IBNA Interview/ "Greece and Macedonia should begin enjoying friendly ties"

IBNA Interview/ "Greece and Macedonia should begin enjoying friendly ties"
Interview by Spiros Sideris, reporting from Skopje

Is this the best moment for the resolution of the name issue? How do fYROMacedonian people consider the talks, what do they expect, how optimistic are they? IBNA discusses the issue with the political reporter of MKD.mk News Portal, Zana Popovska-Bozinovska and the Nezavisen Vesnik editor-in-chief, Slobodanka Jovanovska, two top journalists, who live and work in the capital, Skopje.

Spiros Sideris/IBNA: "Do you think that this is the right time to solve the name dispute with Greece?"

Zana Popovska-Bozinovska: "This is one of the right times for solving the name dispute. We have had many 'right times' for solving the dispute. But this time, all political figures seem more optimistic."

Slobodanka Jovanovska: "I've said many times, and we have had many announcements for such momentums, and many situations when it was thought that the name dispute is close to resolving. But, in the end, it all turned out to be more of a negotiation show than actual negotiation. What makes this time more different is that, on the Macedonian side, we have a government that is willing to put an end to this issue, and is ready to make some exceptions because, so far, we have negotiated and but never wanted to change anything. Simply solve the issue without making any sacrifices. That has changed. This government is ready to make sacrifices, is ready to take a hit in order to solve this issue, because the last political crisis in Macedonia has shown that we have to close some issues if we want to keep our political stability because we came to the point where this kind of isolation from NATO, and the European Union and other processes has led us to the verge of dismantling."

Z.P.B.: "Maybe everyone thinks that now is the right moment, the time has come to solve this issue, after all that we've been through in the past 5-6 years, the Macedonian political crisis. And this political crisis is actually what forces us to solve this issue right now, in order not to make the situation more dramatic, even more dramatic than it was before. Because we are familiar with the stands of the Albanians in Macedonia, who insist on solving the name dispute because of the integration in the European Union and NATO, they see their future there, and the stabilization of the situation in both Macedonia and the region. According to me, this could make the situation looks like now is the right time, and because, as Slobodanka said, that this government is different from the others, although we should not forget that the previous government in 2011, when an agreement was almost reached with Papandreou's government, was also ready to make some exceptions. A name was agreed then, but why it never came through, that’s another issue. Therefore, the previous government was ready, but with less sacrifice than the current one."

S.S./IBNA: "Which part, on your opinion, is the most difficult for solving the name dispute?"

Z.P.B.: "Of course, the identity and the language. I think that for the name there can be some exception. But, according to the proposals coming from Nimetz, I don't think they are suitable for our side, the language and identity are the most disputable. And what is this irredentism on which official Athens keeps insisting on?"

S.J.: "We don't even understand it."

Z.P.B.: "We don't understand what this irredentism is. Where do they find this irredentism? In the name? Because, if they insist on changing the name for internal use that means change of Constitution. We will have to create a whole new Constitution, if that is what they mean by irredentism. Slobodanka is right, we do not understand this irredentism."


S.J.: "In my political opinion, I think that that the most difficult part to solve will be the problem with the adjective "Macedonian/Makedonski", because it is something we would like to keep. As for the language, there could be some solution like "Slav-Macedonian" or something similar, for instance if you take citizenship documents, they would say "Citizens of North Macedonia", etc.  I also think that the name adjective will not be a major problem, it the two words are separated. I think that, politically, the adjective would represent the biggest problem for our side, while, technically, the biggest problem would be the Constitution. At this moment, it seems almost impossible to change the Constitution…"

Z.P.: "But the Constitution will be a big political problem, not just technical… Because, let's not forget that the Constitution has already been changed twice. The first time was after Greece insisted on it, after signing the temporary agreement, the flag and the Constitution were changed. Later we had another change of Constitution. And if we consider this from the citizens' point of view, it normal for them to think that this is too much."

S.S./IBNA: "Do you think that the citizens of both countries are well-informed?"

Z.P.B.: "No, I think that the public opinion in both Macedonia and Greece is not well-informed and is not prepared enough. They might be somewhat informed, but the public is far from prepared to face changes. In order to prepare the nation that certain exceptions are necessary, whether from the Macedonian or the Greek side, you should work very hard on it. You cannot just say that we need to do something so we can integrate in the EU and NATO, Greece cannot say that they have to keep the unity of the Greek nation, without a proper and long preparation of that nation."

S.J.: "I think that it is no longer 1992 and that now, no matter that it looks like there would be great resistance, I think that the public opinion has greatly changed and the level of impatience is very low, and that, even if there is some sort of resistance, now it is a question of courage from the political elites and their ability to present it in the best way possible and sell it to the public. There is room to finally do that, both in Macedonia and Greece. I'm not an expert when it comes to Greece, I have to admit, but when it comes to Macedonia, I think that there will be some resistance, but we have a long history of making exceptions that show that, even though we are always 'against' at first, we accept changes later on. An example for this is the decentralization, we almost had a civil war because of the decentralisation, and still we managed to adopt a law on languages. There is resistance to this law, but the greater majority accepted the law on the Albanian language. Therefore, we completely changed our relations with the Albanians in Macedonia, we managed to go beyond the resistance. We also gave part of our territory on the border with Kosovo, this too sparked resistance, and we still managed to go through too. We signed a Friendship Treaty with Bulgaria, which the public was also against, but the Macedonian public usually wants to have detailed explanations on moves that the government needs to make before accepting them, as long as those moves are within reason. This is why it is very important what kind of proposal will Greece offer, and it’s crucial that Greece offers something that can be presented to the Macedonian public as an exception that Greece is willing to make to solve this issue. For instance, keeping the word "Macedonia" in our name, which is presented by an exception Greece is willing to make, the Macedonian public does not see it as an exception. We wonder why they think that we should be grateful that they are letting us keep it, Macedonians think that that term belongs to us naturally. It belongs to us as a part of our country's name. Therefore, we don't see that as an exception."

