Interviews and Speeches

Interview of MFA Nikola Poposki for Der Standard

Date: 17.05.2016

Journalist: Adelheid Wolfl

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Der Standard: In this current situation it seems the EU- Turkey Deal is about to go up in flames. What would that mean for Macedonia and the border security with Greece?

Poposki: We currently have 25,000 migrants at the border, about half the number of refugees currently in Greece who are found somewhere in the vicinity of the border. Greek authorities are trying to get the refugees away from the border while activists persuade them to stay there and give them false hope that they can cross the border. But we do have less refugees coming our way, not only because Turkey curbs the flow, but also because we have closed our border with Greece which was perceived by many as a signal that they can no longer move towards Europe. I don’t think that Turkey’s refugee policy will change.

Der Standard: And what if Turkey yet again starts letting more refugees through towards Greece?

Poposki: That may happen, but we won’t see as many mass illegal border crossings from Greece towards Germany. That’s over.

Der Standard: Does the process of returning refugees to Greece work? I’ve heard that it could take some time.

Poposki: There are some bureaucratic obstacles. But we have agreements and according to these we should send them back. I have to mention that our cooperation with Greece is constantly improving. We started at a very low level facing numerous obstacles, but now officials from both sides are communicating and cooperating quite well. But there is still room for improvement.

Der Standard: Such as?

Poposki: In our case we find it important for people in Greece to be transferred from border camps to the admission centres as soon as possible. Many of them are out in the open and this deteriorates the humanitarian situation. What’s more it encourages people to violence. We had several young people who tried to pelt the police with stones. This situation also encourages smugglers since it creates a market. Greek officials are changing their approach and trying to force people to move.

Der Standard: How many of those trying to cross the border are actually apprehended by Macedonian authorities?

Poposki: We have from 150 to 300 attempts at crossing the border per day. Sometimes a group arrives of around ten people who cut through the fence. More than half of these attempts are prevented. Sometimes we come close to a 100% success rate. But it cannot be said that no one was successful in crossing the border. The border is not hermetically sealed, after all.

Der Standard: Does Serbia send the refugees back to Macedonia?

Poposki: Actually only a small number of them reach Serbia. But today we have people who make it to Germany or Sweden. Some of them are now in Serbia, after arriving from Bulgaria. Some of them had been sent back in the past and are now again trying to smuggle through. Since the beginning of this year we have 20 smuggler groups reported in Macedonia. But we shouldn’t be naïve and believe that we’ve got them all. Law enforcement officials struggle daily against those who want to make money out of this situation.

Der Standard: Speaking of money, who much does Macedonia’s border protection cost?

Poposki: We’ve spent 30 to 40 million euros for the management of the migration crisis. Additional personnel and equipment were distributed, and we have overtime and transportation costs. In these past two months we have implemented a European project which allows us to cover at least a part of the expenses for Macedonian officials or EU officials. But it is not about Frontex here, rather bilateral agreements with Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Croatia.

Der Standard: How much does Macedonia get for this project?

Poposki: Ten million euros, 1.5 million euros for Macedonian officials, 3 million euros for those from EU countries, and the rest for the equipment.

Der Standard: Is the closure of the Balkan route related to political costs?

Poposki: Yes, this whole situation has complicated our relations with Greece. Greece has been blocking our entry into NATO and the EU for years, but our goal is to loosen up the relations. When we first began implementing the decisions of the European Council, Greece perceived it as an attempt to make their lives difficult. But now Greece is beginning to realize that we are doing the country a favour by preventing illegal migration. Ultimately, the migration crisis hampers the economy as well. Half of our export-import, for instance, goes through the Thessaloniki port and if we also take into account all the highway and railway interruptions, the situation is dramatic.

Der Standard: Blockades aside, isn’t it better to close the border for refugees?

Poposki: The choice for us was a simple one: we either help EU countries in the implementation of the plan or we simple observe and put up two large billboards reading: Munich – 1500 km! Stockholm – 2100 km! And so on. But if you want to be a credible partner and an EU member then you should be part of the solution.

Der Standard: Has this brought you anything in return?

Poposki: Nothing special so far. But we are used to that.

Der Standard: Is there a chance to end the name dispute with Greece?

Poposki: I can’t say that Greece is in the best position right now to focus on this matter.

Der Standard: Do you believe you have the EU and USA’s support in this matter?

Poposki: EU doesn’t insist here, as it does in all other enlargement processes, that these bilateral issues must be solved during EU accession negotiations. All EU member states should agree that we need to start negotiations. This would be a positive stimulus for both sides. But we are left outside the EU for now, and there’s no hope. If in this situation we urge for a solution that would be acceptable for everyone then it would be like seal two wolves and a lamb in a room and tell them: we’re trying to find you a mutually acceptable dinner offer.

Der Standard: Do you think that the internal political crisis here in Macedonia is related to the county’s situation of being in geopolitical limbo?

Poposki: The longer Macedonia is left outside the EU, the greater the chances of having chaos here. There are certain groups in the Balkans who haven’t done anything else, other than leading wars and many of them have criminal backgrounds and they use political agendas.

Der Standard: How important is Russia for Macedonia?

Poposki: Over 90 percent of our investments, import and export come from EU or candidate countries. Russia is important for everyone in Europe, but if you take Russia’s trade share into account, then here it is much smaller. We’ve always said that we want to join NATO and the EU.

Der Standard: Originally, the elections were planned for 5 June. But now, you party, VMRO-DPMNE is the only one asking for elections to be held on 5 June.

Poposki: The Social Democrats (SDSM) have asked for early elections. Unexpectedly, it’s the Government now who wants elections to be held. Elections polls are not in favour of the opposition party. They want elections but only once they feel they have the majority of the voters support. And why are we supposed to force SDSM to do something they have requested themselves?

Der Standard: This situation also has something to do with the President Gjorgje Ivanov’s pardons, who made things worse.

Poposki: The President felt that he had to do something, but the pardons led to negative consequences, especially at an international level. He obviously had good intentions. But the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.