North Macedonia: The most prominent new ground for the future development of NATO
On March 27, 2020, North Macedonia became the newest member of the NATO Alliance. The procedure of its ascension rapidly began after the 2018 Prespa Agreement with Greece. The country ofﬁcially renamed itself as the Republic of North Macedonia, solving a long-time dispute with its neighbor, who had vetoed the ascension of North Macedonia back in 2008 at the 20th NATO Summit in Bucharest. Recently, North Macedonia hosted “North Macedonia 2021”, the 19th disaster response exercise organized by NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) around the cities of Ohrid and Struga. It was the ﬁrst time NATO’s EADRCC disaster response exercise was held on the ground of a NATO member state. It was also co- organized by the Crisis Management Centre of North Macedonia. This opportunity that was given to North Macedonia proves the efﬁciency of NATO to support its members in any given situation and threat, but furthermore, it demonstrates something more signiﬁcant. The newest member state of the NATO alliance now poses as a fertile ground for the expansion of NATO Innovation Network and can host important future operations that nonetheless can be proven beneﬁcial for both sides. With that being said, there are opportunities for both NATO and North Macedonia, with the latest becoming a potential stronghold of common values and beliefs in the Balkan region.
During the Yugoslav Wars, the North Macedonian Republic was the only former republic of Yugoslavia that managed to secede from the federation without being part of any side. Its neutral stance and advocating for a peaceful resolution were quickly noticed by NATO that hoped to ﬁnd a common ground to end the bloodshed in the region. In 1995, North Macedonia joined the Partnership for Peace, a program initiative from NATO that aimed at establishing a foundation of trust
between NATO and European countries, erasing any possible drawn lines that could separate Europe between the West and the East. The positive ground in North Macedonia allowed NATO to send a signiﬁcant amount of aid to the country, to deal with the wave of refugees coming from Kosovo. A few years later, in 2001, the help from NATO towards the Macedonian army was critical, in order to stop an insurgency from the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA). There were claims that the NLA was trying to succeed the northern part of the country that was predominant with ethnic Albanians. A year later, the insurgency group signed a peace treaty and handed over their weapons to NATO. This ﬁrst military confrontation of North Macedonia as a new and independent state opened the path to close cooperation with NATO, especially in Afghanistan. Since 2001, Macedonian military personnel have joined forces with NATO in important missions such as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and later on with the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) which was the successor operation for ISAF up until 2021. Since that time, North Macedonia managed to sign the Prespa Agreement with Greece and ofﬁcially join NATO. Now North Macedonia proves once more the success of its cooperation with NATO at the EADRCC disaster response exercise, which was co-organized by the Crisis Management Centre of North Macedonia.
For three days, 20-23 of September, 27 Allies, and 16 regional and international organizations came together to demonstrate their capabilities of cooperating in cases of natural disasters. In addition, these three days were also focused on different scenarios that involved search and rescue missions, response to chemical and biological incidents, as well as counter-disinformation campaigns against fake news and propaganda. Cooperation between the Southeast European nations was always vital. Now with the integration of North Macedonia in the NATO alliance, there is a strong chain link from Montenegro, all the way to Turkey, that allows NATO to safeguard the common interests of the member-states, and enhance the
defense capabilities of each member as well as innovation initiatives. In the case of North Macedonia, NATO had the opportunity to use a new system called Next- Generation Incident Command System (NICS), which assists and coordinates real-time disaster responses, facilitating the ﬂow of useful information through a web-based platform amongst Balkan nations. Such initiatives could ﬁnally be achieved with concentrated coordination among the NATO member-states of the Balkan region.
Furthermore, there are more opportunities to take advantage of the fresh ground in the Balkan region by promoting the defense innovation ecosystem. NATO can operate in North Macedonia with the same concept of entrepreneurism, that was proposed by the Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter suggested in his political- economic theory that the actions of entrepreneurs will be the vital components that will allow the economy of a state to develop, giving life to goods and products. His idea revolved around the aspect of innovation which he characterized as the creation of new combinations that could break the usual function of an economy. Along the same lines, NATO can be seen as an entrepreneur organization in terms of defense innovation ecosystem. Of course, it is important to note that any establishment of a defense system lies entirely in the jurisdiction of that particular state. Nonetheless, NATO still plays a signiﬁcant role by supporting and connecting those local ecosystems and offering traineeships, guidance and promoting cooperation.
The scientiﬁc and technological aspects, combined with innovation can largely be promoted by one of NATO’s “agents” such as the Allied Command Transformation (ACT), which plays a crucial role in promoting and advocating advanced defense systems, transforming NATO’s military structures and capabilities. In North Macedonia, there can be a coordinated approach composed of two basic steps. First
of all, there is a need for advanced cooperation between NATO and the academic sector of the country. This can be achieved by establishing speciﬁc educational programs that aim at the technical literacy for the Allied staff, and interconnected courses at NATO’s academies. It is important to note that already General staff members from the North Macedonian Army have participated in educational courses at NATO Communications and Information Academy in Portugal, where they were instructed in administration courses in NATO cryptography. These kinds of courses can also take place in North Macedonia shortly, where there is the capacity to even host the next NATO Innovation Challenge, inviting experts from the public and private sector. As the newest member state of NATO and situated right in the middle of the “heart” of the Balkans, the country can become with no doubt the next innovation hub and attract experts who are willing to share their insight in improving the alliance.
The second step and equally important is the support from the local government. North Macedonia has been a valuable asset within its capabilities for NATO. Now, as an ofﬁcial member, it can offer its services to the alliance and expand the expertise of NATO. In the center of the country, situated near the town of Negotino, the Krivolak Military Training Center is considered to be the largest military center in Southeast Europe. Established in 1970, this 22.546 hectares of space can provide multiple training courses while hosting several allied soldiers. The facility also serves as a valuable asset in countering the Russian inﬂuence in neighboring Serbia, which has hosted numerous training exercises in the region and what some experts call war games. Thanks to the agreement between Athens and Skopje, North Macedonia has fulﬁlled its commitment to regional stabilization and now holds the key for future operations, summits, conferences, and training for its army, which it welcomes with open arms.
Despite some criticism from some analysts regarding the military capabilities of North Macedonia and its contributions to NATO, the future looks brighter for the small Balkan country. It is true that as things stand now, the army of North Macedonia lacks signiﬁcant numbers, compared with other state members. In addition, it will be unrealistic to expect it to commit to spending 2% of its GDP on military defense. Although the process of innovation and change might come slowly in North Macedonia, the fact that the country is part of NATO can only be attributed to positive steps. North Macedonia has already helped the Alliance with various international missions and now shifts its focus to more pragmatic issues in its internal affairs. For a country that was deeply torn apart between ethnic tensions, NATO serves as an opportunity to unite the country and focus on its economic and political prosperity. Similar to other member states such as Romania or Bulgaria, belonging to the NATO alliance makes the path for a potential European Union integration more possible. In the case of NATO, North Macedonia serves as a training ground for innovation networks and it manages to close a signiﬁcant gap in the Balkan peninsula, which right now seems more secure than ever, especially from a geopolitical point of view.