WASHINGTON - Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev says he is optimistic that an extortion investigation of the country's former chief special prosecutor will be resolved ahead of upcoming European Union accession talks.
"I expect that once I return (from New York), there will be something prepared by the working groups, the negotiators on both sides," Zaev told VOA's Macedonian Service at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday.
Zaev, who refused to divulge details of a pending agreement for fear of disrupting negotiations, said he expects a deal before a European Council meeting on Oct. 17, when ministers from the 28 EU member states will decide whether to let North Macedonia and Albania start the accession process.
"The solution itself will send another message about our political and democratic maturity," he said, referring to EU accession criteria.
This summer, North Macedonia's former chief Special Prosecutor, Katica Janeva, unexpectedly tendered her resignation amid allegations that she masterminded a scheme to extort millions from an indicted businessman in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Janeva's Special Prosecution Office (SPO), an organized-crime-busting outfit also tasked with addressing high-level corruption, has long been emblematic of the former Yugoslav republic's transatlantic aspirations. By spearheading investigations of the now-ousted authoritarian regime of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, Janeva's office was largely mandated to restore rule of law.
The country changed its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia in a historic 2018 Prespa accord, ending a more than two-decade dispute with Greece over its name, and removing an obstacle to EU and NATO membership.
Last month, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn said Skopje needs to reform its judiciary to ensure it can handle high-level crime and corruption cases before the EU accession talks begin.
Zaev met with his Greek counterpart, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in New York, where the two discussed ways to build on the Prespa agreement.
From border crossings to trade deals and economic cooperation, Zaev said, "These are the ways to enhance the friendship that we have already established through the Prespa agreement," adding that he was "pleased with this first encounter."
Mitsotakis, who took office in July, told Zaev he would never have signed the 2018 deal with Macedonia, but that he would nonetheless honor it.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he plans to visit North Macedonia on an upcoming swing through Italy, Greece and the Western Balkans during the first week of October.
Pompeo "will attend the U.S.-Holy See Symposium on Partnering with Faith-Based Organizations, where he will deliver keynote remarks," read a Friday statement from the State Department. "He will have a private audience with His Holiness Pope Francis, and meet with Secretary of State Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop [Paul] Gallagher."
Pompeo will then meet with Italian leaders before meeting with Zaev and his top officials in the capital of North Macedonia, along with the leaders of Montenegro and Greece.
This story originated in VOA's Macedonian Service. An earlier version of this article misreferenced Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in the headline. VOA regrets the error.