By Maja Zivanovic and Sinisa Jakov Marusic
In a long telephone conversation on Wednesday – after Belgrade withdrew its diplomats from Skopje – Serbian and Macedonian leaders agreed to try to improve recently tense relations through more dialogue.
In a joint press release issued after a “lengthy and open” telephone conversation, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev agreed to solve all their recent disagreements through dialogue.
“Regardless of all political differences in certain important political and regional issues, Serbia and Macedonia will jointly fight not only to preserve, but also to promote, friendly relations between the Serbian and Macedonian people and the citizens of Serbia and Macedonia,” it said.
The press release added that Serbia and Macedonia would make greater efforts also to further improve economic relations and increase trade between the two countries.
The conciliatory wording of the joint statement follows diplomatic turmoil, after Serbia abruptly withdrew all its embassy staff from Macedonia on Sunday.
On Monday, Vucic said Belgrade had pulled out its staff after it obtained “evidence of very offensive intelligence against the institutions of Serbia” adding that unnamed “foreign powers” were also involved.
Meanwhile, Serbian media reports speculated that Macedonia had been tapping the Serbian officials’ communications, which Skopje has denied.
After the phone call, the Serbian President and Macedonian Prime Minister also agreed to protect the rights and interests of the embassies in both countries.
“Serbia and Macedonia will intensify mutual communications at the highest level, support each other on the European path and strengthen good neighbourly relations to contribute to the stability of the region,” it said.
Following the phone call, the Serbian Foreign Ministry announced that it will return Serbian staff to its embassy in Skopje on August 24, while the ambassador will be returned on August 31.
According to Beta news agency, the ambassador will request a meeting with Macedonia’s Prime Minister on 1 September.
EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said after the telephone conversation between Vucic and Zaev that the EU welcomes the fact the issue is being addressed through a constructive approach.
“Mutual respect, good neighbourly relations and strengthening of regional cooperation remain essential for the European path of the entire region,” Kocijancic told BIRN.
Before the telephone conversation with Vucic, Zaev told the Serbian daily Blic on Wednesday that allegations in the Serbian media that he or his government had ordered wiretapping, or other intelligence measures, against the Serbian embassy in Skopje, were false.
“I hope that during our talk with President Vucic today, we will clear out any possible misunderstandings,” Zaev said.
Commenting on Serbia’s warnings against Macedonia not to support Kosovo’s membership of UNESCO, Zaev denied claims that his government was conspiring with Albanian factors in the region to bring this about.
“There is no strategy aimed to damage Serbia in our country … Our foreign policy approach is based on open doors, direct dialogue and on good will to resolve problems instead of creating new ones,” Zaev said.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Wednesday repeated that “intelligence was the concrete reason for withdrawing of the embassy staff” from Skopje.
According to the Serbian state news agency Tanjug, Brnabic added that Zaev had recently assured her that Macedonia would refrain from any vote about Kosovo’s UNESCO membership.
“At this moment, this is most important to me, for the presidents in the region to keep their word,” Brnabic said.
Serbia does not recognize the independence of its former province of Kosovo and opposes all its attempts to join international organizations as a sovereign country.
Generally good relations between the two neighbouring countries worsened since the year started, and worsened further after Belgrade stepped up its criticism of Zaev’s new government, led by the Social Democrats, SDSM.