Saturday, January 16, 2016
ON MACEDONIAN MATTERS
INTERVIEW WITH DR CHRIS POPOV ON THE POLITICAL CRISIS IN THE REPUBLIC OF MACEDONIA.
TEAM UZUNOV ASKED DR POPOV 12 QUESTIONS:
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 retired and was employed for 24 years by the Federal Department of Immigration (Australia) before his retirement.
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. 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, SBS Radio and Television (Australia).
1. Your thoughts on the political situation in Macedonia and the Balkans as a whole, especially the political crisis in Macedonia and human rights issues as a whole?
Dr Popov: The political crisis in Macedonia which erupted with full force at the beginning of 2015 is the result of the increasing dissatisfaction of Macedonians in general at the corruption, authoritarian tendencies and lack of economic opportunity which has marked the [outgoing] Gruevski government’s time in power , but also importantly that of its main rivals, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia.
It is apparent that as the political crisis in Macedonia deepened in February 2015 when SDSM Leader Zoran Zaev began making public secretly recorded tapes (“bombs”) which allegedly exposed ( if the current investigation headed by the newly-appointed special prosecutor proves them to be authentic) high-level government corruption and involvement in illegal activities, both the EU and the USA increasingly began to support Zaev’s campaign for early elections. A reason for such support may have been the Gruevski government’s intention to participate in the “Turkish Stream” project and its refusal to impose sanctions on Russia, which was seen as a challenge to the West’s campaign to punish Russia and limit its influence in the Balkans. It may also be that the West reasoned that Zaev and the SDSM would be more “flexible” in solving the name issue, a view which Zaev’s statements have provided justification for. The EU, USA and the West in general see in the SDSM and Zaev a compliant partner willing to do their bidding in their attempts to “mould” Macedonia to suit their geopolitical, economic and security interests.
Gruevski’s agreement to early elections on 24 April 2016 and to resign as Premier 100 days before the holding of these elections - which he did on 15 January 2016 as per the Przino Agreement mediated under EU and US pressure in July 2015-is viewed by him as a necessary compromise designed to reduce European pressure and place the onus on Zaev to offer something in return. The release of the “bombs” has done little to shake Gruevski’s control of VMRO-DPMNE and the government (albeit transitional) in general. A viable solution to the current crisis is only possible if both sides abandon their maximalist demands and work together in the interests of society and the state as a whole, rather than narrow political interests. In order for that to happen all major and minor Macedonian parties must rid themselves of the clientelism, corruption, illegal practices, media control and vote rigging which has marked their periods in power and commit to an open, democratic society in which the population’s basic human, economic, social and political rights are guaranteed and observed. They must go beyond merely declarative support for radical reform of Macedonian society.
Nevertheless, any new government that emerges after the elections will be led by either VMRO-DPMNE or the SDSM which, given their track record, may soon revert to past patterns of governance in the absence of sustained public pressure for greater democracy, equality and improvements in living standards. In short, a radical change in the political and moral culture of the country is needed which must be led by honest, progressive political actors untainted by their association with dubious practices of the past. It is only through internal, far-reaching party political reform and cultural change that any solution to the current crisis reached will contribute to the creation of a society where the interests of the people are safeguarded and promoted. While such change will take at least a generation to occur, a credible start on bringing it about must begin as soon as possible if Macedonians are to be given hope that a better and more just society is possible.
Such a process of change must of necessity begin with the Macedonian authorities initiating an independent, impartial investigation to determine whether the recordings are authentic (something they say they are committed to with the establishment of the Office of the Special Prosecutor)- while at the same time calling on Zaev to release all recordings in his possession and not just those that implicate the government in wrongdoing - and to sanction those who have broken the law and violated the rights of the people, irrespective of their party political affiliation, government position or social standing. Moreover, the European Union and other European institutions, Russia and the USA must refrain from trying to impose plans which serve their economic, political and strategic interests (although I realise that in today’s world this is a forlorn hope) and allow the Macedonian people and Macedonia’s institutions to craft a solution which has the broadest possible support across all sectors of Macedonian society.
Finally, all Macedonian political parties must recommit to a policy of defence of Macedonia’s name as part of any agreement on the country’s future and resist calls to change the official name of the country, Republic of Macedonia, as part of any deal to advance Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU. Progressive internal political, social, human rights and economic reforms will count for nought if a name change which erodes Macedonian identity, culture and sovereignty is allowed to occur.
