on Russia. Before the start of the Russia-Ukraine War on February 24, 2022, it is seen that the country that was most dependent on Russian natural gas in the Balkans with a 100% ratio was North Macedonia. [4] As it can be understood, the main instrument of the Moscow administration in gaining influence over Skopje is not economic investments; it is the energy factor.

On the other hand, it is claimed that Russia cooperates with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Macedonian National Democratic Union (VMRO-DPMNE), which is currently in opposition, in order to intervene in the internal politics of North Macedonia. Standing out with its ultra-nationalist identity, VMRO-DPMNE ruled the country during the Prime Ministership of Nikola Gruevski, especially between 2006 and 2016, and there were no significant developments in the integration of North Macedonia with the West in that process.[5] In this respect, it can be argued that Russia gained influence in the politics of North Macedonia through the VMRO-DPMNE.

On the other hand, after North Macedonia’s accession to NATO, the EU factor began to gain more importance in the country’s foreign policy. However, this time, North Macedonia experienced a similar problem with Greece during the NATO membership process, with Bulgaria during its accession to the EU. In this context, the Sofia administration prevented North Macedonia’s accession negotiations with the EU until July 2022 due to history, language and identity problems.

However, during the EU membership process of Skopje, North Macedonian politicians claimed that Russia was trying to disrupt the Bulgaria-North Macedonia relations. In this context, besides being the former Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Vlado Buchkovski, who was the special representative of Skopje in the disputes with Sofia, claimed that the Kremlin was behind the protests and anti-Bulgarian hysteria in the country on September 20, 2022. Moreover, Buchkovski said, “It is no secret that Russia has long sought to destabilize the Western Balkan countries.” found in the statement. [6]

On the other hand, the attack of Christian Pendikov, the secretary of the Bulgarian Culture Club operating in Ohrid, North Macedonia, in January 2023, led to an increase in tension in the Skopje-Sofia line. In this context, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski pointed out that on January 23, 2023, some Bulgarian politicians, who were carrying out activities against his country, were linked to the Russian Intelligence Services. [7] Therefore, decision makers in North Macedonia have the idea that Russia is trying to sabotage the relations between Skopje and Sofia through various means. For this reason, it should not be overlooked that there is a possibility of Russia interfering in the EU accession process of North Macedonia through Bulgaria.

As a result, although the Russian influence in North Macedonia is less compared to other Balkan countries such as Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is a possibility that the Moscow administration will take initiatives to target Skopje’s integration with the EU in the future.

[1] “North Macedonia”, European Council Council of the European Union,, (Date of Accession: 09.02.2023).

[2] “Greece to Expel Russian Diplomats over Alleged Macedonia Interference”, The Guardian,, (Date of Accession: 09.02.2023).

[3] Mıchal Vit, “Russian Influence in Western Balkan and North Macedonia”, Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej,, (Date of Accession: 09.02.2023).

[4] “North Macedonia, Bosnia and Moldova Most Dependent on Russian Gas”, BNE IntelliNews,, (Date of Accession: 09.02.2023).

[5] Ivan Nikolovski, “Russia Still Has Cards to Play in North Macedonia”, Balkan Insight,, (Date of Accession: 09.02.2023).

[6] “Russia Behind Anti-Bulgarian Hysteria, Says Macedonian Ex-PM”, Euractiv,, (Date of Accession: 09.02.2023).

[7] “North Macedonia’s President Accuses Unnamed Bulgarian Politicians Of Ties With Russian Intelligence”, RFERL,, (Date of Accession: 09.02.2023).

Cemal Ege ÖZKAN
Cemal Ege ÖZKAN
Cemal Ege Özkan, 2019 yılında Ankara Üniversitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Tarih Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Yüksek lisans derecesini, 2022 senesinde aynı üniversitenin Türk İnkılap Tarihi Enstitüsü Atatürk İlkeleri ve İnkılap Tarihi Anabilim Dalı’nda hazırladığı “Türk Siyasi Hayatında Selim Rauf Sarper ve Faaliyetleri” başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Hâlihazırda aynı enstitüde doktora eğitimine devam etmektedir. 2020-2021 yılları arasında Türk Tarih Kurumu Yüksek Lisans Bursiyeri olan Özkan, iyi derecede İngilizce bilmektedir.