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NATO enforces economic sanctions against Russia because direct confrontation means full-fledged war, Kovachevski tells MIA

Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski spoke to MIA about the outcome of the extraordinary summit of NATO leaders, also attended by US President Joe Biden, which included an address by the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Brussels, 25 March 2022 (MIA) – Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski spoke to MIA about the outcome of the extraordinary summit of NATO leaders, also attended by US President Joe Biden, which included an address by the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

NATO will continue to support Ukraine the best it can, but to introduce a no-fly zone, Kiev’s demand, is unthinkable because it might lead to all-out war, Kovachevski tells MIA’s Brussels correspondent.

NATO today (March 24) held an extraordinary meeting of heads of state and government. Can you share with us, what were the summit’s main decisions?

Several key decisions were made at the NATO extraordinary summit, including extending the term of the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, by another year since the world is in a midst of crisis after Russia’s attack against Ukraine.

Also, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the meeting to once again demonstrate the devoted fight of the Ukrainian people against the Russian aggression. He thanked the leaders for the aid the country has been provided with by the NATO member countries as well as by other countries sharing the same values with the NATO members, while the Ukrainian people are fighting for their freedom. An agreement was made to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank with additional military units, deployed in the countries making up the NATO eastern flank since a decision was already made to deploy troops in the Baltic States. The deployment of troops is made in line with the Washington Treaty to protect the territorial integrity of the member countries.

Furthermore, the Russian military aggression against Ukraine was condemned in the strongest possible terms all the while calls for sanctions against Russia were reaffirmed since all NATO member think that the military aggression should end. One way to come to de-escalation is to isolate Russia economically, as well as its politicians since it is the non-military way. Any interference by NATO in Ukraine would result in bigger military escalation, which is why we have to balance the decisions we are making.

We also agreed to appeal to China to play a constructive part, to influence the establishment of world peace and de-escalation of the conflict in Ukraine instead of helping Russia in its attempts to invade Ukraine.

Given our positions, we’ve already established an aligned policy with NATO since we are a member. We are also part of the NATO-led missions and its exercises. The United States has boosted its presence in Europe after already sending 100,000 troops. Also, other NATO member countries have already deployed troops. All countries have sent aid to Ukraine, more precisely to the Ukrainian people because the situation there is dire.

As regards the refugee crisis, the biggest one since WWII, Poland has already put into use its refugee accommodation capacities as it is admitting a bulk of the refugees fleeing Ukraine. Germany has also recorded a surge in refugees arriving there alongside the neighboring countries of Ukraine.

North Macedonia has already launched activities to provide facilities and assistance according to our capacities to admit refugees from Ukraine. So far, no refugees have arrived, however we are prepared to help them. The country has a history of helping refugees.

Has President Zelenskyy during his address reiterated his country’s demand for NATO to declare n-fly zone?

The no-fly demand wasn’t explicitly stated because a no-fly would mean direct conflict between NATO and Russia.

But, did he ask for one?

No. President Zelenskyy in fact thanked NATO for the assistance it is providing and he also thanked the leaders for the sanctions imposed against Russia as a way to restrict Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, which are already considered “groznyfication” of the Ukrainian cities. For example, the city of Mariupoli in southern Ukraine has been razed to the ground. Other cities are witnessing similar fate. This has to stop immediately because the two sides are not equal in terms of military might – a great military power is attacking a country that has the right to its own territorial integrity and sovereignty according to international law.

If NATO is aware that this is not a conflict of equals, Russia is attacking Ukraine, why then the Alliance hasn’t still made a decision to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine?

As I’ve already said, no-fly zone is not an option since it would mean a direct NATO-Russia conflict leading to a full-fledged way. That is why NATO as well as the EU and EU candidate countries have decided to impose economic sanctions and other non-military means to force Russia to refrain from launching further military operations.

Do you think attitudes might change? The NATO chief mentioned that something might change if there is a chemical attack of, God forbid, a nuclear attack. Might any changes lead to direct intervention by NATO and a NATO-Russia conflict?

A possible biological attack and protection against it was discussed. At a regular summit in Madrid, details will be put into operation as to how to help Ukraine in fending off such attacks. We also discussed protection against cyber attacks of countries in the surrounding of Russia and of the Western Balkan countries and bolstering of the defence and deterrence capacities of the countries aspiring to join NATO, for example Georgia. The Baltic States are already in NATO and their protection is guaranteed by all NATO member countries.

You didn’t answer by question. Saying any possible biological or chemical attack might contaminate the neighboring countries, Stoltenberg fell short of saying whether a chemical or biological attack might thrust NATO into an all-out conflict against Russia? What’s your opinion?

It’s only logical that he fell short of saying because such a thing requires in-depth analyses by the NATO security sector. The NATO ambassadors hold regular meetings to address political issues, however there is also the NATO military sector that monitors the situation in Ukraine and any possible attack.

