Mr Ambassador, the first question I wanted to ask you is your general assessment of the referendum in Macedonia on the 30th?
My general assessment happens to coincide with the assessment of the State Electoral Commission of Macedonia, which has declared it as invalid. I think there are two reasons for that. One is the low turnout as we all know which was well below 50 percent, and the second is, actually, the confusion on what the referendum was about? If it was about the new name, then why wasn’t the name even mentioned in the question posed at the referendum?
The Agreement was mentioned…
But not the name. And actually there were three questions combined in one, which, I believe, is something not envisaged in the Constitution of the country.
Now, let me give you a broader assessment of what I think. I believe that settlement of bilateral problems between two neighbouring countries – Macedonia and Greece – was long overdue. That should have been done at least twenty years ago. And I think along that historic path there were many occasions to do that, but they were all missed. I don’t want to attribute blame on anyone but those were opportunities missed. Now, the two countries opted to sign this Agreement. I believe that a settlement of bilateral problems in a bilateral format is in itself a good thing. But a solution of such a long-standing problem should be based on three things. It should be based on the will of the two peoples, it should be based on a proper constitutional basis and, of course, on a broad consensus in the two societies. I’m afraid none of the three conditions have been met. You’ve seen the reactions in large segments of society, both in your own country and in neighbouring Greece. Actually it so happened that I was in Athens on the day when the Agreement was signed. I was attending a conference organised by The Economist. On that day there was an attempt for a no-confidence motion to the government, it was bound to fail, it did. But, the tensions in Greece on the domestic political arena are equally high as in Macedonia, perhaps even higher.
This is one thing. The other thing is an explanation why this attempt was launched. The obvious aim was to pull Macedonia into NATO as soon as possible. Not to the EU, by the way. Nobody is talking directly about a shortcut to the EU, which will not happen. And I think you know it as well as I do. But NATO… You will understand that my country has been consistently critical of NATO enlargement in any direction, including in particular towards the Balkans because the Balkans with all the recent history and the role of NATO in the region throughout those years is bound to create additional tensions.
There are a number of questions that come out from your answers, and I would first like to ask you about the missed opportunities to solve the name issue throughout the years. Can you give a concrete example of missed opportunities in these past 25 years?
I think there was a lack of political will on both sides, I mean the governments of those years.
You are aware that the Russian Federation recognised Macedonia under its constitutional name as early as 1992, which, I admit, was not received with great enthusiasm in another friendly country of ours which is Greece. But still. So, there were opportunities to solve this issue. I remember in the 90’s Thessaloniki which then was a city of 600.000 organised huge rallies of a million and a half, with torch-carrying parades and everything. That was bizarre, but it was also an element of cementing this impasse. As I understand (though I may be wrong of course), for the Greeks it’s not so much the name that matters, but everything connected – the identity. It can be Northern Macedonia, Upper Macedonia, Lower Macedonia, whatever. But who are the Macedonians they immediately ask and how come they bear the same name as those who consider themselves great-great-grand children of Alexander the Great? And then the language – I know how the language issue was addressed between Macedonia and Bulgaria – in a tricky way, I would say, more like circumventing the issue rather than solving it. So, again, the whole problem could have been solved much earlier. It should be solved now, but not as a spin-off of NATO enlargement.
You didn’t give a precise instance in history of a missed opportunity…
I won’t because it would be connected with certain personalities…
You also said the referendum question may not be constitutional but the Constitutional Court ruled that it was though…
But that’s not the main issue. The main issue is the turnout of 36,7 percent. Of course it was not obligatory to come and vote. The referendum itself was not binding. As I understand the next steps would be for the current government to garner two-third majority in parliament and if they do not manage to do that, which is a possibility, then early parliamentary elections. But on that I understand there are differing views within the government coalition.
What do you think of early elections in Macedonia right now, is it a risk?
Elections are always a risk for those in power. But they are always an opportunity for the electorate to express its view. I don’t have a clear-cut position on the Macedonian elections, or any other elections, I’m not in the business of interfering in elections in other countries.
