By Alexia Kefala
In an exclusive interview with Ta Nea, FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev expresses the conviction that political problems are solved by implementing a new policy, and not by changing borders.
Speaking on the eve of a crucial parliamentary vote on the constitutional amendments required to meet the terms of the Prespa Agreement, Zaev says he expects MPs to respect the will of citizens who voted in the 30 September referendum on the accord, with over 90 percent in favour, who he said voted for their country’s membership in the EU and Nato.
If parliament does not approve, Zaev says he will call a general election.
Zaev underlines that the time has come for a different Balkans, which will have left behind biases and its reputation as a powder keg, to become a source of stability.
Zaev praises Alexis Tsipras for his courage during negotiations, and in a message to New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, he says that Balkan leaders should recognise challenges and rise to the occasion.
How likely is it to find the 11 votes you need in order to pass the constitutional review by the Parliament?
In accordance with the strategic priorities – membership in NATO and The EU, the Government of the Republic of Macedonia undertook the obligation to prepare a proposal of draft amendments to constitutional changes, which has been the following stage as established in the Prespa Agreement between our country and the Republic of Greece.
Considering the historical importance and the urgency that the moment calls for, the Government I lead took an initiative and made a decision to submit the proposal of draft amendments to constitutional changes to the Parliament, and with that, asked from the Parliament to begin with this procedure.
Now, all Members of Parliament, regardless of political affiliation, have a historical duty in service of the citizens, to secure the road for our country towards stability, security and economic prosperity. That is the road towards EU and NATO that passes through the Prespa Agreement.
It is expected from our Members of Parliament to make a decision in that line, as a demonstration of respect of the will of the majority of citizens who voted on the referendum, but also for respect of the will of about 80% of the citizens who continuously approve and call for the membership of our country in NATO and The EU.
The people made a very important choice. The majority of citizens who voted on the referendum supported one question, one vision and one goal for the future of our country, which is only a step away to accomplish.
The fulfillment of this vision is now in the hands of every Member of Parliament, separately and depends on them. They need to make a decision demonstrating that they want to make our country a safe and good place to live for every citizen.
If they are not found, are you obviously going to hold elections?
If the Members of Parliament from VMRO-DPMNE continue to refuse to take responsibility and remain on the positions that threaten the future of our country, the parliamentary majority will vote for early elections.
Do you fear instability if you do not avoid the most ‘problematic scenario’?
In the past period, the politics of the government I lead, strengthened and deepened the friendship with all our neighbors. The Government succeeded to close all open bilateral issues by respecting the principles of open dialogue, mutual understanding and readiness for finding solutions.
Today, our country has no open issues with any of our neighbors. We respect all our neighbors and we are building our friendship by investing in development of the cooperation and the trade.
At the same time, we support and encourage the efforts of all our neighbors to solve open issues and overcome the misunderstandings in the interest of their bilateral relations, but also in the interest of the stability, cooperation and prosperity of the whole region. We believe that problems are solved with implementing new politics instead of marking new borders. I believe that solving the dispute between our countries and our people is a historical moment and source of stability for the Balkans and for Europe.
The scenario of border changes, as a follow-up to developments in fYROM, how do you evaluate it?
If your question relates to the issue of the Belgrade-Pristina relations, the Government of the Republic of Macedonia believes that the Balkan doesn’t need new conflicts.
Only united together, the countries of our region can develop faster, easier, and accomplish the shared EU aspirations through mutual cooperation for creating better living conditions for the citizens.
The Republic of Macedonia supports a positive solution for Kosovo. A solution that will improve the well-being of Serbs, Albanians and all other citizens living in Kosovo. A solution that will guarantee the peace, security and prosperity of Serbia, Kosovo and the whole region. It is crucial for all leaders here in this region to be united around our common goals, and those are lasting peace, regional cooperation, economic development and EU membership.
Why do you think you did not get the best possible participation in the referendum?
More than 660.000 citizens voted on the referendum. From those who voted, more than 90% chose “FOR” The Republic of Macedonia to accept the Agreement with Greece and to become a member of NATO and The EU.
