Albania has increased its influence in southern Balkans during the last years. In northern Macedonia, a strong Albanian minority of about 34% of the total population (20% in Skopje) controls 4 political parties, counting 20 Parliamentary seats out of 120. The most valuable party is the Democratic Integration Union (Bashkimi Demokratik për Integrim, BDI, Демократска уни一а за интеграциа, ДУИ) with10 seats, followed by the Besa Movement (Lëvizja Besa, LB, Движее Беса, ДБ) with 5, by the Alliance for Albanians (Aleancapër Shqiptarët, AS, Али一анса за Албанците, AA) with3, and by the Albanian Democratic Party (Partia Demokratike Shqiptare; Macedonian, PDS, Демократска парти一а на Албанците, ДпА), with 2.
BDI and LB have announced they will come out in coalition in the next legislative elections. The influence of this minority on north-Macedonian domestic politics is clear and has inspired important reforms, such as the adoption of Albanian as a co-official language throughout all the Country. The importance of such an act can be fully understood only by considerign the value the cultural element has in the Balkan environment. Skopje, like Tirana, is willing to start the accession process to the European Union and to consolidate its atlantic vocation. To achieve that, it needs a Parliament united enough to approve the reforms needed to allow infrastructural and commercial development and weaken the pan-Slavic tendencies in North Macedonian society. Hence, it needs to gather the support of the Albanian political parties.
North Macedonian and Albanian economies have obvious infrastructure deficits and are in need of attracting foreign investment to engage in larger regional and international projects. Despite their clear differences, the two Countries show therefore a very similar economic policy and tend to converge in their regional policies. With a 15% general tax rate on productive activities and through a State-planned process of liberalization of its internal market, such as the National Strategy for Development and Integration and the Reform Plans, Albania seeks to consolidate itself as a potential destination for foreign capitals in the Western Balkans. The most recent of the available documents, the 2016-2018 Plan, is fully oriented towards the adoption of reforms aimed at joining the European Union, as clearly defined in its initialchaptertitled “structure and general policy objectives”. Tirana’s economic policy is aimed at generating constant growth in the medium run in to achieve more employment and macroeconomic stability through the reduction of potential risks related to debt vulnerability. Serving these objectives, the medium run fiscal policy will seek fiscal consolidation, with the aim of further reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio (in 2018 the target was well exceeded reaching 63.63%). Equally important are the efforts done to abolish informal economy in the country and to increase the potential of the energy sector.
Likewise, North Macedonia has adopted active policies to de-socialize the economy, resulting in a reform that has led to the privatization of several previously State-managed assets. The Working Document on the country’s economic reform programme, published by the European Commission for the period 2019-2021, shows a very positive trend in exports and a significant increase in consumption. However, the Commission points out that the investment and fiscal consolidation reforms may not be sufficient to stabilize the country in the long run. In addition to problems related to informal economy, to a low education level and to the failure of local businesses to achieve the quality and management standards necessary to enter the global market, the Commission points out that transportation, road maintenance and the energy sector are of poor quality and require major reforms. Skopje is aware of the need to act to cover the most important amongst these gaps, the first one being the trade and customs barriers to the Adriatic. This is the reason why Skopje, together with Albania, joined the Serbian project (initially also open to Montenegro and Kosovo) to eliminate internal barriers and free the movement of goods and persons. The will to adhere to this plan means that Skopje is seeking to mitigate the effects of its being a lockand State, being divided from the sea by Albania and Bulgaria. This is a limit that can be politically overcome only by building a relationship as friendly as possible with these two countries, which are more politically and economically incisive than North Macedonia. An elimination of the borders to the West would mean benefiting from the economic and reformative momentum of Albania, in which the benevolence of the United States also plays a role. That would also represent an opportunity to reduce the costs of importing materials (and energy) into a Country with an economic structure deeply damaged by the lack of infrastructures and in total dependence of foreign energy supplies. North Macedonia has suffered considerable financial damages from the fluctuations in the values of energy stocks, and it is clearly understood that it must create energy security by improving relations with its neighbours. A North-Macedonian orientation towards Albania and the Adriatic would also be well seen by Washington, which has been committed since the time of Kosovo’s independence to creating a brand restricting Serbia, a Yugoslav political center for decades, depending on the containment of Russian influence.
