Interviews and Speeches

Lecture by MFA Dimitriv at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest on the topic of “The political transition in North Macedonia and its membership in NATO and the EU”.


Thank you so much. It’s a nice privilege to be here at such school that produces ministers and ambassadors. I haven’t studied here but I somehow managed. I am a diplomat since 96, and then I left the service when I thought the government is taking the country in the wrong direction. I became a think-tanker in between academia and policy. And when we had the political crisis in 15 and 16 I decided I need to help. I firmly believe and this is one of the key messages to the students here: we can all make a difference. Individuals, people, we can make a difference, regardless of how big the process is, the challenge is or the issues are. So I became an activist, I spoke to a rally of 70 thousand people in Skopje and now I became an accidental politician. And it’s been almost two years in office and what we inherited was a country that is deeply entrenched, looking at neighbors with not enough self-confidence. We have 5 neighbors in the Balkans, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania. Two of those are EU member states – Greece and Bulgaria. And with both we had issues and difficulties that cost our progress impossible, it blocked our road towards the EU, it blocked our road towards NATO, so we were in a waiting room where we had decline of our institutions. So this situation caused a broad social mobilization that brought about a political change. And we saw how nationalism, I call it “shallow” nationalism, because we all love our countries and we all would like to see our countries prosper and be stable and get better. But this is more visionary patriotism. Nationalism is about fear, being afraid of neighbors, the sense of victimhood, how the world is unfair to us and using those emotions usually to cover corruption and authoritarianism. This is at least what happened in our case.

So what we did in 2 years? We decided that we need to open the door and the door, the key was with our neighbors, we turned to Bulgaria in a matter of three months we negotiated and signed a Friendship Treaty that opened a process of getting to know each other better and working on history issues that will eventually enable to also base reality of today and I think essentially becoming very close with people with whom we’ve been very close throughout history. I was on my on 14th day as a minister to Athens to say we have decided to make it, we, your neighbors, if you want to have a friendly European neighbor to the North of you, now it’s the time to help us. And after few months of meetings, getting to know each other, past is very important, it took about eight months of very intensive negotiations with some encouragement from elsewhere but mostly we did it ourselves. So this is a homemade resolution of a problem that blocked our future for 27 years and a problem that takes us back in history. For the politicians the easiest thing to do is not to touch such a problem because you can use it to score points. And it’s enough to blame the other and you can gain political points, you can be the hero of the day. And we have seen such playing games throughout these 27 years.

Maybe briefly about the substance of the issue and then I’ll talk a little bit about what we are doing at home, domestically and why this is important. Why this is important for European Union, why this is important for the region. Then Prespa is about resolving a difference over a name. When Yugoslavia fell apart the then Socialist Republic of Macedonia, one of the six Yugoslav Republics became independent on 8th of September 1991. And we were not fully embraced by all of our neighbors. There was an objections on the use of the name Macedonia because on the grounds that the historic region of Macedonia is bigger than our Republic and there is part in Northern Greece that is called Macedonia, and there is part in our neighbors in Bulgaria as well. So this is one to how to distinct that the country is not about the whole region but it is about our part. Second, it goes into emotions and issues of identity which are important in every country and they play a big role in European politics of our days – the issue of identity – how to distinguish between what a Macedonian is in the Republic now of North Macedonia and to make that possible and not contradict with the identification of what is to be a Macedonian in Greece.  Which is something that is about the right of self-determination and it is something very personal. So this is what we did with Article 7 of the Prespa Agreement. We learned many lessons in the process; first of all that you cannot win if the dispute is with your neighbor. Because if the idea is to build friendship you cannot defeat your neighbor because this creates frustration and animosity and not friendship. So you have to work a lot to understand the concerns of the other and to devise a formula where the basic concerns on your side and on the other side will be covered. This is I think what we did with the agreement which is a win-win in many ways, it is a compromise and in that regard I fully agree with Minister Ciamba, with George. It was a European way, in a way the magnetism, the attractiveness of Europe helped, it was one of the incentives on our side and we managed to resolve issues of history to build a common future to more pragmatic about it since the Prespa Agreement we’ve signed two additional, several additional, including two agreement to open new border crossing points between the two countries. We have unlocked a huge potential, I think we are natural allies with both of our neighbors who are part of the Union. We also learned that you have to invest everything in the strategy of finding a solution. If one part of the effort is in the talks, and the other part of the effort is in a blame-game or an attempt to outsmart each other then the talks will fail.  And the focus should be on the core interest on both sides and not on declared positions. In negotiations when you declare positions publicly you become a hostage of those positions. So you have to focus on the interest and not on the positions. The work with your own constituency is extremely important, so part of the negotiations is the negotiations with “yourself”. Domestically you need to build support, on both sides, and this was not an easy process.

