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President of North Macedonia, Mr Stevo Pendarovski, recently spoke at an event moderated by Shada Islam and hosted by Friends of Europe in Brussels, Belgium. He discussed the Enlargement Process, the Prespa agreement, and the challenges North Macedonia and the Balkan region are presently facing. To see what he had to say, see below.
Shada Islam: So, good afternoon everyone. It’s just midday so I can say good afternoon. Welcome everyone, and please join me in welcoming also our guest of honour today, the president of North Macedonia, Mr Stevo Pendarovski.
So, Mr President, thank you so much for coming over. We’ve been waiting for you to come and to send a few messages, very important messages, to the European Union. I’m not going to introduce the President, we all know who he is and we’re delighted that he has been elected very recently, and of course, Mr President, your election was seen as a strong signal of public support for the Prespa agreement, which allows us to call you the President of North Macedonia, which is delightful.
When you took over, Mr President, at your inauguration, you said you would be “President of all citizens, that you are committed to respecting the rule of law, and bringing the country closer to accession to the EU. So I’d like to give you the floor, once you have spoken I’ll have a few questions to follow up, and then all of you, I know you’re all interested in seeing and asking the President some questions. We have until 1 o’clock so without further ado, Excellency, the floor is yours.
President Stevo Pendarovski: Thank you for the invitation, I have warm greetings for all of you, especially our host. I have been before in this kind of format, this kind of gathering, but never on this side. I saw a few familiar faces, who I haven’t seen for years, although I have been coming to Brussels for many years in different capacities, now for the first time as the President of my country. I would like to be very short in my introductory remarks in order to have more space for the Q&A session, comments, not only Q&A, and be ready to respond to each question you might have for me, even if it means going over the time limit we have for today’s session.
Shada Islam: Thank you for the warning!
President Stevo Pendarovski: I would like to make a few important remarks about the latest course of events connected with North Macedonia. I have just said, we have just come out of the Presidential elections, and my election is not important only because of the frame of the Prespa agreement, as you said, is important of course. It’s not important only because we have gathered all pro-European political forces structures and citizens. It is important for one other aspect, extremely important for the stability and prosperity of my country as has ever been since 1990s.
We are a multi-ethnic country, a multi-ethnic society, and it’s very important that my candidacy was supported by all ethnic communities, political representatives and citizens as well, including ethnic Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Roma, Black people, Bosnians, living in North Macedonia, and the end result of the whole was that I got approximately one quarter of all of my votes coming from the different ethnicities, different from my ethnicity as being an ethnic Macedonian. That’s very important because there’s going to be a cohesion factor for the future. We have all been numbering people in North Macedonia, as Albanians, Macedonians, and others. For the first time I got support before the elections started, by ethnic communities and political parties representing that ethnicity, different than the ethnicity of the main candidate. That’s good not for me, but for the future of the country and we have shown that since the frame of the Insurgency in 2001 which has concluded other conflicts that year, now again all prosperous forces and forces for the better future our country has gathered together and supported a candidate with that kind of political agenda.
Very shortly, as you probably know, we have closed down all open issues with our neighbours in the past year and a half. The first endeavour was the agreement we have signed with Bulgaria on good neighbour relations and co-operation, and the implementation of that agreement is ongoing. And the second one, an even bigger political miracle was our agreement with Greece over that long standing name dispute – quite unusual for many people coming from outside to the region, but it existed for 27 years. We have been obliged by the UN resolutions in 1993 to negotiate with our southern neighbour and we have finally succeeded in finding a solution on 17th June last year.
That agreement as well is in the implementation stages and maybe that’s kind of a peculiar moment for my campaign. In the middle of my campaign, and my campaigning for Europe, I saw that all tables, in front of all state institutions in the country have changed because of the name We got that new name and I put a new table at the main entrance of my Presidential Cabinet. The very first day when I entered the office with the name North Macedonia, the Republic of North Macedonia, it was quite difficult to explain to the people why we were doing that in the middle of the campaign, trying to send only positive messages to the people but my response was that we are doing that because of the European Union, and the European prospective and future.
The second very important project we have implemented, which was met by solid resistance in some corners of our society was the elevation of the Albanian language to become the second official language in the country. And that happened in implementation stages during the campaign, so I was always saying to the people: first of all we have to have that civic reconciliation and all people will be equal in their linguistic rights, apart from other rights, but it’s good for European Union, the European perspective, because we have to stick to the highest European standards in that area as well. Why are we doing that? Because of Europe. Why have we changed the name? Because of European perspective, and because of the NATO alliance entrance.
Regarding the NATO alliance, we are nearing the end of the process. Out of 29 member states of the alliance, we have up to now 15 ratifications of accession protocol. We are waiting for the rest of the 14, and we have on our side one informal grouping within the alliance, named Friends of North Macedonia, who are pushing for that process to go quicker, faster, and by the end of this year, if possible, by 4th of December, when the next summit of NATO is scheduled in London, it will be the 17th anniversary of the alliance, and we would like to be the 30th member of that alliance. That is extremely important because we are located in a very volatile region with a very bad history with its surroundings, so it’s very important for the country to enter that security umbrella, the biggest and still the most sound, most solid of all, which exists in the whole of Eurasia.
