After many lost years, 2018 might become historic for the Republic of Macedonia, and for its EU and NATO future. Positive changes are coming on the wings of the new government’s determination to implement the necessary reforms and bring stability and prosperity to a country that has long been shackled by internal political disputes and battles with Greece over the official name of the country
“If we all focus on finding a solution for the dispute with Greece, 2018 can be a year to remember for the Republic of Macedonia, but also for the region, and for the EU and NATO. Therefore, I am a tireless optimist,” says Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev, whose country recently fulfilled all conditions to commence negotiation with the EU. It is with the same hope that the country is expecting an invitation to join NATO in July.
Macedonia received a recommendation to start EU accession talks back in 2005 and was almost invited to join NATO as far back as 2008. However, progress has been stalled ever since, due to the country’s unresolved name dispute with neighbouring Greece. Do you consider the reaching of agreement with Greece over the name of Macedonia today as a symbolic or far-reaching decision that opens the door to Macedonia’s future?
– The Decision of the European Commission to provide a crystal-clear recommendation to the European Council, stating that the Republic of Macedonia has fulfilled all conditions for launching negotiations with the EU, has confirmed the policies of the current government. In just 10 months, we have unravelled processes that were deeply ensnared by the irresponsible behaviour of the previous government and the political crisis.
I expect 2018 to bring new significant positive changes in PRIORITIES For us, the external priorities – Euro-Atlantic integrations – mean real opportunities for the more efficient realisation of domestic priorities the realisation of the country’s strategic Euro-Atlantic goals and the quality of life of the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia. We have placed negotiations with Greece on a friendly and dignified level, and my expectations are that they will lead to a solution that brings a good future for the citizens of both Macedonia and Greece, as well as the entire region.
During his visit to Macedonia, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that “if you continue with the reforms for a few more months, you will allow the [European] Commission to address to the Council [of the EU] an invitation to start accession negotiations”. How close do you think you are today to achieving this goal?
– The announcements and forecasts by EC President Juncker proved to be based on real foundations that he built with consideration for our real achievements. Our vigorous and committed efforts in the reform process are currently resulting in 95% implementation of the Reform Plan 3-6-9.
The Government, in broad consultations with the expert public and the civil sector, and through inclusive policies with political entities in the country, submitted the package of reform laws to the Parliament. As is visible to both the domestic and international public, the adoption of laws based on the recommendations of the EC and the remarks of the Reinhard Priebe Expert Group began with a broad consensus.
The changes we make – nationally, internationally, internally – are multidimensional and will yield the expected results in stages
I see awareness of the responsibility that we all – the Government, the opposition, the citizens – have for our future, for the future of our country, and the future of a stable and secure Europe. And I also see that the European Commission recognises and values our work, which propels Macedonia and the region forward. And that’s why a clear recommendation came, and in June I expect a date for the start of the Republic of Macedonia’s accession negotiations with the EU.
Over the past two years, the EU additionally conditioned its recommendation with demands for the holding of democratic elections and the fulfilment of urgent reform priorities drafted in the so-called Priebe Report. From this perspective, which reforms are the most pressing, and what has your government done to date to address them?
– All urgent reform priorities are addressed through amendments to the legal solutions that the Government has submitted to the Parliament and, as I said, their adoption has started.
This refers to reforms that have begun in the operations of the secret services, protected witness laws that were adopted by a two-thirds majority, the establishment of an independent body, the OTA (Operational Technical Agency), the monitoring of communications, and the voting on laws for ensuring an independent judiciary and rule of law.
We also anticipate legal changes that will ensure the professional work of the media, institutions that work in the interest of citizens, an efficient and non-partisan public administration, an electoral law that gives confidence etc. In short, we are creating an efficient state system that will guarantee rights and justice in the Republic of Macedonia, in accordance with European democratic standards.
That is also what we need as citizens; we need it to provide a stable climate for investments that will result in the creation of new jobs and economic development, and the opening of the doors to the EU and NATO. We believe sincerely in the benefits of these European values, which is why we succeeded in making such a step in this short period of time.
Many believe that NATO membership opens the door to a future in the EU, and not vice versa. What is your expectation from the NATO summit in July in that respect, both in the short and the long run?
– The reform process that we have started, as well as the policies of good neighbourly relations, contribute to European and Atlantic integration. We are working simultaneously on achieving both of these strategic goals. Yes, the Republic of Macedonia has an open invitation for NATO, which will come into effect as soon as there is a solution to the dispute with Greece.
I believe it’s clear to everyone that this is the moment when this can be achieved and, if we all focus on finding a solution, 2018 can be a year to remember for the Republic of Macedonia, but also for the region, the EU and NATO. Therefore, I am a tireless optimist and I expect an invitation to join NATO in July.
The Western Balkans is seen by many as a back door to the rivalry between Russia and the West. How do you perceive this in the context of Macedonia’s political life and your interactions with neighbouring countries?
– The Balkans have always been a point of interception for wider geostrategic goals. But if we are all focused on world peace, stability, security and economic development, then everything will be easier. Citizens of Western Balkan countries are largely determined in their wish for democracy, respect for human rights, freedom and justice. The Euro-Atlantic commitments of the majority of citizens of Western Balkan countries are clear, just as it is clear that the countries of the Western Balkans all need friendly economic relations with all countries worldwide.
Do you consider that the Western Balkans is today closer to its role as a factor of stability in this part of the world, or is it still a fragile underbelly of Europe?
The Western Balkans has shown that there can be sincere, energetic and committed political leaders who want, can and know how to assess what their citizens need, while at the same time being more comprehensive and willing, without calculations, to set the countries on the right track.
