Ethnic Macedonians picked Russia rather than the EU as Skopje's preferred political partner in a new survey, reflecting frustration with the country's stalled progress towards accession to the EU and Nato.
Macedonia has been an EU candidate country since 2005, but failed to start accession talks due to its unresolved name dispute with Greece. In November 2016, the European Commission said it was prepared to recommend the opening of accession negotiations conditional on credible elections taking place in December 2016 and the implementation of reform priorities.
The survey conducted by Institute Societas Civilis (IDSCS) in cooperation with Germany's Konrad Adenauer foundation revealed a small decline in support for EU accession, though it was still backed by the overwhelming majority of Macedonians - 77% down from 80% in 2014.
The survey also showed that around 26% of Macedonian citizens from all ethnic communities believe that the EU would be Macedonia's best foreign ally, followed by Russia (25%) and the US (17.5%).
However, there are discrepancies among ethnic groups over who would be the best foreign partner. Most Macedonians (29.9%) believe it would be Russia, while just over 24% picked the EU.
By contrast, for ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of the population, the best allies are the EU (32.2%) and the US (28.3%). Other ethnic groups in Macedonia also favoured the EU, with Russia coming a close second.
The survey also reflected disappointment with Macedonia’s slow progress towards EU accession. 30% of respondents said that Macedonia made no progress in its EU accession process in 2016, compared to 26% in 2014.
Obstacles from neighbouring countries were cited as the main reason for the stalled EU integration process in 2016 (47% of those surveyed), followed by the government’s failure to carry out the necessary reforms (39% of respondents).
"The gradual decline in support for EU membership is not a manifestation of growing euro-scepticism, but implications from the name dispute with Greece were cited as the key factor," according to the survey.
Greece, which objects to the use of the name "Macedonia” as it is shared by a Greek province, has blocked Macedonia’s efforts to join the union for years. The European Commission has pointed out that the name issue with Greece needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency.
According to the survey, the political crisis in Macedonia, which started in 2015, did not make a major contribution to the decline in support for EU integration.
However, leaders of the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party have recently accused international diplomats of interfering in Macedonian affairs after the party failed to form a government following the election. The EU is pushing for Macedonian political leaders to form a stable government based on a broad consensus on key reform priorities, and current indications are that the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) is closer to meeting those requirements.
The Russian foreign ministry has capitalised on the growing rift between VMRO-DPMNE and western diplomats by expressing support for the party and accusing Western countries of "manipulating the will" of the Macedonian citizens, as expressed in the election.