North Macedonia instantly finds itself on the entrance traces of Russia’s battle on Ukraine. As the most recent member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), becoming a member of in March 2020, the small Balkan nation of 1.8 million has boldly censured and joined sanctions on Moscow – regardless of being closely reliant on Russian power provides.
President Stevo Pendarovski, in energy since May 2019, is now bidding to carry North Macedonia into the European Union (EU), which sure EU members together with Greece and Bulgaria have opposed.
A latest International Republican Institute ballot confirmed that 79% of the North Macedonian public favors EU membership, which might pull the brand new nation nearer to the West and farther from Russia.
Pendarovski is already talking the EU’s language. In February, the North Macedonian chief billed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “an attack on the democratic order and a threat to the stability of Europe.” On March 28, his nation joined a number of different European nations by expelling Russian diplomats from Skopje.
In a wide-ranging unique interview with Asia Times’ correspondent Kourosh Ziabari, Pendarovski spoke candidly about battle, peace, oil and his nation’s lengthy push to lastly grow to be an EU member. This interview has been edited for readability and concision.
Asia Times: Are you in favor of NATO’s involvement to discourage Russia from additional aggression, or do you consider it is going to beget elevated instability? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been urging NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine to boost the prices of army escalation for Russia. Is it one thing you consider the safety alliance ought to think about?
Pendarovski: Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified army aggression towards Ukraine introduced battle again to Europe and grossly violates worldwide regulation and the ideas of the UN Charter, undermining European and international safety and stability. North Macedonia, the latest alliance member, totally helps NATO’s efforts for speedy response and deployment of troops on the territory of our allies, to strengthen safety on the alliance’s Eastern flank and we contribute to those efforts, with our capabilities.
This is a query of our collective safety and a query of European peace and to keep up the worldwide order. At the identical time, allies are united each in offering assist to Ukraine, to uphold the suitable to self-defense. Allies are additionally united with regards to that NATO mustn’t deploy forces on the bottom or within the airspace of Ukraine. We ought to give our greatest to make sure firstly to cease the Russian army invasion so the battle received’t escalate past Ukraine.
Asia Times: Your nation was continuously challenged by Russia within the lead-up to NATO accession in 2020, and Russian authorities had even threatened that within the occasion of a attainable army flare-up, North Macedonia can be a “legitimate target.” Now that you’ve got clearly stood by Ukraine and provided assist, are you involved Russia’s aggression could prolong to your borders?
Pendarovski: We are vocal in our assist for Ukraine’s proper to defend its territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence inside its internationally-recognized borders, in addition to the suitable to self-determination – an especially essential id situation for us as nicely. Firmly assured that it’s of paramount significance to assist any nation on this planet to uphold its basic proper to self-defense, freedom and democracy.
It has been two years since North Macedonia joined NATO and we’ve got confirmed to be a highly-valued ally, selling safety, stability and progress within the Western Balkan area. We at the moment are a part of NATO’s air policing system. Fighter jets from Greece are policing our skies. This is NATO solidarity in observe. Allies stand collectively, to guard and defend one another.
NATO is dedicated to the peaceable decision of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the army energy to undertake disaster administration operations. These are carried out underneath the collective protection clause of NATO’s founding treaty – Article 5 of the Washington Treaty or underneath a United Nations mandate, alone or in cooperation with different nations and worldwide organizations.
Asia Times: The authorities of North Macedonia has began preparations for receiving Ukrainian refugees fleeing battle of their nation. How many refugees have you ever taken in thus far? Are you satisfied you might have the assets to accommodate an enormous inflow, if there’s one, contemplating that you simply’ve already dedicated to internet hosting 750 Afghan refugees as nicely following the Taliban takeover of Kabul?
Pendarovski: There is a smaller variety of Ukrainian nationals who’ve arrived in North Macedonia searching for refuge. The quantity is above 500 individuals, who’re associated to our nation because of household family or mates. There is interagency cooperation of our establishments getting ready to hunt assist to Ukrainian nationals who’re fleeing their dwelling nation.
Asia Times: The President of Ukraine has stated in latest remarks that Ukraine should admit it won’t be a part of NATO. Yet in February, President Zelensky’s spokesperson had stated becoming a member of the alliance was a precedence. This new declaration of neutrality is one thing Russia has lengthy sought and it now seems Ukraine is making the concession. Do you consider that is appeasement within the face of Russian aggression, or a obligatory diplomatic about-face to stave off additional bloodshed and violence in Eastern Europe?
