Macedonia has emerged as the pivot for all of the Balkans, and the unipolar and multipolar worlds are intensely vying with one another for influence in this geostrategic state.
The Ukrainian Crisis has catapulted the tiny Republic of Macedonia into the geopolitical forefront, where it is currently is being tugged between the West and Russia. While seemingly few people have heard of the country before this, it has now become the main gateway for influence projection in the region, and its allegiance one way or the other has far-reaching consequences for the future of Southeast Europe. While the competition is most visibly embodied by two competing pipelines, ‘New South Stream’ and AMBO, it’s in fact much wider than that, and each side has unique levers of influence that they can apply in swaying Skopje over to their side. The defining difference between the West and Russia, however, is that while the former seeks to bully and intimidate Macedonia, the latter is more pragmatic in constructively engaging with it.
As an outline, we’ll first explore how Macedonia acquired its geostrategic importance, and then look at why the country hasn’t already been swallowed up by Euro-Atlantic institutions and is still an object of competition and Color Revolution intrigue. Wrapping up the first section, the two competing pipelines traversing Macedonia and the divergent economic visions for the country will be discussed in detail. The second part then begins by looking at the levers of influence that each side can use in advocating their respective policies, and ends the whole piece by presenting three future scenarios facing the geo-pivital state.
Macedonia In The Middle
Through a series of tectonic geopolitical shifts, Macedonia found itself smack dab in the middle of the ‘New Cold War’. One year ago, the South Slavic state was hardly on any Great Power’s radar, having been relegated to a backwater of poverty and neglect by all major players. The coup in Ukraine rapidly changed all of that, since Russia’s South Stream project subsequently acquired an even greater importance for Moscow’s overall engagement with Europe. The concept was to use fruitful energy cooperation with the Balkans to spearhead the full spectrum strengthening of Russia’s relations with the EU, both by guaranteeing the transit of non-Ukrainian energy supplies and by laying the seeds of multigenerational influence in a receptive and civilizationally similar region of Europe.
From South Stream To ‘Turk Stream’:
Despite these pragmatic and positive intentions, some external actors did not see it this way, namely the US, which did whatever it could to sabotage the South Stream project and delay its implementation. Washington’s goal has always been to divide Russia and the EU, seeing solid cooperation between the two as being a threat to its outdated military presence in Europe, and hence, its overall Eurasian hegemony. The Ukrainian Crisis was thus manipulated by the US and select Eastern European governments like Poland and the Baltic States in order to falsely cast Moscow as an aggressor and drive a wedge between it and Brussels. The resultant hysteria scared European decision makers and influenced their decree that Russia must absolutely abide by the dictates of the ‘Third Energy Package’, despite having struck its bilateral deals with each host government prior to the policy’s implementation. Faced with an ultimatum that made it impossible to conduct business and go forward with the pipeline’s construction, Russia canceled the entire project in December and replaced it with the ‘Turk Stream’ to Eastern Thrace.
Towards The ‘New South Stream’:
While representing a defeat for Russia’s multidimensional engagement with the Balkans, the new pipeline route in no way hinders the efficiency of its energy shipments to Europe, which will now instead take the form of pricier LNG exports. The consequence of the EU’s bullying most drastically affected the Balkan states of Bulgaria and Serbia, however, where a majority of people fear that South Stream’s cancellation will negatively affect their economies. Nearly half of them think that the EU will have difficulty replacing the project, and a majority feels that Brussels shouldn’t have had the final say in deciding the project for them. This is likely due to the fact that their countries are not connected to an LNG terminal, and thus, will likely be deprived of the Russian gas they had expected to power their economies.
In light of these obvious challenges, Putin proposed an alternative route for South Stream going through
Greece and Macedonia during a press conference in late December, the feasibility of which the present article’s author analyzed in-depth a month later. The Hungarian Foreign Minister then began talking about the project in mid-January, and by the time of Putin’s visit to Budapest last week, the Russian President spoke about how he was “ready to go through Greece” and that “there are different options here, and we are ready to discuss them with anyone who is interested in cooperation.” Thus, Macedonia became the ‘new Bulgaria’, in that Russia’s proposed pipeline project is entirely dependent on transit through its territory, thereby making the state the center of the latest geopolitical rivalry in the Balkans. Given that Russia has a strong asymmetrical stake in civilizationally connecting with this neighboring region, and that Macedonia presents that last real chance to actualize this goal (now that Bulgaria is out of the question), the argument can be made that this is a do-or-die moment for Moscow and that Macedonia has thus been elevated to a priority placement in Russian foreign policy.
Euro-Atlantic Integration Stalls, Faces Color Revolution ‘Kick Start’
An important question to ask is why Macedonia hasn’t yet been formally absorbed by Euro-Atlantic institutions like the EU and NATO. NATO’s 2001 invasion under “Operation Essential Harvest” had the effect of enforcing the contentious Ohrid Agreement, whereby integral elements of Macedonia’s domestic sovereignty were henceforth made dependent on will of the Albanian minority population in exchange for them laying down their arms. By and large, this made that demographic NATO’s premier proxy in Macedonia, in that if their demands weren’t met or their agreement procured on major decisions, the government risked returning to the days of de-facto civil war against Albanian militants. In such a situation of externally enforced fifth column occupation, the country had no choice but to move forward with EU and NATO integration processes (of which many thought it would have entered into by now), but pivotally, it’s been prevented from doing so solely as a result of the naming dispute it has with Greece.
