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Pendarovski: EU is the right direction as we need political experience and democratic values

Bulgaria's response to Skopje's Action Plan is not any different than the country's well-known positions, President Stevo Pendarovski tells MIA in an exclusive interview where he also talks about the institutional democratic capacities of North Macedonia, its systemic shortcomings, political interference, hidden agendas, captured institutions, etc.

Skopje, 16 January 2021 (MIA) — Bulgaria’s response to Skopje’s Action Plan is not any different than the country’s well-known positions, President Stevo Pendarovski tells MIA.

In an exclusive interview with MIA, Pendarovski talks about the content of the Sofia’s response handed over to North Macedonia’s special envoy, stressing that there is no new agreement, no annex or protocol to the 2017 Friendship Treaty.

“There’s nothing substantially different in their positions, maybe some phrases here or there,” he says.

Elsewhere in the interview, the President talks about the expectations of Bulgaria’s changing its position in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections. Pendarovski says he hopes the EU countries will become more aware realizing that the integration of Western Balkan countries into the bloc is a key geopolitical issue.

Among other things, President Pendarovski talks about the institutional democratic capacities of the country, its systemic shortcomings, political interference, hidden agendas, captured institutions, etc.

Following is MIA’s interview with President Pendarovski in full and the video.

The holiday season is over. I believe you spent the holidays in Ohrid?

No, I’ve been in Skopje all this time.

What’s your comment on the latest information that has come from UNESCO that Ohrid is becoming a city in danger?

A year and a half ago, after the first warning signals, it was in Ohrid that I had called on the mayor and those in charge in our institutions of following the UNESCO recommendations and agreed to act on the set of recommendations. Is it because of the elections we had, or due to some other things – the elections, pandemic, postponing the election twice, etc, I don’t know – it’s a fact that the latest UNESCO report says that in fact only insignificant, let’s say cosmetic, changes had been made in less than two years. It’s bad what I’ve been hearing – it’s something the relevant bodies should confirm – is it possible Ohrid to be added on the list of world heritage in danger, or God forbid, Ohrid to lose the UNESCO status all together. I commend the PM’s move two days ago when he convened the government, mainly the ministers in charge, and handed them tasks as regards the UNESCO recommendations.

I believe it requires interdisciplinary coordination of all state bodies. I’m not excluding the local self-government, because it would be a complete disaster if Ohrid lost the status. I hope in the coming months we’ll witness the state bodies taking concrete measures unlike in the past, when everything came down to rhetoric.

I started off like this because I was told, when arranging an interview, that you could be there for the holidays?

I’ve been there and I will go there. Due to the pandemic, it was appropriate to adhere to the recommendations of the Commission [for Infectious Diseases] and the doctors, who have been advising us to stay home with our close family members. We don’t have to be wearing pajamas, but we should be with our families.

The issue grabbing the headlines – Bulgaria’s veto. This past week, the government’s special envoy Vlado Buchkovski was in Sofia. He was handed over a new ‘package’. Do you know what’s in it?

Yes, I do. There’s a public debate, provoked by the opposition – and it is entitled to it – suggesting that there is some kind of annex or protocols to the 2017 Agreement. This is not the case. It is an action plan we have recently offered and now, they are responding to the action plan. The document we offered does not, in any way, involve identity-related features, the language, the nation, etc.

What is it about? After the December de facto veto from Bulgaria, because after all it was a decision of the EU, we offered a set of measures intended to ‘loosen up’, so to say, the atmosphere in the coming months, because Bulgaria is preparing for parliamentary elections, probably in March or April. It’s very hard ahead of the elections with a cool head, I’m talking about the colleagues in Sofia, to debate issues we couldn’t find a common ground even when we weren’t preparing for elections.

At this point, we are discussing issues at the sidelines of the main problem. We are discussing infrastructure, education, the media, better connectivity in different areas, in energy, that are related to the main issue. You’re well aware of the main issue – Bulgaria’s insisting that we accept that the roots are Bulgarian, that the identity markers of the Macedonian nation prior to 1944 were Bulgarian. Naturally, we’ve never accepted it and we never will. However, if we’d failed to reach an agreement so far and Sofia had failed to back down and allow us to start the first stage in December, I don’t expect anything to happen in January, February, March especially having in mind their known vocabulary.

It involves an approach we’ve initiated and I hope Bulgaria will say ‘Yes’ to. It is designed to restore trust in order to be able to discuss all issues. I repeat – there is no new agreement, no annex to the agreement or protocol.

Will some of it be unveiled publicly?

