Frustration over blocked membership talks and vaccine deliveries gives Russia and China a chance, Zoran Zaev says.
North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, has warned the EU that it’s taken a reputational hit in the Balkans and will lose more ground to rival powers if it doesn’t start membership talks with his country and Albania soon.
EU members agreed more than a year ago to start talks with the two countries but the process is on hold, mainly because Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia’s path to the negotiating table. The government in Sofia insists that bilateral disputes between Bulgaria and North Macedonia over language and history must be resolved before the talks can start.
Frustration with the EU in the region has been compounded by the bloc’s tardy progress in providing coronavirus vaccines to its Balkan neighbors, prompting them to turn to Russia and China for jabs instead.
“A lot of issues were not how our citizens expected and because of that Euroskepticism increases,” Zaev, a Social Democrat, told POLITICO in an interview.
Zaev said a failure to start talks would affect not just his country and Albania but also the wider Western Balkan region, which is now surrounded by EU members and was the scene of a series of wars in the 1990s as Yugoslavia was torn apart.
If the EU is not seen to keep its promises in the region, that would also give Kosovo and Serbia less incentive to resolve their differences in EU-sponsored talks and make it less likely Bosnia and Herzegovina will tackle the reforms necessary to seek its own membership negotiations, he argued.
And if the region’s journey toward the EU slows down, Zaev said, “there is more space” for other powers, citing Russia and China in particular.
Zaev also dismissed an idea floated by European Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi of moving ahead with membership talks for Albania while keeping North Macedonia on hold.
Zaev noted that the heads of the European institutions, as well as multiple EU member states, clearly stated in recent days that both countries should go forward together. Germany, Slovakia and Greece are among those to have made clear they do not share the Hungarian commissioner’s views.
“There is a clear message of no decoupling and I hope that Bulgaria will be reasonable,” Zaev said.
Zaev suggested Várhelyi may have been trying to push North Macedonia and Bulgaria to reach an agreement to deal with Sofia’s objections. “I always believe in good intentions and I believe he wanted to put pressure on us and Bulgaria to find a solution, if possible,” he said.
He expressed optimism that an end to the stalemate with Bulgaria could be found, describing the problems between Sofia and Skopje as “not substantial.”
However, Bulgaria’s new caretaker government has warned that it lacks the authority to change the country’s stance. That would appear to further diminish the chances of the dispute being resolved before June, when the EU had pencilled in the start of accession talks.
Banking on Biden
Zaev said he hoped the most powerful Western governments, including President Joe Biden’s new U.S. administration, would help resolve the standoff.
If there is no breakthrough, he warned, the enlargement process will be frozen for at least a year and a half, while elections take place in Bulgaria and in big EU powers Germany and France.
That would be a further bitter blow for North Macedonia, which has gone to considerable lengths to secure membership of major Western political organizations — even changing its name from Macedonia to end to a decades-long dispute with neighboring Greece. That change allowed the country to join NATO but the EU has yet to meet its pledge on membership talks.
“So many sacrifices. And after that the EU doesn’t deliver? That is a problem. We show more European values and European manners than the EU,” Zaev said in the interview, conducted when he visited Athens last week at the end of a European diplomatic tour.
“We don’t have luck,” he said, smiling bitterly as he reflected on the accolades he has been given for ending the long-running dispute with Greece. “I have received so many awards — from Germany, from Austria, all possible awards. Only the award that we expected, the EU integration, doesn’t come.”
Polling last year showed support for EU membership remained high in North Macedonia, at 69 percent. But that represents a drop of more than 10 percentage points over six years — and Zaev said frustration had grown in recent months over vaccine deliveries and the holdup to EU talks.
On vaccines, Zaev said his government had paid a political price for trusting in solidarity from the EU.
“Vaccines were late to come,” he said. “We waited for such a long period and people were seeking responsibility from me. It was a really unpleasant atmosphere.”
Zaev’s government insisted for months it would stick to vaccines approved by the EU’s European Medicines Agency. But it eventually opted for negotiations with China and donations from Serbia.
Earlier this month Zaev took the Chinese Sinopharm jab, accompanied by China’s ambassador to his country.
North Macedonia’s first shipment from the EU — via the COVAX system for sharing vaccines internationally — reached Skopje earlier this month, personally delivered by Commissioner Várhelyi.
Zaev noted Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s greater distance to the EU and NATO gave him flexibility to act faster. Vučić swiftly reached out to both Russia and China for vaccines and his country raced ahead of its neighbors — and much of Europe — in its vaccination rollout.
Despite all the setbacks, Zaev said he is optimistic the EU can quickly recover lost ground — if it starts membership talks soon.
“The disappointment that appeared in the last five to six months can be recovered with a strong message of enlargement for those countries who deserve it, and North Macedonia and Albania really deserve to make the next step,” he said./politico.eu