Skopje, 5 July 2020 (MIA) – We are friends with the five neighbors, the whole democratic world is our friend, they’ve shown support for our multi-ethnic people to encourage them that they are on the right track, SDSM leader Zoran Zaev says in an interview with MIA.
Zaev, whose party is part of the “We Can” coalition ahead of the July 15 early parliamentary polls, said in the next term the focus should be at home, on the economy and on improving living standards, reforming the judiciary, education, healthcare, social policy, culture and agriculture.
The former prime minister tells MIA he expects to win the elections and to secure support to form a stable coalition.
Read the full interview and watch the video below:
Campaigning for the July 15 elections is in full swing, will you briefly name the five key things the “We Can” coalition is promoting to attract the citizens to vote for you?
New Macedonian developing economy occupies much of our election campaign, so I’d single out 20,000 denars minimum wage by the end of the term, 34,000 denars average monthly wage by the end of the term, hike in pensions alongside rise in salaries, with a guarantee that minimum wage would grow at least 21 per cent; capital infrastructure, roads, waterworks, sewage systems, kindergartens, schools and hospitals across the country. Also, one of the priorities is to open 80 per cent of the negotiations chapters in the next four years and to become EU member in the next six years.
Nevertheless, the economy seems to dominate in your program, even though it consists of other key pillars. You say new Macedonian economy, will you reveal what will be the first project you plan to implement if you win the elections on July 15?
Most of the policies we have been implementing – and we’ll continue to do so – involve investing in human resources. The main focus is to continue to strengthen the household budgets believing people spend the money. The money will find their way back in the budget in order to reinforce the capacities of the country by reinforcing the economic standards of our citizens.
Reforms in public administration and professional conduct by people in top posts has been a frequent topic in the past three years, but this reform is yet to be fully implemented. We’re yet to see the results from systematization of the institutions, jobs, transfers from the public to the private sector, the appointment of directors who are not members of any party. What seems to be the obstacle? What are you going to do if you win the elections? Is there a political capacity in the country for this reform to be implemented? Or is this being interpreted as political revanchism in the public administration?
We’ve adopted legislation and the laws on reforms in public administration have been welcomed, and we’ve had meetings with the chambers of commerce regarding the takeover. What’s left is to start implementing the public administration reform. Probably, we are the only coalition that has managed to reduce the administration by 20% without anyone losing their jobs, believing that the packages designed for those who will decide to be transferred to the private sector will be stimulating enough for them to see themselves in the private sector in the future having a stable job.
I believe we’ll succeed because there is lack of qualified workforce in the country. We’ll also solve the issue with workforce demand, especially in private companies. There’s also the severance package of 6 to 12 salaries for those who’ll decide to leave. I believe we’ll somehow unburden the administration. This is something we will be working on, but the economy and improving the quality of the standards will take up much of our efforts, of course.
Mr. Zaev, unique campaign in unique conditions amid a COVID-19 epidemic, guidelines to adhere to protocols, increased presence on social media. In a nutshell, the country is having an unprecedented election campaign. You decided to have small rallies with only a limited number of supporters. How are you making sure everything is in line with the protocols? What if something gets out of control?
I think we are used to it by now and the politicians have to be responsible first and foremost. The “We Can” coalition and myself personally take good care about our health and the health of the citizens who attend our events. Everyone has to wear a mask, maintain distance, people are greeting using fist bumps and elbow bumps – the so called corona-handshake. As you’ve already seen, we hold small rallies, large election rallies are gone.
Distance in addition to wearing masks is double prevention. Also, of course, disinfection of hands prior to and after an event, no hugging whatsoever even tough it is a traditional greeting because we are warm people.
I regret that our rivals don’t do any of it. Mr. Mickoski and (VMRO-DPMNE) MP candidates are setting a bad example. We’ve seen photos of people hugging, not wearing masks. It’s evident distance is not maintained at their rallies, which is a bad example for everyone. Ultimately, if public health is top priority above all, then we must demonstrate it in practice. We’ve come to something like this – our activists to give a face mask to one of the most exposed opposition officials, Minister (Nakje) Chulev while he was sitting in a coffee bar to underscore that measures should be respected by everyone in the country. Public office holders should be setting an example to everyone.
