Balkan frustrations

July 23, 2022

After years of waiting, Albania and North Macedonia were given the green light this week to start accession talks concerning full EU membership. Television news showed officials in Brussels toasting the ‘breakthrough’. So why are the Macedonians not excited?

This news was only days old as Romkje and I landed at Alexander the Great airport in Skopje, the North Macedonian capital, to join a coaching programme for young aspiring politicians. On our first morning we visited the parliament building with the delegation of young people for a briefing from a young Christian MP. She made it clear that not everybody saw this ‘fresh start’ as cause for celebration. While the move was seen as an attempt to ease Balkan tensions and to diminish the influence of Russia and China in the region, she told how the process so far has aggravated frustrations in her country both with their neighbours and with Brussels.

In more colourful language, our guide through the building expressed how many of his compatriots felt. They were exasperated, he implied, by the long string of vetoes North Macedonia had had to endure after being granted candidate status in 2005, seventeen years ago. This week’s green light had only come after a controversial compromise by the government to resolve a dispute with Bulgaria. Sofia continued to insist the Macedonian language was a dialect of Bulgarian, and not a fully distinct language, despite it already being recognised by the UN and the Council of Europe. In the assembly hall, desks of the opposition members were still littered with signs and slogans objecting to the government compromise. 

For many years previously, Greek opposition prevented Macedonia to start accession negotiations until it changed its name to North Macedonia and removed the Vergina Sun from its flag. The Greeks consider the sun emblem part of their historic legacy, associated with ‘their’ Alexander the Great, and the name Macedonia to refer to their northernmost province.

Spanner

French president Macron was next to throw a spanner in the works. He blocked the opening of accession negotiations with both Skopje and Tirana until new guidelines for future enlargement at EU level had been developed. Albania received candidate status in 2014, nine years after Skopje. 

Now they have the green light, Albania is expected to start accession negotiations immediately, while North Macedonia will first need to make changes in the constitution in line with the compromise agreement. That includes the controversial recognition of some of their historical heroes as being ‘Bulgarian’. Albanian visitors told me that they do not share the scepticism of their Northern Macedonian neighbours bred by internecine Balkan feuds, as their country was totally isolated from surrounding countries for so many decades.  

A walk through Skopje’s city centre reveals a profusion of bombastic architecture and oversized statues of sword- and rifle-bearing national heroes from Alexander himself through to 20th century resistance fighters – reflecting a deeply-felt need for national self-assertion in a region notorious for fragmentation. 

European Union membership is open to any European State respecting and committed to promoting the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including minority rights. Candidate countries must demonstrate stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. 

Reminders

Brussels’ policy has in effect been to dangle a carrot of eventual membership but to delay proceedings as long as possible. The last time the union welcomed a new member was nearly a decade ago, in 2013, when Croatia joined. Almost twenty years ago, EU leaders meeting in Thessaloniki vowed to bring the region into the union, but few still believe such promises. Sceptics ask how many more Hungarys or Polands the EU can absorb.

The long wait ahead is driving more and more young people – those best equipped to help their nations to a more prosperous future – to leave the Western Balkans region and seek better salaries in the EU. The North Macedonian government is the biggest employer in this country of just two million with a zero population growth. 

Yet for these aspiring young politicians keen to bring Christian value-based responses to today’s issues, there were reminders of the difference even one or two persons can make in hopeless situations. A mosaic on the wall of the parliamentary hall recalled the story of Cyril and Methodius, two brothers from Thessaloniki who brought the gospel to the Slavic peoples and gave them the Cyrillic alphabet, operating out of the Macedonian city of Ochrid.

Opposite our hotel in the heart of the city was the Mother Theresa House commemorating Macedonia’s most famous daughter, born, raised and educated in a place called Üsküb in the Ottoman Empire, now called Skopje. She started the ‘Missionaries of Charity’ now operating with 4500 nuns in 133 countries, vowed to give ‘wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.’

And high on a mountain overlooking the city stood what is claimed to be the biggest cross in the world, erected to mark the new millennium, a symbol of hope and resurrection.

Till next week,


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