Delays in launching accession talks with the European Union are taking a hefty toll on public support for the European integration project in North Macedonia, the Balkan country’s President Stevo Pendarovski tells Kathimerini in an interview after his visit to Athens.
Pendarovski, who became the first president of the neighboring state to visit the Greek capital, says that Greece is the warmest champion of North Macedonia’s membership aspirations and he makes no secret of his concern over lingering domestic opposition to the Prespes accord. He nevertheless remains optimistic that if another party climbs to power in Skopje, it will implement the agreement in spite of its stated opposition to the pact.
In light of this and following his talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Pendarovski says he understands that the political climate in Greece at the moment would not be receptive to certain moves by the conservative administration.
He also shares details about the negotiations which led to the Prespes agreement and the talks between the two leaders at the time, Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras, stressing that they both showed political courage.
He also reveals that Matthew Nimetz, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for the name dispute, was pessimistic about the prospects of a compromise between the two sides during his lifetime.
According to the North Macedonia president, the US was the key player in pushing the deal, adding that the EU has failed to assume a meaningful role in recent years – being in introvert mode, particularly after Brexit – while cautioning against the malign influence of third parties.
How is the Prespes agreement moving forward? How do the people and the politicians in North Macedonia view it?
That dispute lasted for so long. Attempts have been made by both sides throughout the years. We were close to a compromise in 2001 when Ljubco Georgievski was prime minister. What is interesting according to sources from that period is that the proposal for the name was the same: North Macedonia. But Georgievski did not have the majority. Also at that time ethnic Albanians had rebelled because of their very small inclusion in the state institutions – only 2.5%. So all the political forces back then were preoccupied with the Ohrid Agreement, which concluded the conflict with heavy support from the international community. Before and after that I cannot invoke any single situation where we have been close to a compromise, despite the various proposals by Matthew Nimetz.
Nimetz spent many years on that.
Mr Nimetz was not quite optimistic – I spoke to him after the Prespes agreement – that he would see an agreement reached during his lifetime. What was, in my view, crucial to the agreement was the political courage in both capitals. Everybody knows that when you have these very delicate, sensitive agreements, you will not increase your political standing. The prime ministers in both countries and the international community were very active, especially Washington. We had a triangle of success: Athens, Skopje plus Washington DC.
What about Brussels?
No. The European Union is a very heterogeneous organization. Even the interim accord of 1995 between the two countries happened because of pressure from the Americans. There is not a single serious dispute in the Balkans where the US administration has not been instrumental. Even the US ambassador [in Athens], Geoffrey Pyatt, was instrumental at some point during the negotiations. Of course the crucial part of all that happened in the first lengthy meeting between Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
But what was the major driving force? The pressure from abroad or the leaders’ political will?
Resistance to the agreement was huge in both countries. That resistance still exists – in some corners of our society for sure. For Greece I think there are still pockets of dissatisfaction. In North Macedonia it was extremely difficult because we would have to change the name – not you – and also change the constitution, two-thirds of the majority. That was because of the need to include the “erga omnes” use of the name for internal use.
Did Tsipras and Zaev talk about the political atmosphere in their respective countries?
Mr Zaev told me that during the Davos meeting Tsipras asked him about the erga omnes. Zaev responded that he would need two-thirds of the majority, 80 out of 120 MPs. And he said he had only 62 and couldn’t do it. Eventually with one smaller Albanian party in the opposition he got 67. And Tsipras told him, “Why not go to new elections and get the majority?” Zaev responded, “That’s virtually impossible for anyone in North Macedonia to get a two-thirds majority in whatever elections. When Kiro Gligorov was the candidate in 1994 he got a two-thirds majority in the political structure he led at the time, but only because the opposition boycotted the second round. Even with the legendary Gligorov, we could not do it. How will I do it?” said Zaev. Then Tsipras told him: “That is your responsibility. I was just asking.”
Let’s move on to today. There has been some criticism from Greece and the government as well. There are some protocols that need to be ratified by the Greek side, but that is connected to the fact that your side has not yet moved effectively to your part of the agreement…
I spoke with your prime minister and your president. Before arriving in Athens, I asked our Foreign Ministry for the latest status of affairs regarding our obligations for the Prespes agreement. I got 19 pages. We have done 99.9% of our part. And I can tell you that in my discussions here, when I asked about the Greek obligations, about police cooperation etc – nothing sensitive – the prime minister said that he didn’t want to scratch wounds, and that the political configuration right now in Greece is not suitable for such things. I said, “I’m not in a position to press you, but I fully understand your position.” For example, we have signed a military, technical agreement that doesn’t need to be approved by your Parliament for air policing. Greek airplanes are guarding our skies. It is in place. It needs no ratification. We know there are some people in Greece within the ruling party that are not satisfied with the current configuration, so some things cannot proceed now.
But there are positive aspects, right?
