“Don’t make excessive demands of us,” stresses Nikola Poposki, foreign minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), on the issue of Greece’s name dispute with its northern neighbor, ahead of a scheduled visit to Athens on Thursday. “We are both proud people,” he told Kathimerini in this interview translated into English from the Greek version, adding that the “conditions are more than ripe” for there to be a positive step toward a resolution of the dispute.
Poposki is expected in Athens following a visit to Skopje in July by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. It will be the first visit to Greece by a foreign minister or other high-ranking official from FYROM since Alexander Dimitrov’s in 2000.
“We have no intention to surprise – at least not negatively – but to express our earnest willingness and friendship,” he says about his visit, adding that Greece and FYROM are “on a very good path” in terms of mutual confidence building.
What can we expect from your visit to Athens? Is it a routine diplomatic mission to reciprocate the visit to Skopje by your Greek counterpart, or are the two sides preparing, shall we say, any surprises?
It is certainly not routine, since something like this has not happened in over a decade. There were no visits on an official bilateral level, as would befit neighbors. At the same time, at least from our side, we have no intention to surprise – at least not negatively – but want to express our honest intentions and friendship toward Greece. We will do our utmost to make our hosts feel this. There should be no animosity between us. In contrast, over the past 20 years it has become apparent that there is a lot in common between the two peoples. Particularly in terms of way of thinking and behavior, one could say we are first cousins. Maybe that’s why we get along so well in tourism, the economy and many other sectors, despite the crisis.
In your opinion, is the time ripe for real progress over the name dispute? Is your side willing to take a step away from its “red lines” if Athens does the same so that there can be a breakthrough?
I think the conditions are overripe, given that we’ve been waiting for more than two decades. As far as the differences are concerned, it is our firm belief that we have made a lot of compromises, from changing the constitution and the flag, to accepting the disrespectful temporary name at the UN, etc. On the other hand, the list of the concessions being demanded seems endless, while previous commitments, such as that there would be no obstacles to our bids for entry in NATO and the EU, are forgotten. The explanation we usually get is: We are in the club, while you want to join. You will pay a price, and as far as the cost goes, the sky is the limit. Honestly, we do not want to have such irrational differences with a neighbor, with whom we have the same strategic interests. This is why we are participating in the process. However, for there to be a successful outcome we need to feel that you are not making excessive demands of us. We are both proud nations. The happiness of the strongest should not be at the expense of his neighbor. What is encouraging, though, is that we agree on the benefits of a rapprochement in all the practical areas.
The confidence building measures (CBMs) that were agreed on are seen as the most important outcome of Kotzias’s visit to Skopje. The prevailing view, however, is that nothing has really happened since. Is that wrong?
There are ongoing talks between teams of the two foreign ministries, meetings with journalists of the two countries, joint initiatives of the academic communities and increased cooperation between the police forces of the two sides. Maybe those don’t have a lot of resonance with the public; this is not our objective, but rather whether they essentially contribute to increasing contacts and joint program. Personally I think we can do more and faster. However, building trust is essential. It appears that we are on the right path. We’ll see.
How is cooperation between the two countries over the refugee crisis? Could there be a common approach on this issue that would make it form the basis of a further improvement in relations?
From a strategic point of view we have a common goal and communication has improved. In the short term, though, Greece’s aim is for all the migrants to move on to Northern Europe as fast as possible and that means through our country. The reasoning is that Greece does not have unlimited resources and the inflow on the islands is constant. We understand that. Our duty, however, is not to take in more than we can record and ensure humane and safe transport through the European route. For this to work, we need a greater effort from Greece in registration and a European response, which can be implemented, in relation to long-term trends.
You have suggested in statements that Greece is not only doing nothing to prevent inflows from Turkey, but rather (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) allowing migrants to attack your border guards. What would you do differently, for example, to protect the entrance to the Aegean?
It is true that the Greek islands are in a vulnerable position. The inflows are very big and the question is whether Greece has the resources to manage this. I am convinced that it needs help and Turkey’s cooperation. However, Turkey also has a point when it says it has been responsible for over 2 million migrants in the past few years. This costs a lot of money and has certainly created tension. However, economic migrants are allowed to pelt our border guards with rocks from Greek territory without any measures to stop them as they attempt to force their way into Macedonia. This should not be allowed to happen.
Is your country facing a problem of Islamist extremism, as President Gjorge Ivanov suggested in recent statements? What is the situation as regards this issue?
It is, without doubt, a global threat. Macedonia is not immune from the dangers of religious extremism. Surely, though, this exists in most European countries. The fact that there are citizens of ours who incite, spread propaganda and even go to Syria to fight for Daesh [ISIS] is a cause for concern. These are young people who have grown up in our environment and reject the culture that we believe is widely accepted in Europe. Their views vary on whether they agree or not with the beheadings or terrorist attacks. We mustn’t be indifferent but we must also not paint everyone with the same brush on the basis of their religion alone. The majority of those suffering at the hands of the Muslim extremists – who are, as we speak, implementing their plan to form a state in Syria and Iraq – are probably Muslims themselves. It is essential that we are all united against this threat.