You have led the United Macedonian Diaspora (UMD) for quite some time now, including expanding it across the globe. Could you talk about how the organization has grown into a worldwide voice for the Macedonian diaspora?
Thank you BalkanInsider for your interest in UMD’s work and for keeping us informed about the latest developments throughout the Western Balkans.
Prior to UMD being formed in 2004, there was no voice in Washington, D.C. for Macedonians. Macedonian delegations visited D.C. over the years to meet with policymakers, but never a consistent educational advocacy effort till UMD. I remember in 2004, different Balkan interest groups with professional staff in the city that did not have the best in mind for Macedonia’s or the Macedonian people’s future had free reign to spread whatever disinformation they chose to, including lobbying for “greater” territories of their own countries comprising of parts of the Republic of Macedonia. I remember a time when I would write an op-ed and then immediately a few days later the American Hellenic Institute would get theirs published opposing mine, or how 77 members of Congress sponsored an anti-Macedonian resolution in Congress in 2007. Thanks to our efforts, for the past nearly three Congressional cycles there have been no anti-Macedonian resolutions in Congress, until this year, and with that only 1 member of Congress has supported the Greek position on the name.
UMD quickly filled the void. In 2005, UMD spearheaded an online petition calling for full recognition of Macedonia among other things, which gained over 88,000 online signatures and another 25,000 or so physical signatories. This reassured our team that we were on the right path. Later that year, we kicked off a membership drive, and the membership expanded quickly throughout the U.S., to Australia, Canada, parts of Europe, etc.… In 2008 opened its first office in Washington, D.C., and in 2009, I was hired on as UMD’s first professional staff and essentially the first-ever Macedonian non-governmental representative in D.C. UMD was very fortunate to receive a matching grant between 2008-2011 through the generosity of the Turkish Coalition of America (which we share an office with currently alongside the Advisory Council on Bosnia and Herzegovina), which tremendously helped improve UMD’s outreach nationally and globally.
Between 2009-2013, UMD held 4 Global Conferences bringing together a collectively about 2,000-2,500 Macedonian leaders and activists to D.C., Toronto, and Skopje from 26 countries to discuss the latest happenings, NATO, EU, name issue, economic development, rule of law, human rights of Macedonians in neighboring Balkan countries, gender equality, good governance issues, brain drain, and ways the Diaspora can get involved.
UMD maintains operations in Australia, Canada, and representation in Europe. In February 2018, UMD hired one of our 2016 International Policy and Diplomacy Fellows, Veronika Tomova, who was in D.C. through the Eramus program, to be UMD’s first-ever Macedonia Director based in Skopje.
In a span of 14 years, UMD has become a type of State Department for Macedonians globally, maintaining and strengthening dialogue with governmental and non-governmental institutions, the Congressional Caucus on Macedonia and Macedonian-Americans, the Canada-Macedonia Parliamentary Friendship Group, the Australia-Macedonia Parliamentary Friendship Group, and the European Parliament.
UMD’s protest, “We are Macedonia,” took over the streets of Washington, Toronto, Paris, Sydney, and among other places cross the world. Could you talk a bit about the grassroots aspect of UMD, and how protests like this are organized and why it is important for the Macedonian communities across the world?
UMD did kick-start the #WeAreMacedonia Global Movement in January 2018 with a rally in front of the Embassy of Macedonia calling on the Macedonian government to end negotiations with Greece given that 137 countries have recognized Macedonia. However, since then numerous Macedonian organizations and communities joined on to essentially plan 40 rallies worldwide in less than two months bringing together over 150,000 rally supporters to the streets – a truly grassroots movement driven by the people and coalition-building. It was a great view to see protests with the backdrop being the U.S. Capitol building, the Eiffel Tower, among other worldwide noteworthy spots. Sydney and Melbourne were the largest given the size of the Macedonian community in Australia – 60,000 in just one location – just remarkable! I do not think UMD ever expected it to gain so much traction so quickly. But there was a need for Macedonian groups to put differences aside and get United with a capital U.
Social media grew tremendously, thanks to the hard work of the #WeAreMacedonia team, and at times the Facebook page reach was over 500,000 weekly. In addition to rallies, the movement puts out videos describing what is at risk if Macedonia changes its name. The movement’s social media accounts were used to promote all rallies and 30,000 signed an online petition to President Trump, President Ivanov, among other leaders. The movement also motivated 200 Macedonian public opinion makers to send a letter to Prime Minister Zaev calling for an end to negotiations, which thanks to our social media appeals gained an additional 12,000 signatures.
Given the agreement on the name change, could you explain to us what happens next for it to actually come into force, and what are your thoughts on this process?
Unlike many who offered congratulations and media outlets who stated the name issue has been settled and Macedonia will join NATO and EU, I would not cheerlead Tuesday’s news so quickly. News was also somewhat overshadowed by the Singapore Summit.
137 countries recognize Macedonia already by that name, and Macedonia should not be forced into making concession after concession just in order to join NATO and EU, which it well deserves. Clearly, Greece has the upper hand.