2. Tell us about any possible interference you may have encountered from the then Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria etc. in your travels to various international human rights conferences held in Copenhagen, Moscow and Helsinki in the 1980s and 1990s?
Dr Popov: My participation at these conferences was as part of the Australian Macedonian delegation which formed part of a wider delegation which included representatives of Macedonian human rights groups from Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Canada, the then Czechoslovakia and the Republic of Macedonia. Our express goal was to lobby European governments in order to bring about the recognition and respect for the human rights of the Macedonian minorities which continue to live compactly in the Aegean Macedonia in Greece, Pirin Macedonia in Bulgaria and in Mala Prespa, Gora and other parts of Albania. In retrospect I must state that these delegations achieved considerable success in sensitising Europe to the gross violations of Macedonians’ human rights in the Balkans and assisted in creating the momentum for the formation of viable Macedonian human rights movements in Greece ( the EFA-Rainbow Party), Bulgaria (OMO-Ilinden –PIRIN) and Albania ( Macedonian Alliance for European Integration, Prespa, Macedonian Alliance ) which to this day are still in existence and leading the struggle for respect for the human rights of the Macedonians in their respective states, in the face of official policies of denial and non-recognition by especially Greece and Bulgaria .
GREEK CLOAK & DAGGER IN COPENHAGEN & MOSCOW
Open interference at these conferences came almost exclusively from Greece which attempted to stop our delegation from presenting its case effectively at both the OSCE Human Dimension Conferences (HDC) in both Copenhagen in 1990 and Moscow in 1991. In Copenhagen the deputy head of the official Greek delegation was caught red-handed by the people at the NGO literature desk removing large quantities of our Macedonian delegation’s brochure with a view to disposing of them. The Greek delegation was officially requested to desist from such action by the supervisor of the NGO desk. On the following day the Head of the Greek delegation officially requested from the HDC Secretariat the removal of the NGO Information stand. His request was denied. The Greeks then asked for our use of this facility to be suspended. The Head of HDC security confirmed to us that the Greeks had protested about our use of the facility. After a brief investigation the Greek “request” was denied. Danish and international media were made aware by us of the Greek attempts at hinder our participation and we held a press conference at which we severely embarrassed the Greek delegation for its blatant attempt at censorship at a major human rights conference.
In Moscow in October 1991, a Russian photographer followed members of the Macedonian NGO delegation around the conference centre and took photos of them at very close range, so close that the camera lens was nearly touching out faces. We did not observe him or any other photographer taking such photos of other NGO delegations at the conference. We confronted him and asked whether he had been hired by the Greeks to photograph us. He replied that he was an independent photographer and had not been hired by anyone. We also asked the Head of the official Greek delegation whether he had been engaged by them, to which he replied that he did not know what we were talking about. Given the conduct of the official Greek delegation in Copenhagen and the embarrassment that it suffered due to its clumsy attempt at censorship and the inadequate response of the head of the Greek delegation in Moscow to our enquiry, we concluded that this was in all likelihood another attempt by the official Greek delegates to intimidate our delegation.
There was no such open interference from the official Bulgarian delegations to these conferences. However in our meetings with the Bulgarian delegations in both Copenhagen and Moscow, it was made abundantly clear that Bulgaria did not and would not recognise the existence of a distinct Macedonian ethnicity within Bulgaria or throughout the Balkan region. Likewise, in Copenhagen the official Greek delegation made clear its position that a Macedonian minority did not exist in Greece and that our demands for “rights” for the “artificial Macedonian nation” dovetail with Skopje’s plans for the annexation of Aegean Macedonia. In Moscow, the Greek delegation refused to meet with us and was only willing to accept written material from our delegation. The official Greek and Bulgarian positions regarding the Macedonian minorities in their respective countries have not changed to this day.
At none of these conferences was there any interference from the official Yugoslav delegation. In fact in Copenhagen, they sponsored our press conference and assisted us in arranging meetings with relevant officials, official national delegations etc.
3. You worked alongside such leading Macedonian political and media figures as Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov, Canadian-Macedonian businessman and lobbyist John Bitove, journalist Saso Ordanoski and theatre director Vladimir Milcin in the early 1990s via the Ilinden Foundation.
You hosted Milcin in Melbourne, Australia during a visit. It was a very different political environment back then within the Australian-Macedonian community. You had a kind of “consensus” between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM supporters. That consensus has now disappeared in Australia. Why is that? The community is divided.
