Interview of President Stevo Pendarovski for ‘Frontline’
The country is facing a great political challenge – constitutional changes. Do you expect that there will be a political compromise to unblock the process, or perhaps an intervention by the international factor?
Pendarovski: Objectively speaking, I have been listening to such speculations in the sens of ‘if the international factor decides, if a powerful country does so’, the problem can be resolved. Those are myths. There has never been an important, or even a less important problem in Macedonia which has been resolved by foreigners. The foreign element may support a certain variant of an option to come out of a crisis, or to overcome a problem or a challenge and to support, as they are currently doing. The European Union and Washington support a change of the Constitution in order to continue on the European path. Foreigners cannot solve the problem for us and whoever thinks like that is not only lyring to himself, but is also fooling others. Following the two main narratives regarding the constitutional changes issue, there is one side that says the issue is benign…
Seven peoples, parts of peoples are already in the Preamble and if we include six more, it will certainly not endanger the stability of North Macedonia and its future. This because, for 22 years after the Framework Agreement we have had all those peoples and parts of peoples included, and the state has not collapsed. On the contrary, it is my belief that internal cohesion and the feeling of loyalty in many of them coming from the smaller ethnic communities only gained in strangth. They feel Macedonia as their own homeland more than they did before 2001.
The second narrative states – the agreement with Bulgaria is bad, and the negotiations framework is even worse, and when we take the power, we will make a better agreement with Bulgaria and a better European framework. These two narratives clash directly, meaning that they cannot live one next to the other and we will have to choose. I believe that the second narrative used by the opposition goes directly against Macedonian strategic, national and state interests.
If you say ‘let me first come to power and then I will make a better deal with Bulgaria’, this is not possible, because such a new and improved agreement will not only have to be approved by us, but them also. If you are trying to fool someone that you can reach a better negotiation framework, meaning a YES from 27 Member States, including Bulgaria, then I think it is a dishonest approach towards our people, because they are not telling them the whole truth. If you force your political party interests to the detriment of longterm state interests, it will provide some instant benefit to you as a political party, perhaps at some new elections, but that sort of politics will be short – lived.
The disappointment will be great, enormous even, we will enter a long tunnel or a hole if you wish, just like we did from 2006 until 2016 when we only formally discussed about the European Union and did practically nothing regarding NATO and our political approximation to those organizations. I am an advocate of the first narrative and I wish to see Macedonia move forward with the help of this absolutely benign request. If we were able to reject, with arguments, and to obtain the support of all 26 Member States apart from Bulgaria, regarding their original requests on the Macedonian language, Macedonian identity, revision of World War II history, and then reach this negotiation framework and this request, I cannot see a reason why someone would like to come to power first and then lie to the people that they will make a better deal.
The international factor, including Sofia, are not seen as an obstacle for the country to enter the EU. Is the problem now exclusively internal – the opposition insisting that they do not accept changes according to what ‘Bulgaria dictates’ Is there such a dictate or not?
Pendarovski: One of the biggest offenses to the intelligence of Macedonian citizens is when you name the EU negotiation framework a ‘Bulgarian dictate’, because we know that even during the French proposal and at the end formally and politically, this is essentially a negotiating framework of the EU with a candidate country – now North Macedonia. The offense is that much stronger to one of the countries which has been our friend in this entire process, independently from all differing opinions, namely the French Republic. To state that the French proposal is a Bulgarian dictate, it means to offend the entire French diplomacy, simply because it is not true.
If someone believes that this is Bulgaria dictating, then they attach a disproportional amount of strength to Bulgaria, and we all know what are their performances in the area of economy and in all other areas in terms of resources and political capacity to exercise influence at the level of the European Union. So, you practically give Bulgaria the credit that they are able to dictate 26 other Member States as to how the negotiating framework should look like.
Those who are more knowledgeable in terms of EU negotiations know perfectly well that Bulgaria cannot dictate an EU framework. They might suggest or propose, or rally people around them or even countries that might endorse a certain position, but certainly not dictate a European framework on any important European issue, because it is well known who the main motors of the internal EU dynamics are.
It is a fact though, that the ball is in our court now. Unfortunately, previously Bulgaria did quite a few bad things, creating a catastrophic ambiance which made it difficult for us here in Macedonia to debate with arguments. However, it is also a fact that by the end of this year, by November / December, until the screening process formally finishes, the ball is in our court and we are obliged, by a framework adopted in the Macedonian Assembly, to change the Constitution or otherwise stop the negotiations. It is true that this time, if this happens, it will be a seld-imposed move towards isolation.
Is the security of the country put into question with the eventual vote against the Constitutional changes?
