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“We Need to Fight Against This Senseless March Towards a Major Military Escalation” –  Interview with Biljana Vankovska, the left-wing option for the Macedonian presidency

On the 24th April, (North) Macedonia will hold the first round of the presidential elections. The country is home to the fastest growing left-wing movement in Europe: the Levica (Left) party, whose popularity has risen in recent years, contributing to significant electoral results in the 2020 parliamentary and the 2021 local elections. In early 2024  the party has for the first time in its history put forward a candidate for the presidential ballot: Biljana Vankovska, a professor of International Relations and Peace Studies at the Saints Cyril and Methodius University in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. She is an openly left-wing intellectual and scholar and author of numerous academic works in both Macedonian and English about her country’s domestic politics and foreign affairs. She is the only presidential candidate that is completely opposed to the pro-Western consensus promoted by the establishment parties and seeks to provide an alternative viewpoint which is often not heard in the national conversation. Vankovska has also received support and public endorsements from the Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat, the MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, and the director of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, Jan Oberg, among others. 

Adrian Waters (AW): You are not a member of Levica, but you have been an active supporter of the party since it was founded in 2015. In your opinion, what factors have contributed to the rise in popularity of Levica in recent years?

Biljana Vankovska (BV): Yes, I was in the first group of citizens who submitted their signature for the registration of Levica as a political party. But I had been familiar with the group of younger people active in various social movements and activist initiatives against the injustices and oligarchy in the previous years. In short, they tried to make a difference and change the society through societal forms of activism, but the time was ripe to make a decision to change things through the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Levica also did not shy away from addressing the national question. In fact, they have reclaimed this question as one historically held, answered and advanced by the socialists in Macedonia. By doing so, it has remained connected to the working class, and has continuously built up support amongst the people.

Not surprisingly, the nonconventional, explicit, brave and revolutionary public discourse has particularly found its resonance and echo among the younger people in Macedonian  society. The more Levica was demonised, the more popular it became among the youngsters but also among their parents. The young generations say: enough is enough! And their parents understand that this is a struggle of their own children who do not want to follow the path of the establishment and bourgeoisie, which has resulted in a desert of  neoliberal transition. The “children of the transition” are willing and brave enough to lead another way towards a more just society, international solidarity and peaceful coexistence in the Balkan region and globally.   

AW: What are your main objectives or aspirations in seeking the presidency?

BV: My main mission, as I understand it, is to be a Truth-teller! I am the only one among the seven presidential candidates in this race who is going to use Orwell’s motto: in times of general deceit, telling  the truth is a revolutionary act. It is exactly what I have drafted in my electoral program and what I am doing while talking to the  media. Our common goal is to deconstruct the false narrative of neoliberal capitalism, militarism and imperialism and to appeal to common sense among the citizens of all walks of life. We live in a society where absence of direct violence is proclaimed as positive peace, while in reality we are surrounded by the mechanisms of structural violence, lack of freedom, including freedom of speech, socially-based and ethnic discrimination. There is also cultural violence in the form of militarism and the NATO-isation of society. For instance, I teach peace studies at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, but the leadership and my colleagues prefer to organise the so-called NATO academy and take students to visit military units and eat the famous “soldier’s beans” during their visits to military barracks. I am trying to challenge the narratives of my opponents in the presidential elections and it seems I am all alone against six of them, since they all agree on NATO and EU integration with no critical thinking whatsoever. Yet, working on the ground, meeting the citizens on the streets or squares, and also through social media, I believe I am beginning to reach the hearts and minds of the people who are fed up with the old-fashioned, indecently expensive, and aggressive political campaigns of the other candidates. If I manage to enter the second round of the elections, I think it will be an important victory not just for the left in Macedonia but also more broadly. I believe it is crucial, both symbolically and materially, for anti-militaristic voices of reason to be vocal and to be heard, especially in Europe, in their fight against this senseless march towards a major military escalation that we are witnessing on the European continent and globally. 

