Capital Skopje
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 389
Mobile Codes 70,71,72,75,76,78
ccTLD .mk
Currency Denar (1EUR = 61.5MKD)
Land Area 25,713 sq km
Population 2.1 million
Language Macedonian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Opportunities for Slovakian-Macedonian Cooperation: Interview with Robert Kirnag editor’s note: In this comprehensive new interview, Director Chris Deliso gets the insights of Slovakia’s top diplomat in Macedonia, Dr Robert Kirnag on a range of issues relating to both countries. Starting with views into common experience and cultural background of the two countries, the interview also covers Slovakia’s economic growth, experience with gaining foreign investment and becoming a member of the EU- and how these can serve as models for Macedonia and other Western Balkan countries. In the interview, Dr Kirnag also discusses Slovakia’s diplomatic presence, principles and priorities in the region, and several of the specific projects now being undertaken- projects that attest to Slovakia’s diverse contributions to the development of Macedonia today.

A career diplomat, Robert Kirnag holds a PhD in International Relations from Slovakia’s University of Matej Bel at Banská Bystrica (2008), and an MA in International Relations from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (1993), specializing in the Benelux countries. For the past two years, he has served as Chargé d´Affaires at the Slovak Embassy in Macedonia, before that serving for five years in several director capacities at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bratislava, on EU-related issues. In prior diplomatic postings, Dr Kirnag has also served as Slovakia’s Deputy Head of Mission in South Africa, and as Deputy Head of Mission in Sweden.


Common Understandings

Chris Deliso: Thanks for speaking with us today. Let me begin by asking, how do you assess the general dynamic between Macedonia and Slovakia, and their peoples?

Robert Kirnag: I have seen that Macedonians feel at home in Slovakia in some way, and that Slovaks also understand the Macedonians… there are many links between the two peoples.

CD: Because of the similarities in language?

RK: Yes, because of language, but also because of our common past- the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Slovakia being one important event. In fact, some of those great diplomat-missionaries lived in Slovakia longer than in Macedonia. They still are very much respected-

CD: And they are celebrated too in Slovakia?

RK: Yes, the 5th of July is the national holiday of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Slovakia. Also, since the languages are very much related, for most Macedonians it takes only 3-4 months to start speaking Slovak. It is also true for Slovaks who come to Macedonia.

‘Our message to the Macedonians is that reforms pay,’ says Dr Kirnag.

I thus think that we should use the opportunity, the momentum of visa liberalization to stimulate tourism from Macedonia to Slovakia, and vice versa. For the Macedonians, it was a very important achievement to get the visa waived- it was an expression of freedom. And they rightfully deserved it.

I made a comment at that time that we in Slovakia should use this momentum to attract Macedonian tourists; they already know the places [to visit in Slovakia], and perhaps more importantly, they do not discriminate- now they have the opportunity to travel, for them to go to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Germany or France and so on is no different than to choose Slovakia. I would also say that the Slovaks, with our proximity, similar language and culture, are very sympathetic to the Macedonians.

Education Opportunities for Macedonians in Slovakia

For example, I suggested making a promotion to get the students of secondary schools in Macedonia, who at the end of the year typically go on a class trip abroad- so why not to Slovakia?

CD: Yes, indeed-

RK: This can also be combined with the promotion of opportunities to study in Slovakia. Macedonians can now study in Slovakia under the same conditions as Slovak citizens. This privilege is given only to five countries outside of the European Union.

CD: Really. To which?

RK: To those countries which are close to us, like Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, which have similar languages, and their citizens can very easily integrate into the society and improve the competitiveness of our universities. We are happy for them to stay in Slovakia and contribute to the growth of our economies. And, when they return back to Macedonia I think that they would be ideal candidates for business development between our two countries.

CD: Do you have any statistics on the number of Macedonian students studying in Slovakia?

RK: Yes. We give them scholarships, last year it was about 10 who received scholarships, a couple of different kinds. We offer this year four full scholarships in different subjects, including one-year preparation in language and preparation for examinations. Then for those students who would like to study in Slovakia free of charge, these conditions are necessary of course- unless they study subjects in English they have to prepare themselves to learn the language. In Slovakia, they are in the EU, and they receive a European diploma recognized everywhere in the EU.