What exactly is the issue of Russia with NATO’s enlargement to the Balkans. The Balkans, I’m not asking about Ukraine or Georgia.
NATO is an organisation created in the mid-20th century to address a totally different set of challenges to security. Whether that was wrong or right is a different issue related to those days, the Cold War years. But today NATO enlargement is nothing but an attempt to address a new generation of security threats and challenges with means and mechanisms of mid-20th century. I remember not too long ago NATO was in desperate search for a mission. They found Afghanistan. And they focused on Afghanistan for better or worse. Then they even created NATO command on transformation, trying to reinvent NATO as a political alliance rather than a military one. It never worked. Today we see, that instead of that proclaimed transformation NATO rolls back to its original functions and instincts. Which is bad for European and global security and stability.
And by that you mean anti-Russian? You still have this NATO-Russia Council, which hasn’t worked in four years…
Well, they met occasionally at ambassadorial level and they still do. Though we no longer have an ambassador to NATO, we have a chargé d’affaires. But we don’t have a positive agenda to discuss. Whenever they meet they have only one
item – Ukraine. Actually two: Ukraine and Georgia. We are not against discussing those issues, but European security is a much broader topic. We used to have joint projects addressing the real security threats and challenges. No longer, because NATO is not inclined to discuss them with us. So we may have a better strategic partnership with Macedonia, if you don’t join NATO.
Do you not fear for the security of the region and coming back to the Agreement you said the EU perspective is not clear…
I didn’t say it’s not clear, I said it’s a long-term perspective.
But we still need to start EU accession negotiations which are blocked by Greece. So without this Agreement…
We don’t have anything against that. The EU enlargement is different from NATO enlargement.
Yes, absolutely, but both are conditioned by Greece in our case.
Well, that’s your bad luck (laughs).
And if this Agreement fails, what do we do? What’s the option? Can Russia offer some kind of alternative?
The Eurasian economic union. Why not? We actually have countries in line to join.
Is there a serious concrete open invitation for Macedonia to join?
Well, you haven’t applied yet…
Are there criteria, how does it work?
It’s open for everybody. We are currently negotiating deals with faraway countries like Vietnam for example, India, perhaps China at some point. Even New Zealand showed interest some time ago.
What are the benefits of this Eurasian Union compared to the EU?
Well, I would say the Eurasian Union is more humane and democratic.
Do you have a system of improving the rule of law, etc?
It’s an economic union. We do not focus on LGBT rights or the retirement age of judges. We focus on certain global issues, like climate change. But primarily there is a practical agenda. By the way, we are very much involved in trying to establish a working relationship between the Eurasian Union and the European Union. Also between the two Commissions. It is proceeding very slowly because of certain political considerations by certain EU member states.
Your guess will be as good as mine. Not your neighbour.
Did Russia meddle in the referendum campaign?
There have been investigative reports, accusations from the US directly…
It all started as a spin-off of the American elections of 2016, the result of which the side that lost the election could not bear to accept. Now, two years later, they still cannot allow themselves to live with that result. So they started trying to find certain explanations for their defeat. I will not describe in detail what happened in the US, but this virus of anti-Russian sentiment has become so strong, that it actually managed to cross the Atlantic ocean – first to Britain, of course, the closest, and then it spread to some other countries.
Do you know Ivan Savvidis?
Well, I haven’t met him. I know that this individual exists. He has made a fortune in the tobacco business. He spends money on football, the money that he earned in tobacco, evidently. He’s an ethnic Greek, I believe he was born in the Soviet Union. He bought a football club in Greece, PAOK, and he has been involved in incidents over that, but I am not aware of details.
He stands accused of fomenting…
If there’s evidence then he should be asked about that. But why would Greece expel Russian diplomats who have nothing to do with that?
Did this worsen your relations with Greece?
Well, it was an unfortunate incident. But I believe the mutual feelings between the two peoples are much stronger than that. Of course we reacted, tit-for-tat applies to whomever.