What is important when speaking about this Euro-Atlantic integration is that this integration has been supported since the very first day, being an independent country, by the majority of the people. Unfortunately we have been in the high 90s, 90, 91, 92% in favour of the EU and NATO membership for years, and that project is being supported by all ethnicities. Unfortunately, in the 10 years before, a political structure and a member came to power and that caused the support to drop down and it was between 60 and 65%. Now we have raised that to 80/82% in favour of both memberships, so that’s very important because these are the only big strategic projects in the country being supported by Macedonians, as well as Albanians, by all ethnicities, so it is by default our cohesion factor, being in these associations. It is not a division factor as it is for some candidates or would-be candidates for the NATO alliance especially.
I just met with the President of the EU Council, Mr Donald Tusk. At 5pm I have scheduled to meet Ms Federica Mogherini, just to hear what they have to say to us. We have delivered everything in the mean-time and we are waiting for a positive signal from the European Union now. Unfortunately from some corners of the European Union member states, a not quite positive message is coming, at least for these June/July summits of the EU, so I think this will be a big injustice done to my country because, not only have be delivered everything, but the European Union has a clear, final communication last June, at the Sofia summit between the Western Balkans and the European Union, saying that Albania and Macedonia are going to be given dates for negotiations in June 2019, so we have been waiting for June and we are now in that month, and we are waiting for the European Union to deliver. We have done our part of the job. We are, unfortunately, the only positive example in the region.
We are the only country in the Western Balkans where the opposition is in the institutions, not outside on the streets protesting. We have been, in the past year and a half, or two years, the only country which is producing good news in the region and it should be granted. It is well deserved and it’s going to be a good message for the region as a whole, not only for North Macedonia. Thank you.
Shada Islam: Thank you. So Mr President, as I said, I’m going to ask you a couple of follow-up questions, and then open the floor to all of you who know so much about the region as well. So, because of your European perspective, NATO perspective, clearly all the hard work you’ve done, and it’s been really remarkable what the country has done over the last few years, reaching a point where clearly, Mr President, the EU is split. North-South, East-West, and institutionally as well, so we’ve got the European Commission saying yes, saying it last year, saying it this year: yes to accession talk.
You’ve got 14 countries in the EU sending a message very recently and I quote, that your membership and accession talks will contribute to strengthening your resilience to external, detrimental interested other players, and ensure that EU countries are still the leading player for a positive regional transformation, but then you have some heavyweights – we know who they are, we can mention them clearly, but do we really need to? – who will not perhaps do it. So what is your message? You’ve talked about a great injustice, but beyond the injustice, there are geopolitical factors, the geostrategic factors. What are they that we, here in Europe, should be looking at more seriously than we have been so far?
President Stevo Pendarovski: We can discuss incessantly the mightiness of the big powers who are so big, and we are so small. Especially two of them, which have still some hesitations in this regard. What is important to be notified in my view, is that you see that 14 countries are in favour of getting a date for our negotiations, but it is even more important in my view that the rest of these other 14 countries, that there is nothing against. So, including Germany and France, to be clear, no country in the European Union, no politician in power, in any of the EU countries has said that North Macedonia does not deserve a date for negotiations, even this year. I would like to believe in that peace, that we are speaking about only the technical postponement because of some political infighting within the EU, maybe because the EU elections have just closed, and the new organs should start talking about the new functions, new Commission, new organs in the European Parliament, but no one has say “you have not delivered,” in the meantime.
So certainly, we can explain our case day in, day out, but it’s up to them to decide at the end of the process. Speaking about the two crucial countries which made some remarks last year during the Sofia summit, I think with both of them we have one argument more, and they understood that. Tomorrow, our Prime Minister, Zaev, is going to meet with the German Chancellor to see what is going on with that agenda of the German Parliament, which is obviously now from a technical standpoint the biggest obstacle, the biggest puzzle. No one knows what’s going to be on the agenda of the next session – they have one session in July, two sessions in September were rescheduled. It’s very important to us to say that we are not going to fight with anybody in Europe, whether it’s going to be June or July, or if you’re lucky, one in October, but give us that real, practical, start of negotiations in December.
Shada Islam: So you want a date for the start of negotiations by December?
President Stevo Pendarovski: Practically yes. To be honest, everyone knows. If we get that data, even today, even tomorrow, then we can start practically before December, before that inter-governmental conference. So, by the end of the year we would like to have a date, not saying 2023, 2024, but this year. That was the conclusion of the last year’s Sofia summit. That was the conclusion not of the North Macedonia Parliament, of North Macedonia government; that was not said by my side. That was the conclusion of the EU Council from last year, so the very Europeans said that, and we are waiting for the Europeans to deliver.
Shada Islam: Just before I turn to all of you, just a question that has been on my mind, I have to say. The Prespa agreement with Greece was a difficult one to get through public opinion and your various parliaments. Is it in danger now, if you don’t get a date?
