The Balkan geography has witnessed the struggle of global and regional powers, especially since the end of the Cold War period. Recently, Russia’s expansionist policy in Ukraine has triggered the fault lines in the region again, paving the way for a new polarization. The geography in question has an important geopolitical position in China’s Belt-Road Project. For this reason, China’s interest in the region has continued to increase. In addition, the United States (USA), displaying a more global and institutional appearance under the Joe Biden administration, had some reflections on the Balkan geography. Although this situation is difficult for the European Union (EU), it brings some opportunities. Therefore, the case of the USA, Russia, and China during the epidemic has opened up space for the expansion of the union. Within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) scope, a suitable ground has been established for the Biden administration and the follow-up of common policies for the EU’s enlargement in the Balkan geography. European integration has been successful when channeled or maintained by the United States. For this reason, the Biden administration’s struggle to keep the Western Balkan countries on the agenda is significant for the expansion of the union.
In parallel with this situation, the full membership of North Macedonia is a significant opportunity for the union. Thus, the global image of the union, which was damaged during the epidemic process, will be restored. However, the unstable structure in North Macedonia raises some question marks in this regard. The country in question is located in the heart of the Balkans geostrategically and is in a vital position regionally and globally. For this reason, the EU membership of North Macedonia can change the balance in the Balkans and can be referenced to other candidate countries. Therefore, the recent change of government in North Macedonia brings some risks and opportunities to this process.
Current Distribution in the North Macedonian Parliament
While the Union of Social Democrats of Macedonia (SDSM), the current government, restored confidence in the parliamentary elections held on 15 July 2020, its counterparts lost ground to their opponent. According to the official results, the “We Can” led by SDSM had 46 deputies with 327,408 votes (35.89%). Another Macedonian party, led by the Internal Revolutionary Organization of Macedonia-Macedonian National Democratic Union (VMRO-DPMNE), won 315,344 votes (34.57%) with 44 seats in the parliament with the “Renewal.” Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), the largest Albanian party in the country, won 15 deputies with 104,587 votes (11.48%). Alliance for Albanians-Alternativa parties was represented by 81,620 votes (8.95%), with 12 deputies. The Left (Levica) Party received 37,426 votes (4.1%) and 2 deputies, and the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH) received 13,930 votes (1.53%) and 1 deputy. The Turkish Movement Party (THP) and the Turkish Democratic Party (TDP) also took part in the “We Can” led by SDSM, and they won one deputy each. In the newly formed cabinet, SDSM 11, BDI 6, BESA Movement, and Liberal Democratic Party were represented by 1 ministry. The new cabinet led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev got a vote of confidence from the parliament.
Local Elections and the Established New Cabinet
The second round of local elections held on 31 October 2021 resulted in a major defeat for the government led by Zoran Zaev. While the opposition VMRO-DPMNE coalition increased the number of municipalities it held from 5 to 42, including the capital city Skopje, the ruling party candidates lost a significant part of the 57 municipalities they held and only won 16 municipalities. After his heavy defeat in the local elections, Zaev announced that he resigned from the prime ministership and SDSM party chairmanship. VMRO-DPMNE Leader Christian Mitskoski stated that the current government has lost its legitimacy and that early elections are urgently needed. Zaev’s resignation, on the other hand, has led to an unstable situation in the fragile ruling majority, which survived the pressure of the VMRO-DPMNE-led opposition for a vote of confidence.
As a result of the negotiations in the parliament, 4 deputies of Alternativa, which had been on the opposing party until that time, played a role in the majority in the parliament in the vote of confidence with the support they gave to the current government and the transfer of psychological superiority to the existing power. Dimitar Kovachevski, who played a critical role in the government’s negotiations with Alternativa after Zaev officially resigned as SDSM chairman, won the intra-party elections on 12 December 2021. Subsequently, he took the oath on 17 January 2022, replacing Zaev. In the session attended by 108 deputies in the North Macedonian Assembly, 62 yes and 46 no votes were cast, and the new government was established by the Macedonian Social Democrats Union (SDSM) Chairman Kovachevski was approved. The SDSM, a new government found, consists of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), and Alternativa.
The Role of Albanians in the New Government
Two coalitions led by SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE stand out in the political picture in North Macedonia. While the Union of Social Democrats, which holds power, adopts a political line on the axis of the EU and NATO, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE coalition follows a policy close to Russia.
According to official figures, 65% of the population of North Macedonia is Macedonian, and 25% is Albanian. However, the influence of Albanians in the politics of North Macedonia is far beyond their ratio in the total population. The coming to power of these two alliances in the country’s politics depends on the coalition they formed with the Albanian parties. In other words, the golden share in the politics of North Macedonia is in the hands of the Albanian parties. Albanian parties have close ties to the United States, and they do not hide the relationship in question.
In the newly formed cabinet, the Albanian parties received the benefits of the advantage they gave to the power in the vote of confidence in the parliament.10 of the 20 ministers in the cabinet are of Albanian origin. Granting strategically essential ministries such as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Economy, and Diaspora to the Albanians will be influential in shaping the future of North Macedonia. In addition to the weight of the Albanian ministers in the government, according to the coalition protocol signed, Prime Minister Kovachevski will hand over the prime ministership to a deputy from the BDI 100 days before the end of the government’s mandate. Thus, BDI’s slogan “First Albanian Prime Minister” in the 2020 elections will be implemented. In line with the analyzes made from the Albanian front, Albanians will have more positions than Macedonians in state institutions, with the status of Albanians in the newly established government.
