*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 interview with Radmila Šekerinska 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 solution focused decision-making?
Radmila Šekerinska: Unfortunately, that has been a recurring theme when it comes to governments in the region. But it is 2017, and we are no longer young states. Macedonia celebrated 26 years of independence this year and as a new government we will aim to demonstrate the maturity and values of a modern European state. We spent the last two years protesting, not so that one authoritarian and corrupt government could be replaced with another of the same kind. I did it – we did it – to move our country forward and end those practices, once and for all.
In the second expert report by [leader of the EU’s expert team on reform priorities] Reinhard Priebe and the team, it was stated that it is vital for “state capture” not to merely change hands but for it to end. We are in complete agreement with the assessment and this is a message that has been received loud and clear. In that context, besides a heavy emphasis on Euro-Atlantic integration processes, this government’s flagship policy has been increasing transparency. This is something that has been at the very core of the government’s operation so far on all levels.
Firstly, we laid out all the necessary reforms in a concrete plan named “3-6-9,” which will allow the public to hold us accountable for our promises and what we deliver. I think it is essential for the public and civil society to closely monitor and challenge our policies and the direction the government is taking.
We are also committed to regaining people’s confidence in state institutions which is why we have declassified a number of files and processes in the spirit of transparency and accountability. When the eye of the public, civil society, and the judiciary is on the decision-makers and their policy, the margin of error or of undemocratic governance significantly drops. Even when it comes to the media, we are cultivating a relationship where we are in the service of the media, not the other way around. In fact, some media outlets which were previously characterized as “pro-opposition” are now some of our starkest critics, and that is how it should be. Transparency is the key, and I think all of this testifies that this pro cess will certainly not succumb to improvisation, rather, that it is very carefully constructed and thought through.
FES: What is your leadership philosophy?
RŠ: The crucial philosophy of our movement at large is that this will be a government for all, not the few. We showcased this when we reached out to an electorate which has never before voted outside of their ethnic block, and they responded to our offer. It was an honest, fair, and progressive approach and the people recognize that.
Beyond ethnic divisions, we reached out to those who were disenfranchised by a system which catered to party interests and blurred all lines between party and state. We made it clear that party membership is a matter of ideology not the centre of everyday life. The currency for success will be a good idea and hard work, not allegiance to the new government. We want to end identity politics and bring discourse concerning actual progress to the fore.
Our citizens are concerned with results, economic growth, infrastructural projects, good international relations – a European future. We want to focus on delivering this to build a better tomorrow without it being populist. We are less focused on the ritz-and-glitz of cabinet politics and more on the very dense reform agenda ahead.
FES: Is the time of strongmen in the region over?
RŠ: It is difficult to say whether it is over, but here in Macedonia we have certainly provided an alternative. We are attempting to harness the intellectual capital of our nation, deliver results, and lead by example.
I am convinced that once the enormous difference which is already being felt comes to light, the citizens themselves will end the era of strongmen. Having said that, old habits die hard and we have a culture which is very prone to this social phenomenon. We are deeply aware of that and we are trying to address it by leading by example and demonstrating very clearly that strongmen do not bring prosperity.
FES: Given the number of ongoing issues in the region, unresolved borders, diplomatic tensions, and economic hardship, how will you appeal to your own people and across the region?
RŠ: For a very long time we have unfortunately followed the agenda rather than dictating it. Right now the region needs leadership which will have clear priorities and set the tone of the public discourse. It is vital to not stray into the traps of nationalist rhetoric.
I recognize we are facing very complex diplomatic challenges as a region, but those are not the only challenges we are facing. We are also struggling with unemployment, brain drain, low economic growth, corruption, environmental issues, and other problems that directly affect everyday life. This was the very inspiration for our slogan “Life for everyone.” This is what gives the alternative to nationalism, the gravitas it needs.
Nationalism feeds on the past and on conflict at the cost of the present and the future. If we return the focus on the “now” and the issues which are causing the exodus of our citizens, unemployment, and all the problems we are facing as a country, people will listen – regardless of creed, ethnic background, or political affiliation. We have a relevant message, and we have to consistently communicate it and demonstrate that when we are in power that message morphs into policy, and that policy yields results.
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?
RŠ: This is a very delicate matter and it will require a constructive approach from both sides. Considering the massive setbacks in this process over the last decade, we as a government have showcased a spirit of cooperation and a will for dialogue. A sound resolution will take extensive negotiation, a lot of listening, and flexibility on both sides. It is not an easy process, but that is what leadership is. Tackling difficult issues in difficult times and emerging with a solution that is future-oriented rather than entrenched in the past.
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? What are the most immediate things that the region as a whole needs?
RŠ: Besides strengthening democratic principles, rule of law, media freedom, I think the first step is good neighbourly relations. We need to find ways to work with one another. After all, we do struggle with a lot of similar challenges and working together to respond to common challenges will always be good for us and our people.
If our regional relations revolve around trade, effective communication, cooperation, and common growth, I think our future prospects will definitely be brighter. For a very long time, all of us have struggled with our respective transitions towards a functioning democracy. During the process, we have been trapped and haunted by the past, but for the sake of the future generations, that must come to an end. We also must come to the realization that nobody will solve our problems.
The international community can be a facilitator, but they cannot be more concerned with our issues than us. We need to engage in matters of our national interest more effectively and seek counsel and support when needed. We also need to put the past to rest and leave it to the historians, as politicians we must turn to the future for the sake of our youth. We must work to keep our talent here and to offer them opportunities. Progress and growth lies within human capital, fresh ideas and new talent—and we must find a way to retain it.