The 22-metre-high bronze statue of Alexander the Great, encircled by warriors and a fountain, at the main square of Skopje was for years a symbol of bitterness and division between Greece and the then “Republic of Macedonia.” Not anymore. On Saturday 31 August, two dozens of young politicians and civil society members from both Greece and North Macedonia posed under the ancient Hellenic King and conqueror, stating loudly that a new bright era lies ahead of them. The Young Liberals (GR) and the Youth of the Liberal Party (NMK) organized a study trip and agenda setting workshop with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
The purpose of the mission was to launch the political dialogue in the Balkans, after the Prespes Agreement (2018) which ended the 3 decades-long name dispute between the two countries. The liberals are once again making history, holding the initiative of crossing a border that no one had crossed before. Indeed, this pioneer effort took together liberals and LYMEC members from both sides to discuss the new path to friendship, cooperation and development, and review the enormous possibilities for both societies and economies.
On Friday 30 September, the Greek participants met in Thessaloniki and from there they drove to Skopje. When they arrived, they met with the local participants and they all together visited the grave of Alexis Zorbas, a miner who inspired Nikos Kazantzakis to write his famous novel “Zorbas the Greek” (The novel turned into movie in 1964 by director Michalis Cacoyannis, with Antony Quinn playing Zorba and Mikis Theodorakis composing the soundtrack). Zorbas moved a lot across the Balkans and the last years of his life bought mines near Skopje. His free character and his unstoppable Balkan experience render him a symbol of friendship and this is why the organizers chose to pay their tribute at the Butel cemetery, outside Skopje.
Upon their arrival to the venue, the two groups merged in one and they started the discussion about the current state of relations between Greece and North Macedonia, in the aftermath of the 2018 Agreement. The deliberation was moderated by Dr. Athanasios Grammenos and Mr. Ivaylo Tsonev, the FNF coordinators for Greece and Bulgaria and North Macedonia, respectively.
The next morning, the day began with the group visiting the Parliament of North Macedonia. There, the participants met with Juliana Nikolova MP (LDP). In the thorough discussion, many issues were raised such as the bilateral cooperation in sectors like the economy, the EU prospects of North Macedonia and the build-up of stronger relations among the Balkan states. Mrs Nikolova was very optimistic for the future and she expressed her support to the provisions of the Prespes Agreement.
In the evening session, the guest speaker was Dr. Simonida Kacarska, director of the European Policy Institute-Skopje. Dr. Kacarska explained the political situation in North Macedonia the last years and talked about the recent domestic changes that lead to the Agreement with Greece. She underscored the dramatic shift in foreign policy making Athens the closest ally of Skopje in the EU, promoting North Macedonia’s accession to the Euro-Atlantic structures.
On Sunday, Professor Vlasis Vlasidis from the University of Macedonia (Thessaloniki) commented on the political landscape in the Balkan countries with emphasis on democracy and institutions. Presenting the results of recent polls, he argued that the Greek public is by far the most supportive of the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans among the EU member-states. However, a long road lies ahead for many reforms and changes to be applied. Especially for North Macedonia, he noted that the rapprochement with Greece is a crucial step for the entire peripheral system of South East Europe and the EU candidacy will bring new opportunities to the country.
The group work was intensive and fruitful. The participants had the chance to discuss the points of the guest speakers and then produce their own youth-agenda, on four key political aspects: (a) The benefits of bilateral cooperation, (b) Challenges and threats, (c) The role of the EU in Western Balkans, and, (d) Proposals for enhancing bilateral relations. At the end of the seminar they presented their conclusions forming for the first time a liberal youth agenda for Greece and North Macedonia.
Workshop assessments and proposals
In the 3-day workshop which took place from 30 August to 1 September 2019, at the city of Skopje, the participants, members of Young Liberals Greece and LIDEM-Youth, discussed the process of bilateral cooperation and submitted their conclusions for enhancing partnership at the civil-society level. In principle, they formulated a joint vision for the future of their countries in a union of shared values. The agenda below reflects their views for further consolidating a liberal approach for a prosperous and united future.
The benefits of bilateral cooperation
After the signing of Prespes Agreement, the benefits for our bilateral cooperation increased to a great extent. Firstly, we now have a big opportunity to eradicate feelings of suspicion and mistrust. In this vein, we can come across and get to know each other in a deeper way in order to promote cultural, academic and expertise exchange in various sectors, such as military, defence, border police and security. Additionally, the prosperity for common growth and development is going to be crucial initiative. The question of unemployment that all Balkan countries have to deal with will be more easily handled if the two countries cooperate, exchange ideas and know-how.
Moreover, the diplomatic status between our countries has been upgraded in such a level that optimism has emerged regarding the potential European future for North Macedonia. Therefore, the agreement provides an extremely important opportunity to construct a global message against nationalistic and populist views and voices. These have arisen concerning the potential of the agreement and its advantages. Furthermore, given the recent refugee crisis, further border police cooperation and training can be enhanced to tackle more effectively such a significant issue.
