It is an honour for me to briefly address the opening of this important conference on the future of Western Balkans and their integration into the North Atlantic community. Ambassador Alessandro Minuto Rizzo, as Deputy Secretary General of NATO, has always been a champion in its efforts to enlarge the Alliance and it makes me very happy to see that he remains committed to the cause. I would also like to thank the NATO Defense College Foundation, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador Mattiolo for organizing this conference, so important for Southern-East Europe, which has constantly supported the dialogue for a free democratic and peaceful Europe.

Ladies and gentleman, the fact that we are here, committed to find a common path to integrate my region in the Euro-Atlantic institutions is a significant symbol of our shared values, namely freedom and democracy. Indeed, despite the well-known differences which characterize the Balkans, we are all united in our shared values and in our desire to become members of the European Union and of NATO. And we want that above all for the wellbeing of our citizens.

Now, I have excellent speech writers in my Ministry and they prepared a very good speech for me today. But let me speak from my heart. I spent all my diplomatic life – more than 22 years – trying to bring my country on the path of the Euro-Atlantic integration. I wanted, and I still want, to see the whole region moving towards Europe. We have achieved a lot, but Europe will only be completely free and peaceful when the Western Balkans will be fully integrated into the European Union and NATO. For what concerns our commitment, I am confident that all citizens from the Western Balkans – and not just the political leadership – would love to see their countries members of the European family.

Are we perfect? No, we are not. Are we committed to Euro-Atlantic integration and to the necessary reforms to get there? Yes, we are. And those reforms are done first and foremost for our citizens. To create stronger democracies, by strengthening the rule of law, fighting corruption and creating an open market economy. All that will increase the quality of life of our citizens and that is the reason why we would like to become members of the European Union and NATO. Again, the reforms we are working on are not just an effort to join both the Union and the Alliance but they are, first of all, the result of the intention of creating strong democratic societies in our region.

In the nineties we had a difficult time, with conflicts spreading all over the region. But we have managed to come together and work together towards a common objective: joining the EU and NATO. Some of the countries in the region have moved faster and we are proud of them. We are proud of Albania joining NATO, as we are proud of Slovenia and Croatia entering both the European Union and NATO. Advancements in the right direction of any country in the region has a positive impact on the others. Moreover, the stability of Balkans is crucial, insofar it deeply affects the wider stability of whole Europe. It happened more than once, in my career, that I have been talking to Ambassadors and Senators in Washington DC and I always pointed out how a stable Macedonia or Montenegro are able to bring stability to the whole region, consequently impacting on Europe’s stability. We should remember this now as well.

Also, from the other perspective, we have seen what the European Union and NATO have brought to the region. During the conflicts in the nineties NATO was of big help, stabilizing the situation and bringing us back to the path of prosperity towards stronger economies and democracies. Now we are in a position to be partners. We have Macedonian soldiers serving shoulder to shoulder with NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Moreover, my country is the fourth biggest per capita contributor to ISAF forces. This is only an example, a consequence of shared values and a symbol of our will to be partners, bringing peace, prosperity and democracy to other parts of the world. But, at the same time, we are strongly committed to strengthen our societies, in order to be able to finally join the European Union and NATO. It will be a long process and we know that, but still we – politicians and citizens – all are firmly convinced this is the path to follow. In my country, for example, we are trying to implement reforms on our own, while making sure they are fully compatible with the EU requirements. However, it would be much easier if we would open negotiations with the EU and together work out a roadmap to transform society. And the academia together with the political class is working to be included in those processes, which are so important to us.

Integration of the Republic of Macedonia into NATO – stability / prosperity of the region.

The membership in NATO and the EU are the strategic interests of the Government of the Republic of Macedonia. My country is investing huge efforts in the reforms directed towards achieving that interest.

The reform steps which we take with sincerity and commitment encompass all segments of social life. However, they are not a goal by themselves, nor the sole motive for their implementation is the formal accession to the EU and NATO. Our commitment to the continuous reforms is founded on the desire and need to improve the overall social life, strengthen the legal system and to ensure economic prosperity and better health care system in view of increasing the quality of life of our citizens.

In the context of reforms, I would like to underline the part regarding the meeting of the criteria for NATO accession. It is a well known and recognized fact that the Republic of Macedonia met the requirements for joining NATO back in 2008. Unfortunately, to the general disappointment of the political leadership and all citizens, a great historic injustice was inflicted to the Republic of Macedonia at the Bucharest Summit as we did not receive a formal invitation for a fully fledged membership to NATO due to the veto by our southern neighbor.

Six years after Bucharest, my country still feels the consequences of this injustice; nevertheless, the enthusiasm has not abandoned us yet.