“NATO kills for profit.” Biljana Vankovska and Saško Jančev, a member of Levica’s central committee and of the Gevgelija municipal council.

AW: This marks the first instance of an openly anti-NATO candidate running for president. Could you explain your stance on NATO and highlight what differentiates you from other candidates?

BV: As a professor of peace studies and an antiwar activist, I have always opposed NATO enlargement and liberal interventionism. Unfortunately, I am quite alone in the academic community in Macedonia. It is hard to understand how and why a country that witnessed the horrors of Yugoslavia’s dissolution – including the 1999 NATO intervention over Kosovo, which was an act that violated the UN Charter – as well as the internal military conflict in 2001, would like to join a military alliance. The pretext of the elites has always been that NATO brings peace and democracy, as well as military investments. As you may know, Macedonia’s membership was vetoed by Greece over the name dispute. But nevertheless even then I was against NATO membership for political, socio-economic, security and moral reasons. Strangely, Levica is the only political party that has opposed NATO membership since its formation. Now we are sharing the same position and arguing that the situation is even worse than four years ago when Macedonia was admitted to NATO. First, NATO is involved in a proxy war in Ukraine and is overtly advocating a ‘global NATO’, a euphemism for an imperial Western alliance and global militarisation, with a possibility to push for a war between the USA and China over Taiwan. That is nothing but the beginning of World War III. Second, Macedonia has to reduce the scarce resources from the public and particularly its socio-economic domain in order to contribute to NATO’s wars across the globe. Only a few weeks ago, the Government celebrated the 4th anniversary of NATO membership. They proudly bragged that in 2024 we are going to be amongst 18 NATO member states that pay over 2 per cent of their GDP towards the NATO membership fee. This is shameless in a country with devastated public healthcare and education.  All the other candidates are strong supporters of NATO and even compete to prove who is going to prove more loyal to the alliance. But our history and tradition as a nation is that of non-alignment, not one of active participation in military alliances. In fact, the Macedonian people never acquiesced to joining the Alliance and the number of people who would vote to withdraw from it has been rising exponentially since the country was forcibly pushed into the Alliance.      

AW: You have opposed the Prespa agreement on the name change with Greece, the recent deal with Bulgaria, and the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement on power sharing. You have described these as a “Bermuda triangle of Macedonian statehood.” Could you provide further insight into what you mean by this characterisation?

BV: To cut a long story short, since 2001 the Macedonian people have lost their right to adopt their own constitution – i.e. define its own social contract – due to pressures from external actors. The 2001 Framework agreement altered the political system from a liberal one into a consociational power sharing  model of quasi democracy. In short, it is a system run by an ethno-tribal cartel of elites, and the demos are replaced by demoi, or better, ethnos. The other two treaties are, in colonial terms, imposed and mediated by the Western powers in order to appease the nationalist appetites and myths of the neighbouring elites, who argue that there is no Macedonian people, language, culture or history whatsoever. This was done in order for NATO to achieve its geopolitical goals at the expense of the Macedonians’ right to self-determination and through violation of international norms.     

Biljana Vankovska and Saško Jančev, a member of Levica’s central committee and of the Gevgelija municipal council,  at the local party branch in Gevgelija.

AW: You have characterised Macedonia’s current situation as akin to being a colony. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this assessment? 