But what we did is with both of our neighbors we created a de facto solidarity. And I think this analogy in a very different context in a different magnitude of problems between France and German, but when Schuman one of the founders of the EU said European Union will not be created in one goal in accordance with one single plan, but with concrete achievements that create de facto solidarity. So because of the agreements last June in the Council that is now chaired by Minister Ciamba the General Affairs Council, it was chaired by Zakharieva, my colleague from Sofia, it was the biggest fighters for our file, for our cause were Zakharieva and Minister Kotzias, because with this we created a sense that we are in the same boat, and we have a stake to make this a success. So I think this is many ways was a triumph of what diplomacy is about because I think we are about resolving problems, building bridges, opening doors and building friendship. Now at home, so now we are for the first time in our history of the five neighbors all of them are friends and partners. And we don’t have bilateral issues with any of our neighbors, not a border issues, of course there will be interest of where interest will diverge but the fundamental interest are definitely common. And this is understanding, help each other, build better highways and railways, trade more and make a region a European region where borders won’t divide us but they will get us together.

At home, because of how we were brought into power, because we had institutions that failed to properly respond to an abuse of office that was public to the wiretap affair, our essential agenda at home is to invest in strong institutions. So that checks and balances are functional, media are free, we learned the hard way how important the freedom of the press is, and we have our citizens, the public opinion that is very keen to see accountability. Accountable government, accountable politicians, justice done for all, and this is a big, big thing at home. So we focused on four areas they were also outlined in last year’s Council conclusions, rule of law reform, making our judiciary more independent, and we did that through major rule of law legislative reform, so that judges are appointed and promoted on the basis of the quality of their work, and the integrity of their work. But not only in terms of new legislation we have many verdicts including against our former Prime Minister, several ministers, a mayor of the current governing coalition, we have a new Anti-Corruption Commission we selected the members through a public hearing it was broadcasted on live TV. The opposition was involved, the civil society was involved, and members of the governing coalition and we gave them more authorities so they can investigate the political parties they can bring criminal proceedings with the help of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, they have opened 300 cases already and they have closed 30 cases on conflict of interest, verification of assets including verification of assets of several judges. We have done a lot on transparency, everything is public, we declassified a lot, the travels of some of my predecessors it was a classified information, hotel receipt, expenses etc. everything is public, we actually have an application where citizens can check how much we spend monthly. So we have a competition between ministers on who spends less because it’s public and there is a sense of self-censorship in terms of using the public money. We decided not to use taxpayers’ money on government commercials. Because this was used to influence editorial policy in the past. So now the market forces in the media market are key and we by a simple change of attitude, we recently had presidential elections I think our candidate who won at an election that was assessed as extremely fair and democratic by OSCE/ODIHR observation mission. We had eight debates at television between the main candidate of the opposition and our candidate. In the previous years when our predecessors were in power this was not the case, they didn’t have the appetite to debate with political opponents. So we had political shows where the leader would have a nice conversation with the journalist. But not confronting the arguments of the political opponents etc., which is important.

