Exclusive: “Macedonia defends Schengen borders, but not allowed to join NATO and EU”

Inviting the Republic of Macedonia to join the Alliance is one of the steps that will strengthen Europe, Minister Jolevski pointed out
Inviting the Republic of Macedonia to join the Alliance is one of the steps that will strengthen Europe, Minister Jolevski pointed out

In an exclusive interview to BalkanDefense, Macedonian Defense Ministrer Zoran Jolevski speaks about the country's almost two decade long NATO accession process and how Macedonia best answers regional security issues by advancing reforms and constantly adjusting its military.

  1. Macedonia has long been recognized as fully being prepared to join NATO. Still, the final decision lingers due to the name dispute. Is there any tangible progress made recently in this file? Are there any prospects for a settlement of this issue in the near future? If so, when do you expect a positive final decision on the country’s NATO accession?

A key priority of the Republic of Macedonia is membership in NATO and the European Union, which would mean long-term stability and security for our region and advance the goal of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace.

We are prepared to become a fully fledged member of the NATO Alliance. The Bucharest Summit decision in 2008 gave a clear confirmation that all criteria were met. As a Defense Ministry, we work hard every day to achieve our strategic goals, which includes NATO membership. Over the past period, as well as in the period ahead of us, the Republic of Macedonia has continued to work according to its reform agenda, which maintains our compatibility and our position alongside our NATO partners. We have done a lot – we were the first in the Balkans to introduce a fully professional military, we increased our interoperability, we declared units for participation in peace operations that have gone through several successful NATO evaluations, we have improved the standard and the motivation of the ARM members in continuity and we are modernizing the army according to the highest standards.

The Republic of Macedonia received confirmation that it met the criteria for NATO membership at the four NATO Summits following Bucharest. The only obstacle is the name of my country, the Republic of Macedonia. We will continue the defense sector reforms, since with them we are strengthening the Army of the Republic of Macedonia, which guarantees Macedonia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and in parallel, build capacities that are fully NATO interoperable. We are developing our defense system for our country, and of course, for the collective defense and security in the region and Europe.

Regarding the so-called “name issue”, the Republic of Macedonia is fully and sincerely committed, as we have been for the past two decades, to the UN-led process to resolve the differences over the name issue. As we have demonstrated previously through repeated actions, that we seek a mutually acceptable solution that will protect the identity and dignity of the Macedonian people, in accordance with international law and principles. By setting red lines, Greece demonstrates that it is still not prepared to be engaged in finding a mutually acceptable solution.

In order to achieve a mutually acceptable solution it is necessary to create a positive atmosphere in Greece. As a negotiator in the UN talks on the name issue, I requested in 2008 to start with confidence building measures. It is good that Greece finally accepted this and last year and proposed such a measure. We welcome this approach. This was also a requirement of the UN Security Council.

I sincerely hope that the spirit of constructive dialogue and cooperation will prevail. The Republic of Macedonia remains firmly committed to the dialogue at all possible levels and to finding a solution.

I would like to point out that in December 2011 the International Court of Justice ruled that Greece had violated its international obligations by vetoing Macedonia’s NATO membership at Bucharest NATO Summit. The International Court of Justice offers clarity and an independent judgment on the final hurdle blocking the Republic of Macedonia’s NATO. So we expect Greece will respect the ICJ judgment and Macedonia will get invitation in Warsaw.

The invitation of Macedonia to NATO will contribute to the stability of not just my country, but also of South East Europe, as well as the whole of Europe.

  1. Basically, the 17-year long NATO accession process makes the Macedonian army the most rated army in the history of the Alliance. Is that correct?

Facts indicate that the Republic of Macedonia and its Army are prepared for a fully-fledged membership in the North Atlantic Alliance. It is a reality that must be accepted by all member states. Our reform efforts go in that direction, to maintain and further improve this preparedness. I have repeatedly stressed that all reforms we are implementing are primarily implemented for ourselves – for Macedonia, its security, and its citizens. It is reflected positively in our strategic goals – membership in NATO and the European Union. Of course, the long process of integration into NATO, despite the decision that Macedonia has met all the criteria for full membership, can have some influence on our motivation. I feel proud that the Ministry employees, the members of the Army, the state leadership and the citizens of Macedonia firmly believe in our Euro-Atlantic future. It is a fact that all political parties represented in the Parliament have always had a consensus, when it comes to the EU and NATO integration process of Macedonia. That, actually comes as a reflection of the opinion of the Macedonian citizens that in every poll have shown that they believe and they want to live in a Macedonia, fully integrated in the EU and NATO. The Macedonian citizens know that we share our common values and standards with our EU and NATO partners.

