18th January 2017 Skopje, North Macedonia
Diary entry 26 August 2027
High up in Macedonia’s Shar Planina mountains the air tastes like champagne. And after five hours of drinking it in, our walk today has left us tired but happy.
It’s great to be back in Macedonia. It is nine years since I walked in the Shar Planina. Back then, when I was serving as British Ambassador to Skopje, walks like today’s were my No 1 escape – for me and my family, our favourite outdoor adventure. Now, in 2027, the year Macedonia hosted the Youth Olympic Games, I am back with my family, guests at the wedding of the daughter of some Macedonian friends – among the many we made in a country well known for its hospitality and friendliness.
How this country has changed! The differences are obvious. Just recently in the Foreign Office in London I read an eye-opening report on Macedonia from the current Ambassador to Skopje.
In it, he reflected on what he called “Macedonia’s Decade”:
Six years ago Macedonia’s government launched its bid to host the 2027 Youth Olympic Games in the face of strong opposition from those who thought there were higher priorities. Even among bid supporters, there was scant belief that Macedonia could really pull it off. This week’s spectacular closing ceremony, capping a remarkable festival of sport and young people, showed this young and ambitious Balkan country in the best possible light.
Macedonia’s history since independence in 1991 has not been straightforward. The country has swung between high points (its uniquely peaceful exit from the former Yugoslavia) and low points (the 2001 conflict), and then back again. A few years after the 2001 conflict, Macedonia became the first Balkan country to achieve EU Candidate status. But less than a decade later it was mired in chronic political crisis. And throughout all of that, hanging over Macedonia and holding it back, was the seemingly intractable dispute with Athens over the country’s name.
The extraordinary progress of the last ten years can be traced back to commitments made by the government that took office after the December 2016 elections. Those elections were conceived by political leaders as a first step out of the crisis. And the new government seized the opportunity with its visionary plan “Macedonia: A National Strategy for All Our Citizens”.
That move ushered in what has come to be known across the Balkans as Macedonia’s Decade. Throughout those ten years, successive Macedonian governments have worked hard to fulfil, and develop, the National Strategy’s ambitious targets. And as a result it is not only this country that has seen the benefit: Macedonia’s remarkable leadership has been emulated elsewhere in the region, making a significant contribution to Euro-Atlantic progress. The region is no longer a net consumer of security. It is now a significant contributor to Europe’s collective security.
Certainly, the 2020 agreement with Athens on the name was the basis for much of this. Reaching that deal was no picnic, and sealing it required notable political courage in both capitals. But six years on, it is almost universally seen as a good thing, not least because it finally opened the way – along with the reforms that followed the 2016 election – to joining NATO and starting EU membership negotiations. Macedonia is no longer in the “Too Difficult” basket.
But while the 2020 deal unlocked the door, it was the government’s commitment to implementing reform that brought about faster Euro-Atlantic progress. Central to that has been the increased trust of the people of Macedonia in their judicial system. Gone are the routine suggestions that sensitive court decisions were subject to political influence. Macedonia’s new-found reputation for Rule of Law excellence, built up through consistent focus on strengthening independence and impartiality, and zero tolerance for corruption at all levels, has perhaps been most eagerly welcomed in the business sector. It is certainly one of the strongest arguments in attracting foreign direct investments. And small and medium enterprises are flourishing.
It is Macedonia’s economic development which has made people across Europe sit up and take notice. The country has long been regionally competitive. But the Skopje start-up scene and the hubs in Tetovo, Bitola and Shtip, are now the envy of the Balkans. They serve as powerful incubators for ideas and creativity. They have provided a welcome lift to regional economies, especially among young people. And they are responsible for boosting Macedonia’s international profile in a way that money alone simply could not buy: Zbor, an app developed by software start-ups in Eastern Macedonia now has more users that Skype and Facetime combined.
Economic success has both fed on, and contributed to, a stronger, more constructive relationship between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians. Businesses across the country were quick to make the most of improved access to regional markets under the 2019 Western Balkans Trade Agreement. There were some particularly clever collaborations between ethnic-Albanian and ethnic-Macedonian businesses aimed at leveraging each other’s different skills and contact networks to exploit regional opportunities. And the government’s innovative approach to supporting entrepreneurs has seen some ground-breaking achievements. The Wales-Macedonia tie-up on renewable energy, supported by the British Council, has positioned Macedonia among the European front-runners as producers of wind and solar energy.
Tourism too has played its part. The Dojran battlefield study tours are now a regular feature for many British tourists visiting Macedonia. And during a recent visit here the Foreign Secretary went to the the so-called Maleshevia region in northeast Macedonia to see the work done in collaboration by Scottish and Macedonian entrepreneurs to expand mountain tourism. Ohrid, always a tourist attraction within Macedonia, has made the most of its spectacular position, its remarkable history and architecture, to become one of South-East Europe’s foremost international tourist destinations. And it has done this while cleverly protecting its strongest asset – its great natural and ecological beauty.
This remarkable story came together at the Games this week. Macedonia’s new Prime Minister told me of her pride in what Macedonia has achieved in the last decade, and of how it has been based firmly in grand ambition and in leveraging the great diversity of its people. That diversity has been reflected in the three, very different venues. While Skopje saw most of the action and did brilliantly, Tetovo was just as impressive. Until 2017 Tetovo sat at the top of Europe’s most polluted cities list; but since 2022 it has attracted only positive attention for its extraordinary environmental clean-up. As host of the half-marathon and mountain biking events, Tetovo put the seal on an extraordinary turn-around. Ohrid was, of course, a truly spectacular setting for the triathlon and rowing.
Macedonia’s history has rarely run smooth. But “Macedonia’s Decade” has been a decade of success perfectly reflected in the success of the Games, a competition that the International Olympic Committee have praised for “setting a new high.” They will be a hard act for the next host to follow.