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

Slovakia’s Deepening Relations with Macedonia: Interview with Ambassador Martin Bezák editor’s note: in this comprehensive new interview, Director Chris Deliso gets the informed insights of Martin Bezák, one of Slovakia’s most experienced diplomats in the Balkans. Since 2013 ambassador to Macedonia, Mr Bezák has also served in Slovakia’s diplomatic missions to Belgrade and Athens. In 2005-2006, he was also Deputy Director and Head of the Balkans Unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of South-Eastern and Eastern Europe.

In the present interview, Ambassador Bezák discusses Slovakia’s evolving bilateral relations with Macedonia, in the areas of diplomatic, cultural and business ties, as well as initiatives for promoting better regional cooperation at a time of great challenges to the general European project. In addition, readers are treated to several exciting new details that further highlight the developing bilateral relationship.

Martin Bezak Slovakia Macedonia interview Balkanalysis

In the opinion of Ambassador Bezák, the shared legacy of Ss Cyril and Methodius “is the strongest bond, spiritual, cultural or religious, in the whole Slavic world.”

Background and Bilateral Relations

Chris Deliso: Ambassador Bezák, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. First of all, it is noteworthy that you have come to this position here with such extensive regional experience already. So, how did your previous experience in diplomatic missions to the former Yugoslavia and Greece, for example, prepare you for your current position in Macedonia? Was there anything particularly valuable that you learned during these postings?

Martin Bezák: Yes, my previous assignments all influenced or helped me in some way. I had the privilege to be in Belgrade during some of the most crucial times for the Balkans; during the NATO bombardment and sanctions, in the period following Milosevic and during the state of emergency that was called after the Djindjic assassination. Those were tough times.

I also had the privilege to serve under Ambassador Miroslav Mojžita, who I consider probably the finest diplomat Slovakia has had, and under Ambassador Miroslav Lajčák, who is our currently foreign minister, an excellent diplomat, and a former High Representative and EUSR for Bosnia and Herzegovina. So this is a good school of diplomacy I have benefited from.

Regarding the local situations, from Belgrade, we also covered Macedonia at that time, so I have actually been in touch with the country since 1999. And of course my assignment to Greece helped me understand better that country and their view on the crucial unresolved issue that still hampers Macedonian EU and NATO accession. So, with my experience coming at both ends of Trans-European Corridor 10, perhaps it is quite logical that I am currently posted here in Macedonia, where I am also currently the youngest accredited ambassador, at age 43.

Finally, I might add, the fact that my son was born in Skopje gives me another kind of ever-lasting personal bond with Macedonia.

CD: Very interesting! So, in that light, it would be interesting to know how you characterize Macedonian-Slovak relations today, and how have they advanced in the period since 2011- the time when we interviewed your predecessor, Robert Kirnag. Do you have any thoughts?

MB: The basic characteristic for Slovak-Macedonian bilateral relations is that they are traditionally very open and friendly, without any open issues that could burden our bilateral cooperation. In 2009 was the opening of the Slovak residential embassy here in Skopje, something that definitely contributed in a positive way to the development of our relations.

Here I would like to say that things would be even better if there was a Macedonian embassy in Bratislava, or at least an honorary consulate.

CD: Really, there isn’t? That is a surprise.

MB: No, but I can say that there are certain dynamics in both directions at the moment, and so I really hope that by the end of this year at least an honorary consulate will be opened by the Macedonian government in Bratislava. This would have a positive impact on trade relations and economic promotion as well.

However, even despite this lack, the current political dialogue is advancing quite well. There is a certain asymmetry, though, in that the great majority of our meetings are taking place in Bratislava. My task is to balance this trend.

New Developments: Economic Cooperation and Air Connections

CD: Are there any specific opportunities for increased cooperation, and perhaps bilateral achievements you would like to mention?

MB: In economic diplomacy there is huge potential that is not being used to the full potential we would like to see. But, in the weeks and months to come, certain initiatives will be taken to bridge this gap.

For example, in February in Skopje, the first meeting will be held of the Joint Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation. This is co-chaired by the deputy ministers of economy. Simultaneously the first-ever Slovak-Macedonian Business Forum will happen, from 22-23 February. Further, in March the Slovak-Macedonian Business Club, based in Skopje, will be established.

Also, in the field of public diplomacy and the cultural promotion of Slovakia in Macedonia, we are doing well. An important part of our mission now is to provide consular services, and we have upgraded these services in the past two years. We are issuing passports, IDs and visas here now- this wasn’t the case before.

CD: That’s great to hear. These new initiatives sound most welcome. If I can ask as well, what have you learned about Macedonia, having been here for some time now? Is the country different in any way than you had expected?

MB: Macedonia definitely is a nice place for living and working as a diplomat. The country is small, which gives you an advantage to know almost every corner of it. The people are very friendly, the food is good and the wine is even better. Of course, since my very first experiences with the country in the late 1990s, it has changed a lot, and Skopje especially. From one perspective that has been a little controversial, but on the other hand, it was very helpful in bringing tourists, and also from my country.

On that note, I am proud to announce that from the end of March, we will have the first-ever direct flights from Bratislava to Skopje, operated by Wizz Air. This will definitely help bring many more Slovak tourists to Macedonia and vice versa.

CD: That is excellent news! But how did the preparations for it work? Was it a simple business decision from the company, which after all is a Hungarian one, or did you lobby in any way for this route to be added?

MB: Yes, we did lobby for this route, as we had a bilateral agreement on air transport. Of course it is ultimately the primary interest of the company, to decide on the cost-benefit analysis of any route, so we are happy they agree it is worth having. The first flight is scheduled to be on the 28th of March.

CD: So, what is the awareness level of Macedonia among Slovaks? What do you they think, if anything, when they hear of the country there?

MB: The overall knowledge about Macedonia in Slovakia is relatively low. Most Slovaks know about Macedonia from football, as we are traditional rivals. But more recently, it is interestingly in the context of the migrant crisis that the knowledge of Macedonia increased, since the media has reported so much about the issue and the country is on the route.

A Shared Diplomatic and Cultural Heritage, and Slovakia’s International Role

CD: Migration is indeed a pivotal issue, which I would like to return to a little bit later. But first, I wanted to clarify another issue: what is the historical basis of Slovak bilateral diplomatic relations with Macedonia in the post-1991 period? Was there any specific orientation or vision that your leaders had over the years?

MB: In a few weeks, we will celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Slovakia and Macedonia. There are a lot of similarities between the two countries, even in terms of constitutional development. Both were in the past part of multinational federations- and both were smaller parts. At approximately the same time, within a distance of one year, they both gained their independence.

Plus, I don’t want to omit this really strong bond which is constituted by Ss Cyril and Methodius. The bond which comes out of this legacy, in my opinion, is the strongest bond, spiritual, cultural or religious, in the whole Slavic world. And this shared cultural bond has provided a very solid basis for development of relations in the post-independence period.

There is a common strategic foreign policy as well, for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Slovakia has so far been more successful in this, but on the other hand, our very success obliges us to help our Macedonian friends in their path towards these integrations. We do this by extending our experience, which is quite unique, and still relatively fresh. We are willing to share this experience- and not only the awareness of our successes, but also of our mistakes, as this is what sincere friends do- to help each other learn from their mistakes.

CD: That is all very significant to note, and it is important to see Macedonia has a committed ally in Slovakia. On a more international scale, your embassy co-hosted an event in Skopje late last year, on Slovak participation in the post-WWII period in San Francisco and involvement with the UN there. How important do you see the UN as being in today’s world? Is Slovakia able to use any of its diplomatic influence through UN channels to complement its role with Macedonia and the larger region?

MB: The migration crisis, and the struggle against terrorism in light of recent tragic events, confirm the argument that none of the national, regional or global crises can be solved without joint efforts and the involvement of the UN. Current threats require a strong emphasis on conflict prevention and mediation as well, and in this regard, the role of the UN is quite unique and irreplaceable.

For Slovakia, the goals and principles of the UN charter are at the basis of our foreign policy. And there are a lot of examples as to how Slovakia contributes to these values. In Cyprus, for example, it is a relatively little-known fact that Slovakia plays a crucial role as the mediator of inter-party dialogue between the Greeks in the south and the Turks in the north.

CD: Really! I had never heard of this.

MB: Yes. For over two decades, the Slovak ambassadors in Nicosia have organized bi-communal meetings at the Ledra Palace Hotel, in the divided city’s no-man’s-land.

CD: That is a marvelous fact, but seems completely random. Why would Slovakia have had this role in the first place?

MB: Well, it is a historical function. The independent Slovak state inherited this from the time of Czechoslovakia; one of its ambassadors then started this forum as the only channel for direct meetings between political parties from the north and south, keeping Greeks and Turks in good contact. So this is just one important example of how Slovak multilateral diplomacy can be seen in action today, under the UN system.

Secondly, I should add that Slovakia is a leader in such critical areas as security sector reform in different countries. This is important in post-conflict countries, and Slovakia has played a key role in such nations, particularly in Africa, with an emphasis on how to reform the security sector after the armed conflict has ended.

There are other examples of Slovak diplomats who have been engaged in the UN system at high levels. From 1991 to 2001, the SG Special Envoy for the Balkans was Eduard Kukan, the same man who was also foreign minister and is now one of the facilitators from the European Parliament here. [Editor’s note: read the 2012 Balkanalysis interview with Eduard Kukan here]. His assistant at that time was Miroslav Lajčák, who was later of course, the UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and, as said, now Slovak foreign minister.

Exclusively for your website I would like to tell you that there are rumors that Mr Lajčák will be nominated as Slovakia’s candidate to be the next UN Secretary General. From what I know, if he decides to run, the government will support him as the only Slovak candidate.

Migration and Security Relations

CD: Thank you, that is a very interesting bit of news. We will keep a lookout for such news. Now, perhaps we can discuss migration, which is the most important issue for Macedonia, and for Europe, entering 2016. Since last summer, migration policy has of course been on the top of everyone’s agenda. However, the EU, UNHCR, and many other states failed to correctly understand and assess the issue even as it was becoming very apparent to those of us living in the region. What measures should be taken, according to Slovakia?

MB: This is a very complex and actual issue. What is our approach… first of all, you have certainly noticed that Slovakia is not in the ‘Brussels mainstream’ on how to tackle this phenomenon.

We said that we promote complex, comprehensive and sustainable solutions, since the crisis has very many aspects. As such, it cannot be solved through a simple administrative approach- by this, I refer mainly to quotas.

Not less important, we also are saying that Europe should focus on how to solve the whole problem- not just the consequences, but also the causes. What does a sustainable solution mean, in practice? What is the remedy?

First, we must insist on better protection of Europe’s external borders. Functioning hot spots, where registrations should be maintained, must also operate. Secondly, the EU needs to create a better readmission policy for migrants. And we need better cooperation between European intelligence services, and a more robust common foreign and defense policy of the EU. You know, we have instruments in existence- we are just not using them effectively enough. There is the Lisbon Treaty, Frontex, and so on. We need better synergy between the EU and NATO, which already has existing capacities. If I am not mistaken, in the Eastern Mediterranean NATO’s Active Endeavor security operation is ongoing, and this could play a role as well.

CD: Very interesting arguments. Can you explain further about the legal challenges from Slovakia and other countries over migration quotas? This has been one of the most significant events to try and slow down what has been a rather autocratic policy process steered by the Germans…

MB: On migration quotas, we launched a legal action against the European Council of Ministers of the Interior. The Hungarians did the same. The Czechs announced that they would also do so, but they have not done so thus far.

We were forced to do this because we believe that, for Slovakia and for Europe, a quota system is not a real solution to the migration problem. This developed largely because of the way the discussion was held within the EU. The discussion was neither comprehensive nor sophisticated enough; nor was it sufficiently inclusive.

There are a lot of open questions about quotas. Did anyone define the absorption capacity of individual countries, and the EU as such, before assigning numbers to them? What would the right number be, and who is to decide? The figure of 120,000 was decided after some debate. Who made this up? Is it the final number?

CD: I don’t think so. Now they are talking about millions…

MB: Yes, that figure was from the time when this discussion started, last year. But now we are at the point where over one million people entered the EU during the last year, and the arrivals are obviously continuing. So, in our estimate, migration quotas have the potential to create more migrant flows- would-be migrants see the announcement of quotas as a sort of invitation.

And this in turn creates many difficult questions. Who will be selecting and deciding who goes where? How can Brussels know what is appropriate for Slovakia, and indeed, for any other EU state?

CD: I agree with you completely. It is common sense. But when someone makes such a case, they are usually accused of discrimination and so on.

MB: This is not about discrimination- it is about real integration. We want to ensure the capacity for meaningful integration, and to avoid creating ghettoes, a condition of living that is first of all bad for the migrants themselves.

We have even been accused of a lack of ‘European solidarity.’ But if you speak of solidarity, you should stick to it at all times- not only selectively. So in energy security, for example, where is the solidarity concerning Nord Stream, or regarding Ukraine, for just two examples?

In fact, to speak about European solidarity, it is a little-known fact that Slovakia received so far more than 8,000 economic migrants from Ukraine. And we also temporarily received 500 Middle Eastern asylum seekers from Austria, people who had arrived in Austria but who were still waiting for Austrian approval.

CD: These are good points. And I believe that Macedonia, even if it is not an EU member, has suffered a lot of pressure from Germany and other EU states over migration. The country has taken responsibility for its own policy, as we analyzed in a recent article. Most recently, police from several Balkan and Central European countries have been invited to come, and will come, to help Macedonia police its borders. Is Slovakia going to join this contingent?

MB: Yes. Slovakia is part of this action, in order to help our Macedonia friends better protect the border with Greece, and to fight against illegal migrant smuggling. The Slovak government decided on January 13th that it will send 25 fully-equipped police personnel, to be deployed from the 5th of February, primarily on the border with Greece. Slovakia’s police contribution is the biggest per capita out of those countries that replied positively to the request of the Macedonian authorities.

Moreover, on 19 January, a meeting of the Visegrad Group’s ministers of the interior was held, a meeting which also included representatives of the Slovenia, Macedonian and Serbian interior ministries- the V4 Plus. At that meeting, it was agreed that in the next 14 days a special expert assessment mission from the V4 will be dispatched to Macedonia’s southern border with Greece, to see and assess other needs there, like technical equipment.

CD: That is a positive development. Over the past nine months, the situation at the Greek-Macedonia border has been chronically misreported in a way that casts Macedonia in a bad light, both by partisan sources and by aid agencies looking for further funding. To what extent do you think that this new enhanced police presence will correct the outside view, considering that these European police must report what is happening to their home countries, and therefore cause the information to trickle up in the EU?

MB: This is possible, but not sure yet; what we can say is that there are clearly efforts being made by Central European countries to help Macedonia. To what extent this will help, we will have to wait and see. But I do think it will definitely help. There is also a balanced number of police by nationality. There are 10 from Croatia, 20 from Serbia, and six from Slovenia. Then there are 31 from Hungary and 25 from the Czech Republic. But we should also keep in mind that the deployments are being done on several rotations. For example, the Slovak and Czech officers will come at the start of February, while the Hungarians only came quite recently. So we will wait to see the results.

CD: During his November 21st visit to Skopje, Donald Tusk stated that Macedonia has “a right and a responsibility” to protect its borders. We know that the Macedonian state has said it cannot accept more than 2,000 migrants in transit, even though behind the scenes there is still heavy pressure from certain EU forces to fund camps through the UNHCR for up to 30,000 persons. Macedonia has repeatedly stated such a scenario would be a logistical and security problem. Can Macedonia count on Slovakia to speak up on its behalf, whether publicly or in the halls of power in Brussels, on this issue?

MB: Again, as we see it, the issue is fundamentally about quotas. It would be wiser to leave Macedonia to decide on its own what its capacities and capabilities are to handle this issue. If the Macedonians have said several times that their maximum capacity is up to 2,000 persons in transit, Slovakia has absolutely no intention to question this statement.

CD: As we have seen with Kosovo, large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers in 2015 were actually coming from the Western Balkans, despite years of Western funding that was meant to create viable states that would expressly keep citizens from trying to move elsewhere in Europe. What should be done to address this issue?

MB: This is obviously a very delicate issue. On the one hand, it is necessary to create a local ownership role, to create suitable social and economic conditions to stop brain drain and economic migration. Second, it is necessary to really reform the asylum procedures in EU member states, since they are not harmonized, and we have now a pattern of misuses of benefits given in certain member states.

Guidelines for Good Diplomacy

CD: During 2015, Slovakia stayed out of the political crisis in Macedonia, one that has had damaging effects on certain other foreign missions’ ability to cooperate with the Macedonian state, as their representatives have ended up compromised in one way or another. Does this local reality give Slovakia a greater role than it might otherwise have?

MB: Slovakia has experience in the Balkans, which has been proven over many years of engagement. We don’t have any hidden agendas in the region, and I can say that Slovakia is thus kind of an honest broker here.

Again, what we can offer is our experience and advice. We have the approach of “two A´s” – assistance and advocacy, for countries in transition. And for this we can use our position within the EU and NATO.

You know, sometimes it is better to keep a low profile, and not publicly expose yourself in order to do the job in a better way. Also, we are working with a view to the future, bearing in mind that Slovakia is now preparing to assume the presidency of the European Council, in the second half of 2016. There will be plenty of opportunities at that time for us to be more visible in this regard.