You mentioned nuclear attack. If there were a nuclear attack, we would all engage in a nuclear war of grave consequences like we’ve never seen before. I sincere hope it will not come to that, because after a nuclear attack, there would be contamination for hundreds of kilometers. I sincerely hope the Russian leader will come to his senses to declare an end to the senseless attack against Ukraine.

Zelenskyy accused Russia of using phosphorous bombs, however Stoltenberg couldn’t or wouldn’t confirm it. Did he inform the leaders about it?

Yes, Zelenskyy did inform us based on Ukraine’s information on the ground that there was an attack with phosphorous bombs the previous day. The sector in charge will certainly look into that as it will be also investigated by the international organizations in charge with protection of human rights and crimes against humanity.

My next question involves the sanctions you mentioned. You said you hope that the Russian President will come to his senses after economic sanctions have been imposed against Russia, himself and his close associates. But, what gives you the confidence to believe it will work? For example, look at Iran and Cuba, no regime had been toppled by economic sanctions… Why would Putin change his mind after being hit by economic sanctions?

It is the most crucial thing civilized, democratic countries could do. This doesn’t only involve Russia attacking Ukraine, it is an attack by an autocratic regime against a democratic country. We’re also witnessing excessive use of military force against the civilian population – schools and civilian infrastructure in general is being flattened in Ukraine. The economic sanctions against Russia are far-reaching. It has greatly affected Russia’s economy. Namely, according to certain OECD analyses, the Russian economy has contracted by 10 percent.

I believe the Russian people and Russia deserve to prosper in every sense. The war of their president against Ukraine is senseless, because at the end of the day, it will achieve nothing. Wars always end with negotiations, what’s left is only human suffering.

Were there discussions on oil and gas?

The energy sector was affected even before the start of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine following energy price hikes. It was as a result of the transition into renewable energy sources in Europe and the increase in prices of the CO2 anti-pollution certificate and the lack of wind in the northern seas from where Europe generates wind energy.

In addition to renewable energy source capacities being built, many countries are already focused on diversification of gas supply mainly, because gas from Russia is generally used in Europe, including Germany and North Macedonia as well alongside all our neighbors.

The country will be joining the international Alexandroupolis LNG terminal. Last week, ESM and Alexandroupolis signed a contract for supply of LNG from other countries, not Russia.

These are long-term measures, but what if the Russian energy sector is hit by sanctions and we are fully dependent on it. Aren’t you concerned that social unrest might break out?

We have to decide if we want to support or remain silent and neutral as an independent country is being attacked or if we want to be on the right side of history. The Macedonian people have always been on the right side of history. Even without the sanctions you mentioned, the world is seriously gripped by an economic crisis, the biggest since WWII as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Let’s not forget, energy prices rose five-fold as well as electricity prices; food prices doubled, fertilizer prices rose 300 percent and it affects food production. All of this contributed to complete imbalance in the global economy.

In case of termination of Russian gas supply, North Macedonia is already looking into alternative supply channels, which could include LNG supply via the Thessaloniki port.

Let’s not forget that Russia’s attack against Ukraine had one single goal – Russia believed it would be all over in two days. Evidently, it wasn’t over in two days because Ukraine is fighting for its freedom. Russia also counted on NATO and the EU not being united, but he was proven wrong – these organizations are more united now than ever.

I also had bilateral talks at the sidelines of the summit, with the German Chancellor, with the President and Prime Minister of Bulgaria and with the President of Croatia where we discussed cooperation in the midst of the world economy hit by crisis due to the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Stoltenberg asked defence investments to be accelerated and increased. Do you plan to increase [budget] beyond the two-percent target or meet the goal sooner than 2024?

I informed the NATO leaders that by 2024 we will manage to single out two percent for the defence budget, meaning we will not surpass this framework.

Not sooner?

Not sooner than 2024.

We are two years into the Covid pandemic, energy prices are soaring as well as food prices; the defence budget is also increased while Macedonia is a small and poor country. No matter how the people are in solidarity with Ukraine, they will be affected and they might turn against you, against your government to be precise. How will you deal with it?

That’s why we decided to stick to the main scenario and our obligation as NATO member – two percent by 2024. We were not asked to single out more or sooner. The members have an understanding about the economic capacities of every country. Within our economic capacities, we will implement what we have in plan.

Regarding the other challenges we have – when creating the 2022 budget, the energy crisis has already broken out, which is why we reduced energy VAT in late 2021. In the 2022 budget, we projected funding to maintain the liquidity of the energy sector. Also, 80 percent of household electricity bills are subsidized by the budget. The government increased pensions all the while approving 1,000-denar vouchers to be awarded to pensioners in the next three months to help them through the growing food and energy prices.

Furthermore, the government increased minimum wage – let’s not forget, only five years ago, minimum wage was 9,000 denars before rising to 18,000 denars.

