Prespa Institute’s Director Stojkovski/ “We Are All Living in a ‘New Cold War’”

Should we compare the Index results with the Image Observatory 2020 we see that there is a dominant position between our citizens that Albania is a friend or the relationship is positive. However, there is also a fifth of the population that says Albania is an enemy with hidden intentions, insidious, bad or incorrect, and the relationship between the two countries is negative,” said Director Andrea Stojkovski

By Genc Mlloja

Senior Diplomatic Editor

“Facing Stable Democracies or Taking a Path with Inconsistent Trajectory” is a report from the research for the International Impact Index for 2019 and represents the countries and their international presence in the Republic of North Macedonia. Albanian Daily News had a lengthy conversation with the Executive Director of the Prespa Institute, Andrea Stojkovski, co-author of the research together with Diana Zupanoska, Senior Researcher at PRESPA Institute, Goran Lazarov, Research Fellow of PRESPA Institute, and professor Dragan Tevdovski, PhD. Project Econometrist. “Our study helps us establish the actual presence of 24 countries in North Macedonia,” said Professor Stojkovski, coordinator of the work, which includes also detailed findings related to Albania’s presence in North Macedonia.

“There is a lot of potential for the future relations of the two countries and huge space for improvement,” said the Director of the Executive Director of the Prespa Institute, Andrea Stojkovski, in the following interview:

- The report on the International Impact Index 2019 measuring the foreign presence in North Macedonia entitled “Facing Stable Democracies or Taking a Path with Inconsistent Trajectory” has recently been published being financed by USAID and implemented by the PRESPA Institute. As co-author and coordinator of the work, please, could you share with ADN’s readers some of the main topics of the study, and its target?

- Some years ago, I ran into the Global Presence Index of the Elcano Royal Institute. It is a perfect study of the presence of more than 150 countries at the global level. At that time, my country was facing the problems of the captured state and going through the internal struggle to, yet another, freedom. It coincided with the hearing in the US Congress on the Budget for Foreign Affairs and Secretary Kerry’s remark that our region falls on the line of conflict. This was an interesting period and many political analysts were speaking of foreign influence and how much different countries are involved with what is happening to us.

The International Impact Index responds to the question “To what extent and in what form are countries present within the borders of North Macedonia?” It measures the presence of 24 countries in North Macedonia in Economic, Political and Soft Dimensions, through 20 variables and 47 indicators. The creation of the Index was done following closely the methodology of the Elcano Global Presence Index and the “Handbook on Constructing Composite Indicators – Methodology and User Guide” published by the OECD and the Joint Research Committee of the European Union. However, the complete research process was much more extensive. It included additional qualitative research with 47 interviews with experts in the field of Foreign Policy, International Relations, European Affairs, etc. This was followed by a survey on a representative sample. Both the interviews and the survey focused on Neighborly Relations, Economic Exchange, Political Relations and Cultural Cooperation. Finally, through the survey we also did research Stereotypes, Attitudes and Opinions about the 24 countries we observe under the Index.

The whole approach was developed in such a manner which allows us to interpret, analyze, establish thesis on how much a country uses its presence to gain influence or achieve impact.

- Mr. Director, how much do the study’s findings and conclusions help understand the complex political dynamics in the Western Balkans, and the perspective of the region, particularly with regard to its integration in the EU?

- Our study helps us establish the actual presence of 24 countries in North Macedonia. It works well for us, as one country, but would definitely not help much understanding the whole region. Comparing our findings with the findings of the Elcano Global Presence Index we see that unlike the global level, presence in a particular country depends on geographical closeness, political alignment, foreign policies and interests as well as many, many other reasons. Take China for example. At the global level China is the runner-up, following immediately the USA and having one third smaller presence than that of the globally most present country. In North Macedonia, China is at number 15, with presence that is much smaller than that of the USA. Additionally, the only position where Russia is doing well is their political presence. Only in this dimension, Russia is in the Top 10. This shows that contrary to the popular believes and the public discourse Russia and China are less present in reality in North Macedonia.

However, presence is the foundation of impact or influence, but it requires extra steps and a different process to transform presence into influence.

- As other neighboring countries Albania has its place in the study. Please could you reveal some of the main findings related with it of the report?

- Albania is a neighboring country that trades fairly well in the Index. In 2019 it is positioned at number 10 in the overall placement. However, when one analyzes the specific dimensions the positions are varying. For example, Albania is considerably low when it comes to the economic dimension. This should be at no surprise, as Albania is not the obvious trade partner for North Macedonia, it has small exchange, and the only two areas where its presence is visible are energy (due to its closeness and potential for electrical energy import) and remittances (due to the size of the Albanian diaspora originating from North Macedonia).

