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The President of North Macedonia calls for more EU presence in the Balkans

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The President of North Macedonia calls for more EU presence in the Balkans
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Brussels has been a hub of activity with Western Balkan leaders, heads of states and government. One regular visitor to the EU institutions is the President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski. In an exclusive interview with Euronews, he gave his insight on where North Macedonia stands in the EU accession process and the country's difficulties with Bulgaria in regards to this. He shared his thoughts on the Balkan 'non-paper', an unofficial unsigned paper believed to be from the office of Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša. The document allegedly advocates a change to the borders of the countries that were formed after Yugoslavia’s breakup. He also gave the lowdown on where North Macedonia stands in the fight against the pandemic.

_To watch the full interview, click on the media player above. _

After your meeting with the EU foreign policy chief, you said that the stagnation of European integration sends harmful messages to the Western Balkans and negatively affects stability in the region. What happens if the accession process doesn't get moving in countries like yours?

President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski:

"It already means then, the rise of populism, of nationalism, going backwards speaking in economic terms and even creating an atmosphere in which it is possible to speak about, to produce, the non-papers, in which it's possible to say something about the changing of the borders. Hearing this anachronistic idea in the 21st century, in the year 2021, to speak about the changing of the borders after 30 years of a heavy investment on the part of the Europeans in the Western Balkan region and, of course, all the economic and other hardships people have been through. That is the end result of this, of this policy of enlargement".

The non-paper has been circulated, suggesting border changes in the Western Balkans. What do you know about it?

President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski:

"Nothing more than the high officials of the European Union know about that, or at least they told me they know nothing about that. And when I said, why are they not more vocal in this regard, because they should condemn these ideas, regardless of who is the creator, who is the messenger of these ideas, the foreign policy chief, Borrell, was quite active in this regard and was vocal in a clear statement condemning these ideas. But I ask all of them from time to time, on all levels of the European Union, to speak against those ideas because they are very dangerous, especially in the region, which has been quite recently out of that bloody series of the latest Balkan wars. In the 1990s we had more than 100 000 people being killed in the whole region, millions being resettled, huge damage to their homes. So the best and brightest have left the region indefinitely and their homelands. Now if anybody is trying to recreate the atmosphere in which we can speak about the changing of the borders, I can tell you as a person who has been through all of this, not as the people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but we know something about that in then Macedonia and today North Macedonia, you cannot change the borders in the Balkans and not have the very same day, in the afternoon, a bloodbath. It's as simple as that".

Are there any circumstances in which you would accept border change in the Western Balkans?

President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski:

"No, no. We're going to see horrible suffering of the people, of the ordinary people. Those who are drawing the maps on the table, they are never suffering, common people are suffering. And we have enough of that in Balkan history".

What makes you sure that North Macedonia is prepared to enter the process of accession negotiations with the European Union?

President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski:

"We are the best-prepared candidate in the history of the organisation. We have been in preparation since 2005, when we became a candidate country. We have a lot of people experienced with European knowledge and they can immediately start negotiating in different clusters. I am not saying that the European leaderships are only to be blamed for this state of affairs. I am saying, and including myself, that the local leaderships of the Western Balkan countries have not done enough in the meantime. Clearly, in all of these meetings I have with EU officials, it's when you are absent that the strategic void will be filled by somebody else. And that is a euphemism, everybody knows whom we are speaking about, and third countries have used that, including vaccine diplomacy and misusing the bad situation in which all of us have been found with the unprecedented pandemic, never seen in the last century or so. They started to fill that void, that empty space. So I'm asking for Europe to be more present in the Western Balkans. I am not asking for immediate membership. I am asking for the right to start the process".

What needs to change with Bulgaria in order for them to release their block from the negotiations and for the **accession process to **start for North Macedonia?

President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski:

"They should come to terms with reality. No more, no less than that. They said that myself or other political representatives of the country should sign on paper, sign into documentation, that years before 1944 we have been Bulgarians, not ethnic Macedonians. And we have been speaking the Bulgarian language, not the Macedonian one. That is out of mind for anybody else in contemporary Europe. Some statements on the part of North Macedonia, on the part of the Skopje leadership have been misinterpreted intentionally, unintentionally by our Bulgarian friends, that allegedly we are waiting for the change of the guards in Sofia. The truth is that we are not waiting for somebody else. We are waiting for the legitimate newly elected Bulgarian government. We are waiting for the Bulgarians themselves to identify who their interlocutor is going to be".

What does the EU look like with North Macedonia as a member of it?

President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski:

"I am not very optimistic and I'm not saying that with happiness. But the trends are suggesting, amongst the population, a slightly different opinion stands on the European Union of today. Not because of these blockages by Bulgaria and before that by Greek side, but because of not enough presence of Europe and not enough of the efforts, initiatives of the European Union in the Balkan region. I can cite one or two of the polls being done in my country in the recent past, maybe in the past three or four months. When asked, would you prefer any other Eurasian regional organisations to the European Union? A staggering 39 percent of all of them said yes. When being asked, who do you think is the best friend of your country? 23 percent said the Russian Federation. The people are looking to the other alternatives when you, as their first choice, are not so much present so much".

Where is North Macedonia's vaccine campaign at the moment?

President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski:

"Chinese vaccines will arrive in the next two or three days, maximum. We have already received Pfizer, we have already received Sputnik, through Serbia. We have immunised approximately 40 to 50 thousand people and that's certainly not enough. And I can understand the anger and frustration of our people.

I can tell you I have been personally engaged in some attempts to procure some vaccines and helping the Ministry of Health, helping the government in Skopje to have that as soon as possible in large quantities, of course. And we have been, I have been unsuccessful in this regard. So I think that we cannot speak about the betrayal by the European political leaders or by the European Union as such or our Western friends. I can speak about the betrayal of the poor countries by the big pharmaceutical companies. You can imagine, if Germany, if France and these powerful European countries are not satisfied with the level of immunisation because big pharmaceuticals have been looking elsewhere, but not towards them. So what to say about the small and poor Balkan nations which are not in a position to dictate anything to anybody?"