"Various non-papers aimed at resolving the Kosovo issue frighten me, because not all wounds in the Balkans have healed. When the EU steps on the brakes in its dealings with us all, as soon as it slows down the process of our integration – and I don’t mean just North Macedonia, but also Serbia, Montenegro, even Bosnia and Albania – non-papers start to emerge, as well as other, radical ideas. Those other ideas can only end in wars, nothing else," Zoran Zaev, Prime Minister of North Macedonia, said in his interview with Kurir, in response to a question about which non-paper – and some of them even draw new borders in the Balkans and leave Kosovo in Serbia for a set period of time – he is in favour of.
How afraid of the war are you?
"I hope that there'll be no wars ever again. We should continue on the path of integration as this gives us a future."
Although you are not mentioned in the non-papers, the "Greater Albania" is openly advocated, and it includes a portion of North Macedonia. Are you fearful?
"I cannot say I am not with certainty, but it would be difficult to accomplish in North Macedonia, as we are a member of NATO – any instance of jeopardizing our territory and integrity would activate Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which would protect us – all for one, and one for all. Still, at the end of the day, I cannot say I am not, because you never know for sure how far someone might take the provocation. This is why the solution is for every country to become part of the EU. When we implement the Schengen Area terms, there will be no borders either."
Because you are in NATO, you are not worried at all?
"Although North Macedonia is in NATO, that doesn't mean I'm not worried. You never know. If something is a risk for the Serbian people, it also a risk for all of us – the Balkans are a small region, we're all connected. When the region is stable and secure, then North Macedonia is also secure and stable. And when the region is unstable and has problems, then we too are unstable and have problems. Anything that Belgrade and Priština find acceptable is good for us, a solution that guarantees peace in the Balkans, European integration, security, and the future of all ethnic communities living in this territory."
How many vaccine doses have you received from Serbia exactly, and how many of your citizens have been vaccinated in Serbia?
"We are grateful to President Aleksandar Vučić, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, and the Serbian people for their help. We have received exactly 48,240 vaccine doses, all of them precious. We got them when no one else had them, not even Serbia had enough for itself. To give your neighbour what you don't have enough of for yourself – that is an act of friendship, generosity, and brotherhood. Only a brother does that. Neither I nor the brotherly Macedonian people will ever forget that. Between 10,000 and 20,000 people went to Serbia and received not only the first dose, but the second one as well."
In return, between 25 June and 15 August, citizens of Serbia passing through North Macedonia will not have to pay the road toll. How much will that cost you, and how much are the vaccines worth?
"According to our estimates, about 2.5 million euros, but that's OK. We will make it up to our roads company. The value of the donated vaccines is 700,000 euros.
The collaboration with Serbia has recently been more than good?
"I am glad that we have been strengthening ties with President Vučić and Prime Minister Brnabić. Alongside us, Albania too has joined the mini-Schengen, as President Vučić calls it, and I see it as an improvement of the regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. Our goal is to have the 'don't stop, just go' policy at the border. This is being worked on, we need to harmonize the legislation, and transfer the credibility of the institutions, so that when your food safety authority declares a Serbian product is good for Serbia, there is no need for us to check that in Skopje, we can just accept it. There's no reason for it to wait at the border."
When will this be done?
"By 2022 we should open the borders and have the free movement of people, goods, and capital. We have already adopted a number of agreements and memoranda, the national assemblies have started to amend the laws in order for us to be able to harmonize everything, and this is high on the agenda of at least three countries – Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania."
And then someone might say: There you go making the "Greater Albania".
"Or 'Greater Serbia'? In the end, we are in the middle, so perhaps it's 'Greater North Macedonia'. Who cares, let's open the borders and have people move, come and go, and work freely."
Breaking the ice
'A message of friendship for Patriarch Porfirije'
"I contacted Patriarch Porfirije directly, by telephone, congratulated him on his election, and sent a message of friendship. It was a courtesy call."
Has any concrete progress been made in resolving the complicated relationship and the situation that has arisen between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the canonically unrecognized Macedonian Orthodox Church?
"This is a question that the two churches are working on. As politicians, we should just create the environment. Currently, no one is making a problem out of it, and members of the Serbian community go to Serbian churches, so everything works without any snags."
Blocked negotiations with the EU
'A solution will be found for Bulgaria too'
And how will you find a solution with Bulgaria, which has blocked the start of negotiations with the EU claiming that you and your language are descended from Bulgarians?
"There is a solution for everything, but you must choose the right moment. When there is an election in the Balkans, it is difficult to resolve anything during this time, and Bulgaria has just had an election. There is understanding between us in much the same way as there is between us and Serbia, we speak similar languages, and I do believe that we will find a reasonable solution. When we ask them, "Why don't you recognize the Macedonian language?" they say, "No, we accept that reality, but let's see what the roots are." We have a common history – all of Europe has a common history, let alone the Balkans. Nations originated from that very history – Macedonian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Croatian, all of them."
'Cannabis for everyone'
Will cannabis eventually be legalized and decriminalized?
"The medical cannabis production system works, but the public hearing is open until mid-year, and longer if necessary, because we want people to understand its advantages. It can cure so many diseases."
And it also brings in 250 million euros per year.
"Not only that. It can help us boost our tourism. We have no oil, gas, or a sea, but we would like to develop our tourism. I also hope to get other benefits – after legalization, Colorado has seen a 38 percent drop in violence, and a 25 percent drop in the consumption of narcotic drugs. This means cafés in phase one, like in Amsterdam or Barcelona, and then a full legalization. To make it possible for people to obtain it for their own needs."
Interview by Jelena S. Spasić