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Lawmakers to think in statesmanlike manner, as representatives of people not parties, PM Kovachevski tells MIA

I expect a fruitful and comprehensive debate, I expect lawmakers to rise to the occasion and think in a statesmanlike manner, as representatives of the people not political parties, says Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski in an interview with MIA.

Skopje, 13 July 2022 (MIA) – I expect a fruitful and comprehensive debate, I expect lawmakers to rise to the occasion and think in a statesmanlike manner, as representatives of the people not political parties, says Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski in an interview with MIA.

Regarding tomorrow’s Parliament session on the French proposal, PM Kovachevski says a discussion will first take place, followed by adoption of the conclusions that will task the Government with acting in line with certain principles that it cannot concede from, towards protecting the positions that the country finds most important during the entire process.

Bearing this in mind, SDSM is making efforts to reach conclusions that would be acceptable to all parties and which open the path to accepting the proposal that ensures the start of negotiations, says Kovachevski.

In the interview, Kovachevski refers to the bilateral protocol with Bulgaria, ongoing protests, the possibility of bringing positions with the opposition closer, stability of the ruling coalition, but also issues related to economy and the crisis in this regard.

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We have been hearing strong encouraging messages from EU and U.S. senior officials in favor of the French proposal. German Chancellor Scholz extended an emotional message that the EU wants to see us inside while saying that difficult compromises always lead forward. By definition, negotiations are compromise, as is the very EU accession. In or out of the EU?

North Macedonia has great friends in the European Union and the United States. They are our strategic partners with which we have cooperated since our independence, receiving unequivocal support in the realization of our objectives. Therefore, they are aware of how important is for us to start the EU accession negotiations, a move that marks a new era of accelerated development, sustainable economic growth and safe future of coming generations.

All our big and historic decisions were based on compromise solutions, they lead forward but at the same time require leadership and courage, wisdom and responsibility. I personally believe that that we will come out stronger and more stable from this process, seizing our opportunity for a better future.

North Macedonia is a country that wants to join the EU. Our positions are currently seen as of a country from the outside, a candidate-country, a state having no negotiating status, no equal position on the table, the balance is quite different. When North Macedonia sits on the same table with Germany, France, Czech Republic, things can be done more clearly, more vocally, and on the same footing. We will be equal and be able to defend our positions in a stronger and more efficient way. We get the opportunity to promote our positions at a higher level from the position of a country negotiating with the EU, using the opportunities offered by the start of the accession talks.

Where is North Macedonia’s compromise in the French proposal. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been aligning and negotiating all the time, but where is Sofia’s compromise in this? It is interesting to see Edi Rama, Aleksandar Vucic saying you win some you lose some. For example, do we have some information about Albania’s negotiating framework? Are bilateral disagreements between Albania and Greece included in Tirana’s negotiating framework, or is this only the case with North Macedonia. Is there a deadline by which Skopje should decide on the proposal?

Every negotiating framework is specific by itself and responds to the circumstances of each individual country.

Specifically, what is good for us, namely what we have negotiated and agreed to be in our benefit, while the Bulgarian side made concessions about, is the clear formulation of the language. If you remember, Bulgaria did not even want to designate the Macedonian language in any form. Today, we have a clear Macedonian language in the negotiating framework. This is a crucial thing for our country. We have managed to come to a solution that is absolutely positive for our people.

In addition, the draft-proposal that we rejected in Brussels stated that Bulgaria wanted the constitutional revision to take place before the start of the accession negotiations. The current official EU proposal says that negotiations should start immediately, whereas the constitutional changes to occur after the opening of the talks, i.e. after the screening stage and prior to the opening of the chapters.

Moreover, the draft-French proposal that I rejected noted that the protocol should be mentioned in full as part of the negotiating framework. Regarding the opening of the chapters, it read they should not open by automatism.

This was unacceptable for us and we managed to protect our positions through dialogue and negotiations. The protocol is not part of the negotiating framework, the opening of the chapters is guaranteed by automatism through the first intergovernmental conference and upon the constitutional revision, without new political decisions and delay.

