Martin Naunov / 9 Nov 2020
This paper explores the “East vs. West” debate in North Macedonia and challenges the often shared notion that the majority of North Macedonians are united in favoring the country's Euro-Atlantic integration. By analyzing survey data, the study shows that ethnic Macedonians are significantly split on the geopolitical direction their country should take, and that partisanship is an important factor in this divide. This polarization is at least in part attributable to cueing from party elites, despite the claim by all major parties that they are pro-Western.
Aggregate survey results have often led analysts to assume that the “East vs. West” debate in North Macedonia is not a polarizing issue and that Macedonian citizens are overwhelmingly eager to see their country embedded in Euro-Atlantic institutional structures. In this paper, I analyze a number of surveys—including surveys by IRI, NDI, and USAID—and show that while virtually all ethnic Albanians are in favor of EU and NATO membership, ethnic Macedonians are, in fact, largely divided on questions related to the country’s geopolitical future. I show that partisanship is a major driver, or at least predictor, of this divide—those favoring the ruling Social Democratic party (SDSM) are largely pro-Western in their orientation while supporters of the second major party, the right-wing populist VMRO-DPMNE, display partiality towards Russia. I argue that this divide is at least in part attributable to cueing from party elites, despite the claim by all major parties (including VMRO-DPMNE) that they are pro-Western.
In an effort to better illustrate the party elites’ rhetoric and stance in the “East vs. West” debate and begin to illustrate the importance of elite cues, I look at two of the most momentous occasions in the recent history of North Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration: the 2015 wiretapping scandal and the 2018 name-change referendum. In short, I contend that the party elites’ rhetoric regarding EU, NATO, and Russia during these events begins to lay bare VMRO-DPMNE leaders’ strategy to feign loyalty to the Euro-Atlantic community—thereby allowing them to reap the economic benefits that EU ties facilitate—while simultaneously ingratiating themselves with Russia and snubbing key Euro-Atlantic principles concerning human rights and good governance. I show that VMRO-DPMNE’s strategy of “playing it both ways” has not eluded rankand- file voters who have, for the most part, successfully deciphered party elites’ cues and have become well-aware of the difference between SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE in terms of genuine commitment to improving the country’s EU and NATO integration prospects. As such, in response to this rhetoric, I explain how support among VMRO-DPMNE voters for EU and NATO integration has fallen substantially.
Finally, this paper cautions that further undue complications with respect to North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations could compromise Macedonian citizens’ trust in the credibility of EU’s commitment to the country. In turn, this would not only undercut the EU’s power to drive democratization but could also erode support for Euro-Atlantic integration which, I show, is already more precarious than is often assumed.