Smashpoint editors Mr. George Valas and Mr. Nasos Mamalis had the pleasure and honor of being accepted by the Ambassador of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, for an interview over several important issues.
We would like to thank Ambassador Angelov for his hospitality and his reception, as well as the company FUNPROMOTION for helping us with the creation of the small gift the Smashpoint team has offered the Ambassador.
We believe the following interview is very interesting and highly enlightening about aspects of the two-way relations between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, many people may not know.
Ambassador Angelov, first of all, I would like to thank you for accepting to meet with us. We are here mainly because we want to listen to a different angle from those saturating the Greek Media. Before we begin we would like to point out two things. First, as our position is a bit awkward as you understand, we are going to use the United Nations provisional reference “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” in reference to your country.
Of course, I can understand. I will obviously use my country’s name as I am obliged to do.
Certainly. Second, some of our questions may sound rather aggressive, but this will only be so because the points we want to clarify are considered aggressive and all the information we have may be biased. That is why we are here, after all, to lift as much of this bias as possible.
I can assure you, that is exactly the reason I have agreed to this Interview myself. Please feel free to ask anything, I will not be offended.
As we will not be offended by the answer, we can assure you. So, let us begin. It is a fact that ambassadors do not get their time of day in the media, at least not the time of day we believe they deserve. So before we delve into serious issues, we would like to know a little more about you. And what we would like to know more is, what you consider your greatest achievement to be.
I would like to thank you for this opportunity because generally, I believe we need more communication across the border, something that we feel is severely lacking, is completely insufficient leading to the buildup of this current dynamic of political and overall societal tensions between our two countries over the name dispute. I believe there is more insufficient knowledge in Greece about my country, which is natural as we are a smaller country and we have been fully independent since only 1991, while there obviously is the naming issue that divides us, however, I believe there is no more excuse for action not to be taken to alleviate this lack of knowledge, so I appreciate you giving me this opportunity.
As you rightfully said, diplomats and ambassadors are on the sidelines, this is the nature of the job, and we work from behind, whilst politicians receive the spotlight, while our job is to connect and to explain positions. I have been here for 3 years as an Ambassador of the “Republic of Macedonia” to Greece. This is my second ambassadorial posting, my first has been in Budapest, before I used to be the Chief of Staff to my President and yet before that, my career was largely working for multilateral organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE.
My education is in international affairs with both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field obtained at Dutch and Hungarian universities. And the Achievement! I don’t know, it would not be really modest of me to talk about my achievements, although being here I consider it as an achievement by itself. It is a specific diplomatic post and by definition neighboring countries present difficult environments, especially when there are some overarching issues as we have, but this also means there is greater responsibility and thus trust in me, but I still have a year to go, well less than a year to go, so let’s see what my achievement will be by the end of my term, if there is something more than I can provide by then.
You have given us the perfect setup for our next question. Despite us being neighbors, Greeks, especially Southerners, know very few things about your country. What would you like us to know?
You could not be more to the point and this is where I see the biggest challenge and actually, with this I believe I will lead you to your subsequent questions about the naming issue. I think the biggest challenge, or perhaps risk, for the forthcoming political developments, is the lack of knowledge, insufficient knowledge or manipulated knowledge about us. Vice versa, I can say we know a lot more about you, which makes sense, you have been a state for longer, you are larger, we come here on holidays, we follow you, while you know much less about us and there is nothing wrong with that, it is to be expected and the overarching issue has prevented a more natural course where people from this side would also get to know us. It is a fact that people in the south know us less, but this may be a good thing in the big picture because this way we can get them to know us far better and more accurately. Actually, the people in the north know us pretty well, a lot of them are visiting my country, nearly all of us are visiting the northern parts of Greece, commerce and trade statistics are saying that roughly one million visitors from my country visit Greece annually. We are a country of 2 million and although we are not saying that every second person has visited Greece, the number is obviously huge when talking about interaction. Unfortunately, we see that the fiercest sentiment about the name difference is in the northern part of Greece, which is naturally closer to my country in terms of geography, but also in other socio-cultural aspects, which knows us most and know much of what we have in common, first as peoples, individuals, in mentality, in culture. We are very close, if not the closest among the nations in the imminent neighborhood. After being here for 3 years I can confidently assert that we are the closest two nations of the southern Balkans when it comes to cultural similarities, mentality, you name it. And then on top of it comes the more serious political or societal complementarities which have to do with the economy, security politics, all of which are complementary, if not to say on the level of potential strategic partnerships, for which we are little aware of or we might be aware of but we are not doing much about. Unfortunately, we have allowed the name issue to overshadow all of this along the years. Southern Greece, because of the lack of proximity, is less informed, but also less misinformed about us, thus the chance to change things and we shall see how we can handle this.
