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Thursday, April 20, 2017

MACEDONIA’S LIFE OR DEATH STRUGGLE? Tirana Platform.

Q & A with Dr Chris Popov - Australian-Macedonian activist

1. Since your last interview for Team Uzunov Blog in 2016 - the situation in Macedonia has worsened. What is your assessment now? 

Dr Popov: The situation in Macedonia is incomparably worse than then, both politically, economically and from a security point of view This is due to many factors, such as the corruption and venality of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE [conservative, nominally “nationalist party], the inconclusive nature of the 11 December 2016 general elections, the open and flagrant meddling in Macedonia’s internal affairs by the USA and European Union (EU) and their respective ambassadors and representatives and the willingness of the opposition SDSM [Social Democrats] party to entertain and implement the demands contained in the Tirana Platform which represents a direct threat to the Republic of Macedonia’s continuation as a state of the Macedonian people. In saying this I am not giving a free pass to VMRO-DPMNE. That party like the SDSM did not condemn the Platform when it was announced and negotiated with DUI in the hope that it could “cut a deal” and in so doing, possibly mitigate the worst aspects of the platform in an attempt to stay in power and thus avoid the prosecution of major party leaders and functionaries for what appears to be gross corruption and abuse of public office. 

However for one reason or another VMRO-DPMNE and DUI did not form a coalition government- President Gjorge Ivanov says it was due to a “phone call” possibly alluding to a foreign diplomat, Bujar Osmani of DUI says that they had reached agreement on ”ethnic matters”, but could not agree on the continuation of the mandate of the Special Prosecutor’s Office, while Artan Grubi of DUI stated that the offer made by VMRO-DPMNE on “ethnic matters” was unsatisfactory- and the SDSM party led by Zoran Zaev agreed to form a coalition with the Albanian parties DUI, BESA and Alianza za Albancite. 

On 1 March 2017, despite the fact that Zaev had secured the support of 67 MPs for the granting of a mandate to form government, the mandate was denied to him by Ivanov on the grounds that the acceptance of the Tirana Platform represented a threat to Macedonia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and was thus unconstitutional. SDSM and its coalition partners in turn say Ivanov’s action was unconstitutional. Therefore, the campaign against Zaev and the SDSM, especially in the Diaspora, is being waged simply because it has fallen to him to form government and because he has not renounced the Tirana Platform. Had VMRO-DPMNE been in the same position, I have no doubt that the reaction of Diaspora Macedonians would have been the same.

Since then there has been a stalemate, with the protesters from the “Zaednicka Makedonija” [Macedonia Together] movement supporting the President’s decision with daily street marches for seven weeks now and the EU, USA through their ambassadors and prominent government officials, applying pressure to Ivanov to relent and grant the mandate to Zaev. The cosmetic “concessions” announced by Zaev on March 11-namely that there would be no bi-lingual banknotes or army uniforms- were not enough to convince Ivanov that he had renounced the Tirana Platform. Moreover, the fact that the three Albanian parties have not withdrawn their support for Zaev is evidence that they have reached an agreement on the platform and agreed to implement it. 

The result of all this is a political stalemate, with VMRO-DPMNE filibustering in Parliament to prevent the election of a speaker-most likely the extremely controversial Talat Xhaferi, the former NLA [Kosovo Liberation Army offshoot in Macedonia] commander-and increasingly open interference by the EU in order to get the SDSM-Albanian party coalition into power. The institutions of the state have been paralysed, while at the same time Macedonia’s neighbours are jockeying for position in order to grab a piece of Macedonian territory in the event that war breaks out, which I sincerely hope is not the case. Given the current volatile situation in Macedonia and the Balkan region I do not believe that any armed conflict there would be contained within Macedonia’s borders, but would develop into a regional conflagration, given Macedonia’s central geo-strategic position 

2. You gave what many are saying was a powerful speech at a recent Macedonian rally in Melbourne, Australia against the Tirana Platform in which you said in Macedonian [English translation]: 

“The Republic of Macedonia was not handed to us on a plate. Many generations fought and died for the establishment of a Macedonian state and we are not going to allow it to be taken away from us in order to satisfy someone’s thirst for power and the appetites of those who wish to create a Greater Albania.” 

What has moved you to reach that conclusion? 

Dr Popov: It’s quite simple. Having read the Tirana Platform I am of the firm view that if such a platform is implemented in Macedonia it will eventually spell the end of Macedonia as a unitary state of the Macedonian people. It is the final phase of the plan which began to be realised in 2001 when Macedonia was attacked by the KLA/NLA from Kosovo. The Albanian separatist agenda in Macedonia has been advancing apace since 1991 and steadily achieving its goals; one could say that a de facto federalisation of Macedonia has taken place already and that this would represent the final stage of the plan. Nevertheless, official, constitutionally-sanctioned federalisation would represent a new escalation and acceleration of the separatist agenda. The implementation of this platform would signify the final blow-coup de grace-for the Macedonian state. 

