European Western Balkans

Zaev: Name dispute is our biggest challenge

Zoran Zaev; Photo: European Commission

*In the last edition of its bimonthly briefing „Political Trends and Dynamics“, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) focused on emerging leadership in Southeast Europe. Specifically, it asked if there was “a Macedonian moment for the Balkans”. The following interviews with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is republished on our website with the kind permission of the FES Dialogue SOE. Please use this link to open the entire contents of the briefing.

Friedrich Ebert Stiftung: There have been new energetic leaders in this region before, who despite high expectations turned out to be similar to the nationalist elites who preceded them. What makes your government different and why people should trust you will deliver democratic and solutionfocused decision-making?

Zoran Zaev: I, personally – first and foremost as a man, but also as Prime Minister of the Republic of Macedonia – can say that we’ve learnt the lessons from the past and it is something we don’t intend to repeat. We lost plenty of time trying to redress bad decisions made in the past. We decided to write a new future – a future of commonality, partnership, good neighborliness, and brotherhood, if you will.

Time is the only resource we cannot produce, dig out, or recreate. It is the perception that leads to genuine evolution and appropriate use of all opportunities knocking at our door. Only by resorting to courageous decisions can we try to recover the damage caused in years past. Courageous decisions will be a sign of our newly developed maturity and readiness to take responsibility for our own actions. Courageous decisions are the only decisions worth remembering. They will bring progress and build a better future for Macedonian citizens and the region as a whole.

FES: What is your leadership philosophy?

ZZ: We’ve seen and heard a lot of politicians use strong words in the past. It’s about time we value our time and act responsibly with it. It’s time for leaders whose actions speak louder than their words, who are not afraid to create the future, instead of relying on the glory and myths of the past. At the end of the day, once we assume office, we stop being individuals speaking in a personal capacity. We represent our citizens, their voice, and their hope for a better future. So, courageous solutions, brought in a process of serious analysis and rationalization, are the only possible solutions.

FES: The “name issue” with Greece has gone on for years. In the first few months in office, your government has shown an enviable level of pragmatism on this matter. Is this the leadership style you want to demonstrate?

ZZ: This is a very complex issue as both sides have made certain mistakes at different times in the past. More importantly, however, we are currently working on improving confidencebuilding measures to give fresh impetus to overcoming the long-standing bilateral dispute. The name dispute is our biggest challenge at hand. Personally, I think it will be a test to our maturity and evolution in the years of isolation, but also an answer to the question whether we’ve learned to value the qualities that bring prosperity and better future.

After closing all open issues by signing the bilateral agreement on friendship, good-neighborliness, and cooperation with Bulgaria, the Government will now focus on finding a solution to the dispute with Greece. The process will move forward in a concrete way. Most importantly, I am encouraged by the fact that we started communicating again. A number of meetings between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs have already taken place. In the meantime, the Government is dedicated to a new foreign policy vis-à-vis our neighbors.

We act without prejudice and are open to dialogue, continuously presenting our new political approach to building new friendly relations with NATO and EU member states. The opposite approach in the past decade left us isolated and deprived of the opportunities and perspectives available when amongst friends, a future we could have enjoyed if the EU and NATO had indeed been a priority.

The Republic of Macedonia has no other perspective but the European one. Our future is in the NATO alliance and the European Union as equal partners in peace keeping and active participants in building a better world for all. I will be an optimist and reiterate that the European perspective of our country is more concrete and palpable than ever before. Macedonia is next in line for accession to NATO. Concurrently, we will start accession negotiationswith the EU.

FES: Although all of the countries of the region have their own specificities, are there other examples in the region where you see similarities with Macedonia in terms of upcoming challenges and changes?

ZZ: All countries of the region share more or less similar concerns and commitments for their resolution. We even share our ambitions. There are no differences on these issues. In my opinion, the Trieste Summit, held under the auspices of the Berlin Process, was a summit of unification, an occasion to extend a hand to overcome our misunderstandings and start over with a clean slate in Western Balkan contemporary history.

A picture of mature leadership and proof that we are fed up with divisions; a historic moment of accepting the reality that the world will no longer tolerate our hesitation and questionable dedication to taking our citizens to a better common future. We’ve been writing new history forour countries since the Summit. We lagged behind for far too long and lost too much time.

It’s time to join our forces and jointly redeem as much as we can so our citizens taste the fruits of freedom and change they have longed for for over a decade. In the last 6–7 months, we also witnessed that intensive meetings, knowledge-sharing, and most importantly, unhindered openness to cooperation produce results both domestically and at a regional level. We all saw the benefits of successful initiatives and actions brought by regional political leaders sitting around the table.

Each initiative takes us a step closer to membership in the family of European countries. We reached concrete joint agreements with concrete financial arrangements that should boost regional development and activities with a direct effect on stabilizing and strengthening our economies, including in specific areas inciting free movement of citizens of our countries, such as tourism and cultural exchange.

These are the messages we would like to send out from our meetings so far – that stronger regional cooperation is a key factor for the economic integration of Western Balkan countries with EU or NATO. Concurrently, we use these regional and multilateral meetings to resolve all outstanding bilateral issues, all the while trying to demonstrate our good intentions for deeper and fruitful cooperation. Rest assured we intend to stay on this course of strengthening and improving neighborlyrelations.

All countries of the Western Balkans are dedicated to building a system based on the rule of law and good governance, professional and unbiased judiciary, public administration reforms, fight against crime and corruption, and free media and civil society. I strongly believe that these challenges can become our strength, as a problem shared is a problem halved.

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