President Stevo Pendarovski: No. With this government in power, and this is the political structure which has been supportive of me during my run for Presidency, certainly not. That goes for the agreement with Bulgaria as well. We have signed that. This political structure, this generation of politicians, we have had lengthy deliberations on the subject because that was a question, especially the name dispute with Greece, overburdened by emotions, with a long history of infighting about some emotional things but they are still real in Balkan politics, and we have finally decided to re-enter into that implementation stage. We’re far away from the point of departure we started from last year. We have already had seven sessions of our commission, to say that in short with Bulgaria, and there is some progress, maybe not huge progress on some issues, but there is some progress. We have agreed with Bulgaria to share some historical figures and some events from history. That is the phrase – some shared history – and we are progressing at a good pace. It could be better but we are progressing. Speaking about implementation of the Prespa agreement, we are in the advanced stages of the implementation as I said. All state institutions have the new name. I have addressed here saying I am the new President of North Macedeonia, so we are going forward. What is next, speaking about crucial projects from that agreement, we should form a joint commission with Greece on using the trademarks, speaking about the products which will be exported from North Macedonia
Shada Islam: Is it a geographical indicators, that kind of thing?
President Stevo Pendarovski: Yes, and we are going to form that commission by the end of this year, and after that, that commission will have a period of time of three years to make a decision, by mutual consent, on many important issues, speaking about the trademark centre. What’s going to be on the bottles, for example, the wine, products of North Macedonia?
Shada Islam: Very important.
President Stevo Pendarovski: Product of Northern Greece, something like that. We are well going into that implementation.
Shada Islam: That’s reassuring. As you said, a good news story in a region, in a time for Europe that we need good news stories that show leadership and has important geopolitical repercussions within Europe and outside Europe as well. Yes, we can make compromises and we can work together. Strong message to send from Europe. I’d like to open the floor now, Mr President, if you allow.
Question: Thank you very much Mr President, it’s really good to see you here. My name is Nicholas Whyte, I’m a Senior Director at APCO Worldwide, but I ask this question purely in a personal capacity. North Macedonia has made immense progress in the last year or so, and particularly with your election as a latest, great step. Are you not concerned though, that with the election coming in Greece in early July, that might be the potential for a new Greek government, which it seems is quite likely to come to power, to walk back elements of the Prespa agreement. And indeed if you don’t get the date for the start of EU accession negotiations in the summit this month, that there might be a different Greek Prime Minister for the next EU summit who may, unfortunately, give a different answer. And I’m aware that the Prespa agreement came about because of the very positive relationship between your colleagues, Prime Minister Zaev and Foreign Minister Dimitrov with their Greek counterparts. If one side of that equation is no longer there, then does that mean that the whole thing is at risk?
President Stevo Pendarovski: Thank you Nick. You didn’t say in what capacity you came to Macedonia for the first time, or rather FYROM, as the Director of the International Crisis Group. This is one of the small puzzles connected with the implementation of the Prespa Agreement. All public statements given up to now by the Greek oppositional leader, Mitsotakis, and by the key people in his political party, are not saying anything about revising the agreement. They are not saying anything about annihilating the agreement. They say that they are going to keep that agreement alive and implement it, and I would like to believe that they are going to stick to their words.
It is true that the Prespa agreement was not possible without a personal connection being established between Prime Minister Zaev and Prime Minister Tsipras. As you know in life and in politics, it could be a problem when it comes to the changing of the government, but it’s my job and I have already started working in this direction, to open new communication channels with other political actors in Greece, who might be in power tomorrow, because this agreement is not a personal thing between Zaev and Tsipras. It shouldn’t be treated in that way. This agreement is of strategic importance even for Greece, not to speak about North Macedonia, and it should be respected by everybody, including by today’s opposition in North Macedonia, who have made some remarks from time to time on the same agreement.
Before I arrived in Brussels, the opposition leader gave an interview yesterday, saying that, if there is a clear political will on the Greek side, they will try to renegotiate parts of that agreement, but if there is a clear political will on the other side, in my view it’s not going to happen on both sides. We should stick to this agreement and be in good faith going forward in the implementation of that agreement. It is very difficult to reach an agreement about anything, even meaningless things in the Balkans, not about the name of the country, we have one very specific provision. You cannot find that kind of provision in any international accords being signed since the very beginnings of humankind. Article 7 speaks about the ethnicity of the so-called Greek Macedonians and Macedonian Macedonians.
We have done that in the agreement, and we have differentiated between what is a Hellenic tradition, history, and culture, and historical periods which come after that. So, it’s very difficult to re-negotiate something like that. I’m really not exaggerating in saying that it was a political miracle. That was the unique diplomatic dispute even before that, before the agreement was signed, and now with this agreement it’s really a miracle. I cannot identify miracle workers on both side of the border doing that, renegotiating the agreement, and even enhancing the agreement for the mutual benefit of both sides. You can re-negotiate the agreement to have more benefit for one side than for the other, but to have on equal sides a good proportion of benefits deployed, it is not possible, in my humble view – I have been a part of the team behind these negotiations and I know how difficult it was to reach this point in time, the disagreements, and I can bet on this option. They have an open space to attempt anything they do but it is very difficult to renegotiate the agreement and have benefits for Skopje and for Athens at the same time.
Shada Islam: So that’s one of your challenges, is to keep saying that, I suppose, in these tricky weeks ahead. You will have to keep repeating it, Mr President.