Albania has launched major projects for better exploitation of its natural resources after the discovery of new oil fields, with the aim of improving energy efficiency by 20%. Achieving and maintaining financial stability is the other key, and shared, objective related to the accession to Europe. A banking reform has made possible to contain the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. North Macedonia is ready to receive the dividends of possible future economic and political developments: today Skopje enjoys a low GDP/public debt ratio, as well as a relative general well-being of the financial sector. The rate of non-payable loans (NPLs) is 11.3%. Greater regional integration should lead toa cultural change in consumers’ habits and greater internationalization of the system.
From a social point of view, the ethnic and religious identity of the majority of Macedonians generates social friction towards the vigorous Albanian presence, and is channeled into two different outcomes: a political line, embodied by the Revolutionary Organization Party (Внатрешна македонска револуционерна организациа, Partia Demokratike për Unitetin Kombëtar Maqedonas), and by the Democratic Party for the Macedonian National Union (Демократ за македонско национално единство, Organizata and Brendshme Revolucionare Maqedonase),united for electoral purposes under the acronym VMRO-DPMNE (ВМРО–ДПМНЕ): with 39 parliamentarians, it continues to see Serbia as thecnatural point of reference for a Slavic and Orthodox Macedonia
The other, embodied by the Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (З на Македониа–СДСМ, Socijaldemokratski Soyuz na Makedonija–SDSM), with49 Deputies, looks more strongly towards an European integration. The government position fully joins this line, especially by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, however much the social and political situation of the Country may in fact lead him to embrace both directions as equally positive and possible for the future of the Country. Therefore, Skopje cannot but take a very helpful attitude towards both its western neighbour and Greece, preparing its regulatory framework to facilitate direct investment in the country and reduce the burden of corruption. It is difficult to forecast a change in the Country’s strategic lines, even after next legislative elections. Achieving the geostrategic positioning desired by Skopje presupposes economic and political stability, in order not to play the role of the weakest pawn in a possible partnership with several neighbors, two of whom are already members of the European Union
The other energy and commercial route that Skopje can take towards the Mediterranean is the one towards Thessaloniki. In fact, Greece has proven to be a major economic player in North Macedonia, and although the issue of the adoption of the name was formally resolved only in 2018 and despite a history of stormy political relations, including an embargo that lasted from February 1994 until September 1995, it currently means the 12.1% of all foreign investment in the Country. Greece is the fifth largest importer of North Macedonian goods and the third largest importer of them. Athens is also the entry point into the Balkans of the TANAP gas pipeline, which originated in the South Caucasus and will then branch out to Serbia. An energy channel that contributes to Russia’s plan to limit the transfer of resources to Europe from Ukraine, and which links Greece, albeit through an indirect channel, to Moscow and Belgrade.
The positions taken by the Greek Government, led by Kiriakos Mitzotakis, follow a pro-Western line typical of the family’s political tradition. In contrary with the previous government, led by Alexis Tzipras, from which it grasps the positive legacy of the resolution of the name dispute with Skopje (despite Mitzotakis’s previous nationalist positions in opposition to the Prespa Agreements, that would later lead precisely to the resolution of the Macedonian problem). Athens can now be one of the needles in the balance to decide the fate of North Macedonian access to Europe and NATO, having already found the right balance for the conditions of access.
Greek position is further reinforced in the energy field, which can only consolidate its strategic positioning and increase tension with Turkey. Greece is the western term of the Euro-Asian Connector, which begins in Israeli territorial waters, then crosses Cypriot waters and flows into Crete. The project finds convergence between the three Governments and, if implemented, will make Greece capable of breaking the energy isolation of both Cyprus and its islands in the central and eastern Mediterranean.
Greek willingness to change course in foreign policy has been hailed by the US Administration, which is seeking to consolidate the Tel Aviv-Nicosia-Athens axis to prevent Greece being the end line of a corridor too closely linked to Moscow by TANAP and, perhaps, to let it play a role that, until just over a decade ago, was covered by Turkey.