After a long time of political upheaval that brought months of instability and turmoil to the citizens of Macedonia, a change of government took place in early June. The new government, run by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, has 62 members of Parliament out of 120 seats — a small but promising majority.
Israeli Ambassador to Macedonia, Dan Oryan, explains the situation from Israel’s point of view: “We were waiting for a stable government to take place because we have many projects and ideas for cooperation that we could not continue with until we had a partner that enjoyed the support of the people.”
The new government, like the previous one, has as its goal to enter into the European Union (EU) and NATO. Macedonia has been held back from membership in both organizations, mainly because of a dispute with Greece over the name “Macedonia”. It is the same name as a region in Greece, and Athens has declared this implies a territorial claim. Both states acknowledge Alexander the Great as their historical hero.
Soon after becoming Prime Minister, Zaev reached out to Greece to extend a hand of friendship and try to find a just solution to the name issue. One of his first steps as prime minister was to curtail the building of monuments and statues to Alexander the Great in Macedonia. This had been especially irritating to the people of Greece.
Macedonia has floated ideas that would appeal to Greece in regard to a name change, such as, “Upper Macedonia” or the “Upper Republic of Macedonia”. So far, a compromise has not been reached. Until there is a just solution, Macedonia will have trouble entering into either NATO or the EU.
Israeli leaders support a solution between Greece and Macedonia, which will enable greater ties to be forged with all the states in the region, deepening partnerships. According to Oryan, “Israel said many times in the past that we are interested in seeing Macedonia in the EU and NATO and, when asked today, we say that this is certainly our position. It is relevant to the policy of the new Macedonian government which sees this as a primary goal.”
The new government is also interested in improving ties with Bulgaria. It is one of the first countries the new Macedonian Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, visited. Oryan explains that both Zaev and Dimitrov want greater peace with their Macedonian neighbors. ”The Prime Minister said it is on the top of his agenda. He believes that Macedonia will be in much better standing when entering into the EU and NATO.”
Since the year 2000, thousands of Macedonians have applied and received Bulgarian citizenship. The attraction started with their ability to get EU passports once Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. But, this contributed to the difficulties between the two countries.
Past conflicts with Bulgaria include the way the Macedonians were treated by the Bulgarians during the Holocaust. There is also the problem of non-recognition of ethnic Macedonians as a distinct ethnic group inside Bulgaria. The Bulgarians claim that certain rights for their citizens living in Macedonia have not been fulfilled.
Bulgaria sent army troops to the Macedonian border in 2015 in order to beef up border security during a political crisis in Macedonia. According to the Bulgarians, the measure was to stop the flow of Middle East refugees into Bulgaria, and to prevent potential terrorist attacks.
It’s expected that the new Macedonian government will sign a future treaty with Bulgaria that solves bilateral issues. Every country in the EU must be in agreement for Macedonia to enter into the EU, and that includes Bulgaria.
In the meantime, Oryan says that Israel is ready to assist Macedonia with the process of integration into the EU, helping with reforms. This includes sending experts to the nation to give advice about legal issues, economic regulations, the banking system, social security, etc.
Oryan points out this also involves developing programs to assist people with special needs. “When you want to enter the EU, you have to improve in certain areas that the EU appreciates. Israel has a lot of experience that was shared with leaders in Macedonia who are dealing with the special needs of people in their society.”
A current problem for Macedonia is Russia’s growing influence in the country. Reportedly, Russia has increased intelligence activity in Macedonia, hoping to steer it away from integration into the EU and NATO. The expansion of NATO into the Western Balkans is a threat to Russian expansionism in the region.
For Macedonia to join NATO it will have to resist foreign influence, strengthen its rule of law inside the country, and improve its border security.
Along those lines, Israel has been assisting Macedonia in creating a center and school for helicopter pilots. Elbit is an Israeli company leading that effort. Elbit now has two simulators on the ground – the Mi18 and Mi24. Macedonian pilots are practicing on these two helicopter simulators. The Elbit center is training Macedonia in air cooperation, helping to strengthen its security, while also offering other Balkan countries a chance to use the simulators and gain knowledge.
The important issue for the Macedonian government is that there will be qualified forces for internal challenges, and for the possibility of regional threats. Oryan admits this is what is needed. “Israelis have a lot to offer on this topic.”
However, despite this assistance, there are conflicting interests in the region. One of the reasons is that there were big expectations in the Balkans when the new U.S. Administration, under American President Donald Trump, took over the White House. Until now, it has not been clear what U.S. policy is towards the Balkan States. As a result, the big euphoria is not there anymore. The expectation was for much greater U.S. influence in joining forces against radical Islam and other threats. Balkans leaders are less interested in American interference in human rights and corruption issues, even though that has been an on-going problem among the Balkan countries.
