WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Senate approved the accession of North Macedonia to NATO in a 91-2 vote Tuesday, meaning the small Balkan nation is a step closer to becoming NATO’s 30th member.
The decision marked a victory for Skopje after the European Union decided not to initiate membership talks with the government earlier in the week. It also sends a broader message of support to Europe and deterrence in the region, said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho.
“This lays out a template to all Europeans, that they’re welcome, that the door is open, that we want them to join NATO,” Risch told reporters Tuesday. “The Russians hate this sort of thing, they hate an increase in the size of NATO, but we want the Europeans to be encouraged.”
The “no” votes came from Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee, two libertarian-leaning Republicans. Several of the Democrats running for president were absent for the vote.
NATO member states and North Macedonia signed an agreement clearing the way for membership after the country officially changed its name from “Macedonia” in February. Greece had blocked its neighbor’s NATO membership since 2008, saying use of “Macedonia” implied territorial claims on the northern Greek province of the same name and usurped ancient Greek heritage.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Oct. 4 at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in London that “NATO’s door remains open.”
When North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev hosted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Oct. 4, Zaev said his country plans to make its defense budget 2 percent of its gross domestic product by 2024, if not sooner. NATO has set a goal for its members to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense.
North Macedonia also contributed troops to fight alongside U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pompeo at the time cautioned the government to be vigilant against malign influences from beyond its borders. “The hearts and minds of North Macedonia citizens should guide your country forward, not Russian bots and trolls on social media,” Pompeo said.
Twenty-two countries have ratified the NATO accession protocol for North Macedonia. The country can join once the remaining seven also do so.
For its part, Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO two years ago, and Georgia is expected to become a member of NATO, though no timeline’s been set.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.