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Lajčák: Prespa success irreversible, EU must fulfill promise to North Macedonia

The Prespa Agreement is an example of successful diplomacy and conflict resolution, which should serve as an inspiration for the region and the EU should reward it, according to Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Lajčák.

Skopje, 19 June 2019 (MIA) – The Prespa Agreement is an example of successful diplomacy and conflict resolution, which should serve as an inspiration for the region and the EU should reward it, according to Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Lajčák.

Visiting North Macedonia as the OSCE Chairperson in Office to support the work of the Mission and the country, as well as to discuss opportunities for further cooperation, Lajčák spoke to MIA about Slovakia’s political support to our country, the OSCE Mission work in Skopje, as well as North Macedonia’s European future.

Mr. Lajčák, what’s the purpose of your visit? With whom do you plan to meet and what’s the message you’re sending during your visit to Skopje?

The Prespa Agreement is a milestone achievement and really an example of successful diplomacy and conflict resolution. For a long time, it looked like the name issue was unsolvable, but with real leadership, real vision, and real courage, a solution was found. And it has already improved regional security. Now, the country needs to continue its focus on the reform agenda and build on the positive momentum achieved.

The OSCE works to support the reform agenda in North Macedonia, which helps the country better fulfill its OSCE commitments and simultaneously move it closer to accomplishing its strategic goals. The OSCE Mission to Skopje is particularly well-placed to assist in that regard, working in strong partnership with the government, political parties, and civil society groups.

But I am here wearing two hats. As the Foreign and European Affairs Minister of Slovakia, I must say that the bilateral relationship between Slovakia and North Macedonia is excellent. And Slovakia has been making all efforts to underpin our strong political support for North Macedonia with substantive cooperation to the maximum possible level.

During my visit to the country, I will be meeting with President Pendarovski, Prime Minister Zaev, Deputy Prime Minister Osmani, Foreign Minister Dimitrov, and VMRO-DPMNE leader Mickoski. I will also have the opportunity to address the National Convention on the EU, to hear from civil society on how they see the country’s development, and to engage with the staff of the OSCE Mission.

In addition, I will have a chance to meet with children and teachers who are involved in the “Building Bridges” project – an initiative I consider particularly important as it helps bridging ethnic and social divides – and to meet with people engaged in projects to raise environmental awareness through education funded by SlovakAid.

Your country currently holds the OSCE chairpersonship. The Mission has been active in our country for over 25 years. Which OSCE activities would you identify as the most successful for the stabilization and democratization of North Macedonia?

The OSCE Mission to Skopje is indeed the oldest OSCE field operation. And in the last 27 years, its role has changed from a small monitoring presence first sent to the country in 1992 to a significantly larger assistance mission that initially helped the country recover from the 2001 conflict, and now works primarily to support North Macedonia’s reform agenda.

The Mission is a strong partner of North Macedonia in pursuing reforms, and in implementing the Ohrid Framework Agreement to advance inter-ethnic relations. The Mission also works with the authorities to address a range of transnational threats, with a focus on fighting organized crime and combatting violent extremism. The Mission is very active in supporting judicial reforms, which includes its trial monitoring activities, advice on strengthening legislation, and improving the capacity of judges, prosecutors, and judicial staff.

The OSCE is also engaged in North Macedonia through its other institutions, such as ODIHR, which observed the recent presidential elections as well-administered, and which will continue to support reforms to the Electoral Code. The Representative on Freedom of the Media and the High Commissioner on National Minorities have also been active in the country through high-level visits and projects.

The OSCE Mission to Skopje and the Gender Equality Unit of the OSCE presented a survey last month that showed violence against women in North Macedonia is often under-reported and that some forms of physical and sexual abuse are widespread. It was the first research of this kind conducted in Southeast Europe and Eastern Europe. It includes North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Kosovo. What are the reasons for this situation in these parts of Europe?

Gender-based violence is both a human rights problem and a security challenge. Global research shows that one in three women have experienced psychological, physical, or emotional violence in their lifetime. To counter this phenomenon, it is our responsibility to assist countries in understanding and addressing the root causes that lead to violence against women and girls.

The OSCE-led survey that you are referring to provides us with comparable data and shows clearly that stigmatization and, as a consequence, the silence of victims have allowed cases of violence against women and girls to remain under-reported and unaddressed. Some of the barriers to reporting identified in the research are shame, fear, financial concerns, lack of information on services available, mistrust in services, or insufficient definition and understanding of what exactly counts as violence. Another challenge is seen when laws do not adequately protect women or are not properly enforced. That is why a whole-of-society approach is needed in combatting this challenge.