The Balkans have always been a point of interception for wider geostrategic goals. But if we are all focused towards world peace, stability, security and economic development, then everything will be easier
Therefore, if the Western Balkans has ever been firm in its orientation towards a common future, that time is now. And this is a very important juncture. We recognised the needs for interconnection and cooperation, and we showed Europe that it can only be whole, safe and stable with the full integration of all countries that belong to it geographically, historically and culturally.
We are undoubtedly a factor of stability in Europe, not of instability. The fact that Europe has recognised this and decided to reach out to the Western Balkans should be welcomed.
From the Macedonian perspective, what are the substantial outcomes, if any, of the Berlin Process?
I have already mentioned some of them: connection and cooperation between the countries of the region. We started working and have already received the first results in the infrastructural connectivity agreed at the Trieste Summit, the establishment of a regional economic zone – the business community is already cooperating actively, there are more customs incentives in flows of goods and people, the harmonisation of legislation and, last but not least, we have the Digital Summit in Skopje.
It is one thing that Europe has asked for such unification in the Western Balkans, but it is more important that the countries themselves have realised that if they are joined together they can be a bigger, more attractive and more respectable partner at the European level and worldwide, regardless of whether that is on the economic market or in other areas.
That will also improve the quality of life for the citizens of our countries. Therefore, we view the Berlin Process with great seriousness and are focused on how we can provide our contribution to it and even lead the process, in the interest of the whole region.
How do you see the roles of Turkey and China in the region, and in Macedonia specifically? What are the political and economic dimensions of their stronger role in the Balkans?
Turkey and China, like Russia, are traditionally good friends of the Republic of Macedonia. We have excellent cooperation in the fields of the economy, culture, education and agriculture, and I only expect to deepen relations in these and all other areas of importance for the everyday lives of our countries’ citizens.
I believe that there is interest among the countries of the region, as well as the Republic of Macedonia, in friendly, principled cooperation, based on healthy democratic relations with all countries in the world, because peace, security, stability and economic prospects are of national interest, but are also global needs.
Considering that your government has so many tasks to address both the national and international fronts, how do you assess the capacities of your team to face all challenges?
I have formed a Government widely set at both the political and civic levels – to restore the democracy in the country, to reinvigorate institutions, to deal with the consequences of the decade-long regime system.
Yes, thorough reforms are needed, goodwill is needed, sincere politics of friendship are needed, we need a firm belief that we are on the right track – and we have all proven that it is there. But it is also necessary to change the awareness of perceiving things since it is not possible for the 10-year regime not to leave any consequences in the collective sense of perception of things and actions.
We are working very seriously on raising living standards, providing higher salaries and new jobs. By doing this, we want to motivate young people to stay in Macedonia
Therefore, you are right, the changes we make – nationally, internationally, internally – are multidimensional and will give the expected results in stages, but if you’re asking if they have already started to deliver results, I would say yes, and I am satisfied when I hear that from citizens and our friends from the international community, who almost always start their meetings with us by remarking that positive, energetic changes in Macedonia can be felt. – We still haven’t completed a year of our mandate.
I analyse, monitor the reactions of citizens, listen to the opinions of every citizen, and it will all be seen whether and where strengthening is needed among expert, professional, efficient, honest, accountable, transparent and, above all, responsible authorities for the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia.
How would you assess public support for the changes initiated with the establishment of your government?
I believe that citizens are feeling the positive changes, since gaining the pleasure of having the freedom to say what they think, the freedom to be what they are, the open chances for everyone – there are things that cannot go unnoticed. I am aware that there is some impatience regarding certain essential changes in specific areas that impact directly on the everyday life of citizens; that there is some impatience in us as a Government as well, and that is a good thing, since that civil pressure gives us additional strength to exert maximum efforts for both efficient and quality results. We found a broken system – in every sense of the word; in some places, we laid foundations, in some we started to build, with every new day bringing a qualitative change – sooner or later, but these changes are becoming obvious.
What do you see as your priorities when it comes to the domestic political scene?
We are working very seriously on raising living standards, 14 | 163 | MAY providing higher salaries and new jobs.
By doing this, we want to motivate young people to live and work in our country, since emigration and the outflow of young people and high-quality workers is one of our major problems.
We have provided multiple forms of state support for companies and the equal treatment of foreign and domestic companies, and we will continue to act in that direction. We consider that this relaxes the political climate, in addition to building a society for all citizens. I expect to see effective changes in the health and education sectors, while also working on decentralising many services at the local level so that they are easily accessible by citizens.
According to the Constitution, the Republic of Macedonia is a welfare state and our challenge is to tackle the enormous poverty that we have encountered as a condition, while in the meantime providing adequate social protection for everyone in need. For us, the external priorities – Euro-Atlantic integrations – mean real opportunities for the more efficient realisation of domestic priorities, and therefore full stabilisation of the citizens and the state.
How has the Berlin Process impacted on bilateral relations between Serbia and Macedonia? How would you describe these relations today and what are the major factors contributing to their further development?
Both the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia and the citizens of the Republic of Serbia need to live in a modern, European, democratically-developed society. We have friendly relations with Serbia, the citizens of both countries have historically close relations; we have a common past, but also, more importantly, a common future – via integration into the European Union. The Berlin Process is only helping us on that road.
After having almost the same types of economic disputes with Serbia over agricultural products, would you say that the two sides are now closer to finding a sustainable solution for these issues?
– There is a solution for every open issue if there is a will to make one. We are determined to solve agriculture issues, as well as all other issues, through dialogue – as should be done by a country that aspires to be part of the Euro-Atlantic family. The Republic of Macedonia provides reasons, and will further give even more compelling reasons, to have and maintain the great support it receives from the international community in achieving these goals.