It was Otto von Bismarck, architect for Germany’s unification and rise to world power, who is alleged to have referred to the Balkans as the powder keg of Europe, a region whose internal problems often had a tendency to pull in outside powers. Indeed, it would only be sixteen years after the great statesman’s death that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand would ignite the bloodbath of World War I. Since then the Balkans have remained a challenging geopolitical region, roiled by World War II, the Cold War and finally Yugoslavia’s savage unwinding in the early 1990s. The last gave birth to a number of countries, the tremors of which are still being felt today. This was made evident again in late January 2019, when the Greek parliament voted to give official diplomatic recognition to the Republic of North Macedonia. For a region where the interests of the European Union (EU), Turkey, Russia, China and the United States overlap, the political and economic development of even a small state like North Macedonia matters.
Since its independence in 1991 North Macedonia has been contending with pressures of creating a democracy out of an ethnic mosaic, which consists of a majority of Macedonians (a Slavic people) and a significant minority of Albanians, Turks, Romani, Serbs, and others. Together they account for about 25 percent of the population. The country’s political life has had an undercurrent of repeated crises related to problems in the neighborhood, including an overflow of refugees from fighting next door in Kosovo and a brief Albanian insurgency in 2001–2002. Furthermore, Macedonia was part of the recent migration of people from the Middle East to Western Europe, which strained the country’s resources.
As if the political challenges were not enough, North Macedonia’s economy is one of the poorest in Europe. Long closely linked to the larger Yugoslav economy, the newly independent state took considerable measures to open up the economy, making trade in a wide range of goods to EU markets a priority. Although Germany and other EU countries are now its major trade partners, the country’s exports remain heavily dependent on transit to northern European markets through Serbia.