North Macedonia's Deputy Foreign Minister has said she is "very optimistic" about the chances of the European Union agreeing next month to open membership talks with her country, despite repeated delays.
Ministers from the 28 EU member states are scheduled to decide next month on whether to let North Macedonia and Albania start the accession process.
Radmila Sekerinska told the French AFP news agency that she believed her country has a "high" chance but cautioned that another disappointment would "empower autocrats and populists."
"We are very optimistic and we're very ambitious," Sekerinska said.
"We are not expecting membership tomorrow. What we are expecting is to start the difficult and challenging process of accession."
EU Council President Donald Tusk and the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, say North Macedonia has carried out reforms demanded by the 28-member bloc and formal membership talks should be launched.
EU member states agreed in principle last year that negotiations should start, but in June they postponed an official decision till October.
In a boost for Skopje, the German parliament on September 26 voted to approve opening talks with North Macedonia, provided it continues its reforms in the justice and human rights sectors.
However, other EU states, France and Netherlands in particular, are reluctant to open the door to new members, out of concerns about corruption and rule of law disputes.
Skopje says it has achieved major steps -- including changing the country's name from Macedonia to settle a decades-long row with Greece -- and warns its citizens will not accept being rejected again.
"If France wants to see a stable Balkans and a stronger EU, they have to support the positive messages and the positive news," Sekerinska said, adding that another delay would "send the wrong signal."