Interview of MFA Poposki for Telma

Date: 13 april 2016

Journalist: Snezana Lupevska

nikola poposki intervju

SL: Minister, what was the reason behind yesterday’s incident at Idomeni; are you at all surprised or was it something expected?

Poposki: I couldn’t say we were surprised because we’ve had these incidents on several occasions now, and from the moment tents were set up at the border line on the Greek side it was clear that incidents will become unavoidable. Our message since day one, and is still valid today, was to relocate migrants living in substandard conditions in tents along the border itself and to transfer them as soon as possible to the reception centres something Greece actually received funds for. In relation to this particular incident we’ve had several indications that there are groups of NGO members and activists on the ground that encourage migrants to use violence in order to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia illegally. They send migrants a message that if they succeed in crossing this border they’ll be able to continue unimpeded towards Germany. These are obvious manipulations we should fight against by both truthfully informing migrants and by undertaking additional measures against further illegal crossings onto Macedonian territory. These are the measures that should be a priority for Greek authorities, but I also believe we need cooperation from both sides of the border so that we can prevent a repeat of these incidents in the following days or weeks.

 

SL: What measures were taken or are taken by Macedonia so that the incidents can be prevented in the future?

Poposki: There are two common denominators for yesterday’s incidents, firstly that almost all photographs and video shots from the incidents came from Greek territory, and secondly that there was no Greek policeman in any of them. That is a good indicator of the level of engagement on the ground. But I don’t think we can solve future incidents by assigning blame since we shouldn’t underestimate the weight of the problem caused by the fact that there are over 50 thousand migrants on Greek territory. But the EU’s conclusions indicate that we should undertake measures on our own territory on a daily basis. What Macedonia is doing to prevent illegal crossings on its territory should be at least two times more visible in the actions of Greek authorities on Greek territory. This means discouraging illegal crossings and repressing those who organise this type of activities that undermine the entire plan made by the European Commission which was supported by both Macedonia and Greece i.e. closing the Balkan route and avoiding scenarios like the ones we’ve seen last year – massive, uncontrolled migrant waves.

SL: How do you interpret the behaviour of Greek authorities where everyone, from Prime Minister to ministers, started reacting that Macedonia is doing to migrants something it shouldn’t be doing; use of force etc., to what do we owe these statements and the behaviour of Greek authorities?

Poposki: The intensity and number of statements is probably correlated to the political developments in Greece rather than their honest concern about these incidents on the ground. This is evident and undeniable. On the other hand if someone was truly worried, there was a single measure that could have been implemented much sooner to avoid this type of activities which was a more consistent effort to relocate migrants from the tents set up at the borderline to the reception centres. This step would have been a clear sign of concern, of their eagerness to avoid incidents at the border and to discourage any illegal attempts at crossing the border. When you leave around 20 thousand people on the border line without any control and you let others with who knows what agendas to encourage them to resort to violence in order to cross that border, I think you’re only asking from trouble. And it’s a matter of time when this type of trouble will repeat itself. The only solution is their relocation. We shouldn’t play a game of statements competing about who said what on one side of the border or the other in relation to what has been or hasn’t been done, we should instead draw a line here and see that this scenario doesn’t happen again tomorrow. The first step includes efforts to relocate and discourage those groups who embolden people to try and cross the state border in a violent manner.

SL: Considering the fact that EU member states have agreed on closing the Balkan route, what are their reactions about the behaviour of Greek authorities towards Macedonia?

Poposki: Well, the European Commission and several other member states have given clear responses in regard to accusations about what Macedonia did or didn’t do. One thing is important and that is the fact that Macedonia is doing everything in line with the obligations we were given at EU level, i.e., the same obligations that apply to Greece, apply to us as well: discouraging illegal migration, closing the Balkan route and implementing measures to provide secure and humane treatment of migrants found on our own territory, in this case migrants who are on Greek territory. But we shouldn’t forget the slightly bigger picture, which is the fact that a large number of EU member states have their own police forces on the Macedonian side of the Greek-Macedonian border. These people have direct insight into what has been happening here and the information they sent to the capitals of EU and Brussels is extremely important. We shouldn’t have anyone else, other that expert people in such matters, those from security forces, assess what measures are being implemented. And they are the ones who evaluate what should be done, with the end result being the prevention of illegal migration. We have achieved this at a great cost, I might add, because over 20 policemen were injured during these attacks, and yet we left no room for someone to interpret whether we will open the border or not, whether we will let this type of behaviour come to fruition. Our answer is: no.

SL: Is this why Pahor and Kolinda Grabar are here today?

Poposki: Part of the support we receive in handling this migrant crisis comes from directly affected countries. Slovenia and Croatia are two countries found along the route and if we don’t implement measures what is happening at the Macedonian-Greek border will happen at the Croatian-Slovenian border and so on. In other words, all countries, those in the EU, and especially those found along the migrant route have an interest in us being successful in our measures and what we’ve been doing so far.

SL: Do you have direct contacts with your colleague Kotzias?

Poposki: Yes, we have constant communications with Greek authorities and Minister Kotzias. I think we’ve allowed many things to remain as simply words, instead of action and it would have been better for both sides if we had dedicated all the energy we’ve devoted to statements to handling the actual challenge on the ground, i.e. discouraging people from resorting to violence in order to cross the border illegally.

SL: Although trust-building measures were announced on Greece’s part, and this was something you directly discussed with your counterpart, relations after yesterday’s developments are not moving in that direction. Will this affect future relations between Macedonia and Greece and how?

Poposki: I think we should separate the two things; one is trust-building measures where the exchange between journalist, politicians, economy, business presentations, and cultural promotions are all things of mutual benefit in the long run. Both Macedonians and Greeks will benefit from our encouragement of this type cooperation and certain pioneer steps have already been made in this direction. The migrant crisis is something much larger than Macedonian-Greek relations because if you look at it in a European context the crisis managed to harm relations between long-term partners and EU member states. And I wouldn’t say that confrontations in this aspect are happening on the relation between Skopje and Athens, but rather between Athens and Brussels or other European capitals. We are, I would say, a small piece in this mosaic of confrontation between Greece and the opinion held by the majority of EU capitals that Greece is handling the crisis inadequately. To be fair, geography doesn’t make this problem any easier for Greece; it has numerous islands, a sea line i.e. sea, the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey and without Turkey’s assistance it’s unlikely that Greece will succeed in handling this problem. But I believe that these last incidents were somehow intended as an attempt to turn our attention away from these real problems by using statements about the great concern over how migrants were treated during the incidents at “Boundary Stone 59”. The simplest solution and the simplest response to avoid this problem would have been preventative measures, discouraging these people from resorting to violence and encouraging Greek authorities to relocate and transfer migrants to reception centres where living conditions would stimulate a rather different type of behaviour unlike the one where they attempt to cross state lines illegally by using stones.