Macedonia’s parliament voted on Friday to change their name to the Republic of North Macedonia, putting the ball in Greece’s court for Macedonia’s entrance into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In June, the Greek and Macedonian governments came to a deal that if Macedonia changed their name, Greece would drop their opposition to Macedonian membership in the European Union and NATO. The name change would settle a long-standing dispute, with the Greeks seeing Macedonia’s name as a territorial challenge to the northern Greek province of the same name.
A referendum to change Macedonia’s name was held in September but failed due to lower-than-needed turnout, giving Russia a strategic win. Russia launched an Internet campaign in an attempt to suppress turnout and garner opposition to the name change that ultimately paid off.
Why does this matter?
After the name change, Macedonian membership into the EU and NATO seemed guaranteed. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted his support of the referendum, stating, “NATO strongly supports the full implementation of the agreement, which is an important contribution to a stable and prosperous region.” NATO leaders formally invited Macedonia to join in July.
The collapse of the Greek ruling coalition puts the process into chaos. Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos withdrew his party’s support of the coalition government in protest of the deal. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party holds 145 seats in parliament, just short of an outright majority in the 300-member body. Tsipras has indicated he will replace the Kammenos’s party, the Independent Greeks, with the party of the head of the Greek Armed Services, Evangelos Apostolakis, before the formal vote on Wednesday.
If Tsipras is able to push the name deal though, NATO will continue its expansion. Russia views the expansion of NATO as a direct threat to their security, the reason why they launched a campaign to delegitimize the deal in September. Former Russian ambassador to Macedonia Oleg Shcherbak threatened that Macedonia would be “a legitimate target” were they to change their name. The campaign mirrored similar efforts to meddle in Western democracies, such as their interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and 2017 French presidential election, and their support for Eurosceptic parties across Europe, such as the Alternative for Germany, the Freedom Party of Austria, and the Northern League in Italy.
Russia hopes these campaigns, designed to increase domestic tensions, will cause Western democracies to focus inward, allowing Russia to regain their sphere of influence over former Soviet satellite states. If Tsipras’s party is successful in garnering the votes to back Macedonia’s bid for the EU, there will be a Russian reaction – whatever form that may take.