The French proposal is set to be debated by MPs. The opposition voiced concerns that the documents are incomplete. At first, it was a problem why the government should decide alone rather than the elected representatives. Now, the material has been sent to Parliament and the opposition demands it be returned. What are your expectations from the Parliament session?

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Unfortunately, the opposition has no capacity for statesmanlike behavior. They are not at all interested in a substantial discussion about the European proposal, which offers us the opening of negotiations. They demand that four positions in the proposal should be changed, which in fact have been already incorporated. Their statements and demands are nothing more than manipulation.

Just look at what they have been saying lately – reject the proposal, we will stop demanding early elections and will unblock Parliament. This says only one thing: their only goal is to come to power, they are not at all interested in the country and the opportunities being opened before us.

The same is happening with the hysteria over alleged Bulgarization and assimilation. Neither is happening, nor some kind of assimilation will happen, because no one can do to us anything that is against our will. Throughout history, no one has managed to assimilate us now or ever. We know who we are and no one can change that. We are Macedonians speaking Macedonian who have unique cultural characteristics, tradition and customs we’ve been cherishing on daily basis. We are making the first step into the EU as Macedonians who speak our Macedonian language and identity.

The fact that the opposition is using phrases such as Bulgarization and assimilation shows lack of ideas and fear that the country might move forward by opening negotiations to join the EU. They will no longer have the chance to spread lies that we will be gone because contrary to their allegations – our Macedonian language and identity will be protected. After the negotiations are launched, the whole EU’s legislation will be translated into Macedonian. Every uttered and written word will be spoken and written down in Macedonian. There is no bigger confirmation about the protection of the identity than this one. This will close the issue on identity once and for all.

I expect fruitful and substantial discussion in Parliament. I expect the MPs to be up to the task standing before them. I expect them to act like statesmen, rationally, befitting representatives of the people without only thinking about the political parties.

After the participants in the coordination meeting at the MPs’ Club said Parliament will pass conclusions that will be binding for the government, the SDSM parliamentary group coordinator, Mitrevski, said Parliament cannot task the government with changing an EU document. What is the goal of adopting the conclusions if they have no influence at all?

A parliamentary discussion is considered a huge contribution to open debate and informing the public about all details in order to make an informed, statesmanlike decision. As soon as we received the proposal from the French presidency, the government said we’d open a wide-ranging consultation process in which all relevant institutions and stakeholders will be included. The process included the coalition partners, experts, the media, civil society organizations, opposition parties, the head of state and finally, Parliament. Parliament firstly will open a discussion before adopting conclusions to task the government with acting according to certain principles in order to protect the positions that are crucial for us in this process.

SDSM is making efforts to offer draft conclusions that will be acceptable for all parties, paving the way for acceptance of the proposal and allowing negotiations to start.

The conclusions due to be adopted will in fact task the government of the Republic of North Macedonia to take exceptional care during the negotiations process of our red lines and protection of the national identity.

You met with VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski, who has publicly rejected the proposal. According to him, the proposal paves the way toward endless negotiations and assimilation dictated by Bulgaria. Has he offered you, have you discussed an alternative?

The question realistically shows the opposition’s approach in this historic process. The opposition, unfortunately, has no idea what our alternative should be, in fact some of them are facing the East. Which is why they are always against instead of being in favor. I’ve already said that they want to come to power, they alleged fight for the Macedonian interests is in fact a fight for power. There is no other idea. They’d attempted in 2022 to stage a bloody scenario, which reminded us all of the bloody April 27. They do not care about state interests.

Our only alternative is the European Union, it should be already clear to us. The EU is our biggest trade partner. As high as 80 percent of our trade is conducted with member countries. More than 80 percent of the direct investments in the country come from EU member states. Almost 45 percent of our legislation has been aligned with the EU’s legislation. Simply said, we are naturally connected with Europe and the European Union. I’ll say this again – the agreement doesn’t lead to any assimilation or Bulgarization. While they are scaring the people with alleged “Bulgarization”, saying we will no longer be Macedonians, there are dozens top officials of the opposition who have long time ago declared themselves as Bulgarians in order to get Bulgarian passports. VMRO-DPMNE’s hiprocity knows no borders.

