Balkan State Vows to Resume EU Path After `Strongman'

(Bloomberg) -- The Republic of Macedonia’s new government will jump-start the stalled drive to join the European Union by overhauling courts and shoring up the rule of law, the country’s foreign minister said.

A member of the Social Democratic Union-led cabinet that took power last week, ending a two-year political crisis, Nikola Dimitrov said the government would try to repair ties after the EU criticized the Balkan state for a weak judiciary and democratic backsliding under former Premier Nikola Gruevski. Dimitrov said the new prime minister, Zoran Zaev, would reverse what the ruling party has denounced as “authoritarian” practices that led the country away from its path of integration with the EU and NATO.

“We had a government where the leader, a strongman, could decide on the destiny of every citizen or company, whether it was about criminal proceedings, employment or happiness,” Dimitrov, 44, said in his first interview as minister on June 2. “The EU decided to be honest and said there’d been state capture in Macedonia. Now we have a big mountain ahead of us.”

Zaev took office with his country at the center of a struggle for influence between Russia and its Cold War adversaries in former communist Europe. Gruevski, backed by Moscow, has repeatedly rejected the EU’s accusations of state capture and said the bloc ignored his efforts to reform the country of 2 million people. The landlocked republic’s path toward joining the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has also been blocked by a dispute with Athens over the name “Macedonia,” which the country shares with a Greek region.

Dimitrov said he’ll revive talks with Greece, with any solution “subject to a referendum.” The minister, an independent who has been a negotiator on the name dispute, said “what’s important is to have a solution that the citizens will accept, and they must not feel humiliated by it.”

The yield on the Republic of Macedonia’s euro bonds maturing a year from now fell by less than one basis point to 4.143 percent in Skopje at 12:17 p.m.

Deadlock Broken

Both the EU and the U.S. were influential in breaking a deadlock between Zaev and Gruevski, the country’s worst since the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. The latter’s party failed to secure a parliamentary majority after winning December elections, and President Gjorge Ivanov, an ally of Gruevski, blocked Zaev from forming a coalition with parties representing ethnic Albanians, saying it would create instability. Ivanov relented under pressure from Washington and Brussels after pro-Gruevski protesters stormed the assembly last month, attacking Zaev and injuring him and dozens of other people.

Zaev gained influence during two years of protests that followed the leak of tapes alleging Gruevski illegally wiretapped 20,000 judges, police, politicians and other Macedonians. He must now rebuild institutions and remove obstacles that the EU can use to justify sidelining the country in talks, said Dimitrov, a former ambassador to Washington.

“The accession process sometimes resembles a game of pretenses -- political elites in the region pretend they’re reforming, and member states pretend they’re actually interested,” said Dimitrov. “Our goal isn’t to join the EU for the sake of joining. We’d like to have a European country.”

Russian Influence

President Vladimir Putin’s administration has opposed the further expansion of NATO and the EU with mixed success. While Montenegro just joined the military alliance against Moscow’s wishes, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the support of pro-Russian separatists have halted Ukraine’s efforts to forge closer ties with the EU.

The Kremlin has supported Gruevski’s accusations that Zaev’s government will stir ethnic tension, pointing to a clash near the Kosovo border in 2015 between police and what the former government branded “Albanian rebels.” More than 20 people died in the violence. Dimitrov dismissed the connection.

“The conflict in Macedonia had nothing to do with ethnic origin,” he said. “It had to do with democracy against autocracy and accountability against impunity.”