Slovakia’s Role in Regional Development through the Visegrad Group

CD: This sounds like promising development, which will also increase the stature of Slovakia at an important time. More generally, where do current events figure in with any regional development initiatives Slovakia may have here? Where does your government assess the most need?

MB: In the Balkans, there are already quite a lot of regional initiatives. Some are fruitful, and some are more questionable, in terms of real added value.

But what Slovakia emphasizes in the Balkans, and what I am doing here, is inviting the local actors to examine the possible example of Visegrad cooperation. There are a lot of aspects here that should be followed, considering that the V4 is the most successful such group for regional cooperation in Central Europe. Nowadays it’s an internationally respected brand, even here in the Balkans.

We have a special program, the previously mentioned V4 Plus cooperation. And one of the target regions for it is the Western Balkans. Within this format, we communicate, cooperate, and transfer our experience.

CD: Does this group have an associated fund for projects, similar to other development agencies and indeed the EU?

MB: Yes. This started after our accession into the EU, 10 or 11 years ago. The so-called Western Balkans Fund, as it is called, is kind of a clone of the International Visegrad Fund, and was established in November of last year. The Slovak V4 presidency played a crucial role here. The treaty was signed in November in Prague, during the Czech presidency, but the preparatory period happened when Slovakia held the presidency.

Local and external donors provide for the V4 fund, which has a 10-million euro annual budget. But contributions also come from Germany, from the Dutch, from the US- even from South Korea.

Regional development and good neighborly relations are the two main goals. Behind the success of the V4, I strongly believe, is our focus on a positive agenda. This means that the primary value is placed on the points of common interests of the citizens of the region, while any differences are put aside. The V4 agenda is thus not burdened by open bilateral issues; the initiatives we consider are based on a positive vision: let’s focus on what unites us, what´s beneficial for the region and its citizens, let’s connect, let’s solve bilateral issues bilaterally.

Another aspect that makes the V4 successful, I might add, is that it does not have any institutions, no permanent secretariat, no assembly. So operationally speaking, it is quite informal, very flexible and efficient. Third, it has established a certain solidarity in the region, which we have always felt, even during the more autocratic Vladimír Mečiar period of 1992-98 in Slovakia.

CD: The Group sounds like it can set a good example and perhaps play a positive role for Balkan countries. What sort of feedback do you get here? Has the Macedonian side been enthusiastic about cooperation?

MB: Yes, I believe that they are. And our legacy of positive experience with the V4 leads me to wish as much Visegrad as possible for the region.

An important fact that people should appreciate, also, is that in Macedonia, the V4 is the only regional format that maintains regular meetings with the president of the state. What is interesting and very important is that this has come on the initiative of the Macedonian President, Gjorge Ivanov. Every year, he invites the ambassadors of the V4 for a working lunch. We really appreciate this gesture from the president; it is another sign of the quality of cooperation that Slovakia, and the V4 in general, enjoy in Macedonia.

Building Economic Relations

CD: Everyone knows the Macedonia government for almost 10 years now has been focused primarily on attracting foreign investment. Can you give us any information about Slovak investments in Macedonia and/or Macedonian investments in Slovakia? What is the balance of trade between the two countries?

MB: There is unfortunately still no proper direct Slovak investment in Macedonia. Rather there is Slovak participation in investment by the Macedonian state, as with Macedonian Railways, being helped by Slovak producers. Thus the supply of 150 freight wagons produced in Slovakia means the renewal of 20 percent of Macedonia’s freight fleet- the first such renewal in 30 years.

Similarly, another Slovak company provided modernization services for the Macedonian Army’s helicopters calibration of equipment. And one Slovak construction company, Chemkostav Michalovce, is performing repairs and building activities at the state prison at Idrizovo. Quite recently, they also got the second tender for construction of sewage systems between Berovo and Pehcevo in eastern Macedonia.

As far as I know, there are no Macedonian investments in Slovakia. The current balance of trade comes to only about 100 million euros. This is not so much, but with the imminent establishment of direct flights and a business club, I am quite optimistic about the future.

CD: Are there any specific industries that you see as most promising for the future bilateral economic relationship?

MB: The automotive sector is certainly promising- a fact you should know is that Slovakia is the world’s number-one producer of cars per capita. In fact, last year over one million cars were produced in three factories: this equals 184 cars per 1000 inhabitants.

CD: I definitely did not know that, though I can imagine room for convergence given Macedonia’s existing investments from auto parts producers. What are the companies?

MB: Volkswagen, PSA (Peugeot-Citroen) and Kia Motors. And last year, we were also successful in attracting Jaguar Land Rover to make a 1.4 billion euro investment. And yes, future cooperation with Macedonian factories could realistically come through sub-supplies, connecting the clusters.

A second field perhaps would be energy, and particularly in terms of biofuels. Macedonia has practically no experience with the kind of plants that we are already using for producing electricity from biofuels. We would like to transfer our knowledge regarding this, which could lead to growing the right kinds of plants and building power plants using this resource. These are just a couple of the many opportunities for economic cooperation that lie ahead for our two countries.

Developments regarding Cultural Relations between Slovakia and Macedonia

CD: Every year, we note the special day of the above-mentioned Ss Cyril and Methodius, ‘enlightener of the Slavs,’ who traveled from Macedonia to Moravia on their famous pilgrimage. What is the perception of their achievement among Slovaks, in popular culture and daily life? Has it influenced in any way cultural relations or cultural awareness of the Macedonian heritage?

MB: Ss Cyril and Methodius, and their legacy, is an integral part of our modern state and identity; Slovakia is the only country in the world with a direct reference to the legacy of their mission in the preamble of its constitution.

Upon this basis, and in accordance with the ties that are confirmed by this story, we are developing our activities in the cultural and academic field with Macedonia. For example, the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, and the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra, which is the nucleus of the saints’ Great Moravia mission, established an international conference on Slovak-Macedonian cultural, linguistic and literary relations.

So far, two such conferences have been held- one in Nitra and one in Skopje. We promoted the publication of the first trilingual version – in Old Church Slavonic, Macedonian and Slovak – of the Proglas (Foreword) of Constantine the Philosopher (St Cyril).

CD: Are there any specific cultural relations, events or organizations between Slovakia and Macedonia that you would like to highlight? Can we expect any exciting developments or events in 2016?

MB: Well, first to conclude, we also did promotion for the first Slovak-Macedonian dictionary, the first tourist guide to Ohrid in the Slovak language, and a few other events, like the first Days of Slovak Cinema in Macedonia, and the first Days of Slovak Gastronomy in Skopje. Now we are planning a second Days of Slovak Gastronomy, in the fall and will continue with other events.

CD: Great news. I am interested in this light to know what efforts are being made to develop exchange student programs between the two countries? Do you have any information on the number of Macedonians studying in Slovakia, and vice versa?

MB: Several such initiatives are taking place, some are bilateral, and some are organized under the auspices of the V4. About 30 Macedonian students are currently studying in Slovakia, mostly in technical subjects. Unfortunately, no Slovak students are currently studying in Macedonia

But there is a special program within the V4 fund called academic mobility, and scholarships through this can be provided through the fund. Presently supported through it is an academic program on conflict resolution, here at the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius: it aims to relay the experience of V4 countries in this regard to students from the Balkans. It is an ongoing program, and has attracted lecturers from V4 countries. The program also provides for excursions of Macedonian students within the V4 countries.

CD: These are all very promising developments. So, to conclude, I must ask you: where do you see Slovak-Macedonian relations in 10 years?

MB: My wish is to see Macedonia as a strong friend and ally of Slovakia within NATO, and a country well advanced on its way to negotiating EU membership. I really hope that by then Macedonia will have established a dynamic diplomatic presence in Slovakia, and I hope that we will have really increased our economic, trade and touristic exchanges. These are my hopes, and I believe they are attainable with the right spirit of cooperation and effort.

CD: Ambassador Bezák, thank you very much for your time and valuable insights, they are very much appreciated.

MB: Thank you as well.

Macedonia’s EU Accession and Reform Goals: Interview with Deputy Prime Minister Fatmir Besimi editor’s note: after four consecutive postponements of accession negotiations, and after being having realized progress in the key areas required for opening negotiations, Macedonia looked forward to the June European Council, when a decision was expected on granting the country a date to start talks. The European Commission’s Spring Report endorsed its October 2012 positive recommendations, recording progress made in the implementation of EU-related HLAD reforms, in improving good-neighborly relations, and urged for immediate enforcement of the March 1, 2013 political agreement. However, on June 27-28, the Council’s agenda did not include discussions on the progress made by the Republic of Macedonia towards opening EU membership negotiations and, consequently, no date for opening accession talks has been set.

In light of these recent events, contributor Cristian Dimitrescu recently sought some insights from the Macedonian government’s Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, Fatmir Besimi, regarding the latter’s views on the pace of policy formulation and reform implementation, in regards to the on-going High Level Accession Dialog (HLAD) and anticipated decision on EU accession negotiations.

Holder of a PhD from Staffordshire University, Mr Besimi has several years of experience in high-level governmental service in Macedonia, having been minister of economy (December 2004-July 2006 and August 2008-July 2011) and minister of defense (August 2011-February 2013). Before these positions, he had served as vice-governor of the National Bank of the Republic of Macedonia.


According to Deputy Prime Minister Besimi, “the government is committed to further fulfillment of all necessary obligations regardless of their complexity.”

Cristian Dimitrescu: Aside from the regular cooperation framework set by the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), the Macedonian government and the European Commission have engaged, since March 2012 in the High Level Accession Dialogue (HLAD). The subsequent assessments talk about the government’s successful engagement and its capacity to deliver on the negotiated commitments. How can we explain this mobilization of resources and capacities that led to such an outcome?

Fatmir Besimi: As you know, the Republic of Macedonia was granted candidate-country status in December 2005 and received the first recommendation by the European Commission to start accession negations in 2009. This recommendation has been subsequently repeated each year to date. So, on one hand we had the confirmation that the country fulfils the criteria, but on the other hand we were not given a date for formal start of the negotiations due to the name dispute; therefore, we needed some kind of mechanism that would ensure sustained implementation of the reforms, but also something that would confirm the European perspective of the country.

We have to admit that the High Level Accession Dialogue fulfilled its purpose as it provided new dynamism to the EU integration process. Even though it was a new and challenging process, the administration had the necessary capacity to respond to the requirements in an effective and efficient manner, considering that we have been constantly strengthening our capacities for negotiations since 2005. Furthermore, the government has demonstrated its firm commitment to this process and delivered results in all areas covered by the Accession Dialogue, as was noted in the Commission’s report. I think that the success was a result of the joint efforts of all institutions in the country and the support provided by the European Commission.

CD: It is sometimes said that Macedonia takes advantage of the Greek veto in order to postpone socially unpopular reforms and decisions. How do you answer to this claim?

FB: I would not agree with such a perception. We are fully aware that many of the EU-related reforms are difficult and some of them may not be popular, but the government is prepared to undertake and implement all the necessary reforms.

On the other hand, we as elected representatives have to ensure that the citizens not be heavily affected by the reforms, which is especially important in a time of global financial crisis. It is always challenging to find the right balance, but I assure you that we are doing our utmost to implement the EU reforms, as doing so is in the interest of the citizens for our better future.

CD: A range of documents recently issued by different EU institutions (e.g., EC Report of April 16. 2013; EP Resolution of May 23, 2013) mention – despite noticeable progress – certain delays in adopting and implementing legislation on independence and impartiality of public administration and the judiciary, fighting corruption and organized crime, electoral procedures and political party financing, media independence, and so on. In your opinion, why does the implementation process in these areas take longer than the EU partners would have wanted or anticipated?

FB: All these areas that you mention are also both important and difficult for reform, but they are also covered by the High Level Accession Dialogue which indicates that the government acknowledges their importance and is prepared to address those issues. It is also a fact that these areas include a wide range of groups with different interests, which are concerned by the reform activities. So, if we want the reforms to succeed it is necessary that we ensure the support of all stakeholders and to achieve that it is needed in order to ensure their involvement, by providing conditions for debates and an exchange of opinions. This requires a lot of time and can sometimes lead to delay in the implementation of the envisaged activities.

On the other hand I would like to underline that significant progress has been achieved especially in these sensitive areas over the last year. For instance in the area of freedom of expression, one of the key issues was decriminalization of defamation and insult, and indeed we have managed to adopt the law on civil liability for defamation and insult through transparent and inclusive process.

Nevertheless, I want to reiterate that the government is committed to further fulfillment of all necessary obligations regardless of their complexity, and is looking forward to overcoming all the challenges along the way, in the interest of ensuring stronger democracy and prosperity for the future of all our citizens.

CD: Do you believe the envisaged cross-party Memorandum of Understanding would really help to overcome at least some of the deficiencies you just mentioned? How do you think such an agreement would effectively concentrate political will around “the country’s strategic objective of EU and Atlantic integration,” and what are the deadlocks to be firstly addressed?

FB: The EU integration of the Republic of Macedonia enjoys the support of the wider public in the country, including all political parties. Moreover, the goal of EU membership as an option for our country has never been questioned by any political subject. The differences are maybe in terms of what are the priority reforms, or the manner in which they are implemented.

Therefore, I believe that the signing of the cross-party Memorandum of Understanding as a formal confirmation of our goal of becoming an EU member state would be important for achieving political consensus on the issues of national interest and maintaining political dialogue, in order to ensure smoother implementation of all necessary reforms. In terms of recent deadlocks, I think that currently it is of key importance that the Inquiry Committee regarding the 24 December events has been established, and now it should act upon its tasks. Moreover, the country should continue with the remaining essential issues and key reforms of the March Agreement in the area of freedom of expression and media, election reforms and so on.

CD: In view of forthcoming EU Council discussions on opening accession negotiations with Macedonia, which of the country’s latest advances do you believe have been overlooked and should be weighted or perceived in a more adequate manner?

FB: Our relations with the European Commission have always been close, cooperative and based on mutual respect. In this regard, we expect that our efforts and progress in the implementation of the reforms be adequately noted and acknowledged in the EC documents.

Moreover, we also accept and seriously take into consideration all comments and recommendations given by the European Commission in regard to the areas which require additional reforms. This kind of correlation has worked extremely well so far and has been very helpful for us to identify needs and to define the appropriate measures for the EU-related activities. I believe that our cooperation with the European Commission will continue in the same manner.

The Mystery of Macedonia’s Islamic Manuscripts: Interview with Mesut Idriz Editor’s note: while an October exhibition of Macedonian medieval manuscripts in Brussels incited protests from the government in Sofia over historical issues, there is another collection of texts in the country about which relatively little is known- that is, Macedonia’s Islamic manuscript collection, a legacy from Ottoman times.

In this intriguing new interview, Director Chris Deliso gets the insights of Prof. Dr. Mesut Idriz, an expert on the subject who has done considerable research on the history, identity and preservation possibilities of Islamic manuscripts from Macedonia.

A native of Macedonia, Dr. Idriz received his graduate and doctoral degrees from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM). Previously, he also studied in Syria. Currently he is Professor at the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the International University of Sarajevo. Dr Idriz has also served as Head of the Department of Political Science and International Relations and was Founding Director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Education at Hasan Kalyoncu University (then, Gazikent University). Dr Idriz has taught at both the International Islamic University of Malaysia and the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), and was Chief Editor (Academics) at MPH Group Publishing (Kuala Lumpur). He is also a regular Visiting Professor at the International Summer School (PISU) of Prishtina University, Kosovo, teaching a special course on “Public Diplomacy in the Balkans.”

In addition, Dr Idriz has published, edited and translated numerous academic books and articles concerning the Balkans, Ottoman and Muslim history, Islamic civilization, the history of Islamic education (particularly the tradition of ijazah, diploma). Among his books is The Ijazah of ‘Abdullah Fahim: A Unique Document from Islamic Education, analyzing and translating into English the Former Prime Minister of Malaysia Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Grandfather’s ijazah. He is co-English translator of HE Ali Akbar Velayeti’s voluminous work, Mawsū‛ah al-Islām wa Irān (The Encyclopedia of Islam and Iran). Dr Idriz’s works have been published in English, Turkish, Albanian, Persian, French and Malay. He recently co-edited Turkish-Albanian Macedonian Relations: Past, Present and Future (2012), and is currently co-editing Islam in Europe: Past Reflections and Future Prospects for Oxford University Press (2014).


Chris Deliso: You provided a wealth of new information in a paper of last year entitled ‘An evaluation of the current state of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia and future prospects.’ Can you tell us a little about your motivations for getting interested in the subject in the first place, and in taking the time to research it? What makes the Islamic manuscripts of your country significant to you?

Mesut Idriz: The manuscript literature of the Islamic world is a vast area of study; these manuscripts contain an as-yet almost untapped source for the rich Islamic heritage. [Islamic] manuscripts have been studied for quite a long time, and many are well-known. However, even more of them remain still unknown, or at least insufficiently appreciated. Nowadays, these manuscripts are not the exclusive preserve of Arab and Muslim countries, or even countries with large Muslim minorities, like the Balkan region. Islamic manuscripts are found extensively in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Japan. There is hardly a country in the world that does not possess some manuscripts produced under the aegis of Muslim civilization.

According to Dr. Idriz, in Macedonia “the number of manuscripts outside of the official institutions might reach into the tens of thousands in total.”

It is estimated that three million Islamic manuscripts survive today. These are normally held either in private collections or by public libraries. They are always highly valued by their holders. Some private holders may remain unaware of the value of what they have in their collections; yet they are often reluctant or unwilling to share information about them. Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia and those housed in the St Clement of Ohrid National and University Library in Skopje are highly significant and part of the Muslim heritage, endowed by scholars and government officials throughout the Ottoman rule.