President Stevo Pendarovski: The origins of all of that political situation is that we are a multi-ethnic society, and we have very specific regional surroundings. It is very difficult to be the President or the Prime Minister of a multi-ethnic country. It is much easier to be such in Slovenia, where 95% of the people are ethnic Slovenes, or from the same ethnicity, but we are now, and if you’re not capable of doing that kind of thing, stay at home and watch TV. We have to be very careful in looking for the regional balance. We have half a million ethnic Albanians living in our country, and we have two neighbours with and an ethnic Albanian majority: the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Albania. I have, before the election, four parties of ethnic Albanians supporting me. Can you believe that I have at least two parties of ethnic Serbs supporting me? Three parties of ethnic Turks supporting me?
Shada Islam: How many parties do you have?
President Stevo Pendarovski: 31. So it is difficult internally and regionally, very difficult to manage all of these things, we cannot do that alone. Each politician in North Macedonia should have that feeling of proper balance in the region, otherwise you cannot prosper as a state, because we are the smallest country, about from Montenegro, in the region.
Shada Islam: Thank you for that answer. Please could you bring the microphone here?
Question: Thank you very much and thank you, President, for coming here. I am a member of the Parliament from Sweden, even though I was born in the Balkans, in Sarajevo. I wanted to ask you something about the internal consequences if the EU doesn’t fulfil its promises. But first, let me just congratulate you on the miracle you have achieved, it actually is miracle. Sweden is often seen as a compromise-seeking part of the world, but I cannot imagine Swedes accepting changing the name of Sweden to Eastern Sweden, or Western Sweden, or Western Norway, or Eastern Finland, you know. It doesn’t exist on the map. It’s completely impossible, so yes, your humble attitude to seeking compromise is witnessing why you have achieved that goal, and it is a miracle.
Maybe we won’t have a problem with the great selections, but will we have a problem internally in Macedonia, with the withering support for the EU, saying that these Eurosceptics actually are right? Because they have been saying that the EU will not fulfil its promises. They have been saying the EU will not fulfil its promises. Now suddenly when you have made a miracle, the EU is starting to say they weren’t really serious when they promised. So I want you to elaborate a little on the question, if you can: what will happen in the country, what will happen with the support to the European Union, and what will happen with nationalism in the country if the EU starts trying to avoid its promise? Thank you very much.
President Stevo Pendarovski: It is obvious what is going to happen if we are not granted a date for negotiations. A few days ago, Prime Minister Zaev was here on the same topic, sounding a bit more disappointed that I’m going to be. He is already considering resignation. We are deviating from policy in this kind of a scenario. I hope something like that is not going to happen, but it’s obvious. These are the numbers, if we are calculating the people being in that pro-European camp in my country. Last year we had a referendum about changing the name and accepting the Prespa agreement, as a way to enter the EU and NATO, and we got approximately 600 000 votes in favour of that option. I got approximately 400 for my election, 440 000. With all other lateral subjects which have impacted what the government has been doing in the mean-time, it is in the 8 month period (last September to this April), and what local municipalities are doing, some dissatisfaction reduced for that part of that society, but we lost more than pro-European, pro-Western camp lost in 100 000 votes. That’s the reality, and we have won, but with a heavy price. If we are not now granted the date for negotiations, I can bet on that option; an additional 100 000 votes are going to leave this campaign and are going to transfer to the opposition, but maybe they are going to stay at home, and many of them will leave the country indefinitely. They’ll leave the country, for some of the European Union members.
Shada Islam: Okay, that’s a warning. Thank you for that. Are they any more questions from the floor?
Question: Thank you, thank you Mr President. It’s a question on your membership in the North Atlantic issue. What consequences do you think it can have with your Northern neighbour, Serbia, and it’s everlasting friendship with big Russian players?
President Stevo Pendarovski: If I was coming in a different capacity, for example, as an expert, I could be quite open on that issue, but I would like to say this: it is obvious that in the past few years in the region, not only in North Macedonia, extra-regional influences are felt, or influences from external regional powers. We have felt some of that during our referendum campaign. It is true that the region is subject to that new phenomenon, fake news, which is trying to undermine the democratic values that society should rely on. We got support from the NATO alliance in this regard. Last September we have some bilateral issues because we are not a fully-fledged member, for these bilateral issues we got some support by some of the strongest allies in that organisation, to counter this kind of an impact. And I think we have been quite successful in that. But with the autonomous forces, we cannot counter their influences.
Speaking of the Republic of Serbia, they have declared 10/11 years ago that they have a neutral stance. They have a declaration of Parliament and I cannot see any problem in this regard, in the bilateral relationship, between Belgrade and Skopje. That is our autonomous will, we have decided that. We have more than 80/90% approval for NATO membership. They have decided otherwise. They have different experience, different history with these organisations, and we respect that on a mutual basis. We should respect each other’s decisions, so I do not expect any problems coming from Belgrade, from Serbia in this regard, but maybe by some other centres of power, or states, or other extra-regional outside centres of power.
