NATO’s 29 members and the soon-to-be-renamed Republic of North Macedonia signed the country’s NATO Accession Protocol in Brussels on February 6. Since the Name Dispute with neighbouring Greece is largely resolved at least until the next Greek elections, this protocol launches a process that may take a full year and will eventually make the Republic of North Macedonia the Alliance’s 30th member.

In Athens, the Greek Parliament debated and approved February 8 the NATO Accession Protocol for North Macedonia, a process that all other NATO member states must duplicate to approve the alliance’s formal expansion.  Greece itself is now in election mode, although no dates have been set, thanks in large part to the Prespes Agreement.

NATO launches a ratification blitz

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg moved at a breakneck pace to set the Accession Protocol signing ceremony so quickly after Greece ratified the Prespes Agreement on January 25 after two weeks of dramatic political developments and gas-filled anti-Prespes protests.   Representing North Macedonia, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov praised Prime Ministers Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras for getting the Prespes Agreement passed despite dogged opposition in both countries, which continues. Dimitrov said, “what they dared to do was to invest political capital for the benefit of the two people of the two nations, and the whole region, and NATO as a family and alliance.”

Dimitrov arrived in Brussels for the signing ceremony directly after what has been termed “a working visit” to Washington, following a pattern seen the week before when NATO’s Stoltenberg returned from Washington to circulate the next working day the draft NATO Accession Protocol to NATO Ambassadors.  To many, this set of Washington visits is more than simply coincidental.

The actual NATO accession process requires the completion of technical negotiations between NATO and a new potential member, in addition to ratification of its accession by the legislatures of all 29 other member states.  North Macedonia will need to commit to specific policy reforms and pledge that its defence spending will reach at least 1% of GDP within five years.  The country spends less than 1% of GDP now on defence and faces serious rule of law issues.  Speaking in late 2018, US officials estimated that the full procedure for NATO admission would take North Macedonia close to a year to complete.  The US Department of Defence has determined that North Macedonia is largely ready to join NATO, based on its technical evaluations of the country’s defence structures and policies, since at least 2008.

It remains to be seen whether Stoltenberg will be able to press NATO members to move faster on their domestic ratification procedures.  In the event Zaev calls snap elections to strengthen his position at home, this would clearly be helpful.

Deeply divided Greece moves to ratify North Macedonia’s NATO accession

The Greek Parliament debated and approved late February 8 the NATO Accession Protocol for North Macedonia, rushing to be the first country to complete the ratification (this step is actually required under the Prespes Agreement before the name “North Macedonia” is made official in Skopje).

After a very stormy debate, Greece’s SYRIZA government mustered 153 votes needed for passage (of the 300 seat Greek Parliament). Of 294 MPs present, the vote tally came to 153/140/1. The leader of The Independent Greeks (ANEL) party Panos Kammenos has argued that a reinforced majority of 180 should be required for a commitment that cedes national sovereignty, as spelt out under the Greek Constitution, a suggestion Greece’s SYRIZA Government continues to stonewall despite its questionable legal case for doing so.

Kammenos and ANEL must now deal with the loss of the shrinking party’s status as a “parliamentary group” in the Greek legislature, which is basically a sideshow unless it triggers other developments. Five MPs are needed to hold “parliamentary group” status, and Kammenos lost his required fifth MP, Thanasis Papachristopoulos who resigned February 8 after voting for the ratification. The party was already in deep trouble as it suffered critical defections earlier in January in the two other Prespes-related votes, which Kammenos has termed as “bribes” in exchange for promises of future posts. Kammenos also called Tsipras “a cold assassin” for his key role in demolishing ANEL.

In the ratification debate, New Democracy’s President Kyriakos Mitsotakis reminded the Greek Parliament that his party will not relinquish the right to veto the accession of North Macedonia to the European Union in the future, once the process begins.

Earlier in the week the government basically received the equivalent of a “power of attorney” from six independent and breakaway MPs from the ANEL and other small parties that had supported SYRIZA in the ratification of the Prespes Agreement in January.

This alignment with SYRIZA also had the effect of changing the government’s status in Greece’s parliament from minority (145/300) to majority (151/300), although as of yet there has been no reshuffle of ministerial slots that will likely include some of these MPs in a newly-formed “coalition” government as a reward for their votes on Prespes.  These machinations, while not illegal, have also incensed a segment of the Greek population, many of whom are increasingly demanding elections.

Elections are coming……but when?

Nobody should forget that the entire race to resolve the Name Dispute in 2018 was based on the knowledge that 2019 would be an election year in Greece, with the potential for snap elections in North Macedonia as well.  As such, everything connected with the Prespes Agreement must be viewed through the electoral prism in both countries.  There is no evidence whatsoever that signing the Prespes Agreement earned Tsipras and SYRIZA any measurable number of votes, in fact, most believe the opposite to be true.

The speaker of North Macedonia’s Parliament announced February 8 that Presidential elections are being scheduled for April 21. The current hard-line VMRO-DPMNE nationalist President, Gjorge Ivanov, has been at odds with the key compromises on the new name included in the Prespes Agreement from the beginning of the negotiations.

Seriously trailing in the polls since before the Prespes agreement was signed in June 2018, Tsipras nevertheless succeeded in pulling off the ratification with a 3-vote margin (153/300) on January 25 without triggering immediate elections over the issue.  The Prespes deal should be considered a personal victory for Tsipras alone, who sacrificed almost everything to obtain it – his coalition partner of four years, his foreign minister who negotiated the agreement, and whatever was left of his already low credibility with the Greek public, agitated over what is widely seen as capitulation to an inferior neighboring state and especially foreign pressure, resistance to which had once been Tsipras’ trademark.

Knowing what lies ahead when the Greek electorate is given its opportunity to react, Tsipras and his party faithful are now basically dependent on foreign support and are thus desperate to direct public funds, wherever possible, to influence a few groups of undecided voters.

While there is no clarity as to whether national elections will be held earlier than October, local analysts are increasingly convinced the SYRIZA government will opt to call them in May in concert with the scheduled Euro elections and Greek municipal elections, or perhaps linked to the planned runoffs a week later.   It is also becoming more difficult to disguise election preparations under the guise of the required work for the municipal and Euro elections, and every new economic proposal Tsipras announces, justified or not, is being viewed by creditors and Greek voters as the traditional Greek electoral “handout.”