CD: Are these scholarships open to students of all disciplines, or only certain ones?

RK: We encourage them to study at the best state universities, and especially in the technical sciences. Some are then offered to stay at our universities as assistants, or continue their doctoral studies.

CD: When did you start this program?

RK: The program involving the five countries to support the competitiveness of Slovakian universities started two years ago. In January of last year, the law on universities was changed and Macedonians were given this right to study.

CD: Has this introduction of foreign students on scholarships had any negative effects for Slovak students who might thus miss a place, or not have enough spots available?

RK: Aha, this is not in question- according to European statistics, Slovak students make up the highest percentage of students studying abroad from any EU country. So for us it is pretty normal to go abroad to study.

Furthermore, when we entered the European Union we received the opportunity to work abroad in other member states, so for our young people it’s pretty common after university to spend a year or two abroad. Britain and Ireland are the most important destinations. The [Slovak] people who work there are well aware that they work for less than the local citizens. But they have benefits- they learn the language, get professional experience in a Western environment, save some money, and they return back to Slovakia. They then have bigger chances to find work that corresponds to their qualifications at home.

CD: Right, I see.

RK: So, these two countries, Britain and Ireland, they were not afraid of foreign laborers just after our entry into the EU- on the contrary, they saw an opportunity and it paid off.

Slovakia’s Post-Reforms Investment Gains

CD: So, on another subject, that of economic ties, I wonder if you could mention a little about Slovakian economic promotion in Macedonia- and vice versa. Is there similar potential between the two in this area as well?

RK: Macedonia is a small country with an open economy. Slovakia is also a small country, with 5.4 million inhabitants. The country is still very much dependent on foreign investments, and is very often cited here in Macedonia as an example of transformation and attraction of investment. Macedonia would like to repeat this success story. We need to share our experience, good and bad- perhaps those mistakes we made will be more important for Macedonia, because I am convinced that Macedonians have their right to make new mistakes-

CD: (Laughing)

RK: And not just to repeat ours. Slovakia was in a difficult position in the middle of the 90s and we were able to get out of that situation. Nobody trusted Slovakia at that time; we were excluded from the mainstream of European integration. And we realized that that is not the way to achieve successful development for the people. So, we transformed our banking system, we changed our labor laws, and we introduced reforms in other areas. And our entry into the OECD, though now it is not very often mentioned, was a very important school for us in the process of approximation with the EU then NATO and the EU.

The reforms were quite painful but our message to the Macedonians is that reforms pay. And the sooner and the shorter the period of reforms, the better.

CD: Indeed. But what did they lead to for you, in terms of attracting economic interest? What is the result that a country like Macedonia could look forward to?

RK: Slovakia became a champion in attracting foreign investment in two areas: first, the automotive industry, with the huge investment of Volkswagen in Bratislava, and later the investment of Kia in Žilina, in northern Slovakia. And then came BSA/Peugeot, 50km away. We started producing hybrids, and upgraded the production of sophisticated parts, for example, a new Kia factory that was opened also produces engines for Hyundai in the Czech Republic. So you see many more small companies that give work to people, three times more jobs have been created around the automotive industry alone.

Also, we now produce LCD monitors and computers, with investments made by Sony and Samsung. In fact, last year, for the first time, VW was not the biggest exporter from Slovakia- first place was taken by Samsung, after they opened factories in Slovakia for the EU market. By investing in our country, they have free access to the EU market, a huge market of over 500 million customers. Now, the latest investment was made by AU Optronics-

CD: AU what?

RK: Exactly, that was my reaction- what is this? Then I learned that it is number two in the world in LCD screen production, a huge company. They opened a factory in Slovakia for 2,000 employees, something that is very important for us. We still have unemployment at 13 percent. But the dynamics of our employment could be interesting for Macedonia, where there is still over 30 percent unemployment. In Slovakia, we used to have 20 percent, but we were able to push it back in a couple of years to just 8 percent. Now, because of the global crisis it has gone back up to 13 percent-

CD: But that is not really Slovakia’s fault, after all-

RK: Of course, but still, the crisis is also a great opportunity, it’s not a punishment. It affects all, of course, but those who are clever can use it to invest. It is also an opportunity, in this sense.