In the remaining two areas Albania is positioned at number 10 in the political dimension and at number 8 in the soft dimension. To go deeper, Albania has significantly developed bilateral cooperation with North Macedonia and ranks 4th in that particular variable. It is only outperformed by Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. When looking at the variable on diplomatic relations, Albania is outperformed by Croatia, Slovenia and Turkey. Finally, in the soft dimension, Albania’s rank is basically due to the fact that we are neighbors and there is a large ethnic Albanian Community in North Macedonia. To go through the variables, there’s a large expat community of Albanians in North Macedonia, the country is mentioned often by the mainstream media in their news and reports and discussed at large on social media. Finally, there is a relatively large community of students from Albania in North Macedonia.

- Reading the study, it has drawn my attention the following: "The curse of a neighboring country is reinforced by the fact that there is a large ethnic Albanian community in North Macedonia.” What has led the authors to the correlation of ‘curse’ with the presence of the ethnic Albanian community in North Macedonia?

- As I just said, Albania trades fairly well in our Index and her best positioning is in the soft dimension, where it ranks at number 8. This, as we just analyzed, is to a large extent due to the ethnic Albanian community in North Macedonia. It does not mean that Albania is doing less, or that the ethnic Albanian community in North Macedonia is working for Albania. The methodology of the research is such and takes into consideration the footprint of Albania in North Macedonia, which in this case is supported by the existence of an ethnic Albanian community.

There is a lot of potential for the future relations of the two countries and huge space for improvement. Should we compare the Index results with the Image Observatory 2020 we see that there is a dominant position between our citizens that Albania is a friend or the relationship is positive. However, there is also a fifth of the population that says Albania is an enemy with hidden intentions, insidious, bad or incorrect, and the relationship between the two countries is negative. On the other hand, the first association for our citizens on Albania is tourism, but for 8% of the citizens the association is Greater Albania and the fear of the Islam. For two countries with such potential and with so much in common this is really bad. It speaks of the stereotypes and mistrust that there is between the people, and how heavy a burden that is to our relationship. That is why we wrote “The curse of a neighboring country is reinforced by the fact that there is a large ethnic Albanian community in North Macedonia”. However, “Curse” is definitely a bad choice of word. Therefore, on behalf of the authors and PRESPA Institute, as well as on my personal behalf I apologize for this.

- In the meantime, Mr. Director, both Albania and North Macedonia expect to start the accession talks with the first intergovernmental meeting with the Union. According to your expertise, which are their opportunities for the talks to kick off within this year, and might there be different stages of the process for them?

- Recently in Skopje, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation organized focus groups with think-tank representatives from North Macedonia, on the Future of the EU. Asked about the relationship with Western Balkans and EU Enlargement Policy I said that it should be “Strict and Fair”, meaning we need it to be rule based and very much credible. In this sense, I would say, there should be Inter-Governmental Conference on both of the countries and an actual opening of Accession Negotiations.

However, let’s be frank, that there are many countries that do not object North Macedonia and state that there should be no extra conditions set for the country. The only objection comes from Bulgaria, and it will be clear in the following few weeks whether there will be an IGC for North Macedonia. When speaking of Albania, the situation is different. There are a couple of Member States that speak about problems in the area of judiciary and rule of law. As opposed to North Macedonia, some Member States have ventured into proposing additional conditions to be set. However, there is no will between the Member States for de-coupling. This may lead us into a situation where Bulgaria acts as a shield for those objecting Albania and vice versa.

I hope that it will not be the case, as we’ve learned recently Bulgaria is under a lot of pressure from Germany and the matter has been dealt effectively by the Presidency and the COELA that all leads to the approval of the Negotiations Framework on November 10, 2020 and the first IGC being organized before the end of the year. However, if this fails and there is some form of blockage of the process, it will further decrease the credibility of the European Union and limit the EU’s capacity to be a global player and a partner to all the countries in the Western Balkans.

- With the name dispute resolved with Greece, some outstanding issues continue to ‘burden’ the relationship between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Do you expect a resolution to them so that they cannot become an obstacle to Skopje’s integration process?