We continue to work towards this goal and we hope that the Alliance will continue to recognize our results both at home and in the fight for the establishment of peace, security, freedom and democracy globally. As I pointed out previously, the reforms we undertake are both for a strong army, guarantor of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Macedonia, and for an army that is fully NATO compatible.

  1. Can the Western Balkans fully integrate into the Euro-Atlantic space without Macedonia in it?

The integration of all countries of the South Eastern Europe that would like join NATO is the best answer to this question. Europe needs a stable and prosperous Balkans, as integral part. From that perspective, the Republic of Macedonia is an important part of the puzzle. Macedonia is a proven partner of the Alliance, a serious country that has been contributing to world peace and stability for more than 15 years and these are arguments that cannot and should not be forgotten.

It is great that Montenegro has been recently invited to join NATO. It would be good for both the region and Europe if the MAP process for Bosnia and Herzegovina is activated. By enlarging, NATO will prove that it plays an important role for the stability in South East Europe at the same time, it will demonstrate that it is an alliance that is becoming bigger and increasingly stronger. The larger the NATO presence in the Western Balkans is, the more stable and prosperous the region will be.

It is time to think strategically, make all steps that will strengthen Europe, and among those steps is the invitation to the Republic of Macedonia to join the Alliance, and the activation of MAP for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

  1. The Ukrainian crisis has pitched NATO against Russia in what is widely seen as the most serious post-Cold War crisis. Does Skopje share NATO’s concerns in terms of enhancing security and dissuasive means in Eastern Europe?

Of course, the Republic of Macedonia and the Ministry of Defense are approaching seriously the new geopolitical developments of Europe and the world. All developments in broader frames have their impact on emerging challenges in a regional context. We in the Ministry, in cooperation with the other security agencies, are working on security assessments and we implement them in the process of defining the next steps. The most important thing for us currently is to have a unified response to all evolving challenges that will lead to a complete stabilization of the European continent.

  1. Will Macedonia this year produce and implement a new strategy for the defense? If so, what will the changes consist in?

The Republic of Macedonia will prepare a new Defense Strategy in the course of 2016. I must underline that it is a regular activity for us, part of our long and mid-term plans. It is important that the strategy has good quality, rather than to produce it within a shorter period of time. It will be founded on the geopolitical assessment of the contemporary security challenges, and on future potential treats. At the same time, the basis of our work is the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia and the Constitutional provision that the Army of the Republic of Macedonia is the guarantee of Macedonia’s independence, sovereignty and integrity, as well as the new NATO Strategic Concept.

  1. The Macedonian army is an important part of the strategy to deal with immigrants at the Macedonian-Greek border. What are your plans for this in the next period to cope with this situation? Will the number of soldiers increase at the border?

We, as a nation and as a state feel deeply for those who have had to leave their homes and what they have built over years and decades so that they are able to live in peace. Our task as a country is to enable the most humane and civilized treatment of these people. The European Union and Turkey came to an agreement which will bring a clear picture about how we can deal with this challenge. The EU will help the ones that are in real need. Furthermore, the Agreement will alleviate the pressure on the borders on the countries on the Balkan route, because it promises real distinction between asylum seekers from the war-affected areas, from the other, so-called economic migrants. My view and the view of my country has always been that we need biometric data of everyone coming, or transiting through our countries. That will strengthen the security of the EU countries, as well as the countries on their route.

I must emphasize that there is need for comprehensive strategy for overcoming the challenges that Europe, our region as well as Macedonia are facing. From the aspect of the Ministry of Defense, the task of the Army of the Republic of Macedonia at the southern border is to provide support to the police units. The members of the Army of the Republic of Macedonia have clear rules of engagement that define their responsibilities and competencies.