I’ve learned recently that probably next week, the Committee for European Affairs or the Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament, and the ministers in charge – Dimitrov and Osmani respectively …

This is what [Antonio] Miloshoski, the chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee, has requested …

Yes, he did, but I believe the government has decided. There is no reason why it wouldn’t. It is, in fact, their duty, to attend a hearing in Parliament. Such a session will take place, where most likely current developments, including documents, will be discussed.

Will it be open or behind closed doors?

I’m not sure, it is up to the committee members to decide.

On the remarks of the Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva regarding the document Bulgaria has delivered, that it contains ways to overcome the hatred and anti-Bulgarian policy. Where do you see hatred, i.e., what’s your comment on her interpretation of the Macedonian-Bulgarian relations?

For months, they [Bulgaria] through their EU Ambassador have been sending reports underscoring a staggering number of alleged statements that contain hate speech. The reports sent to the EU members include a number of some 15,000-20,000 – a staggering number. They probably count also the comments posted on social media. Otherwise, it makes no sense. I’m not claiming, no one is, that there is no hate speech here. They also cannot claim that there is no hate speech or disqualifications whatsoever in Sofia. When you won’t recognize my right to self-determination – it’s classic example of disqualification.

Irrespective of how high the number is, it exists, it’s a fact. There are remnants from the past in the two countries, from the two nations, from the two media environments I’d say, because they still pay attention to such comments.

There is hate speech from both sides and I agree with the approach we’ve started implementing. I’m not sure if they are doing something.

Our government has demonstrated that people, especially state officials when using statements of hate speech of any kind, they can no longer be state officials.

You definitely cannot control hate speech on social media, but what about an official, institutional approach? To what extent it is hate speech – or fake new and propaganda – what Zaharieva has stated comparing Josip Broz Tito with Adolf Hitler, not to mention [Krasimir] Karakachanov?

Karakachanov, too, is an institution, a minister and deputy prime minister. I agree. Fake news is a separate phenomenon that is not exclusive only in the bilateral context between Sofia and Skopje. It’s a global issue …

It is, but there is difference between fake news – media, fake news – social network, fake news – individuals and experts. Fake news – institutions is a completely different phenomenon?

I agree. It is up to the state to sanction it. There was a case when a government-appointed official in a state agency was dismissed because he used hate speech targeting the Bulgarian Foreign Minister. It is the only way.

There is a provision, similar to what we are discussing here, in the Prespa Agreement. There was one included in the 1995 Interim Agreement between FYROM and the Hellenic Republic saying the two countries are obligated to sanction hate speech or propaganda produced by a political, office holder in the said country. As regards individuals and social network, it should be discouraged. That’s all.

Is it the Prespa Agreement?

The Interim Agreement, too. The same applies for Bulgaria as well. The state cannot prosecute +15,000 people posting on Facebook, because it involves private lawsuits. Ultimately, it’s democracy. Anyone who feel they have been affected can file lawsuit.

Finally, it is a global phenomenon called social networks and the Internet, and there’s nothing we can do. But, it’s entirely different thing if the state produces such hate speech.

It’s also possible that the state can produce hate speech through the textbooks or through the educational system. It is one of the tasks of the Commission.

But, it’s tied to the work of the Commission and to some kind of process that is forthcoming…

I’m not talking about when the two sides should change the textbooks about certain historical periods or the much-talked about case that the words fascist or Bulgarian occupying forces should be removed, which they perceive as hate speech.

Many years ago, Turkey had reacted after finding what they believe was a classic example of hate speech, such as the phrase evil Turks. What I’m trying to say, this was years ago even though there was no bilateral agreement.

Now, there is official obligation to eliminate hate speech, if there is any, in official documents or textbooks in the two countries. However, consensus from both sides is needed in the Commission made of Macedonian and Bulgarian historians.

I have the impression the Commission has too many tasks. I believe the Commission shouldn’t solve history, now it’s entirely different dimension?

It is. The Commission has gone beyond its jurisdiction when it was supposed to define the ethnic origin of people who had died 150 years, unfortunately, it was initiated by the other side. It’s not the Commission’s job – it has never been and will never be in accordance with the Agreement. The Commission should determine which historical figures; which historical events matter to both of us in order the two countries to celebrate together. Not all of them, of course. If it matters to you, if it matters to me – then together we can lay wreaths on someone’s monument, but we shouldn’t define anyone’s ethnic origin. It is basic human right. You identify as Macedonian – it was the same right one hundred years ago, it is the same today.