CD: Your overview of the Islamic manuscripts in, and arriving in Macedonia during the Ottoman period was comprehensive, but can you give us any examples of specific highlights- either particularly valuable pieces, whether for aesthetic or artistic reasons, or rarity of content, or quality of writing, or other factors?

MI: A large number of manuscripts written in all the three Muslim languages (Arabic, Ottoman-Turkish and Persian) represent authentic small masterpieces of the Islamic calligraphers, illuminators and book binders. It is assumed that among the manuscripts written in Arabic language, Some of their authors probably originate from Macedonia. They are Muhammad Vahdetî ibn Muhammad el-Üskübî and Şeyh Sinani Mustafa ibn Mahmud el-Üskübî, both from Skopje, judging by their nisbe indicated at the end of their names, as well as Abdurrahman ibn Hasan ibn Abdurrahman el-Debrevî, originating from Debar. All these manuscripts are original works, which should be studied by academics and students pursuing their doctoral degrees.

CD: Similarly, about the languages used in the manuscripts- are they generally in Arabic, or in Turkish, Persian or other languages? Are there any written in Balkan languages?

MI: I have not been able to go through each book available in the National and University Library but we are informed that they are in the Arabic, Ottoman-Turkish and Persian languages. I have come across some manuscripts written in Albanian and Bosnian – using the Arabic alphabet – but these books can be found [only] in the private hands of individuals around Macedonia.

Macedonia and the Balkans’ First Ottoman Library

CD: You mentioned that the first Islamic library in the Balkans was created in Macedonia, by Ottoman Commander Isa Beg in 1469. You add that he donated 330 rare manuscripts to it. Are any of these original texts still surviving? If so, are they in the country or in outside museums or private collections?

MI: [The 330] rare manuscripts donated by the Ottoman Commander Isa Beg during the 15th century may not all be available today, but it is believed that most of the original works are still surviving, and are housed in the National and University Library.

CD: You write that following the end of the Ottoman Empire Macedonia inherited over 20,000 Islamic manuscripts but that the vagaries of time, the two world wars and theft have affected this figure. So what is the known number that survived post-1945? And, as far as the issue of stolen manuscripts from this period goes, are there any unique stories about where they ended up and if any have been recovered?

MI: The exact number actually is not known. In various venues I have been suggesting that a small center employing a dynamic team should be established. This team should conduct a comprehensive survey around Macedonia and prepare a detailed list of Islamic manuscripts found in the individual libraries, tekkes, centers of learning, etc. As far as the issue of stolen manuscripts is concerned, nothing has been so far published about their whereabouts, or stories about them, except for certain information that we have been receiving through word-of-mouth, typically, from elderly people. But theft of manuscripts is not the only issue we have. For instance, the bell of the clock-tower in Skopje (Saat, in Sultan Murat Mosque) was stolen and still today no one has written or investigated the matter in depth.

CD: Of the maniscripts that were preserved, you write that the majority of local collectors were Sufi mystics. Is there any reason why these particular people had an interest in rare manuscripts, or were other factors involved too?

MI: No, there is no particular reason for that. However, we may assume that Sufi mystics are the lovers of God and they devote themselves in seeking His guidance at all time. After all, God’s first verse revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is iqra’, which means “read;” and here the word ‘read’ does not refer merely to the reading of the Holy Book only, but to any knowledge that is beneficial to mankind. Therefore, they paid attention to preserve these books containing knowledge and particularly beneficial ones for mankind. This act of preserving them is considered a noble one.

Knowns and Unknowns

CD: Like any other branch of cultural heritage, Islamic manuscripts might be prone to theft or ‘relocation.’ Are you aware of any attempts at ‘relocating’ any of Macedonia’s Islamic manuscripts in recent years? Where are they stored for safekeeping, and who and how many people have access to them?

MI: With reference to your question, we have to know that there are two groups of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia, and I call them as “officially known” and “officially unknown” works.

Concerning the former, the majority of them are kept in the National and University Library. In the mid-1980s, the Isa Beg Medrese – not the one that was established by the Ottoman Commander Isa Beg mentioned earlier, though it bears the same name – was founded, and later the Faculty of Islamic Studies of Skopje, under the Islamic Community of Macedonia. The staff of the Library of Isa Beg then began to make a list by hand of the Islamic manuscripts available in their possession. However, a proper catalogue has yet to be produced for either the National and University Library’s or the Isa Beg Library’s collections.

As for “officially unknown” manuscripts, there is no single survey that has been done so far; therefore, how many manuscripts there are, and where, is yet to be established. We are not aware about whether there have been any attempts to ‘relocate’ any kind of manuscripts housed in the official institutions. Access-wise, the manuscripts kept in the National and University Library are open for researchers and students, but the problem is that the catalogues informing about the list and content of the book are not ready and published; therefore, this creates a big problem for researchers. I urge that the list of manuscript available in any library be published and made available for the public. If this happens, the details about the works will be known and hopefully none of them will ‘go missing’ in the future.

CD: While most of the manuscripts are in the capital, therefore, do you still believe that there may be cases of rare or unknown manuscripts perhaps existing in remote village mosques or the attic of some villager’s home, or other such places? Have you personally ever made discoveries of otherwise unknown manuscripts in this way?

MI: Oh yes. That is why it is presumed that the number of manuscripts outside of the official institutions might reach into the tens of thousands in total. And yes, I have come across many, many manuscripts kept in private hands, either inherited from their ancestors or just purchased at some point, or else received as a gift from others. Again, this is why I urge an institution supervised by the government(s) to be established and to employ a group of young researchers, in order to make a comprehensive survey all around Macedonia, and as a result, to produce a detailed list about the Islamic manuscripts available in Macedonia.

Cataloguing Attempts

CD: You have written that ‘some private holders may remain unaware of the value of what they have in their collections.’ So in this light, there are two questions: one, are you aware of any attempts to systematically catalogue the value of Macedonia’s Islamic manuscripts? If so, is there an authorized body or internationally recognized expert or group of experts behind this process?

MI: With regard to the National and University Library’s collection of Islamic manuscripts, certain cataloguing attempts have been made since the 1950s. With the great assistances of Muderris Abdulfettah Rauf, known as Fettah Efendi (1910-1963), who was an expert in all three major Muslim languages, Arabic, Ottoman-Turkish and Persian as well as a famous scholar, this initiative took off. The catalogue began to be prepared in the Macedonian language. However with his sudden death in 1963, this work was somehow put off. After almost four decades, after being appointed to the position of caretaker of these manuscripts, English and Arabic expert Marijana Kavčič began to work on this unaccomplished mission of cataloguing. Marijana should be credited for her marvelous job and acknowledged for her positive contribution as she, in addition to Macedonian, began to prepare the catalogue in the English language, which we consider will have a greater global effect. Unfortunately the fate of cataloguing Arabic Islamic manuscripts did not last long as Marijana began to work in the library in 2005 and left the position in 2008.

In the meantime, with the sponsorship of [Turkish International Development Agency] TIKA, a work on the cataloguing of “officially known” Ottoman-Turkish manuscripts available in Macedonia began in 2003, and was completed and published in 2007 under the title Makedonya Kütüphaneleri Türkçe Yazma Eserler Kataloğu by two academics, Yaşar Aydemir and Abdulkadir Hayber. This important catalogue was produced in the Turkish language. But this work does not have any inventory survey on what we call “officially unknown” manuscripts, and as a result it does not include those manuscripts available in the country’s private collections. To my knowledge, there is a lack of inventory survey, comprehensive cataloguing and digital processing of the Islamic manuscripts available in Macedonia. Further, there is no authorized body or internationally recognized expert or group of experts behind this process.

Manuscript Collectors and Factoring Prices

CD: Following on from that, do you know any private collectors of Macedonian Islamic manuscripts- either inside or outside of the country? If yes, do you have any knowledge of what kind of works may remain ‘hidden’ in their private collections?

MI: Yes, there are a few private collectors of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia, as well as Islamic manuscripts of the Balkans in general in various parts of the world. I know a few Middle Eastern scholars who possess works that originated from the Balkan region. I have also met a few Europeans who are lovers of Islamic manuscripts who posses original copies from this region. One of the collectors I visited in the United Arab Emirates recently had about 10 Islamic manuscripts that he had acquired from the Balkan region.

CD: To give us some sense of scale, what are some of the highest auction prices or agreed values for other Islamic manuscripts from elsewhere in the world? What is the profile of the kind of persons or groups who purchase such texts?

MI: Very interesting question. I visited a collector who is himself a scholar, who divided his library into two parts: the first for handwritten manuscripts, and the second for published books. Interestingly, his handwritten manuscripts were locked in a vault protected by electronic sensors, which contained almost eleven thousand works. The oldest manuscript he had dated back to the 10th century- something that is really priceless.

In our casual discussion, he mentioned that all of these handwritten manuscripts may be worth over $50 million if he were to sell them.

Some of these collectors are either people who are financially wealthy, and their hobbies include collecting old manuscripts; others are scholars; and some others are just pure businessmen who buy and sell Islamic manuscripts. To my knowledge, the highest price ever paid for an Islamic manuscript was paid for the oldest surviving Holy Book of the Qur’an. Among the well-known personages who collects handwritten Qur’ans is HRH Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei.
CD: In your professional opinion, are there subjective factors involved with the perception of value (i.e., devout Muslims who will buy these objects simply because of the religious or sentimental value) that affects the global market view of their value? How difficult is it to assign or find an objective consensus on the value to these objects compared to other historical items or works of art, given that some collectors will have different motivations for acquiring them? And is this any different than how the market works for other (non-Islamic) historical objects?

MI: To begin with the last question: it is not that different from how the market works for other historical objects, when we look at it in terms of the object’s value at the auction level. Only the sentimental issue adds value to the item for certain people, or sellers try to include the sentimental and/or religious values in order to ‘manipulate’ the market price.

There are definitely subjective factors from the point of view of value perception, as when the historical objects in question are concerned with religion. This is especially the case when it is related to the Holy Book(s), where the global market view might not even be considered when valuing the item(s). Imagine if you tried to put a value on the Holy Qur’an kept in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It dates to the period of the Third Caliph ‘Uthman b. ‘Afwan; this item is ‘impossible’ to value, no money can buy it nor be offered for it. There are many similar examples, and not only from the Muslim world. In fact examples from the non-Muslim world exceed those from the Muslim world by many times.

A Turkish-Macedonian Initiative?

CD: The goal you presented in last year’s paper was ‘the cataloging and ultimately digitalizing’ of the Macedonian Islamic manuscripts. Until now, have you managed to attract the attention of any sponsors whether from the government, corporations, universities or other foundations? If so, what is the result?

MI: There are some discussions going on. I have managed to raise this matter with the local Macedonian government officials, with some NGOs, foreign institutions and donors. It is not a difficult process, but still not an easy task. The only thing I can say is “let’s hope” a joint effort takes place between the Turkish and Macedonian governments on this highly significant aspect of Islamic heritage inherited from the Ottoman era.

CD: Among the interested parties in your work you have specified the London-based al-Furqan Foundation and the Institute of Arabic Manuscripts, a project of the Arab League. Both have the goal of collecting and publishing Islamic manuscripts from around the world. Are these groups actively involved in supporting any current or future project in Macedonia related to your idea? If so, what benefit can they, and the Islamic interests of Macedonia, get from this?

MI: I have not been involved with either institution in my personal capacity, except for with the former (Al-Furqan Foundation) which jointly with my former workplace organized a training course on the cataloguing and digitizing process in 2006 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As for benefits and interests, this is a vast subject. It is not only in the interest of Macedonia only, but of the whole world, higher learning institutions, think-tanks, research centers, and the students and academics.

CD: The Turkish International Cooperation and Coordination Agency, TIKA, has been involved with some research on this field. What is the goal and what is the assistance of the Turkish government in the area of Islamic manuscripts from Macedonia, in terms of their own legacy in the region and their goals for the future?

MI: TIKA has been offering assistance internationally in order to forge better Turkish relations and cooperation with various regions, to create the Turkish-friendly awareness in societies outside of Turkey by reviving, renovating and establishing monumental buildings, houses, centers, and so on. In terms of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia, particularly the Ottoman-Turkish ones, as mentioned earlier, TIKA in 2003 managed to sponsor two academics, Yaşar Aydemir and Abdulkadir Hayber, to catalogue the “officially known” manuscripts, and subsequently published it in 2007 under the title Makedonya Kütüphaneleri Türkçe Yazma Eserler Kataloğu. This catalogue was prepared in Turkish. We wish it had included English, too. And this catalogue did not include the Arabic and Persian manuscripts. To my knowledge, there is no other financial assistance from TIKA regarding cataloguing and digitizing the rest of the Islamic manuscripts of Macedonia.

Financial Benefits of Digitization

CD: You have told me that digitizing original manuscripts and then selling facsimiles to university libraries could bring in a quite substantial sum- if I remember correctly, you said up to $500 million. If such a windfall were to occur, where would the money go? The investors, or the countries, the Islamic community, individuals, etc?

MI: First of all, the figure of $500 million might sound imaginative, but when you study the matter from all the angles and in the long-term, then the stated figure could actually be small. Let’s assume that an inventory survey, comprehensive cataloguing and digital processing of the Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia at large were conducted. And let’s assume that the total number of handwritten manuscripts, including the one housed in the National and University Library, reached 10,000.

The comprehensive catalogue of all available manuscripts would be published in a few volumes. These volumes would then be purchased by half of the educational institutions and various centers around the world, as well as by certain individual and scholars. These volumes then would probably be published and reprinted several times, where their publication could be over 10,000 copies. We should not forget this, as we have a similar example from Gazi Husrev Beg Library in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the catalogue of Islamic manuscripts was prepared and published in Bosnian by Kasim Dobraca in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kasim Dobraca’s work was reprinted several times and is available in most of the libraries around the world.

Up to that stage, the cataloguing of Islamic manuscripts in Macedonia would generate millions of dollars. Then after the preparation of the comprehensive catalogue followed by the digitization of the manuscripts, and again, similar to the volumes of catalogue, thousands if not tens of thousands of institutes of higher learning and private individuals would buy either the whole collection of the digitized copies, or would purchase ad hoc copies from the collections. When multiplying the revenue from this digitized form of copies in the long-term, it might then exceed the amount stated above. Again, an example can be given from Bosnia’s Gazi Husrev Beg Library, where the Islamic manuscripts available were recently digitized by the Bosnian Institute (Bosnacki Institut) in Sarajevo, with initial financial assistance from the Gulf region.

Towards an Institute

Now to continue to the last part of your question, it could be proposed that an ‘institute of Islamic manuscripts of Macedonia’ be jointly established by the Turkish and Macedonian governments, and that this institute be in the form of an endowment, as was originally done by the Ottoman Commander Isa Beg in the 15th century. All the revenues received directly or indirectly from the Islamic manuscripts of Macedonia would be re-invested for further research, translations, and other related areas of studies. The trustees of the institute and its operation would be the governments of Turkey and Macedonia. This is one of the proposals. Of course I believe that there might be much better proposals by others. Revenues should not go to the investors, the countries, the Islamic Community, or the individuals whatsoever.

CD: If in fact there is a lot of profitability in the proliferation of these manuscripts, do you foresee any potential disputes over ownership between the state library and the Islamic Community, or even other bodies? After all, you note that you and others have sought clarification from the state authorities about why the manuscripts are legally housed in the National Library’s Collection of Oriental Manuscripts.

MI: There should not be any potential disputes over ownership between the National and University Library and the Islamic Community, or even other bodies. Because these valuable manuscripts are not belonging to the state or any other body; they either belong to deceased individuals from the past or were endowed by certain wealthy personalities and scholars of the past.

CD: The individual curator in Skopje who you refer to most, Marijana Kavçiç, was according to your paper funded by George Soros’ Open Society Institute to attend a training course on Islamic Cataloguing in Kuala Lumpur in 2006 at the International Islamic University Malaysia. We all know George Soros is a businessman, but does he have any reason to be interested in Islamic manuscripts? Or else what reason does his institute have for financially supporting this initiative?

MI: I do not know exactly the motives behind the sponsorship of Open Society Institute in Skopje; this information which was published in OSI’s Annual Report in 2007 says that it covered the expenses of Marijana’s trip to Kuala Lumpur, and nothing else. However, we can assume that OSI knows the value of Islamic manuscripts in general and those housed in the University Library in Skopje, as the worth of the handwritten books is priceless; perhaps if we had to put it into figures it could reach into the millions of dollars. I recall certain government-linked institution in Japan offered over $10 million to buy some Islamic manuscripts found in Aceh, Indonesia.

CD: You mention an anecdote about the work of the above-mentioned TIKA academics Yaşar Aydemir and Abdulkadir Hayber. However, you relate that they were asked to pay an ‘astronomical’ sum for the right to copy the first and last page of each manuscript, and that the authorities said it would be ‘impossible’ to digitize the entire collection.

MI: Yes, this statement occurs in the preface of the book catalogued by Yaşar Aydemir and Abdulkadir Hayber published in 2007. This part should be questioned as to why those authorities in the National and University Library and elsewhere asked to pay an ‘astronomical’ sum for the right to copy the first and last page of each Ottoman-Turkish manuscript. The same thing goes for the issue of why it should be ‘impossible’ to digitize the entire collection, since this act could lessen future burdens [of the library]… libraries housing manuscripts around the world benefit tremendously from doing so. In addition, this would have brought a higher profile and higher degree of financial assistance to the Macedonian libraries.

