The declaration of the Bulgarian Parliament and the memorandum to the EU went beyond the framework of the agreement. We did not have room for maneuver here, because the requests referred to non-negotiable issues, President Pendarovski said in an interview with Deutsche Welle in Macedonian.
The Bulgarian veto on the start of the Macedonian negotiations with the EU caused tectonic shocks on the Skopje-Sofia route. We talked with the President of the country, Stevo Pendarovski, about all aspects of that act, but in an atmosphere of another tectonic shock – the one caused in the public by the interview of Prime Minister Zaev for the Bulgarian agency Bgnes.
DW: President, is our surprise from the Bulgarian veto justified, given that in October 2019 the Bulgarian Parliament adopted a declaration on the “framework position” of the country which contained all the requirements that now condition their support for the start of our negotiations. What did we do in response to that position, which in September this year was translated into detail in the Bulgarian explanatory memorandum to the EU members?
– I assume we were all surprised by the prominent formal blockade by Bulgaria at the last General Affairs Council, but I was not surprised by the change in the Bulgarian position, manifested last year. Therefore, after holding a series of meetings with some members of our commission of historians and with professors and diplomats, experts on bilateral relations with Sofia, I issued a statement containing a general framework for a possible compromise on the then topical issue of Goce Delchev. The reactions of the Macedonian public were within my expectations, but I was surprised by the reactions from the Bulgarian side. Namely, it was not recognized as an attempt at compromise in which both sides should make an effort and abandon some of their communist historical axioms that are one-dimensional. Instead, they were convinced in Sofia that the time had come for the Macedonian side to fully comply with their historical narrative. Unfortunately, even our proposal third-country historians to join the commission with the status of expert consultants was rejected, although it is clear that when you have two conflicting historical truths, the expert assistance of a third, impartial party cannot harm the process. Our “surprise” can be justified by the fact that the Declaration of the Bulgarian Parliament and their explanatory memorandum to the EU undoubtedly went beyond the framework of the bilateral agreement. Here, we had practically no room for maneuver for any answer, because Bulgaria’s requirements referred to non-negotiable issues.
DW: Prime Minister Zaev said that we are still making efforts for a solution, while the DUI leader said that for that purpose, offers and documents were exchanged with Sofia. What are the chances to reach a solution when we are conditioned by unacceptable theses about the Macedonian language and identity? Can we hope for a solution, in which there will be no built-in space for further “mines” on our integration path?
– I have already stated that after all of the statements coming from Sofia in the last month, the chances of reaching a solution are minimal, but still exist. This is because it is an attempt to put identity issues on the negotiating table, and no one anywhere in the world has negotiated or will negotiate such issues. Whether there will be “mines” in the possible solution, as you call them, does not depend at all on the eventual solution of the current dispute, if it happens at all. Namely, if you do not express good faith when signing the agreement, you can always invent a reason not to respect it, and the complexity of the European integration process provides sufficient procedural opportunities for such obstructions.
DW: The President of VMRO-DPMNE proposes holding a leadership meeting at which the positions for protection of the Macedonian language and identity will be defined firmly, confirmed by a resolution of the Assembly. What is your position on this proposal, what would be a kind of response to the framework position of the Bulgarian Parliament?
– Although under my leadership several so-called leadership meetings were held, my position is that such a non-institutional format of meetings, in principle, should not be the first choice because it offers a substitute for the institutions for which it is indisputable that with the July elections they gained full legality and legitimacy. On the issues related to the last Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute, I see absolutely no need for a leadership meeting, even, in my opinion, there is no need for a special parliament session because not a single political entity disputes the identity of the Macedonian people and language. For me, it is not serious in 2020, for all relevant political parties and politicians to gather and solemnly sign that we are Macedonians who speak Macedonian language!? The thesis that the Bulgarians did that and that we should follow their example is groundless, because the Bulgarians had a special reason to reach a political consensus through a parliamentary declaration, given that the demands made therein were completely new and not at all treated in the Good Neighborliness Agreement.
