By Dr. Yorgos Christidis
North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev belongs to a rare breed of politicians in southeastern Europe. Forming the new government in the Republic of Macedonia, in May 2017, Zaev did not hesitate to embark in fundamental changes in the country’s foreign policy, abandoning positions that enjoyed bipartisan support and popularity in the Macedonian population; as for example in the so-called “name-dispute” with Greece. Skopje’s position, as it had been crystallized in the 1990s with the support of both the Social Democratic Union and VMRO-DPMNEE, was that “we don’t discuss any change to our constitutional name, i.e. Republic of Macedonia, but only regarding bilateral relations and communication with Greece”. Zaev however made a radical turn – abandoning Kiro Gligorov’s (North Macedonia’s first President) point of view that “we don’t have to negotiate with Greece because time is on the side of Macedonia” – and engaged in negotiations with Athens, reaching the compromise contained in the Prespes Agreement. It was a difficult, and even painful compromise for many Macedonians, made in the name of solving problems in North Macedonia’s relations with its neighbors and, most importantly, of facilitating its Euroatlantic integration. For Zaev there is no other alternative. During a recent televised interview he characteristically stated “think what we would have gained for our hospitals, schools and roads if only we had joined the EU in 2013 (referring to the date Croatia joined the EU)…”
The same deep conviction drives Zaev’s stance during the current difficult juncture in North Macedonia’s relations with Bulgaria: he is sparing no effort in order to overcome the stalemate that is blocking the beginning of North Macedonia’s accession negotiations with the EU. And that, despite considerable criticism back home of being “weak” and not “resolute enough”. Asked why Skopje has no “red lines” in its diplomatic position, as Sofia has (following the adoption of the so-called “Framework Position” in October 2019 both by the government and Parliament) Zaev underlined the need for “diplomatic flexibility”, since “if the leaders of all political parties had sat around a table, everyone would have sought to prove that he is a greater patriot (than the others)…” Zaev’s political behavior is the least remarkable for the region and should be applauded.
Athens has every reason to treat Zaev’s government as a regional partner and to seek close relations with it. After all, it’s the best political “guarantee” for the implementation of the Prespes Agreement. / TA NEA
*Associate Professor, University of Macedonia, Greece