NATO says it is now ready for North Macedonia. But is North Macedonia ready for the Western security alliance?
At the center of a tug-of-war for influence between Russia and the West, Skopje signed a protocol on February 6 that could see another successor state of Yugoslavia become the military alliance's 30th member if the move is ratified by all current NATO members -- foremost among them Greece.
The signing was made possible after Athens and Skopje settled a decades-old name dispute through a compromise that changes Macedonia's moniker to the Republic of North Macedonia, thus allaying Greek fears of any claim to its region of Macedonia.
The only remaining hurdle could be cleared as soon as February 8, when Greece is expected to ratify the NATO accession protocol and truly open the path to the official name change.
Privileges And Costs
While membership in the world's most powerful military alliance has its privileges, it also has its costs. And many of Macedonia's 2 million inhabitants are worried the price may be too steep.
Macedonia's economy is struggling, the rule of law is weak, corruption is rampant in the public sector, the budget deficit is rising, and less than 1 percent of economic output is earmarked for defense spending, less than half of what NATO demands from its members.
"The major economic concern -- because it is so nonquantifiable -- is how the country will pay for implementing all of the changes it pledged to do in last year's Prespa Agreement with Greece, which was the price of admission for NATO and possibly EU membership," says Chris Deliso, an American political and security analyst based in what will soon be North Macedonia.
"These costs are expected to fall entirely on the Macedonian taxpayer. This is a question that no one can answer as it includes both tangible and intangible costs. But it is bound to be quite high and have long-term ramifications beyond the control of this or any future Macedonian government," he adds, saying he's "optimistic" politicians will find a way to fulfill the financial obligations that come with NATO.
The landlocked country's accession into the alliance follows its former Yugoslav-republic peers Slovenia, Montenegro, Albania, and Croatia.
Successive Political Crises
And though it may have caught up to some of its neighbors on one diplomatic front, Macedonia hasn't had the same fortune in terms of its economic development.
It has been rattled by successive political crises marked by intense rivalry between the political parties in recent years.
The battles and a two-year financial crisis have left a sputtering economy, unemployment above 20 percent, and an average monthly net salary of about $400, the lowest in the region.
The country's economy posted the slowest growth in the region last year, according to estimates from the World Bank, while the budget deficit widened to 2.85 percent of gross domestic product.
"The country finds itself in an extremely difficult economic, political, interethnic and military situation," says Biljana Vankovska, a professor at Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje.
Vankovska says the current administration not only lacks the funds needed to prepare the armed forces for NATO, it has even less experience in executing reforms to modernize a military that analysts at GlobalFirepower rank 118th out of 136 in the world.
Most Macedonians see NATO as "heaven on earth," but "it won't take long before the current government will prove unable to manage the extremely high expectations," Vankovska tells RFE/RL.
"To [the] great disappointment of the Macedonian citizens, it will soon become clear that the NATO membership does not mean better life quality, rule of law, higher employment rate, internal stability, and progress," she adds.
That would be another bitter pill to swallow for a country that has already been prodded to relinquish many of its cultural claims -- along with statues, signs, and memorials -- to the classical warrior-king Alexander the Great.
Macedonia's politicians are meanwhile playing up the "historic" NATO accession, one of the few triumphs they can point to in recent history.
"We're happy, and rightfully so, because we have secured lasting stability for our country. We've secured safety, security, and peace," Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said after the signing ceremony in Brussels.
"Progress and development cannot be stopped now. Our contemporaries and our contemporaries' children will live better, in a country and a region that beam with hope," he added.
A key hurdle should come on February 8 or in the following days, when Greece should ratify the NATO accession protocol.
'A Thumb In Russia's Eye'
For Ljupco Nestorovski, a pensioner from Skopje, the cost of that hope can't be counted solely in objective terms. "The move is upsetting to the Russians -- it's like we're sticking a thumb in their eye," Nestorovski says.
Macedonia's entrance into NATO -- and its drive toward European Union integration -- is seen as another in a series of blows to Moscow, which has battled to maintain influence in the Balkans.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has accused the alliance of pulling Macedonia into its sphere "by force."
But a majority of Macedonians support NATO entry, even if they have concerns.
Some expect membership will bring stability to part of the Balkan "powder keg" that has reeled from the political and financial crises that sparked four elections, none of which produced a stable Macedonian government.
Membership will increase investments as well as economic and security stability, says Dragan Dimitrovski, a state employee in Skopje.
"I hope that it will be safer in the country, the economy will be more stable, there will probably be real investments, not like those before," he says.