Mr. Zaev, a capacity for party PR for campaigns without fake news and smear propaganda seems to be lacking in the election ambient. What’s your opinion about the campaign so far, which is called by many a ‘bombshell’ campaign? Will be other ‘bombs’ detonated?
Our campaign is completely positive. The measures envisaging raised salaries, pensions, communal infrastructure, order, discipline and rule of law, reforms in education and administration, eco-state – namely, all these pillars of our program are so important to find their way to the people, which makes us to have no time for negative campaign in our events. All we do is make a comparison between us and our rivals.
Unlike us, our rivals have completely focused on other things, from ads to rhetoric – Mickoski likely dreams of me every night because I’m in every ad. It’s travesty.
I’m just an ordinary human being. One cannot even start to imagine what is the state of mind of someone so preoccupied with this to run such a campaign. I know it will come back to haunt them.
We’ve already pressed criminal charges about the ‘bombs’, it is punishable by law.
Even though it is punishable by law, ‘bombs’ are still being leaked. How can it be prevented? Some of the audio recordings are tapped by the interlocutors themselves. Also, some claim some of them are wiretapped conversations.
Since June 1, 2017, there’s no more wiretapping. Not a single public institution has any access, even OTA (Operational Technical Agency) has no right to look into into materials. It has been regulated by European directives, we’ve worked on it as part of the security reform together with officials of the European Commission, NATO and experts. It has been clearly regulated – there is no wiretapping in the country, except with court orders as part of investigations.
Have you pressed charges?
We’ve filled several charges for illegal wiretapping, illegal recording and we demand it is fully investigated. Not because we’re afraid of these conversations, but because it is an example of how everybody else should act if they had been the target of illegal wiretapping. It’s illegal to record conversations at meetings, it doesn’t have to be phone conversations.
Someone should be held accountable. It’s shameful what our rivals are doing. When SDSM was releasing wiretapped conversations, it did it in transparent manner. We’d made public implications of crime or unethical conduct and we’d turned them into charges, which were filled to the then public prosecutor’s office, latter turned into the Special Public Prosecution.
It’s cowardly to be releasing conversations and by doing so, someone is breaking the law. Today, it’s typical for the opposition. SDSM has always done it according to the laws.
But conversations have been also leaked about the opposition, you are not the only target in these shall I say ‘bombs’.
Charges have been filed against anyone leaking conversations, it doesn’t matter if the opposition is the target, or Zaev, of the ruling party. First of all, we want to put an end to this because many citizens are fearing for their privacy and they should know that everyone has the right to file suits – it is illegal and everyone should know this. Secondly, politicians should set an example and we did it to show to everyone in this country that there are things that are punishable by law and that’s why we filed charges.
You say rule of law and just country in your program, you say final showdown with Gruevsim and its remnants in the judiciary. The Law on the Public Prosecutor’s Office has entered into force. Is Gruevism the only obstacle in the judiciary or the chance for any other kind of ‘ism’ there. Maybe Gruevism is not the problem. How will you prevent it in the future?
Gruevsim is for sure one of the problems, because the judiciary was completely made up of party members as proven by Gordana Jankulovska’s notebook and it has been reflected – judges and prosecutors had been appointed solely on party grounds. The government has already adopted laws that are fully aligned with the European Commission and the Venice Commission. On June 30, the Law on the Public Prosecutor’s Office, one of the backbones of the judiciary, entered into force.
Under the law, what everyone should know is that if a case enters statute of limitations, the judge will be dismissed according to the law. Also, for the first time, judges and prosecutors will be held accountable. Their assets will be the subject of probes, also cases will be subjected to revision.
Regarding the judiciary, we buried the Special Public Prosecution, instead of hope we got ‘Racket’. Are you satisfied with the verdict in the ‘Racket’ trial, do you believe that justice has been served in his case?
I’m pleased with the verdicts. I won’t comment on the sentences, whether they are harsh or not, I’m not a legal expert, but I’m glad verdicts have been delivered. For the first time ever, a public prosecutor, in fact head of prosecution’s office, has been convicted, also an owner of a medium outlet that was pro-government, and of course, a businessman. I think there have been serious indices for bribery. It’s important what message is sent – everyone is equal before the law.
Most SPO cases have been closed with verdicts, some I hope are nearing their completion. It’s important to see all cases completed, because it was the sole objective of the SPO.
