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FM Dimitrov: We’re put to the test to see if we’ll rise to the occasion

After the 2020 election, an attempt should be made involving a political consensus over the concept of caretaker government, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov says in an interview with MIA.

Skopje, 17 January 2020 (MIA) – After the 2020 election, an attempt should be made involving a political consensus over the concept of caretaker government, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov says in an interview with MIA.

“It would be sad if overwhelming mistrust continues to prevail in the country,” Dimitrov notes, adding he expects fake news and smear campaigns against opponents to dominate in the coming election campaign.

Dimitrov says he will be part of the campaign, but he hasn’t decided yet in which format. He falls short of giving a precise answer if he would agree to another term as foreign minister depending on the election outcome. “Nevertheless, I am focused on the European agenda,” he emphasizes.

In the interview, Minister Dimitrov shares his impressions from Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi’s visit to Skopje on Wednesday, talks about the implementation of the Prespa Agreement, the possibility of the deal to be annulled if VMRO-DPMNE won the elections, the relations fostered with the Mitsotakis government in Greece, etc.

We’ve been on the road to EU integration for too long. The country has had a candidate status for 15 years during which the European Commission issued ten consecutive recommendations. Our country was the first stop in the mini regional tour of EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi. Was it a message of some kind or diplomatic politeness after the failure of the EU leaders to approve a date last year?  

There’s plenty of that. I believe the main motive for visiting our country first is the drastic nature of the Macedonian European story – a candidate country for 15 years, first recommendation issued in 2009; for two years we’ve had either conditional recommendations or lost ones, but announced in 2015 and 2016 when certain things came to light. A country in a region ‘rich in’ outstanding issues dared to solve its major major issues by closing the open issues with its neighbors; a country that in 2016 was called ‘captured state’ – weak institutions, too much power in the hand of one man or a small group; a country which despite all the mistakes that we have been making has managed to restore freedom and democracy – all of this makes a drastic story.

Thus, the failure of the many EU leaders to reach a decision in October was called a strategic mistake, historic mistake. The Commissioner has said we could see this as a chance for us to be more focused.

He has conveyed many messages, three of those are crucial. He has said: we maintain our position that you have met all the conditions. He also announced EUR 50 million in reward for our performance in fulfilling criteria. He mentioned that efforts are being made for achieving breakthrough, i.e. a decision for start of accession talks before the Zagreb Summit in May. He noted that reforms have to be pursued, pinpointing the law on public prosecution. It wasn’t mentioned as a condition, however, he insisted that it is key for us to show we have the capacity, especially in a pre-election period, to unite over the European future of our homeland. These were the key three messages.

As regard the public prosecution law, Commissioner Várhelyi said he hoped it would be passed by Parliament before it dissolves. He also met with opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski. Várhelyi has held many meetings in the country before meeting with you. Do you have any information if the law was discussed at the Mickoski meeting so as to urge the opposition to show constructiveness allowing the law to be passed before Parliament’s dissolution? 

His message carries consistency. He has reiterated at all meetings everything he said at the news conference alongside PM (Oliver) Spasovski. I had the chance to be part of the meetings three times, so surely the matter was raised at the meeting with the opposition, too.

In a way, I believe all political actors – including the opposition and their leader (Hristijan) Mickoski – are put to the test: is the highest priority we have, EU membership, something we only say or are we prepared to be invested. If the Commissioner, who’s our ally for sure, is committed to this agenda, let’s enable this breakthrough in the rightfully deserved next stage.

If he’s saying that the law should be passed by the current parliament, people will see if our commitments are only on paper. And it’s simple – those who are not going to vote for this law, which incorporates all European Commission remarks and suggestions, are not honest to the voters and the citizens.

Now, we are put to the test to see if we are capable of putting the matter above any election-related context. In this case, in March it’s possible that we might declare one joint victory of both the ruling party and the opposition, of the whole nation and the society. Or, we might leave it as something over which the parties will be bickering.

The thing is that we had many chances in the past, but we weren’t courageous enough and ready enough to seize the chance. These chances are scarce now. Europe is not as predictable as it used to be. We couldn’t know when the next chance might come. The dynamic of our elections at home cannot affect major issues of highest national interest. We have to learn to seize, to create and to use chances coming our way.