You have given us some great leads for our next questions indeed, but before we proceed to questions of a more political nature, we would like to address you with another personal question. You have been here for a little more than 3 years, did you adjust easily to living in Greece? I am sure there have been political difficulties, those are to be expected for a man in your position and, in your words, responsibility, but has there been anything else?
Not at all, because, as I have said, first of all, we know Greece, second we are very much alike, so there is nothing major to adapt to, socially speaking we are similar, the same mentality with all the positives and negatives, which we share. Even climate-wise we are not that different. That is why I believe that you are the closest destination when it comes to the way of life one needs to adapt to from my country. Obviously, Athens is a city larger than my city Skopje but other than that the conditions are very similar.
As you have already said we have more than unite us than separate us. Do you have a comment on that?
I will make an analogy as they say. Usually, differences attract and similarities divide. It applies to private life and perhaps this is why we are having these skirmishes or emotional outbursts over а few differences. My people, religiously speaking, are Orthodox like the Greek, in most cases, traditions are very similar. Although we are a landlocked country, we share the same Mediterranean, southern mentality. We are very emotional like the Greeks are, very expressive, very loud, we talk fast. As you can see we have characteristics which are very much alike, which of course have both a positive and sometimes a negative angle. The way we do business is very compatible, that is why many businessmen from your country, even in the most difficult of periods, when we were at the lowest point of our political dynamic, still had very good cooperation across the border, which talks about the ability to really relate with each other.
We were expecting an answer along these lines and this leads us to another question. There have been times when Greek presence in your country has been met with provocation, for example when Greek Sports teams play matches in your country. Why do you think this happens? Furthermore, we in Greece have only been informed about provocation from your country. How about us, do these things work both ways?
I remember there was an alleged incident in handball last summer, but let me go back to something very basic, as I already talked about the absence of awareness of one another without the pressure of you having to accept of who we are and what we are. When I say “Republic of Macedonia” for instance, as whom we say we are, I do not say this with the aim to provoke Greeks. Leaving aside more ancient history, I will not even go back to the last 100 to 150 years, I am talking about living memory, the history of something I know, my father, my great-grandfather who I have met, all knew. Our modern state was established in 1944, it was a founding state of the Yugoslav federation of 6 states. It was called as such, as “Republic of Macedonia” from that time, it was a Socialist Republic, an ideological definition at the time, but the core was the “Republic of Macedonia”. For us, it was something we are used to, who we are and what we are. I will stay clear of issues that historians need to clarify, I will say again, I am talking about living memory. So when someone says “Republic of Macedonia” it is not meant to provoke a response from Greece. Obviously, Greece does have an issue with this and in some sports matches, especially those we play with Greece, if someone appears with a jersey with “Macedonia” on, there might be reactions. It is a fact that in official matches we use the official ISO code for my country, MKD. I understand that in cases like this it is easy, in an impulsive reaction of Greeks, that this is understood as a provocation and done on purpose. This is absolutely never, ever the case, we know nothing different about what we are and have been all our lives. It is a delicate situation and everything has to be met pragmatically, which is what we are all trying to achieve, but there is always someone who tries to blow something out of proportion for reasons I cannot speak about now.
About provocations from your side, I would first like to take out the word provocation from either side; it is not a word I like to use as a diplomat. There are moves and gestures by some that are not helping the environment and the events that will and should bring the societies closer and would also help in resolving the issue. Everyone is expressing opinions and that is absolutely acceptable, we are both democratic societies, but again this is the fault of politics that we have not tried enough in the past years and decades, we have not educated the people about each other. And it is this ignorance, although ignorance may be a harsh word, perhaps lack of knowledge is more accurate, is something that some people use to proceed with gestures or statements which we may not see as useful in getting closer and understanding each other.
