13 December 2019
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Stevo Pendarovski won presidential elections in North Macedonia, with his victory marking a continuation of North Macedonia’s towards EU and NATO integration. On 20th July, Delo’s Vili Einspieler talked to Pendarovski about the sentiments in the country post name change, EU’s delay on accession negotiations date as well as other issues.

Skopje is disappointed the EU has not fulfilled its promise from Sofia. Can Zoran Zaev’s government survive if the EU Council does not make a decision in October on the start date for North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations?

In the last two decades, no government came to power just because of the EU and NATO, and none lost the election because we did not enter into one organisation or another. If Zaev’s government wants to win the 2020 elections, it must convince its citizens that it is successful in fighting crime and that it has provided a better life for people than they had before it came to power. It is important for foreign investors and for the democratisation of the society to start negotiations with the EU as soon as possible and to become a full NATO member by the end of the year.

Indeed, the segments of society that have always been for the EU and NATO are greatly disappointed that accession negotiations are once again delayed. The EU has not kept the promise that North Macedonia will get a date after the European elections, but it is good that the postponement happened for technical reasons. No one is setting new political conditions. We have fulfilled all the requirements, including the change of the country’s name, although no such condition has been imposed on anyone in the history of the world diplomacy.

Is Goce Delčev Bulgarian or Macedonian?

Following an agreement with Bulgaria, we have set up a mixed history commission to determine which historical figures are common to us. We all have our national heroes. Bulgaria and other Balkan nations live in the same area, but they did not exist in the present borders two centuries ago. Macedonia, before 1944, when it became a federal unit of the former Yugoslavia, was not a state at all. That is why we have historical figures that are ours and theirs, and all nations can own and respect them.

Goce Delčev is such a figure, he was active in the territories of both present-day Bulgaria and Macedonia, and was born in the territory of present-day Greece. The issue (of where he comes from) has not been resolved because everyone would love him to be part of their  history. I was the only politician to offer a framework agreement under which Delčev would be defined as the national hero of the Bulgarian and Macedonian nations, thereby helping the historians on the commission. It is undisputed that Delčev fought for the autonomy and independence of Macedonia, and in his last will expressed his desire to be buried in its liberated territory.

What does the new government in Greece, which does not favour the Prespa agreement, mean by requesting that the agreement should be strictly enforced?

We do not yet know how the new Greek government will act. We can only analyse their statements which are less flexible than those by the former prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Syriza. Their main message is that they will not cancel the agreement but will demand strict implementation. We do not mind because we are a serious country that accepts responsibility for the agreements that have been signed. We have already fulfilled the biggest and most difficult part of the deal by changing the name of the country, the rest will be much easier to comply with.

Can you persuade the EU to deal with North Macedonia alone and not in a package  with Albania, which is in deep political crisis?

As president of the country, I have the authority to speak about our desire to open negotiations. It was said last year that both countries will be given a date, and we have met all the requirements during that time. So, we think we should get a date by the end of the year. It would be good for the whole region, including Albania to start negotiations as well. This, however, depends on whether Brussels estimates whther Albania qualifies or not. I do not know what will be the European politicians’ decision but it is important that all the countries in the region make progress and not lag behind on the European path. As the situation in each country affects the whole of Western Balkans, BiH should also not be forgotten, and the EU should be more involved in resolving the Belgrade-Prishtina conflict.

In your opinion, North Macedonia no longer has contentious issues with its neighbours. Does the unresolved Kosovo issue threaten the country’s interethnic relations?

We have a good legal and political framework. The cornerstone of interethnic relations in the country is the Ohrid Agreement, which has yielded excellent results so far. We have also achieved great cohesion in society by adopting the law on Albanian language, which has become the country’s (second) official language. With this law we completed the Ohrid Agreement. For the time being, there is no negative impact on interethnic relations from the situation in Kosovo, and for both North Macedonia and the region it is very important to resolve the Kosovo issue and normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo. These are our neighbours, and about 25% of Albanians live in our country, so stable environment is important to us.

How realistic is the threat of federalisation or fragmentation of your country?

This story of federalisation has been dragging on for decades. It was at its peak in 2001 when we held negotiations in Ohrid that also included demands for Albanian autonomy and territorial settlement of interethnic issues. International intermediaries led by the USA and EU have rejected such requests because the country cannot be divided on ethical lines since we are too mixed with each other. Even if Albanians were given autonomy, many would remain outside the ethnically rounded territory. (Western powers) did not want another dysfunctional state like BiH in the heart of the Balkans. That is why they requested decentralization and a transfer of power from the government to municipalities where Albanians are a majority. We have done so and since then no relevant political party has supported the federalisation of the country.

Are dreams about Greater Albania still present amongst Albanians?

There is no enthusiasm for such outcome among Albanians in the region. Instead of new borders, the majority favour EU membership and no borders. In recent times, some politicians have indeed been talking about other scenarios, which would be relevant if the region does not have a clear European perspective. They argue that if we can’t be joined under the European roof, than we have no option but to unite in an ethnic country. This is a wrong path leading to bloodshed, the only right path is to unite everyone in a united Europe. Therefore, the EU needs to pay much more attention to the Balkans, where the story is not over. We are still talking about the old agendas of the 1990s, borders, territorial integrity and sovereignty, instead of integration, a better standard of living and investments, and the exodus of young people, which is the greatest threat to the Balkans.

Can Skopje’s agreement with Athens be used as a model for a solution to other problems in the Balkans?

It can’t because the substance of the Prespa name agreement is unique. What can serve as a model to resolve outstanding disputes is the political courage and vision by the politicians who signed the agreement, without considering whether (their decision) will keep them in power and (whether they would) remain popular with their citizens. Instead, they took into consideration benefits for future generations. Solving such difficult problems does not make any politician popular.

Is Euro-Atlantic integration crucial for further reforms, progress, democracy and political stability in the country?

Absolutely. If we wait for the Western Balkans to carry out reforms on its own without an external arbitrator confirming what European standards are and are not, we will be waiting a very long time. UK’s reasons for leaving the EU are very different from our reasons for wanting to join the EU. We have no historical experience of living in a democracy. In 1991, when we became a country, people where not familiar with classic terms of what democracy means. We did not know what the division of powers and professional administration meant, what freedom of the media and the concept of human rights meant, and what the independence of the courts and the judiciary meant. Three decades of formal democracy is not enough to regulate a stable society.

Do people in North Macedonia accept that joining the EU could take decades?

People accept this because they know there is no better alternative. Although we have been a candidate country for 14 years, they are aware that all other offers are a poor substitute. When they seek a better life and leave the country, they go to Western Europe and the USA. Their children also study there. The companies make the biggest deals in the West. The best education and health systems are in the West as well.

People are not talking about ideology, but about living better in Western Europe and the USA. That is why they are for the EU and NATO. For several years, support for European integration was more than 90%, amongst both Macedonians and Albanians as well as other citizens. During (Nikola) Gruevski’s rule, that support fell to around 60%, and with the reforms, we succeeded in regaining the citizens’ confidence. Now about 80% of people from all ethnic backgrounds support the EU accession.

Can delaying the EU enlargement trigger instability in the region?

If the EU neglects Western Balkans, which is in its geographical periphery but still part of Europe, it will be extremely bad for the region’s stability. In the end, it would also have a negative impact on the EU as instability would contribute to increased crime and immigration.

Read the full interview in Delo’s Sobotna priloga here

Adriatic Journal

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