Following its visit to Macedonia, the commission was expected for talks in the Albanian capital Tirana, with more consultations to follow in Croatia and Bosnia in October.
Although the group's talks with Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski, government members, representatives of political parties, the media, and businessmen took place behind closed doors, several commission members used the opportunity to share their opinions on the political situation in Macedonia with the local media.
The former Italian premier was among the first to talk to the journalists. Asked about the overall situation in Macedonia, Amato said the country is an example for stability in the region. In Amato's view, Macedonia's biggest problem is the ailing economy, with its very low industrial growth rate, high unemployment, and bureaucratic obstacles that deter would-be investors.
Amato refrained from commenting on the upcoming referendum against the government's redistricting plans (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3, 11, and 17 September 2004). But he encouraged Macedonian citizens to overcome their fears, since the country's future NATO membership is a form of insurance, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Amato said Macedonians must be more confident regarding their future and less afraid of the past.
Former Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta, who is also a member of the International Commission on the Balkans, was more skeptical about the political situation in the neighboring country. In an interview with the same Skopje daily, Meta said he is very concerned about the referendum because it is not "constructive" and could result in new tensions between Macedonians and Albanians. Meta warned that if the referendum succeeds, ethnic Macedonians could use it to block other improvements for the Albanian minority, too.
Meta did not choose to respond to a question about the possible reaction of Macedonian Albanians if the referendum succeeds. He said, however, that the referendum must be suspended and a political solution sought instead. He argued that collecting signatures for the referendum drive and manipulating constitutional provisions to obstruct the proposed changes "could lead to unexpected situations, and, above all, undermine the EU's confidence in this country's progress on its way to European integration."
Neven Mimica, who is a former Croatian minister for European integration and also a member of the International Commission on the Balkans, told "Utrinski vesnik" of 24 September that the referendum could be an obstacle for the implementation of the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, which ended a brief but tense period of interethnic strife between the ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (UCK) and the Macedonian security forces. He added that the European Commission will therefore pay close attention to the outcome of the referendum.
Regarding Macedonia's next steps on its path to EU membership, Mimica said it must follow in the footsteps of previous candidates. He noted that the European Commission's questionnaire on the country's preparedness for EU membership will arrive soon, adding that he believes that Macedonian institutions will have no problem in answering the questions.
For Mimica, the European Commission's only political precondition for starting negotiations on Macedonia's EU membership is the full implementation of the Ohrid peace deal. "I believe if this issue is resolved, there will be no reason for the European Commission to postpone its assessment [of Macedonia's readiness to joint the union] or to grant [Macedonia] the candidate status."
Mimica also ventured a guess as to when he expects the EU to grant Macedonia the candidate status. "In my opinion, this will happen either at the end of 2005 or early in 2006," Mimica said.
Macedonian Minister for European Integration Radmila Sekerinska, for her part, told A1 TV on 24 September that answering the questions of the European Commission -- even the difficult ones on economic, industry, and agriculture policies -- will be no problem. "And regarding the question as to whether Macedonia has met the economic criteria for EU membership, it is clear that it has not. But this is nothing unusual," Sekerinska said, recalling similar experiences in Croatia and Bulgaria.