President Stevo Pendarovski Discusses Prospects For North Macedonia

North Macedonia is a crucial nation in the Balkan region. The country wants to join both the European Union and NATO and become fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic structures: a task not easy to fulfil, also because of some specific dynamics. Greece vetoed, for decades, the capital Skopje’s membership in both organizations because of the so-called name issue. Athens stated that the name Macedonia implied irredentist intentions on the homonymous northern greek region and pretended Skopje to officially change the country’s name. After lengthy and difficult negotiations this was agreed and Macedonia became Northern Macedonia. Obstacles did not come to an end, anyway. Some European Union countries, especially France, pressured Bruxelles to postpone the start of Skopje’s accession talks and this can create some political problems for the country.

Stevo Pendarovski, North Macedonia’s president elected in April 2019 and member of the Social Democratic Union, decided to talk with InsideOver about the issues regarding the political future of the country and the Euroatlantic integration’s future. He was also willing to answer to questions regarding the current status of the relationships with both Athens and Belgrade, the risk that North Macedonia (where a substantial part of the population is Muslim) can be attacked by Islamic extremists groups and also the Kosovo issue.

After the decision taken by the European Union to postpone the opening of Macedonia’s accession talk, what are the perspectives in the relationship between Skopje and Bruxelles? What will be the next steps? Will Macedonia remain focused on the task of joining?

I have stated publicly and immediately after the last European Council that we should not give in to the European integration and we should nurture the partnerships with the EU member states. As confirmed by the leaders of the parliamentary parties in North Macedonia the European integration enjoys national consensus and remains a strategic objective of our country. We will remain focused on the European integration, we will continue to deliver on our domestic reform agenda, as we need the reforms for our citizens and we will continue to make the case internationally for our European integration and why we deserve to be members of the EU.

Do you think there is the chance that the early elections planned for April 2020 can lead to political instability in the country? Do you think foreign nations can, in some ways, try to influence the results?

I sincerely hope that we will have free, fair and democratic elections and that the days of electoral malpractice and electoral corruption are behind us. We will soon be a member of NATO and we strive to become a member of the EU, thus we need to demonstrate that we can uphold the European democratic principles and values and conduct peaceful elections.

What are Macedonia perspectives regarding NATO integration, the protocol of accession that should be ratified by the other member states in the next few months and how the army will improve its performances because of the membership?

We are in the final stage of the ratification process being completed by the NATO member states. The process has been going smoothly in all NATO member countries it is just a matter of a few months until all countries complete the processes through their national institutions. We expect to become the 30th NATO member in the spring of 2020 and raise our flag at NATO headquarters in Brussels, completing almost three-decades-long process of hard work and reforms demonstrating our commitment to the Euro-Atlantic values.

The status of the relationship between Skopje and Belgrade and Skopje and Athens, two neighbours with whom coexisting is not always easy.

The relationship with both neighbours is quite important. We have significant improvement in the relationship with Greece following the signing of the Prespa Agreement as it has contributed to better understanding, increased mutual trust and building partnership relations, which are now more relaxed. With Serbia, we have constantly very good relations which are developed through the bilateral exchange of goods and services, connection of businesses and people. I will be travelling to Serbia towards the end of this month hosted by Serbian President Vucic. We have always strived for good neighbourly relations, as the neighbours are really important for the overall regional environment in which we are and in our case it is a region which has shared ambitions to be part of the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Do you think Macedonia is at risk of being attacked by international terrorists group, Islamic extremists specifically? How the country is acting to keep radicalism under control and to prevent extremism? How is the relationship with the Albanian minority?

We live in a time when the security threats and threats from terrorist groups are a shared threat to any society in the world. What we all can do is join forces in the war on terror and pool resources through a collective security system working to protect our peoples. Regarding the inter-ethnic relations in our country, I would say that we have come a long way from being a fragile and divided society along ethnic and religious lines of division to a society with institutional system for protection and promotion of the rights of non-majority communities, including the Albanian, and stable and constructive dialogue on every relevant aspect of the inter-ethnic relations. However, despite the cohesion on national level, there are still communities where we need to work on building trust of people in the institutions, integrated education and bringing people together, to fully develop as a functional multi-ethnic democracy where human rights would be enjoyed equally by everyone.

New tensions between Kosovo and Serbia can have wider repercussions on the stability of the Balkan area and specifically in Macedonia?

As neighbours of both countries with whom we share common history being part of the same federation and are bound to share common future, what happens in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is quite important for us and that is why we are closely following the events. We would support and respect any solution which will be adopted by Kosovo and Serbia which has international guarantee for the territorial integrity of the other countries in the region and would stabilise the region. We wouldn’t like to see any solution that would lead to jeopardising the stability, this is a fragile ethnically diverse region which still heals the wounds of the conflicts in the 1990s. That is why it is important that any solution that would be made would contribute for a more prosperous region normalising the Belgrade-Pristina relationship, which would be beneficial for all of us that belong in the same region.