Question: I have met the President on a couple of occasions, and I am just here as an interested Macedonian. I would like to congratulate the President for his election and the great success, and I wish him further success in his mandate. When you said we might not get the start date for the negotiations, you mentioned the consequences for young people like me leaving Macedonia, and many other possible repercussions for the Prime Minister, so I’m asking you personally, what is on your list as a Plan B if we don’t get that date? What are your plans and how are you going to work to convince the young people to really stay and work on, hopefully, next year’s opening of negotiations?
President Stevo Pendarovski: That is a good question. I do have an alternative plan for if we do not get a date for negotiations. My Plan B is to enter the European Union. There are some critics in my country, and throughout the region, throughout Europe, saying that there has to be an alternative to everything in life, but I cannot really seen any visible, sustainable, prosperous alternative to this one for my country, other than the European Union and NATO alliance. I have been in lengthy discussions with my people, not only during the election campaign, explaining to them that the reasons why the UK is trying to leave the European Union have nothing to do with our motives to be in the European Union. The ambitions of some countries to stay passive, at least in the NATO alliance, or contributing too much to their defence budget. We have a completely different set of reason why we have to be in the NATO alliance. I was, 15 years ago, the national security advisor to two Presidents, and knew quite well the international conflict of 2001. I know quite well what is happening in the region and what might happen in my country.
Just the latest info, maybe some of you have heard about it: we are from time to time hearing that there are some border skirmishes on the border between Kosovo and Serbia, last night at 7.30 I was informed there had been some shooting done. We have only 20km, then Skopje as a capital of North Macedonia, is only 20km away from the border of Kosovo, and see the number of kilometres up to the Northern border with Serbia. It’s extremely important what’s going to happen with the Kosovo issue. I’m speaking against one of those ideas that is being floated upon, that there should eventually be a swapping of territories and people. As I said, that’s one of the most horrible ideas I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s not possible to change even one millimetre of the borders in the Balkans, and not to have conflict immediately.
You know what was the Casus Belli conflict? The scene was set before that but in essence, Albanians protested their exclusion from the system and they fought the state in 2001. The motive, the concrete Casus Belli, was the demarcation of our border with Serbia, that was at that time still part of the Republic of Yugoslavia. Any one of you can invoke the scenes from the Kosovo Parliament, about when the demarcation of their border with Montenegro was on the agenda. They have not been able to ratify that agreement. I have been, a few times in my life, on that border between Kosovo and Montenegro. There are no people living up there, virtually. No oil is there I guess, but anyhow, you cannot speak about changing the borders in the Balkans, because it is very, very dangerous. So there is no alternative, to both of these organisations, and I think that is the stance of many responsible politicians in North Macedonia.
Question: Mr President, thank you so much for this insightful exchange. Isik is my name, from Vocal Europe. Following the Prespa agreement, there is certainly a new chapter being opened with NATO and the EU. My question is whether or not there is a new chapter being opened with some of the EU’s geopolitical contenders in the Western Balkans.
President Stevo Pendarovski: Unfortunately, since 2014, we are feeling a geopolitical rivalry. We are so small and these rivals on both sides are so big that we cannot manage both sides at the same time. We have to follow what our citizens have to say on that issue. So as I said, 80/90% of the people are in favour of the Western organisations. Then at the same time, saying this, we have nothing against co-operation with the Russian Federation, with the Chinese, and unfortunately, we haven’t used that opportunity to the fullest in the past few years, and believe it or not, my first meeting on the very first day of being in the office, was with the Russian ambassador in Skopje.
I was trying to explain to him that I have been waging the whole campaign on a pro-Western agenda, totally, but at the same time, I have nothing against Russians, or the Russian Federation. They are a big country with vast energy resources. North Macedonia is more than 80% energy dependent and we are still unjustified so we are lagging behind even the rest of the Balkan countries in this regard. It seems to me that the past governments, maybe this one, the current one, is not doing enough to approach the Russian Federation in the trade and economy field. I would not like to speak about geopolitical rivalry too much because we really are not the stakeholders in that battle. It exists, it is visible, and at times, unfortunately it is tangible with the people living in the region, but we cannot influence that debate, not to say the course of events on the terrain. I would like to concentrate on the economy and trade issues with everybody, including some countries in the wider region which are quite close with the Russian Federation. That’s the only way out for the region, which is extremely poor.
We are the poorest region in Europe, and that’s disastrous. After thirty years being in that lengthy and dark transition, we are still speaking about an average salary – you know what was the key pledge of Prime Minister Zaev during the parliamentary elections of 2016, to have an average salary of 500 euros by the end of the mandate. He said that by 2020 we would have an average salary in North Macedonia of 500 euros. That’s humiliating. We are speaking about 2020, in the 21st Century. So put aside the geopolitical rivalry, let’s speak about more tangible things, more humane, more close to our lives, and we have in the whole region an unprecedented rate of leaving in the young generations.
