Interviews

Zaev: Macedonia ‘May Wrap up Name Dispute by March’

Expressing a wish to put a speedy end to the ‘name’ dispute with Greece, possibly by spring, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev tells BIRN that he is satisfied with his country’s general direction.

Portraits of Zoran Zaev’s predecessors hang in the corridor that leads to his government office. One common denominator for all of them is that they failed to solve the toughest problem that stands in the way of Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration – the long-standing dispute with Greece over Macedonia’s name.

By summer, it should be clear whether their successor, the current Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, has succeeded where they failed.

“It would be good to wrap this up by June because that would encourage a decision [by Brussels] for start of EU accession negotiations. I am aware that each passing month [without a solution] will not go in our favour,” he says in an interview.

But he says that if all sides invest extraordinary efforts, this could happen even sooner.

“My wish and ambition, as well as of each of us that are involved in this process, is to reach a solution for the name dispute by the end of March,” he says. “It will not help us if we delay it because there are always antagonistic forces that are against a solution.”

The dispute centres on Greece’s insistence that use of the word Macedonia implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of the same name.

As a result, in 2008, Greece blocked Macedonia’s NATO membership. It has also blocked the start of Macedonia’s EU accession talks, despite several positive annual reports from the European Commission on the country’s progress.

If the renewed name talks succeed, with Greece on board, Macedonia could join NATO at the next summit of the alliance this July in Brussels. Around the same time, it could also finally start EU accession talks, following a renewed recommendation from the European Commission.

Regarding the Greek side, he says he has faith in their good intentions.

“I remain convinced that above all Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras truly wants to find a solution. I see that the [Greek Foreign] Minister [Nikos Kotzias] is also making efforts.”

“I retain the same feeling that leads me right from the start – that a solution is possible. But at the same time, we remain convinced that this solution must protect the identity and the dignity of both sides”, Zaev points out.

“Both sides should not bring up issues that would make a solution impossible”. Photo: Robert Atanasovski

He is even more categorical when answering the question of what happens if no solution can be reached without a change to Macedonia’s constitution?

“Both sides should not bring up issues that would make a solution impossible,” he says.

“I am sincerely devoted to finding a pragmatic explanation for the Greek side, thinking foremost of the Greek people. Because this is an effort for a lasting solution and not some kind of bypassing, manipulation or lying to each other… “ he adds.

“In this process we must be driven by facts. I have no dilemma that when it comes to the geographical territory of Macedonia, we take its northern or upper part, the southern part belongs to Greece and the eastern part to Bulgaria.

“If we respect facts, we must find a solution. And we must not forget that the problem revolves around the name. We should not tackle things that will cause additional problems which will only bring us further away from a solution,” he says.

Considering the high level of discretion in the current UN-sponsored bilateral talks, to get a better grasp of Zaev’s level of optimism about a successful outcome, he is asked to illustrate it on a scale from one to ten.

“No one has tested my optimism in this way. But I have no problem defining it through numbers. I am an optimist, although not fully, but still I would give an eight,” Zaev replies.

The Social Democrat became Prime Minister in May last year, after a prolonged and turbulent political crisis.

It revolved around allegations of serious corruption and authoritarianism in the previous government led by the right-wing VMRO DPMNE party.

But after spending nine months at the government’s helm, Zaev now faces criticism about a lack of energetic action in eliminating the past practices of irresponsible and corrupt behavior.

“We wanted to send a message that the cloud of political divides must settle down and that we are counting on all who hold potential in this country”. Photo: Robert Atanasovski

“We must not forget that we had a captured state from all aspects and now we are slowly liberating it,” Zaev points out, adding that he believes more in a gradual change for the better.

“Some 30 to 40 per cent of institutional managers have not been changed,” Zaev conceded.

“We did not wish to dismiss everybody at a whim and to take over government that way. No!” he says.

Referring to his predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, and his moves in 2006 on his coming to power, Zaev says: “We did not dismiss 1,800 people at the first government session, or at the next one. We wanted to send a message that the cloud of political divides must settle down and that we are counting on all who hold potential in this country.”

But he admits that not all newly appointed officials have earned his trust, announcing changes and a possible reshuffle come spring.

“There are many [officials] who want to prove themselves but don’t know how to,” he says.

“We have new generations whose time is coming but, at the same time, they perhaps have a lot to learn. There are some who possess knowledge and who work hard. And there are some who neither have knowledge, nor are trying.”

“We will do the revision after ten months of the new government, come spring, and we will say thanks to some of them. We don’t have a lot of time and people expect results.

“This may cause a reshuffle. We may change some directors, even some ministers and state secretaries…” the Prime Minister says.

In conclusion, Zaev points out that despite some mishaps of the new administration, and criticism, which he welcomes, he is convinced that the general direction that the country is moving in is positive.

He says that the country is gradually overcoming the negative impact on economy and capital investments caused by the prolonged political crisis.

“I am satisfied with the direction Macedonia is moving in”. Photo: Robert Atanasovski

“Financially, Macedonia has been stabilized, liquidity is good. We have a reservoir of 400 million euros due to the new Eurobond [issued last autumn]. We have returned 100 million euros of debts.

“I am now convinced that the percentage of capital investments will seriously increase. I am satisfied with the direction Macedonia is moving in, with the government’s performance and with the government institutions.”

Zaev says it is good that people are now openly debating and criticizing, unlike in the previous ten years, when the authoritarian government sanctioned criticism.

“If we have freedom and democracy we will have progress. We will sometimes make good managerial appointments and sometimes we will miss. They will come and they will go. But what’s very important is whether we have hit the right direction, whether we are set on the tracks towards progress,” Zaev concludes.

Three years have passed since Zaev, then the main opposition leader, revealed the massive illegal wiretapping scandal, which implicated many former state official in alleged wrongdoings.

Many of them, including the former VMRO DPMNE leader and Prime Minister Gruevski are now on trial or being investigated by the Special Prosecution.

But many accuse Zaev’s government for not doing enough to combat the corruption in the country’s justice system, which many international watchdogs and foreign government reports have noted as the main obstacles to the rule of law.

Zaev is adamant that his government is doing everything it can to help judicial reforms, but that it also will not make the same mistake as his predecessors and directly interfere in the work of the courts.

“Of course I expect speedier court processes than the ones we have now but I have no intention of picking up the phone to encourage a judge or a prosecutor to speed them [trials] up,” Zaev insists.

Speaking about his relation with VMRO DPMNE’s new leader, Hristijan Mickovski, who was elected in December, Zaev says he wants him kept informed on important national matters like the name issue with Greece, hoping that he will be on board to support a possible solution.

“My wish and ambition, as well as of each of us that are involved in this process, is to reach a solution for the name dispute by the end of March”. Photo: Robert Atanasovski

“I would like the opposition to know everything and I nurture a wish for us to be together in the process of solving this problem,” he says.

“I am pleased by the opposition’s stands on the name issue. They are being cautious. That is a serious message that they want this problem to be solved, and that they are ready to participate in solving it, not in postponing it or blocking it,” Zaev finishes.