What’s disappointing is that some of the cases have had to start from the beginning because either a member of the jury had to retire or they were sick, which led to them being restarted. This cannot be allowed. It’s making people lose faith, making them disappointed because it seems everyone can avoid to be brought before justice. It cannot be allowed in a European country striving to join the EU.
What’s your comment on Bojan Jovanovski’s behavior. He has been filing charges against public figures and officials. Also, your comment on Frosina Remenski’s request to have Vilma Ruskoska exempted from the ‘International Alliance’ case?
First of all, the whole process was fully transparent. If Bojan Jovanovski and his lawyer had any proof, they should have presented it to the judge, they should have notified the prosecutors. After the verdict was handed down, a message was sent to cause harm in agreement with the opposition. Why – because they had been sending cries for help in any way they could. If we’d offered help, we would have been the same as Gruevski and we fought against it.
I do not wish for anyone to be sent to jail. But, if justice is not served and people are not held accountable for their actions, then we are sending a message that not everyone is equal before the law.
Everyone should be brought before justice if they had broken the law, including me. We all agree on this and we should continue to improve rule of law in the country.
Regarding regional issues, you were at the helm of a government that championed a policy of good neighborly ties. Agreements were signed with Greece and Bulgaria. Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Kosovo – where do you expect a hurdle or obstacle in the good neighborliness process?
There are no more hurdles. The agreements had been signed, now they are being implemented. The process has been stalled in the fourth chapter [of the friendship treaty with Bulgaria] with respect to Goce Delchev. As we’d solved the past three chapters with six historical figures, I believe we will continue to solve them in the interest of the two sides.
We should be building friendship, cooperate more for economic benefits, among other things, for both Macedonians and Bulgarians because it is in the spirit of the treaty. When we, the politicians, are talking, we’re making this clear – every agreement has to have winners of the two sides, otherwise it’s not an agreement, it will be ruined by either party.
We’ve shown who is in favor of settling disputes and reaching agreements – it’s us. The others only want to be in a fight with all the neighbors, with the whole world.
The Prespa Agreement is also being implemented, it will be implemented over the years, building friendship and strategic partnership between the countries.
Now, we are friends with all five neighbors, the whole democratic world is our friend. Half of them have visited North Macedonia in the past 2,5 years. Leaders paid a visit, even the Pope came. They all paid a visit to encourage the multi-ethnic nation, to tell the people they are on the right track.
In the next term, all the fronts are now open. We should roll up our sleeves, especially the politicians. If we win, we’ll focus on the agenda at home, the economy, judiciary, reforms in education, healthcare, social policy, agriculture, which leads us back to the economy.
We’ve restored liberties, now there’s freedom of speech, which is a great advantage. Democracy is literally present everywhere.
Democratic values in a parliamentary democracy is the imperative and we should all get used to us, because it is our choice.
NATO membership has become reality, another step in our EU integration process has been made after the negotiating framework has been presented to the member countries. Are we prepared for the EU accession process? You’ve been pledging you will open 80 percent of the chapters if you win the elections?
I think we are prepared. The two coveted strategic goals have been fulfilled – we joined NATO and after waiting for 15 years to be approved to start negotiations, we finally got the decision on March 24. The European Commission has made it clear that the EU’s acquis should be translated into Macedonian. It is yet another confirmation by the EC and the EU member countries about the Macedonian language. It is one of the first step toward making Macedonian one of the official languages of the EU, which will happen as soon as we join the EU.
To me, it’s historic feat, because our language will be found in libraries in Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Rome.
We’ve proven we have the capacity. We’ve achieved milestones with determination, courage, professionalism.
We vow we will open 80% of the chapters by the end of the next term and in six years we will close all chapters, with which we will become a full-fledged member of the bloc.
If our rivals take power, they will need 60 years because they will probably try to fight with all the neighbors. We’ll probably have to wait another decade. It had happened already – the country became a candidate for membership in 2005 and it took 15 years and SDSM to form a government to get back on the right track.
I believe a bulk of our legislation has been already aligned in the past 15 years. I’m an optimist after seeing the whole leadership of the ruling party SDSM. I even think we can conclude the process earlier.
Mr. Zaev, DUI’s election slogan is “First Albanian PM”. Naser Ziberi is its candidate for prime minister, although he is not a member of DUI. Is there likelihood for post-election coalition or is it populism?