CD: So, in the current crisis is there someone who has invested in Slovakia that you see as an example in this light?

RK: Yes, in addition to the ones mentioned, for example, IBM has opened a huge center in Bratislava. So in order to sustain this level of investment we must do two things: first, to sophisticate the investment and then to invest abroad. Slovakian businessmen should start investing abroad- this is the next step.

Economic Promotion and Investment between Macedonia and Slovakia

CD: So, on that note, can you give details about Slovak investments here in Macedonia, or elsewhere in the Balkans? I know the government here is keen on economic promotion and has made an effort in this area in different parts of the world. In your experience here, in the last couple years, have you seen results in this area?

RK: I’m doing my best to convince more Slovak companies to come and see what is available. And we are now organizing a visit by the Macedonian Minister of Economy, Valjon Saracini, to Slovakia. We will give the minister and the Macedonian Investment Agency the chance to present opportunities for investment in Macedonia.

CD: When will this be?

RK: At the end of this month. And there are many opportunities- for one example in September, the Slovak company EMTest got the contract for the electronic system of public transport in Skopje. This involves the coordination of public transport, buses and electronic tickets. This is a contract for 10 years, and they will take 4.9 percent of all the income from the tickets. It adds up to about 5 million euros.

CD: How did this deal come about?

RK: They competed on a public tender and the Slovak company was the winner. This company is from Žilina, not from Bratislava- it’s also very important for us that the companies from the smaller cities in Slovakia get these opportunities.

CD: And how were they made aware of the tender in the first place? Did you inform them of this, or were they working on their own?

RK: We regularly send all the business opportunities to Slovakia, tenders and whatever is of interest from the Macedonia side. We encourage trade, and in both directions. After all, there is no true cooperation if it is not going in both directions.

Also, the trade volume issue between Slovakia and Macedonia is quite interesting. In 2007, the volume was just 25 million euros, with a huge deficit on the Macedonian side. But things have changed, have developed in the past four years; statistics for this year show 44 million euros, in the first half of 2011 alone. So, we will reach trade of up to 90 million euros, probably 100 million by the end of the year. Essentially, therefore, we managed to triple the trade volume in just four years-

CD: And Macedonia’s trade deficit is now?

RK: Well, that’s the interesting thing- this year, for the first time, in the first 6 months Macedonia has registered a trade surplus… we actually are importing more from Macedonia than they are from us.

CD: Wow! In what sectors, particularly?

RK: The structure of trade copies the structure of our industries. So also the statistics differ between Slovakia and Macedonia. We often sit down with our Macedonian friends and compare our statistics and analyze why it is that [they differ]. So, of number one importance is our household machinery, washing machines, refrigerators. Then cars- and note that not all of the sales of Slovak cars are reflected in statistics, as they go through corporate channels in other countries.

So, if you make a calculation, for example, of all the cars registered in Macedonia, you will see that they account for much more than in statistics. For example, all the Porsche Cayennes, all the Audi Q7s, all the [Volkswagen] Touraegs are produced in Bratislava. And there is no other factory producing Kia CEE’D, Pro CEE’D and Sportage models, which are sold here. Also, some small Peugeots and Citroens are from Slovakia.

CD: It seems then that the Slovakian business presence is much bigger than would appear… interesting.

RK: Then, in addition TV sets and LCD monitors are being imported into Macedonia from Slovakia. Products of chemical industry are also being imported. Another trade item that we could not explain, but that is registered in Macedonian statistics, is electricity- shown as the number-one commodity.

CD: Electricity? How is this?

RK: I don’t know. If we are selling electricity, it is pure money. We don’t have an explanation, I cannot imagine it comes from Slovakia, so I imagine a Slovakian company is involved somewhere, and this shows the sophistication of these operations.

CD: Very interesting. Also, it is well known that Macedonians have for a long time had close economic and personal connections with your neighbors in the Czech Republic. Have you benefited in getting more interest for your businesses due to this proximity to the Czech Republic, or common contacts?

RK: Yes, we are very much interdependent- we divided the country, but the economies stayed interconnected. Many Czechs own businesses in Slovakia, and Slovak businessmen are active there too. So there are many Slovak interests which are channeled to Macedonia through the Czech Republic. For example, take tractors-

CD: Tractors!

