Nikola Poposki: What We Have Seen in Central Europe Can Also Happen in the Balkans

What does the Visegrad group mean for Macedonia?

The Visegrad countries are among the strongest supporters of EU Balkan enlargement. They are excellent examples for all of us to pick up good practices and try to implement them at our level. Representatives of Balkan states have been regularly invited to Visegrad+ ministerial meetings. In the past 20 years, what was important in our regional cooperation was to have as many as possible meetings with our counterparts in Central Europe, because most of the Western Balkan countries used to be in armed conflict or had very conflicted and complex situations. So, merely to have us around was an achievement on its own.

Can you name concrete contributions of the V4′s individual members?

Under the Czech EU presidency, we moved forward especially on visa liberalization with the EU. Poland has been helpful, for example, under the so-called Utrecht process in sharing know-how on justice and home affairs and public administration reform. With Hungary, we benefited on the implementation of Schengen acquis in Macedonia. Also Slovakia has been very supportive, also thanks to high level people knowledgeable about the Balkans in EU institutions – such as the European Parliament member Eduard Kukan and Miroslav Lajčák, former managing director for South-Eastern Europe at EEAS.

Do you think there is something of V4 practices that can be replicated in the Balkans directly?

One of the concrete examples has been the Visegrad Fund. Before, in our regional cooperation we were happy we just had meetings. Now the principal functioning of the Visegrad group that you have membership countries that contribute to the fund, that generate concrete projects, is really one step forward. The fact of everybody contributing to the fund, distributing to projects is a very new concept to our regional cooperation. We are really looking forward that during Macedonian presidency of the South East European Cooperation Process we will start to introduce similar processes. We will see whether we can build on your experiences in our case.

Except for the EU process, another big issue on Macedonia’s agenda are relations with Greece. How did the Greek economic crisis influence your mutual relations?

Given the long lasting bilateral difference between our countries, many people thought that the economic crisis might ease the process to find an acceptable solution. I believe that it is quite the opposite. It has affected us on the political side, because Greece has focused on dealing with the debt crisis. Moreover, we also suffered economic losses. Greece has been one of our main trading partners. Greek companies are very important investors in Macedonia, in some of the crucial strategic sectors such as petrochemicals, retail business or banking. And the fact that demand is shrinking and the Greek economy is going down isn’t something that makes us happy, obviously quite the opposite.

Besides the economy, there is also a dispute about Macedonia’s official name. While Macedonia wants to be recognized as the Republic of Macedonia, Greece insists that the name should be the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’. Are there any new developments in this dispute?

We now have a new ruling of the International Court of Justice, which has brought more legal certainty into the issue. In 2008, at the NATO Bucharest summit, Greece blocked our accession to NATO [because of the dispute on the name issue]. Now the ICJ, the highest judicial UN body, has said that this was illegal, and has rejected all of the claims from the Greek side on possible violations from Macedonian side. This is what we are trying to communicate with our partners and all NATO states: that everybody will benefit from that additional factor, including Greece. Getting us into NATO would mean that Greece would share common borders only with member states.

You mentioned a number of V4 contributions to the Balkans EU process. Is there something that the V4 states can do for Macedonia and currently are not doing?  

I think that the V4 has the best credibility and the best position to promote further enlargement, because the four countries have benefited a lot from their EU and NATO membership. I believe that from that perspective, the V4 is in a much better position than anyone else to promote further enlargement in the Balkans and to have a leading role in that. What has been proven with respect to the Balkans in the past is that most of the decisions were made in a crisis management basis and whenever there was a crisis, then the attention shifted to the region. I think from the V4 perspective, it is much easier to be proactive and to bring up more often the agenda of getting the Balkans into the EU sooner rather than later, because this will be a confirmation that the process is irreversible and that what we have seen in central Europe can also happen in the Balkans. Knowing that is not a solution to all questions, but it is a very good basis for our countries to develop and to be more prosperous. What is very important at this stage is that these messages are sent by the V4 countries and that these topics are not only left to discuss when there is a crisis situation emerging somewhere.

Yet the V4 states do not always coordinate on EU issues – the most recent example being the Czech refusal to sign up to new EU fiscal treaty, while the rest of the V4 did.

I am quite confident that the fact that the Czech Republic hasn’t joined the fiscal pact and the other three V4 countries have done it is not going to be a major issue. I am sure that the interests of all four V4 countries are converging, especially within the EU context. We have to realize it today, that not only V4 countries but also European countries can’t make enough impact on the global scale on their own.

Did the euro crisis have an impact on Macedonian public opinion on the EU?

It has awakened quite a lot of people who had a perception that the EU is a quick fix to all problems. They would think ‘we just need to join the European Union, everything will be solved and someone else will take care of it’, which is a fundamentally wrong perception. So there was an awakening that, wow, you can be in the EU and still have problems. But no one has so far proposed a better model than the EU, which provides a framework for prosperity in Europe. It should not be undermined. In fact, Macedonia is the most Europhile country in Europe. Something close to 90% of respondents say that they are in favor of joining the European Union. Yet in the latest polls we’ve noted a drop in confidence in EU institutions, due to two factors. The first one is due to the fact that the European Commission keeps recommending since 2009 to start accession negotiations with Macedonia, but because of Greek opposition in the Council, we were not able to move forward. So, people start raising questions on the credibility of this process. The other aspect was that in the latest Commission progress reports, under pressure from Greece, the term Macedonian was avoided, referring to our name and language. That has stirred a lot of negative emotions, as one can imagine.