In order to reach the census threshold, there were supposed to be a turnout of 903.169 citizens, out of which 451.585 should have voted “FOR”. On the referendum held on the 30th of September 609.813 citizens voted “FOR”. Isn’t that an expression of the will of the citizens?!
At elections or a referendum, the people who go out and vote are those that make the decision.
Since the referendum was consultative, and not mandatory, it is now up to the Members of Parliament, chosen by the people, to make a decision respecting and following the interests of the citizens, the country and their personal duty.
If it ever happened again, would you avoid something? Perhaps the great support from the West, which some people think that it served as a boomerang?
At a time when we are setting the future course of our country, all our friends from the international community have acknowledged this is a historical moment and have approved the politics of our government on the road to EU and NATO. The success is easier to reach when you have supportive friends.
Our friends have told us to bravely remain on the road we are paving for reaching prosperity and well-being for all our citizens and for all people in the region.
Their aspiration to see our country as equal partner in the great alliances is sincere and strong.
Our friends from the international community assist the process to confirm that they acknowledge our identity and statehood – that is a demonstration of respect for all the citizens of our country.
How crucial was the role of Russia in this story? Do you think there was an involvement, what kind and to what extent?
We nurture traditionally friendly relations with the Russian Federation and we will continue to develop our relations and cooperation.
The economic and cultural cooperation, as well as cooperation in the area of agriculture, is on a very high level and we expect it to intensify.
I am convinced there is awareness, and there has to be awareness, that world peace is a global interest, and for that we need stable and secure countries that develop according to the path they have chosen.
Over 80% of the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia are for membership of our country in The EU and NATO. Those are our strategic goals, our right and responsibility, for which there is no alternative. We are careful and we follow the situation.
The overwhelming majority of the Greek people - as depicted in the Gallups - opposes the agreement. What is your message to the dissenters?
We are fully aware that there are political circles in your country that find this to be a very sensitive issue.
Our message is one and the same for the ruling and oppositional political factors in Greece, and in fact, to all the citizens: Let us maintain the good spirit and strong political will from Prespa and allow that spirit to guide us and establish our relations in the future. Together, we have a unique chance to send a strong signal for stability in the region and Europe, together we have an opportunity to mark a success in history as a serious investment for the future.
It is our duty to continue to secure the conditions on both sides for a political ambient that will allow for complete fulfillment of the contract. We are setting the risks to minimum, since much is at stake to leave things to chance. We believe there is no better agreement for both sides, than this one.
The crucial question for those who put the negotiation in the balance is: Greece, apart from the name, ‘grants’ language and ethnicity. What does fYROM ‘grant’?
The obligations and duties for both countries stem from the provisions and the spirit of the Agreement between both sides.
I do not want to discuss about concessions, and who gave someone something or took something away. I want to discuss about the solutions in the Agreement that have unlocked an issue that was seriously entangled and blocked. The key is in the solutions that open up perspectives for the future, and not in the concessions.
The solution for the name of our country and for recognizing the specificity of our identity, which as Macedonian comes from our unique traits, which are different from the Hellenic, should be found in the solutions that envisage changes in our Constitution, with guarantee for inviolability of the borders. According to your wording, those are the concessions that our country is making.
Both sides in the Agreement for solving the dispute have a serious homework assignment that needs to be worked on. Both governments in the Agreement have clearly and precisely predicted all the steps that need to be made, or the processes that need to be initiated in order to secure the institutional support for their realization.
One of those processes is creating conditions for secure parliamentary and political majority for implementing the constitutional changes.
In practice, can there be a smooth coexistence when so many large sections of the population on both sides of the border disagree?
The majority of the citizens in both countries want a solution, want peace, stability and progress. I see my country, including the other Balkan countries in the same way that my citizens see it: Modern, economically stable and socially responsible state according to the EU standards and the standards of the members states of the Union.
It is time to give the world a different Balkans, A Balkans of countries that have left their prejudices and historical concessions behind, and have shifted focus towards the well-being of their citizens, towards building good-neighborly relations.
It is time to rebrand the Balkan region from the stereotype “Bure Baruta” (Powder Keg) to “Source of Stability”. A region that produces peace, cooperation, connectivity, dynamic fluctuation of people and ideas.