DW: Beside the disputable historical issues, Bulgaria reacts that for more than a year and a half they have not received an answer for the program for culture, education and sports, that they only received an answer to the proposal of the Ministry of Defense, Bulgaria to help us in protecting the airspace. Is that delay justified?
– Realistically, regarding the implementation of the agreement, there is a delay only in the work of the historical commission, although there were justified reasons for such a thing due to the pandemic and the elections in our country. There were no other remarks in the past period at all in the bilateral communication, and there were no substantive objections on that topic in the joint intergovernmental commission that meets once a year, responsible for the implementation of the agreement. Particularly for the control of our airspace, we expressed readiness, within NATO, for participation of the Bulgarian Air Force, immediately when we became a full member of the Alliance in March this year.
DW: After all, how do you comment on the views expressed by Prime Minister Zaev in his interview with the Bulgarian agency Bgnes…
– I watched Prime Minister’s interview and read the reactions in the Macedonian public and in some of the comments, unfortunately, there was a dilemma whether the state leadership acts united in relation to this vital national issue. Resolving strategic disputes requires two preconditions: political will, which sometimes means political courage, to reach a consensus that never raises your rating, and second, to stick to internationally verified historical facts and to the political reality, which is obvious. In the first part, our public knows that I am the first Macedonian politician in history to publicly offer a broader political discourse regarding one of the greatest apostles of the Macedonian revolutionary movement. However, I did not go further because it is the work of a Commission composed of historians, not the work of politicians. We have talked with Prime Minister Zaev on this topic many times and we have never had a dispute that some personalities and events can be celebrated by both sides, but that the Macedonian people have their own history, as the Bulgarian people have their own. At the same time, in all my public appearances I clearly say that the anti-fascist struggle is in the foundations of the modern Macedonian state, and in that struggle we fought against those who were on the side of the fascists. My 20-year experience in international politics allows me to accurately measure the words and positions I express when talking to my Bulgarian interlocutors and our friends from the international community. I clearly tell them all that the Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute can be resolved only if the dignity of both the Macedonian and the Bulgarian people is consistently respected and by avoiding the dangerous trap of historical revisionism based not on facts but on political constructions.
DW: Do you fear that the Bulgarian veto could turn into an alibi for a stalemate in the reforms, which do not depend on Sofia or Brussels, but exclusively on domestic commitment? Are you satisfied with the current level of reforms and Europeanization of the country?
– Lately, I often hear that concern among our citizens who draw a parallel with the 2008 Bucharest veto and the later abrupt turn to autocracy in the time of Gruevski. I have a different view. In my opinion, every historical context is unique and I do not believe that history repeats itself, not even as a farce, and second, specific policies are conceived and implemented by specific people and, in terms of the tendency to authoritarian rule, I see no resemblance between this government and Gruevski’s government. Aside from this position of mine, I am sure that without direct monitoring by the EU we cannot progress in the reforms with the necessary speed and from that aspect, leaving North Macedonia out of the formal negotiations for a long time will certainly be a negative factor we must calculate in the period ahead.
DW: In such situations, a large number of theses are multiplied about the sources from which the Balkan misunderstandings are fueled, in whose interest is to be the “subcontractor” and what security risks there may be. Given that the Intelligence Agency is under your competence, can you share the assessments what are the biggest security risks for the country at the moment?
– My position is not to waste too much time with who the “subcontractors” are and in whose favor it is if we do not start negotiations. Our biggest concern should be how to overcome the possible blockade in the integrations, and, if it still happens, how to strengthen the reform dynamics that must go at a much stronger pace. According to all reports and analyzes of the Intelligence Agency, the security threats in our country, according to their profile, have remained the same in the past three years, although the threat degree varies: terrorism, especially that of religious affiliation, where Middle East returnees are constant, the potential for disruption of interethnic relations which is on the decline and, finally, the hybrid threats, above all the fake news, which are on the rise with a pronounced peak noticed during the referendum campaign in September 2018.