You can imagine that we are the only country in Europe without a proper census being executed for 20 years. Finally we have one scheduled, because the previous government were not quite keen to know how many people have left the country. They have praised themselves are being the biggest reformers in the world, and they started to arrange a census in 2011, but cut off that operation on the very last day. It should last for 15 days but when they say the numbers they were shocked. They have numbered 1.7 million people in that period of time and now no one knows how many people are left in north Macedonia. In the former Yugoslavia, in the harsh Communist times, there were 2.1 million. Kosovo has an unprecedented scale of migration as well, Bulgaria before that, and Serbia. If these trends continue, we are talking about geopolitical rivalry, high politics, then believe me, 10 years from now probably me, or anyone else, will not have the people to be Prime Minister or President of.
Shada Islam: That’s a very sombre thought. Thank you Mr President.
Question: I’m the Brussels correspondent of the International News Agency. I was a bit late so I don’t know if you already covered this issue. North Macedonia is expecting the start of the negotiations to be decoupled with Albania, and there is a feeling of unfairness about this coupling, both in the country and in member states. What’s your opinion on the whole decoupling issue from Albania, and do you believe some of the threats that it could destabilise the region?
President Stevo Pendarovski: When I am speaking about serious political issues I would like to use terms like emotions or being dispirited, but when you get into politics with emotions, you are going to lose.
Shada Islam: But you need emotions to convince people.
President Stevo Pendarovski: Feelings are like that, I have the same feelings, and I wouldn’t hide those emotions. We are still dissatisfied, waiting for that pleasure of the European Union to implement their decision. I haven’t mentioned that topic, which is very important: in some corners of the European Union, especially among the political leaders in these two crucial countries, for getting that date for negotiations, for North Macedonia and Albania, there are suspicions as to what will happen if the coupling really happens. There are some arguments about that. First of all as a political piece, I would like to say that I fully support the Republic of Albania getting the date for negotiations immediately, then all of this news coming from the Western Balkan region are good for the whole region, so I have nothing against, and we are always speaking. I have just recently made a public speech in our institutions in Skopje, saying North Macedonia and Albania should be granted data.
There is no doubt about my political position on that, but about decoupling – some people among the ruling elites, in Germany especially, are saying that it’s not good to decouple two countries if we have in mind that in the incoming months the international community should approach the Kosovo issue and try to get both sides, to build a bridge together and eventually to look for the mutual solution. Their argument is that is you are without a sound and solid regional backing in the first place, and certainly the Republic of Albania, then allegedly the Kosovo Albanians are not going to enter seriously into that negotiation. There are some arguments about that.
On the other side, if we judge the merit, we have delivered everything that was asked for, and we have done something that has not been done in the diplomatic history of the world. We have changed the name of our country. I am always saying publicly, whenever I am in Skopje, whenever I am asked by the journalists, I have been campaigning and saying that we have to change the name of the country. People ask me why – because of the European Union, we have to have a European future. We have elevated the Albanian language to the level of the second official language in the country. Some people ask why I am doing that just now; because of Europe. Now, if Europe is not delivering to us, many people including my supporters, my voters, will say “No, thank you. I will find some other political alternative.”
It seems to me that the European Union should deliver on their promises. When I was speaking in politics about promises, it is not something tangible you could hold in your hand. I would like to speak about promises. They said what they have said last June. We have done what we have done in the past year. Albania has done what they have done in the past year. What we want is a fair chance to be judged on our accomplishments, on our failures, and to be given a year’s solution, but please don’t speak about summer holidays approaching, and we do not have the new Commission being installed, and speaking about the Autumn session. The term June 2019 was intentionally put in the communication of the last EU summit, because of the euro elections, which has been organised between the 23rd and 26th of May. We have been in a puzzle as to why it was in June, why not before or after that? They said immediately after the euro elections. Now the elections have passed, and we are waiting.
Shada Islam: So that was the message you gave to Donald Tusk, and you will also convey to Mogherini, that sense of frustration?
President Stevo Pendarovski: It is very interesting what Donald Tusk said, I think those were really unprecedented words for a President of the EU Council. He said at the press conference which has just concluded, that (in my words, interpreting his words), now the problem is not with you, but it is with us. It is good to be here, but we would like to see results regardless of the rhetoric being used.
Question: Hello, I’m from the Parliament magazine. On the EU issue, do you accept maybe that there is a sense of what’s been called Enlargement Fatigue that may have worked against you so far, and may still work against you, and do you have any empathy with those who feel a sense of Enlargement Fatigue? And also on the NATO one, I just wondered what you think of President Trump’s much vaunted first defence spending targets, the 2% target – is this realistic for other NATO members given the fact that quite a few of them are lagging behind still, much to the angst of President Trump, and what are realistically the chances, if and when you join NATO, of your country meeting that 2% defence spending target?
President Stevo Pendarovski: The last part of your question is easier for me, because we are right on target, but I will speak later on that issue. Speaking about the fatigue, you know that it resides on both sides. I fully understand the feeling in Parliament members in the European Union, speaking of an Enlargement of which they cannot see the end of that issue. They say they have accepted some countries in that Big Bang Enlargement 15 years ago and the results are not quite satisfying to us. I understand their arguments, but they should understand our arguments and our fatigue. Our people are really exhausted from waiting in the waiting room.