CD: If the digitizing, reselling and promoting of Islamic manuscripts is something that can be not only profitable but also an ideological and cultural tool in this long-disputed region, should there not be an agreed mechanism before anything begins in regards to profit-sharing, and how this whole process might be most responsibly managed and used in any future attempts to market the country and its diverse culture patrimony, to avoid any unnecessary disputes or bad feelings? After all, as we have seen with the recent complaining from Bulgarian about Macedonian Orthodox Christian manuscripts, disputes can easily arise in this region over historic items.

MI: Of course, this is a very significant point- in fact, the most crucial point. As I explained earlier in my proposal, although it should not be restricted to one proposal, the issue should be studied well to come up with the most suitable framework, whereby it will not cause any further problems or misunderstandings in the future.

CD: Finally, going into the year 2013, do you expect any developments on your project? Is there any new source of funding, sponsorship or support from bodies internal or external towards achieving your goals?

MI: I have tried to make this highly significant task [known] to various institutions, foundations and government agencies both locally and internationally but I have yet to receive their proper and official feedback, and hopefully positive results.

CD:  Thank you very much for talking with us, and good luck.

MI: I would like to thank for highlighting this important and long-neglected task by conducting this interview. Best wishes.


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The Future of EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans: Interview with Eduard Kukan Editor’s Note: As Chairman of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo and Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Eduard Kukan is a prominent voice when it comes to Western Balkans-related issues.

In the context of the latest positive developments concerning Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, which also have consequences for the rest of the neighboring countries, this exclusive interview with Chairman Kukan by’s Maria-Antoaneta Neag gathers insightful views on the actual meaning of the upcoming enlargement process and future trends in the region. 

High Stakes

Maria-Antoaneta Neag: Since both the Commission and Council made positive recommendations regarding some Western Balkan countries, can we say that the era of enlargement fatigue is over? After Croatia will become an EU member next year, how long until the next country will join? Are your bets on a country in the region or rather on Iceland? What timeframe should we envisage until the following enlargement?

“Macedonia has a very strong position given the verdict of the International Court of Justice,” says Chairman Kukan, adding that “there is no logic to continue this kind of situation related to the name issue.”

Eduard Kukan: Personally, I am very glad that there is possible movement regarding the Western Balkan region concerning European integration. I think that those countries that received positive responses from the Council in December 2011, meaning both Serbia and Montenegro, deserved that decision and I firmly believe that in June 2012, Montenegro is going to start the accession negotiations.

So far, it was fair that EU institutions recognized the progress which countries achieved and objectively, I think the Montenegrins have fulfilled everything they have been asked for and today there are no grounds for any further postponement of the starting of the formal negotiations.

Things are moving well; the same goes for Serbia, but in its case it will be more complicated given the internal political developments: elections, all the related events which are going to take place, Kosovo etc. Montenegro does not have these problems, meaning that things could go much faster.

Even Bosnia and Herzegovina recently made some good steps, although it’s still lagging behind the other Western Balkan countries.

Concerning the timeframe and which country will join the EU next, I think it’s going to be Iceland; that is if they still insist they want to become a member of the European Union, because I know that right now, the opinion polls show that the mood of the citizens is changing. It should be in their interest as well to become an EU member and, given the nature of the country, society etc., it’s only normal to expect that accession negotiations will take a much shorter time than for the countries in the Balkan region.

Turning to the Balkans, I think that the next country from the region to join the EU will be Montenegro.

MN: How optimistic are you regarding the future of EU?

EK: I am realistically optimistic. When speaking to colleagues from the Western Balkans, I always tell them time is important but it’s not the most important thing. It’s better to be ready for the membership, to be full-fledged member which is not going to make problems to its partners and to the EU when it will become a member.

Realistically, it will take another 7-8 years until the next enlargement. It is important that after the accession of Croatia, the frame of enlargement is kept. It is in the interest of the EU, as well as of the institutions and all those people devoted to the enlargement process, that they follow something and should not get used to sitting back. That’s why we need to start the accession negotiations also for Montenegro, as already planed.

MN:  Will EU “survive” until the complete Western Balkans’ enlargement?

EK: I believe so, as shown by these recent positive developments in the Western Balkans. I wouldn’t say that the enlargement fatigue is over, even though I have never actually believed that there is such thing as enlargement fatigue. I think this phenomenon was exaggerated by many colleagues. The EU is facing a very difficult situation, but in 7-8 years, all these difficulties will be resolved and things will change for the better. Given that timeframe, the accession of the Western Balkans together will not endanger the functioning of the European Union.

How Deadlocks Could Be Addressed

MN: Kosovo gained a lot after the last round of negotiations with Serbia. Among other things, regardless of the fact that a few EU countries still do not officially recognized Kosovo as an independent state entity, it is now able to represent itself in diplomatic meetings of the Western Balkan states and have a name with an asterisk containing a footnote (i.e., Kosovo*), which makes reference to Resolution 1244 of the United Nations Security Council of 1999 (as Serbia demanded) and to a ruling by the International Court of Justice from 2010 (as Kosovo wished).  Could this precedent be an option for solving the Macedonia name issue?

EK: Kosovo is a completely different case. Macedonia is a different issue. I am glad that this kind of agreement was reached by Serbia and Kosovo. I don’t think that the two situations should be compared because doing so will be very artificial. However, some inspiration could be found in the solution of the Kosovo issue compared to Macedonia.

MN: In these times of crisis that severely affected Greece, which was bailed out several times already, is this name debate which affects the future development of a Western Balkan country justified? How would you see the way forward out of this deadlock?

EK: This situation is not justified. It’s ridiculous that this kind of issue, developing for such a long time, is preventing the EU perspective of a country which got the positive progress report for the third consecutive time. This is the only remaining issue that prevents Macedonia from moving forward. It is unjust, but this is the political reality which we are facing.

Personally, I’m glad that Macedonians still believe in their European future, that they are still doing a lot in order to continue with the all necessary reforms concerning the future EU membership.

Especially, I am glad that, under these circumstances, the European Commission came up with something which is giving some hope, which is giving something to Macedonia: the high level accession dialogue which was started by Commissioner Füle and PM Gruevski.

I know there are still three more rounds planned already. There’s a timetable for that and will continue because this is really something tangible they are getting. All the issues that they are going to discuss, i.e. the chapters 23 and 24, will be positively affecting the process of formal accession negotiations.

Going back to your question, I’m only supporting Macedonia’s faster progress towards the EU. The last resolution of the European Parliament is speaking about the starting of the accession negotiations “without further delay“, which was also recommended by the Commissioner and upheld very much by the EP with an overwhelming majority, and I think they really deserve that.

It is also in the interest of Greece. I am aware of the sophisticated arguments that Greek colleagues are using; although some of them are good arguments, they are artificially created. I believe that we should really look to the future.

The problem is more complicated because of the situation in which Greece is finding itself- without a proper government, with a unity government which is going to be there only temporarily thus making it more difficult to adopt substantial, serious decisions. Let’s hope that with a new government, Greece is going to take this issue seriously- and the same we expect from Macedonia.

Macedonia has a very strong position given the verdict of the International Court of Justice, which supported its case. Given all these facts together, there is no logic to continue this kind of situation related to the name issue.

MN: As Chairman of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo and AFET member, you have been very active on latest developments regarding Macedonia. What should Macedonia do in practical terms? How should Macedonia plan its future strategy?

EK: I think they should be broadminded in accepting compromise proposals for the name, with a geographical reference like Upper or Northern, some adjective maybe… I don’t want to criticize Macedonia; I am trying to help them as much as possible. But, if there is a Greek proposal, Macedonia should be broadminded in trying to accept it. However, first they have to receive a proposal!


MN: Can Kosovo’s EU perspective be envisaged? What kind of dialogue should the EU have with Kosovo, as several MS still didn’t recognize it as a state entity?

I think that Kosovo is developing well. We are all glad that agreements on the IBM (Integrated Border Management) and the representation of Kosovo in regional relations were concluded. It is important to implement and materialize them, because it will be still a very difficult environment (considering, for instance, the situation in the North of Kosovo, the upcoming elections in Serbia etc., which complicate the general state of affairs). It will be a test for both how ready they are to implement the agreed solution on these two issues.

Nobody, not even those five “non-recognizers” – to call them in short – are against the European future of Kosovo. A couple of days ago, we had a meeting with Baroness Ashton and she informed us about all these issues.  When questioned why she is not more active against the five “non-recognizers”, Lady Ashton answered that this is a decision that each MS is responsible to take.

She mentioned that when these issues are being discussed – concerning the feasibility studies, the visa liberalization for Kosovo – all these five countries do not create any problems, on the contrary, they are very cooperative.

I think that the main message for Kosovo is that they should fulfill the necessary criteria for Europe and, sooner or later, when they’ll show concrete results and progress, everybody will recognize that.

I’m from one of those countries who didn’t recognize the independence of Kosovo and I know that at least my country is very closely developing relations with Kosovo and Serbia, and concrete results by both partners will affect Slovakia much more serious than any resolution of the European Parliament containing an appeal to recognize Kosovo.

Electoral Trends

MN: Elections will soon take place in Serbia. Considering the latest achievements in the EU dialogue, will the current government pass the electoral test? Did you notice any other political force or leader emerge as a credible counter-candidate for Tadić?

EK: It’s very tricky to bet on results. It is really difficult to give any credible tips on how the elections are going to end and what kind of government we shall see in Serbia after the elections.

The most important thing is that the new government of Serbia will continue to work towards Europe, as it was done by the previous government.  President Tadić proved several times that he really managed to go forward with the European agenda. We know him: he has been tested and we know what to expect from him.

The elections are the real expression of the will of the population. I could only hope that all the work undergone so far by Serbia’s government concerning the reforms, the fulfillment of the criteria will not be wasted. We all hope that the country will continue along the same way after the elections.

Russia: A Cause for Concern?

MN: In view of Tadić’s recent statements regarding Serbia’s close ties with Russia, how do you see their future relationship with Russia and the ex-Soviet satellites? Should this be a cause of concern for the EU?

EK: It’s not the only case when Serbia’s relations with Russia are being mentioned. We know that there are some politicians from smaller parties now who even say that Russia is the alternative to the EU. The way Serbia develops its relations with Russia will be followed much more closely. Serbia is a candidate country and we should follow this aspect very carefully and they should be aware of that. We expect them to behave as an EU candidate country.

There’s nothing wrong in developing relations with Russia. We all have relations with Russia, economic, trade-related relations, etc. All Western democracies, including the United States, have relations with Russia. Basically, the issues surrounding the future direction of the country should be very clear and in that respect any movement towards Russia will be followed and assessed.

MN: How do you see Serbia’s relations with Turkey, as the latter has invested a lot in the Western Balkans?

EK: I have very definite opinion about that. Turkey is a very big, important country. Its influence in the Western Balkans is growing, they are very active. I think that the European Union should try to find as many ways of cooperation with Turkey as possible and not to compete, block or try to stop the relations or influence of Turkey. This kind of approach will be good for Turkey, for the Western Balkans and for the EU. No unnecessary competition or blocking would be wise, so let’s cooperate!


MN: Bosnia and Herzegovina made small steps towards political normality and resuming a constructive dialogue with the EU. Will this compromise last? How will Republika Sprska adapt to these new political developments?

EK: We are again all glad that, after a very long time, it was possible to achieve these small steps. They are concrete steps and if they manage to find a solution to the Sejdić and Finci v. BiH case, then the Stabilization and Association Agreement can be signed; there were two conditions, they fulfilled them, but it is disturbing that the constitutional change challenge remained.

Solving this would be another concrete example that they can do things together. I would say that I’m a little bit optimistic about the continuity of this positive trend in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think that the European Commission is doing a really good job for the country.

The dialogue on the reform of the judiciary in Republika Sprska, which was suggested by Commissioner Füle, has started and these discussions are going to continue. I think that they will change into a more cooperative approach to Republika Sprska and Milorad Dodić.

Sometimes, the bad image of Republika Sprska is not reflecting the reality and it’s being exaggerated and treated with a negative approach. The politicians of the country used enough time to come to the conclusion that there are no reasonable arguments not to go ahead faster on the European way.

MN: As a final question, do you believe that the presence of the international community and EU in the region has an added value? Which countries have benefited more of this presence?

EK: The presence of the international community and the European Union is definitely positive. It is even becoming more pragmatic, in order to help with the necessary things for the countries in the region. The dialogue in the last couple of years has been intensifying. Within the European institutions there is an understanding about what is really necessary for those countries in order to help them to get closer to the EU.

I wouldn’t like to single out which countries were helped or assisted more compared to others. I think that the situation must be analyzed in each individual country. The European institutions, especially the Parliament, are always supporting enlargement and gently pushing the Commission to move faster.

For each country the Commission is trying to introduce some – maybe even new – instruments to support the faster integration: the high level accession dialogue with Macedonia, the structured dialogue on the reform of the judiciary with Republika Sprska etc. I know that the Commission is very active in Albania concerning the overcoming of the stalemate that took a very long time, and there are some positive signs from Tirana as well. Regarding BiH, much more attention has been given to the country by Baroness Ashton and Commissioner Füle. The same goes for Serbia.

In conclusion, I think that the activities of the European institutions are helpful for the countries in the region and I am glad that this is the case. I am very much supporting the future inclusion of the whole region in the European Union. Without this we cannot speak about Europe being one and whole.

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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Macedonia’s Mysterious Interior Opens for Business: Interview with Mihail Malahov, General Manager of Jasen Nature Reserve

Editor’s note: Kept largely off-limits for decades by the former Yugoslav government, central Macedonia’s mountain wilds are still the subject of all sorts of legends and rumors. However, with the creation of the snaking Lake Kozjak running alongside it, the Jasen Nature Reserve – home of some of Macedonia’s few remaining lynx – is set to become a major draw for eco-tourism in coming years. In the following interview, Director Chris Deliso gets the story on current developments from the park’s general manager, Mr Mihail Malahov.


Chris Deliso: Jasen is a nature reserve covering an area of over 300km2, in the mountains of central Macedonia. This is a fairly large and difficult area to manage. Would you like to share your secret for the park’s successful functioning here?

Mihail Malahov: In the period 1958-1960, the territory where today’s Public Enterprise for Managing and Protection of the Multipurpose Area Jasen exists was declared to be set aside as a reserve by the government. The aim of this declaration was the protection of the biological, floral, fauna, hydrologic and geologic natural rarities.

Jasen spreads across 32,000 hectares or 320 km2. The height difference between the lowest (330m above sea level) and highest (2470 meters above sea level) point is above 2100 meters; through it runs the beautiful River Treska, which powers the biggest artificial hydropower accumulation in Macedonia, Lake Kozjak, with 550 million m3 of water and the most spectacular accumulation [point], Matka, which runs into the Matka Canyon. This canyon is by law declared as a monument of nature. Among them is Sveta Petka, a construction which is expected next year to start to be full with water.

The employees in Jasen are people who for generations have been working here, transmitting their love for this area from generation to generation. They are the ones who with jealously guard this area and its natural resources for the future generations, paying attention to the dangers that accompany a new modern era [for the environment].

Without them, without their love for this space, it would simply not be possible to run Jasen. I have the chance and the opportunity to learn from them about how this process of sustainable management should continue, but of course with previous evaluation of the natural values of experts; this means the establishment of special protection zones and, in the end, management that will provide protection of nature and sustainability of management.

Detail map of the area comprising Jasen Nature Reserve (Image: Official Jasen website)

CD: Besides the basic function of your company, preserving the nature as it is and protection of flora and fauna, Jasen is also a high-status hunting ground. How did you manage to build the image of Jasen as a rich and authentic place for sport hunting?

MM: Very simple! We are trying to implement a policy of more services in hunting tourism, but in terms of a minimum of shooting. This means that a hunter in Jasen can come only through hunting tour operators, with whom we have signed agreements which set out our policies for hunting.

In general, the hunter is always accompanied by a hunting guide as a part of our so-called ‘hunting packages;’ precisely defined herein is what can be hunted, when hunting can occur, i.e., in what seasons for which species, and what accommodation the hunter may require.

In many cases, this is previously determined, so that the itinerary during his stay in Jasen may quite possibly include a visit to [other] cultural, historical or tourist attractions in Macedonia. Welcoming the hunter at the airport, providing documents for staying in Jasen, the preparation of documents for input and output of hunting weapons and ammunition, transportation to and through the hunting area, preparation of hunting trophies and certificates for it- all these are, it is not even not necessary to say, carried out by us, these [duties] are our obligation. The percentage of success in hunting in Jasen is 100%.

CD: What kinds of animals can be found in Jasen?

MM: Jasen is famous for Balkan wild goat, wild boar, deer and mouflon, though lately wolf, rabbit and fox are becoming very attractive as well. Since last year in our hunting ground, known as Fazanerija 10, we offer hunting of endemic and migratory birds. Jasen is also known for the beautiful wild pheasant.

However, bears, the Balkan lynx and eagle vultures are strictly protected species from shooting. The terrain where our customers hunt is full of exquisite natural beauty, so very often they reach for their camera rather than for their hunting weapons!

We ourselves, the employees in Jasen, in cooperation with NGOs, are installing a multitude of so-called camera traps, which is giving us insight and new information about the routine behaviour of the animals, their diversity and frequency of movement on certain routes.