In 1995, both countries signed an agreement already, albeit flawed from the get-go especially since Macedonia was required to join the UN under a name not decided by its own people. Greece’s parliament never ratified the agreement, while Macedonia’s parliament did. The agreement stated Macedonia could join international institutions like NATO and EU so long as it joins under the name “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” In 2008, Greece violated the 1995 agreement by vetoing Macedonia’s NATO membership, and in 2011, the International Court of Justice found Greece guilty of violating the agreement.
Now, the terms of the new agreement state Greece will ratify the agreement in its parliament only after Macedonia has ratified in their parliament, has held a positive referendum of its population, and that Macedonia has made several changes to its own Constitution stating the new name of the country is “Republic of North Macedonia.” It also calls for Macedonia to change the Constitutional Preamble, which talks about Macedonia’s fight against the Ottoman Empire, and also formed a state in the Federation of Yugoslavia.
Expected timeline for finalization of all agreement points is slated for 18-24 months.
- Constitutional changes are unacceptable, as it goes outside of the UN Framework, and would need 2/3 vote majority to be even achieved, and that is highly doubtful, unless Macedonia’s Prime Minister calls for early elections, and there is an if, if his coalition will achieve many more seats in Parliament. Macedonia’s President, who is in power till April 2019, has said he will not accept any agreement that changes Macedonia’s constitution.
- What are the assurances that Greece will hold up to its end of the bargain and ratify in its Parliament? We already have 1995 example. Plus, Greek Prime Minister Tsipras is already facing calls for elections, and the opposition leader’s father Mitsotakis who created this problem in the first place in the early 90s had plans with Milosevic to divide Macedonia. If the opposition leader comes to power as Prime Minister you may not see this agreement see the light of day or a solution to this problem ever perhaps.
- What are the assurances any Greek parliament will allow Macedonia to join NATO even under a new name?
- Interestingly enough, one day after the name deal agreement is announced, the Greek Foreign Minister goes to Moscow to meet with the Russian Foreign Minister (should be noted: when selected a Foreign Minister of Greece few years back, he visited Moscow on his first official visit as well), instead of going to Brussels to meet with EU and NATO leaders to ensure backing. Everyone wonders what role does Russia play in Macedonia, but I ask what role does Russia play in Greece? Do they really want to see Macedonia into NATO?
- Greece has a century old history of discriminating against the Macedonian minority, and this is well-documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Expert on Minority Rights, and the U.S. Department of State. Greece does not offer any basic human rights to Macedonians living in Greece, and does not allow any religious freedom to the Macedonian Orthodox community in Greece. The agreement does not state anywhere that Greece will recognize that a separate ethnicity of Macedonians exists outside and within their borders. On the contrary, the agreement states Macedonia will no longer care for its own minorities in neighboring countries.
The key here is what role will the Trump Administration play. In 2008, when Macedonia was blocked from NATO, the Bush Administration signed the U.S.-Macedonia Strategic Partnership Agreement. If Macedonia is blocked again, will the U.S. sign a U.S.-Macedonia Defense Cooperation agreement, will they support the Swedish/Finish model of granting Macedonia NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partnership, and will they build a military base or NATO operations facility in Macedonia?
Given the large Macedonian diaspora and your vital role as a representative of them, what feedback have you received from across the world from Macedonians since the announcement of the agreement?
In my role as UMD President, I have been fortunate to travel to almost every Macedonian community in North America, Australia, and parts of Europe and meet with really amazing people who are role models in our global communities. At the moment, I am in Toronto to meet with Canadian-Macedonian leaders to get their feedback on recent developments and discuss future plans. To say Macedonians are adamantly against any name change is an understatement. It is not really about the name, it is about our identity, history, language, and right to self-determination.
What we have noticed from many media outlets, cosmopolitans, and think tank professionals is that Macedonians in the diaspora, and anyone who does not agree with a name change, are labeled as hardline, conservative, and as ultra nationalists. The last time I checked the right to self-determination and basic human rights of a people are enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not Greece, nor anyone else, can dictate what my homeland should be called, or if I am a Macedonian or not. Human rights are a democratic value.
What does the future hold for UMD?
We have more Macedonians outside than in Macedonia. UMD would like to harness the energy, the influence, and the resources available to us to ensure there is long-term success for our advocacy efforts. By opening an office in Skopje, UMD has made a decision that UMD has a vested interest in seeing Macedonia succeed.
Short-term and long-term goals:
- Continue the tradition of the UMD Global Conferences
- Expand operations in Washington, D.C. by hiring a program director
- Open an office in Brussels to focus on European operations
- Grow UMD’s Funding the Future Endowment to $10 million to provide steady long-term stream of funding for our programs
- Increase membership of the Congressional Caucus on Macedonia and Macedonian-Americans to 50 members from the current 26.
- Provide start-up grants to individuals in Macedonia to open a business in their local community
- Bring over 25 students a year to Macedonia on our Birthright Macedonia program
- Give out over $50,000 a year in Bitove scholarships
- Host annual Macedonian cultural events in key centers in the world.
We envision an influential, respected and united Macedonian diaspora committed to building and sustaining the global Macedonian community.
To be successful in advocacy we take great pride in being patriotic, professional, persistent, and patient.
Our motto is United, We Can!