Interviews and Speeches

Interview with Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikola Poposki for "Republika"

By: Naum Stoilkovski

Date: 12.06.2015

  

Poposki: Open discussion makes things much easier



Any type of increased uncertainty cannot reflect positively on the neighbourhood climate, even less on the investments' climate, says head of diplomacy Poposki, who will soon welcome his Greek counterpart Nikos Kotsias in Skopje. Within a short but intense period of time, Macedonia is overcoming a political crisis, EU's scanning has commenced and the country is haggling over the ‘Turkish Stream’.

 

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We are expecting the scanning process as a step forward towards Euro-Atlantic integration and this is happening during a tumultuous period in Macedonia. What is the actual significance of this and what does it bring later on, to what extent will that period be shortened when the real negotiations kick off?

Poposki: If it is possible to isolate anything that might be a positive outcome from this entire process of overcoming the political crises, then that is the possibility of making steps forward regarding specific topics from Chapters 23 and 24 since due to EC's increased attention it is highly probable that we will receive recommendations which will serve as a solid foundation for reforms to be implemented regarding the rule of law across all areas and institution.

In practice, this will allow us to reduce the gap we have in comparison to Montenegro and Serbia, countries that have both began the formal scanning while we were blocked. I believe this will help us achieve mobilisation for those reforms which will be a prerequisite for them, same as they were for Croatia, and considering the new approach to EU accession negotiations we will also have to implement them. Two things are relevant time wise. One is how quickly we deliver these reforms, regardless of whether it is about the media, rule of law, judiciary, since practically everything is related to these segments, but, also, how quickly is the EU prepared to provide us with new benchmarks and the extent to which the political climate will change for closing the chapters. We need a political climate not solely for opening, but also for closing the chapters.

Towards the end of this month you will be host for you counterpart from Athens, the Greek Head of Diplomacy, Nikos Kotzias. What does the meeting's agenda include?

Poposki: The main topic will probably be closing the list of confidence-building measures. We have exchanged opinions between the two ministries, and prior to Minister Kotzias' arrival, several operational meetings will be held between our political directorates in MFA. We will conclude the list in regard to intercountry agreements, business promotion, opening border crossings, larger connections and projects for cross-border cooperation, and at this time, I believe that there is a great possibility that these segments will be completed until then and we will be able to disclose them.

The second part is always connected to that imposed and long-term name dispute and in this aspect we have not seen any specific steps taken to speed up the process or to activate it. In my opinion it is unrealistic to expect that any great advance will be made in regard to the name during this meeting, but the meeting will have great symbolism, since we have not had many opportunities for bilateral meetings in neither of the capitals and now we have a chance to make a step forward towards measures that should be positively accepted by both countries.

Kotzias is part of the Tsipras' Cabinet, who promotes a somewhat more open-minded and more open stance in politics and actions, i.e. shows an informal approach, symbolically represented by him not wearing a tie. To what extent is this informality present in the communication?

Poposki: I believe we have some level of open talk regarding all issues, those we agree on and those we disagree on. In my opinion the thing you are referring to in regard to the level of informality is also reflected on the talks. This brings an advantage. In a situation where two countries are burdened with an imposed dispute, open discussion makes things much easier. It is much better if we openly express our fears that Greece has no intention of moving forward towards resolving the dispute or their constant tendency to postpone or shift the dispute to other areas, and their fears that Macedonia is promoting irredentism and as such poses a threat to their national interests.

Our positions are clear and predictable and in line with everything that has been publicly discussed, but essentially I cannot say there has been significant movement on their part towards us or vice versa, but I can definitely say that we have a climate of  informally placing arguments on the table, acknowledging the arguments and reviewing what can be done in a short period of time. At this moment the thing that can be done in a short period of time is taking a step forward regarding these confidence-building measures between Macedonia and Greece.

Macedonia and Greece are also on the line that has once again divided the world - the "Turkish Stream" gas pipelines. Both are on Russia's gas pipeline map. The gas pipeline has become some kind of a referendum issue for the East and the West. On the other hand, Macedonia needs the gas as a stable agent for its citizens as well as for investors.

Poposki: To some extent, I would agree that a perception has been created that this is about a referendum or deciding who should be making the decisions - the East or the West. I believe, however, this does not correspond to the reality of the matter. Two things are important. One of them is the economic aspect, which is the fact that we need more fuels and the more projects we have for bringing energy to the entire region, including Macedonia, the better it would be for us, because no one, not Macedonia nor our neighbours, is rich with fuels. It is energy that will determine the pace of our development. Things are more simple in this aspect and we agree that we need more fuels. The second aspect is political. The most important thing here for us is our strategic decision to become part of the European community. We have the European Union, and we have NATO. So if we want to belong to such a community it is quite normal that the decisions of strategic importance must be made in cooperation and by consulting those who act as our partners.