  1. Is your Government going to use this immigrant crisis to push for the NATO accession agenda, namely proving once again the country can play a vital role in the continent’s security?

I believe that NATO membership must be founded on the criteria and preparedness of each country for that step. The Republic of Macedonia continues to work on a daily basis to remain prepared to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, defending the goals and interests of the Alliance. Our goal is a safe Macedonia, a safe region and a safe Europe. We make no concession to that. From the aspect of the migrant crisis, the Republic of Macedonia is a constructive element that can give its support where needed. As before, in the missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon, where we participated with our partners.

The manner in which the Republic of Macedonia is handling the migrant crisis is yet another argument why my country has earned an invitation for NATO membership. We demonstrate that we have capacities that are able to contribute to the security of the Alliance. As stated by US Congresswoman Candice Miller, Macedonian soldiers are guarding NATO’s tent in Kabul (referring to the ISAF HQ), and yet are not allowed to sleep in that tent as allies. Hence, today Macedonia is defending the Schengen area and the European border, but we are not allowed to be a part of NATO and the EU club. Membership in these organizations means not only rights, but also obligations. We have demonstrated that we are able to fulfill our obligations. We are contributing to the security of the European continent, we are contributing to addressing the migrant challenge, but unfortunately we cannot enjoy the benefits of membership in these Euro-Atlantic structures. The EU and NATO provide strong support for Macedonia, but we expect to become a full member to these clubs.

  1. How much is the budget allocated to the military this year and is it enough for the execution of the normal ongoing activities involving the armed forces?

The budget of the Ministry, that is, the Army of Republic of Macedonia for 2016 is slightly higher compared to last year. It has been marked by a certain tendency of growth over the past two years, although we must bear in mind that we still feel the effects of the global financial and economic crisis. This situation is reflected in almost all member states of the NATO Alliance. However, I must emphasize that the implementation of projects and programs does not depend only on the size of the budget. On the contrary, it depends on the skills for financial management. I believe that with the proper allocation of funds we can achieve a lot. Especially with respect to ineffective expenditures. When I came to the position of Minister of Defense one of my priorities was smart and efficient allocation of the defense budget. The Ministry of Defense announced a process of modernization which will be conducted in a multi-year period. The Government of the Republic of Macedonia made a decision in July last year to provide modernization funds, which will mean that in 2018 the Republic of Macedonia will fully comply with the recommendation of the Alliance for allocation of 0.4% of the national budget for equipment modernization.

  1. When will new arm purchases take place, because there was an announcement that tenders will be available for the implementation of these projects?

The process of modernization of the Army is carried out in accordance with the Modernization Plan and the Long-Term Plan Defence Development Plan 2014-2023. Surely, this is an extremely important process for us and we approach it with full seriousness. A total of 12 Integrated Project Teams have been working within the Ministry for a long period of time and they include more than 100 members of the Army. They developed a list of requirements that correspond with NATO standards. The procedure has been initiated and I hope that it will be carried out in accordance with the set dynamics of the Ministry. It is an important project.

  1. What are the country’s total military effectives and can the current army give a proper response to the all the security challenges from the perspective of number of troops, equipment and training?

The ARM is a small, mobile, efficient and well-equipped army that is able to meet the challenges it faces. Our efforts are directed towards making this army even better – a better equipped and better trained army with a strong motivation to serve its country. Macedonia is a relatively small country, but its people have a strong will and spirit, strong integrity and a strong motive to live in peace, security and prosperity. It is reflected in the members of the Army who have constantly enjoyed the citizens’ utmost confidence ever since gaining our independence. That confidence has been earned rather than simply given. Earned through deeds, through our generous help and support to the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia in natural disasters, and in circumstances related to risks and challenges to our security. Of course, the fact that the Army has the capacity to handle its responsibilities today, does not prevent us from preparing for the challenges that may arise in the future. This will be the direction of the new Defence Strategy, as well as the educational processes, including various training courses, exercises, seminars and courses for the Army members dedicated to asymmetric threats, cyber-security, etc.

Correspondence from Skopje by Miki Trajkovksi