RK: Yes, tractors- the Zetor tractor is quite famous on the Eastern European market. It’s being imported by a trader in Bitola. The owners of this company are Slovak, even though it is located in the Czech Republic. So, this is an example that illustrates these connections.

CD: So, on the other side of things, what products are being imported from Macedonia into Slovakia?

RK: We import from Macedonia metallurgy products and, more and more, wine and fruits and vegetables. Now, 90 percent of fruits and vegetables in Slovakia are being sold through the supermarket chains. And once you enter in this, it is a huge market. So Macedonians have got this opportunity and should seek to capitalize on it. We can and do import early fruits and vegetables- Macedonia has a one-month advantage on Central Europe, due to the wonderful climate here. And in turn we can invest here in food processing. We can export our machinery for food processing and packaging.

CD: Can these agricultural products be imported without any difficulties, considering Macedonia is not in the EU?

RK: Yes, they have a privileged position since they have signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement and they can, for example, export wine up to a certain limit without duties. But unfortunately for Macedonians – though good for our customers – they mostly do it in tanks, meaning they bring the bulk wine to Slovakia, where our wine companies bottle it and triple the prices.

CD: The same old problem. But do they at least write it as a product of Macedonia? In Yugoslav times they did have that name branding problem, when it would be sold as ‘Yugoslav’ wine or even ‘Slovenian’ wine if it was bottled there.

RK: Yes, Macedonia is always written as the country of origin. But referring to the branding issue, this is the problem of Macedonia. I’m still convinced that Macedonians do not sell their wine abroad- they simply get rid of their wine abroad.

CD: [Laughing] ‘Get rid of it’- I love it.

RK: Indeed, it’s much more convenient if you have someone who will do the marketing and sell it and make a brand for himself, while you just produce wine in bulk, but that is not the way to succeed in Europe. And the rules are changing. The Macedonians must be very clever, and follow the developments in the European Union. But they already have their own brand- Macedonian wine is still very much known and respected in countries in Central Europe, so Macedonians have a good opportunity.

CD: Yes, but also one aspect of the ‘name problem’ with Greece is rights to use the name ‘Macedonia’ in products, like wine-

RK: The Macedonian-Greek problem is a bilateral one, and sometimes it’s used to cover up other things. Or, as a pretense to not do other things. I don’t buy this argument that Macedonians-

CD: You mean, they shouldn’t use it as an excuse-

RK: Well, Macedonians must follow their own interests, and these interests must first be determined. And they should be stubborn in their pursuit of commercial interests, for example, the branding of their wine. Really, the placement of their good wine is not dependent on the issue of the name [with Greece]. Of course, there are sensitive aspects in that. But this is not a way that one can really give to explain why the wine is not being sold in bottles, but in bulk. Come on!

Diplomatic Priorities for Slovakia in the Western Balkans

CD: Turning to Slovakia’s diplomatic role in Macedonia, are there any difficulties or challenges you have to face, or is everything pretty much straightforward here?

RK: Macedonia is part of the priority region for Slovakia. It is a constant priority of Slovak foreign policy, as also expressed within the Visegrád Group, made up of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. This is a very influential group in the EU; the voting rights of these four countries are equal to the voting rights of Germany and France combined.

The Western Balkans has always been a priority region for Slovakian cooperation, and one of my priorities here at the embassy in Skopje is to help provide political support and practical support for Macedonia on its way to the Euro-Atlantic structures.

CD: Why is it important for Slovakia to support Macedonia and the Western Balkans in general to enter the EU?

RK: I recently read an interesting book about Munich in 1938. In it, the author, a historian, said that now the question is not whether Britain would support Czechoslovakia at that time in order to not become a victim of Germany; but whether the Czechs and Slovaks would be willing to fight for Britain once it got into the war.

Following this logic, it is not a question for us of whether we should support Macedonia to become a member state- and we should even aim higher, aim further. I think our question is not whether Macedonia should be a member, but when. We need Macedonia to be our partner, our ally in the European Union- we have similar interests, we are small countries which have a lot in common in our history, mentality and languages. They can be an important future partner in the EU. That is my main motivation for our activities.

