Europe

Countries Like Macedonia Need a Protector

The EU could make a big difference for a place with a rough past.

It's a pretty cool flag.

Photographer: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

Traveling through Macedonia this week led me to ponder the importance of a hegemon. Singapore and Dubai are both small, prosperous political units that rely partly on protection from the U.S. Navy, as well as having at least tolerable relationships with China and Iran, respectively. More generally, many small, vulnerable countries -- including Macedonia -- will require an outside benefactor to secure their futures.

A summary of Macedonian history doesn’t sound entirely promising. In the late 14th century, the region was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire. That boosted Macedonian development in some regards, but it was eventually saddled with an external ruler holding differing interests and centuries of Ottoman decline. In the early 20th century, Macedonia was a major flashpoint for two Balkan wars, and critical parts of Macedonia ended up in the hands of Greece. During the First World War, the Balkans were a battle theater and a major subject of dispute. Macedonia didn’t end up as master of its own destiny.

Then came the Second World War and the brutal Axis occupation. After the war, Macedonia fell under Tito’s communist rule as part of Yugoslavia. The economic distortions weren’t as bad as in the Soviet Union, but Macedonia still had no chance to keep pace with Western Europe, much less catch up.

Then came the bloody Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, followed by the clash between Serbia and Kosovo to the north.

That’s a remarkably tough history, and you might expect the country to be beaten down beyond repair, but here’s the thing: There is still a path for Macedonia to have an entirely satisfactory future. Abject poverty in the country is already rare, and in general the population appears to be reasonably happy, or at least not miserable. Estimates vary, but per capita income is about $13,000 a year. The economy is growing in the range of 2 percent to 3 percent annually, hardly an impressive figure, but if steadily compounded, Macedonia will mature into a developed nation. Macedonia needs that rarest of qualities in the Balkans historically: political stability. Better economic policy could help all the more.

There is in fact a very simple path toward stability: joining the European Union and perhaps NATO. In other words, a country can experience hundreds of years of bad events, but if it succeeds in attaching itself to a benevolent, moderately competent protector, it still can have a fantastic future of peace and prosperity, even if it does not stand on the global cutting edge.

To be sure, the path of Macedonia toward EU membership is anything but simple. The EU has expansion fatigue, and there is a general sense that Macedonia's neighbor to the south, Greece, was not ready for membership and especially not ready for euro adoption. It might be hard to sell the EU on membership for a much poorer country in the Balkans. The wealthier Poland and Hungary show signs of not abiding by EU strictures regarding political liberalism, which opens up further doubts about new members in the east. On top of all that, Greece argues that the nation of Macedonia ought to change its name, to show it has no designs on Greek Macedonia, and might veto membership unless that happens.

Still, if Macedonia remains outside the EU, that may contribute to an eventual explosion in the Balkans. Its neighbor to the west at times harbors ambitions for a greater Albania, which might include the one-quarter or more of the Macedonian population that is ethnic Albanian, and running through parts of Kosovo too. In 2001, the Albanian issue almost caused a civil war in Macedonia. Recently there are allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin has interfered with domestic Macedonian politics and will continue to do so, to the detriment of stability. One scenario is that the EU accepts Macedonia “prematurely,” to forestall a collapse of order, basically playing “good hegemon” versus “bad hegemon.”

If Macedonia doesn’t make it into the EU, it is not difficult to envision a future where the country ends up being picked apart by a variety of pressures from Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece, in some unknown combination. Keep in mind that an independent Macedonian nation has existed for only a few decades over the course of many centuries, and so its continuing existence cannot be taken for granted.

As a tourist, I am struck by the eclectic architecture of Skopje, the beautiful monasteries in the countryside, Lake Orhid on the Albanian border, the very friendly people and affordable prices, and what I consider to be the best food in the Balkans. I hope for a propitious outcome.

But when it comes to economic development, don’t just look at demographics or economic policy. Ponder the hegemon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Tyler Cowen at tcowen2@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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