Skopje, 23 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian Foreign Minister Blagoj Handjiski says the continuation of the United Nations Prevention Force (UNPREDEP) beyond its current termination date of August 31 is imperative for ensuring peace and stability in Macedonia and the Balkans.
Within the next several months Skopje intends to campaign for the continuation of international presence to avoid what Handjiski calls the post-UNPREDEP security gap. "The efficiency of UNPREDEP was guaranteed by the military and this must continue," he says.
Talking recently to RFE/RL Handjiski said that there is a real possibility of a new war in the Balkans starting in Kosovo. He said that such a war could possibly jeopardize security in the whole of Europe. "If Kosovo blows up," he said, "streams of Albanian refugees will pour into Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia and Greece. This will destabilize the situation seriously."
With reference to President Kiro Gligorov's recent proposal to create a "corridor" for ethnic Albanians through Macedonia to Albania proper, Handjiski said that in case of violence, Macedonia will try to seal its border with Serbia -- the border is still undefined -- but because of its international humanitarian obligations, the republic will have to take in some refugees. This may result in a dramatic shift in the ethnic population balance in the republic.
Handjiski said that his country was forced to delay economic reforms because it was late in securing international recognition. "Without having been members of the United Nations (UN), we could not participate in programs of other international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and others."
Macedonia became a member of the UN under a provisional name in spring 1993 and joined the IMF and the WB in late 1993. Since then, Handjiski said, economic reform has been going on but the four-year delay can still be felt. "While other former Communist nations in Eastern Europe signed diplomatic and economic agreements with the European Union in 1990/91, we did it at the end of 1995. The EU ratified the agreement in October 1997 and it came into force in January 1998."
Handjiski said Macedonia still feels the brunt of the two Balkan embargoes: the international sanctions against rump Yugoslavia and the Greek-imposed blockade on Skopje. "Being an export-oriented country with 83 percent of all produce going abroad, we found ourselves cut off from Europe, from the other former Yugoslav republics and from the rest of the Balkans. The transport costs of our products increased from 10 to 48 percent and we lost our competitiveness in the Western European markets."
From 1991 to 1996 Gross National Product decreased by about 15 percent per year, Handjiski said, adding that the trend was reversed in 1996 and 1997 marked a growth of 2.5 percent. The government projects further growth in the current year as well as a decline in inflation. Handjiski hopes Skopje will be able to become an associated member of the EU by mid-1999, and a full member "eight to nine years" after that.
Handjiski said that Macedonia has established free-trade zones with all other former Yugoslav republics. It is currently seeking the establishment of similar relations with Romania, Albania and Bulgaria.
Referring to demands for more cultural and political autonomy for the ethnic Albanians -- according to official figures Albanians amount to one quarter of a total population of two million -- Handjiski said that they enjoy a degree of self-determination.
Handjiski said that there are 'two kinds of Albanians' in Macedonia. One, amounting to no more than 300 000, according to Handjiski, has been "indigenous." The other came to what at the time was the federate republic of Macedonia after the death of Marshall Tito from Kosovo. In concord with Macedonian law, about 180 000 Albanians became naturalized Macedonian citizens after a 15-year residence in the republic. Thus in 1995/96, Handjiski said, the Macedonian population increased by one tenth.
The demands of the former are different from the demands of the latter, according to Handjiski who asserts the former "Kosovo Albanians" want the status of a constituent nation in Macedonia. "They want to federalize the Republic of Macedonia and to establish parallel institutions one of which is the so-called University of Tetovo," he said. Handjiski rejected those demands, saying they are "politically motivated."
The official Skopje position on the University of Tetovo is that it is illegitimate as it does not comply with the national curriculum standards. Handjiski ruled out the possibility of recognizing the University of Tetovo diplomas.
"Our intention is fully to integrate the national minorities and to create an educational system that promotes equality," he said. Handjiski said that Skopje has increased the number of Albanian students at state universities from 1one to 14 percent.
The main problem, according to Handjiski, is that it is impossible to have some faculties where the main language is Albanian. For example, he said, how can you get a job as a lawyer in Macedonia having graduated a law faculty that has not been recognized by the state? This, Handjiski asserted, proves the political nature of the "so-called" university as an attempt at establishing a parallel Albanian structure within Macedonia.
Speaking about relations with Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, Handjiski said that there are territorial, historical and cultural issues at stake. A border dispute with Serbia may become serious in the near future. Greece still refuses to recognize Macedonia's name and Bulgaria fails to acknowledge the existence of a Macedonian nation and language.
According to Handjiski, the problems with Greece are the least acute as an interim accord with Athens in 1995 has made it possible to normalize relations. Currently, Greece is Skopje's third economic partner. But the "name issue" is still unresolved.
With regard to Bulgaria, Handjiski said that Sofia helped Macedonia by providing the only outside transportation route at the time of the Greek and Yugoslav embargoes until the end of 1995. But relations were frozen in 1994, when the Bulgarian Parliament refused to ratify the already signed agreements because one copy of them was in Macedonian which the Bulgarians say is in fact Bulgarian. Negotiations with Sofia have recently resumed with the new government there and Skopje is awaiting "positive signals" ahead of President Petar Stoyanov's planned visit later this year.
To the question which language Handjiski will speak with the Bulgarians, the answer was "Macedonian." And what language will the Bulgarians speak? "Bulgarian. And we understand each other just like we understand each other with the Serbs."
"The problem," according to Handjiski, is that "certain political forces" in Bulgaria still think that the Macedonians are Bulgarians. While Bulgaria does not recognize the existence of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, Skopje says there is a small Bulgarian minority in Macedonia. Handjiski implied that Sofia is trying to avoid the responsibilities inherent in the Council of Europe Convention on Minorities.
"In the Balkans, whenever you have economic problems, you usually turn to so-called nationality and foreign policy issues. They have a lot of economic problems in Bulgaria and the politicians are using the Macedonian question but this does not lead us to a common future in an united Europe, Handjiski said.