You cannot rewrite history. The Commission suspended its work after the Bulgarian historians insisted that we should acknowledge that Tsar Samuil was ethnic Bulgarian and he had lived at least seven centuries before the creation of modern nations.

Have we mixed thing us a little bit? Let’s say, Bulgaria has a constant line of what they want, what they demand. The impression is that here we are a little bit confused – who is in charge. You are here, you are president, Zaev is PM, Osmani is Foreign Minister, Dimitrov is at the helm of the Secretariat for European Affairs. Is there coordination?

Formally, negotiations, talks as part of the bilateral agreement are led by the foreign ministries of the two countries. It’s undisputable. At the government, there is regular coordination. Let’s not forget – in 2017, the prime ministers of the two countries, on behalf of the governments, had signed the agreement. Formally, I do not lead the negotiations, but I’m frequently informed by the government ministers, by the prime minister and also recently by Vlado Buchkovski after being appointed as special envoy.

From time to time, we establish joint state positions at coordination meetings. But, first and foremost, it is the government that establishes official positions.

In his latest interview with MIA, Mr. Dimitrov suggested we take a break because Bulgaria is preparing for elections. On the other hand, [FM] Osmani had sent the special envoy to Sofia, which means we’re not stopping. PM Zaev is somewhere in the middle, I guess. Shouldn’t we really take a break?

This is what I think – I truly doubt we can find a solution in the next three months before Bulgaria holds its elections. But, I don’t think we should stop contacting. We have to, because a lot of things have fallen apart in the meantime.

We will have to restore trust in order to come to a point where we can open all the issues, without prejudice, and we can openly say what we think and where concessions are not possible.

Up until December, Bulgaria had imposed one-way dictate – either you sign this or there are no negotiations. In the end, it was what really happened.

You think the latest development is not a dictate?

What development?

The response to our Action Plan.

The response to the Action Plan is not much different than the previous responses from Bulgaria. Maybe some phrases here and there.

I’ve been claiming for months that the parameters of the Agreement have been crossed, there is also overstepping of the Commission. However, the response from Bulgaria to our Action Plan in fact does not respond to some of our demands. Again, there’s inclusion of what you think of the identity characteristics of the Macedonian nation. It’s not what we are asking for. We are not mentioning it in the Acton Plan, because it’s beyond any negotiations.

As I’ve said, we can discuss any other area but we won’t discuss who we are, what we are.

It has been omitted this time?!

We proposed an action plan in order to be able…

I’m talking about the Bulgarian response.

In addition to everything else, everything we mentioned – infrastructure, education, energy, Corridor 8 – they have included these issues, too, even though they call it a response to Skopje’s Action Plan. It is not mentioned anywhere in the document. But, I’m not surprised, because since last year I can identify a consistency in Sofia’s behavior.

Regarding the consistency – the elections in Bulgaria might be postponed. What if it is not Bulgaria’s election campaign vocabulary while we think it is part of the election campaign?

It’s not, because the Declaration was adopted in Parliament last year by a majority, no parliamentary group, or the opposition were against it.

I’ve heard comments from Sofia that allegedly we are waiting for change of power in Sofia, an administration with which we can come to an agreement. As I’ve said, I don’t believe that if another government comes to power – which is up to the citizens to decide there – there will be any change at all because it is an official position, Bulgaria’s red line, affirmed and backed by all relevant political forces.

Does it mean there’s no solution with them?

We’ll see after the elections in Bulgaria, not before, whether Bulgaria has been doing this because of the elections. We’ll see if it has nothing to do with it and if it is part of a decades-long state policy of the Macedonian issue.

The pressure, let’s call it that way, will be bigger from all the EU countries that had approved the opening of negotiations with us, and EU’s awareness has to rise to a level to realize that the issue of our integration into the EU and that of other countries, including Albania, has been stalled due to other reasons; to realize that the [EU] integration issue of the Western Balkans is a strategic one – it’s not the issue of only of the people living in any other country in the Western Balkans. Hence, the stakes are high in that game. Similar to our accession into NATO, we wanted to join most of all for our security. However, you must realize that the biggest players in the Alliance had had their own calculations, otherwise they wouldn’t have admitted us there.

Yes, but it is not the same approach as you say as regards NATO and the EU to everything that has been happening with the Western Balkans?

It is not, but do not forget that the outgoing US administration hasn’t be involved in the Western Balkans as much as some of the previous administrations. I’m referring to the announcements of the incoming US administration that it could be more present in the Western Balkans, because it’s clear as day that it’s not all over yet in the Balkans. There are several outstanding issues – Kosovo’s international status, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s non-functionality, i.e. the Dayton Agreement.