Apart from Turkey, which is the record holder, speaking about the European Union membership, we are the record holder. Apart from Turkey, we have been waiting, formally, for an EU membership since 2005. 14 years. All we’ve got in the mean-time we have got 10 positive recommendations for the European Commission, and at the end of each report it was “you are good in this, this and this, but there is only one remaining issue – the name dispute with Greece.” We have delivered on that, despite all odds, despite all people saying that’s not possible to be accomplished. With that Prespa agreement in my agenda, I won the elections for the Presidency. And now what? We are waiting again, and someone will speak again about the fatigue. I would like to say on which side the fatigue is more present.
I would like to answer you, and just say a few words on the defence spending. Before answering directly with the numbers, there was one interesting episode during the last summit of NATO when we were invited for membership on the 11th – 12th July, in Brussels. It was when the key decision-making body of the NATO alliance, President Trump said at one moment that apart from the threshold of 2% not being met by many countries, including by Germany, that he is thinking about 4% defence spending as the threshold. At that time we were speaking with our finance minister in Skopje, and he said that we cannot reach 2% of that target, not to speak of 4% of GDP being allocated for defence. We are allocating at present 1.2% of our GDP and have a long-term financial perspective approved by the NATO alliance.
Last year I was the National NATO co-ordinator and I was leading negotiations with NATO because they are in negotiations as well. I signed there, on behalf of my country, that by 2024, we will allocated 2% of our then GDP to defence. We are heading towards that target. As far as I know, although it is not up to me, to respond to some key European Union members, and members in NATO as well, are not progressing well in this regard. I would like to speak again about fatigue.
Question: I fear you are the absolute record holder in terms of the lapse of time between being granted candidate status and opening negotiations. In the case of Turkey it was 6 years, whatever the state of play, and the effect of a frozen accession process in Turkey. Mr Pendarovksi, first of all congratulations on your elections and whatever your country did to come to this stage, and I can fully empathise with you coming to the June conclusions of last year, and our constantly saying “if you deliver, we’ll deliver.” It’s not about promises, it’s about delivering. You also said that we can talk incessantly about scenarios for the coming months. We all know that Germany cannot really move on the basis of this co-operation act between the federal government and the Bundestag, which was revised on the occasion of the Croatian accession, before the recent opinion of the Bundestag.
My question would be on NATO and Turkey. Macedonia has been under pressure, like other countries, from Turkey to extradite some Turkish nationals who are affiliated to the Gulen Movement, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organisation. We know how the removal of certain Turkish nationals from Kosovo played out, and the backlash in Kosovo, also in political terms, the Ombudsman report. Yesterday the European Court of Human Rights issued a verdict on what happened in Moldova, which it called an illegal removal of Turks, following their complaint. Turkey first said that it could take into account the attitude of your country regarding the requested extradition, when ratifying the accession protocol. Later, this was officially denied, so it wouldn’t be an issue. Could you maybe update us on the state of play, or maybe where you position yourself personally on this issue?
President Stevo Pendarovski: Let’s start with the numbers. That is correct. Turkey is asking for extradition of 15 people. Maybe some new demands will arrive to our Justice Minister, but up to now we have 15 cases for 15 individuals. Most of them are Macedonian citizens. That might be one of the problems for extradition. As you know, a key tenant in international law is that no one extradites one from his own nation. That should be the second rank question for this debate. Out of these 15 people we have asked 5 of them for additional information from the Turkish side. 5 of them are not physically present on the territory or North Macedonia. The remaining 5 are in ongoing court proceedings. As you know, as everywhere, politics should not have anything to do with the independence of the judiciary, so we are not meddling into their internal affairs, of the judiciary, the public prosecutor’s office. We are in the proceedings for some of them.
We have said to our Turkish friends, beyond doubt Turkey was one of our strongest supporters for NATO membership for years, since the very beginning, and we have been a candidate for NATO since 1999, and we are their undisputed record holder since the Washington summit that year, so we have said to our Turkish friends, that we deeply respect their demands, deeply value their arguments on the matter, but on the other side we have to take care of our domestic legislation and everything that’s going to be done in the future has to be in line with the Macedonian legislature. Everything that is going to be done in this regard has to be in line with the European Union legislature, because we are a candidate country, for membership. We are waiting even to start negotiations, and we have to align all of our key policies with those of the European Union, like we are aligning our foreign policy, defence policy, with those of the European Union. At the end of the day, it’s up to the state institutions in North Macedonia to decide, but as politicians we have to say that we respect our domestic laws, and we have to respect what the European Union partners and friends are saying on the same matter, and if everything is okay with all of these individual cases, and these individual decisions, then the respective state institutions will behave in the proper manner.
Question: I’m working for the European Committee of the Regions, and next year we are having a big event, that we are organising every year, the so-called Enlargement day, and we have political bodies, members from our group who are mayors, local, regional authorities with counterparts from candidate, and potential candidate, countries. All the questions you have received so far are “what if there is no/ negative answer from the European Council?” My question goes in completely the opposite direction. What will be the next steps after you get an okay for launching accession negotiations? The reason is because you said that accession to the EU works as a cohesive factor across the political spectrum, and also within civil society and the ethnic communities. Now, what about when that milestone has been achieved, how will you work further to ensure the same level of support from all the ethnic communities and where do you see the role of local and regional authorities in this process?