Pendarovski: It is as much as the Ukrainians to resolve their very own future; it’s as much as the world to acknowledge that an impartial and sovereign Ukraine is key to international safety. History has taught us that appeasement may encourage additional aggression. Dialogue and diplomacy should prevail. A diplomatic manner out is the one acceptable path to resolving the battle in a manner to make sure present disputes on core points are negotiated and never fought.
Asia Times: Your nation is a candidate for European Union membership, and Ukraine, going through overwhelming Russian belligerence, has additionally submitted a fast-track bid for EU accession. Do you consider EU membership will shore up Ukraine’s safety and defend it towards future Russian bellicosity? Considering that EU enlargement has opponents such because the French President Emmanuel Macron, who believes there must be treaty reforms earlier than any future enlargement, do you anticipate Ukraine’s bid might be profitable?
Pendarovski: North Macedonia is a putting instance that the EU’s path to membership is arduous. There is not any solution to shortcut the sturdy accession course of. In our case, it’s nonetheless unjustifiably prolonged bearing in mind that we’ve got not even began the negotiations. At the final EU summit in Versailles, the leaders acknowledged the European aspirations and the European selection of Ukraine, as acknowledged within the Association Agreement.
On February 28, 2022, exercising the suitable of Ukraine to decide on its personal future, the President of Ukraine submitted the applying of Ukraine to grow to be a member of the European Union. The Council has acted swiftly and invited the fee to submit its opinion on this utility in accordance with the related provisions of the treaties, which set out the process for becoming a member of the bloc. But the treaties additionally set out many different issues, together with the standards for membership and the truth that nations can solely be a part of the EU with the unanimous consent of all current members.
Asia Times: Russia shouldn’t be one of many prime buying and selling companions of North Macedonia, however nonetheless you had been invited by Russia to affix the Eurasian Economic Union again in 2019. And among the many European nations, North Macedonia is most reliant on Russian pure gasoline, importing almost all of its gasoline consumption from Russia. Yet, you might have joined the US and EU in imposing sanctions on Russia. Will these punitive measures harm the North Macedonia financial system?
Pendarovski: North Macedonia has by no means obtained an invite to be a part of the Eurasian Economic Union. In phrases of sanctions, as a NATO member and a candidate nation for EU membership, it was a logical step to simply accept the EU frequent overseas and safety coverage and the Union’s package deal of sanctions, together with the 2014 package deal of measures [after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.]
North Macedonia is a small nation and thus a small pure gasoline client in comparison with the remainder of Europe. We won’t face a extreme disaster. However, it is usually true that there isn’t any different various for us with regards to gasoline provide. It is anticipated that the brand new scenario won’t have a good influence on our financial system or on Macedonian-Russian financial relations.
Asia Times: One of essentially the most vital roadblocks to North Macedonia’s EU integration was eliminated when Greece withdrew its objection following the decision of the naming dispute in 2019. Now, Bulgaria is getting in the best way and has refused to approve the Union’s negotiation framework on your nation. Do you consider you’ll be able to interact Bulgaria diplomatically to settle the dispute and clean the trail to becoming a member of the EU? What would be the different attainable obstacles?
Pendarovski: I sincerely hope that if we handle to beat the blockade from Bulgaria, there might be no different obstacles on our path to the EU. Otherwise, it will be unsustainable in the long term and determined for our residents. Current developments in Ukraine and the most recent geopolitical tendencies in worldwide relations, as by no means earlier than, point out the necessity for full integration of the area into the EU.
We are at the moment going through rising Euro-skepticism and unfavorable tendencies within the Western Balkans area. If the European establishments don’t discover a modality for unblocking the Macedonian-European integration course of shortly, the enlargement coverage and the credibility of the European Union as an entire might be severely questioned.
Regarding the dispute with Bulgaria, the one solution to obtain a result’s to make use of reasoned rhetoric, mutual respect and keep away from imposing unilateral options. Unfortunately, the Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute is irrational and paradoxical. We are in an unequal place, as a result of we’re exterior the “club”, and it’s pivotal for us in these negotiations to respect the precept of equality between the 2 sides.
EU membership is our strategic objective and there’s no different various. Hence, there’s a robust political will to proceed the dialogue with Bulgaria, and to discover a remaining compromise, which won’t endanger the Macedonian id. There is not any different answer however to proceed negotiating within the spirit of fine neighborliness.