BV: The usual and simplest definition of colonialism would be control by one power over a dependent area or people. In Macedonia we deal with neocolonialism of a specific Western type. True, there are no huge natural resources to exploit, but the country and the region are part of the so-called Western sphere of interest. In the early nineties, few believed that Macedonia would survive as an independent state, but the Macedonian people established it as an international actor, which coincided with the unipolar era and US hegemony. It appeared natural that the country’s leadership started looking westward, thus following the example of the other post-socialist states. It was when the There is No Alternative (TINA) principle was established in the minds and the hearts of the elites. Ever since then the Macedonian society has been trained to think and even believe that Western recipes and therapies are the best. NATO and the EU have become a secular religion. To make things worse, the critical thinking or debates over other alternatives were portrayed as nationalistic and politically incorrect. In this way, the Macedonian people also lost their constitutional sovereignty and the right to think and act in accordance with their own political and other interests. Since the 2001 conflict, the constitution has become a legal act in which foreign factors were inserting their blueprints for the sake of “peace and stability”. Later on the national history, culture, identity and the name were exchanged for the alleged brighter future in the EU. Instead Macedonia became the 30th NATO member state, now contributing to the alliance’s proxy war in Ukraine. The people were disempowered and became apathetic, thus a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed the majority. Now the compradorial elites are the ones that command society and its resources in the best interest of the Western powers.  

AW: Your critique of both the United States and the EU’s involvement in Macedonia has been notable. What are the reasons behind your criticisms?

BV: You could get the feeling from my previous answers. Macedonia – as well as the other so-called Western Balkan states – has been the subject of international statebuilding. It meant treating a country as only a territory, prescribing Western medicines regardless of societal or other circumstances. Many of those medicines gave opposite results, an iatrogenic effect, as people working in medicine would name it. Nowadays when the West is in moral and political decline matters are worsening. Nothing good came from NATO membership, and many dark clouds are gathering on the horizon.  

AW: Your vocal support for Palestine has been evident. Would you continue this stance if elected president, and how does it differentiate you from other candidates on this issue?

BV: Unfortunately, I am the only presidential candidate that raises her voice against the genocide of the Palestinians. Honestly, at the moment I feel bad because I have not had enough time to devote to this issue due to my campaigning. But quite often I put the Palestinian keffiyeh scarf around myself. It is the way I  protest and show solidarity with these brave people. If elected president, trust me, I would do much more in this respect.   

AW: You have described your approach as radical in both analysis and solutions. Could you elaborate on what this radicalism entails if you were to become president? What do you wish to bring to this role if you are elected?

BV: I am deeply aware of the changing world and the global crisis, which could be taken as a chance to change the current international, so-called rules-based order. Macedonia needs to be on the right side of history, to work on peaceful coexistence and international cooperation for its own sake and the sake of peace in the world. If not, we are all doomed! It will take me a considerable amount of effort to raise the consciousness of the citizens and to prove that NATO does not bring peace and that the EU is only a Siamese twin of NATO. For now we need to try and achieve military neutrality and seek friendships in the region and beyond. 

AW: Who are your political and intellectual influences or sources of inspiration? Have you had the chance to interact with other left-wing parties and/or figures from outside Macedonia? Which ones inspire you the most?

BV: Academically and morally I come from the peace and conflict resolution field, so my heroes are not in favour of waging wars, but of waging peace. Clare Daly is a good friend and comrade as are Jan Oberg and Yanis Varoufakis – all of them devoted to left-wing causes and working on a peaceful redefinition of our world.  

AW: What is the optimistic, pessimistic and realistic scenario for Macedonia in the context of the elections and after? 

BV: I usually follow Gramsci’s thought: pessimist in mind, and optimist in the will. That is why I have accepted this obligation and honour to fight in an unfair election game in Macedonia in the hope that one can change things by the force of her/his own example. 

Adrian Waters was born in Rome in 1996 and has lived and studied in both Italy and England. He has a Bachelor of Arts in History and Politics from the University of Kent (Canterbury, UK), a Master of Arts in History from University College London, and a second-level Master in International Public Affairs from the LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome. He is currently enrolled in the Law and Politics PhD programme at the University of Graz, Austria. Since 2018 he has been a member of the Institute for a Greater Europe, a think tank that analyses the politics of Europe and its neighbouring regions, for which he was its secretary and now works as its Democratisation Desk Officer. He was also a member of the Council of the International Students of History Association (ISHA) between January 2022 and April 2024.