Agneza Rusi – navigating Macedonia’s long road to the EU

“The most important thing [about visa liberalisation] was that we entered a process which was well defined, with clear benchmarks and with clear rewards.”

Agneza Rusi leads the directorate for European Union in the Macedonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – she joined the unit in 1996, barely a few months after it was set up.

If Agneza’s CV looks like a synopsis of Macedonia’s EU integration process, her family tree reads like a short history of Macedonia since World War II.

Agneza’s paternal grandfather, Lutfi Rusi, came from an Albanian family from Debar, on the border with Albania. During the Second World War, Lutfi joined the partisans, where he met Agneza’s grandmother, a Macedonian from Skopje. They fell in love and – though interethnic marriages were (and still are) rare – got married.

After the war Agneza’s grandfather was sent to jail. He was accused of being a “Ballist”, as the communists used to refer to Albanians who sympathized with the Italian and German fascists.

“My grandfather was falsely accused and was taken to prison. He came from a very rich Albanian family, owning a lot of land. His family – and he was behind this – had decided to give to the state all of their lands and all of their property, because he believed in communism. He believed in the new system that was created in Macedonia as part of socialist Yugoslavia. So they had given up intentionally all of their wealth to the state, to the nation, to the country. They were idealists. Just imagine how traumatic his imprisonment was for him.”

It was during Lutfi’s imprisonment that Agneza’s father was born. Agneza’s grandmother took her son to Debar to her husband’s family.

“From my childhood I remember the stories of my grandmother who used to tell me how much respect she was given from my grandfather’s family, how she learned the Albanian language in order to communicate, but also to show respect towards the family of my grandfather. In the town of Debar, Macedonians and Albanians were living together since centuries. I remember her telling me how Macedonians and Albanians respected each other, how they were living together, how they were paying visits to each other and how the Albanians were talking to Macedonians in the Macedonian language and vice versa.”

Lutfi was released after a year. He went on to become a journalist and a writer, the author of the first Albanian first-grader schoolbook and the first Albanian-Macedonian dictionary. His faith in Yugoslav communism, however, had been shattered.

The family of Agneza’s mother also suffered during communism. Agneza’s maternal grandfather was a Bulgarian tradesman from Sofia. Travelling extensively in the region, he met Agneza’s grandmother in Veles, her hometown in central Macedonia.

“They fell in love, decided to get married and my grandmother was taken to live in Sofia. That was at the beginning of the Second World War. Initially they lived a wealthy life in a big house with maids. Everything changed after the war. My grandfather was stripped of his wealth. They had nothing left. Everything was falling apart. Unfortunately, their marriage also broke up. Of the three children, the little boy remained in Sofia with his father and the twin girls came back to Skopje with their mother … One of them was my mother. She was adopted by the sister of my grandmother who herself did not have children.”

Agneza was born in Skopje in 1971. As a child, she would occasionally travel to Sofia. It was a time when people from Yugoslavia tended to look down on their Bulgarian neighbours.

“I have two cousins in Sofia, the sons of my mother’s brother. They are still living in Sofia. During the time of Yugoslavia they were coming to Skopje once or twice a year to visit my grandmother and the family. They needed special permits to come to Macedonia. Living conditions in Bulgaria in socialist times were difficult. For them coming to Skopje was like coming to the west, like coming to a wealthy place where people could live freely and travel freely … But then things changed so dramatically in ten, twenty years. Sofia is now a different place, a totally different place compared to twenty years ago.”

Despite her mixed background Agneza does not speak Albanian. Although her father spoke Albanian and declared himself as Albanian in the censuses, the family – including the grandparents – spoke Macedonian at home. The only time they spoke Albanian, Agneza recalls, was when they did not want the children to understand what they were saying.

“Most Albanians, when they meet me for the first time, start talking to me in Albanian because of my name. And then I say, ‘Sorry, but I don’t speak the language.’ They smile and make this disappointed face. And this is why I am angry with my parents and grandparents for not pushing me and my sister more to learn the language. Nevertheless I feel rich having this mixed family background.”

Agneza dreamed of becoming a diplomat already in her teens. After finishing her degree in economics, she worked for a year in the private sector, and then joined the foreign ministry’s department for European Union, established barely half a year earlier.