We are actively working on creating conditions for a positive outcome from the Prespa Agreement and the implementation of the second part of the Agreement that we talk so little of, entitled ‘Intensifying and enriching the cooperation between both sides’.
We recognize good will on the other side too.
The atmosphere of goodwill, political maturity and readiness for overcoming this issue, we can come to a solution very soon.
Let us not miss the moment. Let us not seek answers that are good for one side only. Let us keep on searching for the true answer, mutually acceptable for both sides.
How close were we in adopting the name "Republic of Ilinden" and where did it finally stumble?
In the negotiations, we reached a point when we considered that the name Ilinden Macedonia provides a good basis for a final solution. Then we agreed that we will ask for a wider political consensus in both countries. The Greek political circles didn’t provide sufficient support for the suggestion, after which we moved to another solution entailing a geographical point of reference that will specify our name. In all complex processes there are successful and unsuccessful steps, but most importantly, we overcame that situation and found a solution that is acceptable for both sides.
What other names were seriously considered during the negotiation?
Other names that were discussed during the negotiations are the ones that came as suggestions from mediator Nimetz, that were generally with geographical or time adjective. We accepted a geographical point of reference, confirming the undisputable geographical and territorial facts.
Was there any time you feared that the deal would not be achieved? And why?
I assure you that the whole process, from the moment it was taken over by ministers Kotzias and Dimitrov and their teams, and since me and Prime Minister Tsipras and our teams got involved, we were driven by the motivation and focus for finding a solution.
We knew there must be a solution, otherwise there wouldn’t be such political and personal will from everyone that has participated in the process.
Of course, the highly respected and experienced mediator Matthew Nimetz was here, but he was wise and knew when to actively participate and when it was more important to let us walk alone through the labyrinth towards the solution.
Such a complex and sensitive problem requires delicate, careful and responsible behavior in every moment. That is how we have been behaving in this whole process.
This was not an issue to be solved by ‘bulldozer’ diplomacy, as some have thought to be the case.
How would you characterize the negotiating stance of Athens throughout the last critical period?
I characterize it as a strong political will to change the image of the Balkans, to provide the region a new Balkans, a Balkans of the 21st century, in which the past and the shadows of history will not interfere as unsolvable problems in the common European future.
We wanted to relieve the burden from the heritage we have as a “Bure Baruta” Balkan region.
We were motivated by the wish to provide the world with a solution that is an outcome of a European approach in searching for answers.
I accepted to fully invest myself, as a person and as a politician, to provide a solution for my country and my fellow citizens for the blockade that we have been facing for more than 3 decades.
The Greek government had a genuine interest to solve the issue. At the same time, they advocated your national interests strongly, as we did ours. Negotiations were not easy. But we realize that if we have courage to make a compromise then it would benefit both countries, stability in region and consolidate Euro-Atlantic structures. I want to personally thank Prime Minister Tsipras for having that courage and for sharing the vision of a peaceful and prosperous Balkans as integral part of EU.
In the end, was your meeting with the representative of the New Democracy, Maria Spyraki, accidental or not? And how many meetings were there? One or two?
I had a brief coffee conversation with Ms. Maria Spyraki, at the hotel where I was staying, close to the European Parliament, as I did with many MEPs or politicians from different countries during that visit to Brussels.
What is your message to the President of New Democracy, Kyriakos Mitsotakis?
It is always a good moment to call for and demonstrate that the Balkan politicians also know how to rise above the challenges and work in the interest of their citizens, who in turn expect from us to build good-neighbourly relations.
To all political leaders, I would like to point out the value of the new politics and the new societal image of our country: from a crisis-potential country, we have developed into a country that cooperates and decides to solve the most complex issues.
I hope everyone can recognize that we are actively creating conditions for a positive outcome of the whole process that has opened between our countries and promises a better future.
I would suggest and encourage him to take part in the new trends that provide a reason to the world to consider the Balkans as a region of emancipated and friendly neighbours. We have a unique chance to jointly mark a success in history, as a serious investment for the future.