The promises have been broken, and what Zaev and Rama are afraid of becomes realistic

North Macedonia and Albania face a risk of surging nationalism and unravelling economic reforms after EU closed the door for years on their hopes of joining EU

Source: Tanjug
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Pool/Pool/Getty images/Ilustracija
Pool/Pool/Getty images/Ilustracija

Zoran Zaev, prime minister of North Macedonia, said in an interview that he feared a return to his ethnically divided country’s “bad past”, including a narrowly averted civil war in 2001. Edi Rama, prime minister of Albania, said in a separate interview that his country risked becoming “collateral damage” from the EU’s divisions over enlargement, "Financial Times" reports.

"The warnings from both Balkan leaders underline analysts’ fears that the EU’s failure to proceed with both countries’ accession process will destabilize a geopolitically delicate region where the influence of other countries including Russia and China is growing", FT reports.

It is reiterated that French President Emmanuel Macron had blocked opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, with the Netherlands and Denmark also opposing negotiations with Tirana. Both Balkan countries have complained that the EU is not meeting its side of agreement.

Zaev said that he was worried that a sensitive agreement he negotiated with Greece last year to rename his country could be reopened due to growing nationalist sentiment.

“If there is enough nationalist rhetoric, radical acting and speeches in North Macedonia, that will give arguments to Greek politicians to use the same kind of rhetoric, and in return, that can lead everyone to take concrete steps which will not be good for my region or my country”, Zaev warned, pointing out the multiethnic nature of its country mainly populated by Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.

Zaev has already said he will resign as a sing of disapproving with EU policy, adding that the agreement with Athens could be in jeopardy if his party does not win on the next elections.

In Tirana, Mr Rama said that the decision not to open accession negotiations left a “heavy psychological shock in the country” and harmed the EU’s credibility in the region.

“We were cut twice from Europe brutally, once for five centuries under the Ottoman Empire and then for half a century under the most brutal communist regime. No one can live with the idea that there can be a third time", Rama said.

Both leaders said they understood the concerns of the EU member states that blocked the negotiations because they want to see reform in the bloc and of its enlargement policies, but they both agreed that any eventual membership was at least a decade off, and that their countries and the EU itself could meanwhile continue their reforms, FT reports.

Mr Rama said the need for internal EU reform was “not really a standing alibi for what is the core issue”. “Europe is in a period where it will get worse before it will get better and we are just the collateral damage of that”, Rama said.

Judy Dempsey, a non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, said that the EU’s credibility had been damaged because leaders had been told since 2003 that if they met the EU’s criteria, they would be admitted. Now, although Skopje at least had done so, it was being rejected on the grounds that the EU must be reformed first.

“Promises have been broken,” she said. “The Western Balkans is now easy picking for the Chinese and Russian influence”, Dempsey concluded. Zaev said he was worried about attempts to fill the vacuum due to accession process delay.

“This decision gives space for third forces, which are not very helpful, who do not offer us democracy, freedoms, and rule of law”, Zaev concluded.

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