Dr Popov: In the early 1990s, the euphoria associated with Macedonia attaining its independence led people on both sides of the political divide to collaborate in the interests of strengthening and deepening Macedonia’s statehood. However, with the passage of time narrow political interests and the desire to retain power in order to reap concrete political and economic rewards has taken precedence over what should be considered non- negotiable national goals and interests (such as defence of Macedonia’s name, territorial integrity, economic and social development) and led to open political warfare and a hardening of attitudes towards one’s political opponents. This enmity is reflected in Macedonian Diaspora communities, although it must be said that the supporters of SDSM have very little support or organisational capacity in Australia and the Macedonian Diaspora as a whole.
4. The current crop of “human rights activists” in the Republic of Macedonia seem to have some puzzling or confusing or contradictory views - for instance they confuse Belgrade urban Serb culture or former Yugoslavist culture with internationalism, but with a slight Western veneer on top for public consumption. For instance, Human rights boss Mirjana Najcevska defends an ultra Serb nationalist priest in Macedonia, Zoran Vraniskovski, and pundit Borjan Jovanovski calls ultra nationalist Serb journalists as “respected colleague (poshtovane kolega)” and journalist Sinisa Jakov-Marusic has a deliberately provocative Serbian quote from the founder of Serbian nationalism Dositej Obradovic as his profile picture on Facebook.
Many of these people who now claim to be human rights activists were no where to be seen back in the 1980s. Some of their views such as the Yugoslavist nostalgia are authoritarian such as the one party state that existed in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Why do you think that is?
Dr Popov: In the interests of fairness it must be stated that the human rights activism in the Republic of Macedonia in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a very new phenomenon and did not have a strong organizational or financial basis. It has become more prominent from 2000 onwards with the influx of funds from the EU and the Soros foundation in support of such activism. While those involved with Soros-funded organizations have stirred up much controversy in recent years and tended to take partisan political pro-SDS positions, this is not to say that the concerns they have raised about violations of human rights in Macedonia are not valid or have no basis. There is a serious democratic deficit in Macedonia which has to be addressed by all political actors if the country is to move forward and achieve social and economic progress. However their defence of people such as Vraniskovski who openly denies the Macedonian Orthodox Church’s right to exist as a separate autocephalous church and Macedonian ethnicity is strange indeed to say the least. Apart from certain organisations representing Macedonian refugees from Greece, such as the Association of Macedonians from the Aegean Part of Macedonia in Bitola, these human rights bodies devote precious little time to highlighting the plight of the Macedonian minorities in Greece, Bulgaria and Albania, a task which is taken up almost exclusively by bodies such as the AMHRC and the MHRMI in Canada. For the human rights movement in Macedonia to be truly effective it must rid itself of the increasingly partisan political position it has taken against the government (which, however can legitimately be criticized for its corruption, venality and lip service to democratic norms and procedures) and adopt positions which reflect genuine public aspirations for political reform and defence of the public good.
5. Do you think it strange that neither the [now outgoing] Macedonian government or opposition, including human rights activists condemned the 14 May 2015 decision by the Serbian High Court to officially rehabilitate ultra Serb nationalist leader Draza Mihailovic who was anti Macedonian. Why does Serb cultural hegemony get a free pass in Macedonia?
Dr Popov: I do not accept the premise that Serbian cultural hegemony gets a free pass in Macedonia, despite the popularity of Serbian music, folk and pop artists and culture in general with the populace in general to the detriment of indigenous Macedonian culture and artistic achievement. The reluctance to criticise the rehabilitation of Draza Mihajlovic, who was a Greater Serbian nationalist who saw Macedonians as merely “Southern Serbs”, reflects rather a desire not to meddle in Serbian internal affairs in a geopolitical situation in which Macedonia- a small, weak state, faced with internal destabilisation- does not have good relations with Greece, Bulgaria and Albania and Kosovo. While there are problems in the relationship with Serbia, Macedonian leaders probably view Serbia as the “lesser regional evil”- given that the Macedonia minority there has some form of official recognition and government funding for Macedonian language classes and culture- which it needs to cooperate with in the struggle against Albanian expansionism.
6. Likewise, many current Macedonian “patriots” were no where to be seen in the 1980s. Why do you think that is?
Dr Popov: It was difficult to be a “Macedonian patriot” in the 1980s, given the then prevailing one-party system in Macedonia which was still formally part of the Yugoslav Federation. Patriotism is a term which is very easily bandied and used for nefarious political purposes, however I do not see much evidence of it amongst the political elite in Macedonia which continues to negotiate Macedonia’s name and collaborate with extremist Albanian elements in order to hold on to political power. True patriotism in Macedonia would focus on a stout defence of Macedonia’s name, a refusal to countenance the de facto federalisation of the country which has steadily taken place and a resolute struggle against corruption, nepotism and the violation of human rights, all the while respecting the rights of ethnic, social and cultural minorities.