CD: What sort of ‘practical support’ are you giving on the diplomatic level?

RK: We are offering practical support for sharing our experience of the reforms Macedonia needs to carry out, and we offer many bilateral projects so that they can learn from our experience with the EU.

In fact, just this month, a group of deputies from the Macedonian Commission for European Affairs visited Slovakia, to learn what will happen in the process of accession; still, however, that is not the goal, the goal is to prepare for the efficient functioning of being a member state in the EU. They always talk about ‘getting a date’- OK, but the negotiations themselves are just an exercise for what will come once you enter the EU.

CD: So in other words, they should be more prepared for the long term-

RK: Yes, the goal is to aim at that, to pursue the interests of Macedonia as part of the European family. And if they aim higher, if they create structures now, it will be better… but if they don’t do it right, that structure will not help them; on the contrary it will drag them down.

CD: I see. So they must be ready for both negotiations and membership.

RK: Yes- in no time, it will become a very intense process. When we in Slovakia negotiated with the EU over membership we thought, ‘okay, this is very tough, but when we enter the EU it will be like heaven, and we will all be living much better and having Western standards.’ But suddenly, we entered the EU- and there was no Mercedes in the garage.

CD: (Laughing) I see.

RK: So also the expectations must be realistic and you must look at your interests and purpose. For five years I was working as Director for European Affairs at our foreign ministry. And I have been telling [the Macedonians] this message because we made mistakes, and the Macedonians can do much better than we did. They ask me whether I think they are prepared for negotiations, and I tell them they are much more prepared than Slovakia was at the time.

Nevertheless, the European Commission is also much more experienced now- so the conditions are still the same, but the Commission is more sophisticated. We had 31 chapters to close, they have 35. There are mistakes that the EU will not repeat, when they set the date of entry, as was an issue with Romania and Bulgaria; and they will be very careful with the official statistics, as they were later disappointed with what Greece did before entering the eurozone. So, we can say that the Commission doesn’t make mistakes- it simply gains experience. And some of this will certainly reflect on the negotiating process for Macedonia.

A Question of Principle: the Kosovo Issue

CD: Very interesting. On another topic, but slightly more complex: Slovakia doesn’t recognize Kosovo, whereas Macedonia and important powers in the EU and US do. So in your daily work here, do you come up against pressure from lobbyists or diplomats pushing Slovakia to recognize Kosovo as part of a general policy on the Western Balkans?

RK: No, for us it’s the question of principle- Slovakia does not recognize unilateral declarations of independence because we simply think it is not in accordance with international law. A minority in a country which has a mother state, in this case Albania, does not have the right of secession. I know the situation is very complicated, and in the recent troubled history of Kosovo, you see there are no saints… mistakes and tragic things happened on both sides.

Our state policy is not against the people of Kosovo. On the contrary we have historical ties with Kosovo. We would like to cooperate and develop relations, economic, cultural, and educational. But please, do not push us on those things that are a matter of principle. For us, if Belgrade and Pristina find a solution, that would be the legal way how to arrange things. That’s why we welcome this dialogue, but it’s a bumpy road, isn’t it?

If this independence would be sanctioned by an international authority, that would be a different story. But look, if one criticizes Slovakia for its principled stance on Kosovo, then how can you explain [our stand on] Georgia? For us, there was no need to change the position we applied in Kosovo to the situation in Georgia [regarding South Ossetia].

But I am a positive-thinking person. I’m always looking at the opportunities. Macedonia could serve as a gateway for the markets of Kosovo and Albania. I’m telling this to Macedonian businessmen, and to ours, though we are aware that many prejudices still exist. So it is not clear to me whether our businessmen are more afraid of the region, or of their own abilities to succeed on the local market. And the explanation is very simple- a lack of information. If you don’t know something about the region, then you don’t go or invest there.

You can have everything perfect on paper, have the advertising, but if the investor feels something is wrong, the reality is perhaps not as important as perception.

Diverging Diplomatic Approaches

CD: Alright, then on that note how do you feel about the role of Slovakia, and how it is perceived here diplomatically?