CD: While you have primarily been oriented towards VIP hunting, lately there has developed an understanding that Jasen is open for ‘ordinary’ citizens too. People in Macedonia have long had the impression that Jasen hides a big secret- underground cities, secret caves, military tunnels… What is actually the truth behind all this?

MM: It is both the truth, and a lie! For half a century, Jasen has been a mystery. Isn’t it a good enough reason to come to it, and to explore, to discover? I guarantee you great discoveries.

Speleologists from the Slovak Republic were in Jasen and discovered the deepest canyon in Macedonia, with more than 500 meters depth in terms of permanent ice and they have not yet come to the end! And divers from Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have plummeted deep into Vrelo in Lake Matka- probably the deepest underwater cave in the Balkans and Europe, more than 200 meters deep, and also they did not come to the bottom of it yet.

Lake Kozjak, which meanders through the park, is envisioned as a key draw for tourists. (Photo: Chris Deliso)

Also, in many pits were found skeletons of animals and not only that. Researchers from Slovenia and Poland found large groups of ground squirrels that the world thought had disappeared. Also, do you know that in Jasen live butterflies that simply exist nowhere else in the world? This mystique has probably caused attention also to a French film production, and we are currently negotiating terms for shooting a feature film in the Jasen reserve.

But yes, we organize day tours for ordinary citizens on some of the paths with different levels of difficulty. That depends on the capabilities of the group and, as a reward for successful completion of the hikes, we arrange lunch, a delicious organic meal with homemade wine produced exclusively from our natural ingredients.

For those who want adrenaline-generating experience, we provide a course in paragliding, courses for survival techniques in nature, rock-climbing in the company of experienced climbers and mountain guides, rafting on calm waters and so on. The safety of our visitors is very important to us and therefore each group has a medic present and our experienced guide with them as well.

CD: The main problem for tourism in Macedonia in general, is the lack of a specific vision regarding in which direction to develop tourism. What is your vision for the development of tourism in Jasen?

MM: We know what we have, and that’s what we offer. And it’s not a little! According to the valorization of natural resources, which is ongoing, Jasen is one of the last truly wild and untouched areas in Europe. We know all this, and we have a plan to use it. We intend to build facilities to accommodate guests only where it is allowed according to the degree on protection zone or plan management.

If we do not act like this, tomorrow we will find ourselves in a position of having nothing to show, we will find ourselves in a position of having nothing to offer.

The buffer zone around Jasen, which abounds in mostly unpopulated mountain, has villages and houses within them, with lovely architecture. In agreement with the owners of the houses, those who exchanged their rural life for city life, we decided together to start renovating some houses or parts of the houses.

In these houses, we have plans to accommodate our future guests. And in this area they are many. For example, only in the village of Borova Breznica, one of the many picturesque mountain villages above Lake Kozjak, with over 70 houses and a local road to it, we can provide 100 beds and competent hosts (with little previous education). They would care for each of their guests, and provide a truly rustic bed and breakfast accommodation.

We, the employees from Jasen, according to the guest’s wishes, will provide rides through mountain paths, visit parks offering adrenaline-packed experiences, hunting of wild game in the form of “hunting safaris,” horse riding, resting on rafts on the lake or going down into the deep, ice-cold caverns with a caving guide. And many other things too!

CD: The new road that is being built right now between Makedonski Brod and Skopje comes as a big relief for the people from the Porece region, who can now travel much more easily and quickly to the Macedonian capital. But how it will affect the ecology balance in Jasen?

MM: Not at all! The new road passes right through the zone where the risk of significant destruction of rare species and general disruption of biodiversity is minimal. Certainly this is being taken care of during the time of designing the way through outlets provided under way for feeding and free movement of game and other wildlife, a protected area and a fence along the entire length of the road.

We must not forget that on the other hand, if there is neither communications nor travel directions, the opportunity to reach these beauties is very minimal. Following the regulations in the protection plan through the management area is functioning already in the world. I see no reason why it won’t here as well.

CD: A part of the reserve is also taken up by Lake Kozjak. Does your plan for tourism development in Jasen include the lake too? What activities can be enjoyed on the lake (except for fishing of course), without ruining the ecological balance of the lake and the surrounding area?

MM: Definitely one of the top priorities for tourism development is precisely Lake Kozjak, and not only that but Matka and the new St. Petka as well.

By August this year, in cooperation with the Agency for Youth and Sport, we have planned to promote a new public-lane swimming [area], with a distance of 10 km, on Lake Kozjak. As promoters of the swimming course, hopefully, will be included all the participants of the famous Ohrid swimming marathon, because ours is planned to be held two days later. We hope for the financial assistance of the prime minister of the Republic of Macedonia, and we hope he will accept our offer to be the general patron of the Skopje Swimming Marathon.

The wilderness areas in and around Jasen, such as this crystal-clear river at the village of Belica, have endemic flora and fauna and are largely untouched. (Photo: Chris Deliso)

A tourism development model I see for us is the so-called ‘Scandinavian model.’ However, the northern countries of our continent have developed a specific form of tourist accommodation for guests on the water- platforms holding up houses, restaurants and accommodation.

The construction is cheap, wastewater relatively easy to manage with collection tanks which will sail along with platforms and, from time to time, through a mini mobile water treatment plant on board, will be cleaned.

We will have a minimal cost, the danger of forest fires is minimal, and we have to admit that the attractiveness of water stays for longer periods is also great.

As part of these tourist areas on the water will also be swimming pools and also we’ll have the opportunity to form real beaches. Water sports certainly will be very easy to practice and Skopje citizens will have their sea!

CD: How do you see Jasen in the future?

Tourism planners hope to use traditional-style Porece region homes as 'authentic' guest houses for visitors (Photo: Chris Deliso)

MM: We have a plan to do a real interaction between local government and Jasen as a state enterprise. I believe that the fusion of rural and eco-tourism as the winning combination in the case of Jasen.

I sincerely hope the government support is there for rapid implementation of the project, because the development of tourism is in the interest of all.


Note: This interview was co-published in the magazine of the American-Macedonian Chamber of Commerce, Emerging Macedonia.

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Macedonian Security Issues, Intelligence Reform and Contemporary Politics: Interview with Stevo Pendarovski

Stevo Pendarovski is a former national security advisor to two presidents, and before that a career interior ministry analyst. He is now a professor at American College, Skopje, a newspaper columnist for Dnevnik, and is often cited in the Macedonian media for his outspoken opinions on subjects ranging from daily politics to issues of national security. Director Chris Deliso recently caught up with Mr Pendarovski to get his views on the security and political situation in Macedonia, and the issues affecting it. The following text provides an intriguing view not only on the contemporary situation, but also on how it was conditioned by the recent history of ‘transition,’ as witnessed by one man particularly involved in shaping it.

Deep Background

Chris Deliso: Welcome, Stevo, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. First of all, perhaps a little about yourself- how did you get interested in police matters in the first place? How did your career start, in the early 1990s?

Stevo Pendarovski: Well, I graduated with a degree in Law from the State University, and had been always focused on research. In late 1991, when Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, there was a general announcement, an open call for employees from the new cadres of graduates. And there were a lot of people being considered for jobs. I became associated with the analytical research department in the Sector for Public Security, following crime trends, in the Interior Ministry.

CD: Since this was coming directly out of the Yugoslav experience, at the time until only very recently centered in Belgrade, how did the new Macedonian security system develop? Was the security sector closely modeled on the former one, or was there some kind of reaction against the Yugoslav system?

SP: That period was quite important, and interesting in a number of respects. There was not a systematic change on our part. But to really answer the question, we first have to go back to supply more background and context. In the former Yugoslavia, the powerful military intelligence service, the KOS (Kontra-Obavestajna Sluzba, Counter-intelligence Service) worked within the JNA [Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija, Yugoslav National Army]. However, the KOS had not only been engaged in military intelligence, but in foreign intelligence work as well.

Nevertheless, in that foreign capacity KOS was still not the most important, the SDB (Sluzba Drzavne Bezbednosti, State Security Service) was the most [important]. And one of the mightiest parts of that service was the foreign ministry SIP (Sluzba Inostranih Poslova, Secretariat of Foreign Affairs). They were the best- think about it. Yugoslavia was a very important country at that time, with a population of over 21 million people, and diplomatic connections with both east and west, and in fact everywhere. With their 120 embassies around the world, Yugoslavia was fully embraced, ensuring that their most skilled and best trained spies could operate under diplomatic cover.

CD: How powerful was this Yugoslav system? From what I understand, they were engaged in killing diaspora nationalists from their republics who were considered a threat to the nation’s security.

SP: Yugoslavia maintained a very big network with over 100 diplomatic sources, and was very active in Europe especially. But even apart from that, civilian operatives within Yugoslavia were also powerful in all segments of society- this was not the case with the KOS. Yes, the army had all devices necessary, and some agents in civilian clothes, but they were not deployed everywhere. But the SDB was everywhere, from the parliaments on down, in even smallest enterprises, and even in primary schools.

CD: -in primary schools? Really!

SP: Yes, and all tightly controlled by the party.

The Early Days

CD: So, getting back to you specifically, how did you begin your service with the Interior Ministry?

SP: I applied and was accepted in November 1991, though I never saw the minister who appointed me; in the next month, our first interior minister, Jordan Mijalkov, died in a car accident in Serbia. He had signed the decision to give me the job. We were the first group of people after communism ended- 320 of us had been accepted. The new independent Macedonia did not even have an army at the time.

CD: Currently, there is a major political debate over the alleged need to do a ‘lustration’ process to name persons in public life who had anything to do with the former Yugoslav services. Were there not large-scale purges done at all after 1991?

SP: No, there was no systematic lustration in Macedonia as was done in Bulgaria and many former Communist countries. We started with more than 10,000 members of the ministry, most carried over from the previous regime. The government had not changed the system or done any lustration.

I personally started work in January 2002-

CD: Under [former Interior Minister Ljubomir] Frckovski?

SP: Yes, at the time he was having the status of minister without portfolio in the ‘technical’ government… he had been involved with writing the constitution. He became the minister of interior after being suggested by [former President] Kiro Gligorov, at age 34.

CD: That seems like quite a young age for that job, at that time in history.

SP: Yes, we did not have pluralism in the media at that time, only Puls, which doesn’t exist anymore, and Nova Makedonija were the two newspapers. They mildly raised the question of why was some older person had not been given the job. You know, during communism we had not been accustomed to young guys in such roles- they were always gray-haired older gentlemen, and here was this young guy who was coming to work by bicycle.

One interesting paradox during these almost 20 years of post-communism is that after each parliamentary election, always the winners from each political party are heavily fighting over who will run the Interior Ministry. Yet when it comes to individual choices, no one volunteers to be minister, because it will significantly shorten their political career-

CD: That wasn’t the case with Frckovski, he became foreign minister and recently ran, unsuccessfully, for president…

SP: Well I believe that [entering politics] was not his goal [at the time]. Even some sources told me Frckovski had initially rejected the idea but he accepted the ministry, allegedly after lengthy persuasion by President Gligorov. Everyone would like to nominate themselves to be minister of culture, economy, etc… or even minister of defense. They also have more access – our defense minister has met with [US Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, but our prime minister cannot even meet [US Vice-President Joseph] Biden.

Macedonia’s Contemporary Security Concerns

CD: You were serving under two very different presidents in Boris Trajkovski and Branko Crvenkovski. Can you explain how did the experiences differ, on a day-to-day level? In what way did their priorities differ when it came to security issues? And, were the outside conditions affecting national security in those days divergent as well?

SP: The security agenda was fundamentally different in these two successive historical periods; in 2001-2004 it was classical conflict and post-conflict-management, while in the period 2005-2009 ‘hard security’ concerns had eventually retreated and more or less routine political agendas emerged. What is really interesting is the excellent cooperation that existed between both politicians in 2001 and meaningful co-habitation after it.

CD: Macedonia survived ethnic strife in 2001, and occasional armed attacks on police since then. In your mind, what is the most significant security threat affecting the country today, and is the police handling it appropriately? If you were currently involved with security issues in the government, would you do anything differently and if so, what specifically?

SP: Security problems are two-fold: aspects of human security are totally neglected since an array of outstanding problems in the economy, social and criminal areas have an impact on people regardless of their ethnic origin. From the more traditional security menu the interethnic tensions are regularly referred to by the ‘hard security’ instruments of the state and very rarely by the preventive political tools. The internal interethnic contradictions are going to stay as the biggest challenge for the stability of the state in the years to come.

Uniting the Intelligence Agencies: Time for Change?

CD: The media has been reporting a lot about the government’s proposals to change the structure of the intelligence agencies, to be under one head. This means, for outside readers who may be unaware of the current set-up, moving the foreign intelligence agency (Agencija za Razuznavanje, currently under the president) to be under the prime minister, and thus united with the counter-intelligence agency (Direkcija za Bezbednost i Kontrarazuznavanje) and the Bureau for Public Safety (Buro za Java Bezbednost). Has such a plan ever been proposed before?

SP: Yes it has, but so far it was not achieved. Speaking about the timetable, I can remember at least two attempts by different governments [to do this]. As far as I can remember in 1999, under the government of Ljubco Georgievski, and again in 2005-6 when SDSM was in power. But they didn’t pass in either case.

CD: Do you see any problems with this proposal? Do you feel that it would concentrate too much power in one place? And, would it lead to more effective intelligence work?

SP: The proposed concept is wrong, for many reasons. First of all, stable and mature democracies have a so-called decentralized system of intelligence institutions. A clear majority of EU [countries] operate with such systems. It is good to have the crucial areas in Macedonia with overlapping areas of competencies, and to avoid politicizing as much as possible the operations.

This means the politicians should not interfere with the mid-level staff and the actual conduct of the operations. For example, the president according to our constitution is involved with foreign policy, in that he appoints ambassadors- but no one else beneath them in the hierarchy. He is the chief of the armed forces, but he appoints no one else except for the top generals, and so on. All the rest of the agencies should be operationally independent. The prime minister may be able to change an individual because of a bad job, but he should not get involved with the details of any specific operation.

The same is true with the intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, the president and prime minister, respectively, nominate only the director. However, now we are not working like this, there is too much political involvement down through the hierarchy… plus we are a transitional country, without a long history of institutions. Control is supposed to be overseen in parliament, by committee, but the committee does not have proper control. Also multi-ethnicity plays a role. That [reorganization of the services] was a bad suggestion in the time of VMRO-DPMNE and then SDSM (ie., 1998-2006), and it is again a bad idea now.

In short, we do have a need for better coordination, but we also have to create a better system that is under proper democratic control.

This said, the government also tells us that they would like to do this [reorganization] for saving money. It is true, we don’t have a lot of resources. Then why not to have three or perhaps five ministries, instead of 15? Why not do many other things? It is not a good excuse.

CD: At the current moment, what are Macedonia’s foreign intelligence capabilities? To what extent does the country rely on outside partnerships with countries like the US, UK, Israel and Turkey to do its own intelligence-gathering work?

SP: We have good connections with more than 20 partners in the world and yes, we are relying on them for now in many ways. It is true, we do not a big financial budget. And maybe it is not a high enough priority… I had joked in one of my columns for [the newspaper] Dnevnik that the budget of the intelligence agency is less than the cost of two of the lion statues] the government has built on the bridge.

Early Elections?

CD: Will there be, as some are rumoring, a call for early elections by the opposition if Macedonia is not invited to join NATO next month and if the name issue with Greece is not resolved?

SP: I don’t know about this issue, so I can’t say more. I am not connected with daily politics, as a non-member of any party, so I do not have that kind of inside information. But speaking just as a citizen of Macedonia, I doubt we will have early elections. On the part of the government, there is no need for that. They still are doing pretty well in the polls.

However, if there are early elections, the government cannot repeat the same success it had in the elections of 2008. They will win, but not by as much of a margin as before, and not get more than 60 of 120 seats [in parliament]. Thus they would not have a strong mandate.

In such a situation, it is possible to see a big coalition on the other side. Their only common denominator and overarching goal would be… to try solving the name issue and the currently frozen EU-integration process. But it would be highly uncertain to be successful, if elected, in solving the name issue if the biggest political party [the currently ruling VMRO-DPMNE] is outside of the process. Then the eventual solution would lack the broader political legitimacy essential for this kind of strategic issue.

CD: Do you have any concerns that since any “broad coalition” government would have to congregate under a large umbrella of parties and outside interests that radical elements, such as Islamist interests, could find a way into power this way?

SP: I differ greatly on the so-called “Islamic menace” from the mainstream public. Due to the dominantly secular matrixes of Albanians, Turks and Bosniaks living in Macedonia and the lasting legacy of atheism under communism radical Islam does not have the great potential  to position itself as a structural security threat.

CD: What would a specific solution to the name issue be, as brought forth by such a coalition?

SP: You cannot spell out all the details of an eventual solution because a comprehensive settlement could be in place… it is not all about just the name of the state. Other issues might be brought up like identity, language, minority rights, joint committees on history textbooks, etc.

CD: In a normal country, though, there is a shadow government made up of the opposition, that has clear policies and that makes counter-arguments to whatever the government proposes. In Macedonia, however, they all just attack each other. So, why are [the opposition] holding back, if they know the answer? Are they waiting for the government to fail on its own accord, so that they can come in after an election and implement their own secret solution?