Out of the few things heard of your country in Greece, there have been some publications in Greece that there is an internal problem with the Albanian minority of your country. Any comment
We are a multiethnic society, with the Albanian community being the second largest ethnic community after ethnic Macedonians, which are the majority, but we try not to look through this prism. We are a society in which every community can have an access to the government, to education, civil services and positions, as well as to exercise their full linguistic rights. There are challenges, but this intra-communal relationship constantly evolves and with the ultimate goal of having a multiethnic and functional society. I am not saying the challenges are not still there, but I believe we have found a way where we can live with the differences, and this is a daily struggle, because unfortunately, similarly with the interstate relationships between our two countries, sometimes differences emerge and this multiethnic situation can be used for political goals. We have the model and will to create a society mutually respective of everyone and their differences. It is a very complex model; we are trying to create a society with no territorial solutions for ethnic differences, which requires a lot of energy to be invested. We are succeeding in this and managing this model, but something like this is never easy.
Not many months ago there were publications on media of your country, that leaders of the political party mainly supported by the Albanian minorities went to Albania to receive instruction, as the publication claimed, by the Albanian Prime Minister. Every Media usually has an agenda, so we would like a different view, either personal or official.
I cannot divulge a personal opinion, as it is outside the limits of my job. I am refrained by the virtue of my profession to comment about internal developments both in Greece and in my country, as I am here as an envoy of my Government, it is not my position to comment on internal political developments or issues that also might involve third countries.
Coming to the issue of relations between our two countries. Greece can be a significant and trustworthy ally to your country as a neighboring country. However, in a recent survey, your people claim that Serbia is their best friend, which is reasonable and expected, while Greece is their greatest enemy. Can your country be trusted by Greece as an ally, when the majority of the population considers Greece an enemy?
I will offer you a bit of an explanation for those who do not follow the developments of the relations between our countries. There have indeed been some polls towards this direction with the results not being what one would have desired for, the same goes for similar polls in Greece where the results are one can say equally prejudiced towards my country.
“If I could interrupt you here, Greeks, for the most part, consider Turkey as the greatest threat”
Well, it is a bigger challenger in many ways; my point was that we have to take notice of facts under the prism of the last 26 years. As a newly independent state we were the only Yugoslav republic which got its independence peacefully, however, we were the last formally recognized and accepted in the international community of nations. I am not saying this to undermine the potential for the Greek – “Macedonian” relations, but I believe it is important to remind that this happened because Greece objected to us being called “Republic of Macedonia”, which delayed our establishment on the international stage. At that time Greece also posted an economic embargo on us, in the early 1990’s for about a year and a half or so, which economically suffocated us. Finally, we found a practical solution and we joined the United Nations, the last of the Yugoslav states, although we should have been the first. Then we entered the stage of aspiring to join NATO and the EU. The same happened, a slow start and then outright blockade because of the naming issue. All this was not received well by my people, as it was seen as an impediment to the overall prosperity of our society. For us the European Union, NATO and before that our very establishment in the overall international community is and was a matter of life and death, because it is something that hampers our very economical and social prospects, so this limbo we have been in for the last 26 years because of the naming issue, obviously has strongly influenced my country, both economically and politically and it influences the opinion of the people, although it has never affected the people’s attitudes, they are still streaming in massive numbers to Greece for holiday or cultural and other events, you name it, as it has also not prevented Greeks, despite negatively viewing my country, to equally interact, especially those from Thessaloniki or Northern Greece. So wherever we look at those polls it is not only something which is impulsive, which has something to do with a current political surge of event, it is simply a buildup of frustration after 26 years of constantly failing and being stuck and locked away from prosperity, because for us the European Union and NATO means prosperity, especially for a small country like us and in the very delicate neighborhood we are in.
Despite the distrust, as you have said before, Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have an excellent economic relationship. You are definitely aware of the Greek Financial Crisis, do you believe that the Greek Economy can recover in the next few years and if so, how can this recovery affect your country’s economy?
