Respected Citizens, Distinguished President of the Assembly,
Honorable Prime Minister, Dear Members of Parliament,
Respected Ministers, Esteemed Guests,
Your Excellences, Media Representatives,
A glance at the entire period from our independence until today will show that, unfortunately, in these thirty-one years, we have not had a longer period of peaceful development of the state. From the disastrous effects of privatization, embargos and sanctions in the 1990s, through the conflict in 2001, the global financial crisis of 2008/09, the deep internal political crisis that ended with the storming in the Parliament from which we are still healing the wounds, and lastly, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, numerous factors have limited our development and depleted the nation’s resources.
Part of these cyclical crises were continuously caused by external factors on which we had little or no impact at all – the breakup of Yugoslavia, geopolitical tensions, financial, economic and health crises – regional and global shocks that more or less slowed down the progress of all countries, regardless of their size and capacity.
However, in general, for the unfavorable internal situation in the country, which makes a high percentage of the citizens dissatisfied, in reality, most of the responsibility falls on the backs of domestic politicians and political parties, starting from the very first composition in the early 1990s, up to us, today, who are leading the institutions at central and local level.
If trust in institutions is at a low level, democracy is in serious danger. In such an environment, populism and authoritarian tendencies, which are on the rise, more easily attain their goal because democracy does not show a sufficient level of resistance. When clientelism and party loyalty are criteria for employment and career advancement, the weakness of institutions should not be surprising. The political and physical blockades that we have seen in the capital in the past months will certainly not be the last.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
At the beginning of this address, I would like to refer to the biggest global problem at the moment, the war in Ukraine that few believed was possible, three decades after the collapse of the bipolar world and 47 years after the adoption of the Helsinki Final Act by which the parties committed themselves not to support a change of borders by use of force.
In 2018 and beyond, some believed that we paid too high a price for our NATO membership, arguing that a classic type of territorial conquest war was impossible in the 21st century. Although in 2016, not far from us, in Montenegro, there was an attempted coup through a traditional, not hybrid threat, the great tragedy in Ukraine had to happen in order to assure us that with the Prespa Agreement we got in time under the collective shield of NATO, without disfiguring ourselves nationally, as some feared.
Since then, the Alliance has been actively helping us in the field of hybrid threats, but also in the field of terrorist threats, primarily related to the returnees from wars in the Middle East. Without revealing details, but, according to data received from NATO, on at least three occasions, terrorist attacks were intercepted in the past years, and that was during the preparatory stages that took place outside our territory.
Let me take this opportunity to answer the frequently asked question in our public: why are we helping Ukraine to liberate its territory? I will refer to only 2 important aspects. First, we do not help Ukraine because we are a member of NATO and because our formal status obliges us to help. Namely, there are members of the Alliance who, apart from diplomatic and rhetorical support, do not contribute in any other way.
Our logic is as follows: small states must support an international order based on rules and principles because in a world based on arguments of force, our chances of survival are zero. Second, Russia’s arguments for military aggression, by which they want to de facto annul Ukrainian sovereignty, do not differ at all from the big-state reasons of the Balkan states from the beginning of the 20th century and their humiliating treatment of smaller nations, including us. In the collective memory of the Macedonians, the knowledge of why we were among the last to become a state in the Balkans is deeply engraved, and precisely because of this, we know very well today how to early recognize those models of hegemonic behavior towards us.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has disrupted the world’s food and energy markets, but, above all, the security infrastructure in Europe established after the fall of communism. Although the Western Balkans is apparently far enough from that end of the world, it cannot be ruled out that in a certain context an increase in tensions is also possible in our region – we already have Ukrainian refugees, we have Russian citizens and companies established by them, we are registering an increased intensity of cyberattacks, and the old, well-known fragile points in the region also have their potential: the north of the Republic of Kosovo and the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina where international missions play a key stabilizing role.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The war also woke up the institutions in Brussels, stirred the debate about the future of Europe and reactivated processes that had been practically frozen in recent years. The idea of a geopolitical Europe began to take some initial form, and, according to the rhetoric of Brussels, the Western Balkans is part of it. From this podium, I want to make a call to the European Union that we expect the new focus on the region not to be just an episode, caused by the war in Ukraine, which will last as long as Ukraine is in focus. To maintain the credibility of the integration process, Europe must not allow the Western Balkans to be the focus only when there are wars or migrant crises. The support for the Union among the citizens is dropping dramatically, we are at a critical point and this is the last chance to preserve the majority support.
This year, as a country, we made a serious step in view of strengthening strategic relations with the United States, the country that has always provided crucial support for our development since independence, admission to the United Nations, the conflict in 2001, until joining NATO. This summer, we were the first in the region to start the strategic dialogue with the US, which is taking an institutional form and whose foundations are shared values for democratic development and stability of the state. The fact that the United States, despite its global interests, is intensifying its diplomatic efforts and returning to the region at a level not seen in the last fifteen years is pleasing.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This summer we witnessed mass protests and deep divisions among citizens, related to the so-called “French proposal” which is today the European negotiating framework. An atmosphere of fierce political tensions was created in the country and a perception among part of the public that this is a fateful dilemma to be or not for the nation and the state and that we are supposedly making a decision that will define the fate of the future generations of Macedonians and Macedonian citizens.