It’d say it’s a completely populist strategy, nationalistic and populist in fact, because it carries a nationalistic message, which was typical for the Nikola Gruevski-Ali Ahmeti era.
My SDSM has founded the concept of one society for all. Through our actions, we’ve shown we do not discriminate on ethnic lines. I don’t care as long as someone is good, an expert and a professional capable of doing their job, be it prime minister, head of state, speaker, minister, or mayor. In fact, many ethnic Albanians of SDSM are at the helm of some of these office and they are pretty good.
In these circumstances, we cannot allow to be blackmailed, because people may be thinking that however they would vote, ultimately they (the parties) would blackmail each other. It’s not true.
The citizens and the citizens alone decide who will be member of Parliament, minister, prime minister or head of state.
We can no longer allow to have divisions along nationalistic lines in our country. We’ve said it would be healthy for DUI after 17 years, which is a very long time, to go into opposition.
SDSM formed coalition with BESA ahead of the elections. For the first time in history, two parties of the Macedonian and Albanian bloc formed pre-election coalition. What do you have in common with BESA? How you and BESA manage nationalism?
SDSM and BESA had had negotiations almost every day for three weeks to align all our political positions. Today we have a joint program called “We Can”, where we elaborate on all the values. The first condition was to forget about nationalism and to promote equality in the society, the fight for every single person and their rights, to focus on the youth, most of which are from the Albanian ethnic community and they want equal right and duties. They are happy because Zoran Zaev and SDSM have recorded serious achievements in this regard, which understandably have to be upgraded in the period to come.
We’ve agreed on everything that is of importance, the living standards of the citizens, equal economic development across whole of Macedonia.
It’s all here in the program and there is nothing left for nationalism. I believe we will succeed in setting an excellent example, like the one we’ve already set – that it’s possible to form a multi-ethnic coalition for the first time with a party from the Albanian political bloc. So far, the Albanian community had its representatives in SDSM, but now this is an upgrade in the concept one society for all.
What do you expect from the upcoming elections?
I expect us to win. I don’t want us to relax, we want first of all to plead to the voters to vote, because it’s important to provide legitimacy of the institutions, and also to read our program and to make up their own mind. Very often as part of the campaign we call people, we send them emails. We go door to door wherever the citizens invite us, but we don’t visit people who are sick or with chronic illnesses.
We try to create an atmosphere that it is safe to vote. I believe we’ve succeeded. Our analyzes show something between 48% and 55% (turnout). As the campaign progresses, I expect the support to grow more, which will ensure that a stable coalition is formed.
It’s not impossible to have a majority ourselves, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t form coalition.
What are your options on forming a coalition after the elections?
We’ll definitely form a coalition primarily to make sure the ethnic communities are properly represented even if we have 61 MP seats. Theoretically speaking, if the people decide to entrust us with this responsibility, we will make a coalition, all options are open, even if DUI agrees to remove this condition. We have no problem to sit down and talk. We also have the Alliance for Albanians in our communications. We’d voted together in favor of reforms, the constitutional changes, the law on the public prosecutor’s office. I believe we have laid the foundation for a cooperation, joint platform in the future.
Of course, there are options with other MPs that will be elected.
I have no concerns over forming a government and parliamentary majority. What’s important is ensure that the government program is completely identical with our program, that we accept something deemed acceptable from our partners in order to establish a government coalition.
Finally, Mr. Zaev what’s your message for the readers and viewers of MIA?
The message is the same one we’ve been sending every day to the citizens. Dear citizens, you know who we are, we made great achievements, we’ve demonstrated courage, determination, wisdom, friendships; we fulfilled the strategic objective of the country all the while improving the economy, raising salaries, pensions, strengthening the values of our society.
We know, we haven’t succeeded everywhere we wanted, however we are the best and we deserve your support for what we have done.
I believe a prime minister shouldn’t serve more than two terms. I ask for a clear second mandate to achieve more of this at home, in the economy, in rule of law, education, etc.
We’ve learned the lessons from the past 2,5 years and I believe you will entrust us to run the country in the next four years and to be proud of our country and to be the best in the region.
Vote for number 3. Trust us, we can do more, we can do better, there’s no other alternative but this journey we’ve embarked on.
Translated by Bisera Altiparmakova
Photos: Ivana Batev
Video: Aslan Vishko