Bujar Osmani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of North Macedonia : There is no time to lose

North Macedonia shows how the will to solve the problems and reach a compromise brings results. Although it has not officially started negotiations on joining the EU yet, the country is making progress on that path. As one of the youngest members of NATO, it pursues a balanced regional policy and is an example of coexistence of all peoples in the Balkans. Bujar Osmani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of North Macedonia, for Diplomacy & Commerce , talks about the plans for the OSCE 2023 presidency, the Second Edition of the Prespa Forum Dialogue, the region and the direction of the country’s movement.

1.North Macedonia is an EU candidate country, but concrete negotiations have not yet begun. When do you expect this issue to move from the deadlock and how do you see the settlement of the dispute with Bulgaria?

Yes indeed. We are a candidate country since 2005 and receiving recommendations to start the negotiations, meaning sufficiently fulfilling the political criteria, as of 2009 onwards. In recent years, the country has intensified its Europeanization, harmonizing its political system, harmonizing its legislation and strengthening its institutions, further strengthening the civil society sector and preparing for full membership in the Union. Hence, I think it is more correct to say not that the European integration process is at a standstill, but that the country is not wasting time and making serious efforts to achieve fundamental reforms towards the rule of law, democracy and human rights, as well as the promotion of bilateral relations with neighbors and regional cooperation, which is recognized and clearly verified by the EU institutions. We are determined to continue on this path, because we believe that only through substantial Europeanization, ie implementation of European values, we will achieve what the citizens give us support and trust.

Unfortunately, the road towards actual start of accession negotiation for us so far has proven to be bumpy and slowly resembling a never-ending marathon. We expected that the overcoming of the name dispute with Greece and the conclusion of Prespa Agreement would finally remove the last obstacle on our EU accession negotiations path, but even though all member states unequivocally in March 2020 confirmed and adopted the decision on start of negotiations they haven’t materialized until now.

On the issue with Bulgaria, in January this year, the new Governments in Skopje and Sofia set bilateral relations as priority points of their mandates, and a new, intensified process of communication began, through the formation of working groups, as well as effective and continuous political dialogue. Time shows that such open communication and dynamics in cooperation is the best way to the future, which is of interest to both countries, but also to the whole EU. We are convinced that these efforts will lead to finding mutually acceptable solution based on the European standards and values, as well as to holding the first Inter-Governmental Conferences with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible, during the French EU Presidency. This process is the most important guarantee not only for our societies but also for the security and stability of Europe, which in fact is additionally proven by the current extremely complex war in Ukraine. We have opponents of good neighborly relations both inside the two countries, as well as strong third-party factors who do not want to see a united and strong Europe, but divided and weak.

There is no time to lose. Any further postponement of our accession process will result with serious negative consequences for North Macedonia, the countries of the region, but surely for the credibility of the EU and its role as a global player in the wider world.

  1. North Macedonia is a member state of the NATO. How much does it help for consolidatition of the country and improvement of security in the region given the relatively unstable environment?

Just recently, (27th March 2022) we marked the 2nd anniversary of our membership in NATO. Today we are members of the longest – lived and most successful Alliance of the history: military superior, politically strong and economically dominant organization. We sit in the same table with our 29 Allies, representing over 1 milliard population and more than 50 % of the world GDP.

For us, NATO membership means guarantee for our territorial integrity, sovereignty, security, and stability, thus creating a better basis for economic growth and development. Further, being part of the Alliance means strengthening the geostrategic position of North Macedonia. As an equal member of NATO, our voice is heard and we are part of the decision – making process on the most important global issues.

Membership in NATO is a mutually beneficial relationship. In our case, from a security consumer country we became a security provider. As a result of our shared responsibility, in recent years, we have demonstrated that we have built capabilities and capacity to address global challenges outside of our region and provide effective multinational contributions in the international and NATO – led operations. Also, in order to improve the resilience of the country against the new and old threats, we continue to invest in modernizing and development of the Army.

Closer and more intensive regional cooperation with our neighbors, members of NATO (but other members as well) also contributes to the promotion and stability of the region. Our accession in NATO cemented the pillars of strong bilateral partnership with Greece. It unlocked the huge potential for economic cooperation thus contributing directly to regional socio-economic stability and prosperity. The bilateral security and defense relations almost nonexistent prior to Prespa, especially evident during the recent migrant crisis, gained new impetus for defense cooperation, culminating with Greece protecting the Macedonian sky.