Even after five months, I am deeply convinced that the position I expressed on July 3 this year that the decision to accept the modified French proposal is neither a historic triumph nor a historic debacle can withstand reasoned criticism today.
Namely, the modified French proposal, which divided us unprecedentedly, caused numerous controversies, but all of them were directly or indirectly related to the fear of an identity threat for the Macedonians and the Macedonian language. Referring to the thesis that only as Bulgarians we can enter the Union, I want to stress that there is absolutely no way to turn a Macedonian into a Bulgarian. These are two different identity codes, two different peoples with their own specific ethno-genesis. There is no such example in history that the national feeling of an entire nation was changed by an agreement.
At the same time, I refuse to believe that the political goal or priority of the president of the French Republic or, for example, the German chancellor, is to disfigure the Macedonian nation and bring us into Europe as Bulgarians.
The practical steps that followed only confirmed that the wording for the Macedonian language in the framework was unambiguous, which was clearly confirmed by the signing of the agreement with Frontex.
Yet, it would be good if today we briefly recall our care, or rather neglect, for the Macedonian language, at home, in the homeland, from where, I claim, the greater dangers on its survival potentially stem rather than the attacks from Bulgaria. Was it necessary to wait for the 100th anniversary of Koneski’s birth to face our lack of care for the language in the public space, with the drastically reduced number of lecturers and Macedonian speakers in the world, with only a few remaining classes with Macedonian children studying Macedonian language in the diaspora or the desperate situation with the young teaching staff that has not been renewed for years at the Macedonian language faculties and institutes.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
You will allow me to conclude the complex of issues related to our European integration that we have finally opened after seventeen long years of waiting, with my position on the issue of changing the Constitution.
From this place, I would like to say that we desperately need a crystal clear and clean legal and political procedure for changing the Constitution, which befits a European democracy. No one should pressure or condition anyone to vote against their will, but, in doing so, all MPs should be aware of two things: first, that the very content of the specific proposal, the inclusion of Bulgarians and parts of other nations in the Constitution, in no way destroys the Macedonian identity, and, second, those who are against it today, if they really believe that the EU is our strategic goal, our strategic constant since 1991 until today, and if they are against it today, how will they vote for this constitutional change when they are in power?
Our obligation to change the Constitution is not related to the opening of Bulgarian clubs in North Macedonia, yet, the impression remains that it is a timed and organized activity that does not contribute to building trust between Skopje and Sofia. With the tensions raised by the opening of these clubs, unfortunately, the other side has chosen a confrontational rather than a cooperative approach that is fully in line with the public rhetoric of the Bulgarian historians in the Joint Commission who insist that history dominates the entire bilateral agenda, rather than being just one segment thereof.
The fact that there is no systemic violation of the rights of the Bulgarian minority should not limit their ability to open clubs where they want and as much as they want, but with strict respect for the Macedonian laws that are compatible with the European ones.
Otherwise, for the younger people who do not remember the 1990s, contrary to the general perception, Macedonians and Macedonian citizens knew how to unite and work together in the interest of the state, regardless of who was in power: for the 1991 independence referendum, a joint headquarters of the government and the opposition was formed and functioned, the decision to apply for NATO membership in December 1993 was made with the support of the government and the opposition, the amendments resulting from the Framework Agreement were adopted by a two-thirds majority, and the Resolution on the state positions in relation to Bulgaria last year was supported by 95 MPs.
Other question and dilemma in the public is: can there be guarantees that this will be the last request to us in the negotiation process? Here is the latest example: Bulgaria and Romania have been members of the Union for 15 years and were recently blocked from entering the Schengen area. If 2 members of the Union were blocked from entering one of the most important projects of the single European space, it goes without saying that no one can give guarantees to a candidate country that has just started negotiations that are not straightforward. Therefore, we should enter the process with confidence and focus on fulfilling the criteria that will ensure a better life for our citizens. Long gone are the days when we measured integration success by the number of laws adopted. Citizens wait for results!
One more thing, which for some is technical and procedural, but, in my opinion, is political and essential. The government must make efforts during the entire course of negotiations to include experts proposed by civil society organizations, as well as by the opposition, in the teams. Such a proposal should come, for at least two reasons: first, because the negotiations certainly exceed the mandate of one government, and second, if we do not gather all the creative and expert potential in one place, the negotiations will last longer.
Speaking of the process of international rounding up of the Macedonian identity, this was a year of great step forward with the final establishment of the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archdiocese within the Orthodox ecumene. Although we are talking about the decisions of religious authorities and live in a secular state, it is a notorious fact that foreign propaganda throughout history, and even today, tries to shake the spiritual connection of Macedonians with their church. Such a positive development of events made it possible for the first time in many years to worship in the monastery of the Holy Father Saint Prohor Pchinski, the place where the foundations of the modern Macedonian state were laid.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am convinced that foreign policy has been determining the dynamics of political processes in the country for too long. We need an internal focus, at home.
