Interview with Srđan Cvijić, senior policy analyst on the EU external relations at the Open Society European Policy Institute and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), in which we discussed the latest developments in Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
EWB: How do you see the results of the Macedonian referendum on 30 September, having in mind a rather low turnout, but a very high percentage of the “yes” vote? Was it a failure, or was such an outcome actually anticipated?
Srđan Cvijić: Like any other Western Balkan country Macedonia has problematic voter rolls. Many dead people are still registered as voters and many people have left the country in the last decades and ceased to effectively participate in the elections. In this atmosphere it was extremely difficult to reach the 50% threshold. In its 2006 constitutional referendum Serbia voted two full days (28 and 29 October 2006) precisely to avoid the situation of not reaching a legally required threshold of 50% of registered voters. Finally the turnout was 54,91%.
EWB: Do you think that the Macedonian government will be able to push through constitutional changes in the parliament? Prime Minister Zaev recently called on VMRO-DPMNE to make a historical step toward forgiveness and reconciliation by accepting the deal and support constitutional change, but the government seems unlikely to muster enough parliamentary support. What do you think are the options for the government?
SC: We shall see later today or tomorrow. I wouldn’t totally exclude reaching the necessary 2/3 parliamentary majority for the ratification of the Prespa Agreement. In case they fail to reach the necessary majority it seems the government will be calling for extraordinary parliamentary elections. Reconciliation in Macedonia is necessary but it should not go to the detriment of strengthening the rule of law in the country. Judicial processes should be kept separate from country’s politics.
EWB: If the process of name change fails, what do you expect to be the consequences for both Macedonia and the Western Balkans?
SC: Without a deal Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession process will be put on hold which would prevent economic growth, make strengthening of the rule of law in the country much more difficult and which would allow malign geopolitical influence to continue its penetration into the country and the region.
I don’t agree with some in Macedonia that believe that there can be a better agreement with Greece. This is not true, at least not for a foreseeable future. According to the Greek opinion polls any future government in Athens is less likely to propose a solution that would be even remotely acceptable for Skopje. The next Greek legislative election will be held on or before 20 October 2019 so there is only a small window of opportunity to reach an agreement.
Macedonian politicians that say that they are for the Euro-Atlantic integration of their country but against the Prespa Agreement are simply not honest. Two positions are mutually exclusive.
EWB: Another important topic were the general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 7 October, which brought some interesting results. Regarding the results in Republika Srpska, are you surprised about the victory of SNSD candidates on all levels, with Milorad Dodik replacing Mladen Ivanić as a Serb member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency? Do you now expect any policy changes of Dodik now that he is in office on the state level?
SC: I am not surprised of the victory of SNSD and Dodik. The readiness and ability to use public resources for the promotion of the ruling party in the elections was unmatched, even for the Western Balkans standards. This, in combination with the continued ability to play on the nationalism card, made it extremely difficult for any other political party to emerge as victorious in Republika Srpska.
I don’t expect any major changes of policy with Dodik at the state level. The decision to run in the presidency elections was a result of a pragmatic realization that other SNSD candidates would not be able to beat the incumbent Serbian member of the Presidency Mladen Ivanić. Dodik will remain a de facto leader of Republika Srpska.
EWB: The victory of Željko Komšić over Dragan Čović in the elections for the Croat member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina some consider controversial, as he is believed to have won thanks to Bosniak votes. Do you expect this controversy to have an effect on the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina and strengthening of the initiative to establish a third, Croat entity in BiH?
SC: This is the third time that Željko Komšić is elected as the Croat member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. His first two term in office were from 2006 until 2014. I don’t see this as controversial. Equally, I see little readiness in the international community to revisits the terms of the Dayton Peace Agreements that established the present state structure of BiH.
EWB: When it comes to normalization between Serbia and Kosovo, the focus is on the issue of possible territorial changes as a part of the normalization agreement. Do you agree with those who think that any territorial changes might further destabilize the region?
SC: It is difficult for me to talk about the effects of a any proposal in abstract terms. Neither Belgrade nor Pristina came out with concrete proposals in this regard. What we observe for the moment is a stalled Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and basically the absence of the only legitimate framework to achieve the normalization. In any case for an agreement to work it would have to have support of the majority of the population on both sides.