Leaving that aside, two of the energy projects, the gas terminal at Alexandroupoli and the new pipeline from Thessaloniki to Skopje, are mature. For the second one we are waiting funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. For the first, I spoke with Geoffrey Pyatt this morning and told him that this is in great part a geopolitical project. We would like to diversify our energy supply for the same reasons as all other countries in the region. These two projects are going to proceed. Americans support it. It started two years ago with the visit by Mike Pompeo to the region.
How do you feel about the influence of other countries in the region?
There are extra-regional players. We felt their influence especially after 2018 and the referendum on the name. We witnessed the overnight emergence of portals claiming that “you don’t need to be a member of NATO,” “you don’t need to be a member of the EU.” We have received help from the NATO alliance in that regard. In September 2018, Pentagon experts came to Skopje, with the former secretary of defense, James Mattis, to help tackle this malign influence. In general, extra-regional players are conducting all this political propaganda through regional proxies.
In Greece we had a political change. SYRIZA voted for the Prespes agreement. Now New Democracy, even though it had voted against it, is still implementing it. In North Macedonia the same party is still in power. What if the government changes? Would the agreement still be respected?
We still have the same government in power. We can only estimate. I’m not happy to hear the rhetoric from both big parties of the opposition, not just VMRO but also Levitsa [The Left]. I’m not happy to see that the whole political opposition is still against the Prespes agreement. What I would expect from the oppositional parties is that, “OK, we would not have signed this agreement” – like Mitsotakis did in Greece – “but, once in power, because we are serious politicians of a serious democracy…” – and there is continuity, continuity in state politics should be a feature of each serious state. That’s the kind of rhetoric I would like to hear, that kind of message from the opposition. Maybe because they’re still in the opposition they don’t feel ready to say it. My feeling is that when the opposition comes to power, they will respect the Prespes agreement. But that’s just a guess, because I can’t think how they will step back from NATO membership and EU prospects.
Does the support that Greece is offering your EU accession help in this context?
For 25 years Greece was the main blockade. Now it is the most vocal advocate for our EU accession. Not only for North Macedonia, but the whole of the Western Balkans. Did you see PM Mitsotakis’ latest statement in Slovenia? He said that he disagrees with the Bulgarian blockade because North Macedonia deserves to start negotiation talks.
Would that help with opponents inside North Macedonia?
No. As we are not progressing toward the EU, more nationalistic forces are gaining ground. That’s the problem. When you are negotiating with the EU the political debate is within these brackets. There is a highway. When you are not, all the foreign influences are here, then all the people start to wonder, “Maybe there is an alternative to the EU.” And there is a very dangerous thesis that starts to become more and more evident. We have demands from the French side for a new methodology for the negotiations. Before it was the Greek blockade. Now it is the Bulgarian blockade. Some ordinary people are saying: “Maybe Bulgaria is not alone in this blockade. Maybe the biggest and most powerful countries of the EU would not like to see Western Balkan countries become EU members at all.” So they wonder if they should look for alternatives. But what are the alternatives? Authoritarians, populists, the illiberal democracies some European leaders are suggesting?
Do you believe that the Bulgarian blockade is the latest impediment to start negotiating with the EU?
No. I will try to explain the situation as a whole for the Western Balkans. It seems to me that the EU is inward-looking. It is in a high level of confusion after Brexit. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been totally forgotten. Non-functional states, each entity is saying whatever they like. Serbia and Montenegro are the litmus test for European integration. Why? They’ve been negotiating for almost a decade and they’re not progressing. The last entry into the EU was Croatia. All in all, from the beginning until ratifying the protocols, seven years. Montenegro has been negotiating for nine years, Serbia for eight years. They’re not even in the middle of that process. And I’m asking, you know, I’m going to elections tomorrow – what am I going to say to my people? I have campaigned in 2019 on three points: the Prespes agreement, agreement with Bulgaria and the law on elevating the Albanian language to the second official language throughout the territory. If I go to the new elections with the same electoral platform, I will lose. People will say, “Where is Europe now? What should we sign now?” As Bulgarians demand that we are ethnic Bulgarians, speaking a Bulgarian dialect. The same feelings exist between ordinary citizens in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo.
What should be done?
Kosovo is asking for visa liberalization, and is not getting it. In our recent meeting with the EU as Western Balkan countries, Albanian PM Edi Rama asked Josep Borrell how Ukraine got visa liberalization with 45 million inhabitants while Kosovo with 1.5 million cannot get the same. So the European idea is losing its attractiveness because of the paralyzing integration process. And more and more people living in the whole region are looking for alternatives. That’s a very bad omen for everyone, including the EU and USA. The US is not very present in the region, it has other global priorities. Europeans rarely come out with a unified attitude about many things. I can tell you that if you ask people if the EU is serious about one day incorporating all of us, they will say no, in dominant numbers. Because of this gap in the last year support for European integration in my country fell by 20%, from 85% to almost 65-67%.