Part 2. Macedonia
Global problems of Serbia, its years-long resistance to the West’s pressure and efforts to resolve the Kosovo and Metohija issue, often overshadow the hardships that its closest neighbors experience. Meantime, these hardships may spark tensions able to spill over into the other Balkan states amid indifference of Big Powers to these countries. One of such at first sight “unnoticeable” countries is Macedonia, where unsettled territorial and economic issues regularly trigger serious domestic political clashes.
It is no secret that Skopje sees itself as part of united Europe. Whether Brussels is ready to see it in Europe is a disputable issue. Europe is concerned about unresolved political issues and gradual Islamization of Macedonia. In this light, cash-bearing Europeans prefer controlling the situation at a distance by expanding their economic influence and permanent political pressure on Macedonia to settling issues within EU jurisdiction. However, it appears that such “control” no longer downplays domestic and foreign policy issues of Macedonia and even creates more tension in the country. Just recall the latest political crisis in that not large country. Many experts blame the West saying Brussel’s failed diplomacy of the last two years has resulted in serious discrepancies inside the country. Everything started with some peaceful assemblies that have ended (if ended at all) in interethnic conflict and bloodshed in the parliament. All this happened in the country that became economically dependent on EU yet long ago. Hence, Europe should not overlook what happens there.
According to data available, the EU accounts for about 70% of foreign trade turnover of Macedonia and over 75% of accumulated foreign direct investments (for instance, U.S. accounts for less than 2% of Macedonia’s foreign trade turnover). The EU allocates nearly 100 million EUR per year to Skopje for European integration projects. In addition to it, most of the large Macedonian parties and over 70% of the country’s population are committed to European integration. Nevertheless, this policy does not help maintaining peace and stability in the country where ethnic discrepancies have been quite rate during the recent years, unless provoked by radicals. For example, archenemies Nikola Gruevski (Macedonian) and Ali Ahmeti (Albanian) once cooperated with each other: in 2008-2016, Ahmeti’s Party was in a coalition with Gruevski and he was deputy prime minister.
These events have proved that neither Russia nor Europe (much less the U.S., though it tried to help settle the latest political crisis in Macedonia) show any serious interest in Macedonia. Skopje is frustrated with such attitude of European officials. Yet last November, President of Macedonia Gjorge Ivanov told The Daily Telegraph: “The European Union is leaving the door open to Chinese and Russian strategic encroachment in the Balkans because of its abject failure to engage and invest in the region…Until recently, we haven’t seen any Russian investment in Macedonia. But as Europe is withdrawing - or rather not keeping its promises about making the Balkans part of the European Union - it’s like a call from the EU to come and fill in…"
It is worth mentioning that many in EU share the Macedonian president’s views. In June 2017, at the EU Summit, the situation in Macedonia was put on agenda. British officials engaged in security issues warned against growing risk of Russian interference with the country’s affairs in order to prevent its European integration. Besides, Europe is concerned about China’s growing investments in Macedonia within “16+1” format (countries of Central Asia and East Europe). Europe’s concerns are not groundless. China boosts the cooperation with Macedonia, for the latter is a bridge linking the port facilities it has bought in Greece and its economic interests throughout Southern Europe. Skopje, in turn, flirts with Beijing to tease Brussels. In late November 2017, after his meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang behind-the-scenes of “16+1” meeting, Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev said cooperation of China and countries of the region is the key to the development of Macedonia. The Chinese leadership plans to increase its presence in the Balkan country, including through investment in large infrastructure development projects that may become part of the Chinese-European maritime and overland transport route. For instance, China has supplied Macedonian railways with electric trains, built motorways and invested in energy infrastructure of the country for years. In this light, idleness of Europe seems at least illogical.
Despite few sources of information and data available, Macedonia’s aspiration for Europe appears to have brought it a little different result than the political and economic elite of the country anticipated. Skopje signed the Association Agreement with the EU yet in 2001, which resulted in a growth of GDP per capita from $1875 in 2001 to $5500 in 2017. Perhaps, this is all the benefit Macedonia has received from its rapprochement with EU, as unemployment has decreased by 7% only (from 30.5% in 2001 to 23.4% in 2017) and European investments have increased insignificantly (from $215 million in 2001 to $257 million in 2015). Since the beginning of 2000s, the situation in Macedonia has changed, as local economy in almost all fields has been privatized (mostly by foreign investors). In exchange for it, Skopje received generous financing from various international financial organizations. This has resulted in a permanent growth of the state debt (from 114 billion Macedonian denars in 2001 to 252 billion denars (about $5 billion) in 2017).
At present, various countries are present in the Macedonian market, with Greece holding the largest share in it. In particular, Greek companies own former government-run enterprises (such as OKTA oil refinery built yet in the Soviet time, now privatized by Hellenic Petroleum). U.S. has invested in the chemical industry, namely pharmaceutical companies. Turkey owns fuel and lubricant and plastic producing enterprises, and Italy has invested in technical glass production industry. As to the financial system of Macedonia, it is fully controlled by large foreign banks. The recent years’ surveys showed that foreign banking companies accounted for about 80% of total banking organizations in Macedonia in terms of quantity and assets.
Unlike its Western partners, Russia has made just not large investments in the oil and gas and energy sectors in Macedonia – Lukoil, Gazprom, Power Machines, Stroytransgaz and some other companies are present there. Russia’s influence on the economy and policy of Macedonia is still insignificant, as Moscow has no pressure levers on Skopje. For instance, Moscow could embargo export of agricultural products from Macedonia, but Russia accounts for just 0.5% of total export of agricultural products from Macedonia (mainly nuts and citruses). Such figures are too small to speak about Kremlin’s economic pressure on Macedonia. Meantime, Brussels has a very big economic influence on Skopje.
There is something that Brussels does not pay enough attention to – the growing influence of Turkey in Macedonia. After years of cautious policy in the Balkans, Turkey’s leadership started visiting Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo more and more frequently, showing their concern about the issues of these countries. Recep Erdogan granted non-visa travel or liberated visa regime with a range of countries in South-Eastern Europe (including Macedonia). Turkey started expanding its influence on the economic, social and cultural development of Macedonia, paying special attention to science, education, medical industry and charity issues. For instance, Turkey plans development of joint history books with Macedonia. On January 30, 2009, a representation of the Union of Turkish Civic NGOs was set up, and many Turkish businesspersons have been financing establishment of international schools and universities to improve Turkey’s image in the eyes of the Macedonian people. Since 2010, TİKA, an organization established at the Foreign Ministry of Turkey, has funded restoration of Ottoman architectural monuments in the territory of Macedonia, Albania and some other Balkan states. Recently, the foreign ministers of Macedonia and Turkey made a joint statement highlighting the centuries-old friendship and fraternity of the two countries. This means that Skopje is interested in Turkey’s patronage. What is it fraught with? Perhaps, this will result in further Islamization and consequently radicalization of public relations, considering that Albanian nationalists who enjoy Ankara’s support have made claims to Macedonia yet long ago.
Summarizing, Macedonia is a territory in the Balkans that has been overlooked by EU, U.S. and Russia. Sooner or later, it will fall under influence of other regional and global powers. The fate of the entire region depends on the power that will finally take control over Skopje. One does not need to be an expert to understand this. Just look at the map…