Macedonia's foreign minister: 'We can't change history but we can shape our future'

"Talking Europe" with Catherine Nicholson
Link: https://bit.ly/2USNW5a

FRANCE 24: Today, we will be discussing that issue and more, with Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov. Thank you very much for being with us.

MFA DIMITROV: Great pleasure.

FRANCE 24: We heard a suggestion there in the reports that Macedonia is less Macedonian if it's called "North Macedonia".

MFA DIMITROV: The region, historically, of Macedonia, is now within three countries – Macedonia the Republic, part of Greece in the northern part of Greece, and in western Bulgaria. So, I think, accepting this geographic designation, is not really making us less Macedonian. The dispute is deeply entrenched, it has been there for 27 years; it's also about a historic reconciliation between the two nations and I think that one of the pillars of the Agreement is an Article where we say that the two countries recognise that they have a different understanding when they say "Macedonia" or "Macedonian" in the Republic of Macedonia – to be, if this is successful, North Macedonia – and in Greece; and they are not necessarily contradicting each other, but they are coexisting in a way.

FRANCE 24: Do you believe that this really is finally, after this journey, about to be resolved; there is still resistance from within Macedonia and from within Greece?

MFA DIMITROV: There is resistance; both opposition parties say that they will be able to do a better deal; but better from the Greek perspective and better from the Macedonian perspective mean two different things. So when you put those two statements together they most likely lead towards no deal. A qualified majority, in our case, is always a fragile matter in politics; we work on it on a daily basis, and we really believe that we are going to be able to proclaim a miracle, and that we can prove that miracles happen even in the Balkans. We can't change history, we can't change geography, but we can, hopefully, shape our future, and this is about our future, this is about creating friendship between the two nations, it's really historic –and usually, what is historic is not easy to do.

FRANCE 24: It is interesting you say to me, about miracles being possible even in the Balkans. Of course, your region has an extremely complicated recent history, let alone in the last hundred years and beyond; now looking to try and join the European Union – what would EU membership bring to your country, it would be a very, very small member state in an enormous block?

MFA DIMITROV: I was asked once in London "Why do you want to join when we are leaving?" and I said "Well, you on the inside sometimes forget how cold it is outside."

FRANCE 24: In what sense?

MFA DIMITROV: When you look at the "club" from the outside, the distance actually helps to appreciate what the Union is about, and when we say we want to join, it is not sort of the "formal act" of becoming a member – if we join today, Macedonia will still be the same country. So, it's about becoming European in terms of how do we fight corruption, if our media are free, if politicians are held accountable, if jobs are created and the salaries are solid.

FRANCE 24: Well, talking about that process, it's been reported that France and the Netherlands, two of the EU member states who have been most strongly opposed to launching the start of accession talks – we've been expecting that in the summer of 2018, looks like it's been pushed back by a year – there are cited concerns about corruption in Macedonia, about judiciary reforms. I looked at the Transparency International rankings and they do give Macedonia a score of 35 out of 100 on corruption perception with 100 being the cleanest, so a relatively low score. Perhaps France and the Netherlands have a point, and maybe your country is not quite ready at this point to begin this journey into the EU?

MFA DIMITROV: We've been a candidate country since 2005, and our first positive recommendation by the Commission was out in 2009 and since then we've had a success in positive reports. The last one, of April this year, is actually saying backsliding was reverted, and we've received good marks on some of the fundamentals of what a European democracy should be like, on media freedoms, on the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, so, in a way, what we talk about is a start of a journey not the end of the journey.

FRANCE 24: Do you believe that the EU should be helping your country with that journey?

MFA DIMITROV: Engaging is actually less costly than non-engaging with the region, if we want the Balkans to be orderly, governed by the rule of law, exporting products and services and not people seeking a better future beyond the borders of their homeland and beyond problematic governance, let's say. So, I think we are at the place we are today globally, but also in Europe, because we have often neglected problems and we have often missed opportunities for progress. So I think it is time to be honest, it is time not to overly politicise the process; we want to convince also European voters, not only governments, that the accession process can actually transform a country. That is why the process is much more important than the actual date. It can take ten years, maybe it will take longer, but what is really important is for us to become European, not to formally join.