Asia Times: North Macedonia and Greece have been entangled in a 27-year dispute that had overshadowed stability within the Balkans and strained your relations with a key neighbor. Now that the dispute is resolved, how do you see the prospects of cooperation with Greece inside the framework of NATO and the Council of Europe, the place each nations are member states? Are you going to depend on Greece as a serious buying and selling accomplice?
Pendarovski: Greece is now, and has been earlier than, one of the crucial essential commerce companions of North Macedonia. In all these previous years, through the bilateral dispute, the relations between the 2 enterprise communities have by no means been discontinued. It is a incontrovertible fact that the Prespa Agreement that we managed to succeed in after greater than twenty years of negotiations, was a troublesome step for each nations, however we reached it within the curiosity of our frequent future.
What has grow to be a actuality for us since then is NATO membership, the place we’re formal allies. We are dedicated to selling and defending the frequent values, in service of the soundness and prosperity of the area and your complete Euro-Atlantic space. Today, Greece is a supporter of the European perspective of North Macedonia.
As for financial cooperation, Greece is the fifth largest buying and selling accomplice for the Macedonian financial system and the seventh-largest export marketplace for Macedonian merchandise. Statistics present that previously 5 years, imports from Greece have elevated considerably, regardless of the small development of exports, although the Covid-19 pandemic has a big share in these tendencies.
In the sector of financial system, power and infrastructure, initiatives nonetheless stay on the prime of our priorities. In the sector of politics, by strengthening regional cooperation, we have to contribute to a steady, safe and affluent area.
Asia Times: In 2013, North Macedonia joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. North Macedonia was the primary nation of the 16+1 cooperation platform to capitalize on the US$10 billion credit score line earmarked for infrastructure initiatives. What are the infrastructural initiatives you anticipate China to implement as a part of the BRI? How will inclusion on this formidable Chinese scheme support the nationwide financial system?
Pendarovski: North Macedonia and China’s relationship has been growing within the spirit of friendship, mutual understanding and respect for an extended interval. An integral part of the relations is the 16+1 course of. Indeed, North Macedonia was the primary nation to signal a particular settlement for utilizing monetary property for infrastructure initiatives.
However, in actuality, North Macedonia nonetheless hasn’t benefited considerably from the 16+1 initiative. In phrases of involvement on this initiative, initially our nation was ranked eighth and labeled as an “ambitious” nation, after which fell to 13th place.
The development of the 2 highways by the Chinese state-owned Sinohydro undertaking, financed by a $10 billion credit score line offered by China, was deliberate as one of many key initiatives of the 16+1 initiative. However, the undertaking appeared to not be successful because of inner home controversies and no different vital initiatives have been proposed.
Therefore, I think about that the cooperation inside 16+1 must be directed in the direction of particular initiatives and have particular outcomes, particularly within the areas of financial and commerce change and capital infrastructure initiatives.
In order to have real progress and elevated cooperation, free commerce must be enabled, with out administrative burdens, additional opening of the Chinese marketplace for produces from the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), honest competitors, equal therapy of CEE corporations on Chinese markets, respecting the ideas of reciprocity and mutual profit, respecting the multilateral commerce guidelines of the World Trade Organization, in accordance with the rules, insurance policies, values and ideas of the EU.
Asia Times: Does your authorities have a long-term imaginative and prescient for stronger partnerships with Middle East nations, the place your authorities’s diplomatic footprint appears to be tenuous? For occasion, are there plans to open embassies in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and different main states within the area with which you haven’t labored intently? Is North Macedonia prepared to learn from augmented commerce with these nations, that are considerably wealthy by way of pure assets and power reserves?
SP: The Republic of North Macedonia, as a small nation, practices a coverage of openness to the East and to the West. We have at all times been able to construct relations and develop cooperation with all well-intended nations on this planet.
North Macedonia has established diplomatic relations with the nations you talked about, however sadly, we don’t have an intensive and energetic political dialogue and change of visits, which, however, is a precondition for deepening bilateral cooperation.
Hence, mutual efforts are wanted to pave that path, to enhance the contractual framework and to create circumstances for using financial potentials and commerce. As for the opening of diplomatic missions, it relies upon not solely on our political will, however, above all, on our capacities and assets.
Follow Kourosh Ziabari on Twitter at @OkZiabari