Do you know if the political parties have the willingness to endorse the law before Parliament dissolves?

We’ll find out very soon, in the coming days or weeks. MPs have at least four weeks left. I think our job is in the frames of the Brussels’ red lines – accountability to be held, no concealed amnesty, to make sure that all cases are further processed by the prosecutors that have been working on them, excluding the ones that have been incriminated. It’s up to us to work with every lawmaker individually, because we do not have the luxury to miss historic chances. A historic chance is standing right in front of us. Too many generations have missed out.

Regarding the judiciary, the so called ‘Racket’ case has to be mentioned. Has the opening of this case brought us closer or has it distanced the country from Europe? 

I’ll be honest. As someone holding an office, but also as a private citizen, I have high hopes for justice. A synonym for justice for the citizens was this institution [Special Public Prosecution – SPO]. Hence, SPO’s accountability is much, much bigger than the shame brought upon us by those that we believe have been involved in wrongdoings and crime. This, let’s say, trade with justice has badly affected us, as a society, making us believe it is not possible. I believe hope still lies in some individuals in the judiciary, maybe the anti-corruption commission is one of those. It has proven to swing left and right, and center, leaving out any partisan or political prisms.

However, it’s positive thing that the system reacted, it wasn’t swept under the rug. The spotlight of the public is on the case, there is a process going on, which we might say that, so far, has been pretty efficient. We’ve shown that the system is reacting, unlike before, but the feeling of bitterness is undeniable.

In view of the European agenda, there is a plus – for the swift reaction. But, there is also a minus, bigger than the plus. It would have been much better if we didn’t have to deal with this, in the first place.

Your posts on Facebook can be quite interesting. On Oct. 15 you posted the Jean-Paul Sartre quote: Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat. In our country, who’s rocking the boat and who’s rowing? 

What I tried to say is that we have a paradoxical situation – the political forces that had lost the recommendation in 2015/2016, that had turned us into a hopeless case, lived off the disputes with the neighbors, instead of investing a political capital to provide a future, they’ve used a barrage of criticism. This seems to me lack of morality and decency. This is literally rocking the boat – when they aren’t rowing at least they shouldn’t obstruct. I guess that what I was trying to say.

Unfortunately, we’re light years away from not caring who will win the April 12 election. There’s no competition to see who’s rowing faster, who’s safeguarding the boat to be more stable – it’s the course.

There’s this confusing message being conveyed, saying: we’ll put the homeland on the fast track to Europe, but we’re going to tear down the bridges, ruin the compromise achieved under the Prespa Agreement. It’s an unfair treatment of the issues that are important for the Macedonian people, a confusion looms over the name and the terminology.

In many places we were called Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. We had to sign agreements saying “the official language of FYROM.” Rather than fighting for our right to self-determination, the focus was diverted to the antiquity.

This is why I believe we don’t have a normal political competition of who is more ambitious, who is more creative, who is more determined – it’s about the course.

And the statement “give me two-thirds majority, I’ll annul everything” – what’s going to be achieved? Wasn’t the name issue a condition for us to join NATO? Why there wasn’t any invitation for membership since 2008? Why are we now so close to implementing one of the strategic goals?

And now we see him saying “I’ll open the issue”. What does this mean – will we give up our NATO membership, will we reject the historic chance for a EU membership breakthrough?

There has to be more honesty.

You’re referring to recent comments by Hristijan Mickoski, saying he would annul the Prespa Agreement if he won the election. What do you think, is the statement a pre-election marketing or a real possibility?

It’s a narrative that they think could be attractive for a portion of their voters. But, what would happen next?

It was a difficult compromise in which the two parties had agreed their main principles. For us, it was the identity-related issues; for them it involves a lengthy subject. (Greece) also faced protests, it wasn’t welcomed well.

Do you think it is so easy to annul the Prespa Agreement since it is an international agreement? Although saying that he would, (Greek PM) Kyriakos Mitsotakis didn’t annul the document after he won the election.

