The country stepped back from the brink. And on Sunday, after a long and tortuous journey, the country holds presidential elections that the government hopes will finally unlock the Holy Grail: membership in NATO and the begin of talks to join the European Union.
The EU and the U.S. were intimately engaged in the peace talks. And they have stood ever since as guarantors of the deal that ended the fighting. The EU even made and dispatched its first-ever autonomous army mission to the country to keep the peace.
As Europe’s migrant crisis mounted, however, the continent came to count on Mr. Gruevski to control the flow of people into the EU. “The EU made ‘stabilitocracy,’ not a democracy, its policy,” says Jasmin Mujanović, an expert on Southeast Europe at Elon University in North Carolina.
But when a Macedonian wiretapping scandal resulted in street protests and then blew up into a full-scale political crisis in 2016, it was again the EU and the U.S. that sponsored interparty talks. Those in turn ended in fresh and relatively clean elections that led to an opposition majority. And it was these two partners who used heavy diplomatic pressure to enforce the election leads to the face of government resistance, based on people involved at the time.
Indeed, that promise played a significant role in holding the country together. It gave common purpose to the ethnic Macedonian majority and the ethnic Albanian minority, says Erwan Fouéré, a former EU ambassador to Skopje. “Had there not been the prospect of EU membership, which united the country, there would have been much greater fragility,” says Mr. Fouéré. “It was vital, pivotal.”
That prospect was also the encouraging force behind the reforms that Skopje has been applying, with varying degrees of good results, on the political and economic front. The goal was to turn North Macedonia into a sufficiently democratic, free, and law-abiding country for the EU to be ready to imagine it as a member of the Union.
“The only fuel that makes the transformation engine run in this region is EU aspirations and monitoring,” says Mr. Osmani.
Simultaneously, few people in North Macedonia feel any specific ties with or sympathy for Russia, unlike in neighboring Serbia, where Moscow’s impact is strong. Nor is the ethnic Macedonian majority specifically open to impact from Turkey, unlike in Muslim-majority Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
How much North Macedonia will be a section of Europe is still an open question. After repeated delays, the government had likely to be given a firm start date for accession negotiations when EU heads of government meet in June. But that expectation is looking shaky, especially since French President Emmanuel Macron is insisting the EU should emerge from its current disarray before enhancing its membership.