New Government and Foreign Policy
Albanians will have a say in the foreign policy of North Macedonia, thanks to their position in the new cabinet and their long-standing good relations with the United States. However, it is a mystery how effective the Albanian state was in the newly established government. After Zaev’s resignation, while the new prime minister is not yet known, It remains unclear to what extent Albanian President Ilir Meta’s meeting with Kovachevsky during his visit to North Macedonia played a role in the formation of the new cabinet. During the talks, Kovachevsky said, “North Macedonia and Albania have done everything; it’s the turn of the EU.” He almost summarized the policies he would follow after he became Prime Minister. Drawing attention to the fateful partnership of Albania and North Macedonia in the EU process, Kuvachevsky laid the foundations of his first regional alliance before he came to power.
Undoubtedly, the current government’s most important foreign policy problem is relations with Bulgaria. Sofia put forward about 20 conditions that North Macedonia must fulfill for full membership of the EU. The new government in North Macedonia followed an active foreign policy and took steps to improve relations with Bulgaria, which is their country’s most important foreign policy issue. Well-intentioned statements from both sides began to break the ice between the parties. During the visit of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov to Skopje, the two countries agreed to establish working groups in various fields such as infrastructure, culture, economy, education, and trade.
Speaking to BNT during the said visit, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, announced that they would appoint an ambassador to Sofia after two years and made the following statement:
“We now want to join the EU within Yugoslavia. We want to develop our relationship in this direction. All the issues inherited from Yugoslavia’s attitude towards Bulgaria should not be handed over to North Macedonia.”
Ali Ahmeti, the leader of DUI, the largest Albanian party in North Macedonia, called for the acceptance of Bulgarian Prime Minister Petkov’s demands, including adding the Bulgarian nation to the preamble of the constitution. Ahmeti, the leader of DUI, whose influence in the SDSM-led coalition government is growing, made the statement after meeting with Petkov. As a result of the rapprochement of the two countries, the governments held a joint meeting. At the meeting, where the importance of European integration was emphasized, attention was drawn to the high-level diplomacy traffic between the parties in a short time, and these developments were found promising for the future of relations.
In addition to the softening in relations with Bulgaria, which is the biggest obstacle to the integration of North Macedonia into Europe, its relations with NATO also gained momentum with the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. Prime Minister of North Macedonia Kovachevski paid a two-day visit to Brussels. Here he first met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. At the meeting attended by Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani and Defense Minister Slavyanka Petrovska, Kovachevski emphasized the strategic goal of North Macedonia to become a member of the alliance at the NATO headquarters in Brussels and stated that they continue the modernization process of the army in order to provide military integration to the alliance. At the meeting, it was emphasized that North Macedonia’s NATO membership contributed to the regional stability in the Western Balkans and that great progress was made in cooperation with neighboring countries and especially with the alliance powers. During his meeting with NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg, Kovachevski added that the Ukraine crisis should be resolved through diplomacy.
Local elections held in North Macedonia resulted in a heavy defeat for the current government. The ruling party lost many municipalities, especially big cities such as Skopje, Ohrid, and Manastır, to the opposition. The tendency of the opposition to the current governments in North Macedonia to be formed through local governments can set an example for the elections to be held in Serbia in April 2022. Just like in North Macedonia, it is a strong possibility that the current power in Serbia will take a heavy blow in the local governments with the unification of the opposition voters in the metropolises. Although the local elections in North Macedonia resulted in the resignation of the current prime minister, the party maintained its power with the support of the Albanians.
It is against the natural flow of life to interpret this support to the current government in North Macedonian politics independently of the USA. However, it is a question of how long this situation will continue. As a matter of fact, the pro-Russian VMRO-DPMNE alliance, which is in opposition, seems to be ahead in the opinion polls. In addition, it is a matter of curiosity how the current government will overcome the energy crisis, which is especially felt in the Balkans. In the current conjuncture where the Ukraine crisis broke out, it should not be forgotten that North Macedonia is a country that is 100% dependent on Russia in terms of natural gas.
While the tension between Russia and Ukraine is increasing day by day, the crisis has started to become a burden on the Balkan geography with each passing day. The Balkans is close to witnessing new power struggles between the USA/NATO and Russia. Continuing military activity in the Balkans, US military shipments to Albania and Kosovo and Britain’s attempts to increase its military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina point to a new security dilemma between the West and Russia.
The negotiations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria should also be considered within this framework. As a country in the heart of the Balkans, North Macedonia is one of the countries that will be most affected by the crisis in question, with its geographical location and cosmopolitan structure. As a matter of fact, forming a front against Russia’s policies in the Balkans may come to the fore. North Macedonia may draw attention as the new base of the security dilemma between Russia and the USA against the Iskender-M missiles that Russia plans to deploy to this country after the elections to be held in Serbia. In this case, it can be predicted that the EU membership processes of other candidate countries in the region, especially North Macedonia, may accelerate due to security concerns.
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