It has been incorporated into our legal system, it is part of the international law. In terms of being a political deal, it was recognized overwhelmingly by the diplomatic world as great success. Frederica Mogherini took some credit for it, because it is partly an achievement of EU’s diplomatic efforts. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Mass has said that the Balkans will produce this year good news.

It cannot be done, but it can be used before elections lacking any honesty in how’s done. If they are being honest, they should offer an alternative: what will be done, how much time it will take, etc.

As a nation, I believe we are mature enough, we’ve faced our reality, we are responsible for our own future and I believe the people will feel it

We were afraid of putting an adjective in front of Macedonia. ‘North’ is a geographical determinant, the name is ‘Macedonia’. We were afraid of no longer being Macedonians, speaking Macedonian. We’re all fully aware that our country makes up only a portion of the historical region Macedonia. It was one of the issues of the dispute and we need to be open and honest when we talk about that.

What is your cooperation like with the Mitsotakis government? He was against the Prespa Agreement during the election campaign in Greece. However, recently he has said that something that has been signed cannot be abolished. How is the agreement being implemented by the two parties, are there any hurdles?

It is being implemented. There’s always room to improve its dynamic, however largely the agreement is being implemented.

Take for example the commission on trademarks. The commission on new border crossings will meet soon, which has been, in fact, enabled by this agreement.

I believe we’ve managed to build confidence with the government led by PM Mitsotakis, to establish relations of understanding and to look forward to the future. Greece is our neighbor and their support of our European prospect is appreciated. In a way, we are natural allies in solving the difficult issues that had kept us apart since our independence. It’s a complex relationship, but the trend is undoubtedly positive.

In terms of the EU, the question of Bulgaria is inevitable. During Wednesday’s visit, EU Enlargement Commissioner Várhelyi underlined that the country’s EU integration hinges on further implementation of the Prespa Agreement and the Friendship Treaty with Bulgaria. We formed a committee, it began its work, certain issues have been raised. However, at our request, i.e. at the request of the Macedonian historians within the committee, it is on standby at the moment, though I believe informal meetings are taking place, so that certain issues raised won’t be misused in the election period. The issue on the Macedonian language was raised by the Bulgarians. Do you think we could face any hurdles from Bulgaria, perhaps not over the start of negotiations but during later stages of opening and closing the Chapters?

In a way, the Friendship Treaty regulates the mechanisms of solving issues and settling differences, providing that they would be resolved in a friendly manner, that there’s a joint expert committee on historical issues, and this is the difference between the two. Bulgaria is an EU member, we’re a candidate country and we want to open accession negotiations. The treaty, among other things, somehow shapes Bulgaria’s support on our path to the EU. So, if the goal is to come out as close neighbours from this exceptionally delicate historical process, not only for the issues it deals with, but also for their weight and delicacy, if the goal is to come out as really close neighbours and true friends, then throughout the process there must be respect for the neighbour’s dignity and identity.

The historians, as we all know, are also discussing about the heroes of the past, including Goce Delchev. They are referring to his original letters, in a way putting forth his self-determination in the given historical context. That is the exact same right we, the Macedonians today, are entitled to. In international law, the issues of language and identity are not subject to recognition by another country. However, what is subject to recognition is our right to voice who we are, to say we’re speaking the Macedonian language. So, it’s practically impossible to move towards close friendly relations if there’s no respect for the present.

Historical issues too, they cannot be objectively resolved, we cannot arrive at an understanding if we feel threatened today for being Macedonians and speaking the Macedonian language. Therefore, the process is very delicate and it could sidetrack if positions such as “we’re in, they’re out” are taken. Such issues cannot take place quite so in Europe, between two neighboring countries and their close nations in the 21st century. But this situation would have developed anyway, as certain analysts are saying – it would have probably been much more difficult if it weren’t for the Friendship Treaty. The point is, the process would continue to last and it would require much effort and care, it won’t be quite as simple and it won’t happen overnight, but it must be wrapped up as it needs to be wrapped up.

Let’s move on to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its functioning. The government gave the green light for the new law on foreign affairs, there was also a public debate on it. The law provides for 80 percent of diplomats to be career diplomats. I believe new appointments and the current law surpass such percentage. I’d like to ask first, how far through is the latest wave of filling the vacancies of diplomatic-consular offices?

