North Macedonia can be viewed in the Balkans as an example of a country overcoming complex bilateral issues – even through painful moves such as the name change – in order to continue on its Euro-Atlantic path. What is the ‘lesson’ that North Macedonia can teach the region, especially to Serbia and Kosovo?
Let’s frame it more humbly, as a lesson we have learned, that may or may not be useful for our neighbours. First, both governments wanted a solution of the name dispute that has dragged us down for almost three decades. The Prespa Agreement was homemade, negotiated by the two sides. Our mediator and some international friends helped, but the ownership is clearly with North Macedonia and Greece. We managed to overcome the mutual blame game, usually a sign that substantial negotiations are not taking place, by careful examination of the motives and intentions of the other side. We invested in building trust, both personal between me and my counterpart, and dear friend Nikos Kotzias as foreign ministers and chief negotiators, as well as between the governments. We learned the sensitivities of the other side as if they were our own. And made our best to come up with a compromise covering the key concerns of both sides. We focused on interests rather than positions. We consulted regularly on communicating the compromise with the public, trying not to damage the other side when defending the compromise among our own citizens. In the last stage of the process, there was an interesting switch for both of us: we no longer perceived each other as adversaries. We have gradually become allies and our adversaries were the opponents of the compromise from both countries. At that point, the political costs of a failure were at least as big as the political capital spent on solving the problem. Because, to be honest, solving a three decades long dispute can never be about the next elections. It can only be about the next generation.
Do you believe the Serbian and Kosovo leaders are on par with the Macedonian and Greek leaders who signed the historic Prespa agreement? Alternatively, do you think that the Kosovo issue is too complex to be compared with?
I will underline here another lesson from the Prespa Agreement – a negative one – that resonated throughout the Western Balkans, including in Serbia and Kosovo, and severely undermined the credibility of the EU. North Macedonia lost generations stacked in the EU’s waiting room, because of the name issue. Having concluded the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU ahead of Croatia, now a member state since 2013, we have become a veteran or a professional EU candidate country. A baby born in 2005, when we became a candidate, is coming of age this year. To support the referendum on the Prespa Agreement, European leaders rushed to Skopje and promised Macedonian citizens that if the problem gets solved, North Macedonia would finally be allowed to open its EU accession talks. After all, we had had over ten positive recommendations by the European Commission that the country is ready to start negotiations. The last remaining obstacle was the name issue. The European Council conclusions from June 2018 set out the path towards opening accession talks in June 2019. To cut a painful story short, North Macedonia delivered but the EU failed to do so. This has sent a troubling and rather discouraging message to Balkan leaders. The vision of a stable and prosperous Balkans inevitably includes its European future, where borders become less or not relevant at all. This should be done through a merit-based process supporting and monitoring reforms towards our countries becoming vibrant democracies governed by the rule of law. European integration is an important incentive for leaders to solve long-standing disputes. If it is credible and realistic, it would be a significant impetus to tackle the remaining unresolved issues in the region.
Despite all of Skopje’s efforts, North Macedonia still faces challenges. How do you see the current tensions with Bulgaria, and how dangerous they are to the EU integration process of North Macedonia and Albania?
Bulgaria turned from a champion to the biggest obstacle of our European future in a matter of few weeks in 2019, taking the enlargement a hostage of issues of history and identity and completely derailing the Friendship Treaty signed two years before. “We should not allow a legitimisation of Macedonianism, of ideologies from former Yugoslavia and the Comintern, to find a place in the EU,” Bulgaria’s president Rumen Radev said in May last year. His words echo the infamous editorial of Russia’s state news agency, which stated that “Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construction.” Indeed, there are incredible similarities between Putin’s narrative on Ukraine and Bulgaria’s official narrative on ethnic Macedonians. Both are artificial nations, mistakes of history, created by Lenin and Tito respectively, claim Moscow and Sofia. Ukraine is a Russian land, while North Macedonia is Bulgarian. The Macedonian language is a dialect of the Bulgarian (Bulgaria submitted a unilateral declaration to that effect in Brussels), while Ukrainian is a dialect of Russian. The rights of Russians/Bulgarians are endangered and they must be enshrined in their respective constitutions.
The set of decisions and documents that seemingly unlocked the EU accession talks for North Macedonia last year did not solve them, but instead imported issues of history and identity in a process that should be about democratic and economic reforms. Even if North Macedonia manages to amend its Constitution, its progress towards EU membership will not only be about the rule of law, democracy and other European standards, but the dynamic will depend on whether historians agree with their Bulgarian counterparts. For the first time in the history of enlargement, the European Commission will report on historical and related issues. This risks completely side-lining the process of accession and sets a dangerous precedent. By giving in to the most nationalist demands of an individual member state, the EU might encourage others do the same. Considering that there are minorities and bilateral issues between all aspirants and their EU neighbours, the precedent opens the pandora’s box threatening to bury the whole process of enlargement.
The result of all of this is more stagnation, more frustration, and a potential for a perpetual political crisis in North Macedonia. A recent poll shows 65% of the citizens think EU’s attitude is unfair, and extorting, with those who believe the country will join in the next five years dropping to 12%. The ethnic Macedonians are offended and out of 42% of citizens who think that the country has an external threat, 27,6% see Bulgaria on top of the list, followed by Russia with 4%. It will take political leadership in both capitals and in the EU to overcome the current negative state of play and find a positive way out based on mutual respect, the integrity of the accession process and the acceptance of the right of the ethnic Macedonians to self-expression by Sofia. Because, good-neighbourly relations are a two-way street. In Europe, in 21st century, this is certainly not much to hope for.
The EU integration process remains largely stalled. How dangerous is it, given the geopolitical situation and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine?
In our region, EU enlargement turned from a perceived stairway to heaven into a road to nowhere. There is a process, yes. But it is difficult to see what does it achieve on the ground in terms of reforms, and where does it lead to. For some member states, the reform of the internal EU decision-making is a precondition for taking new members. If this failing template is applied to Ukraine and Moldova, there will be enormous frustration and disappointment. The gap between Kyiv’s expectations on accession and the reality within the EU is already visible. This in turn is embraced by the Russian narrative: The West cannot be trusted. That is why Europe needs a credible and realistic interim goal on our way to EU membership backed by political will, European funds, a set timeframe, in a flexible and dynamic performance-based process where reforms will be rewarded and backsliding sanctioned. Not an alternative to full membership, but something beneficial for the citizens on their way to membership, be that joining the Single Market or an initial membership without veto rights. This strategic agenda will have to include institutional or political tools to prevent arbitrary individual vetoes by member states unrelated to the Copenhagen criteria and irreconcilable with European values.
Russia targeted North Macedonia both before and after the country joined NATO. And now Moscow is ‘advising’ Bosnia and Herzegovina not to join the Alliance in order to avoid negative consequences. How would you rate Russia’s role in the Balkans?
In our region encircled by EU member states, we have three NATO allies and five EU candidate countries, with Kosovo recently applying for it. I am one of those who think of Russia as a spoiler. Moscow welcomes failing narratives in the Balkans, that can be then used as counter-narratives in its own neighbourhood. That the West cannot be trusted and will never deliver. The modus operandi is often adding fuel to existing grievances and disputes and disinformation campaigns. In times of a genocidal war on our continent, we have to do everything we can to help the victim, and we have to make the aggression as costly as possible for the brutal aggressor. We, however, also have to consolidate the rest of the continent and this must include the Balkans. If the EU cannot integrate the countries of the Western Balkans that have been promised membership as back as 2000 and that have been working on this vision ever since, it will certainly send the wrong message to Ukrainians who are fighting and getting killed for their European choice.