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Strains Emerge in North Macedonia’s Alliance With Turkey

Ivan Nikolovski

Originally published by Balkan Insight

May 10, 2019

Closer ties to Greece and the EU – and disputes over the activities of so-called Gulenists – are putting Skopje’s old friendship with Ankara to the test.

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On April 3, just one day after the historic visit of Alexis Tsipras to Skopje, the first-ever official visit by a Greek prime minister to North Macedonia, Skopje also hosted Turkish Defence Minister General Hulusi Akar.


During his visit, Akar reaffirmed the close ties between the two countries and Turkey’s support for North Macedonia’s NATO membership.


But the General did not miss the opportunity to call on the North Macedonian authorities to be more co-operative in the fight against the movement led by the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, the arch-enemy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Gulen’s Islamic socio-religious movement has been active in the Balkans through its network of civil society organisations, but also religious and educational facilities.


However, Turkey considers Gülen and his supporters terrorists as well as prime instigators of the failed coup in 2016. It has dubbed the Gulen movement “FETO” – short for Fethullah terrorist organsiation, and Ankara has demand Gulen’s extradition from the United States.


Washington has ignored this demand but in the Balkan region, Turkish pressure is more effective.


As part of the anti-Gulen purges that followed the 2016 coup attempt, Turkey has called on North Macedonia and other Balkan states to close educational establishments allegedly affiliated with the Gulen movement and demanded greater action against it.


After North Macedonia failed to act on Turkey’s request, Ankara withdrew from the bilateral agreement on mutual recognition of university diplomas in 2017.


Turkey has not given up on its campaign. General Akar used his visit to North Macedonia to “again” remind the authorities there that “Turkey and North Macedonia should work together against FETO for the sake of bilateral relations between the two countries”.


Three days after the visit, on April 6, Akar’s counterpart in North Macedonia, Radmila Sekerinska, confirmed that government policy towards so-called Gulenists could well influence the dynamics of Turkey’s ratification of North Macedonia’s NATO ratification protocol.


If Turkey makes the “fight against FETO” a condition for supporting North Macedonia’s NATO membership, a potential shift in traditionally friendly relations may occur.


The issue with the so-called FETO represents only one of three challenges for North Macedonian-Turkish relations, however.


Turkey was the second country to recognise North Macedonia’s independence in 1991 and the first to do so without reservations  concerning Macedonia’s identity, language and former constitutional name, Republic of Macedonia – which Greece strongly disputed.  


North Macedonia and Turkey have since signed numerous bilateral agreements advancing cooperation in diplomacy, economy, trade, culture, defence and security.


Ankara has also been one of the strongest supporters of North Macedonia’s NATO membership. It was the only member of the Atlantic alliance to request use of the country’s old constitutional name in NATO’s official documents.


Ankara appears to be one of Skopje’s key partners in military cooperation. This cooperation was crowned in December 2010, when the two defence ministries signed a bilateral agreement on military-financial cooperation.


However, North Macedonia remains reluctant to meet Ankara’s demands in the fight against the so-called FETO movement, even though failure to address Turkey’s demands may test bilateral relations to the limit and put Turkey’s “unconditional support” for North Macedonia’s NATO membership in question.


Another challenge to bilateral relations may be North Macedonia’s new policy of pursuing close relations with Greece, especially after the signing of the Prespa Agreement, which resulted in Macedonia changing its name to North Macedonia, thereby meeting Greek demands.


During his historic visit to Skope, Tsipras announced that Greece’s armed forces would now protect North Macedonia’s airspace and train its counterparts in the country once it joins NATO.


One Greek media outlet commented: “The military dimension of the relationship between Athens and Skopje will put Greece on a par with Bulgaria and Turkey in the region, to the chagrin of Ankara and Sofia, which have long-established close military ties with North Macedonia.”


Closely related to this challenge is also the Cyprus question. The divided island is one of many issues complicating traditionally tense relations between Greece and Turkey, on which North Macedonia will sooner or later have to choose sides.


The Greek part of the island, officially known as the Republic of Cyprus, is not recognised by Turkey and thus is not part of NATO although it is part of the EU.


The Turkish part, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is only recognised by Ankara. As part of its EU accession, however, North Macedonia will have to recognise the Republic of Cyprus as one of the EU member states and as one of the states with which it will have to negotiate.


In 2000, Skopje considered recognising the Republic of Cyprus but backed out after Turkey threatened to terminate diplomatic relations.


Nevertheless, North Macedonia’s recognition of the Republic of Cyprus should not come before it achieves full membership of NATO, in order to ensure that Turkey does not question its support for Skopje’s membership of the alliance.

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