- In our Image Observatory 2020, we analyzed also perceptions and attitudes of the citizens towards the two agreements, with Agreement on Good Neighborly Relations with Bulgaria and the Prespa Accord with Greece. Our findings are that people assess more positively the Prespa Accord than the Agreement on Good Neighborly Relations. Support for both agreements is growing across the ethnic spectrum and throughout the country, but there is large opposition concentrated in a few regions particularly those nearing the Bulgarian border and with those 55 and above. Finally, the cross-referencing of the data on these two questions revealed that while there are changes in the attitude of the voters of SDSM. There were fewer people that supported the agreement and voted for SDSM in 2016, than in 2020, 40% to 49%. Similar to this, the opposition to the agreement with Bulgaria is strengthening. Namely 84% of the VMRO voters in 2016 opposed the agreement, while in 2020 their number rose to 87%. Compare these results to the results of the Image Observatory on Stereotypes and Attitudes towards the countries and you will notice a rise in the negative perception and general association of Bulgaria with something bad or with the image it wishes to change.

This speaks volumes about the relations with Bulgaria and the potential for the future. In my opinion Bulgaria risks loosing more by blocking North Macedonia and through it, Albania loses too. The risk for Bulgaria is obvious, another veto will cause more nationalism in North Macedonia and might lead to a change in the Government. Obviously, VMRO will have it more difficult to explain to their voters why they are softening their stance towards Bulgaria, so the implementation of the Agreement will go much slower. Additionally, Bulgaria risks losing its credibility. Only 2 years ago, during their Council Presidency it stood very much for EU Enlargement and opening of Accession Negotiations with North Macedonia. Finally, it risks losing its regional leadership that it gained with the Council Presidency. Therefore, I would say I expect that there is a resolution, but I remain an experienced optimist.

- EU has recently unveiled the new Economic and Investment Plan which is considered by Brussels as a serious effort of the block to bring the economies of the region closer. But in the meantime, it is required from the region to show a clear commitment to the EU. Which is your opinion on the plan and EU’s urge for ‘clear’ commitment of WB countries?

- It is all in line with the Enlargement Strategy of 2018 and the new Methodology of this year. The EU has for long time been the biggest net contributor of Development Aid to the countries of the Western Balkans while in some of them the citizens recognize other, countries that don’t share the same values, in that role. Montenegro and Serbia are negotiating for 8 or 6 years, respectively, and yet the transformation process is very slow and ineffective. There has been decline of democracy and corruption in many of the Western Balkan countries. Some of them have been playing with corrosive capital from illiberal systems and authoritarian regimes too.

Therefore, it is highly logical to have that Development Aid conditioned with democratic development and with the EU reform process. It is also logical to change the communication strategy and the funding strategy of the EU, to make this a separate fund. The new Economic and Investment Plan adds to what we have from the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance and perfectly fits the needs of the Western Balkan Countries. Finally, it works for the EU as well.

- Let me touch upon the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue as its course has taken a new twist with the US involvement in separate talks on ‘economic cooperation’ matters’. I’ll quote President Pendarovski who spoke of the rising influence of the US in the Western Balkans, saying that regardless of what the outcome of the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia might be, the political actors involved should make sure that it does not destabilize the region even more. What do you think on the new scenario of this dual – track dialogue?

-“The Balkans produces more history than it can consume.” This phrase falsely attributed to Churchill best describes the regional politics and geopolitics of the Balkans. The last wave of wars and conflicts started in the late 80s and continued until Kosovo’s Independence. The whole of the Balkans was engulfed into war and conflict for nearly 20 years. That’s nearly three generations of children being formed through primary school. Too long in many terms. It’s high time to close the whole chapter, round-up Kosovo’s statehood and open the region to the future. Would it not be a pity that just as all is about to close, we start a new conflict?

I have always appreciated the work of diplomats, such as Christopher Hill and Richard Holbrooke, but their subtlety is missing in recent engagements. Furthermore, this process has taken such a high profile, it went beyond diplomacy. On the other hand, I have been drawn more to the EU. The EU shows more subtlety and tries to fortify the transformation occurring through societal change. As long as the two “partners” work together the dual-track dialogue has a great chance of success.

- All what we discussed above have against the background the devastating impact of COVID-19 pandemic on Albania and North Macedonia, the region and the entire world. Is the humankind entering a new political, economic and social order, and in your view how do you see the future of the balance of power among the big powers? To be straightforward, is the world eventually slipping into a “new cold war” a fear echoed even on the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the UN in September this year?

- If all the incidents are linked together into a bigger puzzle, and if all statements are what you have just described, then we are all living in a “new cold war”. Let’s be honest, this is too far-fetched. Both systems or sides are just testing each other’s capabilities and tolerance. However, I would say that the whole of the western world has been preparing for this, ever since the illiberal systems and the authoritarian regimes have started recuperating from their collapse in the late 80s and early 90s.