During the best times of the Greek economy, we had received major investments, which I would also want to emphasize as a strong gesture of how we see Greece, as a potential and very obvious strategic partner not only after the naming issue would be resolved, but even before that. If we had any negative political prejudices towards Greece I doubt anyone would have allowed selling our only refinery, or second-biggest bank or other important pieces of our economy to Greek investors, which I would also like to showcase as a very strong and genuine expression of our intentions towards Greece. Of course, if the Greek economy rebounds, and we are finally receiving some signals towards this direction, it would be welcome as we have very complimentary economies, as illustrated in the port of Thessaloniki. For us this port is the lifeline of our economy, our way out and our way in, a vast number of our imports and exports goes through the port of Thessaloniki. If the economy rebounds it will definitely have a positive effect, both in actual financial terms, in terms of more visits between the people of our countries and, why not, on a political level as well.
Time to come to the naming issue. Your country has lately set actions in motions, in a manner far more rapid than what we are used to, for resolving the issue. Is there a particular reason for this? Some people say that this comes from the fact that both Prime Ministers are young men, unlike their predecessors. Do you believe this is a problem that older men started and young men will resolve?
It could be an angle to look at it, we have had young leadership in the last years, for some time I have to say, plus young and fresh views can always be helpful if they are constructive and energetic enough to push forward an agenda of reconciliation and bring the two sides closer, which means resolving the issues that prevent this from happening. We have a new government since last summer and a new government means there is new energy and a new impetus for issues to be tackled. It is a priority for the government to address, head on, all the issues we have with neighboring countries, on foreign policy. We, as a country, have been for too long blocked by these challenges which have obviously prevented us from fully establishing ourselves on the international stage. The government started this approach immediately. We have recently reached and signed an Agreement of Friendship and Cooperation with Bulgaria, a country with which we had similarly burdened historical differences, much like our relations with Greece. We have had to look forward towards the future and find a workable way out, using the maximum of what is the potential of our two countries. The speed and how substantial this move was, did indeed come as a surprise, but also it is proof of the resolve of this government to solve the issues with our neighbors. We mean business and we are ready to invest political capital in resolving issues that have troubled our country for too long. This can further increase the dynamic of communication on the highest level between our two countries. Our Foreign Ministers had frequent meetings in the past 6-7 months; the Prime Ministers are meeting in a few days in Davos (this meeting has already happened when this interview is published). There are several answers to why this is happening. First, let us talk about the external factors, 2018 is a year of focus towards the Western Balkans from the European Union and NATO, Bulgaria is the chair of the European Council this semester and one of the key pledges is to work on the Western Balkans. After a very long time we will have an EU-Western Balkans heads of governments summit in Sofia in May, which will be a good reminder of the Thessaloniki summit, where the foundations for the enlargement of the European Union towards the region were set, and also in July we have a NATO Summit. All this provides a very favorable context for the issues of the Western Balkans, because the region was somewhat neglected in previous years, for reasons subjective and objective, as we all know, such as the financial crisis in Western Europe or other challenges of the European Union, BREXIT for example, important developments in the political scene on several countries, so the attention was elsewhere. Finally, we have the attention needed this year. Furthermore, I think there is the understanding in all the major capitals that this status quo, this limbo in which the heart of the Balkans is trapped, is unsustainable and it poses a big risk for the stability and the interests of both NATO and the European Union.That is why the mosaic has to be completed, which explains my country’s actions to resolve the naming issue. Plus we have an overlap of a period when there are no elections in both countries giving a more favorable context for the politicians to deliver a solution. The naming issue between our two countries is the only actually pending issue we have. We have some other minor issues with other neighbors, but where concrete problems go, issues being an impediment to interstate relations and on top of it, as is the case of Greece, our European Union and NATO session, this is our last remaining obstacle. So this by itself is very important to us because we are lagging behind in our European Union and NATO accession.
If the naming issue could somehow be resolved, with both countries satisfied, what can Greece do to improve the sentiment in your country? For example, Greece had funded a series of infrastructure projects for Albania, after their release from the Hodja regime.
