The Open Balkan is our autochthonous, organic initiative created by our institutions and seriously supported by all citizens living in our countries; it enables us to achieve our 21st century vision of the Balkans as a progressive region integrated into Europe, where peace, stability and development will no longer be questioned by anyone ~ Dimitar Kovachevski
The Open Balkan Summit “shattered” all scepticism and reservations regarding the initiative, while the initiative itself continues taking the next big strides forward, says North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski in this CorD Magazine interview, summarising his impressions from Ohrid’s Open Balkan summit. This initiative is not a replacement for European integration, but it is an idea that promotes regional connectivity and that emerged with the view to the model of the concept of connecting European states, explains the North Macedonian PM. He adds that strengthening economic ties and other links in the region benefits citizens, which he believes is an argument that will also be accepted by the countries of the region that have yet to join the Open Balkan initiative.
As host of the recent meeting of leaders of the countries of the region, within the framework of the Open Balkan initiative, how would you assess this regional project?
Open Balkan is an authentic initiative created by North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania that aims to ensure a stable and prosperous region. It is the practical implementation of the four freedoms that form the basis of the European Union. It enables faster implementation of European standards and ultimately ensures the improvement of quality of life for all our citizens.
Open Balkan favours integration over disintegration, open borders over closed ones, free movement over limited range. The initiative eases procedures and cooperation between the region’s citizens and companies, thus enabling faster economic and social development.
The benefits of Open Balkan are already recognised and utilised by many citizens and entrepreneurs from the region. This motivates and inspires us to expand the areas of connection and cooperation. Western Balkan countries are tightly connected. When there is progress in one country, that stimulates progress among its neighbours. It is European to connect and to help each other, not to block and stall each other. We are accomplishing something that is usual and normal practise in the EU, based on the joint agreements of its member states. Through Open Balkan, we are jointly Europeanising ourselves, and that form of Europeanisation translates into concrete steps on the establishment of EU values and practises.
What kind of results do you expect from the agreements signed?
We live in times of great challenges that require courageous decisions and unity. The Open Balkan initiative is our effort to create a stable region, the rule of peace, cooperation and economic development. This is our commitment to a better life for our citizens.
The whole of Europe, including the countries of our region, are facing the dire consequences of war and crises of energy, economics and health. Under such conditions, we naturally rely on each other, and we have a shared objective: to advance together. The benefits of the free flow of capital, people, goods and services are now even clearer and more reasoned. We signed an Agreement in Ohrid on the mutual recognition of diplomas and scientific titles issued by higher education and other authorised institutions in the three countries, and we’re thus accelerating the process of creating a single labour market. We are opening a new chapter in our cooperation in tourism. Open Balkan will be mutually promoted as an attractive regional tourist destination.
The whole of Europe, including the countries of our region, are facing the dire consequences of war and crises of energy, economics and health. Under such conditions, we naturally rely on each other, and we have a shared objective: to advance together
We can give the world part of the prettiest seas in the Mediterranean thanks to the natural wealth of Albania. The mountains and well-known village tourism of Serbia. Macedonian lakes and beautiful green mountains. We also launched cooperation in culture on those foundations. We agreed to create a Joint Calendar of cultural events that will bring better mobility of the public and stimulate cultural exchange. I expect to increase the number of festival events in the region, meaning more content for our citizens and enhanced attractiveness for the region. I expect to see EXIT in North Macedonia and Albania. I expect the seven-eighths-time signature to be heard more frequently in Belgrade and Tirana. I expect more Serbians and Macedonians to visit Tirana, the European Youth Capital for 2022.
The business communities of all Western Balkan countries strongly and unanimously supported the new, ambitious and dynamic regional connection in the form of Open Balkan. They agreed that Open Balkan is the platform that the region needed.
Despite this event in Ohrid having been the 4th Open Balkan Summit, this remains a project of only three countries: North Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia. The summit’s guest countries – Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina – didn’t opt to join the project. Do you understand their reservations regarding the Open Balkan initiative?
To that reservation I can only open arguments that will prove that the initiative is an opportunity that creates great prospects and benefits for the whole region, not only for the three initiating countries. If you look at the practical benefits for citizens, for all categories of citizens, for the business communities of all countries, then it becomes clear why a connected region, without administrative barriers, with open borders and simplified and jointly defined procedures for customs terminals or in tax and financial communication, then you will have sufficiently strong arguments in favour of Open Balkan.
The agreements signed so far already bring tangible results and benefit citizens.
Such is the case with the popular “Open Balkan Green Lane” on border crossings between North Macedonia and Albania, and North Macedonia and Serbia. Haulage vehicles transporting agricultural produce or food can now make their way faster. There are no more long waits for hours and even days.
