We spoke to Damjan Manchevski, Vice President of Macedonian SDSM. The issues discussed in the interview cover topics such as the new Macedonian Government, relations in the Western Balkans, security in the region, EU and NATO integrations.
European Western Balkans: When do you expect that the Government will be formed and what will be the first tasks of the new Government of Macedonia?
Damjan Manchevski: The deadlines are clear and we have our time until the 5th of June. We will try to submit the proposal of the new government by the end of this week or by the beginning of the next one. We do not need 20 days, and I think we will be able to submit the proposal to the parliament much sooner than that. Then, the parliament needs two days to discuss and must vote on the proposal of the new government. I believe that the latest mid next week Macedonia will have the new government.
As far as the priorities are concerned, they are always connected with the urgent reform priorities that we have discussed for such a long time in Macedonia, unfortunately. They are prescribed in many unsuccessful European reports that we have had in the several years but also in the report regarding the urgent reform priorities of Macedonia. These are all issues either related to the rule of law, to the human rights and to the improvement of the living standards of the Macedonian citizens.
Our policy is not only a creation of new jobs, but also with decent wages. We are social democrats, highly on our agenda is that the jobs must be decently paid. These are very broad areas of our priorities for the following period, but we also have urgent measures in the education and health care. For instance, we will start with the proposal of a legislation to annul the external testing – which has nothing to do with the urgent reforms, but it is urgent for the citizens, especially for the school children who are very stressed now because of the external test they have to conduct – provided we do not annul them – on 5th and 7th of June. This is why many of our international friends are raising an eyebrow when we say that our first legislation will be about the testing, but this is only due to the timing of the year we are in now.
EWB: When the government is in place and everything is back to normal, what do you think, how the European integration path will proceed after that? Do you expect some major changes in Macedonia – EU relations after the formation of the government?
DM: Normal and Macedonia do not really come in one sentence. It will take time for things to get normal in Macedonia. We have a lot of work ahead of us, society is extremely divided, not as much on ethnic lines as much as on the intra-ethnic lines, inside Macedonian community. Still, we believe that the EU integration must and will be sped up, not only because it is our priority, but because we have also seen significant support for this agenda and signals from EU.
I was present at the meeting in the European Parliament just around two weeks ago, in Brussels where Commissioner Hahn was present as well, with some of the Members of the joint Committee in the EP for Macedonia. There was a unanimous support for the immediate opening of the accession dialogue with Macedonia right after the creation of the new government, especially regarding Chapters 23 and 24.
We still have to not neglect and take into the consideration problem that Greece has with our constitutional name. Commissioner Hahn was very vocal during the meeting that EU have to work with its member states, and not only Macedonia, but also EU will have to deliver in order not to lose its leverage, and not to waste this opportunity that we have – this wave of optimism in the country and among the citizens that we have so we can move forward. We also hope that we will be able with the direct communication with the government in Athens to try to improve the relations and to increase the confidence among the two governments because the citizens of our countries and the nations do not have really a problem, it is a political problem. We hope that the government in Athens will have an understanding regarding the moment and turnover that can happen in Macedonia, and in the region that generally start from here.
EWB: How would you assess the current regional relations between the countries of the Western Balkans, especially between Macedonia and Albania and Macedonia and Serbia?
DM: Western Balkans has always been very volatile. Currently, Macedonia and Albania do not have major political issues that can become an obstacle in our relations in the near future. We have to improve the infrastructural connections between the two countries, which are disastrous, and the economic cooperation, which is also not on the as high level as it could be. Regarding Serbia, there is a significant space for improvement especially with the entire campaign that was led in Serbia during the pre-electoral period with the usage of the phrase “Macedonian scenario” by the political elite in Serbia. It did not create a good atmosphere for a beginning of the new relations. Maybe because the government in Serbia did not expect our victory here – that we will be able to create a new government, which was their political mistake.
Our intention and our president’s intention is to reach out, talk to the partners in Serbia and to the President and Prime Minister, discuss the issues and the problems because we also believe that these problems are created politically to be used for election purposes. There are no real problems, especially not among the people. We will try to create regional initiative so that we can create a significantly better atmosphere for the economy with the countries of the region, and above all living conditions of the people.
EWB: How do you comment the statements of the Serbian officials, especially after the statements of your party’s president Zoran Zaev that it was “unpleasant to hear about the ‘Macedonian scenario’ in Serbia” and also about the statements that came up after the statement of Zaev that “the officials of Serbia are nationalists”?
DM: It was unpleasant to here for months that the fight against the regime of Nikola Gruevski and against the autocracy here that we had, which was recognised by all international factors. The latest EU report described us as the state in capture, that our fight for democracy was labelled in Serbia as some kind of ‘Macedonian scenario’ and that there are dark Western forces against the previous government of Macedonia. We do not intend to make these statements as an obstacle for our relations with Serbia. We believe that they were for domestic usage and we do not necessarily feel that there are any negative intentions from the Serbian government against Macedonia.
