Our intention is to activate the fast track of negotiations through chapters with the full and unconditional fulfilment of our EU agenda… We will not allow further delays. We accept the new principle of reversibility of the process if there is a degradation of the democratic environment in our country, but I would stress that our solemn obligation is not to allow that in the name of the future of the state and its citizens ~ Zoran Zaev
North Macedonia expects the formal start of its negotiations on EU membership by the end of the year, which it was promised in 2018 following the concluding of the historic agreement with Greece on the country’s official name. Although it seems that all preconditions for the launch of that process have been fulfilled and support for the start of negotiations has been secured from all EU bodies, doubts are being raised by voices from Bulgaria. This Macedonian neighbour is highlighting unresolved bilateral issues related to language and interpretation of history, which could pose a problem for Bulgaria when it comes to giving the green light to North Macedonia on its path to EU membership. Speaking for CorD Magazine, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev says that the Macedonian language is an integral part of the country’s national identity and expresses hope that these two countries, which are NATO allies, will find ways to improve their mutual relations.
Prime Minister Zaev, you have again been chosen to lead the government of North Macedonia. What are your priorities on the internal and international fronts?
Our goal during this mandate will be to bring complete transformation and the Europeanisation of the Republic of North Macedonia. In this regard, this will be a period in which we will be focused on more efficient institutions, the transformation of the domestic economy, protecting the population from the COVID-19 crisis, accelerated economic growth in the post-COVID period, and on implementing European standards as our domestic standards. Here I’m primarily referring to ensuring the rule of law and the fight against corruption.
We showed in the previous mandate that we can work honestly, responsibly and professionally in the interest of citizens and the interests of the State. In the coming period, we will continue to be focused on implementing our agenda even better and even more.
Speaking during the election, you announced that your country is awaited by a “stable political period, a period of predictability”, and that everyone needs to “grab this moment”. What is the source of such optimism in a year that’s proved as turbulent and unpredictable as 2020?
I draw my optimism from achievements made during the previous mandate. We showed in the past three years that we can provide higher economic growth that creates new jobs and at the same time provide higher salaries. We demonstrated that the historically lowest unemployment rate can be achieved, and the minimum wage can be increased by as much as 60 per cent, from 9,000 denars to 14,500 denars, in less than three years.
We demonstrated that we have an ambitious and complete concept for continuing the positive policies that we launched, thus undertaking bold, coordinated, negotiated and effective policies that adapt our economy to the current situation.
This is an additional source of motivation for us to work twice as hard and not only to get out of the COVID-19 crisis with fewer consequences, but also to quickly return to previous growth rates.
We have a plan for an innovative, stable and competitive Macedonian economy, ready to respond to new challenges and offer a chance to everyone.
In such an economy, salaries will continue to rise. During the crisis, we made a commitment to retain the minimum wage of 14,500 denars.
After the end of the crisis, the Government will continue with its proven efforts: increase of the minimum wage by 20 to 40 per cent by the end of the mandate and increase of the average salary by 20 to 30 per cent by the end of the mandate, depending on the length and impact of the coronavirus crisis on the world and domestic economy.
Our goal is to put our economy on a path to solid and sustainable growth of four per cent by the end of the mandate. We need stability and predictability to achieve that. That’s why it’s important for the new government to complete its entire four-year mandate.
Following the latest European Council meeting, which was held last month, what are your expectations regarding the actual opening of EU accession negotiations? Will that happen by the end of this year, and is North Macedonia ready for that?
Our intention is to activate the fast track of negotiations through chapters with full and unconditional fulfilment of our EU agenda. On our part, we will not allow further delays. We accept the new principle of reversibility of the process if there is a degradation of the democratic environment in our country, but I would stress that our solemn obligation is not to allow that in the name of the future of the state and its citizens.
We hope that discussions on the negotiating framework in Brussels will have a successful conclusion at the General Affairs Council, GAC, on 10th November, after which it will be realistic to expect the first intergovernmental conference to be held in December.
We hope that discussions on the negotiating framework in Brussels will have a successful conclusion at the General Affairs Council, GAC, on 10th November, after which it will be realistic to expect the first intergovernmental conference to be held in December
Despite the health and economic crisis that has impacted our country, as well as other countries around the world, the Government will remain focused on creating conditions for a new cycle of dynamic economic growth, sustainable development, effective rule of law and strong institutions, modern education and a stable society and internal cohesion.
We are on a path of no return. We have spent considerable time on conflicts instead of resolving them. The benefits of our work are felt presently and will continue to benefit future generations. With every step, with every open chapter in accession negotiations with the EU, with every problem solved, we work to improve the quality of life for all citizens.