7. You’re a man of the Left and not an alleged rabid nationalist of any kind but you see the need to defend Macedonian national identity and the name. Why is that?
Dr Popov: Defence of Macedonia’s name, culture and identity is not incompatible with fighting for progressive political, economic and social policies. It was the primary factor motivating the struggle for Macedonian statehood which began in the late 1800s. However, the struggle to defend Macedonia’s name and national identity which has been under sustained, intense attack for especially the last 25 years should not be done in a way which excludes Macedonia’s ethnic minorities or be understood as positing the primacy of the ethnic Macedonian nation over those non-ethnic Macedonian citizens. Any name change would not only spell the beginning of the end for Macedonian ethnicity and nationhood, but would also give impetus to those forces which seek to territorially dismember the Macedonian state, by creating the perception that if Macedonia is not the nation state of the Macedonians and its minorities together, then it must historically and currently belong to one or some of its neighbouring states, which in the main continually deny Macedonian ethnicity and identity. Those within the Republic of Macedonia and Europe who advocate a name change in the interests of “Euroatlantic Integration’ would not dream of proposing a similar name change of any other nation such as France, Germany , Italy etc and then portray a refusal to do so as a sign of “ nationalist intransigence”. It seems that Macedonia is viewed by these circles as an “experimental guinea pig” and a “lesser nation’ (vis-a vis the so-called “historical” or “superior” nations) whose inherent rights to identity, language and culture can be bargained away for some unspecified, illusory political and economic gain.
8. Why is that Macedonian Human rights activists remain largely silent on the rights of Macedonians in Greece, Bulgaria and Albania?
Dr Popov: The reason for their silence on this issue is that many of them have become too politically partisan and focussed on the struggle for power within the Republic of Macedonia to the detriment of wider, important issues such as this. Another reason is that when Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia, a deliberate attempt was made to foster a Yugoslav identity which downplayed the ethnic and national links between Macedonians in the Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Serbia. The legacy of such policies lingers on. It is sad that many human rights organisations in the Republic of Macedonia do not realise that one of the best defences against attempts to change Macedonia’s name is the defence of Macedonia human rights in the neighbouring states. Doing so would counter the “negationist" view that Macedonians are an “artificial nation” who were “created by Tito “ for purposes of advancing Yugoslav territorial designs”.
9. Are you alarmed at the creeping Bulgarianisation of Macedonian history; the rehabilitation of controversial figures such as Todor Alexandrov?
Dr Popov: This is indeed an alarming development as it gives credence to the perception that Macedonians are in reality “ Western Bulgarians “ who have been “ Serbianised” or “lost their way”, in the words of Bulgarian nationalist discourse and are now discovering their “true roots”. There are circles- how many is hard to say- within the Macedonian government which hold such views and they must be resolutely opposed by reasoned, factual academic research and discourse in order to prevent Macedonian identity from being undermined..
10. Are you concerned at the “tribalisation” of Macedonian politics into two warring camps: VMRO-DMPNE and SDSM? If you criticise VMRO-DPMNE you get accused of being a spy for SDSM or if you criticise SDSM you get accused of being a spy for VMRO-DPMNE. In effect, any form of party neutrality is thrown out the window.
Dr Popov: I have alluded to this in some of my answers above. It is a very worrying development and harks back to the period during which Macedonia formed part of the Yugoslav Communist Federation and when sustained criticism of the ruling party- until at least the late 1980s- was equated with anti-state and anti-communist activity. It has led to an increasing identification of the Macedonian state with the political interests of whichever party is in power and the equation of national interests with those of the ruling or governing party. While it is natural that each government would seek to implement the policies on which it has been elected, it is imperative for the effective functioning of the state that party political goals are put aside in order that collaboration take place for the achievement of vital national, security and economic goals. The “winner takes all” approach in Macedonian politics does not enable capable bureaucrats, policy makers and experts of whatever political persuasion to contribute their skills and talents to national development and social progress.
11. What are your thoughts of the nasty name calling and divisive use of the term “egejizacija” as a pejorative? Opponents of Macedonia’s [now outgoing] Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski have used this term as an attack on him. In a democracy criticising any politician, including Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, should be encouraged but is it fair to tar a whole group with the same brush over one individual? For instance would you use the racist term “Africanisation” to target an Afro-American politician, senator, president etc.? On the subject of stereotyping, why is it that Macedonia’s cultural elite, both on the Left and Right can’t relate to Macedonians outside the capital city, Skopje?
