Column about Republic of Macedonia by the British PM David Cameron for Guardian
The Macedonian job
Macedonia is key to Balkan stability and should be invited into Nato as soon as possible, writes recent visitor David Cameron
"Let me get this straight. Last week someone called Cakara detonated two bombs outside your government's offices. The police won't catch him because the international community has told them not to inflame ethnic tensions. He's so confident that the police are impotent that he's published his mobile phone number in the local newspaper. And that's him you've just called on the phone?"
Not your standard dinner party conversation, I admit. But it's a fairly accurate report of one that I had last week in a stunning villa perched on the hills above Skopje, Macedonia's capital city. More to the point, it's true.
Of course technically my neighbour should have said: "Welcome to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom)", because that's the correct name for the small but beautiful country sandwiched between Greece, Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria. "FYR Macedonia" voted for independence in 1991 during the break-up of Yugoslavia and has been trying to make its way ever since.
It hasn't been easy. The reason for the long name is that the Greeks complained vigorously that Macedonia already existed as a region of Greece and so could not be a separate country as well. This seems churlish in the extreme. The Greeks have their own country, their own name and have been showered with financial assistance since joining the EU. These people - the Macedonians - have recently escaped communism and have virtually nothing. And as if Greek pettiness wasn't enough the Albanians tend to dream of incorporating a large slice of FYR Macedonia into a Greater Albania while the Bulgars tend to think of the country as part of a Greater Bulgaria.
Yet as far as I could see, the country - and I am determined to call it Macedonia - has a perfect right to exist. The population is overwhelmingly Macedonian, with a distinctive language, culture and history. It is poorer than some of the other old Yugoslav republics, but considerably richer than Albania. The people are civilised, friendly and highly educated. Even my tour guide had an MBA.
It is always difficult to know how to answer the question: "What will you do to help us?" But on this occasion, I had the answer. From now on I will call our esteemed EU partner "the former Ottoman possession of Greece (Fopog)."
All right, I admit it. Part of the attraction of the visit was the chance to watch the vital England-Macedonia football international. (And before anyone cries "sleaze", I paid for my air tickets and have disclosed all details in the register of members interests.)
A further excitement was the possibility of meeting the England team and "hanging out" with them. As I can only name about three players of the team I half-heartedly support (Aston Villa) and am distinctly ropey on the full details of the off-side rule, lord knows what I was going to talk about. In fact, despite staying in the same hotel as the England team, I managed the almost impossible feat of not meeting - or even seeing - a single England player.
But I was at the game. Wedged between the massed ranks of Macedonian supporters, at a game which the FA said British fans should avoid, I like to think that I was quietly doing my bit to show our lads that they had not been forgotten. In the event Sven's boys won 2:1 in a relatively scrappy game.
Following the acres of print written about David Beckham, I would simply add this. Off the pitch the expectations about his performance were hyped beyond belief. On the pitch, he was double marked, aggressively tackled and booed by the crowd every time he won the ball. Yet he played like a god, passing with ball-point precision and raising the morale of a distinctly droopy England team with displays of pace and courage. All politicians know about hyping expectations. But hyping expectations and then surpassing them is something we can only dream of.
I may not have met Beckham, but I met a lot of Macedonia's political elite. In a country this small in just a matter of minutes you can wander from the president's office to his defeated rival's and then on to party headquarters, the anti-corruption commission and the supreme court. Following your round of meetings, you pitch up to the movers and shakers restaurant and find .... the president, his rival, the anti-corruption commission and the head of the supreme court. Well, not quite, but not too far off either.
So what did I learn? Am I a junket junkie - or did this mixture of low football and high politics at least partially educate one of our parliamentarians? I would plead for the latter.
Macedonia may be a small country of just over 2m souls, but it is one of the keys to Balkan stability. Just as in Bosnia and Kosovo there are ethnic tensions, in this case between the majority Macedonians and the minority Albanians. But in Macedonia major conflict has been avoided through dialogue, international involvement and common sense from the Macedonian people, who supported their politicians when they signed the Ochrid accords giving generous minority rights to the Albanians.
Conflict could have been bloody and widespread, with Albania backing the ethnic Albanians, the Serbs supporting their fellow Orthodox Christians the Macedonians, Bulgaria and Greece always in danger of being dragged into any territorial disputes.
So what is the answer? Simple, really. Let Macedonia into Nato and guarantee its borders. Ensure there is a speedy framework for getting the former Yugoslav republics into the EU so they can benefit from free trade and structural funds. Recognise the fact that Macedonia paid a substantial price for looking after Albanian refugees from Kosovo during the war - and pay aid in respect of it. Above all, stay involved to give the region the stability that it needs so badly.
If we give the Macedonians peace and they will deliver their own prosperity.
So please, forgive me my brief junket. After all it could be my last. Next year, the Olympics will be held in the Former Ottoman Possession of Greece. Somehow I don't think I'll be getting the call up.