RK: We look for common activities that can bring us together as small countries, whether they be investments, tourism, or other cooperation. We want to focus on priorities. In any specific case, we go about it by asking the Macedonians, is this a priority for you? We offer them our cooperation but ask that they tell us whether it is a priority for them. From our side, we have certain expertise and resources we are willing to share- if it is welcomed by the other side, we will.

So it is a different approach compared to certain other EU member states, which sometimes come here with recipes ready-made, with ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ proposals and so on. But Slovaks have a perhaps more subtle understanding of the situation, and are thus not perceived as being tutors.

CD: Well, this is the problem as far as I’ve seen it over the years, and you may have a respective advantage in being a small country, not having to be in the ‘power-broker’ position of the EU representative, the US, OSCE or even Britain- you can take a more friendly role. To not have the pressure of coming to deliver a message, a ‘do-this-or-else’ ultimatum-

RK: Well, we do, we do deliver a message, as part of the European Union… but we do it in a friendly way, saying, ‘look we were in this situation, we know how it feels to be in your place. You make your own decisions- we are not pushing, but feel free to look at what we did in a similar situation. If you want to follow our approach, we are ready help.’ That is how we try to present it.

Other Multinational Opportunities: Tourism and Caving

CD:  In terms of tourism cooperation, which I understand you would like to increase, do you have any specific areas in mind? You know how in Western Europe the monastic tourism, for example, became popular in places like Scotland and France after the DaVinci Code was published. Do you have anything similar, say, on the Cyril and Methodius/Byzantine heritage angle that would appeal to Macedonians and Slovaks alike?

RK: Yes, we are very interested in tourism as one area with great potential. Interestingly enough, in Slovakia you cannot sleep in monasteries- here in Macedonia you can. So that is something that would be interesting for our people when coming here. Perhaps one great missed opportunity was the 100-year anniversary of Mother Teresa’s birth- of course if Macedonia had succeeded in getting the Pope to visit, thousands of Slovaks would have come by bus- of course, that would be a big procedure requiring several years of preparation. But in general monastery and historical tourism have strong appeal.

We also see opportunities in ecological and alternative tourism. In Slovakia, we have mountains and forests, but of a different kind, more like in Berovo. We also have spas, a long tradition of spa towns and this could be interesting for Macedonians, as could trips through the old cities and castles of Slovakia. We are known for our castles standing high on the hills.

Another area that might be developed is skiing and snowboarding- we have attractive resorts for these in Slovakia. And, an interesting area for nature tourism is caves. You have around 1000 caves in Slovakia.

CD: And in Macedonia- many caves here too.

RK: Yes indeed. And in fact, did you know, the deepest cave here was discovered by Slovaks, five years ago-

CD: Where is this?

RK: It’s located on [the central mountain massif of] Karadzica, and is now called Slovachka Jama. It is only 40km or so from Skopje. Our speleologists come every year, and every year they go deeper and deeper. So far, this cave has been explored down to 650 meters deep!

CD: And they still didn’t reach the bottom?

RK: No, it us still under investigation, but it will probably never be opened to the public, being 2200m above sea level. But what is interesting that they have discovered is cave lakes, and long streams of water. That could be very important for water supply, and even for the city of Skopje. The mountains seem to be circulating these waters through the channels and caves over long distances. In fact, when specialists made an analysis of the water found in the caves, and in a source somewhere close to [mountain peak] Solunska Glava, they found that it seems to be the same water.

So we would like to be part of this story. Slovakia and another four or five countries are very active here in speleology. I suggested that we issue a joint stamp- why not? The Belgians, French, Italians and Macedonians, these country are active here in caving.

Slovakia’s Projects in Macedonia

CD: Very nice. So, on a broader scale, what kind of projects is Slovakia doing in Macedonia?

RK: We have several different projects going on. One concentrates on developing analytic skills for media and civil society groups, and covers Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, with a budget of 120,000 euros. Slovak experts will train the analysts and journalists and civil society members, and distribute small grants of around 5000 euros; so approximately 40,000 will be distributed to the young journalists and analysts, and they will then work closely under the supervision of Slovak journalists. We did this project in Serbia and it was a success, so probably we can engage those journalist trained there to participate.

