The Agreement signed by Athens and Skopje that changes FYROM’s name and “enables the future Republic of North Macedonia to be a member of NATO,” is extremely important, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an exclusive interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) on Wednesday, shortly after the signature of the NATO Accession Protocol with Skopje. Referring to the signature of the protocol as an “historic event”, he noted that it “strengthens the whole Alliance and helps to preserve the peace in the region, which is also the basis for prosperity.”
Stoltenberg commended Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart Zoran Zaev for their “courage and the wisdom,” in resolving a thorny dispute that had lasted many years and created problems for the whole region, noting that “the leadership they have shown is really impressive.”
“I was at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 as prime minister when we decided that FYROM was going to become a member as soon as the name issue was solved. I think most of us there thought that this issue was going to be resolved within months or perhaps a couple of years. But this was many years ago and this is also the importance of solving this issue now,” he said.
In other parts of the interview, he touched on Russia’s influence in the region and said it could not deny any country’s right to freely join NATO, while welcoming a meeting held between the Greek prime minister and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday.
The full interview is given below:
ANA: Μr. Secretary General, thank you for this interview to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency. You have described the signature of the accession protocol with the future Republic of North Macedonia as a history-making event. Could you elaborate on that and in particular explain the significance of this development for the country itself and for the Balkans?
STOLTENMBERG: This is a historic event because it has been an issue and disagreement which has created problems for the whole region, for the relationship between Greece and the future Republic of North Macedonia and also for the attempts to integrate the country into NATO and EU. I remember I was at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 as prime minister when we decided that FYROM was going to become a member as soon as the name issue was solved. I think most of us there thought that this issue was going to be resolved within months or perhaps a couple of years. But this was many years ago and this is also the importance of solving this issue now.
ΑΝΑ: Many Greeks, possibly even most Greeks, are opposed to the Agreement on the name change. What is the best way in your view to address this negative sentiment in an existing NATO member?
STOLTENBERG: I am aware that this is a controversial issue both in Skopja and in Athens but that makes the decision more important that the two countries have been able to overcome both the internal divisions but also the disagreements between the two countries. This is of great importance. To improve relationship with the neighbour is also important. It helps to stabilise the whole region and it enables the future Republic of North Macedonia to be a member of NATO where it can work together with Greece. That is important because it strengthens the whole alliance and helps to preserve the peace in the region, which is also the basis for prosperity. So I would like to commend the courage and the wisdom of Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev because the courage and the leadership they have shown is really impressive.
ΑΝΑ: So what is concretely the gain for NATO from the membership of FYROM?
STOLTENBERG: The gain is that we get one more member and that helps to strengthen NATO. In NATO we have big but also small members that all contribute to our shared security in different ways. The future Republic of North Macedonia contributes already to NATO missions and operations, for instance in Afghanistan and helping to stabilise the region, this is extremely important for all of us and also helps to improve relationships with its neighbours and it should also stimulate prosperity and economic growth. For instance we have seen in Montenegro, the last member who joined the alliance, that the investments in NATO allies have doubled since they joined. This is also a way, not only to promote security and stability, but also promote economic prosperity in the whole region.
ΑΝΑ: There is a rivalry in the Balkan region between NATO and Russia for influence. Do you think that FYROM’s entry into NATO will increase (or will lead to higher tensions) tensions between the west and Russia?
STOLTENBERG: No, what I think is that it will help to stabilise the whole region and preserve the peace and avoid the conflicts. And that’s exactly what we have seen in the Western Balkans or this part of Europe since the end of the Cold War. Because we have many members in the region, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Montenegro and we have close partnerships. All of that has helped to stabilise the region. NATO was key in ending two wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also in Serbia and Kosovo. We were also present in FYROM. So, NATO has played an important role to help to stabilise and the enlargement of NATO makes that easier. Russia has no right to try to deny a country to join the alliance. This is a sovereign independent decision by a sovereign and independent nation and we should respect those decisions to join NATO or not.
ΑΝΑ: Let me move to another subject. Yesterday the Greek prime minister met the Turkish President in Ankara. The Greek government is making efforts to reduce tension in Aegean and promote mutual trust. How could NATO help these efforts?
STOLTENBERG: I would like to commend both Greece and Turkey and Prime Minister Tsipras and President Erdogan for the fact that they meet and they sit down to address these issues. Second we highly evaluate both Greece and Turkey as key and important NATO allies. They both contribute to our security, to our collective defence in significant ways and we appreciate that. Of course, we, NATO can provide a platform for allies also to sit down and address issues of differences. We often do that and I welcome when NATO can be a platform. But this is also an issue where we see, actually now, the will of the two leaders to meet and to address these issues, which are important to solve for both the two countries, Greece and Turkey, but also for the whole Alliance.
ΑΝΑ: Coming back to the agreement on the name. There has been some speculation that the leaders of the two countries should be candidates for a Nobel Peace Prize. What is your opinion about that?
STOLTENBERG: My opinion is that they both have shown enormous courage. They have shown a political will to solve a problem, to solve a dispute and to contribute to stability and peace in the whole region. For that I congratulate them and commend them and today is a historic day. I also look forward to welcome both of them at the NATO leaders’ meeting, later this year. But it is not for me to recommend people for a Nobel Peace Prize, that’s for Committee to do.