Macedonia is turning the page
Exclusive interview with Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of the Republic of Macedonia. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt
ADAM REICHARDT: You have been in power now since May 2017, with a promise to change the direction of Macedonian politics, including its European and NATO future. This was highlighted in your recent trip to Brussels to lobby on your country’s behalf. Can you give our readers some insight on how you plan to bring Macedonia back on the European path and what are the challenges you see ahead?
ZORAN ZAEV: My country went through a very difficult political crisis. A very big part of this crisis was the frustration that the society felt for the delayed European and NATO integration of the country. In 2005 we received candidate EU status, but nothing else beyond that. In 2008 Greece did not agree with our NATO membership at the Bucharest Summit. Now that we have emerged from this political crisis, our citizens’ expectations are very high that we will get the country back on track. This is what has been happening in the past six months. The new government has set strategic priorities for the upcoming period. This includes entering NATO – becoming a full NATO member – and then starting the negotiations for EU membership.
As Jean-Claude Junker, president of the European Commission, stated during my visit in Brussels, the results so far in my country are encouraging. He positively assessed our reform goals which are taking place in several sectors: the judiciary, public administration, the intelligence services and the media.
These reforms are not only important for getting into the EU and NATO, but they are, first and foremost, important for our citizens. These reforms are centred in our plan – Three-Six-Nine: What will happen in the first three months, what will happen in the first six months and what will happen in the first nine months of the new government. Through this plan, we are trying to improve our citizens’ quality of life. The meetings we had in Brussels with Junker, Frederica Mogherini, Johannes Hahn, and the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, was to give them an overview of what has happened so far, and to make sure that Macedonia is included in the EU strategy for the Western Balkans. We also hope to finally get a starting date for negotiations in July 2018 – 13 years since we were first granted candidate status.
A very important date for us is May 17th 2018 – when the next EU Summit on the Western Balkans will take place in Sofia. Bulgaria is one of our neighbours which is a member of the EU and an important state for Western Balkan countries. I am very happy that we came back from Brussels with a positive assessment for our results and I am very encouraged to continue down this road. Our road towards the EU and fulfilling those criteria would also mean fulfilling the criteria for becoming a full NATO member.
Would you say that NATO membership is first on Macedonia’s agenda? Or is it parallel…
We have an automatic invitation from the NATO alliance as long as we can achieve an agreement with Greece. The barrier is the name issue. We are good neighbours, we have good co-operation. But the problem exists now for 23 years and we hope we can find a solution in the first half of 2018. Having that in mind, we hope that at the time of the NATO Summit in July we will have our invitation and in 18 months after that we will have the ratification of our NATO membership in the parliaments of the NATO states.
That sounds very optimistic. How has the experience of Montenegro influenced your wish to join the Alliance?
Montenegro joining the Alliance and becoming its 29th member last year is the biggest reason for us to be optimistic. We are very close and we have fulfilled the same NATO criteria as Montenegro. And that is why we have an automatic invitation. In parallel, we have been participating in NATO missions in Afghanistan. In fact, we are the fourth largest contributor of troops – based on contributors per capita – to the mission in Afghanistan. And we are in the process of increasing our contribution. Every year we will increase our budget for interoperability to improve our co-operation with our NATO partners. The encouragement that Montenegro gives us is the message that membership is still possible, as long as we can find a solution to the name issue with Greece.
You mentioned relations and the name issue with Greece … how would you describe Macedonia’s relations with its other neighbours now with the new government? There have been some challenging relations in the past…
Before the new government came to power, Macedonia had some kind of disagreement with all of its neighbours. Since last May, we started to send a signal to our neighbours – we have five of them –that we want to turn the page. We recently signed an agreement with Bulgaria on improving neighbourly relations and co-operation. We did this without any mediators or external pressure. This was a bilateral initiative and shows our intent as well as the courage of the Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borisov. It shows that it is possible to build friendly relations with neighbours. We have also improved our relations with Serbia, Kosovo and Albania.
And we have positive relations with Greece. We have recently implemented nine measures for building trust between the two countries. I always mention this data – at the moment we are a country with 1.6 million citizens who are permanently here in the country and we have more than one million visiting Greece. It shows how close we are on all levels. Now the Greek politicians and citizens are very aware of our intent and there is a positive climate. We need them to help us. Our position is to ask Greece for help with the hope that we can find a solution to this name problem. I also hope that our increased co-operation will benefit the Greeks, as they still have some financial issues. I believe that in a very careful way and by taking care of each other we will find a solution to this problem. After 23 years, it is a kind of a ridiculous problem, but it exists and it is not easy for Greece. They have a region in the northern part of the country called Macedonia. We are the state or the Republic of Macedonia. There is a need to find common ground on this. For us it is important to focus on how to move into the future. Of course, we share a common history. But if we are smart enough, we will focus on the co-operation with the youth and open the doors for future generations.