Our membership in the Alliance represents a tangible contribution towards building a stable and secure region, especially in circumstances where, not only our Region, but also the entire Euro-Atlantic zone is being faced with a changing security landscape, characterized with unpredictability, which has a direct impact and presents a challenge for the further development of our societies. As the 30th member of the Alliance, North Macedonia represents not only a stabilizing factor for the Region, but also an incentive for the countries in our neighborhood that are willing and prepared to stand for the Euro-Atlantic common values and objectives.

  1. North Macedonia takes over the Chairmanship of the OSCE 2023. What will be the main goals and priorities of the Chairmanship?

The Chairmanship of North Macedonia with the OSCE will be process-oriented, focusing on finding ways to add to the processes for stability, security, and predictability within the OSCE Region and beyond.  We are aware of both the complexity and the resilience of today’s challenges. The focus will be on the OSCE principles and commitments, their perseverance, while insisting on the importance of the political dialogue. The OSCE could offer both resources and mechanisms to alleviate tensions, boost predictability, restore channels of communications and critical dialogue. All sides must acknowledge this potential, while setting grounds for problem-solving in Hofburg.

The unacceptable aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine has a severe impact over the overall OSCE deliberations and activities. It has influenced the work of other international Organizations, but due to its specific mandate, I would say, it has challenged the OSCE even more.

At this stage, regular processes stagnate; sharp divisions and polarization exist, there is absence of a dialogue while future activities are challenged by the Russian aggression. This will inevitably continue to influence our mission in 2023 and the related activities.   Doing OSCE business (as usual) would be highly unlikely. The most challenging task (against the present backdrop of a complex geopolitical context in the OSCE Region) I would say, not just for us as an incoming Chair, but for all Participating States – is to restore the trust and confidence among them within the Organization. OSCE has an important function and role to play, and our work should be to find so much needed political will to have a dialogue based on the premises of full observance of the OSCE principles and commitments and their perseverance.

Therefore, contingent on the situation in Ukraine we will have to focus on the confidence and security building measures as well as to find ways to address the humanitarian aspects of the crisis, coordinating a joint response to the humanitarian catastrophe with long-lasting, severe consequences. We will also have to build upon the current Polish Chairmanship tireless efforts and activities.

As things stand at the moment, the plan is to foster a consistent approach across dimensions, dedicating a proper attention to the political-military, environment-related and economic, as well as human dimension aspects. Proper attention will be attributed to numerous important areas: protracted conflicts, food and energy security challenges, digitalization, migration (trafficking in persons, refugees, internally displaced persons) border security and management; climate change and security nexus, connectivity, combating corruption and promotion of good governance, gender mainstreaming, media freedom… We should also reflect on other OSCE themes, including the important work done by the field missions, as well as the undertakings of all relevant OSCE structures.

The final priorities (to be presented before the Permanent Council in July) will be synced with the OSCE current agenda, previous MC decisions, declarations, PC decisions, Summit documents and above all core OSCE documents such as Helsinki Final Act, Paris Charter, and so on… We will combine this with national as well regional priorities, but also take into account the current and emerging global security trends and challenges, in line with the platform of the OSCE comprehensive cooperative security.

  1. The Second Edition of the Prespa Forum Dialogue will be held in Ohrid in June. Talking about this event, what will be the topics and what will official Skopje pay attention to?

The first Prespa Forum for Dialogue held last year was an immense success, given the participation of prominent national and international political, security, economic, business, academic figures and experts who have expressed high appreciation about the importance of the event. Emerging as an authentic brand that reflects the contemporary models of resolving open issues in good faith which Republic of North Macedonia has demonstrated with the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, the Friendship Agreement with Bulgaria and the Prespa Agreement with Greece, PFD promotes fostering a culture of cooperation, mutual confidence and friendship for the advancement of regional stability and its contribution to strengthening the global role of Europe.

Encouraged by the overall positive assessments and in line with our determination to make PFD recognized and unique platform to exchanging views, experiences and ideas and to seeking innovative, diplomatic solutions on contemporary’s challenges and threats we are en route to preparing the second edition of the PFD under the title “Shaping Western Balkans Future in the Contemporary European Security Architecture” to be held in Ohrid form 16 to 18 June, 2022.