Z.P.B.: "There one other thing, and that is the way the citizens feel about this issue. We should not be brought into the state of feeling like this issue has been imposed on us. Because, in this case, there was a proposal from Nimetz, then, two days later, Minister Kotzias came out with another proposal. Does this mean that Nimetz tries to step aside and let someone else dictate this game? Because, according to the recent practice, Nimetz was the one who gave proposals, not Greece."

S.J.: "Yes, it is very important that there is no room left for us to become enemies again, and that, when this issue is closed, people on both sides are not left frustrated and prevent further tension. According to me, the point of the solution is not just so Macedonia becomes a member of the EU and NATO, but for Macedonia and Greece to finally have friendly relations. Because that is what we lack – we lack traffic connection, a deeper communication etc. Both Macedonia and Greece pay a high price, therefore the solution needs to be widely accepted, there can be an exception, as long as that exception is not humiliating."

Z.P.B.: "The perception is very important. Because if we take a look at Kotzias's statement he gave two days ago - that the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Kotzias personally, created a proposal which they will hand to us in a week -  that doesn't sound right. It creates a public impression that Greece is the one that give proposals, and we are forced to either accept it or don't accept it. Similar to this was Committee for the revision of the history school books, when the public got the impression that Greek history professors and experts will revise our history school books. That created defiance among the citizens. That is why we need to have correct information from the government, so people can prepare themselves, and not feel like they were tricked and humiliated."

S.J.: "About the Greek proposal two days ago – No one actually understood that Kotzias's statement was a response to the proposal given by Nimetz."

S.S./IBNA: "Do you think that there are more things that separate the two countries or are those they have in common more?"

Z.P.B.: "Of course there are more things that unite us, because, realistically, we don't have many problems between us. But, I think that Alexander the Great, instead of uniting us, is dividing us more."

S.J.: "I think that after twenty years of name dispute and all the damage that has been done to Macedonia because of this dispute, and all the crises we went through, it would be logical for us to consider the Greeks as our biggest enemies, yet we don't. This says a lot about the Macedonians' tolerance, and that we consider them close friends – even this dispute did not succeed to make us enemies. But, basically, I think that Macedonians and Greeks are completely different, as nations, and in mentality and I don't think if we will ever manage to understand each other."

S.S./IBNA: "Do you think that, if this name dispute is not solved, there will be nationalistic moves here and in the region?"

Z.P.B.: "Well the dispute was not solved for so many years, yet there wasn't any extreme nationalism, neither here, nor in Greece. Nationalism comes in cycles – when there is something new about the name, or the friendship agreement with Bulgaria. So, it comes in cycles when there is something going on. I don't think this will change if the name dispute is not solved."

S.J.: "I recall, when we were not accepted into NATO in 2008, there was news that the sales sedatives were up by 60%; Journalists were literally crying on the NATO Summit. But, this will not happen again, the atmosphere is completely deferent, people are pragmatic. We saw what nationalism is, we recognize it, so I think that we are over it. There is still residue from that nationalism, but is slowly disappearing. I think there will be other problems that could occur if the name dispute is not solved, economic, strategic problems. Macedonia will yet again lose its course, and the reason for this will not be nationalism, but other issues."

Z.P.B.: "Other important thing is whether we will know the answer before the Summit – because in Bucharest we were positive that we'll get the invitation, and when we found out on the Summit that we are actually not, we were shocked. This time around, I think that we should have that information before the Summit, whether we have a deal or not, and this could change the circumstances a little."

S.J.: "We are skeptical now, we don’t believe that it will be solved, the majority of the public does not believe that it will be solved, despite the optimism that is sold. Simply, big part of the citizens just do not believe in this European perspective, and that Macedonia is close to NATO. Not to mention that over the past years, Gruevski's propaganda created a major anti-NATO and anti-EU climate in the country. But now this is changing, but should not be taken for granted. There is media in Macedonia that still spread this anti-NATO/anti-EU propaganda..."

Z.P.B.: "It's not just media, these days there are intellectuals and university professors that are not convinced that we should be members of NATO and the EU. We are not only talking about nationalists, the structure has changed, now there are intellectuals that still use Gruevski's rhetoric. The best example for this is the Law on the use of the Albanian language, there are opponents."

S.J.: "In the past few years, we used to write that Gruevski's rhetoric on these topics is actually in favor of Greece. This was calculated politics, specifically created so Macedonia can never enter the EU or NATO. In order Gruevski and his party to secure eternal power over the country, and eternal business for specific circles. His rhetoric was just defocusing the citizens' attention from the realistic problems. And those business, or should I say mafia, circles are still not defeated. These circles will want to get their power back, they prefer when the attention is on nationalistic issues, instead on real issues."

S.S./IBNA: "Are you an optimist about a solution."

Z.P.B.: "I'm not really optimistic."

S.J.: "I don't agree. I think that this time the dispute will be solved. Because both countries went through crises, people are more pragmatic, we learned our lessons from the mistakes in the past 20 years. I think the chances are pretty high that we will have a solution this time. Both countries have governments that are willing and ready to take risks, but will they have the courage to make those steps? I don't know."

Z.P.B.: "I will use Minister Dimitrov's statement: 'Worried optimist'."/IBNA

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