You’ve said that you’re convinced that neighbouring Bulgaria will not oppose the start of your country’s negotiations on EU membership. However, Bulgaria has forwarded a memorandum to EU member states detailing your disagreements regarding the language and relations towards historical events. This, in turn, has prompted the EU’s enlargement commissioner to call on you to resolve these disagreements, noting how similar disputes with Greece have also been resolved. From your perspective, how much room exists to reach a compromise with Bulgaria, if that is required for the sake of EU integration?
We are NATO allies with the Republic of Bulgaria; we have a common obligation and duty to improve our good-neighbourly relations, cooperate mutually and build our friendship.
The Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation with the Republic of Bulgaria creates a legal framework and offers instruments for managing bilateral issues, and we are committed to its implementation.
The rights to self-determination and self-identification are fundamental European values and benefits of civilisation. The uniqueness of the Macedonian language and Macedonian ethnic identity is an indisputable fact.
The Macedonian language is an integral part of North Macedonia’s identity card in the United Nations and part of the many accepted and recognised modern languages that are taught at universities around the world.
The Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation is a reflection of mutual respect and friendship and implies and requires responsibility and active participation on both sides, and that is exactly what we need to do in the coming period.
In the spirit of goodwill and friendship, our position is that the historical figures and events should be discussed and a common language must be found by the members of the Macedonian-Bulgarian Joint Multidisciplinary Expert Commission on Educational and Historical Issues, and we should focus on strengthening relations between both countries.
Hasty steps from either side are counterproductive. It is much more important to have responsibility to the present and the future.
The spirit of the Prespa Agreement should be an inspiration for other issues, with a single and common goal: strengthening good neighbourly relations, in accordance with European values and international law, and thus the future of the generations for whose prospects we are responsible
How is work progressing on implementation of the action plan for the Prespa Agreement with Greece? What work is being undertaken by the expert committee for historical, educational and archaeological issues?
The Interdisciplinary Committee on Historical, Archaeological and Educational Matters, established by our country and the Republic of Greece, in accordance with the Prespa Agreement, will soon hold its fifth meeting, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thus far, a level of constructive cooperation in the Committee has been achieved within the provisions of the Prespa Agreement, and common directions have been established for reaching solutions for the recommendations that this Committee should submit to the governments of the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Greece, as a good foundation for finding concrete solutions for historical narratives that will educate future generations in the European spirit of understanding and cooperation.
The Prespa Agreement is not only a solution to the name dispute between the two countries, but also an agreement on a long-term strategic partnership and the development of a broad-based relationship between the two countries.
The spirit of the Prespa Agreement should be an inspiration for other issues, with a single and common goal: strengthening good neighbourly relations, in accordance with European values and international law, and thus the future of the generations for whose prospects we are responsible.
In that regard, meetings with Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou were held in a very positive atmosphere in Athens in September this year, when it was emphasised that the Republic of Greece remains a strong partner, supporter and lobbyist for our country in the European integration and for the successful completion of this process.
It is especially important that significant political decisions are expected in the coming period to facilitate the initiatives of business communities between the two countries, such as agreements for the avoidance of double taxation and protection of investments.
How would you comment on the announced EU economic/investment plan for the Western Balkans and its allocating of nine billion euros for the region over the next six years?
The €9 billion financial support through the IPA III funding, set out in the EU’s Economic Investment Plan for the Western Balkans in the form of a combined grant and favourable loans to support the economic convergence of the Western Balkans with the European Union, is a strong message of support for the region’s European perspective and the complementarity of the reform processes with accelerated economic development.
North Macedonia has already determined the list of national projects that will have a serious social impact, such as projects in the field of waste and wastewater management, use of the country’s hydro power potential and improvement of the gas network.
Of course, when I mention the gas network, I also mean the regional connection through gas corridors as new or alternative gas supply opportunities for the region, as well as other projects for the improvement of the road and railway infrastructure network along Corridor 8, which the Government of North Macedonia, along with the governments of other countries in the region, submitted to the European Union.
This support of the European Union is important for North Macedonia and the region as a whole. The EU Economic Investment Plan for the Western Balkans contains all the ideas in the areas where one can contribute the most to the economy’s recovery of in the fastest sustainable way.
This opens the possibility, through a swift procedure, by smartly managing the serious amount of financial support to realise all the selected initiatives, which best reflect the priorities and will contribute to changing the landscape of the region in the economic field and lead to the Western Balkans becoming an effective region where investment has been made and where the living conditions for the people of the region will be improved.