Most probably, those going to multilateral centers, such as the European Council, would be sent sooner because the procedure there is much simpler. As regards bilateral centers, we’re at the stage of waiting for consent, i.e. agrément from relevant states where relevant ambassadors are being sent. It would be nice if this process flourishes in the balance between principle and the art of possible in politics, I believe we have a good balance. Never before in the history of Macedonian diplomacy have we had so many career ambassadors. Not just formally. Let’s say we’d like to send you as ambassador, and we employ you at the Foreign Ministry, so that you spend several months here and then we’re sending you abroad, you are a career ambassador of the ministry. Previously, we’ve had seven such ambassadors.

Now, we have no such ambassador. A huge part of the career ambassadors is made of people who have been working at the Ministry for 20 years, who carry a burden, who are quite aware what they’re doing. So, in that sense, I think we can be satisfied. I only hope we succeed at this approach in other important sectors of our society, more professionalism, less politics – in education, health. I believe we’re making a good trend and practice that this course won’t be easily broken, in which case we’d go 80 years back.

In reality, we used to have one third as career diplomats, two thirds as political. Now it’s completely the other way around, even improved to over 80 percent. I could go on about the law. It was drafted here, we relied on several foreign experiences, we received advice from the British Foreign Office, the Dutch Foreign Ministry. The aim is to bring more order and predictability to careers, tie a minister’s hands a little, my ministers now and all future ministers, not to have too much discretion but criteria over who can be a director, who can be an assistant to the director, who can be a career diplomat, have requirements set. We’re separating diplomats from the system of public servants because there are major issues in the implementation of that legislation because we’re working with other countries, people are going to embassies abroad then they’re returning, etc. Every employee of the Ministry must have a security certificate because we’re dealing with confidential documents, the assessment system, duality of titles, both diplomatic titles and administrative titles, and this makes it all very difficult.

Do you think that the new law will now bring order in relation to diplomatic officers?

That’s what we aim for. We have diplomatic titles, the salary is based on the diplomatic titles, and there’s one predictability – after reaching a certain level, there no promotion by automatism. True success is not to be assessed by the minister only, i.e. the political leadership, but by a collective body consisting of high diplomats. That’s the whole point of the law. I cannot say anything about the expected dynamics, there’s not much time left with the current composition. We have the EU’s support for a fast-paced procedure for this law because it promotes merits. Which is precisely one of the objectives of the public administration reforms, but I don’t know how healthy this is in a political sense, having such faced-paced procedure. I believe it would be good to confront all arguments even at the cost of some time.

Do you expect it to be passed by Parliament before it dissolved and do you have the opposition’s support regarding this legislation?

We’ll see. We’re waiting on some meetings. Initial response is not particularly positive. There was one negative response by the newly-created trade union.

The trade union criticized the separation of diplomatic officers and made a parallel with an uncompleted law on service such as army, police?

That’s something all diplomats strive for. I know this institution very well, I’ve been here since 1996. Ever since then, that is something practically all diplomats strive for.

Where is this criticism coming from?

It seems, the way we’re headed, we could arrive at a completely twisted situation. If things continue this way, there’d be a political leadership striving for professionalization and a smaller union striving for politization. For example, there have been remarks over why we have regular rotation calls only within the institution. This was in December last year, and it’s quite a common practice which mustn’t be affected by elections because people who are employed here, diplomats, are applying for those calls. In a way, such a remark was an implication that elections play a role in this, in the work of those committees, etc. But, one issue by another and we’ll convince them.

This interview is taking place at a moment when the country is governed by a caretaker government. There’s an election ahead of us. I’d like to hear your opinion on the concept of a caretaker government. Initially, it was introduced as a model to overcome the crisis in line with the Przino Agreement, but it became a legal obligation. How much further should the concept of a caretaker government be applied? Does it contribute to the democratization of the country, to cooperation between ruling parties and opposition in a government that is preparing the election, or it somehow creates parallel institutions while it’s functioning over its 100 days?