This year’s event will cover the most pressing security, political and economic issues Europe and the Western Balkans are faced with. In the focus will be the new geopolitical challenges since the start of the unjustified war in Ukraine. We consider it extremely important to discuss the resilience of the Euro-Atlantic security environment and the revitalization of the strategic partnerships in the light of the these changed geopolitical realities. Moreover, the debate will stress the urgent need of fast realization of the Western Balkans’ European perspective in order to push the process of completion the European project forward and secure the European future of the region, considering that Western Balkans accession to the EU has become a geopolitical and security issue.

  1. The situation in Ukraine has permanently changed relations among the countries and it seems that a new order is being created. What is the official position of Skopje on this issue (we know that you agree with the foreign policy of Brussels, but are there any specific interests of your country on this issue)?

North Macedonia has strongly condemned the act of aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine which represents a gross violation of the basic principles of international law, an attack on the security architecture of Europe and a serious threat to world peace and stability. Beside the clear condemnation of this aggression by the leadership of the country, the Government took a step forward and aligned completely with EU’s Foreign and Security Policy, including all declarations and sanctions on Russia, thus reaching a 100 percent alignment with the EU CFSP. The invasion of Ukraine changed the security environment in Europe, therefore in close cooperation with our NATO allies, united in protecting the transatlantic security, we are working on continued assistance to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Additionally, as a member of the OSCE Troika, North Macedonia has an active role in supporting the Polish CiO to navigate the crisis and we will do our utmost to adapt to the situation and provide possible solutions to the challenges ahead. While the international law and the world order are at stake, the international community must do it’s best to find a lasting solution, end the conflict and restore peace. At the beginning of April, as part of the OSCE Troika, together with my colleagues from Poland, Rau and Sweden, Linde, we visited the Polish-Ukrainian border and the reception center for refugees, where we met with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Kuleba. Images of refugee reception centers are deeply disturbing, especially for our region where memories of the wars of the 1990s are still fresh.

Every nation should be free to choose whether to join a union or an alliance. It is their sovereign choice over which no one should be able to veto, let alone threaten with force and carry out military invasions on foreign territory.

The situation in Ukraine also brought to attention the vulnerability of our region from external actors and the importance of continuation of the enlargement policy. In this challenging time, there should not be any hesitation towards countries that are willing and committed to adhere to European values and principles, and we are more convinced than ever that the European integration of the Western Balkans will serve as security, political and economic added value to the EU.

  1. You are the best example that when there is a problem between neighbors if there is a desire to solve it, it can be done (name change). How do you view the situation in the Western Balkans region and the existing open issues (relations between Belgrade and Pristina, constitutional changes in BiH)? 

Yes, North Macedonia has shown strong political will in order to resolve a decade-long dispute that wasted our energy and diplomatic capacity, which held us hostages to populism and deprived us of opportunities and prospects for growth and development. Resolving the dispute, we got rid of it and moved on.. Today we are the 30th member of NATO and in these times of uncertainty we see how much that it means. From here, we offer our example as a successful model for other countries facing similar disputes on their path to internal settlement and reconciliation. In general, the lessons from the Prespa Agreement are that the reconciliation process is possible only in a situation where the two sides respect each other despite all differences, when instead of confrontation they choose cooperation, when they are ready to take responsibility and take a step forward despite all uncertainties. The solution is possible only if both sides sincerely want it and if they realize that there is a way in which there is no winner and loser, but in which both sides are victorious. Only such solutions are sustainable in the long run. To a large extent, progress depends on the political leadership, which should be ready to think more about the next generations than about the next elections, but also about the general climate in the country and the mood of the citizens. All political actors should show state maturity and wisdom to take such an act, but for that, of course, there should be support from the citizens. In these lessons from our experiences I see our general recommendations to colleagues in Belgrade, Pristina and Sarajevo, and everyone in the Region. Mutual understanding and dialogue have no alternative. Small steps on the right path will still lead us or at least get closer to the goal. Imperfect progress is incomparably better than perfect stagnation. Trust opens doors that we thought did not exist. Respecting the other and respecting his views, fears and interests is a necessary element. Bearing in mind that a sustainable solution is possible only through compromise, we should be willing to make concessions. The citizens of our countries are tired of spinning in circles and old topics; the young generations want to move forward and live in a better world. They deserve it, and we need to make it possible for them. The example of North Macedonia shows that there is always a solution, and the formula for success is clear. I sincerely hope that in the coming period, with a similar idea and will, the leaders and politicians in the Region will approach the same postulates and find the best solutions and compromises to overcome the still open issues, and thus ensure a European future and prosperity for all our Region.