Ambassadors Archive 2

Macedonia: Bridging Past and Present

Interview with Ambassador HE Zoran Jolevski

By Alan Dessoff 

Observing its 20th year as an independent nation and with a history that reaches back more than 2,500 years, the Republic of Macedonia finds itself bridging the past and present, principally over one key issue that stands in the way of its continued advancement: Greece’s objection to its admission to the European Union because of its name. Resolving it in Macedonia’s favor is the top goal of Ambassador Zoran Jolevski, who was appointed to his post in March 2007.

Since Macedonia, with a current population of 2 million, gained its independence peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece has objected to the new state’s use of what it considers a Hellenic name and symbols. The name derives from the Greek “Makedonia,” a kingdom and later a region, named after the ancient Macedonians. Greece’s objection of its modern acceptance delayed international recognition of Macedonia, and although Greece lifted a 20-month trade embargo in 1995 and the two countries agreed to normalize relations, Greece’s refusal to accept Macedonia’s name remains an obstacle—the only obstacle—to Macedonia’s accession to the EU, says Macedonia’s Ambassador. In addition to his Washington assignment, he is the Macedonian government’s chief negotiator on the name differences with Greece under the auspices of the United Nations.

WI: Ambassador Jolevski, please outline briefly the origins of the name Macedonia.

Ambassador: Excellent question, but it really should be answered by a historian or anthropologist. What matters most today – and to us Macedonians – is that we define ourselves, our language, our land, our church and our culture as Macedonian. And we have been doing this for a very long time.

WI: What is the significance of the name that makes it a tug-of-war between Greece and Macedonia?

Ambassador: You know, it is often repeated but it is still very true: young people are the future of any nation. A young high school student named Ivan in our capital of Skopje said this in a documentary film about Macedonia: “What the name Macedonia means to us Macedonians words can’t describe. It is something that we are born with and we die with. That’s what our ancestors left to us and we are supposed to continue it with future generations. The name Macedonia determines our Macedonian language, our nationality and everything else related to the identity.”

In other words, the name “Macedonia” becomes a descriptor for our nationality, our language, our church, our culture, just as the name “Estonia” does the same thing for the Estonians, “Mongolia” does for the Mongolians, etc.

WI:. When you changed the flag to become a member of the EU was it a symbolic gesture?

Ambassador: First of all, we did not change our flag to become a member of the EU. Our neighbor Greece placed an economic embargo on our land-locked country in 1994/95. We took into consideration their concerns and in a gesture of goodwill, changed our flag and a small part of our constitution to address their concerns. We did that with the understanding that they would then not stand in the way of our membership aspirations into the EU and NATO. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be true and they are still blocking us because of our chosen name and identity.

WI: After the recently released annual progress report on EU accession what does your country need to work on?

Ambassador: There are a number of areas that we have been working on, are working on and still need to work on including reforms in the judiciary, public administration and the fight against corruption. We are not a perfect country, by any stretch of the imagination, but we are working to improve our country and we are making progress.

WI: What is Macedonia's status at this moment on membership in the EU, and is it something Macedonians really want without ambivalence?

Ambassador: I’m not entirely sure what you mean when you say “without ambivalence,” but yes, polls have consistently shown that upwards of 90% of the Macedonian population wants membership in the EU and NATO. At this moment, we are waiting on Brussels to give us the green light to begin EU accession negotiations. The European Commission has recommended – three times now – that Macedonia begins talks on accession but the first two times the beginning of accession talks have been vetoed by Greece. We hope that this December will we will get a green light.

WI: Your economy improved in the last part of 2010 but has it been affected by Greece's current economic situation?

Ambassador: Fortunately the events in Greece have not had a big impact on our economy. As you may know, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was re-elected in June to a third term in snap elections and he has implemented, among other reforms, a 10% flat tax on individuals and businesses (this he did in 2008). The government continues to create conditions which allow wealth creation among businesses while at the same time pursing structural reforms in the administration, fighting corruption and ensuring that private property is respected. All of these reforms have paid off: The latest “Doing Business” report from the International Finance Corporation and World Bank ranked Macedonia 22 in the world in terms of ease of doing business. Macedonia ranked higher than such countries as Estonia, Taiwan, France and Slovenia just to name a few. And after gains of 5% or more in GDP in 2007 and 2008, Macedonia’s economy shrank by less than 1% in the 2009 global economic downturn but is now set to expand this year by 3.4% and next year by 4.3%.

WI:. What are your greatest resources and exports?

Ambassador: Our people to answer both questions. The Macedonian people are hard-working, generous, hospitable, creative and honest. They are the ones who deserve the credit for bringing Macedonia to this point today, 20 years after voting for independence. The people of Macedonia are our greatest resources and exports, but if you are looking for a traditional answer, I would say that resource-wise, Macedonia has abundant agriculture resources, including wine, tobacco, fresh and organic vegetables, minerals, and of course, a stunning landscape – including Lake Ohrid – that can offer inexpensive yet unique touristic opportunities for those people looking for something different. As for exports, again, it is agriculture but also culture. But I should also mention our human exports two of whom are our world-famous opera singer, baritone Boris Trajanov and the world-famous pianist Simon Trpceski.

WI: Are you planning many cultural events at the embassy to celebrate 20 years of Macedonian independence and what makes you most proud of your culture?

Ambassador: Again, it is our people who make our culture and make me most proud of our culture. The Macedonian people are the ones who make up our language, music, visual arts, culinary traditions and so many other aspects of our country and people. The Macedonian people are open, hospitable with a giving spirit and attitude. That is what makes me most proud of our Macedonian culture.

WI: What are the three major goals you would like to achieve while in Washington?

Ambassador: First, I would like to see Macedonia as a member of NATO and in substantive talks on EU membership. Second, I would like to see greater economic investment in Macedonia from US private sector companies. Third, I would like to see an expansion of the educational and cultural cooperation that already exists between Macedonian and their US counterparts. We have already made great strides towards all three of these goals and while we may not accomplish all of them during my tenure, we will make significant progress toward all of them.