The presidents of Macedonia, Croatia, Albania, and Monte Negro were among the speakers at Friday’s ‘Peace and Democracy versus War and Autocracy’ session at the 2023 Prespa Forum Dialogue in Struga on Friday.

The debate focused on the regional stability and security, the EU enlargement, and the youth prospects in the region.

“War certainly brought back the focus on geopolitics, but I’m not quite sure at all that it brought back the focus on democracy, at least on the continent. In my view, Putin’s war in Ukraine was mainly instigated by his mode of thinking and his desire to restore the former USSR and the sphere of influence, because in essence this is a war for territory. The EU, in my view, is also not looking too much into that dichotomy as the name of the panel, democracy versus autocracy, and I agree that many scholars, institutions, practitioners, have for years back documented the backsliding in certain corners of the continent and the world towards autocracy, but that has nothing directly to do with the war in Ukraine,” said Pendarovski.

“One-time events cannot sustain democracy, they can serve only as the lateral push and cannot be the core of mutual efforts to democratize,” continued Pendarovski, talking about what the Euro-Atlantic community should do in order to support democracy in the Balkans.

According to the Macedonian President, technology, and especially artificial intelligence, cannot promote democracy.

“Modern technologies offer much more room for manipulation of people, and much more room for informing people and using diversified sources of info. States and international organizations should start as soon as possible to regulate this area. First of all, through licensing of the subjects present on social media, and individual responsibility for the individuals who are placing content on social media platforms,” said Pendarovski.

“Western Balkan countries remain outside of the European Union. That process has dragged on for a humiliatingly long time, a process that no one with good and honest intentions can explain… It is a hideous process that we imposed… We need to stop and think a little about the level of democracy in the EU”, stressed Croatian President Zoran Milanović.

President Milanović pointed out the need for Western Balkan countries to join the EU as quickly as possible. He spoke critically of the EU institutions which he believes could hardly be called democratic.

“Even the European Parliament is not a democratic institution because it does not respect the standards for a parliamentary democracy. The EU suffers from a chronic deficiency of accountability,” Milanović said.

“I was a leader of a very liberal social democratic party for a decade. We advocated for human rights, signaled virtues… Now I am a president of a democratic republic, aware of all of its flaws. We live in an imperfect environment. I have never shown interest in Russians, but have offered Croatian passports to a number of Putin opposition figures, such as Garry Kasparov. The issue is not Putin, it’s us, the standards we set, EU’s responsibility, the accountability of all those who constantly speak of values, of those who have to explain to people that the death penalty still exists in the United States, which is said to not actually be a death sentence but a threat that you can be killed if you go against the country,” Milanović said.

As an example of inconsistency the Croatian President pointed out criticism about elections in Albania and Montenegro, which he said were held perfectly well as opposed to the events that happened in the United States.

Albanian President Bajram Begaj said the forum should send the message that regardless of geopolitical networks the future of the region was in the European and Euro-Atlantic family.

“Today it is more important than ever to promote the values of democratic governance. We have to stop those who promote conflict, because we are a small region where cultures and traditions are completely intertwined and we have real opportunities to create positive energy. The Balkans can offer its hand in friendship to its neighbors and allies. I believe that our conflicts can become our lessons,” Begaj said.

He noted that Balkan countries were facing challenges requiring engagement at the national, regional and international level, and joint efforts toward solutions and change.

“In recent years, due to geopolitical events and the power increase of third non-democratic actors, democracy is being questioned,” President Begaj said.

He also spoke of the time when his country had peace for 50 years because of communism, but with no democracy. “Peace is guaranteed when countries have democracy,” he said.

“After the Cold War there was optimism that war would not be an option any more and that democracy had won and expanded its place across the world. Only three decades later we are witnessing the brutal and unprovoked military aggression by one of the members of the UN Security Council against another UN member. The effects of this ‘intervention’ are numerous, from the threat of using nuclear weapons, food safety, higher energy prices, global safety…

“This directly influences our Western Balkans where we are still trying to build a region where cooperation and security will prevail,” Begaj noted.

Albania’s President said the Prespa Forum Dialogue was a reminder of the historic agreement made in Prespa, and showed how visionary and courageous leaders took on responsibilities. He added that this agreement expanded the Euro-Atlantic area of security.

Montenegro’s President Jakov Milatović said the region had the ability to independently solve problems and open issues. As an example he used the Prespa Agreement, which he said had solved a long-term problem between two countries and showed that countries from the region were capable of solving their own problems.

“What has been missing is further progress, especially regarding Macedonia and its accession to the EU,” Milatović said.

Regarding the situation in Ukraine, Milatović said it was a wake-up call for the EU, and he urged the bloc to view enlargement as a political rather than only a technical process.