H.E. Marjan Gjorchev: We, on the Balkans, are cosmopolitans

Our countries must bet on the European way of thinking, not on national egotism

Photo: Alexander Petrov

The people on the Balkans have developed a multicultural model, and this is a value which we can share with the EU communities. It is fair to say that Bulgaria has seized a leading role in the EU accession process of the other Balkan countries, Marjan Gjorchev, ambassador of North Macedonia to Bulgaria says in an interview to Europost.

Your Excellency, congratulations on the signing of the Accession Protocol with the NATO ambassadors in Brussels on 6 February, which paves the way for your country's membership in the military alliance. How are the Macedonians taking in this new perspective after 27 years of striving for it?

Your readers should know that the citizens of North Macedonia, as is the official name of our country now, chose this path in the early 1990s. At the time, over 70% of them supported the idea of the country joining the European Union and NATO. That was not by accident. Since the time of the Yugoslavia federation, of which Macedonia was an integral part along with the other five states, talks on some form of cooperation were held for 12 years with what was then the European Community. The process did not bear fruit for many different reasons. But my generation was essentially brought up with and educated according to European standards. By the 1980s, we were already working with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In that sense, Macedonian citizens have known and embraced the values of the European project and the alliance for half a century. Over the past 27 years, we have not lost confidence in those two Euro-Atlantic organisations for a single moment. There were crises - the collapse of Yugoslavia and the ensuing wars of the 1990s, the unrest in Macedonia in 2001 - but our citizens have always endeavoured to be part of the European family.

In his speech, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the signing of the Accession Protocol a “historic event” and noted the role played by Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev in forging the Prespa agreement. What made the reconciliation with Greece possible?

I think that all political decisions that the Macedonian leaders have made so far, including the latest ones, have been informed by the various cooperation and friendship initiatives between the two countries' citizens. Following the fall from power of the Greek military junta, over half a million Macedonian citizens a year - and the number has now grown to about a million - spent their summer vacation at Aegean Sea locations, Peloponnese, Crete and Corfu. All these people communicate with the locals, arrange various joint enterprises and talk about the past, the future and the present. I believe that the political progress achieved by our leaders is the results of this accumulated positive energy. It is true that the two prime ministers, Zaev and Tsipras, were able to channel it and create at a political level additional momentum for these good relations between citizens. It was just the right time.

Now that the naming dispute with Greece has been solved, do you see Macedonia's accession to the European Union as something that can be attained sooner rather than later? What are your expectations for the development of the EU membership drive for the Western Balkan countries as a whole?

The European Union is based on certain principles and I believe that they will be the key factors going forward. We have a strong argument in our favour - on 9 April 2001 we signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the bloc. As of December last year, we are in its second phase. Under the provision of Article 68, we have already transposed almost the entire European legislation into the Macedonian one. This involves over 1,500 European legal texts that are now part of our regulations. Coupled with our experience from the time of the Yugoslav federation and the international financial commitments we have met in terms of standardisation, this gives us confidence that we can prepare for membership in short order. Of course, Serbia and Montenegro, which received 2025 as probable date for EU accession, are ahead of us on the line. But we too have a sufficient basis and believe that we are well prepared in comparison to other countries that are in talks. On certain chapters such as Agriculture, for example, we have essentially been part of the European single market since 2004, as we have all the necessary certificates and observe all standards relating to the export of farm produce. The fact that we have succeeded in this complex area, which involves phytosanitary and veterinary control, means we will certainly manage in the textile industry, the engineering industry, etc.

So we are moderately optimistic. The European Union requires honesty and continuity. We have already opened talks on chapters 23 and 24, which are no less complex as they concern ethnic minorities. Macedonia is a signatory to the European framework agreement in this sphere. As regards the judicial system, we have long established a Judicial Council to oversee the work of judges and prosecutors as a precondition for its independence. Of course, there are many problems as well. There is always something to improve on, and we will act according to the recommendations of the experts in Brussels.

Is it fair to say that the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU created an impulse for an EU political catharsis of sorts, and enhanced interest in the Western Balkans?

It was much more than an impulse, it was a strong impetus. I believe that what Bulgaria did was of great benefit to both the Western Balkans and the European Union. In Sofia, it was reaffirmed that the accession of these countries is important to the unification of the continent and its security - especially when taking into account that the Balkan region is the gate to the Middle East and Asia. Bulgaria truly did a lot. The country has shown huge support for Macedonia on several occasions in the past. In 1992, Bulgaria became the first country to recognise Macedonia and then in 1994 it established diplomatic relations. The other nations in the region also have active relations with Bulgaria. I hope that the created resonance is sustained during the current Romanian Presidency and then during the ones to follow - the Finish, the Croatian. It is fair to say that Bulgaria has seized a leading role in the EU accession process of the other Balkan countries.

Usually, the less experience we have the greater are our expectations, which often results in disappointments. Do people in Macedonia identify with the country's political and economic elite as regards the European perspective?

I am a man advanced in age who can speak looking back in the past, too. Our elites have never had problems with capital inflows into Macedonia. Germany is our key trade partner, followed by Great Britain and Greece, with Serbia and Bulgaria, respectively, taking the fourth and fifth places. As far as the people are concerned, as I have already said, percentagewise they support the future EU membership in the majority. However, people's feelings and attitudes very often depend on their wellbeing. We are living within the culture of money. Talking about the community as a whole, I think that the support is unconditional. And this is not only because of free travel. We have always thought about ourselves as Europeans.

Would you agree that the Balkan countries realise now more than yesterday that it is to their benefit to reject the feuds of the past and to help each other in order to go ahead and not to be the perpetual laggards pushed to the periphery?