Pendarovski: No, I always mention the 2008 comparative example, because we had a similar context regarding another organization then – the NATO Alliance. So, NATO rejected our membership at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 and the rumor mill started immediately after, stating the possibility that, due to the fact that we did not join a predominant military and security organization, our security might be compromised internally and externally… Making Macedonia, a factor that had been contributing to regional security for years until then, to become a source of destabilization as a non – member country, both for itself and for its immediate surroundings. There were statements back then as well, that if Macedonians do not wish to move towards NATO, that maybe Albanians will find another path to NATO and all that nationalist type of rhetorics that we area hearing now as well, but luckily, only in some peripheral spaces of our political spectrum.
There will be no destabilization of North Macedonia whatsoever if we fail in amending the Constitution and to continue on our EU path. For seventeen years we have been outside of Europe, with a candidate status; we spent 12 years as I mentioned, aspiring to become a NATO member and then it happened in 2018 and no security threat or destabilization happened. It is not possible, nor will it actually happen! Do not forget that we have a strategic agreement with the US from 2008, which implies a joint crisis management system in case, God forbid, something bad starts to happen or is anticipated. Therefore, there will be no destabilization. Believe you me, in such a situation, the door will be wide open to autocratic tendencies and non-democratic government. The state will for sure not collapse, but what will the perspective of young people be, if we do not have a foreseeable perspective to join the EU, say by 2030, or maybe even sooner, if we do not negotiate at all, waiting for a better agreement to be achieved by some other future government. In this sense, I must say that I am personally quite reserved and a pessimist. My predictions are that in such a context, it would be very easy to repeat – in terms of model or format of governance in the time of Gruevski’s government.
Our country is not immune to foreign influences. Do you think that, if the Constitutional amendments do not pass, this might increase the appetite of Russia for a wider expansion in the region?
Pendarovski: In our case, Russian influence was strongest in 2018, if we compare periods, in September, when we organized the Referendum for the name change it was highest, because we were on the verge of joining NATO immediately after.
The Russian narrative, and after that, the Russian propaganda was ‘you don’t need Europe, consider us as an alternative model of democracy, a formal democracy “in doses”, look at us and don’t look at Europe, they have no perspective’ it all deflated for a while after that September and then gained a new context and I am not saying it strengthened with their illegal invasion against Ukraine.
However, it is also true that at this moment, Russia is practically completely absorbed with all its resources available, to go against the Western narrative on the war in which they are on the bad side and have nothing to look for in Ukraine as another sovereign country. They are not that present, not only in this region, but everywhere in the world. Namely because they have been completely focused on Ukraine. This does not mean, though, that this propaganda will not continue or last, because it is still present in certain forms and at a certain level. But, you know, if that propaganda failed when it was most important for them to prevent us joining NATO in 2018, then I would say that the best remedy to go against, to reject or at least reduce the effect of Russian propaganda would be to become a member of both NATO and the European Union.
We have had significant benefits from out NATO membership, because we also became part of the joint center for sharing information of sensitive security nature, including those on fake news, hybrid threats and similar. It is entirely different to face that type of fake news together, as opposed to doing it alone. Our resources as a country of 1,1 million people, a small country with scarce resources, modest experience with the publication of such threats and therefore it is important to be together with 30 other member countries of the Alliance, helping each other through those mechanisms for countering the invasion of fake news and a political propaganda propagating an autocratic model of governance. From that point of view, it is important to become part of the European Union as soon as possible because the EU has ‘centers of excellence’ that share the best practices in the whole of Europe on how to reject Russian propaganda. I can tell you that there are several countries with similar proportions in terms of size, small countries that are fundamentally very good at countering the Russian narrative.
Do you expect an agreement between the government and the opposition, and then the third phase of Constitutional changes to happen at the time of a new, subsequent Government?
Pendarovski: I did expect that, especially after the last so-called Leaders meeting between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition…The initial information that came after that meeting in a tete-a-tete format as far as I know, was that the opposition leader agreed to enter the Government under the condition that DUI is taken out of that equation. The same day, after the meeting was finished, the leadership and ministers from DUI came out with an announcement that they will leave the Government immediatly so that the opposition can enter and vote the constitutional changes, if the price to be paid is for DUI to leave. This was then rejected with additional conditions – Bulgaria to recognize the judgments from Strasbourg, Europe to provide guarantees…which is quite humiliating – asking Europe to provide guarantees that I am a Macedonian who speaks Macedonian language and so on… And there were some politically naive requests – that someone in Europe provide a guarantee that there will be no other requests on the EU road. The organization is such that no one can speak on another behalf, or say ‘you will not be silent for about three years and not set any other new conditions’.
