European Integration à la Macédoine

Author: megi / Date: 18-02-2015 /

European Integration à la Macédoine 
Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/ 

By Albert Rakipi Ph.D 

The government of FYROM announced that it had decided to change the visa regime for Albanians starting from January of this year. The changes proposed amount to no less than a regime that in many respects resembles the regime already enforced by European Union member states vis-à-vis countries that are not members of the Union and citizens of Albania and FYROM, just like the citizens of other Western Balkans Countries know full well what such a visa regime entails. The sight of FYROMn citizens queuing daily in front of Western embassies in Skopje, waiting for the visa that would enable them to visit Europe, is not all too different from the queues of Albanians in front of embassies in Tirana. The political and non-political elites in Tirana and Skopje, just like in Sarajevo, Podgorica, Pristina or Belgrade for that matter, are used to seeing this strict visa regime as the “Visa Wall” or the “Schengen Curtain”, thus drawing an obvious parallel with the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain that separated East from West during the Cold War. The government of Albania and that of FYROM, alongside the governments of other Balkan countries have shown unity in their attempts and negotiation with Brussels aimed at facilitating the free movement of their citizens into the EU. In the meantime there are many high politicians and diplomats in Brussels or other member states that have added their voice in support of the arguments presented by governments in the Balkans that the curtailment of free movement of their citizens has not stemmed the flow of illegal migrants, thus placing a big question mark on the visa regime. Thanks to the attempts by these elites, as well owing to the understanding and support on the part of many European personalities and governments most Balkan countries have by now signed visa facilitation agreements with the European Union. It is in this context that the government of FYROM decided to apply vis-à-vis Albania the same visa regime that FYROM and all other Western Balkan countries have with the EU. 

This article argues that: 

Firstly, the claims of the FYROM government that the visa regime imposed on Albania is demanded by Brussels and that this regime will assist FYROM in opening accession talks with the European Union does not hold water. 

Secondly this article claims that the decision by Skopje may be detrimental to the good neighborly relations between Albania and FYROM as well as to the interethnic relations between Albanians and FYROM 

Thirdly the decision on the part of Skopje is detrimental to the pan-Albanian communication in the Balkans and may thus lead to a new atmosphere of hostility and division between Albanians and Slavs, creating inter state problems and harming security and stability in the whole region 

In the fourth place the visa regime FYROM has proposed will harm the economic cooperation between Balkan countries. 

And last but not least the problem thus created by the FYROM government is not simply a matter of bilateral relations but a problem that poses a risk for the political and economic investments in the Western Balkans by the European Union and the United States of America, which means that the solution to this issue must also be found in line with the European investments and spirit albeit that the first, but temporary step the Albanian government must undertake in response, must be based on the principle of reciprocity. 

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The FYROM authorities explained their decision on the new visa regime for Albania as a demand that stems forth from their European integration agenda, i.e. in order to meet the criteria imposed by Brussels. But as mentioned earlier this claim is false. Skopje is optimistic that this year it will manage to set a date for the start of the accession talks, possibly within the Slovenian presidency or at the very latest before the European elections in 2009. It is an ambition that deserves praise, but having ambitions does not always equate to having the will necessary for preparing the country for EU membership. That is a different thing altogether. FYROM has not managed to make essential steps the toward EU integration and this is not the result of the liberal visa regime it had with Albania. FYROM has failed to open the membership talks with the EU as the result of basic political problems which have clearly been noted in the Progress Report of the European Commission for 2007. The main problem that keeps FYROM at a distance from the EU is the lack of meaningful political dialogue, and more specifically the lack of dialogue between the two main ethnic groups. It was the pressure exercised by the EU that brought about an end to the parliamentary boycott in FYROM and encouraged the parties to agree to a platform for improving interethnic relations. The present constitutions of FYROM is based on the Ohrid Agreement; an agreement that the FYROM apparently have no intention to implement. In the meantime the lack of political dialogue and the increasing ethnic tensions do not pose a risk just to FYROM’s future accession to the Union, but also to the existence of FYROM as a unitary state. FYROM is still a fragile democracy which translates automatically into a weak state which in itself is not far removed from a failed state. But besides the ethnic problems there is also a lack of political dialogue between ethnic FYROM parties and institutions. The lack of cooperation between Prime Minister Gruevski and President Crvenkovski has gone to the point of the later being boycotted by the government. Gruevski’s party does not recognize the legitimacy of the President and accuses him of having stolen the results of the elections. And these are not political phenomena specific to FYROM. They are the same in all Balkan countries. If FYROM has not managed to start the negotiations with the EU and if it will not receive an invitation for NATO in the Summit of Bucharest the explanation must be sought in the fundamental political problems and its non-functional economy. As for the new visa regime that the Skopje government is offering Albania, in practical terms it cannot assist in stemming the flow of illegal Albanian migrants to EU countries, not because the Albanians have stopped emigrating but for the simple reason that Albanians have never used and have never had any reason to use the FYROM’s territory in order to migrate to EU countries. All the new visa regime with Albania can help FYROM do make a bit of noise in Brussels in order to convince Brussels that Skopje is committed to its reforms. Thus the issue which Skopje intends to use as an alibi for the lack basic political reforms, is border control and illegal emigration which are very sensitive issue indeed in the EU. But on the other hand of all “Third World Countries” with which FYROM is implementing a new strict visa regime only Albania can raise some noise, for the simple fact that it is a neighboring country. For instance there have been cases when Kurds or Pakistanis have transited through FYROM in order to cross into Albania and from there into Europe. But it would take an idiot to think that if FYROM imposes a new visa regime on Pakistan president Musharaf would make a sound or demand negotiations with FYROM whom he might not even be able to find on a map. It is simply shortsighted to assume that you can convince Brussels on the success of your reforms by imposing a strict visa regime on Albania. Brussels and not just Brussels has invested military and civilian resources, funds paid for by EU taxpayers in order to keep FYROM united and a functional state. 