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Your smaller coalition partners have also voiced concerns about the proposal, they insist that all Bulgarian demands shouldn’t be allowed to be included in the negotiating framework. Is the ruling coalition stable?

We live in democracy. Our political positions may differ, but we should always have in mind the wellbeing of the citizens and prosperity of the country. The coalition is absolutely stable, the majority is stable and there should be no dilemma.

Our, Macedonian demands are included in the latest proposal. I’ve already said I’m guided by the interest of the citizens and the progress of the country.

They are not the only ones who want to see the protocol saying it contains traps. Have you seen the protocol, is there an aligned protocol? The Foreign Ministry has said that inaccurate information about its content is shared. When the public will have the chance to see this document?

First of all, it should be crystal clear that the protocol is in fact a written record of a meeting between the foreign ministries. It is a bilateral document that doesn’t condition the negotiating framework. In fact, the protocol is not at all mentioned in the negotiating framework. The document confirms that it is not connected and does not condition the opening of negotiations. To that end, I urge for end to speculation about the content and the importance of the document.

What we should know about the protocol, i.e. the written record, is that it is based on reciprocity. We insisted upon it. It means that the tasks laid down by both countries, bilaterally, should be enforced by both sides. No one has the mandate to accept unilateral demands, nor they can act on them. Reciprocity is the foundation of all that it is being worked on.

It is also important that we should know historical issues are in the jurisdiction of the commission on historical issues. The Commission is autonomous body, we have neither interfered, nor we intend to. It is made up of professionals who know their job and have been doing it professionally. The government will take the final step to implement what will be agreed by the Commission.

I want it to be perfectly clear – nothing will change without our approval. Without approval from both sides, nothing will be changed, not a single item in the protocol, i.e. the written record.

The public should rest assure that in all segments of the process, we take care of the state interests, we respect the Parliament Resolution and we make sure that our identity and the Macedonian language are protected and preserved.

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The protests continue, they have no official organizer, but they are supported by VMRO-DPMNE and Levica. They have been peaceful the past few days, on other days there were incidents and clashes. The president of the country said that third countries, namely Russia, is using the protests for geopolitical reasons, the Russian Embassy denied this. What information do you have at the moment on possible foreign influence on the protests?

The right to protest is a guaranteed civil and constitutional right in a democracy like ours. We have all protested, and that has always been done because of a desire for meaningful changes in the country.

It should be clear to us all that these protests, first of all, are not civil protests as the opposition is trying to portray them, they are organized by VMRO-DPMNE and Levica and are absolutely not connected to the European proposal, even though it seemed like that initially. I pointed this out before; these protests are a clear struggle for power. It’s impermissible to abuse the protests to inflict violence and to injure people. In just a few short days, we had around 50 injured policemen, some of them with difficult and serious injuries. The legitimate right to protest should not in any case turn into violence, in order to satisfy personal interests or the interests of third actors. Unfortunately, we have a parliamentary party which is financed from abroad and I am really not surprised that they are so eager to threaten the stability and the security of our country.

I honestly hope that VMRO-DPMNE and Levica will find the strength and the capacity to express their positions institutionally and in forums where they have the obligation to do so, like in Parliament for example. If they really have serious concerns, and the protests weren’t initiated only because of their desire to gain power, they should express their positions in Parliament above all else. From 2017 onwards, we have a democratic Government and a real democratic order. They have all the tools in their disposal, something which wasn’t the case before.

It is perfectly clear to me why the opposition is confused and doesn’t know how to behave in a democratic manner, but they’ve had enough years to build up their democratic capacity. They’ve had enough time to solve at least one meaningful issue, to make at least one decision which won’t be easy, but will be significant for the future of the country. But they haven’t done that. It is time for them to begin to talk properly about the meaningful issues and to join a real discussion on the strategic goals of the country.