If history is added as precondition, now there’s the Macedonia-Bulgaria issue…

I was about to mention it. Unfortunately, if it is allowed the Sofia-Skopje dispute to go on, if a status quo is allowed, the issue of North Macedonia’s EU integration could also become outstanding, which in my opinion could be viewed in a larger geo-political context of the Western Balkans. It shouldn’t be snubbed as a bilateral issue only, an issue between two neighboring countries that cannot find an agreement on some issue dating back to the 19th century. It has broad implications.

I hope the incoming Joe Biden-led administration will recognize these issues. It includes experts on foreign policy and national security with years of experiences from the Balkans, people who are experts on the region. They are very well aware that the Western Balkans is not some region that doesn’t affect the continental security.

What about what depends on us – how is it possible in such complex times in the Sofia-Skopje relations the country not to have an ambassador to Bulgaria?

The term of the previous ambassador, Mr. Gjorchev, ended on March 31, 2020 and the pandemic and the closing of borders was in full swing. I thought that his term should have been extended by another few months, however we couldn’t find common ground with the government and the Foreign Ministry (MFA). Amid a complete lockdown worldwide, and in the country as well, a normal political process of consultations was not possible, including going to Parliament and selecting diplomats.

The pandemic and the end of the Ambassador’s term is the main reason we don’t have an ambassador there. The situation is not any better in terms of key destinations…

Definitely, we don’t even have an ambassador in Washington…

We don’t, no ambassador has been appointed to Washington for almost two years, maybe more.

Why?

Because of the same reasons.

Two years ago there was no pandemic…

In less than two years, the government and myself through coordination have agreed to approve 15-16 ambassadors, but during this time there was no solid candidate [for Washington]. This is the main reason. Regardless of the pandemic, I hope we can renew talks with the government and MFA to close the issue by the spring.

All this bickering between the parties, weighting who is more suitable, it seems a bit unserious…

I cannot get into any calculation and I don’t want to point the finger at the government. However, unfortunately, any candidate can be politicized these days, everyone, including the parties, have a lot of interest. Objectively, we are very slow in finding quick solutions. In Washington, New York or Moscow, we have to have seasonal diplomats with extensive experience. The country shouldn’t be represented by low-ranking bureaucrats just to say we have someone there. It’s very important that we have quality diplomats. I’m not saying we don’t have, but the country is definitely lacking qualified personnel in some areas.

You’ve mentioned Washington. You were one of the first one who congratulated Biden…

I wasn’t one of the first ones, but one of the first when it was clear, when the results were definitive, so I congratulated him. I think there were others who extended congratulations before me.

There are great expectations. What’s your comment on the latest developments? The US Congress passed a resolution on the 25th Amendment.

The number one principle in international politics is not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Thus, I wouldn’t comment on the US politics as an internal matter. What’s important to us is that the incoming administration of Joe Biden is far more experienced in foreign policy and as regards the relationship with the European partners, including the Balkan countries.

I expect more engagement in the Western Balkans.

Joe Biden has personal relations with the region. He had visited the region during the Balkan wars to attend international conferences. Many had met him or had attended the same event with him. I believe the President-elect is pretty familiar with the region.

Speaking of the influence of great powers – Macedonia is a member of NATO and a lot has been happening with the vetting, issuing of security clearance. It is a game with many numbers involved, this many have been dropped, that many are being vetted…

I’d like to share some numbers, say a few things about statistics, because I’ve been hearing different speculation, most of it is not true. Partially, because it is a serious process and the exact number, let alone names, will probably be never unveiled publicly. It involves a vetting that includes about 150 people, top state officials, representatives of the secret service and defense. So far, the process has been completed for more than a half of those involved and the outcome is positive.

Are you on the list as supreme commander?

Probably only a few know this. I was the first one who filled in a form and was issued a NATO security clearance. I was vetted months ago. More than a half have been also vetted so far. Only two requests have been denied, two people weren’t issued security clearance. One of them, the public knows, is our candidate for top military representative in the Alliance at the NATO HQ. The second person is not known to the public and I wouldn’t speculate, the person is not from the field of politics.

Up to now, only two people have been denied, maybe there will be a few others, but I don’t expect there to be more than 10 or 15.

To explain this to the viewers – doesn’t it look like the lustration process here?

It does. Since March 27, NATO has been vetting on two grounds. The first one – if you have contacts with what they call malign countries, entities and individuals, and the second one is high corruption. Why high corruption, I asked some NATO officials because it is a security alliance, they told me that if someone is inclined to high corruption, that someone could be an easy target of espionage.

