The Macedonia-Greece agreement that solved the 27-year long dispute on the name of Macedonia means that “we have finally got a country that nobody is disputing,” Prime Minister of Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, said in an exclusive interview for N1’s Pressing programme on Wednesday.
In his first interview for a foreign media outlet after reaching the name deal with Greece which will change the country's name to North Macedonia, opening the door to membership in the European Union and NATO, Zaev also talked about recent developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider region.
“We decided to make decisions. Our citizens vote for us to make such decisions. Citizens elect the leaders who will be making tough decisions. All of us in Macedonia knew we would have to solve that sooner or later. When I was honoured to be appointed the Prime Minister I was aware of that problem,” said Zaev, reminding that his country had bilateral problems with each of its five neighbours back at that time.
Leader of the country's main centre-left party SDSM, Zaev took office in May 2017 after a snap election which had been called to resolve a deadlocked political and institutional crisis in the country then led by former prime minister Nikola Gruevski and his nationalist VMPRO-DPMNE party.
As for the naming dispute which went on for nearly three decades, the international community encouraged the two countries to find a solution, but the decision to flesh out a deal was upon Macedonia and Greece alone, he said.
“They wanted to have this dispute resolved, so that Macedonia can become a member of the European Union and NATO,” added Zaev.
According to him, 70 percent support of citizens to the so-called Prespa Agreement shows they are ready to "follow their leaders." Hopefully, said Macedonia’s Prime Minister, this will encourage the leaders in rest of the region to solve problems in their bilateral relations.
Macedonia had held a referendum on the naming agreement with Greece in September 2018. Although the agreement was approved by the overwhelming majority of those who voted, the referendum was marked with a very low turnout of around 37 percent.
Speaking of the progress of countries in the region on their integration into the EU and NATO, Zaev said that these two were parallel processes.
“I want Bosnia and Herzegovina to become a NATO member. I honestly wish it would become a member of the European Union. NATO brings peace and stability, and the European Union brings values,” he told N1.
Politicians have to listen to the wishes of their citizens when it comes to these two associations, Zaev said, and added that he is aware of the stance of Serbs living in Serbia and in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, where support for NATO membership is low.
NATO had bombarded Serb-held positions in the closing stages of the 1992-95 Bosnian War, and later conducted a bombing campaign in 1999 against Serbia during the Kosovo War.
“This is my advice, let Bosnia and Herzegovina take the path it has to take. I understand Serbia which went through the (NATO) bombing, that's clear. But there is no alternative. What else could be an alternative? To be neutral? What will that bring?,” Zaev said.
Opening rather than closing borders across the region should be a goal to pursue, and the region should cooperate more, which would then make the rest of Europe respect it, Zaev said.
“We on the territory of ex-Yugoslavia are brotherly people. I respect that. I was fond of Yugoslavia, and I dream of all of us getting back together. That’s how it is going to be in the European Union,” said Zaev.
In his message for the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zaev said they should all take care of each other.
“They say that some 11-15 percent of Bosnians are ethnic Croats, some 30 percent are ethnic Serbs, and about 55 percent are ethnic Bosniaks. The group which is in the majority must show generosity and respect for minorities. Because that’s a democratic value. Majority communities must try harder for everyone in the country to enjoy the same rights and have the same obligations,” he said.
A civic state does not mean the rule of one ethnic group, but the rule of all of its citizens, Zaev added.
Explaining the reason behind his fondness for Bosnia, Zaev said it was about Macedonia sharing a similar mentality and the same values, and because “we had been close in ex-Yugoslavia.”
“We’re the same people, with the same mentality. We believe in the same values. We have the same dreams and I believe we can help each other,” said Zaev.