Erwan Fouere. Photo by Robert Atanasovski
EU`s ambassador to “Macedonia”, Erwan Fouere, talks to Ana Petruseva about the second round of the elections, the ‘name’ issue, and why the handling of the recent protest in Skopje left him profoundly disturbed.
Balkan Insight: What are your major concerns for the second round of the elections?
FOUERE: I hope everything will go calmly on election day and all citizens will be able to go to vote without any intimidation, confident the vote will be secret.
But we’re concerned over the increase in allegations on intimidation coming from all over the country. Yesterday in Veles and it was distressing to see how… individuals were trying to use all sort of means to influence voters by suggesting that if one or another candidates were elected, money and EU funds will come much easier. This is a total distortion. EU funds are not distributed on the basis of who is in power and what party or affiliation the mayor is.
Balkan Insight: Who are the main culprits for this?
FOUERE: It is really regrettable that the spirit of local elections is being undermined by the very heavy-handed interference of the political parties. You have billboards for the governing party giving the impression that when you are voting for a candidate, you are not voting for him but for the party. This goes against the whole principle of decentralization and local government, in which it is the individual’s programme that is important, not the programme of the party that that individual represents at national level.
This may have an impact in the longer term for the development of local government. There has been a lot of progress made in decentralization since 2005 and it’s important this success is consolidated.
Balkan Insight: If VMRO’s Georgi Ivanov wins the presidency and VMRO wins many mayoralties, might the party, which already has a majority in parliament, be too powerful?
FOUERE: It certainly means that the responsibility resting on the shoulders of the governing party will be much greater. It will be an enormous responsibility to make sure that this enhanced power is used wisely. That means greater emphasis on inclusive dialogue and consensus and not, as in last July, trying to rush to legislation through by emergency procedures.
So… after the elections… we will be looking carefully at the tone of the discourse from the government… hoping that this tone will be positive and inclusive. The president must be fully reflective of the whole of the country, not just of the party that voted him in to office.
Balkan Insight: Do you fear there is going to be a problem with the turnout at the presidential election?
FOUERE: One has to accept there is a certain election fatigue and that the campaign has not been particularly exciting, so people may feel not motivated to vote. As we always say, it is up to every individual, but it will be wrong to say, well, my vote does not count anyway. If people exercise their right to vote, they exercise an important principle of democracy. But the possibility is always there that the threshold will not be met.
Balkan Insight: With all the stark warnings that the EU will closely watch how these elections are conducted there seems to be an impression in the public that if the elections are judged as correct, there are no further obstacles to “Macedonia`s” EU integration. Is that true?
FOUERE: Of course, the election and ensuring respect for the international standards is a building block on the road towards EU integration but it is not the only one. [Enlargement] Commissioner Olli Rehn has highlighted three other benchmarks. One is making sure that the judiciary is really independent. The second is insuring a more effective and coordinated fight against corruption. The third is de-politicisation of the administration. Because of the highly politicized public administration, we have the phenomenon of intense intimidation of public service employees. Had there been a more independent civil service this would not be as acute as it unfortunately is.
Balkan Insight: But the government says the ‘name’ dispute with Greece is the main obstacle stalling “Macedonia’s” progress to the EU.
FOUERE: Again, this is a false perception. Commissioner Rehn was clear that the name issue is separate from the reforms that the Commissioner set out as benchmarks. The Commission will make its assessment exclusively on how the country performs on those benchmarks. Depending on that assessment, it will determine whether a recommendation for [EU accession talks start] a date is sent or not. At the same time, the Commissioner has stated that once the recommendation is made, it goes to the Council. There it is very clear that, as the EU council has stated, a solution to the name issue remains essential.
Balkan Insight: Is Ivanov adopting the same tough position on the ‘name’ issue as the government?
FOUERE: The government must understand that you cannot change your neighbours. But you can change and shape the future and destiny. And it’s essential that the government makes every effort to remain properly engaged in the negotiations of [UN mediator] Nimetz, and in the meantime refrains from taking actions that could be counterproductive to this. Decisions like naming highways [after Alexander the Great] do not help at all. When you look at the very serious economic problem that the country has, you wonder whether the priorities are misplaced. Surely the priority should be on responding to the aspirations of citizens, and one of those must be to try to find a compromise solution with the Greece on the name.
Balkan Insight: The drive to lay claim to “Macedonia’s” Antique heritage does not seem to be fading, does it?
FOUERE: Personally, I do not think it is very productive approach because it is not by reviving the past that you will solve the future. We have examples from my own country, Ireland where we had to compromise with our neighbour to find a solution to the problems dividing us. Again, there is always this misuse of the identity, the name… The identity of “Macedonian” citizens, the culture and everything, is something sacred that no one can take away. But it must be possible to find a solution to the name. This has been going on for so long now, and it will be important for the government, and the new president, to set a positive tone.
Balkan Insight: Do you think the government will do that?
FOUERE: I hope so because this will guarantee that we can finally put this problem to rest and work on how to promote reconciliation and regional cooperation.
Balkan Insight: How realistic is the prospect of visa liberalization for “Macedonians” by the end of this year?
FOUERE: The prospects are very good, considering the effort that the government has put into fulfilling the visa liberalization roadmap. All the preliminary assessments of the experts who came here to look at the different reforms, and at integrated border management, security of documents, and biometric passports, are very positive.
Comissioner Rehn stated last week that he is hopeful that if all the reforms are completed, the Commission will be able to make a recommendation for visa liberalization and hopefully the decision could be taken this year. Again, it will be a building block in helping to bring the country closer to the EU.
Balkan Insight: Can you comment on Saturday’s incident in Skopje, when students clashed with supporters of a new church?
FOUERE: I never thought I would see such a thing in Skopje. It was more reminiscent of something one would have seen in Northern Ireland a long time ago. This sort of extremism that seems to be in the air, and any attack on the right of peaceful protest, is an attack on democracy and it is important that the authorities address this and ensure it does not happen again. They need to create a climate that is more conducive to dialogue. Obviously, this particular project, a church in the square, is a controversial one…. For all such projects it is important to have a dialogue, to have an open consultations with citizens.
Balkan Insight: Do you think the reaction of the institutions was appropriate?
FOUERE: I would have preferred a much stronger reaction, and one that condemned the attack on a peaceful protest and did not question the motives of peaceful protestors.
Balkan Insight: The EC in its past report raised some concerns about the freedom of the press, what is your assessment?
FOUERE: The problem remains, no doubt about it. We hope the proposals and suggestions made by the EC in its November report and the concerns that were flagged at the time are fully taken in to account by the government, so that we strengthen the independence of the media and can be sure the media can express themselves freely and without fear of intimidation. This is an important part of the democratic process.