A confirmation of the above statement is the continuous harmonization of the legislation, the social reforms, and of course, the most tangible example whose manifestation is so evident – the contribution of the Army of the Republic of Macedonia to international operations led by the UN, NATO and the EU.

As Minister of Defence of the Republic of Macedonia, I would like to take this opportunity to send a clear and unequivocal message that I consider the membership of the Republic of Macedonia in the Euro – Atlantic structures as a win-win situation for everyone. When I say “everyone”, I am primarily referring to the sustainable peace, stability and prosperity of my country, the Region to which we belong, but also to Europe and in broader terms as well. The integration of the Macedonian citizens and the country as a whole, means gaining the long desired sense of safety and security, economic prosperity and welfare.

Moreover, one must not neglect the political component and the fact that the membership of the Republic of Macedonia in the Alliance will create favorable conditions for overcoming the open issue with our southern neighbor.

Integration of Montenegro and the Republic of Macedonia – a clear message and a positive impact on Bosnia and Herzegovina and whole region

Many are wondering WHETHER the countries from the Western Balkan Region should integrate into NATO and the EU – my position on this question is certainly positive. All checks and balances indicate the positive advantages both for NATO and the EU and the Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
NATO and the EU, and every one of us, needs to see the big picture of the region. The integration of the Western Balkan countries in both organizations will expand the area of security and stability and will ensure comprehensive development.
The NATO and EU membership of the Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro will be a major step towards strengthening the security and stability of Europe. It will send positive signals to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia and it will be an additional incentive for continued implementation of reforms for full Euro – Atlantic integration. The integration of all countries from the Region of the Western Balkans will complete the integration process on European soil. All Western Balkan countries will become contributors to the regional, European and global peace and security. Together, this will provide long-term stability and security, not only in the Western Balkans, but also to the entire European continent and the world.
In the past two and half decades, the Euro – Atlantic organizations, NATO and the EU, have invested much effort, forces and resources in building stability and security in the Western Balkans. The results are widely recognized and visible. Most of the Western Balkan states are integrated into these Euro-Atlantic structures, while the other countries have reached a stage in the integration process beyond a turning point.
Every further delay of the enlargement process will be discouraging. Therefore, I consider the position both stated at the Berlin Conference in August this year and at the September NATO Summit in Wales as positive, as it demonstrated a reaffirmation of the commitment for full integration of the countries from the Western Balkans.

Reforms in the Ministry of Defence – support for the political intentions

The reforms in the Ministry of Defence and the Army of the Republic of Macedonia fully support the political intentions of the Republic of Macedonia for acquiring full-fledged integration into NATO and the EU. They are implemented in the long term and the results achieved so far indicate a substantial effect in terms of a better, more efficient and result oriented functioning. We have built a small, but mobile, highly professional and interoperable army that enjoys great respect based on the excellent performances in both exercises and actual operations. Since 2002, the soldiers of the Army of Republic of Macedonia have continuously participated in international operations. To date, over 50% of the overall Land Force structure of the ARM have contributed to these complex and highly responsible operations. The high level of training, courage and enthusiasm of our soldiers, which bear the Macedonian flag in the international operations and promote our country as one of the greatest contributors to global peace per capita, make me, as Minister of Defence, and the ordinary citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, immensely proud.
The contribution to international operations remains a top priority of the Government of the Republic of Macedonia. In the future, we shall continue to contribute in the EU-led ALTHEA and the UN-led UNIFIL operations, whereas in terms of the Resolute Support operation in Afghanistan beyond 2014, we are planning to deploy training and advising instructors and experts. Moreover, we are always open for cooperation and looking into other possibilities for contribution in line with the needs of the Allies and our possibilities.

Political consensus on the significant strategic issue and the public support of the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia

In addition to the continuous reforms in the segments of the social life, there is a broad political consensus among all political parties in the Republic of Macedonia on finding a solution to the significant strategic issue for NATO and EU membership. I am particularly proud of the fact that the public support for Euro-Atlantic integration in the Republic of Macedonia is around 90%. It is a figure that clearly reflects our strong commitment for attaining full-fledged integration in the Euro-Atlantic structures.

The Republic of Macedonia is fully prepared to undertake the obligations and responsibilities of a NATO member and to begin the EU membership accession negotiations.

At the end let me assure you – and I believe that I speak for the whole region of Western Balkans now – that we remain strongly committed and believe that the reforms we are working on are of extreme importance, not just because they will help us come closer to the Euro-Atlantic integration but also, more importantly, because they are important to our citizens and for our citizens.

Concluding, I would like again to thank you very much for organizing this conference and point out how crucial is the exchange of views among politicians and the academia for any progress to be achieved.