We made all this to happen through social dialogue with the trade unions. Trade unions are always exerting pressure demanding pays to rise, and I understand that, however, they also need to have an understanding about the situation of the world economy is in. They must not make politics out of the demands they have because we work daily on fiscal and monetary policies.

We’re conducting responsible fiscal and monetary policies in order to maintain the fundamentals of the Macedonian economy. We did it during the Covid crisis by adopting six stimulus packages to help the economy and the vulnerable categories of citizens as well as to protect jobs, which was acknowledged also by the international financial institutions.

The Macedonian economy grew in 2021, especially in the second half of the year. Growth was also projected in 2022 by the Finance Ministry and by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

At the moment, all international financial institutions given the crisis and the military aggression against Ukraine, are making new projections how negatively it will impact the growth of the global economy.

To respond to the crisis, North Macedonia passed a set of anti-crisis measures, 26 in total, worth EUR 400 million.

Prime Minister, despite the measures, it is a fact that the crisis is affecting the everyday lives of people. North Macedonia aligned with the EU’s sanctions, but it will not be approved a date in return, nor any compensation has been promised. Will you insist on being approved compensation the same as the EU countries? The EU said no compensations. Could this be changed?

When a global crisis is involved, we cannot talk about compensating one country or an association of countries, like the EU, to compensate other countries. Let’s be honest, we are all affected by the global crisis.

But, [the EU] demands alignment with their sanctions…

Let’s look at energy prices here, in Brussels – they are much higher than in North Macedonia as well as food prices. It won’t be fair to say we have no assistance from the EU. The country is a beneficiary of the third package of IPA funds, amounting to millions of euros, for infrastructural projects. Also, in the midst of the Covid crisis, the country was awarded financial EU assistance worth EUR 120 million as we also have at disposal lines of credits from the European Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, and the European Central Bank to address the economic challenges. We still have benefits from the stabilization and association agreement.

These measures precede the current crisis. The EU is in talks involving joint procurement of electricity, for example. Could the Western Balkans join such an arrangement?

Daily, we are in contact with the relevant EU sector in terms of financial aid. I cannot disclose any details because there are technical talks involving the financing of the external debt.

As regards buying power, there are talks of joint procurement. We are informed about all EU strategies beforehand. For example, Greece, an EU member, Bulgaria, also an EU member, and North Macedonia, an EU member hopeful – we are all involved in the Alexandroupolis project.

Will North Macedonia get a date in June?

I don’t have the habit of sticking to dates and I’ve been doing so since I took office. I’m more focused on real projects and real talks with the EU and with Bulgaria, because it is our challenge given the fact that the former Bulgarian government had vetoed the holding of the first intergovernmental conference. We have launched a fresh approach to the negotiations with Bulgaria focused on issues looking toward the future, including economy, infrastructure, education, science, culture and EU integration. In parallel, there are talks between the foreign ministries aimed at settling open political issues.

One issue as part of the confidence building efforts was solved – namely, we sent a note to the United Nations informing about the short and long name of the country and a cross border cooperation agreement was signed, allowing funds to be available to the two countries.

Considering the 4+1 package, the foreign ministries of North Macedonia and Bulgaria have been sharing ideas. At the moment, there is no document that has been aligned. As soon as there is an aligned document, it will be presented to the relevant institution and to the public.

So, you’re not able to say whether it will happen in June?

I have never mentioned June, because first we need to have a solution based on European values, reached through communication and laying on the foundations of the principles of mutual respect among the politicians, then among the institutions in the two countries all the while the dignity of the citizens in the two countries is protected.

Such solution is the solid foundation to open the negotiations and to build mutual trust of the two neighboring countries that should set an example to the world about all kind of cooperation and ways to improve the living standards of the citizens.

The foreign minister speaking before the European Parliament warned that not only support for EU is dropping, but also support for joining the Eurasian Union is rising. We know some in North Macedonia look favorably at Russia. Could another failure in our EU integration process by June strengthen the pro-Russian sentiment in the country?

The fact that no negotiations have been opened with North Macedonia so far sends a bad signal for the entire region as well. The foreign minister cited findings of some surveys, which also show that EU membership support remains high, over 68 percent.

However, no date for holding the intergovernmental conference has increased Euroskepticism among some. There are third countries that don’t want to see North Macedonia in the EU and have been financing groups, even political parties.

North Macedonia has political parties that are anti-EU and anti-NATO, classic populism I might say. Having been funded by certain centers from abroad, they are creating public opinion that is against the strategic commitment of the majority of the population, which is full-fledged EU membership.

Being the newest NATO member, since we joined after making difficult decisions, we can now realize how important it is to be in NATO because our security is guaranteed by the largest military and political alliance in the world.

Tanja Milevska

Translated by Bisera Altiparmakova 

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