President Stevo Pendarovski: Shortly, at the very beginning, I have all ethnicities in my office as well. I have all of them, people form different ethnic backgrounds, all working for my office. That’s something, because I have been barely one month in my office, but apart from that, we have already formed teams for negotiations along all of these 35 chapters. We have all of them, the people in them. Of course, we are speaking about core teams, then all of these teams are going to be strengthened by the additional experts, coming from the NGO community, from some other walks of life, and what I am going to insist, I have said it publicly not only during the campaign but after that, I’m going to insist on people from the oppositional ranks to be members there, and why not even to lead some of the negotiation chapters. Why not? We have bright people, of course, in the opposition, as we have in the ruling parties, and without assembling all of the strengths, all of the intellectual potential of the country, we cannot be quite successful in that very difficult endeavour, as everybody knows, which has been through very lengthy and complicated at times process of negotiation. Something like that has already been proposed by the parties in power, but everybody’s waiting for the date for negotiations and we should start immediately. We had the core teams prepared in 2005, when we became the candidate country for membership, but unfortunately after that you know what happened with the name dispute and we have been forgotten in the waiting room. Now we have simply awakened all of those people and I think we have good teams for all of these Chapters.
Speaking about the regions, we should open one door more using the Prespa agreement with Greece, because we are bordering Bulgaria and Greece, which are already in, and European Union members, and we have at least the potential for one so-called Euro-region to be formed with Bulgaria, and we too with the Republic of Greece. Up until now, why am I saying this? You mentioned the Prespa agreement. Before the Prespa agreement was signed, there was not any single bilateral agreement between Skopje and Athens signed in any area. Even for some illegal migrants criss-crossing the border, we haven’t signed anything. Now we are able to sign everything, from sport, culture, economy and trade, so we have now really open possibilities to form regions with some neighbouring municipalities on the other side of the border with Bulgaria, and it two instances with Greece, and to start working with that and applying together for some of the EU funds.
Question: I have been following the Balkans for a long time, and I wonder what Macedonia economically expects from the European Union? As you described it, there is clearly a proportionate between the two economies, so how do you think things will move?
President Stevo Pendarovski: Speaking about the co-operation between – I wouldn’t like to say co-operation with the EU as such, in it’s entirety, with North Macedonia, but we already have very good bilateral economic relations with all members of the European Union. In the first place after starting negotiations eventually, we are expecting some of the pre-accession funds to be opened much more than in the case today. Just one parallel example to say what we got when we got an invitation for NATO membership. Believe it or not, we have increased our trade and economy co-operation with our direct neighbours by 25% and the rate of economic growth has doubled in the mean-time. For the latest quarter of this year, we have economic growth of 4.1%, which has not happened in my country for years and years. All of that is because of the NATO invitation, and now being on the verge of getting EU accession date. Why?
Because, especially with the NATO invitation being in the heartland of the Balkans, there are many people, foreign investors especially, who have said that maybe this country now finally will have a future, or a predictable future. Starting negotiations with the EU and especially opening that Chapter 23, there are many foreign investors, including domestic ones, saying that the domestic legal environment is going to be more protective and more safe. These are maybe not going to be direct. We are not expecting any cash from the European Union, but certainly building with their help, your help, building an environment in which domestic and foreign investors and economy will prosper.
Shada Islam: And you’ve already seen some effects. My final question to you, Mr President: so we’ve talked about the fatigue and the weariness in your region about accession – I was wondering if your advice to European leaders on how they can change public perceptions here in Europe about the Western Balkans, because there is a feeling that the region is just to corrupt, there’s no rule of law, things aren’t moving, reconciliation is not happening, one step forward, two steps back. All of this is partly true, perhaps, but not the dominant narrative, so how can we change perceptions and make Europeans more favourable publicly to what’s happening in your region.
President Stevo Pendarovski: I appreciate your question, but maybe my answer is going to surprise you. I do not think (I do not have the study behind my arguments, of course), but in my view, political leaders in Europe are more problematic than average people. I think that the common people in all of the European Union member countries know quite well the reality on the ground, in the Balkans and everywhere in the region. They are mingling with many people from the region, I saw at least 10 in this hall, for years living with you and we are not quite different from you, we are human beings as you are. I am not afraid of the judgement of the common people. I am afraid of the judgement of politicians. I should stop here.
Shada Islam: Mr President, thank you so much. You’ve been extremely frank and honest and I have to say, made some very strong points. A political miracle, the need for the EU to deliver on what has been promised many, many times, and the fatigue, as you said, Mr President, on which side, and no Plan B, but you also made I think, a very poignant reference to your young people in North Macedonia, and the fact that you still have so much to do to catch up with the prosperity and the economic standards in the West, and you’re of course waiting for the date.
I think the message from here is very strong, and so are we. Thank you very much indeed for coming. I would like to give you a letter of invitation, to invite you to our Balkan summit which is taking place in December this year, and we would be honoured if you could do us the pleasure of coming to our summit and speaking there as well. December, mind you, Mr President, could be a very important moment for you, as you said. Perhaps that’s when the breakthrough will happen. We hope that you will be there, and once again, thank you very much for coming here and taking all the conversation