When it comes to "Turkish Stream", our position has been clear from the very beginning. We want to have a gas pipeline that will provide more gas to Europe and which will possibly pass through the Republic of Macedonia, helping decrease the prize of fuels and increase their quantity. On the other hand, in order for this to happen we first need an agreement between the supplier, i.e. Russia and Turkey, which is the first contact point on the European continent, and afterwards with all the countries included on the gas route, which are part of the EU, such as Greece or Slovakia, or are yet to become members, such as Macedonia and Serbia. The European Commission was present even at the first meeting we held at ministerial level in Budapest between all these countries. The second condition which must be met is the accordance of EU that this would not impair the overall market. This is our stance and it has been very clear, and is based on strategic orientation and priorities: EU membership and consultation with our partners on this road as well as economic logic, that is, bringing in more gas at a lower price, something I believe we all agree on.

 

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As the head of Macedonian diplomacy, how does the political crises in Macedonia and the handling of the terrorist group in Kumanovo affect our Euro-Atlantic integration, the good-neighbourly relations in the region, even the foreign investments?
Poposki: Any type of increased unpredictability, which is sure to increase if you are facing political confrontation in the country, will not have a positive influence on the climate in the neighbourhood, and even less so on the investment climate. This is why we are largely motivated to focus all our efforts on overcoming this crisis and restore economic predictability since that is what will bring in more investments and create new jobs.

As for the crisis in Kumanovo, which was exceptionally serious, the most important thing to be said is that it was resolved thanks to Macedonia's response on the field and well as on political level, but also due to the response by our neighbours who have sent clear political messages that any extreme action will not be supported and I believe that the cooperation and the messages that were sent, both to Macedonia from all political parties as well as to the neighbourhood, especially to Kosovo and Albania, were an example of how we can eliminate a threat which has ambitions to become a factor through criminal and terrorist activities and to act, I would say, more on the public scene than solely through criminal activities. This response was an example of how we should act to remove those types of threat and something that would eventually create a better climate for everyone in the region because no one has interest in increasing tensions.

There were various developments in Serbia and Bulgaria in relation to the events in Kumanovo. Where do our relations with these countries stand?

Poposki: We have excellent relations with Serbia based on the sole fact that Serbia is the second largest trading partner of the Republic of Macedonia as well as the fact that we have huge cooperation with them in relation to transport and connectivity, the Serbian community in Macedonia, the Macedonian community in Serbia, we truly do have excellent relations. Increasing tensions in times of crises does not help us at all. In my opinion this is true for all countries from the region, so we need to focus on how to communicate when discussing certain issues from both sides of the border. This is both in Macedonian as well as Serbian interest. But in the end this is a good benchmark for the perception and the public opinion according to which Serbia is perceived as a friendly country to Macedonia, and many public opinion polls show that Macedonia is considered as their closest and friendliest country. I think we should use this for greater promotion and better trade between the two countries.

When you are a candidate country for NATO or EU, the relations are always more complicated with member countries, speaking in neighbouring terms, rather than those countries that share your status, i.e. those who want to join the club. The main conditions Bulgaria has put on the table is that Sofia expects an agreement for good-neighbourly relations and a mechanism to monitor the implementation of those measures until our accession to the EU. We want to create a climate which neither country will perceive as an instrument for Bulgarian pressure on Macedonia, but as a manner to increase bilateral cooperation in all areas. This will have crucial importance. Thus far, there has been quite an intensive communication between working groups, but the political instability in Bulgaria has decelerated this cooperation for a certain period of time, and afterwards we faced a political situation which also caused certain deceleration of the pace. Now we are at the stage when it only takes one or two meetings to form a clear foundation and move on to closing those issues.

As head of diplomacy, how important was it to avoid damaging the interethnic stability in the country after the events in Kumanovo?
Poposki: Any such action, any event of those proportions carries a serious risk for the way we are perceived from the outside. The same thing happened with the actions taken by large countries such as France, Belgium or Germany, as well as countries aspiring to become part of NATO. The most important thing for us was the fact that the political response of our neighbours, especially Albania and Kosovo, on an institutional level, corresponded to our desire to preserve regional stability and peace. Even more significant was the fact that political parties in the Republic of Macedonia, regardless of their ethnic affiliation, were unanimous. We want Macedonia to have territorial integrity and we will not provide political support to criminal groups who want to abuse their position, that is to brand themselves in order to achieve certain political goals. This response is the most important one for our partners who monitor us, otherwise the assessment received by NATO and EU member countries would have been entirely different. This is why I believe that the level of maturity shown by the Republic of Macedonia when faced with such a dangerous threat, is comforting enough for NATO and the EU to feel that the Republic of Macedonia is a partner that should be part of the club. In a situation as dangerous and unfortunate as the one in Kumanovo, we have demonstrated our capacity to not only resolve problems out in the field, but also to send a clear political message on the course maintained by Macedonia regarding its foreign policy goals, which is NATO and EU membership.