SP: You cannot spell that out, as the main opposition party, SDSM, has not been involved in the actual negotiating process with Greece in recent years. They can’t make counter-proposals, because they are not privy to whatever negotiations are going on behind the scenes, and thus where the process is now. But it can be said they are deeply suspicious of public statements on the negotiations coming from [Prime Minister] Gruevski.

Still, naturally enough no one is willing to speak about changing his country’s name, and thus risk losing popularity… all political parties, old and new alike, are aware that solving the name dispute will be bad for themselves in the end, because it will involve compromise.

It is just like as I recall the late President Trajkovski saying of the political leaders who signed the Ohrid Framework Agreement after the [2001] war, “no one from the signatories is going to gain politically from this- each of us will have to pay a political price for it.”

It is the same with the name issue. This is not a popular issue. To build a monument to some historical event or person will earn some respect for you, somewhere, but no one will gain any personal points in solving the name issue.

CD: Still, since the leaders of different parties do not seem to be communicating, the internationals seem to have been right to be dubious about the country’s dedication to solving this all these years.

SP: Well, according to my information, the opposition as a whole has not been approached by the government and asked to forge a unified position on the issue- or at least the leaders of the main political parties.

However, in contrast, Greece’s so-called “red line” has been created outside of the view of the cameras. The Greek leaders agreed on their position before the [2008] Bucharest Summit, and on one has ever seen even a photo from the meeting where they did that, held under the organization of [Greek President Karolos] Papoulias. Of course, the then-premier [Costas] Karamanlis and Georgios Papandreou were not on good terms, as politicians, but all of them had sat and agreed on a national position. So Macedonia cannot resolve the name issue unless there is a large coalition-

CD: That means it will never happen.

SP: As far as I know, SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski has not been asked. We all know that he and Gruevski do not maintain regular political communication. But they have to be made to agree, to say “look, even though I cannot stand to be in your physical presence for more than 5 minutes, please, no one is going to agree without us making a unified position.”

CD: This brings up an interesting point. When he stepped down from the post of national president, Branko returned to the SDSM – which was suffering very badly in the polls – and promised that a new generation would be leading the way forward. So he removed a whole bunch of mid-level people and added some young faces. Yet he himself did not step down- and this is a leader who was active since 1992, who many voters associate especially with the difficult years of ‘transition’ in the 1990s, when many dubious things happened. So why, if he wanted to give the party a breath of fresh air, did he not resign as well?

SP: That’s one interesting thing here in Macedonia. First of all, his decision to stay or resign is up to him. But generally people are not putting him in a comparative perspective. Gruevski, for example, has been for 12 years in politics. He might be easily classified as someone who has also been a long time in politics.

CD: One of the reasons average voters have shared with me about why they think SDSM has done so poorly in the past few years is their television ads, which seem to reinforce the party’s image as arrogant, cold and unfeeling.

In the latest series of ads, which appeared just recently, viewers were presented with a somewhat shocking selection of “social cases”- utterly impoverished persons, special-needs individuals, even a retarded child in chains- it was like the SDSM selected a few very extreme cases to shock the public and imply that the government is not doing anything for them.

Do you feel that this amounts to a manipulation of disadvantaged persons for political gain? Is such advertising ethical? And, in any case, why do you think the party’s PR campaign planners would think this would have a positive impact on the voters?

SP: I have deep personal dilemmas about some of the political ads being aired, as well. Of course, it does not include impoverished people which unfortunately are a very real category in our country. What is good is that the president of the oppositional party [Branko Crvenkovski] had already issued public apologue on it.

However, I am afraid to say that the ruling party had contributed immensely in denouncing its political opponents in the past years, thus vastly reducing the scope for free expression. The latest catastrophic fall of Macedonia on the global scale of media freedom is a sad reminder about the current state of affairs.

CD: Would you accept a position in an SDSM-led government? Maybe police chief or something?

SP: I cannot speculate. Some of the newspapers had published my name linked with different hypothetical future governments. I have never ever seen myself as a professional politician. For sure, in the next few years, we will not see any reshuffling. Should I say maybe in 2018? I really don’t know.

CD: Stevo, thanks very much for your time, I appreciate your insights.

SP: Thank you.

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Macedonia’s Elections and Police Readiness: Interview with Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska

By Christopher Deliso

In the following exclusive interview conducted on Wednesday, Director Christopher Deliso gets the views of Macedonia’s interior minister, Gordana Jankulovska, about subjects ranging from the police’s efforts to guarantee peaceful elections and control outbreaks of tensions, to the fight against organized crime, special operations, foreign assistance and the expected outcomes of reform and re-budgeting towards professionalizing Macedonian security forces to tackle both new and existing challenges.

Elections: Lessons Learned and Upcoming Plans

Christopher Deliso: As you know, in the last few months there has been a lot of international pressure on Macedonia to guarantee safe and fair elections, because of the violence that occurred during the previous [June 2008] elections. And now the major representatives of the international community have largely praised your efforts before and during the first round of the elections on March 22. So, what was different about the ministry’s plan this time around? To what do you attribute this more peaceful result?

Gordana Jankulovska: What was different this time was our approach. Unfortunately, we did have serious incidents during the last elections, and because of this we started preparing several months in advance. In a way, though, you could say that our preparations for these elections started on the day after the previous ones. An important element in our plan involved looking at the critical polling stations, and generally those areas where there had been incidents before.

Another important part of drafting the current plan was our unified approach: we asked for a wide variety of comments from outside experts, including security experts from the United States Embassy, the ODIHR and others. They all gave us certain suggestions for the future. At the very beginning of this year, we shared our election safety draft plan with security experts, to allow us more time for getting extra advice and incorporating information that was not available earlier.

It wasn’t just the plan, however- it was the entire preparation of the police as well. We conducted a number of trainings in which the entire uniformed police to be engaged in the elections were obliged to participate.

CD: What kind of trainings?

GJ: For example, there were a few changes in the electoral code that they had to know about. Also, in these trainings we put an emphasis on unification of behavior- to ensure that police will know to take identical reactions to situations, no matter where they happened. And the criminal police also underwent training to ensure better investigation of incidents, if they appear.

However, I should stress that it wasn’t just us. The most important reason why the elections were better, in my opinion, was contribution of all the citizens coupled with better behavior of the political parties. Speaking frankly, even for the previous elections, we in the Ministry of Interior did do everything in our power to safeguard the elections, and then to investigate incidents unfortunately provoked by others.

This time around, we have worked a lot on prevention- stopping problems before they could happen. And we tried to raise community awareness. The calls for free and fair elections from all the political leaders resulted in better behavior from all. As I often say, the stakeholders who have the most responsibility are the political parties, as they have the greatest influence over the voters.

Tensions in Struga

CD: However, as everyone knows, there are also certain tensions currently being felt, as for example in Struga, and many suspect they are related to political party activities. With this in mind, will the police be doing anything differently or additionally to ensure the safety of the second round?

GJ: Unfortunately a few days ago we did have another fight between students in Struga, resulting in a serious injury. This is completely unacceptable behavior. Because of this incident and general tensions in the city, we have already deployed additional police forces to Struga in a preventive manner. Our idea was that by demonstrating a stronger presence of police there a few days early – and not just all at once on election day – the people might feel more accustomed to it and not have reason to feel fearful or intimidated.

CD: Alright. Now, can you tell me, also about political party influence- are you aware of any elements, I don’t want to say paramilitary groups, but any possible violent groups that might not be under the ministry’s control, and that could cause security problems during the voting?

GJ: Well, there is always the potential for people to create groups- but the responsibility is on us, on the police, to deal with any situation. At this time moment I can say that we have full control over our territory, and are ready to react to any security threat. Most importantly, we have heard clear, stated positions from the political parties, that violence won’t be accepted. The message we are trying to send is that the only way to win elections in Macedonia is to do so peacefully. So, we don’t expect any violence on Sunday, though we will be ready to react to any situation.

The Incident on the Square

CD: Another recent provocative issue that has been suspected of having political involvement was this clash in the Skopje square between protesters and counter-protesters arguing about the idea of building a church there. Perhaps you saw on A1 TV last night, the EU Ambassador Fouere got especially worked up about this, while US Ambassador Reeker noted that such incidents don’t help improve Macedonia’s image abroad. What can you say about this incident, and the police’s handling of it?

GJ: I agree that this incident was terrible for the perception of Macedonia abroad, and it was unacceptable. In a democracy, everyone has the right to participate in peaceful protests.

When this incident occurred, the most important thing for us was to stop the situation from escalating, and in investigating to clear up the incident as soon as possible. To now, 23 people have been charged already for participation in violence-

CD: Yes, but are these only from the side of the protesters, these students?

GJ: I can’t say specifically to which group all of these individuals belong, but I believe they must come from both. We are looking at all the available evidence, such as videos made by the media, and we can see that way if someone was directly involved. The Ministry of Interior doesn’t charge people involved in peaceful protests, only those who engage in violence.

CD: Yes, but what about the charge that political parties were involved in this incident? And that this was basically a side event of the election campaign?

GJ: The job of the police is not to get involved with any political aspects of violence- our job is to stop the violence, and then investigate those responsible for causing the violence. However, looking at certain names of people involved in the protests, it is clear that this event was not completely separate from the elections.

Still, I don’t think that any of the people who were in the square originally intended to go there to cause violence. I believe their goal was to attract attention to their positions. But, things quickly progressed, first verbal exchanges and then physical altercations, and from that point it was difficult to stop.

CD: It has also been said that the police were slow in reacting- your thoughts?

GJ: Actually, a further and more serious escalation of violence was prevented by actions of the police. And another fact, though it doesn’t really matter any more, was that the organizers of the protest only announced their intention to the police 24 hours before the event-

CD: How much before should it have been?

GJ: Well, the law says such public events should be announced at least 48 hours in advance, to give the police sufficient time to create an appropriate security plan. And, another part of this bad planning, though also not really relevant now, was that the organizers gave us an incorrect assessment about the number of expected participants- we received a note from them saying there would be 200, though actually there were many more.

CD: Yes, but I understand this was because of the large number of counter-demonstrators? And did they give any advance notice for their presence?

GJ: That is correct, they had many more. And they didn’t give any notice in advance of their intentions.

CD: So, this is part of why people have suggested it was an organized political affair?

GJ: Perhaps, but I don’t want to speculate, as the police is not interested in politics, whether political parties were ultimately the organizers or not. What is important from our side, was that the situation was not allowed to escalate. But I would like to restate that it looked very bad and gives a very bad image of our country. This is why we are committed to bringing to justice those who participated in the violence.

I should add that while so far in our investigation we haven’t seen any indications of abuses of power by the police on duty during that event, if we do receive such information, any such officer will be held liable as well.

Special Operations: An Encouraging Trend

CD: Now, to leave the subject of the elections for a while, one thing that has seemed impressive to me is the success that the Macedonian security forces have had in comparison to previous governments in special operations, such as the neutralization of armed extremists near Tetovo in Operation Mountain Storm, or the arrest of the alleged organized crime boss from Kumanovo, Bajrush Sejdiu. Both operations required secrecy, tactical and strategic preparation and coordination. I have been here a long time, and I don’t recall previous police operations against extremists or criminals ever going as smoothly as those did. Do you agree? If so, to what do you attribute this change?

GJ: Yes. It’s a matter of good organization and disciple, and having the right people in the right positions- it’s all about management.

CD: Well€šÃ„¶ you’re the manager!

GJ: (laughter) But seriously, in these operations you can imagine how many people are involved: if they are the wrong people, you end up with a disaster. Operation Mountain Storm was a very complicated operation, requiring a great deal of planning, discipline, and exchange of information both within the Ministry and with our partners outside.

This is what I consider to be very different from the operations that occurred under my predecessors. I want to hear from my peers, and learn from their experiences. Within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are people who have experience, who have been here for ages, but who had never been given the chance to use this experience. Now they have the chance to use their skills. I don’t have any problem with asking questions if I don’t know the answer- most of all, I’m interested in achieving results, guaranteeing the security of the people, and ensuring the positive working perception of the police among the people. So far, everything has gone well.

CD: Aside from this, though, can you point to any specifics- for example, enhanced training or exchange of know-how with partner states?

GJ: Certainly- the openness of the Macedonian Interior Ministry for ideas and support from friendly countries such as the United States, the experience we can get from working with them, is all very beneficial for us. The exchange of knowledge is essential €šÃ„ì no country is an island, after all €šÃ„ì and we have excellent cooperation.

CD: Now regarding the second major case, the arrest of Bajrush Sejdiu on serious crime charges. I understand that at his trial, which started today, he expressed a confident attitude, as if assuming he would be freed. In this region we find things like that happen frequently- which also can have serious ramifications for anyone who had helped the police build a case against the suspect. So, do you think there should be concern about this here?

GJ: I cannot speak for the judiciary, which is an independent one anyway, but being a lawyer and having knowledge of this case, I think it would be extremely difficult for any judge to release Bajrush and his associates, because the crimes they are accused of were so many and so interrelated. This was a very high-profile case, and we were working on the investigation for a full 2 years in advance. We were following everything he was doing, and noting every illegal operation he was involved with. It was one of those things, an open secret, everyone in Kumanovo had been saying for years that he was a major criminal, but there was no concrete proof. It was very difficult, he was very smart and he had connections everywhere-

CD: Well, I think he had practically half of Kumanovo-

GJ: Anyway, it’s for the judge to decide. However, it’s hard to imagine him being let off.

CD: You mention two years of planning went into the case. Can you tell me what motivated this action? Was it was, for example, an idea that he was becoming too much of a danger to general security to be ignored any longer?

GJ: Well, again, this case was a sort of public secret for many years. But the people of Kumanovo feared that Bajrush was so strong that he could do anything he wanted- we realized it was becoming a serious problem. The organized crime department started with preparations for this case, finding out about the activities he was involved in.

CD: Did these criminal activities spill over into neighboring countries, for example Kosovo?

GJ: Yes, he did have partners there- in this contraband tobacco business, you know, it involves the entire region. It’s not just the production, but especially the illegal export that matters. And it took a while to track all of these activities and to have the entire evidence in front of us to make a case.

CD: With all of this intensive investigation, certainly he must have become aware of it at some point?

GJ: He probably knew something, but I believe only in the late stages- in the end, he he tried to leave the country, but€šÃ„¶ he didn’t make it.

CD: After the action, which went off flawlessly, did the Ministry of Interior receive any private congratulations from partner countries?

GJ: Yes. We received very positive comments from our security services colleagues in regional countries, and from other friendly countries such as the United States. It was a case we were very proud of; we had been working on it for a long time in full secrecy.

CD: This is a very interesting concept. Macedonia is, after all, a very small country where secrecy is very hard to maintain. Why in this case were you able to maintain it?

GJ: Again, it was a matter of good planning and delegations of responsibilities, along with having the right people in the right places at the right time.

Discontents and Reforms

CD: Turning to a more controversial subject, some people, civil society groups and even foreign officials, complained last summer after the government’s revised budget was passed. Since the Interior Ministry received a huge increase in funds with this rebalance, some critics were charging that you are planning to make some sort of police state or surveillance state. How do you react to such charges?

GJ: These kinds of assertions are a result of ignorance, of people who don’t know how the ministry really works. They don’t understand that our ability to have success and achieve results depends on investment in equipment, resources, and people. The Ministry of Interior had not received sufficient investments for ages before I became minister. It was thus necessary to change this situation. After all, the people who are working under threat need to have the right equipment.

CD: €šÃ„òPeople working under threat’- meaning the police?

GJ: Yes, the police.

CD: Was that the case?

GJ: Nothing was really being done to improve things; the police were working in the same old ways, with the same old equipment, and getting the same results. In the 21st century, it’s impossible to fight today’s sophisticated forms of crime with 20-year-old equipment. And it’s part of my job as minister to lobby inside the government for more money for the budget.

I should add that we have figures, indicators that show it has been a successful investment, even in a short time. We seized a half-ton of cocaine, for one. We solved the [Bajrush Sejdiu] case in Kumanovo, there was Operation Mountain Storm, and a number of lesser-known organized crime cases. So, looking at everything in this light, the money allocated to us is very small, in comparison to the results.

CD: Alright. But more specifically, when you were preparing the budget and procurement for some of this advanced technical equipment, did you experience lobbying efforts from foreign companies, Israeli, American or other, to buy their particular products?

GJ: No, not at all. Our principle is to try to get the best value for money, and we undergo the legal procedures.

CD: Still, returning to the original issue, some Macedonians and even foreign officials say the government’s ultimate goal is control of the people.

GJ: Macedonia is a democratic country and there no room for such concerns. Believe me, the police has more than enough work to do fighting the existing criminal and security threats- we have neither the time nor intention to deal with anything else.

Nowadays, when global society is threatened by terrorism, we need to reach certain technical levels. It would be impossible, for example, if your government asked for us to contribute in a special operation if we were stuck using old equipment and old methods. We wouldn’t be able to help them.

Missions Abroad?

CD: On that note, it’s well-known that the Macedonian military has long contributed to the US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is there any possibility that the Macedonian Interior Ministry will send officers to such places?

GJ: There is a European Union civilian mission in Afghanistan, and we have expressed our full readiness to send police there to train Afghan police.

CD: Will this happen?

GJ: It’s a matter of their decision, and then administrative procedures. However, last year our foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, participated in an international conference for Afghanistan, and he also expressed our willingness to contribute Macedonian police to stabilization missions there.

CD: Perhaps it would be unlikely, but since this is an EU mission, would it be possible that Greece could block Macedonian participation because of all the current tensions between the two countries?