As a result of the trilateral agreement between North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania on recognition of phytosanitary inspection permits and mutual methodology for their operation, the movement of agricultural produce between the three countries is much faster, as the controls operate 24 hours a day and the criteria are recognised from one country to another. North Macedonia’s neighbours assisted with timely intervention during the fires in the summer of 2021; this represents a benefit of the Agreement on mutual action during natural and other disasters.
These are only a few of the benefits and values of our connection and the new dynamic of cooperation in the region thanks to the Open Balkan Initiative.
Ohrid’s Open Balkan Summit received support from the European Commissioner for Enlargement, even though this initiative is viewed in some circles as a substitute from EU accession or a “consolation prize” for not gaining EU membership. How do you see this?
Open Balkan does not aspire to replace membership, nor is it a substitute for the countries’ EU accession. These aspirations for each of the member states are represented a process that they realise themselves on the basis of EU accession criteria, on the basis of domestic reforms and the harmonisation of national legislation with the Acquis, with economic measures to raise citizens’ standard of living, to monitor the quality of life of the citizens and fulfil all other obligations leading to the realisation of this aspiration.
The war in Ukraine showed us that it is particularly important for the European Union and its member states to have a maximally responsible approach to the process of EU enlargement with the Western Balkan countries, particularly bearing in mind that this process is now a strategic and security issue. Integration means a shared commitment to building a strong, stable and united Europe, as a home of the values and powers of democracy and civilisation.
We signed an Agreement in Ohrid on the mutual recognition of diplomas and scientific titles issued by higher education and other authorised institutions in the three countries, and we’re thus accelerating the process of creating a single labour market
Open Balkan is our autochthonous, organic initiative created by our institutions and seriously supported by all citizens living in our countries; it enables us to achieve our 21st century vision of the Balkans as a progressive region integrated into Europe, where peace, stability and development will no longer be questioned by anyone. We act pragmatically and economically and, thus, will create conditions for large investments in our region, which will mean more work and better paid jobs for our youth and other citizens. We ask the EU to support this step and recognise it as inspiration to resolve their own problems.
North Macedonia represents an example of an EU membership candidate country that has satisfied all conditions for the launch of accession negotiations, but a date for the opening of chapters is not yet known. To what extent are you discouraged or disappointed by this?
Our aspiration for EU membership is our strategic objective and we remain on that path. We delivered on full membership in NATO and will absolutely continue advancing towards the achieving of the strategic objective of full EU membership. We will continue our reforms with strong intensity. Our obligation, as a government, is to implement EU standards at home, while addressing all foreseeable and unforeseeable challenges.
Under such circumstance, faced with a challenge, North Macedonia delivers European values. Dialogue instead conflict. Calmness and readiness for cooperation instead of nationalism for domestic use and new isolations. We will deliver a European future to our citizens, but will do so, of course, while respecting their dignity and delivering solutions based on European values.
North Macedonia has been a candidate country for almost 18 years. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement was signed 21 years ago. After several consecutive positive progress reports on our country and the unconditioned decision of March 2020 to commence EU accession negotiations that was supported by all member states, including Bulgaria, it can be seen clearly and undisputedly that we fulfilled all criteria for the commencement of EU accession negotiations.
North Macedonia has done a lot so far – we’ve made many tough decisions. We work tirelessly on reforms at home to Europeanise our society. It is now time for the European Union to fulfil its promises before giving new ones.
The postponing of the commencement of negotiations is a severe problem and, in fact, is a grave strike against EU credibility. We are wasting precious time that, to be honest, we do not have at our disposal.
Our positions are clear and based on European values. We do not want anything more or less than that which all 27 member states in the Union received when joining the Union proudly, with all their differences and with respect for their own and others’ linguistic and historical differences. None of this was a problem on their European path. We expect this to count for us too, of course, with due fulfilment of the membership criteria.
At the same time, the war in Ukraine showed us, in its tragic way, that EU enlargement to encompass North Macedonia is no longer only an issue of enlargement, rather it is a geostrategic and security issue – for our country, but also for the region.
I mention the region because the blockage we are facing today echoes negatively throughout the region and impacts EU credibility. And, vice versa, the positive impulses that will be brought by the commencement of North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations will resonate and will bring greater wellbeing to the entire Balkans.
Speaking during his recent visit to the region, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz admitted that he’d failed to persuade Bulgaria to lift its veto against the opening of accession negotiations with your country. You say that Bulgaria is “holding hostage” your country’s dream of joining the EU. Do you see this situation being resolved anytime soon?
North Macedonia did everything in its power to start the first intergovernmental conference. Forty-five percent of our legislation has already been harmonised with the EU Acquis. If we compere harmonisation by chapter, it can be clearly seen – as confirmed by the reports of European institutions – that North Macedonia has achieved a greater degree of harmonisation in certain chapters than countries that have been negotiating with the EU for more than 10 years. This means that, if we are talking about a merit-based system for accession, North Macedonia 100% deserves the first intergovernmental conferences and the opening of chapters.
