*Speech by Nikola Dimitrov at the event of 10 years anniversary of the European Fund for the Balkans.

I am also very emotional, this is a very special treat, as only, probably less than even a year ago, I was part of the family. In a way I hope I still am, I am still a nice guy, even though I’ve become a Foreign Minister.

So, I will do three things: I will tell you a bit of my story, in a humble way, mostly to underline my experience with Hedvig and Igor and everyone in the Fund (EBF) and everyone in the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group – Florian Bieber and the rest of the great people and the great brains that we need.

Then, I am going to talk briefly about the story of Macedonia, which is a story of hope, I firmly believe, of these last 10-11 months and I am going to talk a little bit about the Region, why I think we all can make a difference, this year and in the years to come.

I was reaching the end of the term as an Ambassador of Republic of Macedonia to the Netherlands, when I was supposed to go to Moscow on my next post, and I felt that the country was going in a wrong direction and I couldn’t really make a difference. I shared a level of responsibility, I couldn’t really push or prevent mistakes and push it in the right direction. So I left and I joined a think tank and I had to establish myself after 18 years with a country behind me, on my own, in a world where researches and great minds have been already working and giving great ideas about our region, the Balkans. So I felt lonely and challenged to take it up, and put my act together, and it was in that context that I think it was first in Brussels. It was one of the projects of the Fund, which has this TV show on European issues, reforms, at the heart of European Parliament in Brussels. I met Igor Bandović and it was (a debate on) rule of law in the Balkans with MEPs. Then I met Hedvig Morvai in Graz, and that’s how it started.

So, I can feel only praise, I think this was not only about friendship, but it was about meeting of people sharing a compatible and similar sense of calling: how to make our Region a better place? And I don’t think this only about joining Europe.

If we join Europe tomorrow, the countries will be the same. This challenge is about changing our countries. Making them better, making them more European, more what we like when we go to Germany, or to the Netherlands or to France.

And to me personally, and to many I think in our group, this is about rule of law, this is about checks and balances, it is about free media, it is about predictability, it is about having power checked and holding government officials accountable.

We in the Region have had our experience with strongmen. People who can decide the destiny of any citizen, on their own,  whether it is about criminal proceedings, whether it’s about a private company, whether it’s about a newspaper. And we have failed. My personal experience with the story of Macedonia, which is somewhat more drastic, because we actually heard it on tape. We had a wiretap affair, about 20.000 people were under surveillance in a country out of 2 million. And there are strong indications of abuse of office, interference in the media, interference in the judiciary, pressure on civil servants to vote, one way and I had no political ambitions, when I heard that I said this is not my country. Macedonia is better than this. And what we had is a crisis of institutions that failed to react on the wrongdoing that we have all heard on tape. All of us, the citizens in the country. The result of two and a half years of back and forth and political mobilization that was across political and ethnic lines is that we proved that actually Macedonia is better than that. And that our society is more resilient than our institutions.

And that is why the biggest promise of this government is to build institutions, make them stronger. To make sure that we have such system in place, that no future abuse, regardless of whoever is in power, will be possible. We are doing our share of mistakes, one thing is also I’ve learned in the crisis is that sincerity is important.

In a country that Europe has the weakest leverage, because we’ve been blocked politically over an issue there is not exactly the Copenhagen criteria, Pribe whose name is now as famous and as popular in the country as a Hollywood movie star, is a retired German rule of law expert from the European Commission, he gathered a team, went in, had interviews and produced a report. This report made a huge difference because it was bold. It called a spade a spade, it was honest. One of the lessons I think for all of us in our country is that we need to be sincere. So I don’t think we are ideal, I think we have a very genuine hunger to make it.

When Macedonia became independent I was 18, I am 45 today, and this is the last chance for my generation to give a decent start for the next one. So I feel after many mistakes…we liked to be a victim in our Region. We liked to put the blame for our own issues on others, be it neighbours, be it Brussels, no one really likes us…

It’s in our hands. No one said building a European democracy will be easy.

It’s definitely in our hands. And I really think it starts with a genuine desire, and I was so happy few days ago, tomorrow I can’t wait to read the European Commission report, and I hope that we are going to have a clean recommendation.

The report of a house that is usually honest – the Freedom House, they measure democracy, they measure the freedom of the media – they said in the last few days ago that Macedonia was the biggest chance for a democratic breakthrough in Europe. And they went on to say that the country is small, but the opportunity is big. That really doubled my level of enthusiasm that I think is really required to push on and go on.

So now a bit about the Region, but maybe a last point on Macedonia.

What we managed to do is halt a negative dynamic – us in the country, the Europeans, the Americans. It is really important now to create, to achieve success.

The trouble with trouble is that it spreads, if it is not attended. I think that once there is a potential for success, we have to make it. And success in our Region I think it comes from a genuine political will to actually do the job at home, but also a credible European perspective. And in-between those two, we need a sincere relationship. If there is a mistake – say it, if there is something good – praise it. I think that’s really important and I think the Commission, with the latest strategies, is moving in that direction.

Last few words about our Region. I think we are here in a very important country for our Region – Serbia. (Wish we had) a sense of urgency that we really need to move our Region forward. We live in a world where no one really knows what will happen tomorrow. All the framework of doing international relations and resolving problems, that we use to take for granted since WWII is now somewhat shaky. It’s unpredictable. Europe, our continent is busy. Soul-searching, some countries were mentioned, I don’t have the freedom to mention countries any more but I got your point, Brexit, the migration crisis, all this debate about the future of Europe…  And I love the idea about the airport, the departure hall and the boarding room here, I usually use the analogy of the train – we are trying to catch a moving train.

It’s really high time to start resolving problems in a brave way, facing reality and work together on our future. It’s impossible for Macedonia to be a happy place, a successful and stable European democracy if Serbia is not exactly the same.

It’s impossible to have a Region, if every once in a while we doubt the future or the functionality of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are in this boat and I think the sooner we realize that, the easier will be to resolve our problems, and the easier will be to show and prove to our European friends that we are part of them.

I’d like to thank the founders – you’re important, please continue doing what you do. Also Hedvig and the team for putting reason and pragmatism and sometimes sanity in terms of our discussions on the current state of play in the Balkans and our future. I’d like to praise all those government officials who are here, who have been part of the Fellowship (the BiEPAG members) my last point, one of more vivid memories is the declaration of bilateral disputes that BiEPAG promoted and drafted that was signed by the six foreign ministers on the Balkans, at the Vienna Summit second edition of the Berlin Process. It’s important to resolve these bilateral disputes. Europe itself started as a mechanism, as an idea to resolve a dispute to reconcile France and Germany. Let’s use this process to do that.

I think this is the most important fight of our generation. I think if we all do what we can, we can make a difference. This is really doable. We in Macedonia, no one really, I don’t know who would bet on a democratic opposition when the crisis started – very few – we actually managed to pull a small miracle. Now we have a huge responsibility, we have huge expectations and we have to tackle them with sincerity, but I think change for the better is possible and the time to change our Region for the better, is now.

Thank you so much and congratulations for the 10th birthday.