At the time, the department had 7 people, mainly working on humanitarian aid, the EU Phare assistance programme (briefly made available to Macedonia and other West Balkan countries), and the co-operation agreement with the European Union, the country’s very first contractual framework with the EU.

Agneza, now at the head of what has become a full-fledged directorate, has witnessed virtually all the milestones in Macedonia’s accession process – from the Stabilisation and Association agreement in 2001 to official candidate status in 2005 to visa liberalisation in 2009.

“For me, one of the major turning points was the conclusion of the SAA [Stabilisation and Association Agreement], because the cooperation agreement that we had before didn’t give a clear EU membership perspective. We were fighting for that a lot. I think it was a topic in every meeting that we had with the EU officials ever since 1996, that we want and deserve to be given a perspective to become a member state of the EU one day.”

Visa free travel to the EU is one of Macedonia’s biggest achievements to date. While the perspective of lifting visa requirements was first mentioned in 2003, it took the EU another five years to announce a “visa liberalisation process” with the Western Balkan countries (except Kosovo). Each country was assessed in the relevant policy areas and presented with an individual roadmap containing about 50 benchmarks in the fields of document security, border management, rule of law, and fundamental rights and freedoms.

Of those countries assessed, Macedonia emerged as the best prepared.

“We internally created a core team consisting of professional experts from the ministries of foreign affairs, interior, justice, finance, and from the secretariat for European affairs. We were a group of ten to twelve people, led by the state secretary of the foreign ministry. We had regular meetings among ourselves at least twice a month. We also had regular meetings with the Commission services and we submitted regular monthly progress briefs to the Commission. First we did it on our own initiative. We were proactive, because we knew how the EU mechanisms in Brussels worked and we knew how appreciative they would be if we provided them on a regular basis with information on what we are doing …

The briefs proved to be a useful tool, also to give ammunition to the Commission, which was an ally defending our dossier and our performance in front of the member states …”

One of the reasons why Macedonia was so successful in meeting the benchmarks – explains Agneza – was that it started preparations long before the EU formally announced the process.

“One of the most important chapters of the SAA was reform in the field of justice and home affairs and legal harmonization in this important area. Also, the Thessaloniki agenda clearly stated that the perspective of visa liberalisation [would] be dependent on the fulfilment of the EU standards in the field of border management, asylum, migration, visa policy and so on.

We also had the experience of Bulgaria and Romania, which had to earn their visa free travel with the EU just a couple of years earlier, Bulgaria in 2001 and Romania in 2002. We were reading the reports of the Commission, we went [to Romania and Bulgaria], we consulted them on what they needed to do and how they organized themselves. We learned from their experiences.

So, already back in 2003 we had an idea of what we would need to do in order to qualify for visa liberalization.”

The requirements for obtaining visa free travel were demanding (for more details on the process see ESI’s Schengen white list project website). The efficiency with which the Western Balkan countries – particularly Macedonia – met the EU’s targets surprised outside observers.

“The most important thing was that we entered a process which was well defined, with clear benchmarks and with clear rewards. This is why this visa liberalization exercise was very helpful to us. It gave us the confidence that we [could] also meet the challenges of the accession negotiations process, starting with the screening process.”

More than four years after it obtained candidate status, however, it is still not clear when Macedonia will start membership negotiations. Although the European Commission recommended the opening of accession negotiations with Macedonia in October 2009, the European Council postponed the decision to 2010 because of a veto by Greece. Macedonia’s southern neighbour objects to its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, because it sees in it an implicit territorial claim on the Greek region bearing the same name.

“A lot of us working in the administration on issues related to our European integration process feel de-motivated and disappointed. The EU integration process was designed to be a merit-based process, similar to the visa liberalisation process.

But now there are all the more reasons why we are concerned and worried. I can speak for the administration, for the technocrats, the people who are working on fulfilling the standards. It is de-motivating to us, but eventually I hope that the EU will find the strength to give precedence to the common European interest and to the importance of continuing enlargement in this part of Europe … We won’t ask for shortcuts. We want a clearly defined, merit-based process.”

23 April 2010