As Balkan leaders have expressed their disappointment in waiting for greater U.S. involvement, other nations are becoming more active in the region. Observers claim that the vacuum is being filled by the Russians, Turks, Iranians, and Saudis. And, the concern is about extremists entering Balkan countries to bring greater unrest and instability.
According to Oryan, “The economic situation in the region is not so good. You have all the preconditions for radical Islam to grow, including high unemployment. A lot of work is being done, but certainly the problem is there.”
Israel-Macedonia diplomatic ties continue to expand, and Oryan is excited about fostering greater bilateral relations. When he visited Macedonia in mid-June to meet Zaev, and talk about issues of mutual concern, he brought a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu congratulated Zaev on his new position and invited him to visit Israel.
Oryan says that Zaev is very positive about the idea. “He has good friends here in Israel. And, he hopes that Israel will continue to forge close relations with Macedonia, especially widening economic cooperation.”
Zaev’s government is keenly interested in projects that will help small and medium size businesses in Macedonia, and leaders of companies look to Israel for greater knowledge in the fields of innovation, agriculture, and high tech.
Another area where there has been great cooperation between the two governments is in the fields of education and Macedonia’s Jewish past. Oryan has suggested projects to help Macedonians, as well as citizens from throughout the Balkans, commemorate and learn more about Jewish heritage in the region.
This year, like last year, more than 20 history teachers from Macedonia are participating in a course at Yad Vashem. It is significant because of the devastation that took place to regional Jewish families during the Holocaust.
A Macedonian town called Bitola (originally, Monastir) is in the midst of discovering ancient gravestones in the oldest Jewish cemetery in the region, built in 1497. The cemetery became neglected when most of the Jews of the former Yugoslavia were rounded-up on March 11, 1943 and sent to the Nazi death camp Treblinka. Today, with the help of workers from throughout the world, including Israel, the cemetery is being restored.
Oryan has offered Zaev to join him in the future for a visit to the Jewish cemetery; to see the labor of Jews, Christians, and Moslems working together in order to preserve Jewish history; and to talk about other projects involving Macedonia’s Jewish Community and the Holocaust Museum, which was opened 7 years ago and currently houses a temporary exhibition.
The Israeli Ambassador mentioned to the Macedonian Prime Minister that, “We are expecting and hoping to soon see the permanent exhibition in the Holocaust Museum in Skopje.”
A special Holocaust fund was created 10 years ago by the government of Macedonia, with the idea that some of the properties cannot be returned to their original owners, but will be for public use through the fund. The fund is controlled by a board which consists of three members of the government and three members of the Jewish Community. It is designated for preserving Jewish life; for creating museum and permanent exhibitions of the Holocaust; and for other projects of importance. The original members of the fund pointed out at least 35-40 places that should be preserved in regard to Jewish history.
The main focus until today has been developing exhibits related to the Holocaust Memorial. A small amount of the fund has gone to the project in Bitola, with an increase expected, to finish the restoration of the Bitola Jewish cemetery.
Oryan says that Macedonian Jewish history is relevant, and efforts are being made to encourage citizens to educate and act in ways that respect and honor what happened in the past. He mentioned to Zaev that the first “March of The Living” in Bitola in March 2016 took place with the presence of 500 youngsters who walked on that solemn occasion to respect the victims of the Holocaust.
Cultural relations between Israel and Macedonia are in full swing this summer as was the case during the past two years. In July, there will be 25 graduates of the Israeli Mandell School of Leadership; along with the President of Bar Ilan University, Rabbi Hershkovitz; and Professor Ran Tur-Kaspa of the Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Medicine in the Galilee – all visiting Macedonia as part of a joint effort of cooperation.
There will also be an Israeli cultural Ladino group that will travel to Skopje and Bitola to perform at Macedonia’s summer festivals. Among those included in the festivals will be Israel’s famous singer, Kobi Oshrat, who wrote the song, Hallelujah. A joint Israeli-Macedonian performance with the Hasson Choir of the Macedonia Jewish Community will take place, as well.
Israel continues to enjoy strong support in Macedonia for the Jewish State, which expands to other countries in the Balkans region, according to Oryan. “They appreciate Israel. They see us, in some cases, as ‘the few against the many.’ And, as those who turned a piece of land into a blooming garden. They recognize us as a people who have fought for their sovereign nation. It is very appealing for the countries in the Balkans. They want to make a difference. Many of them wish to learn the secrets of the Start-Up Nation.”
Oryan sees this as a good solid foundation of mutual cooperation that will continue in closer diplomatic relations with the new Macedonian government, and with other new players and established leaders in the Balkans region.
[Dan Oryan, Israel’s Ambassador to Macedonia (non-resident), and Director of the Balkan States. Photo by Carrie Hart.]