We are leading negotiations with Bulgaria based on principle, based on European values, and based on the provisions stipulated in the Resolution adopted by our Assembly.
There is one substantial difference between us and Bulgaria. For us, this question was about the commencement of negotiations with the EU, and not for a single moment did we, as a government, use this question as an instrument of politics for the purpose of gaining daily political points and leading our country’s internal policy. On the other hand, in Bulgaria this issue was raised at the level of internal politics and was used as an instrument.
We have proven that we are a reliable partner and that we are committed to dialogue aimed at finding a real solution that will ensure the unblocking of the negotiation process and EU integration.
North Macedonia has shown that it is a country of friendship and cohabitation; we are committed to essential dialogue and finding mutually acceptable solutions. In this way, and by adhering to those principles, we undertook all necessary steps to unblock the process of EU enlargement.
We, as a government, are obligated to find a fast solution, but not a hasty one; a solution that will be based on European values. We will not negotiate on our identity and language, and this is more than clear; the solution arising from the open dialogue will need to take into consideration citizens’ dignity.
One recent survey saw the citizens of North Macedonia rank Serbia as their friendliest nation. How do you view current bilateral relations between our two countries?
With each passing year, North Macedonia and Serbia additionally reinforce their long-standing and traditionally good bilateral relations. This has been particularly evident during the last four years, due to the intensive and friendly political dialogue confirmed with frequent and regular meetings and visits at the highest level.
The leaderships of both countries are convinced and led by the principle that the advancement and expansion of mutual relations is our obligation that will be passed on to current and future generations as a priceless treasure.
A particularly important gesture for us was the assistance and support that the Republic of Serbia provided during the Covid-19 crisis; they helped us deal with the pandemic by providing vaccines and other medical assistance.
The postponing of the commencement of negotiations is a severe problem and, in fact, is a grave strike against EU credibility. We are wasting precious time that, to be honest, we do not have at our disposal
The Republic of Serbia extended its appreciation and showed understanding and solidarity with the recent lifting of the ban on the export of grain and cooking oil – as we did with the lifting of the ban on exports of oil in times of need for Albania, thus confirming our determination to cooperate in the region.
Communication and partnership at the highest level, within the framework of the Open Balkan Initiative, is an additional impulse for regional cooperation, good neighbourly relations and the implementation of European values in our region.
Both Serbia and North Macedonia are ready to organise the third joint session of their governments as a positive stimulus for the further development and intensification of relations and cooperation, especially in the field of economic cooperation.
Serbia is the third largest trade partner of North Macedonia, with the total value of exchange exceeding a billion U.S. dollars, and it has recorded growth in all areas of mutual interest, and it is also a notable example for other countries to advance and alleviate overall communication.
To what extent did the recent agreement between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church, on the autocephaly of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, contribute to improving relations between our countries?
Although we are a secular state, this decision – as a historic fact – has enormous implications for our country’s future.
The decision to accept the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archbishopric as a canonical one in the community of Orthodox churches closed the last identity issue. We accomplished the historically deserved and natural right for Orthodox believers in our country to have a canonically recognised church accepted by communities throughout the Orthodox world.
This canonically righteous decision was joyfully welcomed, as could be seen among all believers at the mutual service of representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church, as two equal sister churches. Macedonian citizens and Macedonian bishops, and the society in general, were patient and resilient for decades, so we can welcome the good news on the commencement of the procedure to achieve autocephaly for our Orthodox Church.
I see this decision as an advancement of our traditionally good neighbourly relations with the Republic of Serbia and the people of Serbia. This is a gesture of another helping hand for the shared prosperity of our countries and our people, and an act that shows how relations should be built in this region of states and citizens who are moving forward.
Did you and Serbian President Vučić discuss North Macedonia’s recent decision to close its airspace to the plane of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was due to be a guest of Belgrade? Was he resentful regarding that decision?
North Macedonia and Serbia are sovereign countries with their own policies regarding international issues, and we mutually recognise and respect each other’s positions. Our decision to deny the request of the Russian Embassy for special approval for use of the airspace for a flight to Belgrade was made because the government had already made a general decision to close the airspace of North Macedonia for airlines owned by the Russian Federation. Being a NATO member state, the Alliance’s decisions are also our decisions, and our foreign and security policy is fully harmonised with the policies of the EU and NATO on the issue of the war in Ukraine. That’s why this particular flight could not have been treated any other way, given the decision that had already been made and remains in force.
The Open Balkan Initiative favours integration over disintegration, open borders over closed ones, free movement over limited range
We work tirelessly on reforms at home to Europeanise our society. It is now time for the European Union to fulfil its promises before giving new ones
The decision to accept the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archbishopric as a canonical one in the community of Orthodox churches closed the last identity issue