Skopje does not fear Kosovo’s independence
by Branko Crvenkovski - interviewed by Amra Kebo
The president of Macedonia - interviewed by Amra Kebo for NIN (Belgrade)
What are your views on the failed referendum?*
Contrary to a widespread view that Macedonia was heading for a new crisis whatever the outcome of the referendum, we can say today that the country is entering a period of enhanced stability, and that our option for a peaceful and multiethnic policy and entry into the EU enjoys far greater support and legitimacy than before. The fact that the referendum failed indicates that most of the population approves the policy conducted by the government over the past two or three years.
The forthcoming elections based on decentralization are in fact a concession to the Albanian minority. How do you draw the line between the country’s decentralization and disintegration?
Decentralization is a European trend, which we would have adopted even without the conflict of three years ago that led to the signing of the Ohrid Agreement. The Agreement was important not only because it ended the conflict, but also because it signalled a new constitutional approach, especially the part dealing with the [Albanian] ethnic community. It is true that decentralization is a key component of the Agreement; it is also true that with our new laws, the holding of local elections, and the transfer of competencies from the central to the local level, we shall have completed the post-conflict period and entered a new one, involving the realization of a new project: a European Macedonia. As for the danger of disintegration, no such danger exists; in fact, since the referendum we find ourselves entering a period of renewed stability.
I could offer you many arguments against the possibility of disintegration, but will limit myself to the following. Before the adoption of the 1991 constitution we in fact had a highly decentralized system of government, in which the local municipalities were responsible for health, education, and so on. During the previous thirty years and more we had known incomparably less ethnic tension than we experienced after the new constitution was introduced. Our new map of the country’s territorial organisation practically coincides with the one that was in force before 1991, while the essential pillars of the state such as defence, police, foreign and monetary policies remain unchanged. We are talking, in other words, of a transfer of power in areas that can be better tackled by local rather than central authorities, such as urban planning, health services, education, culture, etc. We have some experience in this regard, and the European Union states have even more than we do. The process of decentralization, in other words, is leading not to disintegration but to bringing power closer to the people, which can only increase their confidence in the government.
Kiro Gligorov, Macedonia’s first president, has come out against the decentralization and the Ohrid Agreement from which it derives. How do you explain this?
Former president Gligorov favoured the holding of the referendum. Your question gives me the opportunity to point out that there are, in fact, three kinds of opposition to the Ohrid Agreement. A first group opposes it because it allegedly grants too many rights to the Albanians; a second does not oppose the Agreement as such, but rather what led to it, i.e. the use of armed force; while a third believes that ethnic coexistence is impossible, and that the Macedonians and the Albanians should separate for good - former prime minister Ljubčo Georgijevski openly argued this at the time.
Where would you place Kiro Gligorov?
Gligorov has repeatedly criticized the Agreement because of the manner in which it was reached, i.e. after armed conflicts and injuries. This is a legitimate view, of course, but my job as a politician is not simply to analyse and interpret problems, but also and above all to try to solve them. We were confronting a conflict and a danger that it could escalate into a total inter-ethnic war of the kind that happened in Bosnia. We had a choice between the Bosnian scenario and reaching an agreement. We took responsibility for the latter because we thought, and still do, that it is better to reach a compromise before rather than after the conflict, better to make considerable concessions in order to prevent a war rather than negotiate after great loss of life and destruction. The past three years have shown that we were right. I know that a typical Balkan policy involves constant return to the past, constant warfare and peace agreements; but we decided to be untypical and to reach an agreement before bloodshed. I believe that we were right.
You have no qualms whatever then about the Ohrid Agreement?
It is not ideal, of course, but it was the only possible solution at the time. I signed it at the time as leader of the opposition, and remain convinced that it was the right thing to do.
So you would not say that EU and US representatives intervened too much in the dispute over the referendum?
I would not call it intervention but interest. I am persuaded that the positive declarations on the part of the international community show nothing more than that our partners and friends are carefully following what is happening in Macedonia, which is very encouraging not only for me and the government, but also for the region as a whole. It would be very bad news if, on the occasion of an important event such as the holding of this referendum, they had shown a complete lack of interest in it - in other words, in the direction in which this country is heading.
We hear a lot these days about old and new Europe, the latter being made up of those East European states which are more loyal to the USA than to the EU. What kind of West do you feel closer to, the EU or the USA?
There exist some evident differences between the European states and the USA, which we study with care, but we have no intention of taking sides, of aligning ourselves with one or the other. Our aim is to join both the EU and NATO, which is why we seek close relations with both the European states and the USA. I often hear independent intellectuals, experts and journalists talk about old and new Europe, about what is right and what is wrong, but I have been elected president of Macedonia not in order to right the world’s wrongs, but to do the best for my country and my people.
