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Can the Euro-Atlantic vision inspire another diplomatic settlement in the Balkans?

Petar Bogojeski is the Deputy General Secretary of VMRO-DPMNE, the main opposition party in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, whose constitutional name is the subject of a negotiation that could change the region. This is a negotiation that has been taking place for over a generation, since the declaration of independence of the small Balkan country.

For anyone born in Skopje since its independence, there has never been politics without political confrontation. This interview suggests that the substance of the opposition in Skopje mirrors the arguments raised by the opposition in Athens. The process, it is argued, was not “transparent” and “inclusive” of the opposition; the deal, it is argued, offers “no guarantees” as regards to its final outcome. There are more similarities of the worldview dominant in Athens and Skopje. Mr Bogojeski sees in Athens the centre of a deep state that conspires against Skopje; in Athens too, there are similar suspicions. Goodwill does not abound, in Athens or in Skopje.

The drive behind this agreement, which is not sealed, and everyone sees as imperfect, bad, but perhaps necessary is that it is the key to regional “Euro-Atlantic” integration. This admission comes in the aftermath of a Franco-Dutch veto, which postponed the opening of accession talks for Albania and FYROM. Wednesday’s NATO summit officially invited FYROM/Macedonia to join the alliance, pending the ratification of the agreement this autumn.

Will FYROM accept becoming Northern Macedonia, changing its constitutional name, to kick start accession talks with NATO? On the countdown for a referendum this autumn – which could make or break this agreement – the question will be whether this agreement is indeed the key to Euro-Atlantic integration. The problem is perhaps more profound, as the bottom line question is whether the vision of Euro-Atlantic integration retains its appeal and the ability to catalyse diplomacy in the region.

For Mr Bogojeski the answer is yes to the vision, because there is “no alternative,” which in practical terms means “yes but” to the deal. Where he stands, as a member of the opposition, that is a compromising stand.

European Interest: Huge crowds in Skopje, Athens and Thessaloniki reacted with anger at the deal concluded between the two governments. Is this the sign of a bad deal?

Petar Bogojeski: The Euro-Atlantic perspective for the Balkans has no alternative. That’s the only way to secure peace. Some of the great World powers don’t support that process. They act destructively and encourage impatience in both countries. Of course, pluralism of opinions and criticism is necessary, but the promotion of violence and chauvinism, primarily by the Greek ultra-nationalists, is unacceptable. It’s interesting why the protest in Greece have stopped after the signing of the Agreement? Were they organised by the Government itself, or parts of it, with the purpose of achieving better-negotiating positions? That’s worth considering. The recent expulsion of Russian diplomats from Athens supports this hypothesis, to cover the traces.

Is this a good agreement or is any agreement better than not having an agreement? Can FYROM/Macedonia build a new future with Greece on the basis of this deal?

It can always be better, but we cannot go back.

This agreement is the result of a consensus, but what could have been done better is the transparency of the negotiating process. A process in which the opposition would’ve been included would be better.

The question now is how Macedonia will address the challenges of this agreement. Is the agreement a reasonable basis for building a European future? I don’t believe so, because we are witnessing the decision by the EU not to open accession negotiations.

This agreement has two huge weaknesses: the first is that many of its provisions are not applicable; the second is that no provision obliges Greece to abide by the agreement. I sincerely doubt Greece’s good intentions. Even if we accept the intentions of the current Government in good faith, what will happen if a future nationalist Government in Greece takes over?

Of course, prosperity is only possible only with the collective future of Macedonia and Greece in the EU and NATO. There are no dilemmas about this inescapable reality. But will Greece abide by the agreement in the future? I’m not sure. We have the example of the Interim Accord of 1995 which Greece has ratified and didn’t abide by. The best guarantee for the agreement to succeed is an immediate accession of Macedonia in NATO and the immediate start of negotiations for EU membership. Everything else is only false hope.

As the Deputy General Secretary of the opposition VMRO-DPNE, are you alone in supporting this agreement? Are the members of the parliamentary group who are ready to break partisan ranks and stand by the agreement? 

The majority of VMRO-DPMNE members support the European agenda of the Republic of Macedonia. It’s a part of our Statute, but also Program and Congressional Declaration. There are members that are against, but they are motivated above all by the blackmails by Greece.

Do you believe there is a social majority that favours the agreement; if not, do you think this is a case in which leaders must insist on what the country needs but is not necessarily what it wants.

The leaders should lead the people. It cannot go the other way. That’s why politics and politicians exist. There is huge support for the Euro-Atlantic agenda of Macedonia. Above 80% of the citizens support that perspective. But, that’s not the same with the agreement. For the deal, the support is low. That’s because the agreement was founded on a blackmail and was signed under threat and force. That makes the agreement void, according to international law. But, now it’s more important to concentrate on the future and the fast accession into the EU and NATO. Afterwards, we can discuss the violent processes inflicted upon Macedonia.

With the Franco-Dutch freezing of EU membership negotiations, is the agreement in danger?

Yes, of course. That decision of the EU is catastrophic. It has a huge negative impact on the process itself of making the agreement official. Macedonia is left outside the EU doors and not in the waiting room. That’s totally unfair towards us. We are sacrificing too much. No other member state of the EU has made as big a sacrifice to join. The EU’s conclusions are correct. In Macedonia, there is corruption, a {politically} dependent judiciary, non-functioning administration, weak potential for big economic development.

We know our weaknesses, but the EU must aid us to overcome the Balkan stereotypes and open us towards European values. To look at the present through the prism of the future.

Where do you see Northern Macedonia in five years from now? Do you believe there is scope for Skopje and Athens to built a new relationship or is this conflict going to continue on broader nation-branding issues ranging from cheese to tomatoes?

We are the Republic of Macedonia. Whether we will be Northern Macedonia, all citizens must decide at a referendum. I’m happy that we will decide for ourselves, and not someone else from outside. We will put the arguments on the table. For or against the agreement. What do we gain and what do we lose.

Regarding the future relations with Greece, I’ve answered previously. That’s one of the main flaws of the agreement. That it’s not precise and clear. That puts us again in danger of opening a new agenda of differences between the two countries. That in turn will bring new obstacles on the Euro-Atlantic integration of South-Eastern Europe. And Greece will be to blame.

One thing Athens and Skopje share is double-digit unemployment and a tremendous wave of immigration. Do you think the two countries can do more together than they can achieve individually?

Prosperity and economic development is possible only in time of peace, good neighborly relations, cooperation, friendship… Both countries are in huge economic crisis. That’s an additional argument in favour of ending the political intrigues and hostility. It’s about time to start a sincere cooperation.

Do you believe there is a political industry – in Athens and Skopje alike – that has made living out of this dispute? You have shown considerable courage; do you believe there is political space for people like you in politics or is your courage self-destructive?

Luck follows the courageous. I’m not counting so much on my luck. On the contrary, each step is very well planned. We act according to a plan and with clear goals. Macedonia must be and will be a member state of the EU and NATO. Without backing down. That’s not because of a romantic love towards a brand, but because of the fact that the Macedonian state and its institutions will be most secure if we are part of the EU and NATO. For me, improving Macedonian governance and statesmanship is my priority. That’s the mandate passed to me by my ancestors through an Organization {VMRO-DPMNE} which for more than a century is fighting for a Macedonian state that guarantees freedom and human rights for all its citizens, with no exception. Ultimately, I will add that I’m not interested in the history of the grandfather of your grandfather, I’m more worried about the future of my children.

The Original Version of the Interview was published at European Interest: