By George Gstrein
Hephaestus: Your Excellency, the dispute over the official name of your country has been finally resolved through the conciliatory choice of the name “North Macedonia”. Which side do you think has contributed more to this outcome? Your side or the Greek one?
The exceptionally positive results of the Prespa Agreement, which resolved a dispute almost three decades long, are of great significance for both countries. As such, both current governments treated it with great commitment and strong political will for the dispute to be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties. The representatives of the two governments, the working bodies, the advisors in the Prime Ministers’ offices, the MFAs started off with tremendous good faith and positive approach to resolve this dispute.
The approach filled with trust and building friendly relations during the whole process is one of a kind and it culminated in the positive ending – the Agreement signed on the Lake of Prespa.
The agreement bears historic importance for both countries. The highest international factors, our shared friends such as USA, Germany, France, and Austria deemed it as such; the list includes all other member-states and other countries that were constantly with us and provided their encouragement.
Both countries invested equal amount of political will and desire to come to a solution, therefore the acknowledgments should be directed at both sides, as well as the benefits: in fact, the Agreement created strong friendship between Greece and North Macedonia.
Hephaestus: Could you, please, tell us a few more things on your personal contribution to the compromise on the name-issue?
I, on my behalf, as a person, above all, and then as the Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia, started from the standpoint that the past to us is a lesson learned that we do not want to repeat. We had lost enough time going through the decisions made by others in the past. We decided to write the future – common, with partners, with good neighbors.
Some good opportunities knocked on our door and it would have been senseless to reject them and to lose more from the precious time.
Only bold decisions can compensate for what we had lost throughout the years. The courageous decisions are the proof that we have matured to take the responsibility for our own actions. The bold decisions are the only decisions that are worth remembering and that build a future – better future for the citizens and a common future for the region.
I consider myself to be lucky because Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, on the Greek side, shared the same political philosophy.
Hephaestus: What are your middle-term expectations from the agreement of Prespa on the relations of North Macedonia with Greece?
The Agreement foresees establishing a strategic partnership between both countries, as well as cooperation in many areas.
Greece is the great power in the area of tourism, as well as our neighbor, and of course, the item in the Agreement that stipulates shared support for expansion of the tourism exchange, development of cooperation in areas of alternative tourism, including cultural, religious, educational, medical and sport tourism, will provide results, just as the cooperation for improvement and enhancement of the business and touristic journeys between the two countries.
The implementation of these two provisions stipulated in the Agreement of Prespa is a big step forward to the normalization of the bilateral relations. It enables both countries to use the full capacity of their political and economic potentials.
It offers a pragmatic and transparent method for continuation of all projected activities which unite us through shared interests.
The political will, the friendship and the trust we have built in the past twelve months led us to conducting a Joint Session of the Governments of our country and Greece, during the first official visit paid by a Greek Prime Minister to our country.
Prime Minister Tsipras and I welcomed the work on the business forum where more than 400 businessmen from both countries took participation.
This forum and all other benefits from the Agreement of Prespa, help us, the politicians and the economic leaders of both countries, to renew this unique historic space in which our two countries are naturally directed towards one another and which is, naturally expected, to create room for investment, trade and cultural exchange.
Hephaestus: Do you think that the animosity in a big part of the Greek people against this solution will become lesser as the time is passing by?
The visit paid by Prime Minister Tsipras and his accompanying governmental delegation, as well as more than 100 businessmen to this country was a historic event that gives you a positive answer to the question.
When, from today’s perspective one will look into the past relations of our two countries, they will only see missed opportunities and time lost in vain.
On the other hand, when one looks into the future ahead of us, they will see new opportunities and chances, numerous shared interests of two neighboring, friendly people who had shown the world that bold decisions and a will for shared futures, make what was impossible, possible.
The politicians and citizens of both countries see this. Also those who were reserved and were opposing to the open dispute, see this. I am convinced that the support of the citizens of both countries for the Agreement is growing, day by day, and we are yet to reap the fruits that will show the historic value of this mutual solution that was done mostly for the benefit of the citizens.
We have signed agreements for improvement of the cooperation in the defense, for issues related to our shared cooperation and assistance provided by Greece in the EU accession process, as well as cooperation between our Foreign Affairs Ministries.
Furthermore, the agreements for economic cooperation, mutual support and common projects in energy, transport, digitalization processes, cross-border cooperation, health and agriculture bear enormous significance.
In order to enable functional, fruitful and successful realization of the numerous shared initiatives, we have established a High-Level Cooperation Council that will be led by the Presidents of the Governments of both countries, on joint governmental sessions.
We are in the process of opening two new border-crossings.
This is a strong argument directed towards those who did not want to reach a solution; those who took a strong hold on their positions of nationalism and who were in favor of isolation as politics. This was not accepted. What was accepted were the progressive, European manners of good-neighborliness and building joint future in shared European space of cohesion instead of division.
