• In last December’s EU summit in Brussels, Germany’s Olaf Scholz pulled a fast one. After a brain-numbing debate on Ukraine’s accession talks, he invited Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to grab a coffee. As soon as he left, the other member states voted for Ukraine’s EU accession to proceed.

    Many in North Macedonia were flabbergasted.

    Could no one have offered a freddo espresso to the Greek PM and the Bulgarian leader, in order to unblock their countries’ intransigence at granting North Macedonia the start of EU accession talks for almost three decades?

    We have been stuck since 2005 in candidate country status. The Greek Euro-Atlantic blockade precedes even that, and dates back to the early 1990s.

    Athens prevented Skopje’s aspirations for twenty years over what many have described as an ‘irrational’ name dispute.

    Sofia now keeps both Albania and North Macedonia at bay, in an even more illogical dispute based on history, language and identity issues, in which Sofia claims that Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect and the roots of the Macedonian people are Bulgarian.

    “The EU allows its members to use their place in the bloc as leverage against their neighbours. It is the most anti-European thing one can imagine,” said Albanian PM Edi Rama at the Munich Security Conference, frustrated that his country, which is partnered-up with North Macedonia, is also blocked from launching EU accession talks.

    In light of Putin’s aggression, in which Hungary blatantly misused its right to veto, embarrassing and blocking Brussels from action, a group of nine countries last year declared they want to ditch the veto from foreign policy decision making. Germany and France were among them.

    They argue the veto rule has forced weak compromises and made the EU ineffective on the global stage.

    Western Balkan candidates, who have been left to suffer instability, corruption, populism and foreign influences, have no reason to celebrate.

    While the way out of unanimity lies within the EU acts in the form of qualified majority, there is a catch 22. In order to allow non-unanimity, Brussels would need, you guessed it ― unanimity.

    Meanwhile, Scholz’s coffee trick can only work once.

    Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was a beloved leader to many of his people in the early 1990s. Masses adored his patriotic speeches and melodramatic cries about Serbia against all, and his promises of economic prosperity.

    By 2000 his legacy included defeat in war, human suffering, economic crisis, sanctions, isolationism, and the brutal suppression of free thought. During the ‘October revolution’ of that year, he was done for.

    But democracies don’t start with only a decree. Declaring a victory over an authoritarian or populist regime is not enough, as they leave behind a societal desert in which good democratic practices find it hard to take root.

    Initial euphoria gave way to the feeling that the criminals in power had already switched sides, the judiciary continued to be run by the same self-serving structures, and the media landscape was dominated by Milosevic’s clientele.

    Reforms in every sphere were hard to pull off, as institutions were rotten from inside, the youth and intelligentsia had fled from the country, and some of the newly appointed officials turned out to be ‘bad apples’.

    Political bickering over which path the country should follow raged. Subsequent governments failed to bring prosperity and fresh corruption scandals piled up. However the state no longer had control over a robust propaganda machine to force rose-tinted spectacles on people.

    If the narrow chance for true change is missed, the impetus dissipates, and people start preferring to see through pink lenses rather than confront the chaos around them. All conditions are set for a new “great leader” to emerge.

    Today’s Serbia reminds us of the Milosevic era. There’s a lack of media freedom and corruption is rampant. Good practices and checks and balances do not have a chance.

    Only, since 2014 there is another great leader, Aleksandar Vucic, pumping up the national sentiment, engaging in melodramatic rants, opening and closing news bulletins and keeping pink glasses over people’s eyes.

    I have been a journalist in North Macedonia for 16 years and for two thirds of that time, my work has been hampered by outdated and wrong official data.

    Up until 2022, when the country finally completed an overdue census, not even the head of the statistics office could tell me the exact population. Officially it was 2.1 million, but that number was from 2002, as the country scrapped the 2011 headcount.

    In most countries, headcounts are regular operations carried out for practical reasons at ten year intervals. Here, the process raises delicate ethnic issues about the size of the ethnic Albanian community versus the Macedonian majority.

