The diplomatic conflict between Macedonia and Serbia: what happened?

Wed 30 Aug 2017

The diplomatic conflict between Macedonia and Serbia: what happened?

On Sunday 20 August, the Serbian government unexpectedly withdrew its diplomatic staff from Skopje. The Foreign Ministry issued the order under the Vienna Convention. The following day, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said that the withdrawal happened upon receiving confidential information about “offensive actions” planned against Serbia. They added that foreign powers were also involved, however they refused to give more details on whether Macedonia was involved and which foreign powers were involved.

Speculations in the media
On Tuesday, the Serbian media accused Macedonia of tapping Serbian officials’ communications. The Macedonian government did not want to comment, but stated that it would like to build good relations with all of its neighbours.

In contrast, Serbia's pro-government media published a barrage of articles supporting Nicola Gruevski against his opponent, Zoran Zaev. In May, the former ruling party in Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE, led by Gruevski, was replaced with Zaev’s Social Democratic Party (SDSM). The articles fuelled paranoid claims that Zaev, working with Western allies in the US and EU, aimed to commit national treason and give undeserved rights to Macedonia's large Albanian community. The current Serbian government aimes to protect the Serbian nation and people, rather than strengthening its ties with the West. The articles, regularly republished by Russian media and by their equivalents in Macedonia, emphasised the notion that Macedonia did not have to take a Euro-Atlantic path and that Vladimir Putin's Russia might serve as an alternative ally.

Eventually Serbia’s diplomatic staff returned to Skopje on 24 August. The President and Foreign Minister insisted that Serbia wished to maintain good relations with Skopje, however they admitted that the relations had changed in recent months.

Serbia: between Russia and the West
The stance, taken by Macedonia’s recently elected Social Democratic government regarding the EU and NATO, is anything but traditional. Zaev renewed Macedonia’s goal of Euro-Atlantic integration and said he would try to solve all remaining issues with Macedonia's neighbours, especially Greece and Bulgaria.

Before, Greece has blocked Macedonia’s membership of either of the organisations. They say Macedonia as a name belongs to a region of Greece, rather than to the former Yugoslavic republic. However, Macedonia and Greece will likely solve their name dispute next year. And whereas the bilateral relations with Bulgaria used to be unstable, Macedonia and Bulgaria have concluded an agreement which ensures that Bulgaria will not block Macedonia’s potential EU membership. In short, Macedonia is taking a more progressive route when it comes to its foreign policy, which is unnerving for Russia.

Secondly, the recognition of Kosovo is critical in Serbia. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo's declaration of independence of 2008 and still considers the former province part of its own territory. Macedonia previously voted in favour of Kosovo’s membership. Regarding another vote on Kosovo's UNESCO membership, the new Macedonian government added that "it will have in mind the positions of the majority of EU member states". Most EU member states have recognised Kosovo's independence.

Changing relations after Zaev
Zaev's election as Prime Minister marked a sharp turn in Macedonia's foreign policy, gaining interest in solving the country's obstacles to joining NATO and the EU, rather than being allies with Serbia and Russia. Macedonia's government has stated that Skopje is “firmly committed to resolving rather than producing problems" and to improving cooperation and partnership with its neighbours.

In July, Serbian Foreign Minister Dacic reiterated that Serbia should not have recognized Macedonia under its constitutional name, repeating this during a visit to Greece - the country that has blocked Macedonia's NATO entry and EU accession talks.

Shortly after the EU-Balkans summit in Trieste that same month, Zaev said he and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic had resolved their issues and agreed to build good relations, until the diplomatic conflict erupted.

Sources: Balkan Insight, The Guardian, Reuters