DW: The purpose of the early elections was to get functional institutions to better deal with Covid-19 and prepare for the start of negotiations with the EU. The functionality of the Assembly is now correlated with the absence of MPs due to Covid 19 and the will of the opposition whether it will provide a quorum for the thin majority. Will the opposition’s refusal to online participation of MPs in isolation lead to a blockade of parliament, which would again have to be bridged by a state of emergency or is the aim to strengthen the opposition’s stance on the need for an expert government?
– Many forget that the current parliamentary majority is identical to the beginning of 2017, which lasted almost an entire term. Therefore, I think that the biggest problem for better functioning of the parliament is the pandemic that for the second month in a row, prevents, on average, between five and ten MPs from the government and the opposition to take part in its work. I really cannot understand the resistance against the introduction of the possibility of online sessions of the Assembly and the arguments of a procedural nature, when it is clear that the whole world is in an unprecedented situation. Otherwise, the option you mention to introduce a state of emergency is far less favorable for the opposition, because in that case the decision-making center will be completely shifted from parliament to the government.
DW: How do you assess the institutional battle against Covid 19? Given that the Security Council had a special session on this topic and you are familiar with the situation, can you give an illustrative answer: if Covid – hell has nine circles, in which circle are we now?
– We are in the same circle as all other countries in our region and Europe. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we have been practicing literally the same measures that are in force all over the world; the only difference is in the capacity of the institutions for non-selective application of the adopted measures and to a lesser extent, in the mentality of the people. I am not saying that the issue of responsibility of officials should not be raised, on the contrary, it is a completely legitimate topic in the political debate in any democracy, but, in terms of the systemic approach to facing the pandemic, I am convinced that we do not differ from the other countries.
DW: As one of the key projects in your work program, you announced the Center for Political Education, which will encourage young people to better understand and practice politics, promoting a culture of dialogue in the spirit of democratic values. Can this school influence the opposite model that has functioned for years in the practice of adult politicians?
– Our ambition is not so big – to influence in a short period of time the dominant model of behavior of politicians. Such a strategic endeavor of the highest national importance requires generations to start education with about democratic values and human rights at an early age. Then we should insist on the merit system in the institutions that are highly partisan and ethnicized in our country and, of course, we need a much greater awareness of all of us, the current politicians, that we come to office for a limited period of time when we are not expected to work in personal or party interest, but in the interest of the citizens.
DW: In the end, what is your position on a broader economic package, which the Prime Minister believes will revive the domestic economy, including through the legalization of cash and property, legalization of vehicles with foreign license plates, legalization of marijuana…
– Some time ago, the Prime Minister introduced me to some of those projects and we jointly concluded that some of them can be potentially risky in case there is no wider support from the professional public and understanding from the citizens, but also if we do not establish mechanisms to control the origin and route of the money. In the first case, my view is that marijuana should be decriminalized because for decades we were focused with the same intensity on punishment of those who use drugs for personal gain and those who distribute them. I also think that we are already late with the completion of the legislation for production and distribution of cannabis oil for medical purposes for which there is clear professional medical support. However, I have a personal reservation towards the creation of legal preconditions for commercial sale of marijuana and I believe that, first, the decision should not be made quickly and, second, that the debate should be conducted in professional, not in political circles. At the same time, the most important thing in the analyses is to calculate not only the economic profit, but also the possible consequences for the health of the youth, as well as the possibility to open the door for easier entry of the international drug cartels in our country. With regard to the legalization of cash, we should also be extremely careful and in that part, our legislation must contain all the safeguards against money laundering that developed EU member-states have, I repeat – developed member-states. Otherwise, we risk repeating the negative experience of some European countries, allowing huge amounts of dirty capital to enter that create a negative international image of the country, but, more importantly, gain the opportunity to control both politics and our lives.