Another project we are starting now is the fight against corruption within businesses. So far, no one has been looking at the problem of corruption from this angle. But corruption both within businesses and between them exists, and it is the businesses themselves who are very much interested in fighting it. So together with the Macedonian Confederation of Employers and the Business Alliance of Slovakia, we have started this project, which amounts to another 120,000 euros.

CD: Are you doing any projects specifically for economic development?

RK: Yes, one recent project we did involved support for the business climate of Macedonia. First we published a wish-list from Macedonian businessmen, asking what they would like to see changed. And we talked to the deputy prime minister of economy, and he was very positive. He said that he liked the ideas, but that they should be turned into paragraphs which should be changed in existing Macedonian laws. He provided one member of his team to be part of this working group. The minister of economy also liked the idea. It was an important example of how to follow up.

We also supported small and medium-sized enterprises by helping to establish business centers in Bitola, Kocani, Skopje, Ohrid and Negotino, in cooperation with local governments. These were meant to support both those people who had a business idea and money, and those who had an idea and no money, to help them start their businesses. We provided assistance with everything from registration to identification of financial resources or loans.

CD: Very interesting. How about projects involving politics and reform? Do you have any of these?

RK: Our experts are well known here for involvement in European projects. In the coming years, these projects could become more important to Macedonia from an economic perspective than real trade in certain areas.

Twinning projects or ‘triangular’ projects are done between an established member state, Slovakia as a new member state and Macedonia as a candidate country. Sometimes, Western European countries use us to execute projects on their behalf, for example now we are helping to establish a parliamentary institute here. The whole project is financed through NDI and the Swiss government, which doesn’t have a parliamentary institute, while the American democratic system is very different from our European realities. But nevertheless these two major players recognized the experience of the Czech and Slovak parliaments, as with the EU, which also joined this project. We are sharing and offering our expertise, and I believe we have the ability to get deeper into the public administration and society here than perhaps others could.

CD: Do you have any security sector cooperation, the police, army, etc?

RK: Yes. Two years ago, when Prime Minister Gruevski was in Bratislava, we signed an intergovernmental agreement on the fight against crime. Of course, organized crime is among the top priorities, and there is cooperation going on there. Also there is the cooperation between our two armies, and not only that, but also the Macedonian firefighters have come to Slovakia, this year and last, for training exercises. This was also identified as one of the priority areas between the two ministries of interior.

So there are opportunities in many areas. Specifically now, in the process of accession, the fresh experience and workable experience we have acquired relatively recently is useful for Macedonia and we are willing to share it.

Taking the Initiative

I’m glad to see that the cooperation is broadening and deepening. But it takes two things: identification of priorities, and then initiative. The initiative must come from the Macedonian side. Sometimes I have the feeling that on both sides we are waiting for opportunities that are supposed to come by themselves. But this period of EU accession is limited, as are the resources. You know how the European Union works; it offers money, but this money is just a promise- if you are not able to claim it according to the rules set by the Union, then it will be redistributed, it will be gone; somebody more clever will come and take it. So Macedonia should not wait.

CD: Yes, in my experience and from what I have heard Macedonia is not making the best use of funds set aside for it, and many people and groups who should be eligible for EU funds don’t know the procedures for applying, and so on-

RK: Look, this is a once-off opportunity for Macedonia, but also an exercise, because this money is nothing compared to what they will get when they join the European Union. With the structural funds and cohesion funds, the total resources will become much bigger. But if they don’t learn how to implement this money… off it will go.

One practical example I give to the Macedonians is that in the period 2007-2013, Slovakia has gotten the commitment of about 11 billion euros from the EU. This is approximately the size of the annual budget! So, for seven years you get the opportunity to claim one extra budget. But if you don’t use it all, if you use say only 50 or 80 percent, the rest will be gone.

Part of the message I share with the Macedonians is that small countries must prioritize, must know their potential, must recognize the opportunities and know what they want to achieve. In Slovakia, we realized very quickly that the competitive environment of the European Union means that really, if you hesitate and don’t make priorities, you will lose out.

So again, we decided to make the painful reforms, including in the banking sector to join the eurozone- okay, we are the poorest member of the richest club, but still we are at the table. And we can participate in decision-making, as you can see recently.

CD: Indeed. Dr Kirnag, thank you very much for your time, I really appreciated and enjoyed getting your insights today.

RK: Thank you.

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