These are the two basis on which we are all being investigated.

This means that the expression we have no longer is valid – when people step into the world of corruption and crime, if they are from the other party they are criminals with ties with the government, but if they are one of their own, they have made something of themselves?

NATO doesn’t recognize this. They are checking all other 29 members, they want to know if I, if you have done something in these two spheres. I want the Macedonian public to know this – the process is implemented by Macedonian bodies and authorities. There is a Directorate for Security of Classified Information. Formally, it is in charge of the process. All other agencies, intelligence or counterintelligence, they all write a report about you if they have a proof or information that you have been involved in something. Again, formally we are in charge of the process, but the input of NATO, an organization of the strongest intelligence systems, the strongest armies and the most powerful countries, is great.

Does it mean it is another way of evaluating things?

There’s a group of should I say, informal advisers. From NATO, there are three-four people that in fact are monitoring the process our bodies are implementing. It’s similar to OSCE observers. Namely, for years there are OSCE observers at trials, who write reports to assess whether the trial was in accordance with international standards. The NATO people have similar role; they are here to say whether it has been done according to all the rules or not. That’s why the responsibility and the awareness is higher while you’re implementing the process.

Will it affect appointments in the General Staff? The term of the Chief of the General Staff ends, I think, in August?

Yes, it will. You cannot be appointed in any top post with access to classified information if you don’t have NATO security clearance. It applies to the National Security Agency, the Intelligence Agency, military security, it applies to me, the prime minister, the ministers.

We are in contact, we receive classified information from these agencies. They collect sensitive and classified information.

Will the Army get new generals?

I promoted new generals almost two months ago. The Macedonian army at this point has ten generals, not including the retired generals. There should be less generals according to NATO standards – one general in 1,000 soldiers and our army has about 7,000…

One general this year will retire, so there is no need.

Moving on to the next big topic – the census. You recently met with the Justice Minister and the director [of the State Statistical Office]. Why is it that only in Macedonia this is politics rather than a statistical operation?

I can tell you a phrase I often use if it is any consolation. But it’s not the case only in Macedonia. Last year my colleagues and I commented on this jokingly but, unfortunately, it is a serious situation happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other Balkan countries. The census in BiH wasn’t recognized by some entities, some of the people living there, and so they made their own statistics, etc. So, unfortunately, census in our country, and most often in the Balkans, is more of a political rather than a statistical operation, because we still look at people’s rights, to use international terminology – human rights, through a national prism. Even when we count up we say there is strength in numbers.  If we as Macedonians are some 99 percent, then we’ll have more rights, and we’re the top dogs, kingpins in the country or vice versa if it’s the Albanians.

We have statements that there’ll be no change in this context… 

Statement from whom, from Zoran Zaev, from me. I also called for a clear statement in my annual address. And in interviews before that. You must have a clear statement from all relevant stakeholders. Let’s just do a statistical operation without political interference, because none of us, even if coming to power right away, has any intention of changing the Constitution, of taking away rights, etc. So far, we have no such statement from some important actors on the political scene, above all I mean the opposition. It might be wrapped up in some rhetoric, but if you say it, I assure you that we’ll conduct census in a very short time and we’ll have the results without anyone disputing them.

I wouldn’t like it for the sake of someone’s political rhetoric, and I’m not accusing anyone specifically, but for the sake of anyone’s political rhetoric to have who knows what conditions met that have not been in place anywhere in Europe, fingerprints for example, of which I know the Prime Minister tried to do something about it but was told by many international experts that’s not the way to conduct census anywhere in Europe, not even in the Balkans. It is especially not possible to have a fingerprint taken from minors under 18 years of age. This is not even allowed by law or international practice. So, if you’re trying to use certain rhetoric that there aren’t as many of us as the census would show tomorrow, and you have a hidden political agenda in doing so, then it’s fair to say it in advance rather than after the census.

Still, I assure you there’s no political terminology using the term boycott of census. It doesn’t exist. You may not accept the results, it’s legitimate, but there’s no expression for we’ll be calling on citizens to boycott the census. I’ve never heard of such a thing happening in European politics. I want us to step up with clear views that we really want this to happen, not because we want to hide some other agenda, if there’s any hidden agenda at all. I see no other reason why the census would be politicized.

What hidden agenda do you mean?

There are nationalist circles in our country that for many years, since 2002, have been notching up the results of the census and saying that even then the Albanians didn’t make up 20 percent. Now we too can enter into a debate over why are Albanians at all bound by a number in our Constitution. In my opinion, people should be given as many rights as possible, not just Albanians but everyone who lives here. If they are 19.9 they won’t have a right, isn’t it so, it’s a parody, but a whole different thing if they are 20, and so on.