The main demands contained in this document-namely, the declaration of Albanians in Macedonia as a constituent state people, Albanian to be officially designated an official language throughout the whole territory of Macedonia, a debate on changing the flag, anthem and national coat of arms and a declaration that Albanians in Macedonia were subjected to genocide between 1912-1956 are not designed to defend the rights of Albanians in Macedonia (which they have an abundance, indeed surfeit of) but to lay the foundations for the acceptance of a federalist, indeed confederalist and separatist agenda, whose goal is the redefinition and eventual division of the Macedonian state. This agenda is tacitly, but strongly, supported by the EU and USA, as it increases the power and influence in the Balkans of their most loyal vassals, the Albanian political leadership in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia which is willing to do their bidding in return for support for the project of unifying all so-called Albanian lands on the basis laid out by the Prizren League of 1878. Therefore, those who wish to attain power by implementing such a platform must be opposed as energetically as possible, as Macedonia was indeed not handed to us on plate, but fought for by the Macedonian people for centuries so that the Macedonian people could have a country they call home.

In saying this, I am cognisant of the myriad problems which hinder Macedonia’s development as a modern, prosperous state; corruption, misuse of state funds, nepotism and clientelism. Those who have committed such crimes-of whatever political stripe-should be investigated and punished accordingly in a non-selective and non-partisan way. However, in order to have a Macedonia in which such justice is fairly dispensed, there must be a state called Macedonia in existence. The Tirana Platform threatens the very existence of such a state and this is precisely why it must be opposed at this juncture as the most pressing and urgent problem facing Macedonia and the Macedonian people.

3. Many media outlets, including those in Macedonia, have deliberately portrayed opponents of the Tirana Platform as rabid “nationalists,” VMRO-DPMNE “puppets,” Russian “stooges - it harks back to the days of the 1980s when the Greek, Yugoslav and Bulgarian governments, labelled anything that moved or scratched its head not in accordance with the tastes of Athens, Belgrade or Sofia as “extremist” - why is this same template being used now? 

Ironically those who draw support from the US (see left photo) hold pan-Yugo-Slavist / pan-Slavist views, traditionally the preserve of Serbia and Russia, but also support the Tirana Platform. Yet these individuals are never pulled up or scrutinised for their paradoxical views, instead others are labelled as being “pro Russian” and “pro Putin.” Why the blatant hypocrisy?

Dr Popov: People who oppose the Tirana Platform are portrayed in this way in order to discredit them and prevent them from organising effectively in defence of Macedonia’s continued existence as a Macedonian state. While I am certain that there is VMRO-DPMNE involvement in the protest movement, I do not believe that all those attending are motivated by the desire to keep that party in power at all costs. Many of those attending see the danger inherent in the Tirana Platform and wish to resist its implementation by participating in the daily marches. I do not accept that the VMRO-DPMNE is so powerful and all-pervasive that all or a large part of the protesters are regularly “called out” to do their patriotic duty, as it were. 

Those Macedonians who either tacitly support the Tirana Platform or see its implementation as a necessary evil which must be stomached in the interests of removing the “regime” from power ( a strange characterisation given the amount of open and vociferous opposition in Macedonia to VMRO-DPMNE) are routinely portrayed by organisations such as BIRN [London directed Balkan Insight news website], the mainstream Western and European media and pro-SDSM media outlets as “progressive”,”reform-minded”, “committed to fighting corruption” and possessing “European values”. 

The juxtaposition of “conservative, backward” opponents of the Tirana Platform vis-a-vis “modern, progressive” opponents of the “regime” is not only erroneous, but is designed to win support for the EU and USA strategy of bringing Macedonia completely to heel in order for it to become a bulwark on NATO’s southern flank against “ Russian expansionism”. 

I notice that while many SDSM supporters in Macedonia chide Macedonians in the Diaspora for “interfering “ in Macedonia’s internal affairs, no such venom is directed against European officials and foreign ambassadors who brazenly intervene uninvited in Macedonia, often in complete contravention of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The double standard is breathtaking. Macedonia is in many respects a pawn in the struggle between the USA and EU on one side and Russia on the other, for political and economic dominance of the region. 



4. What do you see as likely happening? What would you like to see happen to resolve the crisis, the impasse in Macedonia?

Dr Popov: I most certainly do not want to see the Tirana Platform implemented and the best insurance against this happening is for the street protests and marches throughout Macedonia to continue until Zoran Zaev and the SDSM, as well as VMRO-DPMNE, renounce it in writing. It is clearly in the realm of fantasy to expect VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM to form a broad coalition without the ethnic Albanian parties in order to prevent its implementation, given the level of mutual antagonism which exists between them. VMRO-DPMNE is calling for new elections as a way out of the impasse, but I would not expect SDSM to agree to such new elections, nor that the “international community” (a euphemism for the EU and the USA) will recognise the results of any such elections. There will only be new elections if the EU and the USA believe that the SDSM and its allies can win and are able to convince Zaev and the SDSM to participate. There may be new elections if the regional security situation becomes less stable and this same “international community” sees them as the only way to prevent further deterioration of the situation. However, such elections would most likely be several months away given that the date for local municipal elections has had to be pushed back; such local elections would take priority given that the mandate of mayors and other municipal officials expires in mid-May.

