May 28, 2024

North Macedonia’s Elections Exposed the EU’s Diminished Credibility in the Western Balkans

North Macedonian President-elect Gordana Siljanovska Davkova (3rd L) and outgoing President Stevo Pendarovski (2nd L) review the guard of honor in Skopje, North Macedonia, May 12, 2024
All rights reserved

North Macedonia’s political landscape shifts as VMRO-DPMNE returns to power, highlighting the EU’s fading influence in this Balkan country and recent NATO member. Domestically, weak reforms and low public trust will challenge the new government. Internationally, it must navigate strained relations with Bulgaria while maintaining good ones with Greece, both of which are intertwined with the EU accession talks opened in 2020. 


North Macedonia’s presidential and parliamentary elections in April and May 2024, which were deemed competitive and democratic by the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission, resulted in a significant political shift. The margin of victory between the winning party and the runner-up was the largest in the country’s history. The conservative VMRO-DPMNE secured 58 out of 120 parliamentary seats, and its candidate, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, became North Macedonia’s first woman president. The outgoing government of the social-democratic SDSM and the ethnic Albanian DUI suffered a large defeat in a protest vote. The SDSM won 18 seats, down from 46. The DUI lost its kingmaker status – while the coalition of ethnic minority parties it is part of secured 18 seats.

In a significant departure from old patterns, voters significantly supported the VLEN (It’s Worth It) Coalition, a new ethnic Albanian political formation that won 14 seats. It is set to represent this demographic group, which makes up around a quarter of the population, in the new government. Although VLEN is new to the scene, its leaders are seasoned political figures who have held various local and national positions. Their unity will be crucial for the government’s stability; however, given the differences in their political views and histories, this could prove challenging.

Coalition Formation and Party Positioning

VMRO-DPMNE campaigned on regaining sovereignty and on restoring control over democratic processes and institutions. The former emphasized a skeptical stance toward international obligations that could further compromise North Macedonia’s sovereignty while the latter primarily focused on combating corruption and reforming judicial and prosecution bodies. Maintaining that position on sovereignty will put bilateral agreements with Bulgaria and Greece through a significant stress test. 

The VMRO-DPMNE leader, Hristijan Mickovski, has announced, without disclosing names, that three more members of parliament were willing to join his party’s political alliance, which will give it a majority of 61. VMRO-DPMNE has also committed itself to forming a government in coalition with VLEN. Despite ideological differences, particularly on relations with Bulgaria, they are prepared to govern jointly. The left-wing ZNAM (I Know) movement joining them would result in a government with the support of two-thirds of parliament, which would enable the implementation of the rule-of-law reforms that VMRO-DPMNE promised during the campaign. 

The DUI has tried to secure a place in the next government, including by referencing the unwritten agreement that stipulates that the “winner” among the ethnic Macedonian parties should form a coalition with the “winner” among the ethnic Albanian ones. The DUI’s self-proclaimed position as the representative of the ethnic Albanian population might complicate the transfer of power, and could lead to an institutional crisis.

What To Expect

The new government in North Macedonia will face a myriad challenges in the domestic and international realms. There is a challenging agenda at home as the state of reforms is poor. The urgently needed rule-of-law reforms outlined in the EU negotiation process are in serious decline. Last year, the country received one of the worst annual reports by the European Commission in recent history, resembling the 2016 one that criticized the state capture under the previous government led by VMRO-DPMNE, with “no progress” found in key areas. Public skepticism toward state institutions, particularly in the judiciary, is at a record high, with only 1 percent of citizens saying they fully trusted the judicial system in a 2023 survey. Reputable international sources, such as Freedom House, have noted serious setbacks in the fight against corruption. 