Bulgaria, ouseide of the History Committee, and on any other day, can say – you do not have sufficient rule of law, for example. What do we do then? Will someone else from the EU guarantee that Bulgarians will have no ther such requests? So, there was a situation of throwing people off balance with the intention of creating confusion in the heads of ordinary citizens. The situation is crystal clear – there are seven peoples in the Constitution, let us include six more. Nothing else. Tomorrow, if there are conditions by Denmark or the Netherlands…there will be, but they will not be non-standard ones, like changing a Constitution or changing a name. They will be part of the traditional requests before joining the EU.
Rule of law, professional administration, independent media, the type of requests we have nothing to object against. We know that we are not good in the vital sub-sectors of Macedonian society.
Do you see the way out of this political cul-de-sac in elections, as does the opposition leader Mickoski?
Pendarovski: My question is this – We will organize elections today, and you win. The Macedonian public does not know the Plan B, C, D, whatever. What is the plan? You go on elections, whether now, whether next year…and, as Prime Minister, are you going to ask Europe for guarantees? I do not know the plan, and I do not think that anyone knows what that plan is. Or it is a mystical thing and they do not wish to share it with others, but in any case, if they go on elections, they will have to share their entire election platform. We will do this in the area of judiciary, or that in the area of healthcare or EU integration… If there is a plan that sounds feasible, the average Macedonian citizen will vote for that option. If there is a plan that sounds realistic. But, apart from the fact that they do not have a plan, and I state this firmly because I know the political context vis-a-vis the European Union, what could anyone offer, what magical plan can they invent for us to say ‘Gosh, how did we not come up with this?’ There is no such option. Or if there is, they should speak. We have been for years in this process and yet, we have not seen it.
The current topic now are the changes to the Criminal Code – is this part of the entire political entanglement regarding the Constitutional amendments? Is there a release or return underway for certain political figures on the political scene in Macedonia as a compensation for the vote on the Constitutional amendments? How do you see this proposal?
Pendarovski: Those are minor interventions within the Criminal Code, firstly in Article 353 – Abuse of service and authorizations. In principle, I do not believe that by amending one article in the Criminal code, you will liberate someone from responsibility, and then that someone comes and convenes two thirds for a vote – this is again the the domain of science fiction.
We know that we do not have two thirds for one reason only, because the opposition uses this rhetorics to get to power – ever since last year’s protests against the French proposal, they saw that with such nationalist rtehtorics and skimming through the important elements of that French and later on, European proposal and framework, will they be able to get political points.
All surveys show that Macedonian citizens are fed up with all these conditions throughout the years – first by Greece, then by Bulgaria and then France and Germany; and since this is bringing political credits in the short term, they will continue with this political party politics to achieve their narrow party interests.
How can you find – according to the rough estimates, 8 votes are needed, but I truly do not know the internal relations in depth – so, 8 to 10 people to get to two thirds, when we saw there were 70 votes for the adoption of the agends. Who is that particular Superman who can do this in the way suggested by your question…
Can that particular someone come back ‘on a white horse’ and finish the job? I believe things are a bit different in politics. I cannot believe that there is a person that powerful, whoever that is and whatever position they had before and now, who will be able to find those 10 members of the Assembly, adults. Imagine, they signed certified statements that they will succumb under no pressure to vote for introducing Bulgarians in the Constitution.
And now someone, anyone, comes overnight and says – you will vote for. This might happen in video games, but not in the reality of out political life.
You were the only one with a different position regarding Open Balkan. Do you still stand by that position or have you changed your mind in the meantime?
Pendarovski: I had several reservations regarding that initiative. I am not saying that that organization is damaging, but I believe it has structural deficiencies and does not have the same potential as other initiatives with all six members inside. I am saying it is ok. At the bilateral level, if you have an agreement on anything with any country of the Western Balkans, it can only do you good. But I also say that 3 out of 6 are inside and it would be good to have 6 out of 6, as for example in the Berlin Process.
Open balkan exists for several years and I don’t think it brought the drastic results imagined by its founders / initiators – however, I don’t think it was a bad initiative.
I am glad that as of last year, the Berlin Process is back on and there will be a summit in Tirana – last year, Gemany as a friend and driving force of the initiative announced the awakening and their refocus on the region with resources (unlike Open balkan, the Berlin Process has both institutions and resources) and they have funds at their disposal – if there is a good project, they would finance it. It is a good thing that the German giant has awakened – the economy has not been good in the past two quarters, but our biggest trade partner is Germany and as always, it is good to see Germany coming back to the Western Balkans. The ideal scenario would be for Germany to lead a process that has political components and would be complementary to all other regional initiatives, but would most complement EU integration.
A type of, doing business and respecting European values and principles, thus preparing for your future membership in the Union.
Presidential elections are next year, do you plan to be a candidate for another term of office?
Pendarovski: By the end of my mandate, I will consult political entities, but above all, the citizens, on their opinion about my five years. Without a solid support by Macedonian citizens, I will have no intention to think about a second term of office.