You, as well as other government members, claim that with the modified French proposal we get a clear formulation of the Macedonian language in the EU, and that the unilateral declaration will have no effect, is the Macedonian language protected and how?

The Macedonian language is clear in the European proposal. There are no footnotes, supplements, asterisks etc. Clear Macedonian language, directly in the negotiating framework. The unilateral declarations are notes with which the Bulgarian side states something and we state something else. And that’s the end of that story. Legally and formally, these unilateral declarations do not affect the process. With the unilateral declaration, the Bulgarian side, notes that Bulgaria, and only Bulgaria, no other member-state, has a different opinion on that which is written in the EU’s official document. That remains as information, which doesn’t affect the language, the process, or any future point of the negotiations.

Our language, the Macedonian language, is a beautiful language, it is characteristic and unique. As such, it will be protected as one of the EU’s official languages, and we won’t have to wait long for that, the process will practically begin immediately. With the beginning of negotiations, all EU documents will begin to be translated into Macedonian. Literally everything you can think of that exists as an EU document will be translated into Macedonian. Then, once North Macedonia becomes a full-fledged member, the Macedonian citizens will be able to address the EU institutions in Macedonian, and the institutions will be obliged to answer in Macedonian as well. In the European Parliament, Macedonian members will hold their speeches in Macedonian. The practical confirmation for this indisputable use of Macedonian will be the signing of the Frontex agreement, which should happen immediately after the first intergovernmental conference between North Macedonia, the EU and the member states. Consequently, this international agreement between North Macedonia and the EU, signed in Macedonian as well, will become a part of EU legislation.

In this way, not only will it be protected, but the Macedonian language will also enjoy an immense promotion, allowing many countries and cultures who traditionally don’t have any contact with Macedonian, to be introduced to it, as well as to our culture, customs, tradition and other specific features which make us proud Macedonians.

Our identity is a wide array of important elements which shape us as individuals – the language, customs, folklore, tradition etc. everything which allows us to create an image of ourselves. No external influence can define or change the identity. And when we are an EU member, that which is authentic for us and for our language, culture, customs and tradition, will remain precisely that, authentic Macedonian, in the European Union.

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You further claim that the historical issues and the protocol are not a part of the negotiating framework, but there are also different interpretations that they are there but with a different terminology, yearly measures, pointing to article 12 of the Agreement. How will we, during the lengthy negotiation process, protect ourselves from constant repetitive demands, is there a mechanism, a guarantee?

I think that the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, gave a very clear and explicit answer, so I will paraphrase it. Once we start negotiations, the development and progress reports in the negotiations process will be based on merit. The possibility of a certain member state having remarks which don’t directly concern our progress, certainly exists, but our guarantee that such demands won’t harm the negotiations process, is the European Union itself. If Bulgaria insists on issues which aren’t concerned with our progress, the risk to their reputation which such behavior brings will draw completely different consequences within the Union.

The negotiations will last for years, that’s correct, but what I think is most important, is that we draw the most we can during this process, and to Europeanize our society as soon as possible. Just like we are the NATO member state that has had the fastest integration, we should become a positive example as the fastest integrated EU member state. We are ready for the EU, I am certain of that.

American Ambassador Byrnes said in her open letter to the public, “sit at the negotiations table, leave if your remarks aren’t taken into consideration.” Where would you go, Prime Minister?

The support from our biggest allies and partners such as our strategic partner, the United States, is of exceptional importance, especially in times like these. In this entire consultation process in the period after receiving the proposal from the French presidency at the time, the USA has shown exceptional understanding both for the situation and the opportunities we have as a country, and they selflessly showed their support.

In the context of Byrnes’s message, what I’d like to highlight is that we’re the only ones deciding our future. Not a single process can occur without our consent. That’s the beauty, importance and uniqueness of the whole process. We will start the negotiations, keeping in mind the inviolability of the identity issues, the question of the Macedonian language and whenever it’s necessary for us to stand up and firmly defend our negotiation stand.

