“We shouldn’t be afraid of the referendum, that is, the will of the people! Citizens deserve a chance to decide for themselves regarding their own future!”

 

Welcome to the programme of Al Jazeera, and, to begin with, are Macedonian institutions and administration prepared for the screening process?

We have waited for so long for this important step for us, for the screening process to start, it is not just a technicality but it is the heart of the accession process. More than 100,000 pages of European legislation will be compared with ours, with our structures. We have been a candidate country since 2005; we received the first positive report by the Commission in 2009. There is a sense of enthusiasm and a newfound will among civil servants, experts, the academic community, think-thanks – the atmosphere which we had in 2005 regarding the candidate status is finally returning because we are leaving the waiting room and, as Commissioner Hahn says, the door is open. We have waited to start this process, we will be ready.

All efforts of foreign policy were focused on resolving the name issue. Now, it's time to do your homework, the first big challenge – the referendum. What are the guarantees that the referendum will be successful?

Macedonia, the Macedonian people, parts of other peoples that live here, our ethnic communities knew to choose the right path when faced with major historical crossroads, with big dilemmas. I think we are faced with a choice between the past and the future, between fear and hope. The past is very important for our identity, for who we are, but we cannot change the past, we cannot change the geography; what we can do is to finally offer our citizens a choice, they can choose what kind of country will Macedonia be in 5, 10, 15 years. For my generation – I was 18 when Macedonia declared independence, now I am 45, almost 46 years old – in my opinion, there was not a greater patriotic duty than creating this opportunity and allow the citizens to make a choice, and I am certain that they will choose the right solution for themselves and will choose the future for their children. This is immensely important for our statehood, for our stability and for our prosperity – for the life that Macedonia will be able to offer in the future.

What if the referendum fails? Does Macedonia have a Plan B?

We are focused on Plan A. We are convinced that we got the best out of the situation. We are convinced that we have a sound, national compromise, without fears over the identity, with a clear distinction between Macedonia, our country, and Macedonia, the part of the historical region located in Greece, and I believe we have to remain focused on Plan A. Macedonia does not have a different strategic alternative. Our entire region is an island, surrounded by EU member states. We trade with those member states, more than 3/4 of our entire region; furthermore, our investments also come from EU member states, and we do not have a different strategic alternative. This process will allow us to bring Europe to Macedonia so that our youth does not have to look for Europe outside of the Macedonian borders.

How are you going to convince the opposition to become a part of this process, so that the country can unite behind it, when this basically comes down to strategic issues?

This is a process of growth and I believe that we should not be afraid of the will of the citizens, the will of the people. The referendum means the right of the citizens to choose, to decide for themselves regarding what kind of Macedonia they wish to have in the future. This issue transcends the whole political elite, all parties, all personal careers and I believe that in such historic moments we cannot think of ourselves, of our personal career and of the party future. There are many areas, we are not perfect, we make mistakes; those mistakes should be debated, criticised. There are many fields for party and political battles; however, the strategic future of our nation must not be subject to party quarrels. I believe that the best way to convince the opposition is to have a referendum, to ask the citizens and to listen to the will of the people. If there is one vote against, we are prepared to reach out and say that this is not the right path. I am convinced that citizens will decide in the majority in favour of the future, in favour of who we are, that we speak Macedonian, that we want to have friends in the neighbourhood, and that we want the whole region to finally make a step towards the future. We have lost a lot. We have had an independent country for 27 years, it is time to strengthen it and create chances for better life in Macedonia. 

You mention the region. What does the Agreement between Macedonia and Greece mean for the region and for the continent in general, as well?

We live in uncertain times. This was visible, let's say, during the Western Balkans Summit which was held in London last week; it was also visible afterwards during the debates at the NATO Summit in Brussels. Europe is busy, it has its own problems; it faced a series of challenges, a series of crises. It is time for us in the region to compete in issues which are important for the present and for the future. We know and we have a tradition in competing who has the richest history, who has greater victories, who has more glorious defeats. However, it is time for us to be proud of what our generation can achieve today in the Balkans. We have to make the decisive step forward. With this agreement we have shown that the Balkan does not only produce history, but it can consume history and create future. If we think more about the common good and less of political careers, even at the cost of self-sacrifice, I think that we would good work. I hope that this agreement, along with the previous one, the Friendship Treaty with Bulgaria, will be an impetus for us to solve our problems because one Balkan country cannot be successful if another country is not. We have to move forward together, and I believe that we can achieve this.

Prime Minister Zaev spoke of a Russian influence at the most recent protests in Macedonia. How strong is it, how important is this Russian influence; what does it mean for Macedonia and the region in the context of the NATO invitation which Macedonia received and the start of accession negotiations with the EU scheduled for June next year?

For us, NATO membership is not a done deal yet. One of the first declarations which the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia adopted in 1993, 25 years ago, was regarding our Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We want to join NATO; our citizens want to join NATO. For us, becoming members of NATO means overcoming the psychological barrier that Macedonia will succeed and will be here for many decades, within these borders. This aspiration is not directed against any other country. We are a small country; one of the main features of our foreign policy is building bridges, solving problems, lending a hand, building friendships, we want to be friends with everyone, including the Russian Federation, of course; however, the direction that Macedonia will follow is a decision of our people, of our citizens, of the Macedonian people, all of us together, as a nation, all of us who live in the Republic of Macedonia,  and we made that decision a long time ago with an overwhelming majority of 65, 75, 80%. We are convinced that this step will have a calming effect for the entire region, not only for us, and we want to assure people, the decision-makers, in Moscow, in the Russian Federation that this is the case as well.