It goes without saying that EU membership candidate states have to show visible results in the reform processes by meeting the membership criteria, but the European Union should also provide a clear perspective regarding the integration of the region ~ Stevo Pendarovski
Speaking in this exclusive interview for CorD Magazine, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski emphasises that the pace of integration of the countries of the Western Balkans is very modest. And without an accession process, there is more room for malign influences. The emigration of young people is among the biggest challenges we face.
Mr President, how would you evaluate your recent visit to Serbia?
Our two countries have traditionally nurtured good neighbourly relations and friendship, based on trust and mutually beneficial cooperation. We have established links in trade, cultural exchanges, institutions and citizens’ cooperation over the decades.
My last meeting with President Vučić was on 2 August, when I visited the Monastery of the Venerable Prohor of Pčinja to commemorate 2 August – the Day of the Republic and an important date in Macedonian history. We discussed the deepening of our cooperation, the possibilities listto further increase trade exchanges and other topics that are of interest to both our peoples.
North Macedonia and Serbia have not had unresolved issues for a long time. The Serbian Orthodox Church last year recognised the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Archdiocese of Ohrid, and that move contributed significantly to improving mutual trust.
In my view, the Serbian president made a strong statement to the media at the Monastery of the Venerable Prohor of Pčinja when he said that they are recognising the Macedonian people and Macedonian language.
You were in Serbia on the eve of Ilinden, which marks your country’s Republic Day celebrations and which was this year, for the second year, commemorated at the Monastery of the Venerable Prohor of Pčinja in Serbia, in the presence of a delegation from North Macedonia. How important is this fact to you?
For us, from a historical perspective, Ilinden has a great, distinct meaning. It was on 2 August 1903 that the first Krushevo Republic was established. On this same date in 1944, with the first session of ASNOM [the Anti-Fascist Assembly of the People’s Liberation of Macedonia], a free Macedonian state was created. Delegates of the state-constituting session of ASNOM met at the Monastery of the Venerable Prohor of Pčinja. That’s why the visit to the monastery on Ilinden was remarkable for my country. I had the opportunity to lay flowers in front of the memorial plaque that marks the first session of ASNOM.
Through numerous regional initiatives, we aim to further facilitate business conditions, ease the flow of goods and services, and increase direct investments
I believe we will continue this tradition next year, in order to pay tribute to our great national heroes and to visit the monastery without that being interrupted for political, religious or any other reasons, as it was in the past.
How would you assess the treatment of the Macedonian community in Serbia and the Serb community in North Macedonia; is there room for improvement?
There is always room to improve the situation for minority communities in a certain country, regardless of whether and how much they enjoy the same rights as the majority of citizens.
According to the latest census, 1.3% of the total population of North Macedonia, or almost 24,000 citizens, declared themselves Serbs. Through their political representatives in the Parliament, they are an important political factor in the political life of the country. I should also mention that Serbs in Macedonia celebrate 27 January, the holiday of St. Sava, and it is listto ed among the national holidays of our country.
I think the number of Macedonians living in Serbia is smaller, nearly 15,000. Macedonians in Serbia enjoy full rights, can freely declare their nationality, and have achieved visible results in education, culture and information, while the Macedonian language and script are in official use in some local communities that they inhabit.
During your meeting with the president of Serbia, you were in agreement that bilateral relations are at the highest possible level. In which areas of the economy do you see room to advance cooperation further?
Persistent political dialogue enables the constant development of bilateral relations, which is an excellent prerequisite for trade exchange. In addition, we have a broad legal framework that offers numerous opportunities to develop economic and cultural cooperation.
We have been in the EU waiting room for so long and if that period is extended again, due to bilateral disputes, there could be serious negative consequences, both for my country and the wider region, but also for the attractiveness of the EU integration process
Serbia has ranked continuously at the top of the countries with which North Macedonia has the largest trade exchange. As two neighbouring countries, we are committed to further improving that cooperation. Through numerous regional initiatives, we aim to further facilitate business conditions, ease the flow of goods and services, and increase direct investments. I believe that contacts already established at the political and business level will contribute to the further intensification of cooperation among companies.