There are some nationalist circles, I’m not saying parties, but circles not just individuals, saying that even then they were less than 20 percent, so take away, revise their rights and status. That is dangerous. I hold that any deprivation of rights, of the so-called acquired rights by definition makes people angry and gives reason for revolt and dissatisfaction of a large population in the country.

We remember a time, and I regret it that that part of my address was not paid much attention to in the public but I mentioned it. The older generations, to which I too belong, remember that at the end of the 80s of the past century there was a very specific attempt by the Macedonian government at the time to take away some rights of the ethnic Albanians, to abolish classes in primary and secondary education, we were even seeing, if you recall, those incidents when walls of ethnic Albanians in Arachinovo were being demolished as allegedly they were against, or weren’t in line with regulations in construction at the time. And there were reactions. Younger generations don’t know this. So, in reaction to what happened then in the late 80s in Arachinovo, where a man died, people, the villagers brought his coffin, his body in front of the Parliament. There was a large public rally. Do we need that at all?

That’s why you must be aware ahead, especially if you’re a politician, and especially if in power, that every word you say can be interpreted differently even by your followers. It’s a big responsibility for what we do and what we say. That’s why I don’t think we should add more fuel to the fires that have already been burning for years, and that we already know of, especially in the economic and social sphere in which it is difficult to live, the demographic sphere in which many young people are leaving, so why create a problem where there is none. Today’s opponents may come in power tomorrow.

Is that political powerlessness of those circles that have no other concept of society?

I cannot interpret their motives.

Calls for refusing to recognize the census are even aggressive. Absolutely into refusing to recognize as valid what’s going to be signed with Sofia with the Treaty. It reminds me of when [Greek PM] Mitsotakis was saying he wouldn’t recognize the Prespa Agreement, but now that works?

I don’t know if that will happen next. But I do know that in a democracy, and we are a democracy, there’s transition of power. No one can be in power for 50 years. That won’t happen. One day you’ll be the one in power.

What would you do or say assuming that you didn’t recognize the census as valid – conduct a new one. It’s the same story as when we say that you’re not good at it, we can make a better Prespa Agreement or a better Treaty with Bulgaria. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again. You can make a better deal, indisputably. Let’s say we’re not capable enough, this political structure. It will be a better agreement only to us in Skopje, it won’t be a better one to them in Athens. It won’t be a better one to those in Sofia. The skill in making a deal is for it to be better to both parties. Otherwise, I can make the best deal with Greece over the name. At home it will be ‘Macedonia Eternal’, etc. and erga omnes. But how will people in Athens react. It’s the same thing with the census. Why don’t we meet up for talks.

I understand that the battle for power is legitimate, the battle for better policies is legitimate, the opposition’s policy to criticize the ruling party is legitimate, the ruling party doesn’t even have an idea on what the opposition is doing, and I must add one more sentence here because I don’t think that the load here is hundred percent on the opposition side only, if we’re talking about the census. Until yesterday, I don’t know how true this is and how true it will be by the end of the census, according to reports in media, no opposition amendment to the census has been accepted. I called on the ruling party in my annual address, I directly referred to the Prime Minister and the Government, I’d like to see the opposition’s constructive proposals on the census accepted. Why not.

Now isn’t it paradoxical – seeing the Parliament works the way it works, counting for quorum, with umpteen not to say amendments, which have no essence whatsoever – yesterday we got the new State Election Commission, unanimously, completely, smoothly, have we politicized it?

The fact here is that the parties had previously agreed on all the names. Barring this, there’s yet another bill on which there was no debate at all in Parliament, but absolute consensus between the ruling party and the opposition, the one on the financing of political parties. Believe me, I look forward to the moment – and I’m saying this as a citizen who was born in this country and wants to spend the rest of his life in this country, completely irrelevant of being the President; I live for the moment when the ruling party and the opposition will vote 120 out of 120 on other important bills in the country, from the economic and social sphere, it doesn’t have to be the census.

Here we get to the part on whether the institutions are in fact captured because they only agree on what they need, but not on what the citizens need.  It’s like a set of a distorted system in which I only agree to what I personally need if it’s to my profit, but if it’s state interest, then state is something distant? 

I think you’re using the wrong term with captured state here.

Captured institutions, not captured state?!