The next government will also face significant international challenges, primarily due to its stance on EU affairs, including relations with its neighbors Bulgaria and Greece. This is amid an internal deadlock caused by the lack of the two-thirds majority in parliament required to acknowledge the ethnic Bulgarian minority (approximately 3,500 people in the 2021 census) in the constitution, which is an obligation North Macedonia accepted as part of its deal with Bulgaria in 2022 that cleared the way to long-due EU membership talks. The previous government never had the necessary support not only in parliament but also, critically, within civil society, and it should therefore not have made this commitment. 

The entire negotiation process of unblocking North Macedonia led by EU diplomats, and in particular by France’s EU presidency in 2022, behind closed doors further complicated things. Although with good intentions, the solution was shortsighted and it produced only the opening of accession negotiation, while producing long-term consequences that are now at the heart of the political debate and of negative narrative about the EU in the country. Crucially, this entire exercise lacked the transparency needed given the overwhelming negative attitude of North Macedonia’s citizens toward it. 

The previous government’s inability to manage Bulgaria’s demands that further jeopardizes Macedonian identity and peer pressure from other EU member states in the European Council has also undermined the historic 2018 Prespa Agreement with Greece (which added “North”’ to the country’s official name to settle a long-standing dispute), which was allegedly supposed to pave the way for EU membership. In effect, the deal with Bulgaria, and the impression that France and Germany cannot prevent further blackmailing from Sofia, severely damaged the EU’s credibility in North Macedonia. 

Moving Forward

North Macedonia’s new government finds itself at a critical juncture. Prioritizing domestic reforms at the expense of EU accession is not a viable long-term solution. Both must be addressed simultaneously to ensure sustainable progress and stability. The path forward requires a delicate balance between fulfilling international obligations and managing domestic expectations, while preserving the country’s credibility on the European stage. VMRO-DPMNE will need to make two difficult decisions in government: securing constitutional changes and demonstrating not only technical but also rhetorical support for the Prespa Agreement. Both are crucial for the country’s progress in the EU accession process.

Regarding relations with Greece, the behavior of Siljanovska as the new president so far signals an attempt to have a pragmatic approach: using “North Macedonia” for official communication and documents while symbolically using “Macedonia” in domestic contexts and other formats where possible. However, this approach might be unacceptable to Athens. Statements by Prime Minister’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis indicate that Greece would see this as a significant setback, potentially creating problems in bilateral relations and with the EU.

At the same time as North Macedonia seeks guarantees from the EU that Bulgaria will not abuse the accession process for identity-related politics, the new government will have to show full respect for the Prespa Agreement with Greece, while expecting a reciprocal approach by Athens. An influential EU member state (or more) acting as an honest broker with the assistance of the European Commission to facilitate a trialogue is essential for success. Political party affiliations could also play a important role, as VMRO-DPMNE, New Democracy in Greece, and GERB, which could win the imminent elections in Bulgaria, are part of the European People’s Party family.

Thus, a new political landscape is emerging in North Macedonia, shaped by the EU’s diminished credibility in the Western Balkans. This exemplifies the limitations of enlargement policy, even in a country willing to make significant sacrifices, such as the historic name change, in hope of accelerated EU integration and the promise of membership. The EU’s subsequent unfulfilled promises, such as the one that signing the Prespa Agreement would pave the way for accession, and it not standing up to Bulgaria to prevent it from misusing the accession process while shifting responsibility through calls to solve a “bilateral issue,” have led to more obstacles and new blockages, mostly driven by EU domestic politics. 

This situation serves as a cautionary tale for other membership candidates and the EU institutions, emphasizing the need for urgent policy adjustments to restore the credibility of the enlargement process and to prevent further deterioration on a larger scale. The EU needs to understand the consequences of its decisions on North Macedonia and on regional stability. Russia and its propaganda channels could exploit EU failures with the country to spread negative narratives in other candidate countries in the Western Balkans to increase regional tensions.

Bibliographic data

Nechev, Zoran. “North Macedonia’s Elections Exposed the EU’s Diminished Credibility in the Western Balkans.” DGAP Memo 10 (2024). German Council on Foreign Relations. May 2024.

ISSN 749-5542

Themen & Regionen