Ethnic Albanian citizens in Macedonia are calling on foreign leaders to help the country sort out the name dispute with Greece and start accession negotiations with the EU, but the bloc is showing increased disappointment with the lack of progress in Skopje on democratic standards.
In an interview for EurActiv, the deputy prime minister of Macedonia, Fatmir Besimi, an ethnic Albanian and member of DUI, the government coalition partner of the ruling VMRO DPMNE party, has called on the international community, in particular the EU and NATO, to intervene in the 20-year-long dispute between Greece and Macedonia on the name issue (see background) and help the country out of the stalemate it is in.
“The current situation has become a challenge for our country; expectations have become different in different ethnic groups. A more intensive EU process holds the country united for a common future,” Besimi warned.
Simmering ethnic tensions flared recently, when the statue of a 14th century Serbian emperor, Tsar Dushan, who conquered Albanian regions, was erected in the capital on 3 December, causing shock among the ethnic Albanian community.
The statue was attacked and damaged during the night by ethnic Albanian activists, with video footage showing members of the ruling DUI participating in the action.
Even though the European Commission thinks that Skopje is ready to negotiate its membership, EU member states have repeatedly said that no progress would be allowed without a solution to the name problem.
Despite numerous initiatives to keep the country on the reform track, the situation has deteriorated. Freedom of expression levels are at a historic low, while nationalist rhetoric blossoms. The make-over of the capital dubbed “Skopje 2014” has also triggered clashes with neighbouring Greece due to the erection of a statue representing Alexander the Great, which has sparked interethnic tensions and questions about the financial transparency of the project.
“The Albanian community is dissatisfied with the lack of progress on EU integration,” the deputy PM said. “They feel that EU progress will increase job opportunities and advance their rights," at a time when unemployment remains very high.
“We will continue to talk to our neighbour, Greece, under the UN framework, but we need the international community to help this process, be it EU institutions, member states, NATO or the USA. I am not prejudging of a format but we’ve seen the EU successfully engage in bilateral disputes such as Serbia and Kosovo or Slovenia and Croatia,” the minister in charge of EU affairs explained.
Earlier this year, the leader of the DUI, Ali Ahmeti, embarked on an international tour to convince foreign leaders to “use their authority to reach a final solution on the name issue”.
The initiative, however, was unsuccessful, as the EU does not intend so far to meddle in a dispute which is led by the UN, based on a resolution by the UN Security Council.
Deteriorated democratic standards
But tensions have been running high between ethnic Macedonians too. Last year, opposition MPs and journalists were forcibly removed from the national parliament during the votes on the annual budget triggering a serious political crisis, which was resolved after the enlargement commissioner flew to Skopje three months later to help both parties sign a political agreement, known as the 1 March deal.
However, the event unveiled the “deep divisions among political parties affecting the functioning of parliament,” the Commission warned in its annual report on the country’s progress.
The political crisis, but also the attacks on journalists and media and the “blurred distinction between party and state”, all led EU foreign affairs ministers to draw on 17 December lukewarm conclusions on Macedonia this year.
“The EU considers Skopje has taken a step backwards," an EU diplomat said.
Unlike last year, when a pre-screening process was de facto announced, this time the ministers’ wording is much less ambitious when it comes to an opening of accession negotiations, with Finnish European Affairs Minister Alexander Stubb tweeting: “Disappointment on FYROM. Bad.”
Addressing the press on Tuesday in Brussels, after the Foreign Affairs meeting, the Greek deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos, whose country will hold the EU’s rotating presidency from January 2014, made it clear that the lack of progress on EU integration for Macedonia was no longer only about Greece’s veto, but about the democratic standards in the country.
“The problem with FYROM is not a problem between two countries, nor does it affect solely the name issue. It is about a much deeper problem which has to do with the rule of law and the democratic standards. It’s also an international problem which is being solved in the UN, but it is also an EU problem because it affects the Copenhagen criteria that everybody must respect,” Venizelos said.
The European Parliament's rapporteur on Macedonia, MEP Richard Howitt, called the EU Foreign Affairs Council decision "another lost year".
"I had called at a minimum for repeat of last year's agreement to give further consideration within six months and am naturally disappointed that the Council has not done this, leaving itself open to an accusation of backsliding.
The Council praised the country's elimination of court backlogs and the continuing fight against corruption, but what is needed is not praise but progress.
However, EU countries have now made explicit areas where they call for progress and I urge everyone in the country to seek to meet this challenge, so 2014 need not be another lost year for the country's European ambitions."
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