Can you speak a bit more about your relations with Serbia? There were accusations that a Serbian intelligence officer was involved in the unrest in parliament last April and at one point Serbia withdrew its embassy staff briefly in August…
I was very patient and careful during that time period. I personally believe that Serbia is not our enemy, but is one of our greatest friends. Maybe it was the behaviour of one individual, but we found a way, through diplomacy and friendship, to take care of the situation. Of course it was damaging when they pulled out the whole embassy from Skopje – which I do not really understand why. But we peacefully managed the situation with direct contact. One week later they returned and relations have improved. In November we had a state visit to Serbia. We have prepared bilateral goals that we both agreed on. For example, we want to create a one-stop-shop at the border to make it easier and quicker for trucks to pass through. We are increasing co-operation at the local level and business ties are strengthening. And we both agree if a specific issue develops in the future – no matter how difficult it is – we will call each other and co-ordinate, in the spirit of friendship.
You mentioned NATO membership as one of your main goals. How worried are you about Russian interference or attempts to stop you from achieving this aim?
We are very sure – 80 per cent of our citizens are sure – that there is no alternative for us than NATO and the European Union. I am also aware that the Russian Federation knows this. Bearing that in mind, we want to improve our relations with all countries. We are a small country. I know that there is some interest in energy and economics on the Russian side, and there could be some risk for Russian influence, but for me and my citizens we see no alternative to NATO or the EU. We spoke honestly with representatives of Russia so that they would understand our position. I have a sense they are not against our integration into the EU. But it does seem they are against our membership in NATO. Okay, I try to understand that. But all opinion polls show how strong our society supports this move. There is no other alliance for us to participate in – what is the alternative? Our fight for achieving these goals is not just that we want to be members [of NATO and the EU]. It is also based on the common values we share.
What are some of the domestic challenges within Macedonia that you plan to focus on? You mentioned your initial strategy – the Three-Six-Nine Plan. What has been achieved and what is yet to be achieved?
We are now in the sixth month, in which we are planning on strengthening the judiciary: with judges and the courts on one side and the prosecutor’s office on the other. We are trying to remove the political influence in the judicial process. We have already adopted a strategy for that. We have already adopted new laws last December to reform the judiciary which has opened the debate. We must also finish the full implementation of the new system of intelligence services which must be independent and under the protection of the prosecutor’s office – not under the ministry of the interior. This will help us improve our fight against terrorism and radical extremism as well as corruption. This also means providing civil control of the system as well as parliamentary oversight. This is one of the main reforms in the ministry of interior.
In the media, we are implementing a new law which was consulted with the association of journalists in Macedonia – who are positive towards it. The new law will have a direct impact on the national broadcaster (the public agency for media), as well as preparing better conditions for developing private media. This includes financial independence, political independence and managerial independence in public media which should have a positive influence on private media. And the fourth area is the professionalism and effectiveness of the state administration. This includes choosing the leadership of public institutions based on certain criteria via public announcements and transparent procedures. We are also implementing concrete measures for the effectiveness of the administration, such as penalties and awards for building a more professional public workforce. Of course this is part of the criteria for the EU, but it is also to improve general conditions in the country.
Personally, I am an economist. I am seeking to attract more investments, domestic and foreign. I am exploring how to promote our geographic position and resources, our competitive workforce, our low economic standard, which can be good for companies and seeking the measures we can use to attract them. Over the last six months 19 companies, very huge companies from around Europe, have come here. We recently signed a new agreement with a Turkish company and there are around 10 more pending. It is very important to me that we create jobs and opportunities – to keep our young people in the country, grow our GDP and living standards. We have also increased our budget for capital investment in order to improve the infrastructure of the country with a better electricity network, good schools, good hospitals, etc. That is the most important element of my government. I spend almost one-third of my time with potential investors and economic experts to help achieve a five per cent growth in our GDP. The average in Europe is one and a half to two per cent. If we want to catch up with other European countries, we have to grow much faster.
Lastly, what would you say are some misconceptions that Europeans or Americans have about Macedonia? How should we break these stereotypes?
Not only about Macedonia, but the whole Western Balkans – this is not a dangerous place anymore. It is not being bombed anymore. Our young generation, which is very active online, sees itself as part of the West. We are in Europe, we are not out of Europe. Our place is in the EU. I would send a message to them to not forget the reasons why the European Union is here – it is in the economic interest of the citizens. Yes, there are some current difficulties in the EU – Brexit, the situation in Catalonia, etc. But the European Union exists for the benefit of the citizens and I hope this will continue in the future. Politicians come and go. But united we will be powerful in front of other states, in front of China, in front of the Eastern part of Europe or Asia.
That is also a reason to be together with NATO. We do not want to spend all our money on weapons, tanks and airplanes – we are a small country. Only if we are part of the global protection system can we be safe. We will give as many reasons as possible to the decision-makers in the EU and NATO to have a positive view of our country and the entire region of the Western Balkans.
New Eastern Europe would like to thank the Polish Embassy in Skopje as well as Jacek Multanowski, the Polish Ambassador to Macedonia, for the assistance in arranging this interview.
Zoran Zaev has served as the prime minister of Macedonia since May 31st 2017. He is the leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia.
Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.