For instance, ex Interior Minister (VMRO-DPMNE) Gordana Jankulovska’s patronising comments about ethnic Macedonians in Mala Prespa, Albania and SDSM aligned journalist Olivera Trajkovska’s disparaging comments about Opposition leader (SDSM) Zoran Zaev’s provincial city background.
Dr Popov: The use of this patronising term “Egejizacija” indicates that those who use it either do not see Macedonians whose roots are from the Aegean part of Macedonia as Macedonians or see them as a lesser form of Macedonian. It is unnecessarily divisive, discriminatory and a hangover from Yugoslav times when the federal authorities gave precedence to the creation of a primary Yugoslav identity over Macedonian, Serbian, Croatian etc identities. There are enough political and social divisions between Macedonians in the Republic of Macedonia without the need for a further layer of disunity based on place of origin within the wider Macedonian ethnographic region.
The political elite in Macedonia tends to see Skopje as the centre of their universe as evidenced by the Skopje 2014 project and other major political, cultural economic and social developments which tend to be concentrated in the capital city. Voters in regions outside of Skopje often complain that politicians, MPs and government ministers only visit them at election time in search of their vote and then forget about them until the next electoral cycle. Paying greater attention to the needs and aspirations of inhabitants of regions outside of Skopje would not only deliver much needed investment and jobs to these areas, but also help in addressing the increasingly serious brain drain which is severely hampering Macedonia, economically and demographically.
12. Your thoughts on the [now outgoing] Macedonian government and Opposition, including the Albanian nationalist bloc?
Dr Popov: Both the Macedonian government and the opposition SDSM have shown themselves to be incapable of solving the myriad problems faced by Macedonia during their periods in power, although in saying this I am aware of the difficult position Macedonia finds itself it both regionally and internationally. Ever since independence political life in Macedonia has been mired in corruption, clientelism, vote-rigging and nepotism to the detriment of the voters and the wider population. The current political crisis is the result of the increasing dissatisfaction of Macedonians in general at the corruption, authoritarian tendencies and lack of economic opportunity which has marked the Gruevski government’s time in power, but also importantly that of its main rivals, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia. The SDSM, which appears to have the backing of the EU, USA, has used the crisis sparked by the release of Zaev’s “bombs” to make an attempt to grab power by bringing about early elections as per the Przino Agreement, however despite the strong international support it is receiving, it seems unlikely to achieve its goal if elections are held in April 24, due to VMRO-DPMNE’s control of the bureaucracy and the support it receives from regions outside Skopje.
However, ultimately, unless a thorough democratisation and deep-seated reform takes places within both VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM, neither of these parties will be able to effectively tackle the deep-seated economic, political, social and security problems faced by the country in the coming years. A new progressive political option led by persons untainted by corruption and who have Macedonia’s national interests at heart is needed, however it is unlikely that such a viable option will emerge in the short term given the political culture which permeates Macedonian society. A change in the mentality of the general population, which appears in the main to grudgingly accept a political culture marked by corruption, nepotism and vote- rigging, is needed so that sustained pressure can be applied to the political class to govern responsibly.
Dr Popov: The ethnic Albanian political parties in Macedonia have been the big winners since Macedonia declared independence. Nearly every government formed since independence has built a coalition with one or other of the existing ethnic Albanian parties, despite there being no constitutional obligation or electoral imperative to do so. This occurred initially in order to foster a feeling in the ethnic Albanian minority that they had a stake in the country, however in the last 15 years it has been done due to international pressure, the Ohrid agreement which ended the brief ethnic Albanian armed rebellion in 2001 and because of the mutual enmity which exists between VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM which has prevented them from forming coalitions which do not include the ethnic Albanian parties. Participation in such governments has provided Albanian parties, especially the current DUI and DPA, with great political leverage to implement and advance an agenda viewed by many Macedonians as, at best, aimed at achieving a confederal, bi-national Macedonia or at worst a secession of Western Macedonia and parts of Skopje and Kumanovo as the precursor to the creation of a Greater Albania. The insistence of both of these parties on the ethnic Albanian minority being constitutionally proclaimed a “constituent nation” of the Republic of Macedonia and on the Albanian language being given official status throughout the whole of Macedonia certainly gives credence to such views.