The borders between North Macedonia and Serbia have now reopened. How high are the economic losses caused by the tougher conditions for communication/movements in the region?
Despite the complete closure of both countries during the crisis, the border between North Macedonia and Serbia was never closed for the movement of goods. This is primarily a result of the excellent cooperation that exists between the two countries in the framework of bilateral cooperation, as well as within the CEFTA Secretariat.
The result of our efforts was the introduction of the so-called Green Corridors between the two countries, as well as within CEFTA. With the concept of Green Corridors, the customs and police services of the two countries committed to ensuring that, even under the most difficult conditions, the border between the two countries should not be closed for goods, in order to maintain the smooth movement of goods. In addition to the Green Corridors, with a joint effort of the customs services, a Priority List of Goods was introduced, listing what goods should have priority when crossing the border.
The Priority List includes agricultural and food products, medications and medical equipment. Despite the existence of police curfews and bans on free movement, the governments of both countries never allowed the closure of borders for the movement of goods, which confirms the extremely high level of good neighbourly relations and friendship, which also exist on a personal level with the President and Prime Minister of Serbia.
It is important to note that North Macedonia and Serbia have joint controls at the border, through the so-called ONE STOP SHOP, and confirmation of this project’s success and continuity in the movement of goods through the Green Corridors was provided by the recent visit to the Tabanovce-Presevo joint border crossing by the Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council, the Director of the CEFTA Secretariat and the Director of the Western Balkans Transport Community.
As regards trade, there was a specific trend of a slowdown in trade between the two countries during the period from March to September 2020, compared to the same period of 2019, which is a result of the global pandemic and the disruption of global supply chains.
However, I can conclude that economic relations between the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Serbia are excellent and that Serbia is one of our most important trade partners, and we are striving to constantly enhance these relations. The next priorities are the further expansion of the Green Corridors towards external borders and the completion of the initiated process for mutual recognition of the Authorised Economic Operator approvals, which should contribute to further facilitating trade.
Despite the existence of police curfews and bans on free movement, the governments of both countries never allowed the closure of borders for the movement of goods, which confirms the extremely high level of good neighbourly relations and friendship
How would you evaluate the current level of total bilateral relations with Serbia?
North Macedonia and Serbia nurture long-standing and traditionally good bilateral relations that are additionally strengthened each passing year. We have an intense and friendly political dialogue, confirmed by regular and frequent meetings and high-level visits. The advancement and upgrading of mutual relations is our guide that will be passed on as an invaluable treasure for present and future generations.
Our mutual respect and appreciation, our cooperation, and the ties that exist between the Macedonian and Serbian people have always been our advantage, which we should develop with devotion. It is our common serious contribution to building a better future for our people, our countries, and the entire region.
The opening of the system for joint border management at the Tabanovce-Presevo border crossing, according to the One-Stop-Shop principle, is of great benefit to our citizens and the economies of both countries.
Each step forward provides additional impetus to further enhance and deepen bilateral relations and regional cooperation in all areas of mutual interest, and is a great example for other countries of how to improve and facilitate overall communication.
Infrastructure connections, as part of regional cooperation, are gaining a greater dimension. We need to identify common interests and joint action in order to receive support for the implementation of transport, infrastructure and energy projects and initiatives, in line with the guidelines of the Berlin Process.
How do you see the regional ‘Mini Schengen’ initiative?
The essence of the regional cooperation initiative lies in our joint contribution to the realisation and fulfilment of the content of the four EU freedoms in the Western Balkans – for the free movement of people, products, services and capital in our common region. This is an authentic process of our country, Albania and Serbia, and we immediately called on other countries in the region to join us. We are open to all initiatives that move in the direction of strengthening regional cooperation and accelerate the EU integration process for all Western Balkan countries.
The initiative for greater regional cooperation is nobody’s exclusive property or closed club.
There is a lot of untapped potential in increasing regional cooperation. We will receive more respect and support from the EU if we independently show political leadership and care for the promotion of cooperation.
I believe that strengthened regional cooperation can provide a serious contribution to the relaxing of political relations in the region.
We must introduce the European principles of cooperation and functioning to our region. We must bring Europe to the Balkans in each of our countries.
That is an integral part of our homework for integration into the European Union.
We are on a path of no return. We have spent considerable time on conflicts instead of resolving them. The benefits of our work are felt presently and will continue to benefit future generations
I can conclude that economic relations between the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Serbia are excellent and that Serbia is one of our most important trade partners
We must introduce the European principles of cooperation and functioning to our region. We must bring Europe to the Balkans in each of our countries