We believe that the countries must cooperate and straighten their relations. Now, that we are going to be meeting, discussing and approaching each other on level of two governments, there will be no major issues. We hope that the atmosphere in Belgrade is the same and that they do understand that the new Macedonian government has nothing to do with it apart from the very opposite – we would really like to cooperate and to improve the relationship and infrastructure, economies. Hopefully, the meetings and discussions we are going to have will generally improve the personal relations that might be burdened by some statements. Although, Zaev and Vučić do not really know each other well, so they will have time to get to know each other in the near future.
EWB: Do you expect the VMRO-DPMNE to play a constructive role as opposition in Macedonia as well as kind of factor in bilateral relations between the countries, especially with Serbia?
DM: To be sincere, I expect all the worst from them. I hope that they will prove me wrong, but generally, until they go through a process of internal reforms, at least the change of their leader Nikola Gruevski, I do not believe that there is a ground for VMRO-DPMNE to be constructive on any issue, as well as on the issue of international relations. They will try to burden not only our relations with Serbia but also with Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and anyone.
Our approach is to improve the relations, the confidence, to go above the obstacles with the support of the citizens. We hope that they will understand the moment and the situation of the entire country and our region and that they will go above their selfish political interest. Our approach is going to be different from theirs when they were in power, we are not going to conflict with them, but we will try to do the dialogue with them. We will try to get the support of their MPs for the urgent priority reforms, for instance, reform of the judiciary we need the two–third majority. In order to fulfil this goal, it is in our interest that we have their support. We will try to make them a part of this process, so they will have oversight and even control mechanisms. They have to be part of the process.
EWB: What do you see as key security issues for Macedonia and the whole region? Is it maybe Russian influence, the talk about the ‘Greater Albania’, or maybe refugee crisis, or is it something different?
DM: The entire security threat is a bit overstated in the region. In many occasions, the citizens have proven that they do not necessarily fall as easy on the provocations coming from different sides and from different actors. We have had an extreme threat of starting an internal conflict of 27th of April, during the violent intrusion at the parliament from the protesters, but we have managed to avoid this threat and not to cause this conflict. This was the biggest danger in Macedonia – the danger of the intra-ethnic conflict.
There are security threats also. There have always been people who have been trying to connect their political agenda with some security issues in order to create an atmosphere of fear and then to ride that wave. If we are always sincere in what we say and if we have frequent communication among our neighbours, we will be able as a region to overcome the obstacles.
Yes, everybody is a threat from the refugee crisis but even as before, we have somehow managed to go beyond that without having consequences for the local population. It was not always fair or good, there were some issues that we could have dealt better, but generally, citizens of the region did not have any negative impacts from the entire refugee crisis. I believe that the region now has the experience and if it happens again, we will be able to manage.
Regarding ‘Greater Albania’, we should have enough of experience to know that these are only stories that they are there for very short-term political usage. The future of the region is in the EU and NATO, especially Macedonia, maybe not for Serbia, it is their decision, and it is a strategic interest of all countries. If we are really committed to that road, which Macedonia neglected in the last several years then there will be no need of any greater state because we will be in the greatest possible in our territory – the EU. This is the carrot that all the nations in the region must have in front of them, to drive their governments faster on the path towards the EU.
I do not think that there is a threat of change of any borders, but the rise of nationalism everywhere is a threat – not only in the region. Macedonia was only a rare spark, different from what is happening in all around the world, because we have to manage to out throw the nationalist and we now have a socialist- democrat government, but we also have to be very aware – the new government, that the left wing parties have not proven to be very successful in the region when overthrowing the nationalists.
We do have the experience, and we are prepared to show that we have different approach and case. It only takes one fool to do very stupid thing and everybody must keep their calm and conscience, as Macedonia was successful so far in the last months, so that it will not have many serious consequences to resolve in months or years after. Our region went through a very bad experience with many lost lives, and we must make sure that that mistake will not ever repeat.
EWB: How high on the priority list Macedonian membership in NATO would be for the new government?
DM: For us, it is on the same level as the EU integration, especially since the process that we have gone through with the NATO is in significantly more advanced stage than the one with the EU. Regarding NATO, if we only resolve the name issue with Greece, the very next day so to say, we could become members of NATO, so this is much closer to us. Regarding our EU integration, unfortunately we have made it much more difficult for us now, because beside the name issue with Greece, we have significantly backslide in the areas of the rule of law, human rights, in the economy as well, so that we have a lot of other homework to conduct before saying that the problem with Greece is the only obstacle ahead of us. The priorities are on the same level, NATO is in timeframe much closer than the EU.
Nikola RISTIĆ, Executive Editor