FRANCE 24: On a related issue, your Government has very recently agreed to a prisoner amnesty – this is a bit of a deal with the opposition in Macedonia to get support for the name-change deal – it includes amnesty for opposition MPs who stormed the Macedonian Parliament in April. It is clearly important to your Government to get the name-change deal through, to try and head towards EU membership, but rights' activists talk about this being a dangerous precedent, continuing a culture of impunity. Is this cutting off your nose to spite your face, in a sense, perhaps proving that there are rule of law concerns?

MFA DIMITROV: This is a challenging, let's say, balancing between two important principles. One is the principle of accountability. Our government was actually born out of the well-spread thirst for justice, in the face of a wiretapping affair that brought to the surface a wide-spread abuse of office. So, our basic promise, essentially, is accountability. Now, we also have the challenge of deep political polarisation in the country, partly as a result of this crisis. So how to work on both? And I think, as long as politicians do political acts not through the judiciary, so there is a clear transparent distinction between what judges and public prosecutors do and what politicians do, and striking the right balance…

FRANCE 24: But you accept you are walking a tight rope here; the Government is leaving itself open to criticism here?

MFA DIMITROV: It is a very fine line and I don't think amnesty will be offered to the organisers of the attack on the Parliament or to those who took part in the actual acts of violence, but to those who, probably – we are still to see the actual draft-law – who took part in the crowd, so to speak. But in a way, I think that the best that we can do is a wise combination of the art of the possible, and the principles that really matter, and accountability is probably on the top of that list.

FRANCE 24: We don't have a lot of time left, unfortunately, but I would like to talk about one EU country that is already posing a problem for your Government – Hungary. Former Macedonian Prime Minister, who has fled a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence for corruption in Macedonia has been granted asylum in Hungary. He is known to have been close to Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister. Do you have a message for Budapest over this?

MFA DIMITROV: We received a clear recommendation in the conclusions of the General Affairs Council in June this year that accountability is important, in particular at high and the highest levels. In the context of delivering on that promise, that the rule of law must not be selective, it applies to former prime ministers as well, we have now a very awkward situation where the person in question, Mr Gruevski, has been convicted already, sought asylum and received asylum in a member state, in Hungary. Talking about principles and the art of the possible, I recently met with my colleague, Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, and we concluded that we have many interests that are common, including making the region European, we have a significant trade relationship with Hungary, we have that difference, and I told him that we will take all legal action available, we have sought extradition, and we will wait for the Hungarian court to make a decision in that case.

FRANCE 24: But your country is in somewhat of a weak position, perhaps, in this case?

MFA DIMITROV: Well, we have to maintain bilateral relations with Hungary while convincing them and making our case that Gruevski should face justice. They treat this as a purely legal issue. So we'll see how this will proceed.

FRANCE 24: Just before we round up the interview, back to the EU. It's a block that's taken a body blow from Brexit, of course, but there are also internal splits, rows between Brussels and Hungary, Poland, potentially Romania. Is this still a club that you want to join?

MFA DIMITROV: The EU is what we make out of it. I think if we learn to think big again and be bolder, we can make the EU what it should be. It has a shaken self-confidence, but I think we don't really have a viable alternative, so we really have to reinvest if we want to matter globally, if we want to face issues that cannot be dealt with properly at a national level, we need to be united. I was recently at the Schuman Foundation in Paris, and was rehearsing the quotes, and what he said back in 1948, "If we want to survive, we need to unite", I think that applies as well today. For us, we are going to build a small Europe in our part of the region, we have to make it, we are going through the second chance of our generation, and we will make it.

FRANCE 24: We will finish on that note – Nikola Dimitrov, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Macedonia, thank you for being with us.

MFA DIMITROV: Thank you so much for your invitation.