Secondly the decision by Skopje with be detrimental to the good neighborly relations between Albania and FYROM As well as to the interethnic relations in FYROM. Relations between Albania and FYROM ever since the independence of the latter have been as good as good can be in the Balkans. It is not that there have been no problems between the two countries but Albania has shown a European spirit and approach to solving these problems. Albania was one of the first countries to recognize FYROM and during the crisis with Greece it offered its harbors while Albanian diplomacy has consistently urged the Albanian political elite in FYROM to contribute to building a common state. Thus the decision of Skopje on the visa regime can harm the ethnic relations within FYROM. As we have already seen Albanian MPs and political parties in Parliament have already demanded that the decision be revised. When Skopje government and parliament decided to impose the regime on Albania it probably slipped their minds that Albania does not even apply a visa regime on FYROM since 2002. This has also been forgotten by the Albanians of FYROM for whom the Republic of Albania has removed any border tax in Lek or dinars or whatever the FYROM currency is called. 

Thirdly the decision by Skopje in a broader context infringes on the political, economic and cultural communication between Albanians in the Balkans and may cause division and hostility between Albanians and Slavs, creating inter state problems and harming security and stability in the whole region. Out of all its neighbors FYROM has decided to implement a strict visa regime only towards Albania thus exempting the Slavic members of the former Yugoslav federation while it is widely known that as far as relations with the EU are concerned all Balkan countries have either the same status as Albania or are actually lagging behind it. According to the law prepared by the FYROM’s government such a regime will also be imposed on Kosovo Albanians when their UNMIK documents will have been replaced by passports of an independent Kosovo. The difficulties this presents for the Kosovars most of which travel to Kosovo through FYROM will also cause difficulties for the new state of Kosovo and its economy. Rather surprisingly a country that is mainly surrounded on all sides by Albanians is trying hard to become hostile to them. 

Fourthly the visa regime proposed by FYROM will be detrimental to economic cooperation not just between Albania and FYROM but also to other Balkan countries. Proper studies are needed in order to completely gauge the negative effects on the economy but it is obvious that those effects will firstly be felt in the exchanges between Albania and FYROM. Especially in the last 5 or 6 years Albania has constituted a considerable market for the agricultural or light industry sectors of FYROM. As far as tourism goes Albanians also contribute considerably. During most of last year FYROM bought a page of “the Economist” in order to advertise the advantages it offers to foreign investments. And one of the advantages listed in the advertisement paid for by the FYROM government was that it is situated barely 150 kilometers from the Albanian coast and the Duress harbor; a route the FYROM government is trying to shut down! But the negative economic effects may spread to the whole region especially to exchanges between Albania and Kosovo or Turkey and Bulgaria which transit through FYROM. 

Last but certainly not least as far as its importance goes how it is understood and how is a solution to this problem being sought? Judging from the way in which the public opinion but also the Albanian authorities have reacted this is causing a feeling of inferiority. It is not a matter of national pride but such a spirit does not help normalize the situation. A former Albanian prime minister said that FYROM should not forget we recognized it as a country. A member of parliament said that FYROM should not forget that we opened the Duress harbor to it when Greece closed the harbor in Thesaloniki. In all Albanian newspapers one can detect nationalist notes which are now being reciprocated by representatives from Albanian parties in Kosovo and FYROM. Other are upset that FYROM called Albania a third world country. Albania is a developing country just like FYROM and as far as their infrastructure and economy go both remind you of third world countries. And since we are speaking of the third world I remember a professor of Cambridge who published a very good book on Albania and who had written in its introductions: “Catapulted from totalitarianism to free market capitalism in 1991, Albania emerged from half a century of isolation to find itself an anomaly in Europe: a third world country economically and infra-structurally, first world in terms of education. literature and the arts” But let us to return to the question: how can this problem be solved? Albanian authorities claim they are negotiating with FYROM as if FYROM had been Great Britain. Prime Minister Gruevski is expected to meet Prime Minister Berisha. Of course one must talk but not negotiate. Albania too as a country that aspires to integrate into the EU has to fulfill it obligations to Brussels. According to the logic of the FYROM’s government Albania should apply the same visa regime to its neighbor. And it is of course positive that Tirana does not see integration in terms of reforms of this nature. But Tirana should ask for a solution to the problem based on the principle of reciprocity. But if we bear in mind that the decision of the FYROM’s government may put to risk the political, human and economic investments of the EU in the Western Balkans that we are dealing with a European problem. This means that the solution should be in a European spirit although as a first, temporary step the Albanian government should reply based on the principle of reciprocity.