I also believe that economic cooperation between our countries is of particular importance in the context of our aspirations for membership in the European Union.
Will North Macedonia and Serbia work together to revitalise the railway tracks connecting the two countries and, if so, how long could that process last?
I believe it is important for both countries to work towards the modernisation of railway infrastructure, as in the countries of the European Union. The modernisation of our rail links is an important prerequisite for the promotion of the exchange of goods and services and will provide added value to Corridor 10. I believe that, with joint efforts, North Macedonia and Serbia will succeed in providing the financial structure for the realisation of the project, which should mainly be financed by the European Union.
As president of a country that has accepted major concessions in an effort to accelerate the European integration process, are you now satisfied with the current pace of that process?
It is undeniable that the pace of integration of the countries of the Western Balkans is very modest. Serbia has been negotiating with the European Union since 2014. Macedonia has been a membership candidate since 2005 and, due to a series of circumstances, it was only last year, after 17 years of waiting, that it held the first intergovernmental conference and opened EU accession negotiations.
Waiting for too long leads to a sharp decline in support for EU membership, and without an accession process there is more room for malign influences. The emigration of young people is among the biggest challenges we face. It goes without saying that candidate states have to show visible results in the reform processes by meeting the membership criteria, but the European Union should also provide a clear perspective regarding the integration of the region.
The Open Balkan is a well-intentioned initiative that should be placed under the umbrella of the Berlin Process, which has established structures, achieved good results so far, and brings together all WB6 states
My impression is that the EU enhanced its focus on the region following the launch of Russian aggression against Ukraine. I hope that this war will end as soon as possible, while at the same time I hope that it will not again shift the focus of the Union’s interest away from the integration of our region.
Albanian authorities recently suggested that the Open Balkan initiative has fulfilled its purpose and should be completed. Given that your country is also an active participant in that initiative, how do you see the future of the Open Balkan initiative?
I have never been and will never be against strengthened economic processes, cutting red tape on the movement of goods, people and capital across the borders of the Western Balkans. However, I have stated publicly several times that, with the inclusion of only three countries from the region, the Open Balkan initiative has structural shortcomings and limited potential.
It is nevertheless a well-intentioned initiative and should be placed under the umbrella of the Berlin Process, which has established structures, achieved good results so far and brings together all six Western Balkan states.
Do you expect, in your opinion, the EU to first expand to include the Balkans or Ukraine and Moldova?
I would not expect that outcome, because the Western Balkan candidates have been in the pipeline of EU integration for decades, have vastly experienced people and institutions and accumulated knowledge of the process. To be clear, Moldova and Ukraine should join the EU, however that cannot happen overnight. From our standpoint, we have been in the EU waiting room for so long and if that period is extended again, due to bilateral disputes, there could be serious negative consequences, both for my country and the wider region, but also for the attractiveness of the EU integration process.
You stated recently that there is no fear of the conflicts in northern Kosovo spilling over onto North Macedonia. Where do you place the responsibility for the situation in northern Kosovo and where could a solution be found?
Regarding the security situation, I do not expect a spillover, mainly due to the presence on the ground of several thousand NATO troops, a part of which is represented by our own small military unit.
In terms of a possible solution: we are strong supporters of dialogue and negotiations and that was the main reason we recently hosted the talks between Kosovo and Serbia and offered our good services to our neighbours to help them achieve an agreement.
Macedonia has significant experience in reaching compromises, both with our neighbours and within the country, and knows the benefits of diplomacy quite well.
I do not expect a spillover of the conflict, mainly due to the presence on the ground of several thousand NATO troops, including our own small military unit
To be clear, Moldova and Ukraine should join the EU, but that cannot happen overnight
Serbia has ranked continuously at the top of the countries with which North Macedonia has the largest trade exchange