But here, let me commend the Government of North Macedonia on having adopted the first National Action Plan on the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. The OSCE, through its Mission to Skopje, is ready to provide support.

Media freedom is one of the areas where the OSCE is very active. In the latest report by Freedom House, the overall rating is that press freedom worldwide dropped this year. North Macedonia is rated as a country with “partially free” media. How would you assess press freedom in the country?

This year’s World Press Freedom Index for North Macedonia suggests that the media situation in North Macedonia has somewhat improved.

However, in 2019, there have still been two attacks on journalists. And the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media strongly condemned them. So while the number of attacks on journalists has decreased, this year’s incidents demonstrate that the country still needs to develop effective mechanisms to ensure a safe working environment for journalists. And it is one of the areas in which our Mission to Skopje is actively engaged.

This is not a phenomenon limited to North Macedonia. As you know, my own country has had to grapple with it. So, it is important that we work together and share lessons learned – to protect both the freedom of the media and the lives of journalists.

The OSCE Mission has supported the Network for the Prevention of Hate Speech in the Media, including journalistic associations, non-governmental associations, institutions. How much does this help in the fight against hate speech? How are we to deal with this phenomenon?

Hate speech is a negative phenomenon that represents a potential threat to improving inter-ethnic relations and political reconciliation. North Macedonia does not yet collect adequate and systematic data on hate incidents, but information provided by civil society organizations nonetheless shows that intolerance on ethnic, political, and religious grounds poses complex challenges for the country.

And frankly, it is a worrying trend that there is an increase of hate incidents based on political affiliation before, during, and sometimes after elections. More needs to be done to counter this trend. And here as well the OSCE Mission will continue to support efforts to reduce the number of hate incidents.

You are visiting the country at a time when we’re waiting for a date to start negotiations with the EU. We expected this would happen in June, perhaps July, and now we’re told October. Your opinion?

The decision related to the negotiations is of strategic importance for the Republic of North Macedonia and the whole region of the Western Balkans, as well as the entire EU. Slovakia believes that the Western Balkans are in the heart of Europe and should be firmly placed in our Union. Therefore, the sooner the accession negotiations are open, the better for everyone. The EC recommendation is clear in this respect. Skopje has gone above and beyond.

Recent achievements are remarkable; the country has come further than we could have imagined some years ago. And, the current government deserves praise. Achievements in strengthening neighborly relations are unprecedented in the region – thanks to Skopje, Sofia, and Athens. And this momentum created should be harnessed for even further progress.  Slovakia believes that it is time to reward your efforts and send a positive signal to your people. Not following through with our promises would have serious consequences.

But the discussions are not over yet, and I think that to the people of North Macedonia, having already waited for so long, a few months will not make a huge difference; but I do strongly believe that this year must and will produce the well-deserved success of opening a new chapter of relations between your country and the EU. This is also the message I delivered in Luxembourg.

Two days ago, June 17, was the first anniversary of the Prespa Agreement. The country made a compromise with Greece, settling a nearly thirty-year dispute. Could there be any consequences for the agreement if we do not get a date for negotiations with the EU?

The Prespa Agreement is a historic achievement, for which I would like to congratulate the courage and leadership of the government, and also salute the Parliament for ratifying and implementing it. The vicious circle of nationalistic myths has been broken by political will and courage. And I am hopeful that the Prespa Agreement will serve as an inspiration for others in the region and contribute to regional reconciliation.

I believe that the agreement has set a broad and solid foundation for bilateral relations between North Macedonia and Greece. It has reopened the country’s European perspective and was the basis for the invitation to join NATO. These accomplishments are irreversible, and I am certain that North Macedonia will continue to invest in its European future.

In an interview with the Austrian television ORF, you said the Kosovo issue was less complicated than the dispute between Skopje and Athens. You said: “The Kosovo problem is not so difficult and can be solved. This problem is certainly easier than the name change in the case of North Macedonia.” Will the EU lose credibility if it doesn’t value the steps North Macedonia took to achieve this? Can this demotivate the rest of the Balkan countries that still have to resolve bilateral disputes?

The EU has already taken steps to reinvigorate the enlargement process and strengthen the credibility of the European perspective for the region. Slovakia believes that the time is ripe to follow through and reward the historic accomplishments of North Macedonia, and thereby inspire the wider region, including to Belgrade and Pristina. The EU must remain engaged and committed to delivering on its commitments.

Slovakia is part of the Visegrad Group, which includes Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. You joined the EU together on May 1, 2004. The Visegrad Group is helping North Macedonia in its European integration, but, knowing this region well, do you think the six non-EU Balkan countries should enter by following this example?