We jumped many places in the recent report of the Reporters beyond Borders, 14, the previous year we also made progress. We are in a country, small group of countries in the democracy index of the Economist that made notable progress according to the Economist. The recent State Department human rights report in 2018 said that there is more independence in our judiciary and that there is more freedom of the press in our democracy. And Freedom House called us the best chance for a democratic breakthrough in Europe. We expect to have a very positive report of the Commission in the coming days, next week on Wednesday. To give you the context North Macedonia, at the time the Republic of Macedonia when we signed the Association and the Stabilization Agreement we were the first country to sign it from the region even before Croatia, we became a candidate country in 2005, and we’ve had 9 positive reports of the Commission, the first one was in 2009. We were in the waiting room because of the name issue. Because Europe said we don’t want to import troubles. You have to solve your issues before we open the door for you. Now we have resolved that and the door is let’s say half-open. By the time of the waiting Europe was not static. We had many successes in Europe but we also had some challenges. We had the migration crisis, we had the Euro-zone crisis, we still face the Brexit challenge, so all this makes Europe busy. And we are a region, we are not bordering Europe, we are a region that is surrounded by member-states. Geographically this is a non-EU island within the European sea. And economically, the whole region is about three quarters of our economic activity is with the European Union. We in North Macedonia, almost half what we produce goes to Germany and three quarters of what we produce go to the European market. So we share a destiny in economic terms already. Same with foreign direct investment. Overwhelmingly companies that come and invest are European. And the challenge for European leaders is what to do with this region. Will we engage and make it European so that we trade and we work on common challenges together such as migration and our region played a major role in the migration crisis of 2015, our border was partly the guardian of the European border because of the difficult geography of the Greek border, even though we are not member state. So I think the dilemma is either we make the region European and this is good for us because it’s integral for Europe’s stability or we ignore the region and we talk about Europe’s perspective of the region and the promise of the Thessaloniki Summit of 2003 but simply as a promise that is far, far in the future. For the region, for us, it’s not important to join formally, to go through the motions, if we join today we are still the same country. For us the process of transformation is what matters. And the primary responsibility for the change is ours but this walk will be easier if we have friends along the path and accession is essentially a coaching exercise. It’s a reform tool. And I think we have a very strong interest on both sides among the member states and the countries in the region to make this process work. The skepticism among the older member-states is partly a result of the loss of trust that this process can really change countries. And sometimes, of some of the experiences of the previous waves of enlargement. So we have a common challenge to convince European voters why it is better for the EU to absorb, to complete itself and to absorb the island and make it European. And the way to do it’s to be fair and it’s to be strict. When there are reform results based on a strict assessment Europe should deliver because this brings more reforms. In our region if you reward merit you will get more merit, if you reward politicking you will get more politicking. So this must be honest merit based, merit driven process. And countries, I genuinely believe, and I know how I felt when Montenegro started the process, and for us this year it’s about the start of the journey after being locked in the waiting room for so many years. We felt encouraged because we can relate to them, they are not far from us, they are almost neighbors and it shows that this is actually possible, that the policy is not only on paper but it’s tangible. So the success of one country in the region is encouraging the whole region. And I think we need to have a positive dynamic where we encourage each other rather than pull each other backwards. You cannot reconcile the heart of the accession process which is conditionality; these are the conditions, if you deliver we deliver, with consideration of bringing countries in a package and having to decide on a package because this defeats the purpose and the logic of the accession process. Having said that, we are very much in favor also of, if there is political will to do that of course because it’s not up to us, but I think moving forward also of our neighbors is in our favor as well, this is our position. So to conclude, I think I’m going to, what the Americans would say on a helicopter perspective. We live in a world that is very shaky and it’s increasingly unpredictable. And the mainstream political forces are challenged by populists; populism is more or less offering the people an easy, nice solution to a difficult problem and is by definition short-termed because while populists are in power they will fail with the simple solution that they advertised. And we are also challenged by far-right nationalists, and they’re mostly about turning the clock backwards. We used to live in the good old days in the 70s, in the 80s and we want those years back, and they can’t deliver on that. The world is extremely interconnected and the future is about more cooperation and not about less cooperation if we are to meet any of the big challenges of our generation. Be it climate change, terrorism, security, migration, the effects of globalization, etc. etc. So I think we are in this together, this year we have a compelling case and a joint stake for success. If this success is not consolidated, if Europe fails to recognize this, the message to us will be there is no policy on completion on accession etc. And this will be played by those who will say “You see, we told you Europe is not serious about us”, and our region will be more of a theater of geopolitical power play than it is today, although today we see it already in the last year it has increased. And the forces of reforms and European values will be weakened because we cannot deliver on our promises. On the positive scenario, if we make it this is not about tomorrow it will be a journey that will last, maybe two, maybe three electoral cycles, who knows, depending on how efficient we are and how serious we are about reforms. But this only formula to make our region European, a region that is within Europe geographically and economically, is to take accession seriously and rigidly. Member states make a strict assessment and they deliver when conditions are met and they sanction when there is backsliding and conditions are not met. The other extreme is a double bluff game. We pretend we reform and member states pretend they are interested in the region. And this scenario will be bad for the region and it will be bad for the member states. It will take a leadership on both ends to make this work and a Commission that will make the assessment and that will provide the expertise. I think we have an opportunity, and I will quote, this is my last sentence, Minister Heiko Maas of Germany who, when he presented the Munich Security Conference award to Prime Minister Tsipras and Prime Minister Zaev in February he said: “This year good news comes from the Balkans”. Now to consolidate this good news and to incentivize and encourage more good news from other also from our region this should be recognized and we in Europe today don’t have too many opportunities to consolidate and produce success stories. And this is one. Thank you so much and I am very much open to questions and a discussion and I hope I was not too extensive.