OK, well, state institutions. I think it’s about something else. I’ll try to clarify what I mean by it. In 2016, the EC in its annual progress report described us as captured state, when a state is under the complete control of one party which only cares about its party members, but not about all other citizens who are not members of the ruling party. So, the state is captured by the ruling party in power. What you’re saying, and I agree, is not about institutions that only care about those currently in power, but it seems to me, it’s about undercapacity or undercapacitance of institutions to provide services to all citizens who need that, even members of a ruling party.

By captured I don’t mean by the ruling party, but by those lacking capacity inside.

The key problem of Macedonian democracy is that institutions have been for 30 years in this transition, which seems to never end. We can’t manage to repair institutions to be truly independent, judicial institutions, institutions in which the administration will be completely meritorious, regardless of who’s to be served, equally and efficiently. Not to mention other important major social systems. The fact is that in the ten years of the former government, the sixth one, 2006-2016, we got very low in all trends. Another fact is that the rule of this government cannot be compared in any important parameter with Gruevski’s rule, Gruevski’s governments.

Yet another fact is that we still have a long way to go to what we call a European standard, and in this sense I understand your criticism or qualification of the work of our institutions, which don’t deliver services to all those who turn to them, and are obliged to deliver because at the end of the day it’s the citizens that pay them, and that pay me.

Someone on social media said statutes of limitations will expire for the “big fish”—I think they were talking about Sasho [Mijalkov]—but your electricity bill will never expire. Debt collectors will come after you.

The best way to gain or restore the trust of the people—who, over the past decade, according to pollsters, haven’t had much trust in the institutions (and I include myself here, the country’s President, as an institution)—the best way is to show them [equal treatment] through practical examples.

Show them examples that those so-called common people—who have had to pay 5,000 denars to debt collectors for a 500-denar unpaid bill—that those people are treated exactly the same as former or sitting officials.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had many such good examples so far. Which is the key problem of our democracy when it comes to the rule of law. It seems to be abstract here.

Let me put it plainly: The rule of law means that the law must apply equally to you and to me, regardless of my being the president right now. I should not be given such entitlement just because I’m in office.

People already know this, but it’s not like that in reality, is it?

The best way to restore trust in institutions is to show that they work. It’s not like it used to be. I say this not because I’ve been active on that political side for years but because I believe ours is the truly pro-European, transatlantic option. Any previous four-year government just cannot compare with our leadership in the last four years.

Yet in terms of democracy—human rights in particular—we are far from any European standards. It means nothing to me when they say we’re good compared to our Balkan neighbors. This is not enough. I’m interested in Europe.

So we can start thinking about vetting in the judiciary?

I met with, like you said, the Statistical Office head. The Minister of Justice was also at the meeting, and he introduced me to the new methodology we’ll use. We’re not using the term vetting, but cleaning up the judiciary, judges, prosecutors. It all looks good on paper. I hope it works out in reality.

You know, we keep talking about initiatives, proposals, documents, but by now, this transition of ours should have taught us that we’re good at producing tons of paperwork but bad at implementing what’s written in all of those papers.

To this day, I maintain that we have stooped to this (economic, social, judiciary, etc.) level because of our bad laws in those areas. Most of our existing laws were copied from European ones from 25 years ago; also, they’re not being applied equally to everyone or not applied at all.

Let me circle back to your first question. What’s the greatest problem in Ohrid, what is inching it closer and closer to getting its endangered UNESCO status?

The illegal constructions. The Ohrid Mayor said so in an interview a few months ago.

So, again, it all comes down to our dysfunctional system.

I agree. He said they had been built for decades. Without any help from the central government, he said, “I’m not powerful enough to do it.”

“I won’t be able,“ he said, “to bulldoze all those illegal buildings, I can’t bulldoze everything that shouldn’t have been built, not even at the lakeside.” This is telling of our rule of law. It shows we’ve had a culture of impunity.

So we need to change and implement these European standards we keep talking about, regardless whether Europe comes to our aid or not? How else are we going to get closer to our [EU talks] date?

Many critics and pundits are talking about this. Some say we need Europe to set the standards, to teach us their best practices […] But now Bulgaria has blocked us. If this lasts for years, God forbid, like the previous blockade by Greece, there will be no Europe here to teach us.

Critics say it will be a catastrophe for our country. This is their interpretation of the government’s statements: Only with Europe helping us can we have a democracy, and implement it as soon as possible. Otherwise it will take us a hundred years, no matter how much we thump our chests.

But like you, and many others, are saying: If Europe won’t come to us, we should uphold European standards ourselves.

Still, it will be difficult for you to uphold democracy on your own if you know Macedonia has never had a democracy prior to ’91. We were a Yugoslav state for 45 years, and Yugoslavia’s was not a democratic system.