Yes, we entered the EU at the same time, but every region is different, with its own history, challenges, and achievements. And therefore you cannot compare the situation in your region with the situation of the Visegrad 4 countries at the beginning of this millennium. Each of the Western Balkans countries needs to fully focus on making a reality the ambitious reforms that are needed on their European paths. The pace of reforms will directly affect the pace of EU integration – there is no getting around that. And we know from our own experience that this transformation process can be very painful at times. Looking at where we stand in the Western Balkans today, the various stages of reform successes suggest that there will be more than one wave of accession.

Thirteen EU member states known as “friends of enlargement,” an initiative which Poland started, prepared a common position in mid-May demanding that the EU Council in June meet its promise to the region and set a start date for the negotiations in June with North Macedonia and Albania. How much these 13 members managed to convince those who are considered the most skeptical to enlargement process?

The Friends of Enlargement is a very useful group. Slovakia regularly participates in its meetings. It serves as a platform to advocate for enlargement and to communicate the arguments in favor of it to those who are not 100% convinced.

On June 11, we signed a joint statement appealing to all EU stakeholders to maintain and consolidate the positive momentum achieved this year by opening accession negotiations with the Republic of Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia. But the more skeptical countries must be convinced by the situation on the ground in each country. So right now, North Macedonia must show that it is an A-grade student.

To fully accept and support the arguments for moving ahead, all European leaders need to feel comfortable enough to justify their decision to go ahead with accession negations vis-à-vis their electorates. And here the role of candidates or negotiating countries is crucial. The more progress you make, the easier it is for the Friends of Enlargement and other like-minded EU member states to “sell” your case.

Recently in Tirana, you said that the violence during protests organized by the opposition has become boring and that it’s damaging to the opposition. Will the current political situation be an obstacle for Albania to get a date for negotiations?

First of all, I do not think boring is a word to be used in the context of violent protests. The situation is complex. Protests as such are a sign of a maturing democracy and the rights of our citizens. But the fact that they are violent, and that parliamentarians renounced their mandates, quite frankly, has a negative effect on public opinion in skeptical countries and puts into questions Albania’s readiness to act as a member of the EU.

However, I am confident that Albania’s political leadership has the capacities and experience to address the situation by engaging in sincere political dialogue with all stakeholders to discuss differences in the Parliament and not on the streets.

EU integration will have benefits for everyone – on both sides of the political divide. So, all political actors should have the EU integration agenda as a common denominator. Even if they disagree on everything else, this common goal can still provide a way forward.

This was in the context that North Macedonia and Albania are considered as a package for the talks. Is it fair for our country to be bundled with another country after our efforts for resolving bilateral issues and reforms implemented so far?

The “regatta principle”- meaning that countries will join when qualified, rather than in groups – reflects a basic and fair norm in pursuing countries’ integration ambitions. It is good and productive to move ahead in a group, or in tandem with another country. Yet the principle of individual merit should prevail. Slovakia, like a number of other EU member states, believes that now it is the time for both North Macedonia and Albania to embark on the negotiating path. We have been vocal about it during this week’s Foreign Affairs Council and will continue to advocate for you in the future.

The OSCE Mission recently presented its Second Interim Report on activities and cases in the jurisdiction of the Special Prosecutor’s Office. The head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje, Ambassador Clemens Koja, voiced concern about the public prosecution law, which also regulates the status of the SPO. Talks are ongoing between the ruling coalition and the opposition regarding the law. Ambassador Koja urged all parties to reach an agreement and allow the SPO to continue working without any obstacles. What is your opinion on the SPO’s work so far, and its future status and operations?

We share Ambassador Koja’s assessment and are indeed concerned by the fact that the institutional status of the SPO is still unresolved and that the draft law on the Public Prosecutor’s Office has been in a deadlock for over four months.

We call upon all political parties to reach an agreement on a draft-PPO law that will meet public expectations that corruption will be punished and that justice institutions will continue to be strengthened.

One of the ways OSCE supports the country is in border management. Your country from the migrant crisis in 2015 has helped North Macedonia in securing the southern border. According to the latest assessments by our Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski, the situation is stable, new problems with migrants are not expected. What’s your view on this and the general migrant situation?

Migration is a reality that touches every corner of the globe – which is why multilateral cooperation and coordination in this area can add so much value.

And, when it comes to migration, the OSCE has a role to play. It has a mandate to work on the issue of large movements of migrants and refugees. And, it is a unique regional platform – bringing countries of origin, transit, and destination to the table.

As countries in the region adapt to the changing realities of migration, the OSCE can be a valuable tool. And although the situation is currently stable, we still closely monitor developments related to migration along the Balkan Route. Meanwhile, our Mission is actively supporting efforts to improve your country’s capacity to manage irregular migration.

Ana Cvetkovska

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