So, two questions. I think about the role of Romania. I don’t know what exactly as Romanians is your perspective when you think about the Balkans. Or more precisely about the Western Balkans. But looked from our part Romania is one of best friends that is part of the broader region and that cares what happens in our region as interest. The Black Sea is there etc. So for us having of course our neighbor Bulgaria recently and they’ve managed to bring the spotlight back the Summit in Sofia of European Union and our region and then we have you and then next year we have Croatia. This is fortunate circumstance to use the attention to make some progress and become more you know to use the opportunities. Not looking for shortcuts, but doing the right thing for the region. So I think there is a big role to play, it has been extremely useful so far. This is now the finale. There will be a General Affairs Council in June on the 18th in Luxemburg, Romania will be presiding there is a big influence on the content of discussion etc. So I think we have a chance for a joint success here. Romania’s presidency, the region, us, but also I think this is a success for the EU. I don’t think the EU has anything to gain for missing opportunities in a region that is part of Europe. And bilaterally this is my first official visit in two years but I’ve been here on working visits. I think we have managed to reenergize our bilateral relationship. And we see the trade is increasing, in many fields we can do much more. And we see it as a country that,  I don’t know how you see it, but I’m sure Romania is much better off after 12 years in the European Union. I we would like to use from the good things that you have done and many from the things you could have done better also. So today we signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with Minister Meleșcanu, to use, to work together on European integration, in different fields etc. Civil society plays a big role and we have completely changed the approach on civil society. Now our government in these last two years. The previous government, even in the last months of the political crisis organized witch hunting sending tax inspectors and agents to civil society to push them. Now they are involved in all the major reform legislation, they are also critical, and I think having a critical civil society actually helps, this is one of the checks and balances in any democracy and regularly they are part of meetings both with the commission and member-states who visit on fact-finding missions. I think once we start the process we will need their help because there is a lot of knowledge in the civil society in the country. So we see them as a principled ally on a journey that is so important for the people from our society.