The insufficient pace of our economic and social development in the transition is a consequence of several internal structural factors, but one of the key reasons for the long, decades-long history of reforms initiated and not completed is corruption and the related phenomenon of political clientelism that erodes the trust of citizens in the institutions.
The incredible media interest that followed the visit of the so-called US “sanctions team” is the best confirmation of the distrust our citizens have in the domestic authorities when they see the only hope for justice in foreign and international institutions.
However, the reality is that no one from outside will eradicate corruption in the Republic of North Macedonia if our institutions and elected political representatives of the citizens do not do so. It is true that in the latest Transparency International report we note a positive leap forward of twenty-four places, but it is still below the European average.
In this fight, the stake is huge: the state will either put the criminals behind bars in closed-type prisons, or some of them will continue, with the money stolen from the people, to build an image of honest and virtuous citizens and ridicule all the rest from a safe distance.
In that clash between the criminals and the huge number of citizens with a face, there are 2 goals: first, as a state to show concrete results, not only public arrests, but long-term prison sentences and return of stolen goods, and, second, to respect the presumption of innocence, which means, we should not condemn people in public before the competent court has condemned them.
Still, all our efforts will fail if the competent judicial authorities settle with figures known by the entire public to have provided their unborn children and grandchildren with public money. A thesis that many of us have been repeating for years is that there is no justice if there are no current politicians in prison for corruption, but there will be no justice as long as judges and prosecutors who make scandalous decisions that probably have corrupt motives are free.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The results of the census this year only confirmed that the greatest danger to our national security remains demography. In emigrant Macedonia, unfortunately, there were always more Macedonians and Macedonian citizens than in the homeland, but due to poverty and lack of rule of law, the “white plague” continues to decimate the nation. We can count and add the diaspora and delude ourselves that there are more of us, but the harsh truth is that, according to the projections of the United Nations, by 2050, if these trends continue, the country will have only about one million inhabitants from the two million that we were when we constituted the state.
For the past three and a half years, I have spent most of my time in discussions with young people, talking about their needs and problems: youth standard, education. I was the patron of a dozen initiatives and projects with domestic and foreign civil society organizations for greater youth participation in decision-making, for the operationalization of the Youth Law, the new draft law for secondary education. Next year too, the same agenda will remain at the top of my priorities.
However, the system needs to work because individual initiatives are not enough. It is necessary to reach a broad state consensus and strategy as soon as possible on this issue, which will define our future much more than the change of the Constitution.
Respected MPs, respected public,
Following our entry into NATO, we became the target of intense and organized propaganda campaigns to misinform the public regarding vital issues and dilemmas.
Disinformation from ill-intended states and entities systematically manipulate citizens by placing wrong information, half-truths or completely fabricated news to serve the interests of power centers whose interests are contrary to our national interests.
Only two examples in that sense are sufficiently indicative: contrary to the long and solid tradition from former Yugoslavia, in the field of immunization against Covid-19 we did not even reach 50% of the population, for which, according to some analyses, misinformation about available vaccines is partly responsible. It, unfortunately, ultimately cost us health and lives. Or the disinformation regarding the war in Ukraine that made many of our fellow citizens justify the aggression, forgetting our own historical experience, when we, more than once, have suffered from the bigger neighbors.
Moreover, anti-Western rhetoric in traditional and social media is gaining momentum, and through it, populists are manipulating people into thinking they have quick and simple solutions to even the most complex problems that democratic systems supposedly cannot implement because they are slow, expensive and corrupt.
Strengthening the resistance to disinformation is a complex task which requires both systemic and personal resistance; this is not possible without close cooperation between state institutions, education, civil society organizations and the media.
In this context, it is crucial to develop media literacy among young people in primary and secondary schools who will learn to recognize lies and form an opinion based on facts. Thus, they will most easily recognize the autocrats’ demagoguery that only discipline and a firm hand are needed to solve even the most difficult problems. In recent history, both in the region and in Europe, there are enough tragic examples of peoples who are still dealing with the consequences of the destruction brought to them by the years of national enthusiasm and unconditional faith in such leaders.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Faced with the burden of the long and painful transition years we have been going through, we gradually lose respect for each other, and solidarity disappears from our lives. While thousands of citizens face extreme poverty, we lose sight of those of our fellow citizens who, even in happier times, are on the margins. Only 2 examples sufficiently testify to the nature of the times we live in: the case of the little girl from Gostivar who was isolated from the educational process and the student from Gradsko who was the subject of harassment and humiliation by his classmates for two whole years.
The two cases brought to the surface all the shortcomings of the system, both at central and local level, but, even more, our prejudices and unwillingness to respect the weaker and the different. We have a centuries-old tradition of coexistence between peoples of different ethnic or religious backgrounds, but if we want to build a modern democratic society, we must respect those who differ from us in terms of social status, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation or political affiliation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One can fight with economic and health problems, with bureaucratic obstacles, but it is most difficult to fight with hopelessness. As politicians who have received the trust to lead the country, our greatest obligation and responsibility is not to leave the Macedonian citizens without hope for a better future.
Let me wish health and happiness in 2023 for you and your closest ones! May we live at least a little better next year, since our citizens certainly deserve it!
May you stay alive and healthy and may our country be eternal!