I will reiterate that the EU is the only alternative. We have no dilemmas or illusions for any other counter-productive options, always keeping in mind our interests and red lines.

I’d like to point out that the start of negotiations, and EU membership, ultimately, is a remarkably significant motivation for the further economic, political and social development and quality of life in North Macedonia with high standards for following the law.

The start of negotiations will surely improve the business climate, multiple foreign investments, and new jobs, as it has been proven in every country that has started negotiations. In addition, initiatives and programs that will help the equal regional development, agriculture modernization, environmental protection, infrastructural development, higher quality education and healthcare etc.

As an example, our friend, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, said that wages in Serbia jumped from an average of EUR 300 to 600, and the average pay in Belgrade has jumped up to EUR 900, since the start of negotiations.

The start of negotiations will bring advantages immediately, and new initiatives that shouldn’t be missed, especially in times of economic and energy crisis and one of the hardest upcoming periods. In such conditions, the allyship the EU offers is invaluable.

We have a historic opportunity to say YES to the start of negotiations and to create a new dynamic in the reforms that will bring us closer to the EU, they will bring stability and resilience, political and financial support, as well as respect and loyalty by the EU.

I can assure you that this is just the first step of many that will ensure the prosperity of the country and better quality of life for all citizens.

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Non-governmental organizations in the field of European integration also had comments on the proposal, which supported the Prespa Agreement, but not the French proposal, did you take their comments into account?

Civil society, as I emphasized the other day, plays a key and transformative role. Our common ultimate goal is the Europeanization of society, that is, the acceptance of European values and principles of freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.

This Government has shown exceptional openness and capacity when it comes to the involvement of all relevant stakeholders in the policy-making process. Of course, we will not deviate from our commitment to strengthen the role of the civil sector, and on several occasions, we have shown that we ensure and guarantee their involvement in the decisions we make.

Civil organizations, as you know, were involved in the broad consultation process and in that direction, several points related to the European proposal were addressed by various relevant institutions in cooperation with them. I believe that we all have the same goal, which is to create the best possible conditions for the development of the state and society, and in that direction, I am truly grateful for the input from all relevant stakeholders, including civil society organizations.

On this occasion, I would like to emphasize again that I consider civil society organizations to be our ally in the fight against disinformation that has proven to be a serious obstacle in European integration. We must be seriously prepared and resistant, because the obvious interests of third parties who simply do not want to see progress in this country, and by spreading fake news, speculations and manipulations seriously harm this extremely important process for our country.

Open Balkans is an alternative to the EU friendship or just facilitating the economic communication of the neighbors. How much that “openness” can or should grow beyond the economic customs barriers, especially if the EU continues to have a special, we would say complicating rather than facilitating process and especially since the EU from back when we started 17 years ago and now are different?

Open Balkans represents economic cooperation and Europeanization at the same time. Two huge benefits that are a serious need for the entire region and for all citizens of the countries of the region.

But Open Balkans should not be presented or interpreted as an alternative to any other political or economic initiative, least of all as an alternative to the EU. Open Balkan is compatible with the integration process and this was confirmed by the European leaders with their statements. It is actually a practical implementation of the four European freedoms and is a way to connect more closely with the countries of the region and ensure accelerated economic growth and development.

Therefore, we can consider Open Balkans as an accelerator of our European integration through which the countries of the Balkans implement the freedom of flow of people, goods and services more quickly. An open Balkan is also attractive for the EU member states because our three countries are an important crossroads between the Black Sea and the Adriatic, but also between the port of Thessaloniki and the Baltic. This way of connecting and integrating is extremely important to us. North Macedonia also needs the EU and the Open Balkan and NATO and all other alliances and initiatives that move the region forward.

The parliamentary debate on budget revision is still ongoing. According to the announcements, it incorporates funds for anti-crisis measures. When these measures will start to be implemented given the official statistical data, which showed that inflation reached 14.5% in June?