GJ: I don’t see why the Greeks would want to block something that would be a benefit to global security. So I don’t think so. But you never know.

Recent Arrivals

CD: Speaking of Afghans and Greeks- in recent weeks there have been several incidents of Afghan illegal immigrants, who actually did have valid temporary visas in Greece, being discovered by Macedonian border police. And not a small amount-

GJ: About 38.

CD: Do you think that this amounts to immigrant-dumping? That Greek authorities were sending these people across the border to get rid of them?

GJ: I don’t want to speculate, and I can’t judge that in advance. This is a very sensitive case and the investigation is ongoing.

CD: Fine. But I also understand that these Afghans were discovered not only on the border with Greece, which seems logical, but also up in the north, in the ethnic Albanian-populated village of Lipkovo near Kosovo. Since this area has been a hotspot in the past, with some connections to radical Islam, is it possible that there was some connection along these lines?

GJ: Again, I don’t want to rush to judgments here- the case is still being investigated. It would be bad to make qualifications before the case comes to an end.

CD: Fair enough. Tell me, where are these people currently being held?

GJ: These people here illegally are being housed in temporary detention centers, until we have a decision about what to do with them. The usual procedure is to send them back to their country of most recent origin-

CD: Yes, but Greece doesn’t want them back, right? Is there any chance of them actually staying and living in Macedonia?

GJ: They have not applied as asylum-seekers.

Promoting Discipline

CD: Finally, when one thinks about police reform in a country like this, a small country where everyone knows each other and people are used to doing favors for one another or turning a blind eye to things, it becomes hard to see how laws can be enforced on local levels. A less dramatic issue than the others, perhaps, but something that is still worth noting.

For example, I had someone from Bitola complaining to me yesterday that people are breaking the law by driving in the carsija [old town] there, and the police don’t do anything about it because they don’t want to penalize their friends and so on. What can you say about this issue?

GJ: We still find local situations like this, but we are trying to promote discipline more widely. We want local police officers to understand that they are required to execute the laws wherever in the country they happen to be based. If you have the opportunity to follow the work of the Ministry of Interior, you will see that we have become quite involved in promoting discipline.

CD: But it’s also a societal thing, it would take time-

GJ: Yes, it is also a matter if time to change the culture and behavior. But we are trying to create order. A big part of this, however, also involves making the local populations aware of the need to accept order, and to work with us. So we need the cooperation of Macedonia’s local populations first and foremost. That’s important.

CD: Minister Jankulovska, thank you very much for your time.

GJ: Thank you.

Victor Friedman on Macedonia: the Interview

Professor Victor Friedman is one of the world’s foremost experts on Balkan languages, and has been studying them for almost four decades, since 1993 as a linguist at the University of Chicago. Professor Friedman has a special place in his heart for Macedonia, which he first visited in 1971. This year finds him back in the country, as the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Grant from the US Department of Education and a research grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. (All opinions expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the funding organizations.) Director Christopher Deliso caught up with Professor Friedman recently in Skopje for an interview. Their engrossing and wide-ranging conversation, covering everything from linguistic history, politics and lobbying to national identity and multiculturalism, is reproduced below for our readers.


Christopher Deliso: Victor, thanks for taking the time to discuss your ideas and your research, it’s a great privilege.

Victor Friedman: Thank you, I€šÃ„ôm always happy to speak about the Balkans and Macedonia.


CD: Victor, the first time you visited Macedonia was in 1971. A lot must have changed since then.

VF: Indeed it has. When I first came here, during the height of Yugoslavia, many houses did not have telephones, and I recall you had to wait for 2 years to get one€šÃ„¶ even in 1994 when I was here for 3 months it was impossible for me to get one in the apartment where I was staying. Things have improved considerably since those days. And some of the damage from the 1963 earthquake damage was also still evident in Skopje.

CD: Even in the center?

VF: Even in the center. A lot of the new buildings were already completed, but there were still some piles of rubble near the Hotel Turist, today’s Best Western on the Ulica Makedonija pedestrian street. Sewer lines were being laid in the Stara Charshija (the bazaar quarter in the old part of town) so you had to cross some streets on boards. And there were an awful lot of buildings still housed in purpose-built €šÃ„òbarracks.€šÃ„ô

CD: Some of which still remain, for housing and offices.

VF: Probably so. And back then, the new main campus of University Ss Cyril & Methodius of Skopje hadn€šÃ„ôt been built yet, and the new building for MANU (the Macedonian Academy of Sciences & Arts) hadn€šÃ„ôt been rebuilt yet. It was housed in a mansion that I was told had once been owned by a Vlah merchant, and later served as the Italian embassy. There was one shopping center that just opened up in 1973.

CD: You mean the famous GTC (Gradski Trgovski Center)?

VF: Indeed, the GTC. And there were many ordinary consumer goods you couldn€šÃ„ôt get here. People went to Thessaloniki or Belgrade to shop for many items.

CD: Interesting. Many Macedonians proudly claim to me that in Yugoslav times they were on a much higher social and economic level than the Greeks.

VF: Actually, the Greeks and Yugoslavs were about on the same level then. With hard currency, you could get a good rate on the drachma. But the difference was that Greece never had Communism, and in the 1970s Greece already had American style-supermarkets; one had to go to Thessaloniki or the US Embassy PX in Belgrade to get peanut butter.

Fewer consumer goods were available in Macedonia than in wealthier parts of Yugoslavia, of course. In 1973, for example, meat was hard to find. I was told that the price for meat was better in Serbia and all the meat went there. On the other hand, public sociability was more vibrant and relaxed. In mild weather all of Skopje went to what was then Marshal Tito Square for korzo (corso). In those days, Skopje wasn’t as big as it is now, and you could meet anyone you wanted to see there. It was also a great way to make new friends.

The Project of the Day

CD: So how about your project that brings you here this time. What is that about?

VF: My project investigates the continuing existence of multilingualism in Skopje.

CD: That’s an interesting topic. I suspect you are spending a lot of time in the Stara Charshija?

VF: Indeed. Among the craftsmen’s shops, tea houses, mosques, churches and open markets there, that is one of the best places in the city to find different social groups and languages rubbing elbows on a daily basis- Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Romani, even some Aromanian and Greek. My project studies the way that these languages are interacting today.

CD: And this idea was something you used to get funding for the project?

VF: Yes. As a linguist, I had to present my case, and the argument that won funding from the Fulbright-Hays (Department of Education) and Guggenheim is that Macedonia in general, and Skopje especially, represents the last place in the Balkans where the conditions that created the Balkan linguistic league are still present to some extent. So I wanted to study this and document its continuing existence today.

Grammatical Multilingualism

CD: €šÃ„òBalkan linguistics league€šÃ„ô- what do you mean by this?

VF: Right. At the beginning of the 20th century, in the Balkans you had a range of diverse languages on the same territory- the Slavic languages, Greek, Albanian, local dialects of Turkish, three kinds of Romani, Romance languages like Romanian, Aromanian, and Megleno-Romanian and, before the Holocaust, Ladino (or Judezmo) – the language of the Sephardic Jews, a language derived from medieval Spanish with additions from Hebrew and local languages that too shape after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

In particular, the Slavic, Romance, Albanian and Greek languages share a lot of grammatical features that are the result of mutual multilingualism.

CD: Grammatical multilingualism? I can understand vocabulary, loan-words, shared by co-existing languages, but what examples are there of grammar influence in the Balkan languages?

VF: The replacement of infinitives by analytic subjunctive clauses using native material is an example of a shared grammatical feature among Balkan languages.

CD: Meaning the particle, like €šÃ„òna€šÃ„ô in Greek and €šÃ„òda€šÃ„ô in Macedonian?

VF: Yes. And what is really interesting is that even the Balkan dialects of Turkish, but only the Balkan ones, replace the infinitive with an optative- a verb form like a subjunctive but without a particle.

Linguistic Developments

CD: Wow- that’s fascinating.

VF: Yes, the Balkans are very interesting. We know what Ancient Greek, Latin, and Old Church Slavonic, and Sanskrit look liked, and we have Turkic texts going back to the 8th century. We know what these languages looked like in the early medieval period. For Albanian, our oldest significant texts are from the early modern period. We know these changes, these grammatical influences, were taking place in the late medieval and early Ottoman periods (although some are older in some languages). It was really in the Ottoman period that the Balkan languages as we know them today came to resemble one another.

CD: Was this line of investigation something that had been applied elsewhere, or received attention from linguists for a long time?

VF: Well there was some talk in the 19th century of that sort of thing, but in the 19th century, when modern linguistics first took shape with the discovery of the regularity of sound change, most linguists were spending their time trying to find out how languages genealogically resembled one another.

CD: Genealogically, meaning finding a common ancestor, yes? Was this a result of the influence of Darwinism, some sort of intellectual zeitgeist of the time?

VF: Well, some people might tell you that, but most accurately we can say that it coincided with Darwinism and similar trends. But what got people really interested in the genealogical approach to linguistics was the British conquest of India.

CD: Really! Very unusual.

VF: Well think about it: you had these cultured British gentlemen, who had been raised on the full classical education of Latin and ancient Greek, coming to this land of supposed primitives and savages- and getting completely blown away by the resemblances between Sanskrit, which they came across for the first time, and Latin and Greek.

The Balkans: A Special Place

CD: So then, to return to the former topic, can I ask whether this grammatical influence of different languages within a specific terrain is a rare thing? Do you find it in other parts of Europe like, say, Switzerland, with its four official languages (French, German, Italian, and Romansch) as well as the linguistically distinct Swiss German?

VF: Not to the same extent as in the Balkans. French, German and those languages had specific influences of different kinds on each other, but the ordinary populations were not necessarily multilingual until relatively recently, and even today each language in Switzerland is influenced significantly by the usage in the neighboring nation-states where they are standardized.

CD: So what was it about the Balkans that made it so amenable to multilingualism?

VF: Well, going back to Ottoman times, we could consider it partially an issue of pragmatism for city dwellers, traders and so on, for whom knowing other languages was directly beneficial to their livelihoods and businesses, with such diverse populations living together.

It’s also interesting to note that most linguistic studies of multilingualism today are being carried out in post-colonial areas of the world, or among immigrant communities living in wealthy countries. My research here in the Balkans is unusual in this context because this is a region with an endemic, long-existing, relatively stable and uninterrupted history of multilingualism.

Multilingualism as a Culture Value: A Telling Absence

VF: At the same time, multilingualism here was also a matter of a common cultural value, one shared by speakers of all the Balkan languages, except Greek. But we should also note that this language-ideological resistance on the part of Greek did not keep the language from being influenced by those with which it was in contact.

CD: Really! That’s unusual. How do we know Greek lacks this value?

VF: One telling aspect, from a linguist’s point of view, is that Greek is the only language in the Balkans that does not have a proverb to the effect that €šÃ„òlanguages are wealth€šÃ„ô or €šÃ„òthe more languages you know, the more people you€šÃ„ôre worth.€šÃ„ô All other Balkan languages have some such saying that indicates a value placed on multilingualism.

CD: Are we sure this is true, that Greek lacks such a value? Or could someone just invent one for the sake of it?

VF: To the best of my knowledge, there is no such expression. And over the years I have asked every Greek friend of mine for such a proverb and not one of them has come up with one. And I am talking about linguists, experts on the Balkans who are not subjective.

An example I recall comes from the introduction to a recently published book on the minority languages of Greece (which is, alas, still a highly political topic in that nation-state). The author was talking about Arvanitika, the Albanian dialect/language of speakers who migrated to Greece a millennium or so ago. The introduction was written by a respected Greek linguist€šÃ„¶ he wrote that among the Arvanites, and probably, emphasis mine, among the other Balkan peoples, there is this expression of languages as wealth. But he didn€šÃ„ôt know of any such expression in Greek.

Confusion and Denial

CD: By the term €šÃ„òArvanitika,€šÃ„ô you mean medieval Albanian?

VF: Most precisely, it refers to the Albanian dialects of Greece that separated from the main body of Tosk Albanian 600-1000 years ago. The dialects were spoken on many Greek islands, the Peloponnese, and in Attica and Central Greece. Greeks don€šÃ„ôt like to admit it, but they have had large Albanian-speaking populations for a very long time, not just post-Communist economic migrants. While these dialects are now moribund owing to hegemonistic Greek language policies, they can still be encountered in places like Livadhia.

CD: An interesting detail-

VF: And I recall one vignette: many years ago at a conference, I met a woman who was Greek, but she knew Arvanitika. So we communicated, I in standard modern Albanian, she in Arvanitika. It was close enough to communicate.

I asked her, €šÃ„òhow do you know you this language€šÃ„ô? As a linguist, it was an interesting detail. She replied, €šÃ„òwell, I learned it from my grandmother.€šÃ„ô

CD: Which would have meant she was of partial Arvanitika descent?

VF: Well, I asked innocently enough €šÃ„ì I wasn€šÃ„ôt really aware of the politics at the time €šÃ„ì €šÃ„òwhy would a Greek learn Albanian if they weren€šÃ„ôt Albanian€šÃ„ô? She was somewhat confused.

The next morning, however, when I saw this woman she said to me: €šÃ„òI couldn€šÃ„ôt sleep all night thinking about what you said.€šÃ„ô She was a bit upset. €šÃ„òI thought about it,€šÃ„ô she said, €šÃ„òand no! I am Greek! I am Greek!€šÃ„ô It was the last time I tried to suggest to a Greek that if they learned another language at home, it was because that was the native language of the speaker.

The Nationalist Trap and State Policies

CD: (Laughing) on that note, let’s talk about the Macedonia issue now. Greece denies the Macedonian identity, referring to ancient history. What do you think about this?

VF: Unfortunately, with independence, some Macedonians fell into the nationalist trap set by Greece. The Greeks came up with a line claiming the Macedonians could not claim the name Macedonia unless they were descended from the Ancient Macedonians.

Well, no one can reasonably claim to be descended from the Ancient Macedonians, but this became part of the argument, instead of other more pertinent things. And so the issue has remained. But the Greeks have been denying the existence of Macedonia and the Macedonians all along.

CD: From your perspective, how far back does this go as a state policy? To the breakdown of Yugoslavia, or further?

VF: Oh, it’s been that way ever since modern Macedonians began to call themselves Macedonians. The Greeks have been denying the existence of its Macedonian minority since acquiring Greek Macedonia at the Treaty of Bucharest following the Second Balkan War (1913), except for a brief period in the 1920s. In 1957, an otherwise respectable Greek linguist named N. Andriotis published a polemical and, from an academic point of view, deeply flawed booklet entitled €šÃ„òThe Confederate state of Skopje and Its Language€šÃ„ô €šÃ„ì referring, of course, to Macedonia and Macedonian within Socialist Yugoslavia.

CD: This is very interesting to me, because as you know, many Greeks today refer to the whole country of Macedonia by the name of the capital, and the people as €šÃ„òSkopjeans.€šÃ„ô So they were using this reference even then?

VF: Of course. But already in the 19th century, Macedonian speakers were calling themselves Macedonians (Makedontsi), their language, €šÃ„òMakedonski.€šÃ„ô This is documented.

CD: But they were also calling themselves €šÃ„òBulgarians€šÃ„ô then.

VF: Yes, some were, and speakers identified as Serbs or Greeks or Turks, depending on religious loyalties, but most of the time, speakers called themselves Christians or Turks (Muslims).

CD: Because the Ottoman system used religion as the main factor in classifying its subjects?

VF: Yes, but not just because of the Ottomans- religion was more important then as well. It was the late 18th/early19th century ideas, developed from the French Revolution that led to nation-state ideologies.

Organized Obliteration?

VF: But even well before this, some have made a case €šÃ„ì and this refers again to the social resistance against other languages €šÃ„ì that the Greeks have been trying to destroy Slavic culture in this area since the Middle Ages.

CD: €šÃ„òGreeks,€šÃ„ô meaning the Byzantines?

VF: Yes. For example, John Fine in his book The Early Medieval Balkans (p. 220) cites Vladimir Moshin, who published an article in1963 in a Russian academic journal in which he made the argument that the reason there are no Slavic language manuscripts from this region prior to 1180 is owing to their deliberate destruction by the Greeks/Byzantines.

CD: Really!

VF: Up until his article, people had been saying it was the Turks who destroyed everything. But there are Greek-language manuscripts from this period that survived in this region, whereas Slavic ones did not. And it is not as if the latter were not being composed in an organized way; the Ohrid literary school which began in the late 9th century is just one place where manuscripts were being written in large numbers. Which means that Greeks have been trying to destroy Slavic culture and literacy for a very long time.

CD: Many Bulgarian politicians and academics claim that Macedonian is just a dialect of Bulgarian. What do you say on this topic?

VF: The answer is of course Macedonian is a distinct language. It is similar to Bulgarian, but just as Swedish and Norwegian are similar languages, but separate, so, too, are Macedonian and Bulgarian.

CD: Why?

VF: Both sets of languages have different dialectal bases. And for this reason it is not at all like the case of Moldovan and Romanian. The Moldovan standard language is not based on Moldovan dialects; it is based on the same Wallachian dialects as standard Romanian.

In the case of Macedonian, however, the standard language is based on the dialects spoken in the west-central geographical area defined by Veles, Bitola, Prilep and Kichevo. It is not identical with any specific dialect, and has elements from the eastern ones as well. Standard Bulgarian is not based on a single dialect, but is based on eastern Bulgarian dialects, from Veliko Tarnovo to the Danube and further east.