    Macedonian nationalists always wanted a result that would show the country’s Albanians were less than 20 percent of the population. It is the threshold that gives Albanians certain rights under the 2001 accord. The Albanian side, as expected, wanted the opposite and has been pushing for including its diaspora members in the census.

    In 2011 the country scrapped the census mid-process, realising that nationalists on both sides had probably doctored the numbers so much that nobody would believe the results.

    How did that leave us for over a decade? With wrong policies derived from those wrong numbers. So whenever I wrote about the fertility or mortality rate, gross domestic product, economic or social policies, migration, I and everybody else guessed at the true picture.

    Now we have the new data. The country has lost nine percent of its population over two decades and now has 1.8 million. Projections say by 2050 we will fall to 1.4 million due to migration and a low fertility rate. Unsurprisingly, the ethnic ratio has not changed much as all equally seem to want to leave.

    At the end of the day, ethnic bickering has discredited the process and many do not fully trust the new data. By politicising ethnic ratios we have forgotten why we need a headcount in the first place.

    “I was ten years old when the war broke out. At first, I mistook the gunshots for firecrackers. But soon there was no doubt, as our home was literally in the middle of the frontline.

    I will always remember the dread when the first shell hit nearby. How our house shook, and the windows smashed. I will never forget the beast-like cry of the wounded soldier, who was dragged down our street by his comrades.

    I kept imagining being torn to pieces by an explosion. The thought that this could happen to my parents or my sister felt even worse. After a month, when we were evacuated, I was not the same girl. I developed a stutter and experienced episodes of extreme anxiety.

    Now I’m 34. I still have to cope with moments of anxiety. During the countdown to New Year, when I hear fireworks, I freeze. They sound like explosions. I don’t like thunder either.“

    War came to little Emilija in March of 2001. She had no idea why her town of Tetovo in North Macedonia came under siege, nor what the armed insurgency was all about. Now she knows.

    Hardly any military expert had illusions that Ukraine’s bid to liberate its territory would be a walk in the park. Many warned ahead of this year’s summer offensive that progress could be slow and the war could turn into a grind.

    However, encouraged by Ukraine’s astonishing successes in 2022, many were hoping for another big breakthrough.

    This did not happen. Last year, when the Ukrainian army was fighting an overstretched and fragmented Russian war machine, it had the element of surprise on its side. This year, the area of the counter-offensive, towards the Sea of Azov, was telegraphed way in advance, and the means to achieve it were trumpeted via the public haggling between the allies, who fought over who would send which weapon first. Moscow had time to prepare a formidable line of defence.

    Not accomplishing the main goal of cutting off Russia’s land bridge to Crimea is a setback that worries many Ukrainian fighters and disheartens some in Europe.

    But is it time for despair? No.

    Every war has its setbacks. But determined fighters use the lows to rethink, regroup and push harder.

    Only this time, I’d advise Ukraine and its allies to show off less about their tanks and missiles, and court more wisdom to provide what is needed to shape a new strategy for a breakthrough, when the next chance comes. I do not doubt Ukraine’s determination. But is Europe equally resolved to defend its principles, and its promise to be there for “as long as it takes”?

    “In our textile factory there is no union. This allows our bosses to manipulate us. In a company near ours, the union representative is close to the owner, so it is no better there.

    “I got fed up, so I started sending complaints to the labour inspectorate. One was for mobbing [harassment] – for not letting employees visit a toilet. Another was for unpaid overtime and one was because [the bosses forced me] to hand back part of my salary. But it was futile as I sent the complaints anonymously, because I feared being fired. 

    “Fear kills our hope.”

    This 47-year-old single mother from Stip, North Macedonia, insisted on anonymity. During communist Yugoslavia, she said, women in her town were proud to be textile workers. The status meant emancipation and a decent wage. Through the active union, they also had a say in how the factory was run.

    Now, the industry is a symbol of exploitation. The union has long turned into a puppet where owners and politicians, not workers, have control. This has stifled the voices of women, in particular.

    Two decades ago in Thessaloniki, the EU promised the Western Balkans full membership in the political bloc. Fast-forward to today, and it seems nothing has moved on.