The agreement promotes a fruitful path for stability and mutual trust. Furthermore, this specific bilateral cooperation could be further strengthened to deal with contemporary issues such as climate change. Particularly, a potential creation of a digital platform and a joint committee on that issue with the participation of the two countries could stimulate public awareness, both in young generation and the elderly people. Apart from the previously mentioned issues, one of the most important domains that should be benefited from the agreement is the educational one. The potential increase in the academic cooperation between Greece and North Macedonia will contribute to better understand pioneer teaching methods and foster the academic culture for the benefit of the students and researchers. To this direction, the enlargement of the Erasmus Program will be of great importance. Last but not least, the agreement itself proves that Greece and North Macedonia showed the necessary willingness to end a burning long-lasting dispute. This can work as a case-study for other regions with similar deadlocks.
Challenges and threats
The elephant in the room is nationalism and ethno-populism, as expressed by the conservative political groups in both countries. The participants have discussed the challenges and threats posed after the Prespes Agreement and have found that the road to normalizations was anything but easy. Extreme views and hate speech became very strong and played a role in the political developments of the last year. These extreme and radical thoughts may feed other issues like corruption, lack of transparency and less independence of the institutions responsible about justice, politics and education. Bold steps must be taken in order to overcome the threats and persuade the public that the open relations of Greece and North Macedonia are an imperative for the regions advancement.
Looking to the future, we realise that both countries experience similar or equivalent problems and fear about what the future holds for them and their neighbours. Therefore, we firmly believe that national cooperation must be achieved on political, economic and defence level. More specially, a sector that needs to be developed quickly to enhance the economic stability is commerce. To succeed, the European road for North Macedonia must open soon, making trans-border movement easy and quick. This is a major challenge for the country, which will have to work on all the chapters of the EU candidacy without hesitation of delay.
The participants from North Macedonia expressed their desire to acquire the right to free movement around the EU, leaving traditional visa procedures and unnecessary bureaucracy to the past, for good. They believe that such facilitation will help establish the European identity in the country and, also, increase tourist waves and intra-cultural communication.
We agree that stagnation in our relations that can derive from political change in one or both countries can be the invisible threat of our future. For this, we conclude that civil society agents have to continue the dialogue, boost cooperation and joint efforts and, finally, try to understand each other, building a strong bridge of confidence.
The role of the EU in Western Balkans
The main role of the EU in the Western Balkans is to expand the zone of peace and prosperity. Wth political and economic support, it can promote the stabilization of this sensitive region, where there are still countries that are not member-states. Furthermore, it is necessary as a referee for better performance, free movement of people, goods and services, and the supervisor of reforms in the countries that need them.
However, the results will not come effortlessly. The EU should establish connection offices in Western Balkans, from where it should implement permanent programs for educating the public, displaying simultaneously its presence and interest for the citizens of North Macedonia. The people of North Macedonia have a profound need to connect with the EU, consolidate the values of the EU and feel the spirit of freedom. Moreover, we expect that in the process of membership candidacy, the local institutions will be supervised in order to improve their functions and services. There are many common values that should be protected with the assistance of these institutions, values like democracy, human rights, open access to education and transparency. For the current period, the EU could help North Macedonia to develop its economy with expertise and opportunities for the private sector.
North Macedonia has a lot to learn from other EU member-states, first and foremost from its good neighbour Greece, and get advice from them and their experience. Other members with strong economies, like Germany, have a lot to contribute as well. The EU should also strengthen the collaboration between countries from the Western Balkans and in areas with common challenges and character. Focusing on the youth, we believe that it needs better education at all levels, from elementary school to the University.
Economic and social problems of the Western Balkans are often similar, but their political and international situations are different. The new conditions, after the Prespes Agreement, open Greece to the Western Balkans, giving it a new historical role to play for the progress of the entire Balkan Peninsula. For all the above, we support that the EU should maintain a pivotal role lighting the torch of freedom.
Proposals for enhancing bilateral relations
The two sides have recommended focusing on their similarities. Although certain differences exist, common habits, traditions and culture are apparent in the people from the two countries. Furthermore, we believe that old problems can be better sorted out by the younger generations who have the flexibility to compromise and look to the future. In that sense, we support the enhancement and intensification of exchange programs and dialogue workshops with political and cultural elements.
In addition, we propose the foundation of a digital platform for the youth of Greece and North Macedonia, with the substantial name “FRIENDSHIP”. This platform can work as a registry for liberal minded people who want to join the aforementioned programs, but also as a generic portal which will have the capacity to update a visitor for activities, initiatives and problem-solving ideas.
Following the above, we suggest the organization of a permanent annual summer forum under the name “BRIDGE OF OPPORTUNITIES”. The idea behind the forum is to address the obstacles in the bilateral relations, bringing closer politically active liberals from both countries. For example, the forum could discuss trans-border economic, entrepreneurial and labour opportunities for citizens up to 35 years old. In addition, it could include a student fair, a regional cultural festival, and open discussions about democracy, constitutionalism and participation. It goes without saying that we firmly support the European prospect of the Western Balkans and this should be a core issue of the above ideas.
Last, maximizing the effects of technology, we suggest the opening of an account in Facebook and Instagram where photographs and information about joint activities will be uploaded. This way, the project will be broadly communicated, informing people in both countries, as well as citizens of other EU and Balkan states, about the progress of the work paving the road for similar initiatives in other regions.
The workshop was organized by the Greek office of the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom in partnership with the Young-Liberals-Greece and the LIDEM. It was supported by the Bulgarian office of the Foundation.