The president of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski, has predicted a massive influx of refugees stemming from Afghan tensions comparable to the migrant crisis that polarized Europe and made his Balkan state a symbol of the political battle over immigration in 2015-16.
"It is possible to expect a new wave of refugees," Pendarovski, who was elected president of his EU candidate country in 2019, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service, "and it will probably be like what we saw in 2015 and 2016 when a million and a half people transited through our territory and throughout this region."
Last month, the United States and NATO allies evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans at risk of Taliban reprisals from Kabul ahead of a complete international troop withdrawal, but tens of thousands of others thought to want out were left behind.
Afghanistan In Turmoil: Full Coverage On Gandhara
Read RFE/RL's Gandhara website for complete coverage of the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. Gandhara is the go-to source for English-language reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi and its network of journalists, and by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, which offers extensive coverage of Pakistan's remote tribal regions.
Thousands of Afghans have fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran as a devastating humanitarian crisis, economic collapse, and the prospect of life under hard-line Taliban rule.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 2021 could see up to 1.5 million Afghans fleeing westward in search of safety and jobs.
Pendarovski told RFE/RL he expected the incoming Taliban government to be "just as cruel" as the mostly unrecognized regime that dominated most of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, and thus spark an influx of refugees to Europe like the one six years ago that was likely to affect the Western Balkans.
The European Union has pledged to step up aid to Afghan's neighbors to help absorb the expected swell in refugees while resisting calls to allow Afghans to be resettled in EU territory.
Refugee numbers sparked regionwide tensions during the European migration crisis in 2015 and 2016 and prompted tough action by Skopje to prevent migrants from using North Macedonia as a transit route on their way to the European Union.
Skopje's countermeasures six years ago included the erection of a fence on the border with EU member Greece as the number of stranded refugees, most of them from North Africa and the Middle East, mounted.
Pendarovski also warned of the recent wave of Euroskepticism, fueled in part by EU-member Bulgaria's use of shared linguistic and cultural histories to effectively block progress on North Macedonia's bid to join the European Union.
North Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia have signed onto an initiative called Open Balkans that aims to fully open their borders to each other's citizens and goods in 2023.
It has gained momentum as EU members have balked at a specific timetable for accession of leading candidates like North Macedonia and Albania.
Pendarovki said Balkan states like his fear being left on the margins of the EU agenda.
"We and the Republic of Albania, too, for various reasons, but treated in a package, are left in the waiting room," Pendarovski said.
He said further requests from Brussels for patience in the Balkans are discouraging to the Macedonian public, which swallowed the contentious Prespa Agreement in 2018 requiring a name change to bow to Greek concerns in hopes of clearing the path to EU membership.
Pendarovski said he worries that "then the dominant mood in our country will not be so opposed to that alternative to membership."
"I'm not saying that alternative is bad, but I would like to see it together with full EU membership," he said.