AIM: start

SUN, 22 APR 2001 01:15:00 GMT

A Plane Full of Hope

By placing its signature on the Agreement on Stabilization and Association in Luxembourg on April 9, Macedonia has crossed the line of "casual" behavior. In the future, everything will be subject to European integration. Skeptics say that the harder part of the job is yet to come

AIM Skopje, April 9, 2001

On the afternoon on April 9, a Macedonian delegation which included Prime Minister Ljupco Georgijevski, two deputy prime ministers, the minister of foreign affairs and the leaders of almost all political parties, as well as those with no representation in Parliament such as the Democratic Party of Serbs and the Democratic Party of Turks, attended in Luxembourg the signing of the Agreement on Stabilization and Association between Macedonia and the European Union. The event was immediately declared historical, and that it was treated as such on the other side as well was confirmed by the presence of almost 40 local reporters. It was said that such a numerous state delegation had never before been present at a similar occasion.

What exactly did Macedonia agree to when it signed the agreement? The document contains the so-called "evolution clause" expressing the EU's readiness to integrate Macedonia, politically and economically, into Europe's mainstream, thereby granting the country the status of a potential candidate for EU membership. Furthermore, it encourages regional cooperation, although taking into account the political, democratic, and economic capabilities of every individual country. After the 10-year transitional period, full association is supposed to take place. The EU Council for Stabilization and Association will assess what progress has been made four years after the agreement becomes effective. The agreement envisages dialogue at the ministerial and parliamentary levels inside the Commission for Stabilization and Association. Macedonia will work in favor of good neighborly relations and cooperation, especially with the signatories of similar agreements. Within two years a regional convention should be signed regulating political dialogue, the creation of a regional free trade zone, granting mutual concessions for the free flow of workers, capital, and the like.

All Macedonian products, except for lamb and wines, are granted free access to the EU market. Skopje, on the other hand, has obliged itself to open its market to EU products, the ultimate goal being to establish a free trade zone between Macedonia and the EU within 10 years. The agreement also regulates the flow of workers, capital, and the harmonization of national legislation with that of the EU.

The issues of cooperation in the fields of justice and interior affairs are for the first time the subject of such an agreement; the agreement addresses the matters of border control, visas, asylum, migrations, fighting money laundering, and fighting crime...

Financial cooperation will be in the form of donations, loans, macroeconomic assistance, and direct budget support. As part of CARTS, Macedonia will receive EUR24 million in assistance.

Diplomatic circles believe that at least initially, Eurointegration will be closely linked to political dialogue and demands of the ethnic Albanian minority. At the beginning of the month a Commission for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, chaired by Parliament Speaker Stojan Andov, was formed, in which all caucuses and parliamentary parties are represented. Judging by Andov's speech at its grand opening, this body will implement the agreement with the EU, meaning that it will be in charge of dialogue on all open questions in the area of ethnic relations.

Speaking before the Commission, Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim stressed that integration with Europe and NATO, good neighborly relations and regional cooperation are the pillars of the country's foreign policy and that a consensus on this exists. "It should be borne in mind that as opposed to Baltic and Central Europe countries, the Balkans faced unfavorable conditions and a decade of war, because of which a new generation of agreements between the EU and the countries of the region was needed." Kerim said this to justify a relative delay in Eurointegration. The Macedonian foreign minister explained that he had forwarded to EU ministers a document on planned government efforts for improving inter-ethnic relations, not because of activities by extremists, but because this was a part of the government program from the beginning. He also mentioned projects that are to be realized in cooperation with the EU: ensuring funding for the University of Southeastern Europe in Tetovo, an ethnic minority channel on state TV, the advancement of local self-government, the reorganization of the State Security Service, and the forming of border police units to replace army units deployed on the borders.

Shortly before the delegation left for Luxembourg, the Democratic Party of Albanians -- a coalition partner in the government came forth with its platform, which the party leader, Arben Xhaferi, distributed in Luxembourg to European officials. In the media this paper earned coverage equal to that given to the signing of the Association Agreement.

Presenting the document, the vice president of the Democratic Party of Albanians, Menduh Thaci, said that the party decided to produce the document in order to explain the demands of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians. The paper said that a dispute between Macedonians and Albanians focuses on two issues: the concept of the Macedonian state and the representation of Albanians in the institutions of the system. The party called the Macedonian Constitution ethnocentric, which is at odds with the country's multi-ethnic reality. A political dialogue on the ethnic Albanians' demands that is supposed to be organized by President Trajkovski, the DPA sees as having a specific mandate and deadlines for resolving the issues specified in the platform. The news media found the final conclusion particularly intriguing: "The document seeks to provide a way out of the crisis; to refuse dialogue means perpetuating the crisis. In the latter event, we would be back where we were two weeks ago, but in worse circumstances," Thaci warned. When asked by journalists if "worse circumstances" means that the extremists will be reactivated, he openly said: "Absolutely! I think that they will renew their activities!"

The opposition Party of Democratic Prosperity stuck by its earlier decision: its leader, Imer Imeri, refused to travel to Luxembourg. His absence was explained as due to his party's unwillingness to support the government. This party also has a platform that will be forwarded to European institutions. Last week it also froze contact with state institutions because of the government's attitude towards the crisis.

The makeup of the Luxembourg caravan has sent a very clear message to those searching for hidden meanings: by including representatives of parties which, to a certain degree, had managed to politically articulate the interests of certain ethnic groups, the authorities will attempt to ensure their participation in political dialogue. This, it is true, threatens to dilute the inter-ethnic dialogue, or even turn against those who advocate it most strongly -- the Albanians and the international community. The presence of the leader of the largest opposition party, Branko Crvenkovski of the Social Democratic Alliance, is the result of his wish to portray himself as a pro-European politician, but will also serve to strengthen the so-called "Macedonian bloc" in negotiations with the ethnic Albanians. Imeri's absence was received with regret, and it will soon be clear whether those who believe that the EU favors Arben Xhaferi anyway are indeed right.

The establishment, overjoyed by the fact that Macedonia is the only regional country to have signed such an agreement with the EU, remained insensitive to warnings that the most difficult stages of Macedonia's journey to the EU are yet to come. Also, the visitors to Luxembourg turned a deaf ear when told that EU High Representative for Security and Foreign Policy Javier Solana will be in Skopje almost every week for the next several months to monitor the progress of the political talks. This is only logical given the fact that the international community places great hopes into the dialogue's results, seriously believing that its only alternative is a new escalation of clashes.

The country's leadership, it appears, prefers to deal with it in the manner of Scarlet O'Hara -- it will think about that tomorrow.

Zaljko Bajic