Maybe briefly you inspired me to talk two issues that are sometimes confused. You call it enlargement we can call it completion of Europe, consolidation, accession. One is in some public debates in Europe this is confused with migration. And essentially it’s the other way around. Making the region more European is actually helping us for our youngsters not to have to leave our country to have a European way of life. For talented young men especially in certain professions in demand from today’s North Macedonia it’s easier to find a job in Germany than to stay at home and fight to have his or her own country European. So keeping the region far essentially brings this kind of migration. Then as for migration from third countries that pass through the region if there is better cooperation and better governance and better guards and better judiciaries in the countries of the Balkans this will be much safer for the countries that are deeper, or more west and then the second Europe because it enlarged the institutions the decision making process etc. There are issues to be talked about and reformed. Now these two processes we claim are complementary because we are not talking about joining tomorrow. It will take a long time. But if Europe doesn’t use the leverage that it has to make the region more European and the leverage is the accession process and focuses only on itself when it tells back in few years time, back to the Balkans, the picture will be very different from today. And who knows better there will be forces who will be pushing towards Europe in our capitals. So I think we have to talk and debate these two issues that are blowing the debate in some European countries.

This is a very good point thank you for raising it both in terms of perception because for us I’ve been saying this for two years: big news for one country hurts the whole region – good news for one country helps the region. And we have to start thinking in that way because that’s how we’re seen in the rest of Europe. When there is bad news on the screens it reinforces the negative perception of the whole region. So that’s why we have nothing to gain in having a neighbor that has troubles. And we have everything to gain in a successful Serbia that makes progress on reforms and moves forward, Albania and all the rest. I think we are both making progress and there is also decline on regional cooperation. In the context of the Berlin process that involved first Germany, then Austria, then France, Italy, last year the United Kingdom and this year the Summit in Poland. They in a way fostered a process to resolve bilateral issues because those a challenge obviously for regional cooperation. Then there was an attempt to make the region more economically attractive by putting down trade barriers, work on digitalization, we have this RYCO – a regional youth cooperation network, we have modest progress but it’s finally started on decreasing the roaming prices so that people can talk less expensively between the countries in the region and make the region more together in terms of infrastructure. For me it’s probably easier to travel to New York then to fly to Sarajevo in terms of the connections, so we can unlock a bigger potential of trade and togetherness if we invest in the various structures, all kinds of infrastructure in the region. Now this year and last year the two unresolved problems in the Balkans have been more present and this is the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade and this is the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They had elections, and there is a potential it is important to resolve these issues. Someone said the trouble with problems, the trouble with trouble it’s it spreads easily if it’s not attended. So we need to resolve this in our region because this is a burden on regional cooperation. Because of some of these issues we had, RYCO had problems recently, this youth cooperation network. Now I think it’s fair to claim that the resolution of our issues if it’s recognized will be a signal to other that it’s worth making difficult political decisions and resolving problems. If our success is ignored and compromised the message will be don’t bother it’s not worth it. And this is dynamic that I have to be honest enough to say publicly because it’s really the case. And we now without having any bilateral issues are trying to, behind the scenes, be helpful to other because we have a stake in their success as well. So I think you’re right, the region is diverse not only in their formal status in regard to the EU but we all have our pluses and our minuses, we are different countries,  some of us shared one state – Yugoslavia with the exception of Albania, some challenges are common, some are more advanced on the rule of law, some are more advanced on other issues, so I think we need to be nuanced, I agree with the underlying point about the region. And I think if we manage,  it’s two sentences but I think it’s worth. There is an anecdote that I shared in today’s meetings, in our region many use it as if it’s their own, many of our neighbors, but the story is that in hell nations have their own boiling pots where sinners are put to boil and there guard to make sure that no one escapes. Now in our region, in the Balkan pot where sinners boil there is no need for a guard because we’ve managed to pull each other back. So that no one escapes. We need to change the negative dynamic into a positive competition. And if we can compete on things that matter not on who is the oldest nation and who had more historic defeats and victories, on education, health care, jobs, rule of law, then we’re going to have a happy region. And we need to have a more positive dynamic and we need a guard there so that we help each other to be better. We are not there yet. I don’t think we are there yet but we are trying. I really think that it’s time for the Balkans to grow. Not in size but in maturity. And we don’t have time. Someone, a colleague of mine, that I can’t quote he said if we focus on building greater states again, greater in terms of borders, but the time we end with that process, all of our young people will end up in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. So this is not, these are not the right issues that will come the young people at home.