    Sure, last week Brussels uttered a conditional ‘Yes’ for Bosnia’s start of accession talks, while demanding more reform, and slapped the other five states on the back for their commitment to the accession process.

    The EU also launched its new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans with an aim to double the size of the economies of the six countries, bring their markets closer, and has pledged six billion euros for reforms.

    No one in the Western Balkans was excited. Here lies the catch. The EU has simply lost the hearts and minds of the region’s people.

    Bosnia remains stuck in an inter-ethnic and legal nightmare, Serbia and Kosovo feel they should cut off one of their arms and legs to progress, North Macedonia remains de facto blocked by EU member Bulgaria over sensitive identity issues, Albania is forced to wait for North Macedonia, and Montenegro has fallen victim to domestic political deadlock.

    People have already subscribed to the well-conceived anti-EU narratives. I hear many say “Brussels is hypocritical” and “The EU is on the brink of falling apart.”

    The EU needs to decide. Either they muster the courage to export stability to the region, and reap the long-term benefits of a greater union, or the region slips into disarray, and they must brace for importing instability.

    Brussels will need to show strategic forward-thinking, a vision. In the same way it did during its enlargement with eastern European countries in the 2000s. Or let’s stop sugarcoating the bloc’s lack of will or capability. In that case the EU will be thrown out on its own doorstep, and we will become the site of a shipwreck, where the EU values went to die.

    When Bulgaria introduced a 10 euros per MW/hour “punitive” tax on Russian natural gas transit in October, neighbouring Serbia and fellow EU member Hungary cried foul.

    The two Moscow-friendly governments called this a “hostile” move which jeopardises their energy security ahead of the winter heating season.

    The tax is equal to roughly 20 percent of Europe’s benchmark gas prices, and is expected to bring some 1.1 billion euros to Bulgaria this season. The move could also reduce profits on Russian-based companies, whose tax revenues fuel Moscow’s war machine in Ukraine.

    Born in the 1980s in the Balkans, all my life has been influenced by the psychosis of war and ethnic conflict and my effort to cope with this situation, persevere and remain a ‘normal’ person who does not hate.

    It started when I was roughly ten. I watched the West struggling to prevent bloodshed between small bickering Balkan nations.

    First the war in Slovenia, then Croatia and the Bosnian bloodbath. Kosovo’s turn came next, a border away from my own country. Sure enough, war came to Macedonia in 2001.

    Massacres, rapes, inhumanity and torture ― too many to remember, too much to handle.

    As local leaders signed peace accords, grudgingly shaking hands with enemies as if small children, forced by their parents to make amends, it became clear. This was not the end. Peace didn’t return. It was just an absence of war.

    Reconciliation, we were told, was the key.

    Bring people together, speak openly about what happened and you will rekindle human empathy. Individualise the guilt and make those who committed crimes pay, and hope will return.

    But as countries handed over their own war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the opposite happened. Former warlords became folk heroes. They became “ICTY Celebrities”, viewed as martyrs by the masses.

    By then, war had made losers out of us all. Even if our side had won, we lost loved ones, became refugees, were robbed of our future and scarred with fear and distrust.

    The ideological successors of those warlords, who became leaders, convinced us that the people were sole victims, and that an indictment against our “beloved protector” or “freedom fighter” was a conspiracy against us all.

    No uplifting note at the end. Just this thought.

    War as a physical manifestation may only last a few years. But war as a personal or collective psychosis can last for generations. We have locked the hell of war in our heads, and are waiting for round two.

    Although the Balkan route for migrants has seen a decline of 29 per cent in the first half of this year, this remains the second most active pathway into the EU, according to Frontex, after the Mediterranean.

    The numbers sometimes can deceive: this drop hides the individual stories of human suffering. North Macedonia’s Red Cross says thousands are in need of their help while traversing the Balkan route.

    Migrants are often beaten or robbed by traffickers. Some looking to hitch a ride on top of or below a train suffer electrification and severe burns.