CD: Why were these specific dialectal areas chosen, in both cases?

VF: What happened was that in the 19th century there were two major centers of literacy and prosperity- one in southwestern Macedonia, the other in northeastern Bulgaria. The Bulgarians decided to impose those eastern dialects from the area north of the Stara Planina range, east of the dialectal division called the yat line, and south of the Danube, on the whole state.

CD: What was the thinking? Was this an organized campaign for specific reasons?

VF: We€šÃ„ôre talking about the phenomenon of intellectuals fighting over what’s going to happen when they get their own state- just like with the Congress of Manastir (Bitola) in 1908, when the Albanians were worrying about agreeing on a common Albanian alphabet before there was an Albanian state (in 1912). The Bulgarians didn€šÃ„ôt have a state until the Russo-Turkish War of 1878.

CD: What about the situation in Greece at the time, where different propagandists were at work from different sides? Were these dialects considered Bulgarian or Macedonian, or both? What can linguists reconstruct today?

VF: There are a number of dialectal studies. Some speakers considered themselves Macedonians, some Bulgarians, and some Greeks, and some Turks, depending, in part, on religious affiliation (Exarchist, Patriarchist, and Muslim for the last three at that time). Firsthand accounts are available in some books published in, e.g., Australia and Poland, and Canada, but the Aegean Macedonians who were victims of Greek abuse at that time are mostly dead.

The generation that suffered during the Greek Civil War (1946-49) however, is still alive. The ones who are still alive often do not want to tell their stories because they are afraid or the memories are too painful. Even for curious foreigners, if you go to Greece to do research on Macedonian, you run the risk that the police will take your tapes, destroy them, and kick you out for expressing an interest in what is still a taboo topic for them.

CD: Really! Are there some examples?

VF: Yes, and it happened to a colleague of mine who was doing dissertation research in a village whose name I will omit to protect the inhabitants.

CD: aha, the village of€šÃ„¶ near Kastoria?

VF: Yes, and precisely for this reason it is one of the most interesting Macedonian dialects, because it is the most southwestern Macedonian dialect. It is transitional between eastern and western types of Macedonian. And the Greek police confiscated the tapes of this linguist and interfered with his research. However, he did finish his dissertation on this dialect. In fact, in his introduction, he made a point of thanking the Greek police for teaching him to always keep backup tapes!

CD: Ha! So with all of this intimidation, not to mention the journalist arrests we saw recently, what are the Greeks so afraid of?

VF: They€šÃ„ôre incredibly insecure. No, they€šÃ„ôre not just insecure. They have a linguistic ideology that insists on wiping out all other languages. This is an old ideology. It is the origins of the term barbarian. Think about it.

Why don€šÃ„ôt we have any traces of other languages preserved? As a matter of fact we do. There are some ancient inscriptions in Thracian.

CD: I thought the Thracians had no written language?

VF: They did. The inscriptions are in Greek script, but the words are Thracian. And the inscriptions are sitting in Greece, gathering dust. They know they€šÃ„ôre there, but no one’s going to work on them because the language is not Greek. So they€šÃ„ôre not going to let anyone see them. I have this from a colleague of mine who is a classicist and interested in the subject.

CD: Your Greece vignette reminds me of being the village of Amyndaeo south of Florina last year. I came across these two old men speaking to each other in Macedonian. I said dobar den (€šÃ„ôgood day€šÃ„ô). And you know what? This man was so alarmed that he reacted before he could think, instinctively, by blurting out ne razbiram Makedonski (€šÃ„òI don€šÃ„ôt understand Macedonian€šÃ„ô). This was one of the most ironic examples of fear of speaking one’s language I could imagine.

VF: Indeed.

CD: So I guess my question for you is, we asked the local people in Florina what percent of the people there speak Macedonian, since public life is mostly in Greek it was an interesting question. And several people said, €šÃ„òoh, everyone speaks it.€šÃ„ô What is your experience?

VF: Well, as far as I was told everybody in the area around Florina, or Lerin in Macedonian, over the age of 40 speaks Macedonian, whether they€šÃ„ôre Macedonian or not. This is according to a colleague of mine who has done recent research. However, the younger generation is not learning it. But it is a topic that requires further (unhindered) research.

CD: From what I understand from different stories, this is because it is not helpful to advancement in Greek society, and can even be a strongly negative factor-

VF: Yes. The Greek government is effectively carrying out €šÃ„òlinguicide€šÃ„ô on the Macedonians of Greece. And it has been a long-running policy. For another example, I have a photo of a sign in Greek, from the 1950s, printed up in blue-on-white, urging people to forbid anyone from speaking in €šÃ„òVlahika, Makedonika etc.€šÃ„ô There used to be many such signs in Greek Macedonia.

CD: Really! That is quite compelling. Do people know about this?

VF: I don€šÃ„ôt know-a friend sent the photo to me, I am finally getting around to publishing it in a review article in the journal Balkanistika next year.

But the Greek policy was always trying to kill the language. It was especially horrible in the 1930s. Macedonian kids would go to school, and if they spoke their language, the language they learned at home, numerous €šÃ„òcorrective€šÃ„ô methods were used: teachers beat them, or stuck their tongues with needles, or rubbed a hot pepper on their tongues; anything to make them stop speaking Macedonian.

CD: Really! That sounds very extreme.

VF: Oh, they were terrible. In the 1930s, people were put in jail just for speaking Macedonian. The Greek government had people skulking around the windows of people’s houses, listening to hear if they spoken Macedonian so that they could report them to the police. Mothers were thrown in jail for speaking Macedonian to their babies. They terrorized the Macedonians, and then, with the Greek Civil War, they drove many of them out.

CD: Never to return-

VF: And then there’s the infamous €šÃ„òrace clause’ in the amnesty law of 1982; it stipulated that to return the country and reclaim one’s property, all those who had been banished had to declare they were Greek by genos, by race or birth. Macedonians who were expelled, many just children at the time, in 1949, were never allowed to reclaim their property. It was racism, pure and simple.

CD: Do you recall what was the reaction here in Macedonia, from the locals? And what about the European countries? Surely this would have been considered a great breach of European values?

VF: I was actually here at the time this was announced. The people were very upset, because they have been so badly mistreated all along. The €šÃ„òGreat Powers,€šÃ„ô of course, said nothing.

CD: Well this is interesting, because here we have in America a new president, a black man who surely knows something about the meaning of racism, and indeed the issues of race and injustices resonated throughout Obama’s campaign.

And at the same time, Obama signed that anti-Macedonian senate resolution, and has been a big supporter of the Greek lobby, who are probably counting on a return on their investment. Has anyone, to the best of your knowledge, pointed out this blatant hypocrisy regarding his support for a country that has a history of racist policies against its own citizens?

VF: No, I haven€šÃ„ôt heard anyone put this to his people. It would be nice if the message could be gotten out, but so far I haven€šÃ„ôt seen this happen. The Macedonians don€šÃ„ôt seem to know enough about public relations and American politics- they should be using lobby companies, getting their message out every day in Washington.

CD: Yes, I concur with that-

VF: And, at the same time, the Greeks get away with this €šÃ„òcradle of democracy€šÃ„ô image! Give me a break! Ancient Greece was a slave-owning society. And you know, some scholars argue that Modern Greece is a creation of the Western European romantic imagination- for example, Lord Byron’s romanticized view of Ancient Greece projected, on the modern population. This is persuasively argued in a book of academic Michael Herdzfeld, called Ours Once More.

CD: That is an interesting school of thought, I had not really conceived it as such but there is something to it. What was the reaction to this book?

VF: I do not think there was a huge reaction, but Herzfeld was involved with another book, Anastasia Karakasidou’s Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood, which did generate a great deal of controversy. Published by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, this book was actually a very mild challenge to Greek hegemonistic notions. What it dared to do, based on fieldwork in Greek Macedonia, was to state that there were citizens of Greece who did not feel themselves to be ethnic Greeks and that they still spoke their own language.

Cambridge University Press had committed to publishing the book with minor revisions, and then they suddenly decided not to publish the book. They had committed to it and suddenly changed their minds. Prof Herzfeld was on the editorial board of CUP’s anthropology series at the time, and he resigned in protest, as did other members of the board.

CD: Yes, they cited €šÃ„òthe safety of their staff in Greece€šÃ„ô as their reason, right?

VF: Well they said that. However, the way I heard it, CUP had a monopoly on English-language testing in the schools of Greece as well€šÃ„¶

CD: Do you believe that the Greek government threatened that they would lose this privilege?

VF: I have no idea, but assuming that they had a monopoly- two plus two, what are you going to make of that, four or twenty-two?

CD: But then you guys saved it-

VF: Yes, the University of Chicago went ahead and published the book, to their credit. But the whole situation is just disgusting; it makes Europe look like what she was called at the beginning of the 20th century, as depicted in the Bulgarian film Mera spored Mera, made in the 1980s. It was somewhat provocative, and received criticism from some quarters of the Communist government, because it used Aegean Macedonian dialects, as it was about the post-Ilinden period just after 1903.

The memorable line from the film, which was part of a real folk song dating back to 1878, was something like this: €šÃ„òbe thou cursed and thrice cursed Europe, O you whore of Babylon and murderer of Macedonia.€šÃ„ô

CD: So, what do you think then of the international negotiations over the name issue, and the constant pressure for Macedonia to €šÃ„òcompromise€šÃ„ô with Greece here?

VF: There is no real compromise. There can€šÃ„ôt be. Think about it: if a thief comes up to and holds a gun to your head and says €šÃ„ògive me your money,€šÃ„ô do you say, €šÃ„òI€šÃ„ôll give you half,€šÃ„ô and call that a compromise? That’s Greece. They are trying to destroy Macedonia’s identity, plain and simple.

Note that no one on the Macedonian side is saying that Greeks cannot call themselves Macedonians, or their province Macedonia. But they never call themselves as such out of this context- they are, to themselves, Greeks first and foremost. So nobody actually needs the name Macedonia, and no one needs to call themselves Macedonians for their primary identity, except for these people in this small country that is not a threat to anyone.

CD: On that note, to conclude, let me ask this: based on your research, do you think that Macedonia gets enough credit for preserving its multiculturalism? And does it reflect at all on the temperament of the people here that it has been able to do so?

VF: First of all, Macedonia doesn€šÃ„ôt get any credit. And in fact the isolation that Greece has succeeded in imposing on Macedonia in the last 17 years has been a major factor in adding to interethnic tension here, as we saw unfortunately in the 2001 conflict.

If the Greeks had just left the Macedonians alone to begin with, there would have been fewer such problems, or at least greater capacity to deal with the existing ones. But it was the Greek government (especially after 1991) and the Serbian government (especially after 1981) who exacerbated most of the problems, for their own purposes.

You know, the vast majority of normal people of all ethnicities in this country live together peacefully. There is a saying in Macedonian: nie sme krotok narod: €šÃ„òwe are a mild people.€šÃ„ô A peaceful people. This is something that is constantly overlooked by the Great Powers- that, relative to the rest of the Balkans and much of the world, for all the very real problems that exist, Macedonians are still among the most peaceful and tolerant people you will find anywhere.

CD: Victor, thank you very much for your time and insightful comments. I appreciate it.

VF: And thank you.

Vermonter Helps Macedonian Jews Plant Hope

By Christopher Deliso*

It’s a clear warm spring day high on a barren, charred plateau in Macedonia, and Mike Goldstein is holding a Hebrew prayer book in his hands, with a row of tiny saplings decorating the freshly-turned earth at his feet. A retired general in the Vermont National Guard, Mike has been asked by the tiny Balkan country’s Jewish community to lead the ceremonial planting of some 7,200 trees with a recitation of the sheheheyanu, the Hebrew prayer that marks new beginnings and hope for the future. It is a number heavy with significance; the little saplings are meant to honor the memory of the 7,200 Macedonian Jews who died in the Holocaust. Flanked by community members young and old, schoolchildren and even a few local officials, Mike pronounces the prayer for hope, as well as a second, the elegiac kaddish invoked at times of mourning.

How this kindly old military man from Burlington ended up on this unlikely Balkan bluff, between a spectacular gorge and majestic, snow-covered peaks, is a fascinating tale that reveals not only one man’s life-changing personal experience, but also a unique connection between Macedonia and Vermont, one which will probably come as a surprise to most Vermonters.

Mike fell in love with Macedonia in 1996, after being sent with a Vermont Guard corps  to help train the fledgling ex-Yugoslav country’s  army  under the auspices of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. About as large as Vermont, dotted with lakes and rippling with forested mountains stretching over 6,000 feet high, Macedonia had obvious natural appeal. It also had millennia of history, with signs of civilization dating back to prehistoric times and rich archeological remains of civilizations such as the ancient Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians and Ottoman Turks. But most of all, says Mike, he developed a fondness for the people: “the kindness and friendliness of the Macedonians was remarkable,” he notes. “I realized that these were the kind of people I enjoyed being around.”

One local group made an especially deep impression. Through the suggestion of his translation assistant, this Vermont descendent of Lithuanian Jews decided to make contact with Macedonia’s tiny Jewish community, who numbered only around 200 people. On March 11, 1996, Mike was invited to attend the community’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. On that date in 1943, the Nazi-allied Bulgarian army, which then occupied Macedonia, deported 7,200 Jews €šÃ„ì some 98 percent of the whole Jewish population €šÃ„ì to the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland.

This catastrophe all but destroyed Macedonia’s once thriving and culturally rich Jewish community, which traced its roots back to Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain following the Inquisition in 1492. Taken in by the Ottoman Turkish sultan, the Jews had been resettled within the empire’s extensive Balkan territories, with Macedonia becoming an especially significant center of Sephardic Jewish culture.

Following Macedonia’s peaceful separation from Yugoslavia in 1991, it began taking steps to make restitutions to descendents of Holocaust victims, and to the larger Jewish community in cases where no living heirs could be found. American Jewish groups, the State Department and the government of Israel have all credited the Macedonians for their efforts, which have surpassed those of several larger and wealthier countries in central and eastern Europe. Presently, a Holocaust Memorial Center is under construction in Skopje, on the same spot where the city’s Jewish quarter once stood along the banks of the winding River Vardar.

Although Mike Goldstein retired from the military in 1999, he found that his bond with Macedonia was a permanent one, and he has been coming back every year to show solidarity with the Macedonian Jews as they commemorate the tragedies of the past. This year, the remarkable convergence of that event with another symbolic act made Mike’s visit even more historic. The day after the Holocaust memorial ceremony, Goldstein and the Jewish community did their part in an extraordinary nationwide event: the planting of over 2 million trees by volunteers of all ages, including politicians, celebrities, grandparents and grandchildren, and even border policemen from neighboring states. Spearheaded by Macedonian opera singer Boris Trajanov, the mass planting was meant to help replenish the country’s forests, following last summer’s unfortunate spate of wildfires.

“The day was symbolic on a lot of levels,” says Mike, noting that the planting was a gesture of commitment to Macedonia’s ecological restoration, while for the Jews it “helped dignify the memory of those who died.” In the bigger picture, as the organizers had hoped, the Den na Drvoto (“Day of the Tree,” in Macedonian) proved that Macedonia’s sometimes fractious ethnic groups could indeed work together for the common good. Only seven years ago, Macedonia stood on the brink of civil war with an uprising from the ethnic Albanian minority, bolstered by Albanian volunteers from northern neighbor Kosovo. However, an internationally-brokered treaty soon restored the peace, and since then the country has been slowly but surely working towards its goals of economic development and membership in key international bodies such as the European Union and NATO.

While the former is still some years away, Macedonia is an EU candidate country and hopes to be given a date for the opening of membership talks later this year. Regarding NATO, however, Macedonia suffered an unfortunate setback when Greece threatened to veto its membership invitation at the Alliance’s April 2-4 summit in Bucharest, Romania. Greece, which also has a northern province called Macedonia, demands that the Republic of Macedonia change its name, claiming that the latter has territorial ambitions towards Greek Macedonia- something which the Macedonians deny and which everyone except Greece finds absurd. Despite the impassioned personal intercession of President Bush at the Summit, the Greeks were unmoved, and so Macedonia’s NATO invitation remains conditional on resolution of the name dispute.

Mike Goldstein was one of the many Americans saddened by Macedonia’s failure to gain NATO membership, feeling that the country was eminently worthy of joining the Alliance. He has a strong personal connection here. As a Vermont National Guard general, Mike helped guide Macedonia through the military reform and training process that eventually brought it up to NATO standards. Despite Greece’s mean-spirited action, Mike has nothing but praise for the Macedonian soldiers he has worked with and known over the years. “They were always eager students, and quick learners,” he recalls. “When we had them here [at the National Guard’s School for Mountain Warfare] in Vermont, they really showed their aptitude- and they loved the ice climbing training we do here.”

Indeed, says Mike, the country is richly deserving of NATO membership. It has carried out reforms, downsizing and professionalizing according to instructions, and for years already has unquestioningly committed troops (around four percent of the entire army) to American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have seen action. In fact, notes Mike, “at least one Macedonian soldier has received a medal from the US military, for saving the lives of American soldiers in a combat situation.”

As the negotiations continue in the coming months between Greece and Macedonia, Mike will be one of the many Vermonters previously involved with training the Macedonian army who is pulling for the small country- one which has, despite so many obstacles and problems, managed to cling to its identity and culture, and which continues to provide Mike with moments to treasure, liking planting trees in solidarity with Macedonia’s welcoming Jews.

*This article was originally published by the Burlington Free Press on April 13, 2008