Yes, we are the anteroom of our common European home. But you cannot do without an anteroom. I think that Europe needs us. We are watching what Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Romania do at the so-called four-lateral meetings. They demonstrate the will of the Balkan countries to live in unity and to cooperate. If I have to quote our two countries, on 4 February our prime ministers, Zaev and Borissov, announced that Bulgaria and Macedonia will work towards making our countries a tariff-free or a preferential trade. Of course, Sofia has to convince Brussels that it is beneficial. We do have such a tariff union with Serbia where tariffs on many goods are a mere 1%. With Albania and Kosovo we have agreements which ensure passport-free movement of people. These are the key rules of the common market: freedom of movement for goods, capital and people. In the early 2000's, Greece was the heaviest investor in Macedonia. It was then that they bought the Macedonian petrol refinery and our biggest bank - Stopanska Banka. This means an inflow of capital. Many Greek nationals are working in our country and so far no one has posed a question why their state does not recognise our constitutional name.

The friendship agreement with Bulgaria was also the result of good will of the Macedonian and Bulgarian citizens who want to do many things together and to implement joint initiatives. Moreover, as it is now apparent, time has come for the Europe of regions. There is a need for such a strategy. Because the Baltic region, the Mid-European one and the Balkans, they all are facing different issues. These ideas are nascent now and we are prepared to cooperate for their further improvement.

The Balkans may be useful for Europe because the Balkan peoples have been living together for centuries, no matter what the ethnic and confessional differences between them are. Actually, we on the Balkans are cosmopolitans. In other words, we have developed a multicultural model, and this is a value which we can share with the EU communities.

Is there any progress in the projects related to better cooperation in different spheres, such as transport, communications and energy, which were outlined at the EU-Western Balkans summit last year? Will we be able to prove that we can work together?

Yes, these projects are in progress. Within the coming days, Mr Plamen Pavlov, President of the Bulgarian-Macedonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, will have a meeting with Macedonian Vice PM Kocho Angjushev. They will discuss the gas interconnector for which we have signed a memorandum and now the technical design will be prepared. It will also be connected with Greece, but it has to be part of Bulgaria's energy strategy to get financing. The second project is the railroad line along Transport Corridor 8. On the part of Macedonia, PM Zaev announced that the country has already allocated €600m for it. Bulgaria has also contributed €70m. We have been promised that by the end of 2019 the mobile communications will have become cheaper because now they are quite expensive and this impedes business. Macedonia is interested in taking part in the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belene. We have discussed the topic with Bulgaria's Vice PM Tomislav Donchev. Because there is a deficit of electric power capacity on the Balkans. But the experts, including those of Euratom, must have their say.

On the Balkans, including Bulgaria which is a Member State, we often fail to realise that transformation and the progress of society depends on us primarily, and not so much on the EU funds. How could we change this way of thinking?

In the World Bank's report Doing Business, which assesses the business climate, Macedonia ranks among the world's top 20. But the fact that we are not EU and NATO members, our internal conflicts and the migrant crisis in the EU have been hampering the inflow of foreign investments into Macedonia. So, hitherto, we were making progress using our own resources. However, the ongoing fourth industrial revolution - digitalisation, 3D-printers, robotronics and artificial intelligence - they all call for border-free economic cooperation. If in these spheres we rely on our own resources only, we will lag behind the vanguard of progress. For instance, the Bulgarian company Musala Soft has been working in Macedonia for three years now, and it is evident that this company imports to our country high technologies and know-how.

What should we do to boost our bilateral economic exchange?

In 2017, our bilateral trade turnover stood at about €723m and showed 11% growth year-on-year. As of yet, we do not have final data for 2018 but preliminary estimates stand at about €780m and 8-9% growth. We have to think what else can we do together to be more efficient. There is an idea to create a common agricultural bourse which will be export-oriented and not only to Europe but also to the US and China. This will enable us to pool our expert capacities in environmental protection, marketing, design and advertising. Tourism is also developing. Last year, around 560,000 Macedonians visited Bulgaria and over 400,000 Bulgarians went to Macedonia. These are more than a million people who communicate, find friends and partners. Tour operators also build their own projects - for instance we can offer monastery tours around Macedonia, lake tours, tours along the wine routes in both countries. And why not drawing in these projects also Greece, Albania and Serbia, seeking joint financing?

Russia and Turkey think of our region as their historically formed sphere of influence, the US as platform for their own interests, China sees it as springboard for its political and economic offensive in Europe. These countries will hardly lessen their efforts. The question is, can we draw dividends from this competition?

This issue pertains to the movement of capital. Everyone is trying to place their capital, to fertilise it, make it work and generate added value for them. The European Union is the structure which has to find a modus operandi for its Member States that will facilitate their cooperation with China, Russia, the US, Turkey, the countries of South America and Africa. To make progress, we have to build common policy. There should be no double standards, which spoil even the best of endeavours. Because the EU is a very powerful force both politically and economically, and we have to stand united within it. We have to adopt the European way of thinking, national egotism is detrimental.

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Ambassador Marjan Gjorchev, 62, holds a master's degree in international economic relations from Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. During his distinguished career, he has served as mayor; minister of agriculture, forestry and waters (1999-2002); Member of Parliament (2002-2006); head of the Macedonian Privatisation Agency; and chairperson of the management board of the Deposit Insurance Fund. He is currently the pro bono chairperson of the PanEuropa Union for his country. He is also a former president of the Macedonia representation of the World Chess Federation. Mr Gjorchev has authored four books and hundreds of articles and opinion pieces. He is married, with two daughters.

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