Alternatively, some players may see low level warfare as a way of forcing Ivanov and VMRO-DPMNE to relent, but that option carries with it the danger of the situation spiralling out of control. However, if new elections are held I would like to see a new political party emerge from the ranks of those protesting in the streets, provided that any such political formation was independent of both VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM and remained committed to the protection of vital national and state interests. SDSM and its allies have often spoken of forming a government without a formal mandate from Ivanov which would not only be completely unconstitutional, but also further deepen the crisis and create the preconditions for social upheaval and armed conflict. 

The ethnic Albanian parties have even floated the idea of forming their own Sobranie [parliament] in Tetovo, but that would be an unrealistic option which the Albanians’ international mentors- primarily the USA- would not countenance as it would leave the door wide open for Russia to intensify its pressure on the interim government and VMRO-DPMNE and offer greater assistance and support. Given the entrenched positions of both main Macedonian political parties and the obvious international support for Zaev, I do not see any quick solution to the current deep crisis occurring for at least several months. It appears that the war of political attrition will continue for some considerable time and I do not have a concrete realistic proposal for bringing an end to the situation. My fervent hope is that any solution manages to avoid violent confrontation and armed conflict which would be the worst possible outcome. 

5. In your view what do Macedonians, in both the Republic of Macedonia and in the diaspora, need to do counter the Tirana Platform? 

Dr Popov: The best insurance against the implementation of the Platform is the continuation of the protests and marches throughout Macedonia led by the “Zaednicka Makedonija” movement. This mass movement has to date prevented the formation of an SDSM-led government by providing President Ivanov with the popular backing necessary for him to continue to refuse to grant the mandate to Zaev and has prevented SDSM and its coalition partners from forming a government without the formal consent of the President. Macedonians in the Diaspora cannot directly influence events in Macedonia, however the rallies and protests which have been held in recent weeks around the world, including the biggest to date in Melbourne, have undoubtedly encouraged the movement in Macedonia to persist in its struggle to defeat the platform and have provided strong moral support to it. Such events should occur at regular intervals until the final goal is attained.

6. What will be the knock on effect or repercussions for ethnic Macedonians in Albanian, Greece and Bulgaria if Macedonia is federalised?

Dr Popov: Successive governments in Macedonia have done precious little to advocate for and defend the rights of the Macedonians in Aegean and Pirin Macedonia, Mala Prespa, Golo Brdo and Gora and throughout Greece, Bulgaria and Albania as a whole. The lack of any coherent state strategy in defence of these Macedonian minorities is the result of a desire to not worsen relations further with neighbouring countries that have for decades disputed, denied and subverted the identity of Macedonians in the Republic of Macedonia, not to speak of the policies of forced assimilation of the Macedonians in their own countries ( with the exception of the Macedonians in Mala Prespa, Albania). In other words a continuation of the policy of self-interested appeasement which often marked the period when Macedonia formed part of the former socialist Yugoslav Federation.

Recognition of the rights of the Macedonians in the neighbouring countries would serve to strengthen the security of the Republic itself by creating buffer zones of Macedonians on four of Macedonia’s external borders. However, since independence what we have witnessed is a formal renunciation of the obligation to defend the rights of Macedonians in Egej, Pirin and Albania via formal pledges in agreements signed with Greece and Bulgaria to not defend the rights of persons in those countries who are not citizens of the Republic of Macedonia. The Interim Agreement with Greece in 1995 and the Joint Declaration with Bulgaria of 1999 contained such restrictive clauses. Contrast this policy of retreat with the aggressive nationalistic demands contained in the Tirana Platform signed under the tutelage of Edi Rama in Albania.

The formal-as opposed to the current de facto-federalisation of the Republic of Macedonia would inevitably lead to the further weakening of the position of Macedonians in these neighbouring states where their existence is precarious enough as it is. For under such conditions, the national and moral “beacon of hope” represented by the Republic and the Macedonian character of the Macedonian state would be further diluted, thereby contributing to a concomitant weakening of the Macedonian identity of those Macedonians in Greece, Bulgaria and Albania. The struggle to defeat the Tirana Platform is literally a battle of life and death not only for the Republic of Macedonia, but also for Macedonians in Aegean and Pirin Macedonia and Albania.

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BIOGRPAHY:

Dr Chris Popov was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1953 to parents originating from the Lerin and Kostur regions of Macedonia. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Ph.D. in History. Dr Popov is active in Macedonian community circles in Melbourne and Australia.  He is now retired and was employed for 24 years by the Federal Department of Immigration (Australia).


In the late 1980s he was president of the Australian Macedonian Progressive Society and from 1994 until 2001 he was president of the Australian Macedonian Human Rights Committee and the Macedonian Human Rights Committee of Melbourne and Victoria. He has served on the Executive of the Australian Macedonian Human Rights Committee from 2008 to March 2017. He is a regular contributor to the Macedonian press and radio and on-line media both in Australia and Macedonia and has also contributed to the Melbourne Age newspaper, SBS Radio and Television (Australia).




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