Tsipras was expected to be a Russian ally, he resisted sanctions against Russia, are you disappointed by Syriza?
I am disappointed by this incident that was created in the year when we celebrate 190 years of diplomatic relations with Greece…
There are investigative reports by the OCCRP
Who are they?
A big investigative network
There were investigations about the involvement of Russian businessmen, the Prime Minister of Macedonia said that businessmen were paid to cause unrest in Macedonia…
There are people with their individual agendas on all sides of any situation like this. But I’m speaking not for individual Russian businessmen, I’m speaking for the Russian government which had nothing to do with events in Macedonia, in Greece, in the US, in Britain.
You said “there are errors that have consequences” speaking about Macedonia. What did you mean by consequences?
I have already described it. I think that should this project of bringing Macedonia into NATO succeed it will certainly have an adverse effect on our bilateral relations, because we will have to calculate our risks and interests in that part of the Balkans. But it’s not something that we are trying to conceal. You mentioned the ending of my sentence, but it started by accepting that like any individual, every country had the right to choose its own alliances. And make one’s own mistakes along the way. But certainly political decisions of those proportions of course bear consequences.
What kind of consequences?
Well, if Macedonia becomes a member of NATO you will have to pay two percent of your GDP for defence. I don’t know whether the Macedonian people are willing to do that. For defence... Against whom? Whom will Macedonian armed forces be preparing to defend the country from?
We already send soldiers with NATO anyway…
Yes, you will have to send many more, some of them may get killed, God forbid.
A country is not obliged to send soldiers though… To come back to the consequences, the former Russian ambassador to Macedonia went a bit further, and said the country could become “a legitimate target should it become a NATO member.
I will not go into those details.
Was that step too far from him?
I don’t comment on comments made by my colleagues.
In your reaction to the referendum on the Prespa Agreement, you said that should it go through, it would be reviewed by the UN Security Council. What could Russia do?
Let me explain. I will quote the relevant UN Security Council Resolution adopted in 1993. Resolution 845, paragraph 3 envisages that the UN Secretary General shall submit a report to the Security Council on the results of negotiations between Skopje and Athens upon which the Security Council will review the matter.
What does that mean?
We will have a discussion in New York.
You would need consensus in the Security Council to block.
To block what?
There is hope among those who oppose the Agreement that even if it goes through Parliament, Russia will be there in the SC to block it.
Frankly, I don’t foresee this issue coming to a vote in the Security Council, but of course it will give us an opportunity to state our position.
Which would be?
We may point to the imperfect legality of that Agreement. Because it doesn’t have support and has not been endorsed by the President of the Republic of Macedonia, and it does not conform with the Constitution of the country.
If the Constitution is changed through legal procedures, it will be a different situation. But logically – why an Agreement that was signed was put to a referendum before the necessary amendments to the Constitution are introduced? It’s putting the cart before the horse.
Does Russia support a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo?
Russia will support an agreement between the two sides that would be in the interest of everybody and that Belgrade as our traditional friend and ally would be happy with.
We haven’t recognised Kosovo as you know, together with countries representing more than half of the world population. If they strike a deal, and that deal is in line with the general norms of international law and is approved through the relevant democratic procedures inside Serbia, then OK.
Are you concerned for the security of the region with the prospect of that deal?
When I hear some German-speaking politicians expressing their apprehension that this would open a Pandora’s box… I don’t remember people in Germany saying the same words when Germany was the first country to recognise Slovenia and Croatia, going against the tide of the EU then, because the majority of EU members were against this.
Are you concerned about the security in the region? Is there a security assessment on the part of the Russian Federation?
I’m not convinced that the Prespa Agreement would necessarily create a domino effect. There are certain problems in other parts of the Balkans, of course. Bosnia and Herzegovina is an example at hand. Perhaps also in the Eastern Mediterranean – if you take Cyprus, the Greco-Turkish differences. But you know, if there is genuine wish of the society expressed by the political will of a legitimate democratically elected government then I think the world should look at it objectively. I will limit myself to that.