I call it a Przhino government, after the Przino Agreement. I personally think that at the time it made sense, looking at the findings of the European Commission, as well as the State Department and the Freedom House and a number of other renowned institutions. Too many issues were decided upon by only one man and a tight circle around him, thus threatening the election process. We heard about it, we all know about it, the people heard that in the so-called ‘bombs’. It really made sense, because such strong control through abusing office disables fair competition, fair election. So, I can’t say, it might have sense, but in the long-term, if our ambition is to become a country where institutions function, this would be time-consuming.

We’ve had the six months of playing games with the mandate, which tragically ended with April 27, 2017. Then, we were losing at the times when the government could do so little due to election. This was the case ahead of the local election and ahead of the presidential election, and a practically clean mandate when things could run smoothly without any of the legal limits pre-election. And, we’re down to less than two and a half years, maybe even close to two years, a halved mandate. So, in just two years we achieved all this, which is particularly visible in the strategic area, a major step forward. Probably, a political consensus should be made after the coming election because it would be really sad if this level of substantial distrust and this all-or-nothing battle remains. We have to overcome this. Our ambitions are better than that.

What are your expectations from the coming election? Have we developed a political culture? Do you think we’ll be facing a whole lot of fake news and black campaigns?

Yes. I believe there’ll be a real mess of fake news and personal attacks. This is a practice the more politics has penetrated society, the more citizens depend on the government in terms of applying for a job announcement, take care of something else, participate in a tender for public money, etc. So, the more politics penetrates society, the more cruel the battle between political stakeholders.

Our next major strategic battle is precisely the one at home related to clientelism and corruption. We have an additional problem, we’re dealing with a political force, which unlike other areas of society didn’t go through a catharsis. So, there’s no clear distance from what we heard, no clear distance from their current honorary president Gruevski, no clear condemnation. Only attack on constitutional order, obstruction of peaceful transfer of power after election for the one that has secured independent majority in parliament through a coalition or in another way. This cannot be defended with patriotism, no excuses.

This is why I believe it will be a cruel battle that would require much wisdom and patience from citizens, and all this is for their benefit. Maybe some people will be fed up with politics, maybe that will be the outcome, people will say they’re fed up with politics. But, whether we like it or not, our whole life depends on politics. Will we prosper in the long-run, what kind of an air we breathe, is there a doctor or is this doctor a good one, what kind of teachers are teaching our children, is our pay good, do we have health insurance or not, is our pension any good, are the streets clean, all this is politics. And, people voice their opinion, our sovereignty is derived from the people under the Constitution. Voting should be used as a way to voice opinion on all these things.

Regardless of the election outcome, would you accept to serve another term as foreign minister? What are your plans for the future?

In the near future, I’m focused on the European agenda because the historic chance is right behind the corner. I think we shouldn’t get our hopes up, we should do our homework and more than that.

We’ve had this experience of disappointment and we need to be mature about it, but we also need to do our best. Several weeks, months are left and I feel as if it is an unfinished mission. I’ll fully invest in it one way or another. I’ll engage in the campaign, in the coming political competition, although I don’t know how. I haven’t really thought about what I’ll do next. If I’m given the chance, I’ll be exactly where I can make a difference in some of these strategic battles. If we have our breakthrough to the EU completed, I believe there’s a challenge for me inside, in the coming period.

In your last interview with MIA you mentioned you’ll write a memoir about the Prespa (Agreement). Then, we also interviewed Greece’s ex-foreign minister Nikos Kotzias. Have you started writing the memoir?

It’s on my mind from time to time. You just reminded me, but unfortunately, it’s still in the works. I’ve written some notes to keep a memory of my own feeling. I think it would be useful. Maybe Kotzias, if he’s working on it, has written more.

I believe it would be a useful thing if it’s done from the heart because the issue is still relevant among the people, the differences, etc.

An issue that has affected the emotions of all of us cannot be retold if there isn’t love and readiness to carry the burden and the love of the people. I think it can be told only through a personal story. That’s why it is important.

Ana Cvetkovska

Translated by Bisera Altiparmakova and Nevenka Nikolikj

Photo: Ivana Batev

Video: Aslan Vishko and Emil Jordanovski

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