To put it bluntly, are we incapable of democracy?

We have no history, no memory of democracy. Take Serbia for example. It was also a former Yugoslav republic but had had its own state before Yugoslavia. We had never had a state. Our first experience with statehood was in ‘44, ‘45.

We’ve never had plurality in politics, no multi-party system, no plurality in the economy, in property. I am also a product of that system. I’ve lived half of my life in that Yugoslavia. And now you expect [democracy] from us, who were raised in Yugoslavia and never had people migrating here en masse to tell us how things were done in Canada, in America, in the West.

If you bear this in mind, we’ve done quite a lot on our own despite having no previous experience and practically nothing to rely on. We’ve known statehood only from Prohor Pchinjski onward.

So if well-organized, successful, rich, prosperous countries like Germany and others from Western Europe don’t help us speed things along, it will take us five or ten times longer.

We all know they have the best universities. We all know they have the best health education systems. The judiciary is truly independent in Germany. The French administration is one of the best in the world. We have no doubt about it.

Now you may be thinking: “The president and the prime minister are saying that if Europe doesn’t help us, we’ll drown.” We won’t drown, but we’ll make progress at the pace of a snail or a turtle. That’s the problem.

So if the European Economic Area were an addition instead of a substitute, would it be helpful to us?

I just read an opinion piece in an influential German paper citing some influential Members of Parliament from the ruling CDU party saying, ‘Let’s give the Western Balkans—now that we’re blocking them for all sorts of reasons—let’s give them an European Economic Area.’

Let me reiterate our position, however. The European Economic Area is acceptable only if it serves as an addition, an interzone on our path to becoming a full-fledged member of the European Union.

Didn’t Croatia already go through this?

Croatia did. Correct. But the moment it joined the EU, it resigned its membership in the EEA because it could get all of it in the EU. The difference [between us and them] is that Croatia never stopped talking to the EU. That’s the difference. Croatia was never told, “This is your only alternative, forget the EU, forget your EU membership.” Croatia never stopped and Croatia entered the EU.

Let us do the same. I’m not saying [the EEA] is a bad option. On the contrary. But because we have no institutional memory and experience in democracy, I insist we need the EU’s political and democratic experience, including human rights.

We shouldn’t underestimate how important human rights are. Making profits and distributing dividends all day long shouldn’t be the only things we focus on. Finances shouldn’t be the only thing we care about in our lives. What about human rights and liberties?

The EEA members hold no discussions, no debates on the freedom of the press. Yet I think they themselves need to start debating on these issues. The entire Balkans needs to. So please do not deprive us of this prospect of an EU membership one day when we finish negotiating and prove we deserve it. [Until then] let’s join the EEA, but not as an either-or option, but both

This package of democratic values, doesn’t it also come part and parcel with ditching the bloat of entitlement? If we are seriously considering making our state functional, I mean. The first thing you said, I remember, when you became President was that you would reject the privileged status your predecessors had been enjoying as former presidents.

Nothing has changed. That’s my attitude. Otherwise, I’d rather not talk about myself and how different I am from my predecessors. But this is what I plan on doing. 

I have to note, though, that this government structure has used all those privileges much, much less than any of the previous governments. 

Take the prime minister for example. We both live in this city. Previously, you couldn’t set foot into any bar or hotel in central Skopje if it had some top official already lounging in it. There was this group of ‘untouchables.’ The group of people I wanted to be with, however, to fight our political battles together, is much more down to earth. 

This is where I’m coming from, these are my own principles. Unless something is an unavoidable protocol [related to the presidency], I’d like everything to stay as it used to be before I was elected.

Speaking of your predecessors, do you keep in touch with them?

No, I don’t. I have literally no communication with Ivanov. And I had one meeting with Crvenkovski last year, at his request. Former presidents and prime ministers have this Podgorica regional club and they convene once a year in different cities. So then it was Skopje’s turn, and he came over and we had an informal meeting. He asked me to open the conference so I did. That was my only contact with Crvenkovski, on that occasion. Ivanov and I don’t communicate at all.

While we’re there, former US presidents, UK top officials… You can see them at all kinds of conferences, still making contributions to the world. Ours are nowhere to be seen. Why so quiet?

It’s their personal decision. They chose to act like that after their terms had ended. As for the other question, I guess we haven’t been in touch because we haven’t had anything in common to talk about.

 

Dragan Antonovski

Translation: Bisera Altiparmakova, Nevenka Nikolikj, Magdalena Reed

Video: Aslan Vishko

Photos: Darko Popov

 

 

 

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