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Passport delays wreak havoc in North Macedonia

June 19, 2024

Macedonians are now only able to travel abroad with passports bearing the country's new name: North Macedonia. As authorities struggle with demand, many are missing out on vacation and work opportunities.

A person holds two passports: on the left, a new passport from the Republic of North Macedonia; on the right, an older passport bearing the country's old name, Republic of Macedonia
Macedonian citizens can only travel abroad if they have a passport bearing the country's new name, North Macedonia, as seen on the left.Image: Emilija Petreska/DW

It's a fine mid-June morning in Skopje and the sun is already blazing. It is getting hot, both outside and inside, especially at the office of the Department for Administrative Affairs in the building of public broadcaster MRT, where passports are issued with the country's new name: North Macedonia.

"What did I wait half an hour for?" asks a disappointed young woman, speaking to someone on the phone.

"I'm supposed to come back in a week. But when exactly?" a middle-aged man says to himself as he comes down the stairs.

For some Macedonians leaving the building this morning, the wait for their new travel documents is not over. They will have to come back again. Others leave with a smile on their face and a new passport in hand, ready to head straight off on their summer vacation.

North Macedonia: name change in February 2019

Six years ago, on June 17, 2018, Greece and the then-Republic of Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement, which stipulated, among other things, that Macedonia would change its name to North Macedonia.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (right) welcomes Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on the shores of Lake Prespa near Otesevo on June 17, 2018
In June 2018, Greece and the then-Republic of Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement, which stipulated that Macedonia would change its name to North Macedonia.Image: Maja Zlatevska/AFP/Getty Images

In accordance with the agreement, Macedonian citizens wishing to leave the country after February 12, 2024 would only be able to do so with a passport bearing the state's new name. 

Even though the terms of the agreement came into force with the amendment of the Macedonian Constitution in February 2019, citizens who applied for passports two years later were still getting documents with the country's old name. Passports are needed by anyone who wants to travel or work outside the country.

Long waits, disappointed applicants

Although people are still waiting in line, the crowds at the office today are much smaller than they were a few months ago, when people had to wait for hours just to speak to a staff member. Telephone lines for appointments were flooded with calls.

By law, the state is required to issue documents within 15 working days or 48 hours if a passport is requested under an expedited procedure that costs €100 ($107). However, the citizens who spoke to DW said that they had been waiting two months in the standard procedure.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Angel from Skopje got an appointment to have his photo taken for the passport at the beginning of March. "They told me that I will receive the passport in one to two months. But two months have already passed. I asked everywhere, they couldn't find my passport. Is it made or not?" he wondered. 

A person holds a smartphone displaying the message "Your travel document is being processed"
"Your travel document is being processed" — this is the official notification people receive from the online platform when their passport is still not ready. Image: Emilija Petreska/DW

While waiting for his passport, he lost opportunities to work in Spain and in Germany.

"It's not a pleasant experience at all," he told DW.

Angel feels that the entire process for issuing new documents could have started much earlier and should have included an appropriate information campaign. Since speaking to DW, Angel has finally received his passport.

Impossible to make plans without a valid passport

"I was in a situation where I could neither plan, nor see options for leaving the country or booking tickets," Arbnora Memeti, a freelance photographer from Skopje, told DW. "I wanted to go to Italy, but I couldn't. You can't book tickets if you don't know the new passport number."

But fortune smiled on her, and after countless checks on the online platform to find out when her passport would be ready, she finally received a message telling her to pick it up.

Others have not been so lucky, with many taking to social media to vent their frustration at the opportunities they have missed as a result of the delays. Some have even raised the possibility of suing the state for damages suffered.

A person holds an old passport from what used to be known as the Republic of Macedonia
Although the country formerly known as Macedonia has changed its name to North Macedonia, the citizens of the country are still known as MacedoniansImage: Emilija Petreska/DW

North Macedonia's Ministry of Internal Affairs told DW that between July 5, 2021, and May 31, 2024, 1.6 million requests for passports were received, 1.3 million for identity cards and more than 680,000 for driver's licenses. It also said that 3,000 to 4,000 passports are currently being issued every day.

Businesses in North Macedonia are suffering too

But it's not just individuals who are feeling the negative effects of the passport crisis. This summer will also be a very difficult one for travel agencies.

The consequences are already being felt, says Pavlina Popovski of the travel agency Atlantis.

"The first flights of the summer season were not even full because of the problem with the passports," she told DW.

It is usual for people to book summer flights as early as December or January to benefit from the low prices. But many Macedonian travelers have had to cancel their plans because they didn't get their passports in time. Now, prices are higher.

"If they keep waiting, they might get their passport weeks before they leave. But if they don't and they cancel [shortly before the start of their vacation], then we have to impose penalties on them, and that doesn't suit anyone, so they cancel the arrangements" now, she said.

Travel hampered first by COVID, now by passport crisis

Some people opted for the fast-track passport application procedure, which means an additional €400 for a family of four. 

Popovski is frustrated: "The problem here is not just whether you will have a travel document, a passport or not. A whole large sector is affected. Three years ago it was COVID, now it's the passports."

Renewed tension with Greece on the horizon?

Meanwhile, North Macedonia has both a new government and a new president. The previous ruling Social Democrats and their presidential candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, suffered major defeats in the elections on May 8.

President-elect of North Macedonia Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova (right) and outgoing President Stevo Pendarovski (left) attend Siljanovska-Davkova's inauguration ceremony in Skopje, North Macedonia, May 12, 2024
North Macedonia's new president, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova (right, pictured here with former President Stevo Pendarovski), refused to say the country's new constitutional name during her inauguration ceremonyImage: Ognen Teofilovski/REUTERS

Voters elected the country's first female president — Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a retired university professor of constitutional law and the political system — and a new government, led by the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE.

Macedonian–Greek relations were quickly back in the headlines after incoming President Siljanovska-Davkova refused to say the country's new constitutional name during her inauguration.

This raised the question as to whether Greece would respond by withdrawing its support for North Macedonia's attempts to join the EU.

Although the new government indicated that the Macedonian president will adhere to the official application of the state's constitutional name, it said that "in her public appearances, the Macedonian president has the right to use the name Macedonia, as an act of personal right to self-determination and self-identification, respecting basic human rights and freedoms, and in accordance with European values ​​and principles."

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Head shot of a woman (Emilija Petreska) with dark hair and brown eyes
Emilija Petreska Reporter covering topics related to education, environment and social issues