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There is "no alternative" to EU membership for North Macedonia, PM Zoran Zaev tells DW's Conflict Zone. But after 16 years of waiting and "too much trauma," can Skopje overcome the hurdles it faces to join the bloc?
North Macedonia was officially included in the agenda for EU enlargement in 2005; the promissory note that Brussels offered Skopje on the conditions of good behavior and reforms is now older than the country's new name. Yet with a track record of steady reforms, Skopje has seen the process slowed down to a virtual halt, which has not only raised issues about the European future of the country but has also increased internal pressure and political friction helping to buttress anti-European sentiments. Speaking to DW's Sarah Kelly from Skopje, North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said that "sixteen and a half years waiting, it's too much trauma."
The postponed European aspirations of North Macedonia are also seen by critics within and outside the bloc as a cautionary tale about the untamed power of member states with veto power over long political and institutional processes.
North Macedonia, which joined NATO in 2020, is still pushing for EU accession after a yearslong process. As the PM pointed out to Kelly, North Macedonia is a country "surrounded completely by European Union member countries" but still denied membership. Its European aspirations have meant that Skopje does not merely have to satisfy the Copenhagen criteria that require the completion of institutional reforms to guarantee democratic safeguards and guarantees of the rule of EU law in the country, but it has also been forced to cater to the whims of some of its neighbors, who within the EU club have the capacity to veto its accession.
None has shown the compelling power of the EU promise more than the Greek demand imposed on then-Macedonia to change its name. The change of name, which came at great political cost, came via a referendum in 2018, during Zaev's first term in office — but did not bring the matter to an end.
During the UEFA EURO 2020, PM Zaev tweeted well wishes to his country's team, which he referred to as Macedonia. This was met by a rebuke from Athens, which did not only complain but put a memorandum of cooperation between the two countries on hold, presumably to impress upon the Macedonian prime minister how far Athens would go to keep the name Macedonia for itself.
Then in 2020, Bulgaria, which had supported Macedonian aspirations, turned to the EU with another demand: the recognition of the Macedonian language as a dialect of Bulgarian. As Bulgarian President Rumen Radev explained: "We cannot say 'Yes' before being convinced that our neighbor won't be building its identity by stealing from Bulgaria's history."
And thus, as Zaev pointed out to Kelly, "Bulgaria became a problem for [Macedonian] integration." The new Bulgarian position was seen by many as an attempt by then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to cater to nationalists as he was faced with a general election.
Late in June, Zaev visited Sofia with what were reported to be "concrete proposals" to start negotiations with the caretaker government to end the crisis. However, the content of the proposal was never clarified and it triggered a political firestorm in Skopje that threatened the stability of the Zaev government.
For conservatives in the country, Zaev's current negotiation with Sofia has some of the trappings and forms of the Greek demand for a name change.
That referendum saw a turnout of less than 40%. Yet Zaev has come to read his reelection as a referendum on that process. "I still have, [for the] second time, the honor to lead the country after the changing of the name of the country," he told Kelly.
Nevertheless, a lack of transparency and clarity in the process is one that has also been noticed by Skopje's EU sponsors — indeed, a recent report has singled out corruption and lack of transparency as one of the most salient problems in the reforms, and last year North Macedonia slipped to its lowest-ever ranking on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Zaev took this as a positive, telling Kelly "that means that our society is open completely, so the citizens aren't afraid anymore to comment publicly [on] everything that's happening in our country."
Moreover, he hit back at accusations that his government, which came to power on promises to fight corruption, had failed in that regard. The prime minister insisted that "one of the main focus of the government is to use all international successful tools for fighting crime and corruption. And we have very good results already. This report was really bad for us, but we take it completely to learn from that."
Alongside rampant corruption, chronic economic distress including high unemployment among youth, have meant that the country has undergone a wave of emigration that has also impacted its socio-economic future: Zaev admitted that the brain drain has had an effect: "One of the main fights for every country here in southeastern Europe, also in North Macedonia, is how to keep young people to stay at home in the country and to find jobs here and to organize their own life here because we lost a lot in the last 15 years."
Many of theseemigres have gone towards the EU in search of better conditions for themselves — looking for a future that the EU had promised to bring to Macedonia 16 years ago. Zaev said that "only a European Union future leaves all of us with hope that there will be more and more europization in our country. How more and more rule of law, more and more [of] a good health system, European education system, good economic situation in the country," more European standards here in North Macedonia, that leads us" toward a promising future.