Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski argues that the former Yugoslav countries must look to Europe if they are to free themselves from the burden of their bloody past

Your country has been described as a haven of peace and stability in a troubled region. How have you achieved this?

The Republic of Macedonia is the only former Yugoslav republic to have won its independence and international recognition peacefully and democratically. By preserving peace, we of course helped ourselves the most, but indirectly we also helped the whole international community, because in so doing we prevented a spill-over of the fighting into the southern Balkans. That would have meant, without doubt, a much wider conflict. These positive developments are the result of the path our country chose to pursue from the very beginning in foreign policy and also in our domestic political and economic reforms.

As a relatively small country with no substantial military potential, we knew that our strongest argument lay in respecting international norms and standards of civilised conduct in all areas. We opted for democracy, for a civil constitution centred around the citizen and civil rights and freedoms, regardless of national, religious, social or other affiliation. By incorporating in our legal regulations, and also in our practice, the highest European standards pertaining to the rights of national minorities, we opted for a society of inter-ethnic tolerance and mutual respect.

As for our relationships with our neighbours, we promoted a policy of equal goodwill and balanced co-operation. Not only does our standpoint strengthen the independent position of Macedonia, it also provides a balance in the relations and interests of the wider region.

Furthermore, our experience tells us that parallel implementation of political and economic reforms is of exceptional significance, since only a comprehensive change of the system can yield positive results.

What impact has the conflict elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia had on the economy?

The consequences have been enormous, and have had a devastating impact on our economy. The damage caused by UN sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro amount to more than US$4 billion - a huge figure for an economy this size. Not only did we lose our traditional markets, but we also lost the markets of central and western Europe as a result of the inaccessibility of transport routes. While the war went on, neighbouring countries - Macedonia among them - were seen as high-risk by investors, and the share of foreign capital and investment in our economy has not met our expectations.

How do you assess the progress of the economic reform programme?

Macedonia was compelled to carry out economic reforms under exceptionally difficult conditions. Nonetheless, we approached radical reform of the economic system with great resolve.

The first objective we achieved was macro-economic stabilisation. Some years ago, annual inflation stood in the thousands of per cent; today it is around 10 per cent, and we expect it to fall below 6 per cent in 1996. Furthermore, our national currency has been stable for the past two and a half years.

This spring we come to the end of the one-year Standby Arrangement with the IMF and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) - the first successfully realised arrangement of its kind in the region. The IMF and the IBRD believe that we have made substantial progress in the past two years.

There have been social costs, which we have had to pay. One of our most difficult problems is high levels of unemployment.

The economy is hampered by the country's landlocked position. What steps has the government taken to improve links with its neighbours?

It is clear that it is vital that we secure good relations with as many countries as possible, particularly our neighbours. The government should seek to create the overall environment which encourages co-operation, establish a legal framework for co-operation through inter-state agreements and offer incentives for business people and companies.

I believe that we have achieved much in improving relations with Albania, Bulgaria and Greece. As for our northern neighbour, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, I regret to say that mutual recognition and diplomatic relations have not yet been established. We have the political will to settle this problem, more so in view of the fact that there are no major obstacles to doing so.

What would be the benefits of a final peace in the former Yugoslavia?

Peace and stability is vital to us all. It would mean the end of a gruesome war. The agreement reached in Dayton is truly encouraging, but it is only a first step. What remains now is the most difficult task - implementing it on the ground, in real life. Macedonia supports comprehensive co-operation among all the peoples and countries in this part of Europe. We support the Europeanisation of the Balkans, it turning its back on the past and looking towards the future.

What is your foreign policy stance towards Greece?

We want long-lasting, sincere and comprehensive co-operation with Greece. It gives me pleasure to be able to note that, following the signing of the Interim Agreement between our two countries in New York, our relationship is improving. Contacts between business people and cultural, scientific and sports institutions are increasing.

Greece is a member of the EU and a promoter of its policy in this part of Europe. Our border with Greece is therefore the border with the European Union. It is in Greece's interest to have a neighbour which sees its place in the common European home, a neighbour prepared to accept and respect European norms and standards.

I am convinced that time is working in favour of improved relations. I would particularly like to point out that there have been no instances of anti-Greek violence in Macedonia. This is very important for future relations. We have a great historical chance, and I am convinced that, with goodwill on both sides, we can advance our relations to the extent that they will be held out as a model of good co-operation throughout the region.

How do you see future relations with the EU?

One of the strategic orientations of my government is towards Europe. I believe that our past conduct has lent credence to our aspirations. We have begun negotiations with the European Union to regulate our relations and to establish a Trade and Co-operation Agreement. I hope that these negotiations will be swiftly and successfully completed. We are aware that this arrangement will bring certain benefits, but also serious obligations. I emphasise our resolve to face up to these responsibilities. We believe that the dynamics of our integration with the EU should depend upon the level to which we meet certain specific criteria, rather than on the situation in the region as a whole, over which we have little control.

As for security, we are determined to be part of the collective security system. We are a member of the Partnership for Peace programme and our strategic objective is to become a member of NATO.

Where do you see the country at the turn of the century?

I see Macedonia as a modern, democratic, economically prosperous country. I see Macedonia as a part of the common European home, with an open and competitive economy. I hope that the Balkans will finally become free of the burden of historical prejudices and that it will turn to the future. In these turbulent times, the Macedonian people have confirmed their maturity and resolve to continue on the path of peace, democracy and growth that will ensure our place in the civilised world.

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©Kensington Publications 1996