We will present the new set of anti-crisis measures, amounting to around €80 million, after the adoption of budget revision. It contains targeted measures that will be directed where they are most needed, namely to the most vulnerable social groups given the very nature of the global energy crisis, which affects everyone, but mostly citizens with the lowest incomes.

Majority of the measures are expected to be active at the start of the Q4 2022.  However, the dynamics of the implementation of anti-crisis measures will also depend on the economic movements.

The measures are also intended for the citizens, but also for the companies, as well as support measures to ensure food price stability. In times of the biggest global crisis we are living in recent history, government policies are aimed at protecting the living standard of citizens by cushioning the price shocks. In times of food price soaring, the Government provided additional funds to farmers to encourage domestic production, and thereby to act favorably on food prices.

Under the budget revision, funds are also provided for the increase of pensions, according to the growth of wages and living expenses. Moreover, there is additional support for companies, as well as investment support programmes.

In addition to budget funds, as regard to the energy crisis, there are also favorable loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) amounting to €100 million to maintain the liquidity of state-owned AD ESM Skopje, which sells electricity, at lower price in order to protect from price shocks on the regulated market, more specifically, it is about subsidizing household electricity bills. Moreover, the European Investment Bank (EIB) is providing interest-free loans amounting to €100 million to support the economy in cooperation with the Government. Even in times of crisis, capital investments are important and that is why we keep the high development component of the budget at 32.1 billion denars planned for capital investments.

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Economy Minister claimed there would be no electricity restrictions, but, according to all announcements, we are to face difficult winter. Is there any room for fear that restrictions are still possible in the winter period?

There will be no electricity restrictions. It is true that this will be the hardest winter of our generation, but we will get through it together. The energy crisis is a big global challenge, with the military aggression against Ukraine, additional shifts were made in the market, there is a shortage of energy, higher prices, but we will manage successfully.

The state will provide greater production of electricity from domestic sources, by working on domestic capacities. For the year 2022, the ESM production plan has increased by 20 percent compared to last year’s production and should amount to 3,736 GWh, and for now, the plan has been completely fulfilled. During times of enormous increase in electricity price on the global markets, in order to protect from price shocks, the tariff reform for calculating the price of electricity started as of July 1. It is considered a type of fair tax, those who spend less will pay less, and those who spend more will pay more. The goal is to motivate rational and effective use of electricity.

Without the blocks, the price would’ve increased by 7.74%. The cheap tariff remains from 22:00 until 07:00, and the block tariffs apply only to the high tariff. The tariff system is proportionate to the users. What is very important is to save energy, this refers to all stakeholders in society, institutions, households, organizations, in order to be rational in conditions of global shortage and rise in electricity prices.

The Government is intensively working on measures and projects in the area of energy to increase domestic production of electricity from renewable sources. The energy connectivity with the region, the construction of new interconnectors for natural gas with neighbouring countries will mean the diversification of sources of energy supply and less dependence on one source of supply.

The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) has decided to revoke the license for supply and distribution of heating energy of the company Balkan Energy Group – BEG, which leaves the citizens in uncertainty as to whether they will have heating this winter. Are any steps being taken in this regard?

Steps are already being taken, citizens will certainly have heating. More specifically, in relation to the supply of heating energy in the City of Skopje, after the ERC revoked the license of BEG company, and following the completion of the legal procedures, a public call will be issued to select a performer of public energy activity – production, distribution and supply of heating energy.

Hence, in line with the Law on Energy, and proposed by the Ministry of Economy and Energy Regulatory Commission, the Government will implement a procedure performer of public energy activity – production, distribution and supply of heating energy. A new performer should be cselected for a period no longer than 90 days from the day after receiving the notification from the Energy Regulatory Commission.

I believe that all actions and procedures will be completed in a timely manner and within the deadline in order for the heating season to begin according to the plan. We will use all the means at our disposal in the interest of the citizens.

Ana Cvetkovska

Photo: Frosina Naskovikj

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