Nato reassures North Macedonia after EU setback triggers election

French-led block on accession talks puts pressure on leaders in Skopje and Tirana

Nato has reassured North Macedonia that it will soon be a fully-fledged member of the alliance, after it called snap elections in response to the European Union's refusal to launch accession talks with two Balkan candidates.

France insists the EU must reform its accession process before opening negotiations with potential members, and the Netherlands and Denmark raised fears over crime and corruption in Albania, which hoped to receive a green light with neighbouring North Macedonia at last week's summit of EU leaders.

Senior EU officials said the decision was a major error, however, amid concern that reformist governments in the Balkans may suffer and China and Russia could exploit disappointment with the West to boost their regional influence.

"We are the victims of the EU's historical mistake . . . I am disappointed and angry and I know that the entire population feels this way," North Macedonia's prime minister Zoran Zaev said at the weekend. "There is no time to lose and that is why my suggestion is to organise fast, early parliamentary elections."

North Macedonia's president, Stevo Pendarovski, gathered Mr Zaev and other party leaders for talks, at which they decided to hold parliamentary elections next April, eight months ahead of schedule.

Caretaker government

“I believe that on April 12th the citizens will make a wise choice that will trace the road on which we, the politicians, should lead the country,” said Mr Zaev, who will step down in January to let a caretaker government prepare for the vote.

North Macedonia thought it was all but assured of opening membership talks – which could last for many years – after agreeing to change its name last year to end a decades-old dispute with Greece that had been an irritant in Balkan relations.

Mr Zaev and his coalition government, which includes representatives of North Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority, clinched the deal despite anger from nationalists at home and in Greece, and pressure from Russia.

"Good phone call with PM Zoran Zaev to reaffirm Nato's commitment to North Macedonia's accession," Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the military alliance, posted on Twitter on Monday.

Accession protocol

“The ratification process is well on track and I look forward to North Macedonia joining our alliance soon.”

North Macedonia signed an accession protocol with Nato this year and 24 of the group’s 29 members have already ratified the document.

In Tirana, meanwhile, Albanian opposition leader Lulzim Basha blamed prime minster Edi Rama for the EU setback and urged him to resign.

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev spent the weekend in Belgrade, where he told Serbian leaders that they had Moscow's full support in continuing to oppose recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Serbia is expected to sign a free-trade deal with a Russian-led bloc of post-Soviet nations this month – even though it would have to be annulled if and when Belgrade realises its stated ambition of EU membership.

"Russia and Serbia have excellent relations, perhaps at the highest level in the past few decades," said Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic. "We can always count on Russia's support and we support each other in international affairs."