From: Alice Taylor, Xhelal Neziri
Interview: Ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia in the Context of EU Accession

Xhelal Neziri is a political analyst and journalist from North Macedonia. He spoke to Exit’s Alice Taylor about enlargement, the French proposal, and the role Albanians have in the future of the country.

What are your view on the French proposal and the pressure coming from Brussels, including the visit of Von Der Leyen in an attempt to influence domestic politics?

All the proposals offered since Bulgaria’s veto in 2020 we’re concerned with only one thing: the implementation of the Treaty of Good Friendship, which the two countries signed in 2017. The Bulgarian veto it came as a result of the lack of progress in the implementation of that Treaty, which had to do with the revision of some parts and historical figures from before the Second World War. Sofia’s initial position was that that part of history before 1945 was Bulgarian, the Macedonian language at that time was a Bulgarian dialect, and the historical figures were also Bulgarian. Sofia did not accept a dual interpretation of history, where each state will have its perspective, but the only compromise it offered to make was that that part of history from the Middle Ages to 1945 would be largely shared. This was presented to the ethnic Macedonian public as an attempt to undermine Macedonian ethnic identity and to ‘Bulgarize’ ethnic Macedonians. Therefore, the parties that had formed the joint historical commission could not harmonize their positions or approve the protocols/conclusions of the meetings. This problem, aggravated by some actions that prevented the interests of Bulgarian companies in North Macedonia, brought the next veto for the country that in 2018 barely passed another veto, that of Greece, a country that had blocked NATO and EU integration since 2008. 

Now, the French proposal was a compilation of all the other previous proposals, but it contained only assurances that the Treaty of Friendship would be implemented. This was also requested by Bulgaria precisely because of the delays in implementing that document. The Macedonian language, which is the main pillar of the Macedonian ethnic identity or the main feature that distinguishes it from other peoples, is guaranteed and used in the negotiation process without footnotes, clarification or other wording. In the beginning, Bulgaria insisted that the term “official language of the Republic of North Macedonia” be used for the Macedonian language, which means only the normative aspect, not the cultural one. The issues of history will remain to be resolved during the negotiation process. Still, the launch of the accession process will undoubtedly create a more favourable environment for the harmonization of positions between Skopje and Sofia.

The French proposal appears to have been widely accepted in the EU as a reasonable compromise. Without much noise, it was also supported by the USA. France needed a concrete result during her presidency, so she worked hard on this issue. A few months ago, President Macron appointed his advisor to travel frequently to Skopje and Sofia to bring the parties closer to an agreement. European pressure got the approval of the French Proposal in Bulgaria at a moment when the country was at the peak of political turbulence, that is when Petkov failed to survive the vote of confidence in the Parliament, and the opposition GERB also voted for this proposal. Even in Skopje, the same pressure was felt: The proposal was approved today by 68 of the 120 members of the Parliament, with no votes against it and no abstentions. The protests of the opposition were enough to mobilize the electorate or to fulfil the expectations of their voters. Against was also a fraction of SDSM, which has extensions in the media and business but has no numbers in Parliament. Some small pro-Russian parties and movements were even against it, which tried to misuse the moment to arouse anti-EU and anti-West sentiments.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has been vocal in calling for Skopje to accept the proposal- how is this perceived locally?

Albania has been a victim of this blockade, which neither created the problem nor could do anything to solve it. However, it was clear that this country could not decouple from North Macedonia due to the rejection of almost all the central EU countries. Its separation has been seen as a dangerous step since in that case, it would create frustrations among the ethnic Albanians of North Macedonia, who make up about a third of the total population. Albania’s eventual move towards the EU and North Macedonia’s stagnation in historical disputes, typical of the peoples of the Balkans, may promote other trends in internal politics in Skopje, dangerous for the security of the state itself, which is 2001 the help of the international factor managed to resolve a perilous inter-ethnic conflict.

On the other hand, Rama’s vocal insistence created the impression among ethnic Macedonians that the acceptance of the French proposal is an Albanian interest and therefore it must be anti-Macedonian. This narrative was constructed precisely by the political forces that wanted to undermine the approval of this proposal. Rama was also aware of this, but it seems that he didn’t even think about the effect it created in the neighbouring country: he was looking for a well-deserved reward from the EU.

There are discussions around ethnic divisions and potential tensions. It seems most Albanians are for the proposal, while Macedonians are not. What is your view on this? Is there a risk of ethnic conflict on this matter?

Ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia have not been affected by the problem with Bulgaria. Sofia has not disputed their ethnic identity. Unlike the problem with Greece, when the state’s name also affected the ethnic Albanians since that name will determine the national or state identity, this one with Bulgaria affected only the ethnic Macedonians, who make up nearly two-thirds of the total population in the state. However, despite attempts by Bulgaria to align them on its side, all political parties of ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia, whether in power or in opposition, stood in solidarity with the ethnic Macedonian political parties in defending their ethnic identity. The French proposal seems to have divided the ethnic Macedonian parties into two groups, and in this case, as expected, the ethnic Albanian parties aligned themselves with Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski’s SDSM after the latter accepted that document.

This alignment of all Albanian parties in support of the French proposal was interpreted by the opposing forces as an attempt by the ethnic Albanians to destroy the ethnic identity of the Macedonians. A lot of Russian-style fake news and propaganda was used to build this narrative. There was an attempt to bring the problem to the inter-ethnic level by inciting a conflict between the two largest ethnic groups instead of achieving the goal of blocking the proposal. Fortunately, this did not happen.

However, another delicate moment will be the amendment of the Constitution of North Macedonia to include the ethnic Bulgarians in it. The current government has 64 deputies, while it can also count on ten deputies from the Albanian opposition parties. To change the Constitution, a qualified majority is needed, or two-thirds of the total number of deputies, which in number is at least 80 votes out of 120 in total. The government lacks six deputies and the amendment of the Constitution is one of the main obligations that have been undertaken with the French proposal. This change is expected to happen after a year after negotiations with the EU start and the screening of laws is carried out, while the opening of chapters or clusters is conditioned precisely by this constitutional change. This moment can bring new tensions, which have the risk of being transferred to the inter-ethnic level.

What happens now?

If Skopje rejected the French proposal, it would sink even more into the spiral of disagreements with Bulgaria. In this scenario, the consequences would be borne by North Macedonia, which seeks EU integration and not by Bulgaria, which is within the Union. Then, there was no guarantee that the next proposal would be more favourable. It is about an asymmetric dispute where Bulgaria, as a member of the EU, is in a position to impose a solution on North Macedonia, which has had the strategic goal of European membership since its independence as a state in 1991. The same as with Greece. Considering this analogy, the future proposals for Skopje would be increasingly unfavourable than the previous ones. Let’s not talk about the lost time that would be reflected in the decline of the image of the EU and the increase of sympathies for Eastern countries. In a word, if Skopje said no to the proposal, it would endanger the state. Especially if you take into account the war in Ukraine and the effects, it produces both in terms of economy and security.

Now that it has approved the Proposal, Skopje had earned the reward it had deserved since 2018 when it signed and implemented the Prespa Agreement with Greece, with which it even changed its name. With this, he returns to the European perspective that keeps most citizens and ethnicities united. With this decision, the European plan is back not only in Skopje but also in Tirana and beyond.