Macedonia’s European Future

On 1 November the Latvian Institute of International Affairs in cooperation with the Embassy of the Republic of Macedonia in Warsaw organized an expert discussion: "Republic of Macedonia on the challenging road to EU and NATO – achieving strategic commitments through new reform policy”.  The main ideas are summarized by Brett Sherwood.

“For those on the inside, it is easy to forget how cold it is on the outside,” Nikola Dimitrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Macedonia (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), reminded listeners in describing Macedonia’s journey toward obtaining EU membership. At an informal event hosted by the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, Mr. Dimitrov sat down and described Macedonia’s uphill battle to become an accepted member of the EU.

Mr. Dimitrov described Macedonia as a country that has become very accustomed to waiting, having been an EU candidate since 2005 yet still not managing to achieve accession. Macedonia has been equally frustrated by its inability to gain NATO membership. He claims that a lack of support from neighboring EU member states, such a Bulgaria and Greece, has stifled Macedonia’s attempts, as has the crisis-ridden government of the past. However, Mr. Dimitrov is still determined to achieve accession and stressed that Macedonia has always been on the right side of history: it was the one nation within the former Yugoslavia to gain independence peacefully; it did not fight in the Balkan Wars, yet assisted NATO with intelligence and coordinated logistics; and it accepted Kosovar refugees fleeing the violence in Kosovo. He feels that his country will overcome its hurdles despite a troubled recent past.

In 2015, Macedonia’s government was in crisis. Government officials were abusing their powers, corruption was rampant, the media was tightly controlled and monitored, and elections were plagued by electoral fraud. Mr. Dimitrov described this crisis as “a blessing in disguise.” Indeed, as he perceives it, this was a test for his nation’s ability to say no. The key moment came when President Gjorge Ivanov tried to preemptively pardon politicians involved in a wire-tap scandal. Many politicians were facing criminal investigations when President Ivanov pardoned them.  Macedonian society was outraged. President Ivanov relented and withdrew the pardons, however, a movement for greater accountability and checks on governmental power had already taken off. A special prosecutor’s office, created early in 2015, became a vital tool in fighting corruption and ultimately the efforts of Macedonian society culminated in the 2016 elections, which ushered in a new government.

Mr. Dimitrov stressed that Macedonia has turned a new page and is now going in the right direction. The legacy of Macedonia is its own endorsement, and this was just another example of the true soul of Macedonian society and strength of its people. The battle, though, is far from over. Mr. Dimitrov emphasized that Macedonia’s system must become as resilient as its people. To accomplish this, Macedonia recently created its 369-reform agenda, which aims to speed up the process of Macedonia’s integration into the EU and NATO[1]. There is also a collective effort by the government to not make the same mistakes that were made in the past. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that said efforts are succeeding.

A great example can be seen in the most recent municipal elections. In past elections, public funds were used to run state commercials for certain political allies. Corrupt officials also used tax inspectors to influence the private sector and gain votes for favored candidates.  During this election, government officials were careful to not abuse state services to support any one party. Mr. Dimitrov shared that he encouraged those officials under him to take part in voting, but was careful to not pressure anyone to vote a certain way. Newly found media freedom, obtained not through legislation but through what Mr. Dimitrov described as “simply a change of attitude,” has fostered open dialogue and allowed debates to occur. Transparency is a priority in Mr. Dimitrov’s new government, as is merit. Mr. Dimitrov wants people who are skilled and qualified to be those in the government, rather than those with personal connections. Despite these visible changes, Mr. Dimitrov recognizes there is a lot more work to do to change Macedonia’s political system and achieve the long sought-after dream of EU membership. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic.

At the same time, Macedonia faces a difficult task. Euroscepticism is becoming increasing popular across the country and demands to stop enlargement are also echoing across many EU member states. Brexit has shaken the confidence in the European system, and tensions exist within the EU due to ongoing security threats from the East and the migration crisis. Macedonia needs the help of member states, and that is precisely what drove Mr. Dimitrov to visit Latvia—friends and recommendations. He believes that everyone has a stake in Europe and a greater, stronger, more unified Europe is beneficial for everyone. He recognizes that Macedonia has made mistakes in its past, but he hopes that improving relations with other member states and building bridges can help Macedonia punch its ticket into the EU.

[1] The Parliament has to pass a declaration for speeding up the reforms from the “3-6-9” plan. Meta.mk News Agency, 14 July 2017, meta.mk/en/the-parliament-has-to-pass-a-declaration-for-speeding-up-the-reforms-from-the-3-6-9-plan/.

Published 14 November 2017