Western envoys often say that this region cannot expect quick integration or investment without the Kosovo question being solved first. What in your view is the solution to this problem?
Kosovo is the last unresolved problem in the Balkans. It is important, in my view, not only when it will be solved, but also how it will be solved, since the choice of method will decide the stability of Kosovo and of the region. Although we shall play no decisive role in the process, we shall bear the consequences if the manner in which Kosovo’s status comes to be decided proves wrong. I do not agree, however, with those in Belgrade who say that Kosovo’s independence will lead to Macedonia’s break-up and disappearance; nor with those Kosovo politicians who say that a delay in Kosovo’s acquisition of independence would have catastrophic consequences for Macedonia. For us, the most important thing is that Kosovo is placed under the rule of law and acquires the institutions that will support such a rule; that this area ceases to be a black hole from which extremists can spread instability to the neighbouring countries. That clear and firm rules of the game should be established in Kosovo is more important to us than the nature of its final status. Neither its existing status nor its integration into the framework of another state will be of any benefit to us in the absence of the rule of law.
When do you expect a solution to the Kosovo question?
I expect that negotiations will start in the coming year, but no one can tell how long they will last. It is my view, on the other hand, that the international community will have to remain in Kosovo for a long time regardless of its final status.
It seems that the only significant problem affecting the relationship between Serbia and Macedonia is the conflict between their churches. How do you see its solution?
The relationship between Serbia and Macedonia is in my view quite excellent. The friendship between our two nations has not been impaired despite the past fifteen stormy years. I am happy to say that no open question exists between us except perhaps for that of the church. Since according to our constitution church and state are separate, one could take the view that the two churches should be left to solve their own problems; but the fact is that their conflict is creating an atmosphere within our societies that inevitably has a negative effect on our relations. This is why I wish to say a few simple truths. Orthodox churches are by definition national churches. Since Serbia recognizes the existence of the Macedonian nation and state, it surely also ought to recognize the Macedonian nation’s right to have its own church. The Serbian media write, for example, that Bishop Jovan is not allowed to tend to the religious needs of Macedonian Serbs; but this is not true, since Jovan is neither a Serb nor does he address Serb Christians. His role, in fact, is to negate the existence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, to suggest that what exists in Macedonia is only the archbishopric of Ohrid. The problem lies in the negation of the existence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, not in the right of the Macedonian Serbs to practise their religion.
The American decision, after so many years, to recognize Macedonia by its own name on the eve of the referendum has been interpreted in various ways. How do you see this decision?
The decision was made after the US elections and had nothing to do with the referendum. Our citizens have very much welcomed it. Our critics, who regularly attack us for working closely with the USA, must surely now recognize that our policy is on the right track. The US decision was based above all on the belief that this was only a matter of time, since it makes no sense to recognize our country’s sovereign right to independence and at the same time deny it the right to call itself by its own name. The evident political weight of Greece in the Balkans and Europe cannot prevent a power like the United States from behaving in a principled manner. The US decision was not unexpected, since the Americans have recognized our name on three prior occasions. To begin with, when we signed the Adriatic Convention together with Albania, Croatia and the United States, as part of our joint process of integration into NATO, Colin Powell signed his name next to ‘Macedonia’. American representatives have similarly signed two other documents, one regarding the exemption of US citizens from eventual surrender to the international criminal court, and the other on the non-proliferation of WMD.
*Branko Crvenkovski was born in Sarajevo on 12 October1962, and graduated from the faculty of electronic engineering of the University of Skopje. He was elected as a deputy to the Macedonian parliament in the first multiparty elections in 1990, when he signed the demand for a referendum on Macedonia’s independence. In April 1991 he was elected president of the Social-Democratic Alliance at the party’s founding congress. He became Macedonia’s prime minister in 1992 at the age of 29, which made him the youngest premier in Europe, and remained in the post until 1998. From 1998 to 2002 he was a deputy in the Macedonian parliament and leader of the largest opposition group, before becoming prime minister again from 2002 to 2004. Following the death of Boris Trajkovski in an air crash on his way to Mostar, Crvenkovski was elected Macedonia’s president on 28 May 2004. This interview has been translated from a longer version published in NIN (Belgrade), 18 November 2004, following the failure of a unofficial referendum organized by the Macedonian nationalist right with the aim of repudiating the terms of the Ohrid Agreement signed in August 2001, giving greater rights to the country’s Albanian minority.