Hephaestus: North Macedonia is ready to become a member of NATO. This defense-alliance was created during the era of the Cold War between East and West. Do you think that it is still effective today?
The NATO Accession Protocol brought our country the consent to become the 30th member-state of the Alliance and hereby, it receives its place in the Alliance, as an equal member that will participate in all NATO bodies without right to vote. This right to vote will be awarded when the ratification process for the Protocol, which has been initiated, will be completed.
This is the place of our country, soon the Republic of North Macedonia, which the majority of the citizens of our country see in its future.
The NATO Alliance remains to be the strongest security coalition in the world and our strategic determination to become an equal partner in that Alliance will soon become a reality.
Hephaestus: In which way a membership of your country in the European Union would be to the benefit of your people?
Hand in hand, with the NATO membership, we expect that soon we will receive a confirmation for the date of opening chapters, as the last phase of EU negotiations process.
The values shared by the EU member-states are our values, as well: partnership and integration for securing and guaranteeing the security in the region and the world; implementation of reforms for democracy and rule of law; respect for the human rights and freedoms; and economic reforms.
This is the choice made by our citizens. This choice has no alternative. The completion of these processes is just a matter of time.
Beside the guarantee on security, we have real and sustainable economic perspective before us.
This gives us the right to see at this 2019 year as the year of accomplishing economic results.
The European Union is the strongest economic alliances in the world. Investing in stability and prosperity of Western Balkan is investing in safety and future of the Union itself.
The European Union is the longest peace project in the world. This is especially important for a region that has been through many conflicts and is still in the process of recovering and healing.
The Euro-integration processes are in fact the common denominator of all citizens from various ethnic or other type of background. This is the end of the isolation for our country and final belonging to the European family.
The Euro-integration processes will have the highest impact over the future generations. We will have new opportunities for the young people – freedom to study and work in any of the member-states. Our citizens will have all rights and obligations as the other EU citizens.
Hephaestus: North Macedonia has been one of the most multi-ethnic states in South-Eastern Europe: Do you think that this could be a problem or a chance for your country?
Our determination to build and nurture a society equal for all, our objective to build a civil society while at the same time we respect the social, ethnic, national, religious and cultural differences – exactly this objective is the specific and the essence of our unity. This unity has been built for centuries and to us, it is an obligation for our shared future.
The diversity in our country is what makes North Macedonia a Little Europe.
This is the reason why we are investing our efforts and we say that we consider the diversity of our society as an advantage or our. This is our shared wealth.
We consider this strategy as a method for prevention of domination of ethnocentric culture. Isolated, self-sufficient and self-satisfactory, closed in the four walls of its ethnic belonging.
This is not the model that our country strives to accomplish. The model of North Macedonia begins by respecting all communities.
This model asks us to build a country where the different communities will cooperation, will complement each other and will be mutually enhanced.
Hephaestus: 220 years ago the Greek scholar, Rhigas Feraios, formulated in Vienna the vision of a federation of all Balkan nations. Do you think that this could become a reality now through membership of all Balkan states in the European Union?
Only through cooperation and friendship will the countries from our region be able to progress, faster and easier, to accomplish their shared European aspirations and through shared cooperation, to create better conditions for life of its citizens.
Therefore, the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia considers that the Balkan does not need new divisions.
It is time to give the world another Balkan – Balkan made of countries which have left the prejudices and historic concession behind; countries that are looking for well-being of its citizens, countries that want to build good-neighborly and friendly relations with their neighbors.
Hephaestus: The Orthodox Church in your country is asking for ecclesiastical independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. What is the position of your government on this issue?
I myself am a believer, but being a Prime Minister, I respect the constitutional provision for a secular state i.e. separation of the country from the Church.
There are significant changes in the region and in that direction, in resolving the open church questions.
I believe that this positive trend in the politics will inspire all other segments in life. On such note, I am convinced that the churches will go beyond and will come to the necessary level of accountability from all parts and that this issue will be resolved.
We are here and we shall remain here to motivate the constructive processes that lead to solutions.
Hephaestus: Your Excellency, the legacy of Alexander the Great has been for a long time a dividing point between Athens and Skopje. Do you think that the spiritual heritage of Cyril and Method could become now a unifying factor?
Absolutely – yes! The mission of the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius is one of the first models of connecting different cultures while at the same time, appreciating the differences. This is a value on which we appeal even today, remembering them and remembering the history while at the same time we are looking into the future and we say that the shared points should connect us, instead of dividing us. Even today, after more than 1150 year this value is here, it serves as a model, it inspires.
In that spirit, we can say that the remembrance of the mission of the holy brothers, together will all other peoples, together with the people of the Republic of Bulgaria, with all other Slavic people who feel indebted by their mission and heritage, who celebrate their civilization missions, is in fact honor and dignity.
Interview of the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, to Hephaestus Wien