Ideally, we should have worked towards this a few years ago, even before the issue is resolved. For the last 2 or 3 years, we have the so-called “Confidence-building Measures” between the two Foreign Ministries, a process which in essence means trying to facilitate and enhance practical cooperation on various topics. Something that the “Republic of Macedonia” has been proposing for a long time and finally the Government in Athens chose to accept because its previous approach was resolving the name issue first and only then trying to work out practical cooperation. We believe that two neighboring countries need practical cooperation, but also this would actually go a long way in helping the naming issue to be resolved. This cooperation is happening, but again we all very easily feel we have come to the ceiling of the limitations this problem puts on us. Should the name issue be resolved soon, I am confident that we could really have an explosion of cooperation on all possible levels and then we are going to realize how much time we have wasted as a potential and how much the opportunities we have wasted in the past 26 years were worth, because as I have mentioned in your first question, we have huge potential and I would argue that if it wasn’t for the name issue, if Greece would have become our staunchest ally and supporter of us being established as an independent state in the UN and the EU-NATO agenda, as Austria for Slovenia, or Germany for Croatia or the Scandinavians for the Baltic countries, I am fully confident that we would have been the closest ally of Greece and vice versa, second to Cyprus only, when it comes to the proximity of the relationship and this can only serve Greece’s strategic interest in the long term. As there are some politicians whose statements are not easily available in the media, still a minority unfortunately, who say that it is to our (Greek) interests having a stable and prospering country in the North, because this serves the ultimate interests of Greece, and I could not agree more on that. Of course if the naming issue is resolved not only will all this open up, this would mean that we could actually become a member of the EU so we can find financers for new infrastructure so that there will be no need for Greece to provide this type of support, simply opening up the gates of cooperation is more than enough for having a huge benefit in relations.
Some months ago a former Prime Minister went on your country’s Media, Television actually, saying that your country should have no claim on the name or history of Macedonia. What exactly did he mean and do you believe that this statement shows that your country and people can be more accepting to a compromising solution?
Well, first of all, you are aware that I cannot speak about details concerning the talks. Secondly, the Prime Minister actually said that we never seek the exclusivity of the name of Macedonia, this has also been said before by the Foreign Minister, we never seek the exclusivity for the history of Macedonia and this is not something new. No government ever in my country since 1991 when we became fully independent, ever said that we are Macedonia, and Greece cannot be Macedonia, or there can be no legacy of Ancient Macedonia in Greece, or that there cannot be a region in Greece called Macedonia, there are areas in Greece called Macedonia, or airports or streets or anything. Obviously, it is worth and it is useful to make it explicit again and again, and it is needed because of the lack of knowledge, the lack of awareness, with people being busy with their lives, it is not something they follow on a daily basis. It is something I need to repeat time and again, that we do not demand exclusivity in any way. In an ideal, logical world, us being called the “Republic of Macedonia” it would be a sufficient distinction that we are the Republic of Macedonia, the state and in Greece there are 3 provinces called Eastern, Western and Central Macedonia, but obviously, this is not sufficient. That is why we are at this process of talks to overcome the difference that has arisen over the name of my country and hopefully we are at a point where we can find a solution.
There have been many publications in Greece, I will not use the word provocation as I agree with your view on this, that there have been maps where the “Republic of Macedonia” extends up to Thessaloniki and includes parts of Greek Macedonia. In an overseas expedition, soldiers from your country have been handing out Baseball caps with the Sun of Vergina, a symbol your own constitution disallows you from using, and Shirts with “Republic of Macedonia” printed on Greek Macedonia. I personally do not believe your country has any territorial claims on Greece, but where and to which groups do you attribute these actions, and could they push any claims forward, should your country be given a name with a Macedonian reference?
I am not aware of this incident, but I could tell you about a different case where our troops in Kabul were working together with the Greek Military Medics.
Indeed and we know that the two groups cooperated really well and in a professional way.
Yes, as I said before, this is yet another good example of positive cooperation. Throughout the years, we have had many of those. But, going back to the question, I could say that the imbalanced situation of 26 years has created a lot of frustration. If we would have resolved the issue when it was ideal to do it, early 90’s, I am sure even those which now show up with these maps, on both sides of the border, would have been much fewer, people would have realized how much we have in common, how much we share interests, after all, it is interest that drives the world, and we would have been a completely different story. I will never say never, I will say better late than never, I believe should we iron out our differences soon, it is still not too late to reverse the course that has brought us here.
Ambassador Angelov we would like to thank you for this very interesting conversation. You have cleared a lot of misconceptions we have held about your country and we hope the information you have provided us will add, ever so slightly, in the mutual understanding and resolving of the issues between our two countries.
Thank you for your time, perhaps we can meet again and discuss possible cooperation between our countries instead of resolving problems.
We really hope so.
We would like to thank Varvara Siafaka for the photos.