Foreign policy and defense
North Macedonia is a nation in Southern Europe. Its capital city is Skopje. Ever since independence from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the main foreign policy goal has been membership of the EU and NATO defense alliance. After the change of name to Northern Macedonia, the NATO membership became a reality in March 2020, and the country has embarked on the long road towards EU membership.
Greece has long put a stop to Macedonia’s quest for EU and NATO membership. The reason was the country name, which according to the Greeks itself constituted a provocation. The contradictions go back to the time before the First World War, when historic Macedonia was shared between Greece and Serbia. After the war, the Slavic part of Macedonia was part of the new state formation which eventually became known as Yugoslavia.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Macedonia for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
When Macedonia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece refused to recognize the new state. The Greeks pointed out that the name Macedonia belongs to the Greek cultural heritage. The Greeks had the same claim on the Virginia Star that the Macedonians chose to have on their flag. Greece also objected to the wording of the draft Macedonian constitution which it believed could be interpreted as territorial claims in parts of northern Greece.
Greece demanded that Macedonia change its name before membership in the EU and NATO could become relevant. Only in the summer of 2018 did the countries reach an agreement that Macedonia should change its name to Northern Macedonia (read the agreement text here). Thus, the Greek government was ready to release its opposition to a Macedonian accession to the EU and NATO. Nationalist groups in both countries, however, strongly opposed the settlement.
In early 2019, the exchange was approved by both governments and Northern Macedonia signed an agreement with NATO that was expected to lead to membership already this year. The process took a little longer over time, but on March 27, 2020, Northern Macedonia became NATO’s 30th member state. Three other states that were also part of the former Yugoslav republics were already members: Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro.
Moreover, the day before the NATO membership was a fact, the EU had finally agreed to allow Northern Macedonia, as well as Albania, to start negotiations on membership. However, no start date for the negotiations was set and the final membership is still several years ahead.
The name dispute led to Macedonia being adopted as a member of the UN in 1993 under the provisional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The dispute between the countries was partially settled in 1995, after the Republic of Macedonia introduced a wording in its constitution that the country has no territorial claims on other states. In addition, the flag was changed by replacing the 16-pointed Virginia star, the weapon of ancient Macedonia, with a sun with eight rays. Macedonia and Greece established diplomatic relations while launching UN-led talks on a definitive solution to the name issue. The talks were down for long periods but resumed in early 2018.
The conflict over the name has long prevented Macedonia’s proximity to NATO and the EU. At the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, Albania and Croatia were invited to join, while Macedonia, despite having implemented all the necessary military reforms, was forced to wait due to demands from Greece. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague declared in 2011 that Greece’s blocking of Macedonia’s NATO membership was a violation of the agreement negotiated by the UN in 1995. However, the Court did not order Greece to stop Macedonia’s membership. Following the agreement on the change of name in 2018, NATO invited Macedonia to apply for membership, and by 2020, Northern Macedonia became a member.
With the EU, in the spring of 2001, Macedonia signed a so-called Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). In March 2004, Macedonia submitted an application for membership and in December 2005 was accepted as a candidate country. But the EU wants to see further legal and economic reforms, as well as tougher corruption, before formal membership negotiations can begin. Prior to the change of name, the EU announced that membership negotiations with Northern Macedonia could begin in 2019. But in March 2020, the EU formally agreed to start negotiations.
In December 2009, the EU abolished the visa requirement for Macedonian citizens when traveling within the Schengen area.
Concerns in the region
The events of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s fundamentally affected what was then Macedonia. When Yugoslavia collapsed, almost all of the Yugoslav trade ceased and the wars made Macedonia, which lacks its own coast, difficult to maintain its foreign trade. When full war erupted in Kosovo in 1998 and scores of Kosovo Albanians fled into Macedonia, many Macedonians feared that the Macedonian Albanians would like to join a Greater Albania, but the fears did not come true.
When Serbia’s president Slobodan Milošević lost power in 2000, tensions in the region diminished. Serbia offered negotiations on an equitable distribution of former Yugoslav assets and cooperation in a number of areas. Relations with Serbia deteriorated temporarily when Macedonia, in October 2008, together with Montenegro, recognized Kosovo as an independent state after a large majority in Parliament voted for recognition.
With Bulgaria, in the autumn of 2012, a conflict arose after Macedonia accused Bulgaria of sending Macedonian Jews to concentration camps in Germany during the Second World War. Bulgaria’s then regime supported Nazi Germany during the war and occupied for most years most of today’s Macedonia. Unlike Greece, in 1991 Bulgaria quickly recognized the country under the name “Republic of Macedonia”, but it does not recognize Macedonian as its own language or Macedonia as its own people, but only as a kind of Bulgarian / Bulgarian (see Population and Languages). However, the two countries entered into a friendship agreement in 2017 and promised to leave historical contradictions behind.
Northern Macedonia’s defense was formerly part of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Nowadays, the country has its own defense force serving both Macedonians and Albanians, even though the Albanians are under-represented in the officer corps. General military duty was abolished in 2007. The country has participated in EU / NATO civil / military operations in, for example, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan.
With EU support, police have been trained to, among other things, monitor borders and put an end to organized international crime. However, smuggling of people and drugs and more continues to be a problem. In the mid-2010s, tens of thousands of refugees came, mainly from the war in Syria and Afghanistan, who came from Turkey and Greece via the so-called Balkan route. However, most of them moved on from Macedonia and the Balkan route was closed in the spring of 2016.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 8,000 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 1.0 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 3.1 percent (2017)