What appears to be a minor spat in the larger context of foreign affairs is actually an integral issue of identity for Macedonia and Greece, and in the current international climate, it can be understood in hindsight as having been a geopolitical godsend for the multipolar world. This dispute essentially stalled Macedonia’s formal Euro-Atlantic integration, thereby preventing the West from ‘sealing the deal’ and consequently opening up a window of opportunity for Macedonia’s engagement with Russia and other multipolar states. While the West most certainly retains notable levers of influence over Macedonia (which will be described in a later section), it still doesn’t fully control the country, and in the past year, its Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, hasn’t properly played his puppet role.
He refused to follow the West’s lead in sanctioning Russia, instead preferring to behave pragmatically like his neighbors in Serbia. This resistance to Western will, coupled with Putin’s announcement that a ‘New South Stream’ could theoretically run through Macedonia (and Hungary’s lobbying of this effort), spooked the West enough to attempt a failed coup in the country. Despite having been formally defeated in the tactical sense, the West will not tone down its negative coverage of the country (already ongoing for a few years), showing that it may be trying to instigate a Ukrainian-style Color Revolution to topple the government and kick start Euro-Atlantic integration per the Ukrainian model. The President of the European Commission even cancelled his meeting with Gruveski on 24 February since, as his spokeswoman put it, “Because of the evolving situation on the ground, there was an agreement that it is not opportune to hold this meeting right now.” This indicates that the West may pull their support for Gruveski’s legitimate and democratically elected rule in the same manner that they did for Yanukovich nearly a year prior, which would deprive Russia of a regional partner and finally put an end to its Balkan dreams of multigenerational influence that would grow out of the ‘New South Stream’ project.
Macedonia’s geography and the global political situation have combined in such a way that two mutually exclusive energy and infrastructure projects are now competing for Skopje’s favor, and each of them would be massively impactful in altering the balance between the unipolar and multipolar worlds. Let’s look in-depth at what each side is offering:
The formal name for this American-supported energy project is the Albania-Macedonia-Bulgaria oil pipeline, which envisions seeing Caspian oil shipped across the Black Sea and the Southern Balkans to Albania. If completed (which it still has yet to be), it would be the first Western energy route from Eurasia that isn’t under the direct control of either Russia or Turkey, with the latter being increasingly obtrusive in the West’s geopolitical designs as it seriously contemplates a pivot away from its former partners and closer to the East. The AMBO pipeline would allay some of those fears and strengthen unipolarity’s footprint in the Southern Balkans and the Western Black Sea region, which is already being fortified via US missile defense installations, NATO command centers, and the US-supported Romanian and Bulgarian naval proxies (which aren’t subject to the Montreux Convention regulating non-regional naval forces through the Turkish Straits).
* Corridor 8
This is the name of a multidimensional project focusing on the Southern Balkans, which aims to connect Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria via “ports, roads, railways, airports, multimodal and intermodal transport infrastructure – supporting facilities.” Analogous infrastructure projects exist all throughout Europe, but this one has yet to formally be constructed. At the end of October last year, the three governments signed a statement dedicating themselves to implementing the task, showing that it’s certainly on the horizon for the near future and has become a subject of regional collaboration. If successfully constructed, it would supplement AMBO and create an East-West cordon that would firmly cut off any Russian counter initiatives into the region.
* ‘New South Stream’:
As previously discussed, this project is envisioned to connect ‘Turk Stream’ with Hungary via the construction of a Greece-Macedonia-Serbia pipeline. It would firmly cement Russia as the region’s reliable energy supplier, and through this opening, deepen bilateral relations between it and each of its partners in whichever other spheres they agree upon. Geopolitically speaking, this would transform the two EU-member states involved in the project (Greece and Hungary) into critical East-West bridges connecting Brussels and Moscow, which could then act as mediators in mitigating the rising tensions between them. Simply put, the fulfillment of the ‘New South Stream’ project would inject Europe with a fresh dose of desperately needed multipolarity to temper its unipolar overdose.
* The Balkan Silk Road:
Although being a Chinese-sponsored project, this grand infrastructural vision is associated with Russia due to the close political coordination between Moscow and Beijing enshrined in the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership. In short, the idea is for China to connect Greece with Hungary via a system of railroads that would run through Macedonia and Serbia, and accordingly, it provides the multipolar world’s ‘Corridor 8 counterpart’ for the Southern Balkans. China has a vested interest in seeing the project succeed because it wants to penetrate the European marketplace through the ‘Balkan backdoor’, so it should be understood that Beijing will harness all of its diplomatic, political, and economic might in seeing its vision become a reality. This would in turn naturally buffet Russia’s supportive efforts in stabilizing Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia per its plans for the ‘New South Stream’, therefore presenting a win-win for the Eurasian giants and the multipolar world.
The Key Difference:
Looking at the West and Russia’s competing energy and infrastructural visions for Macedonia and the South Balkans, one should take specific note of the geography that each project aims to connect. The West wants to link together the western and eastern portions of the region, essentially creating a cordon against the movement of Russian influence deeper into the Balkans. On the contrary, Russia and China’s projects run from south to north, which by their very being, would prevent the West from constructing the aforementioned cordon and deepening its presence in the Western Black Sea area. Due to the geostrategic incompatibility of these said projects, it is inevitable that they would eventually come into conflict, and the physical manifestation of that clash is playing out in Macedonia, the country through which all four projects run.