Macedonian President Gjorgje Ivanov: 'There Is a Little Bit of Defiance at Play'

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Macedonian President Gjorgje Ivanov discusses his country's conflict with Greece and his hope it will soon become a member of the European Union and NATO. "Brussels has to stop imposing conditions on us," he warns.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Greece has been blocking Macedonia's NATO accession for more than a year now because of the name dispute between the two countries. Now it is also threatening to veto EU membership for Macedonia. The government in Athens fears that Macedonia could make a territorial claim against Greece because of the existence of a region in northern Greece with the same name. Why have you failed to reach a compromise?

In the main square in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, the Macedonians are planning to build a 22-meter high statue of Alexander the Great.
AP

In the main square in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, the Macedonians are planning to build a 22-meter high statue of Alexander the Great.

Ivanov: If it were so simple, we would have found one long ago. The name dispute with our neighbour Greece has persisted for the past 14 years, and there are historical, geopolitical and, of course, psychological reasons for it. When Macedonia applied to become a member of the United Nations under the name "Republic of Macedonia" after its independence, Greece exercised a veto. The reason stated: It would endanger security in the region. So we were forced to take the name "FYROM" (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). But does anyone really believe that we would attack Greece and demand a union with the Macedonians who have been living in Greece since 1913?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The concern isn't completely absurd. During the the 1990s, some Macedonian politicians actually did make official claims on land in Greece. Election campaign posters even delineated a "Greater Macedonia."

Ivanov: Those were maps of the ethnic Macedonians from the 19th century, when all Macedonians lived together in one state. They were brought by the emigrants. As opponents of the communists, they were expelled and they returned after the communist regime fell.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: with the dream of a Greater Macedonia

Ivanov: Of course -- just as Albanians dream of a Greater Albania or the Serbs dream of a Greater Serbia. These fantasies can't simply be wiped from people's memories overnight. Many Macedonians who were forced to flee Greece, had to leave behind everything they had. Now they are seeking to get their property back. This is causing nervousness in Athens.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the same time, isn't it logical that Macedonians would view the Macedonians in Greece and also in Bulgaria as their own minority and call for more rights for them?

Ivanov: Our constitution, because of pressure from Greece, prohibits us from doing that. But as a member of the EU, Greece must accept that European principles must be adhered to across Europe -- also when it comes to its minorities.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Macedonia views Alexander the Great, the great conqueror in ancient Greek times, as the nation's forefather. Greece does too. Is this fight over which country is the rightful descendent to Alexander the Great really more important that a swift membership in NATO and the EU?

Ivanov: It wasn't Macedonia, but rather Greece that evoked antiquity in order to prove its authenticity.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But Mr. President, there is a boom in Macedonia of statues, streets and buildings that carry the name "Alexander the Great," including the Skopje airport. This certainly wasn't diplomatic

Ivanov: Well, there is a little bit of defiance and revolt at play there. The people of the Balkans are spirited, in politics emotions prevail. If only you had experienced the frustration and depression that followed the NATO summit in April 2008 in Bucharest. We had just celebrated what we thought was certain NATO membership, only to be given a cold shower. How much money and resources did we invest in order to make ourselves compatible with NATO? We fulfilled every reform, our people planned for the future, foreign investments were announced. Worst of all is the fact that up to today not a single NATO official has found it necessary to discuss it with us or to offer the prospect of a solution. My God, we have been treated unfairly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For how long will this conflict continue? Is there a name that would be acceptable for you?

Ivanov: The name should not harm the honor and self-esteem of our people. Over 120 nations have recognized us under the name the Republic of Macedonia. Greece wants us to dispense with this name and instead wants us to be called North-, Upper- or Slavo-Macedonia. A UN directive also stipulates that the name of the nationality and the language be adapted to the country name. I don't know how the Albanians living in Macedonia would react if they suddenly became Slavo-Macedonians who speak Slavo-Macedonian.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see a way out?

Ivanov: We are currently consulting with the parties in our country over the possibility of a referendum because our constitution stipulates that a future name must be accepted by our citizens.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the meantime, there is little interest in Brussels these days in adding new EU member states -- in part because of the corruption seen in new members like Bulgaria, but also due to the global economic crisis. Is this having any influence on Madedonia's stability?

A model of the Alexander the Great statue to be built for Skopje is being sculpted in Florence, Italy.
AFP

A model of the Alexander the Great statue to be built for Skopje is being sculpted in Florence, Italy.

Ivanov: A delay in our membership of several years would be highly risky. If the Albanians in Macedonia, for example, realize that their compatriots in Albania enjoy a higher standard of living, this could respark the dream of annexation and expanded borders. The Balkans are a political fault line, and with its newly created nations and minorities, it is unstable. The only peace project that can work for this region is Europe, the so-called Pax Europa. In that sense, the role of pacifying the Balkans has fallen to the EU. But Brussels has to stop imposing new conditions on us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The euro-skeptics proved the big winners in the elections for the European Parliament earlier this month. Is the EU still even relevant? Serbia and Bulgaria aren't the only countries that are openly considering other alternatives -- including, among other things, forging closer ties with Russia.

Ivanov: If a train is standing on the tracks, the tracks will determine the direction. We have chosen NATO and the EU, and the overwhelming majority of our people are standing on these tracks. I spoke recently with EU envoy Javier Solana. He is optimistic that Macedonia will be given a date for the start of accession talks this year.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will Macedonia succeed in overcoming the economic crisis by then?

Ivanov: We are pragmatic. We are generally better in crisis situations than in times of economic stability. Our people have considerable experience with crises, pyramid schemes and skyrocketing interest rates. People here don't believe in stocks, they believe in cash. Of course investments and exports are falling, especially among auto components suppliers -- but at the same time it is an opportunity for new ideas. We have healthy food, water and, especially, sun from which we can harvest solar energy. The returning (Macedonian) guest workers will also transform our consciousness and show us how capitalism functions. It will be a quantum leap for our mentality.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what do you forecast for the future?

Ivanov: I am an optimist. US President Barack Obama just clearly stated that Macedonia must become a member of NATO. The new general secretary of NATO will also be more creative -- NATO could even review its own decision again and could accept us as part of the alliance despite Greece's veto.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will there also be an all-clear sign in the conflict with Athens?

Ivanov: It takes two to tango.

Interview conducted by Renate Flottau. Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey.

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