Ambassador Aggeler interview with Alsat TV

Ambassador Aggeler interview with Alsat TV

March 22, 2023

Alsat TV:  Dear Ambassador, welcome in this interview tonight.

Ambassador Aggeler:  Hi, Fatlume.  Thank you so much for having me here.  I’m delighted to be here at Alsat and look forward to our conversation.

Alsat TV:  We will start from the latest events.  A big step was taken this past weekend in Ohrid between Kosovo and Serbia along with the agreement which was achieved between the two countries.  Are you positive that the two countries are going to go on and respect this agreement at the following time?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I certainly hope so, and I think it was a very important step for the region that President Vucic and Prime Minister Kurti were able to reach this agreement in Ohrid this weekend.

I think, though, in my role as the US Ambassador to North Macedonia, I would simply say that I think the citizens of this country, regardless of their party, regardless of their community or background, should be very, very proud because this is the only country in the region that could have hosted this very historic peace summit.  They have the relationship.  This country, its citizens, its leaders right now have the relationship with the other countries in the Western Balkans that they were able to bring these two leaders together to reach this historic agreement.  And we are grateful to the European Union for the important role they played.  We were there, the United States, as observers to the process but it was clear to everyone that the role that North Macedonia played was critical.  And so, I really applaud this country for being such an important part of this important agreement.

Alsat TV:  Is this a new era for peace in the region?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I hope so.  I’m not able to see the future but I think that this was, again, a very historic agreement.  It was difficult.  As you know, there have been tensions between those two countries, and the fact that they were able to come together under the auspices of the European Union and reach this critical agreement is again, historic and important.

Now there are many steps in moving forward on this, but it is our hope and expectation that the leaders of the two countries will continue to act in good faith on those.

Alsat TV:  Your return to North Macedonia is seen as a strong signal from people here.  You have previously been here until 2013 when the country had a different name, and after that SDSM had a comeback in 2015 and announced several reforms.  But now in 2023 the country faces a serious lack of credibility towards institutions regarding corruption at each level of the system.  What do you see that has changed during this period?  What has changed for better, and what is worse?

Ambassador Aggeler:  Let me say what I think I have told you privately and told many others, that to return to this country as the United States Ambassador to North Macedonia is the honor of my career.  As I have said, it is a country I know a little and that I feel and care very deeply about and want to do everything in my power to help this country reach its aspirations and goals.  So, I’m delighted to be back.  I am so delighted to again see so many of my friends, my Macedonian friends, and to travel around this country again that I love very much.

There have been some very important changes including changing the name of this country.  That was not only a crucial agreement, but it also represented a very difficult decision for the people of this country and I recognize that.  As I travel around the country and talk to friends and contacts and young people, I am struck time and again with their frustration at having done so much and yet still having to continue on so many of these battles that we’ve seen in the past.  While that was an absolutely critical step to moving this country forward on its NATO membership, it still needs to continue to make efforts to move forward with the European Union.

But let me also say that this country right now, again has the spotlight from the international community not only on issues like the summit in Ohrid but also in its chairpersonship of the OSCE, of the Adriatic Charter that is coming up next week, and so many of these issues.  So while it continues to face many challenges, I believe that it has taken an important role within the Western Balkans, within Europe and around the world, frankly.

Alsat TV:  Let’s talk about an important topic that we have covered lately.  We want to assure you for our position as the national TV station for the importance of the construction of Corridor 8 and 10D.  It is indeed a huge project, an important project but it has come to our attention that the supervisor has some criminal background, has allegation about Russian money.  Do you believe that the institutions should have been more cautious when changing or when choosing this supervisor?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I think you’re referring to allegations against the Financial Transaction Advisors.  That is an issue which is separate from the Bechtel agreement that was signed about 10 days ago, and that agreement for the largest infrastructure project in the history of this country is one about which we are enormously proud.  We are delighted to have this very well known, very well-respected American company, Bechtel, which has shown its expertise and its ability to complete highest quality, global standard projects within the timeframe and within budget, as we have seen just in Kosovo, with their fantastic project there and projects they are working on in Serbia.  We’re delighted to have an American company present in again, what is the largest infrastructure project.

That is separate from the allegations within, again, the Financial Transaction Advisors, with the FTA.  What we have said consistently is if there are allegations of corruption, investigate them.  Investigate those allegations.  If they are found to be true, prosecute them.  But we are very confident that those are not on the Bechtel side.  In fact, I’m very much looking forward to going and being a part of the groundbreaking ceremony a couple of weeks from now because I think that’s important for this country and the citizens of this country.

Alsat TV:  In Macedonia corruption happens every day.  This is confirmed even by the latest report of State Department that was published just three days ago.  How concerning should this report be for our institutions here?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I would suggest that the Human Rights Report is an opportunity for a country, and we do them for countries all over the world, to review where they are in terms of how they are taking care of their citizens.  That’s crucially important.   In the United States human rights, as you know, are an absolutely crucial part of our foreign policy and our engagement with foreign countries.

Corruption is a cancer, and it is too prevalent here.  It is not new, and I am frequently asked what are you doing about corruption?  I’m the American.  What I’m doing is using the power that we have in the United States Government to call that out.  But I cannot do what the citizens of this country can do, which is to look at their elected officials, look at the business people within their communities, look at the practices that they see every day.  The victims of this corruption are the people of this country, and we want to do everything we can at the Embassy and in Washington, DC to help the citizens of this country attack that cancer.

Alsat TV:  People are patiently waiting for those blacklists of USA.  Can you kindly once more explain the procedures, the people that are being investigated, which institutions are involved in this investigation?

Ambassador Aggeler:  We take, first of all, and I think we’ve talked about this.  There’s not just one list.  Sanctions take a number of different forms in the United States, as you know, so there are a number of lists.  There is a very careful process which takes place in Washington DC.

There are several different agencies that have the lead, depending on what type of sanctions they are.  So there are financial sanctions and the Department of Treasury takes the lead on those.  There are visa sanctions and those are within State Department.  There are many others involved in the process and it’s a very careful process.  A careful legal process, because one can’t simply accept allegations of corruption for them to then be cited on one of our sanctions lists.  We have to do all due diligence that we can so there is confidence in the process.  So that when the United States produces sanctions a name on a sanctions list, people are very clear that this is something that was investigated, that was pursued, and that that person deserves to be included on a sanctions list.

And those that are being considered — and that list changes all the time because it’s dynamic.  If the evidence is not there, they will not be sanctioned.  If there is someone who comes to the attention of the embassy or to one of the agencies in the United States, then they can be added to the investigation process.

Alsat TV:  We obviously still don’t have the names, but can you at least disclose if there are people still in their position or they are people that already left their public service?

Ambassador Aggeler:  There is not a limitation to who can be considered.  So it is not only officials, those currently or previously within government, but again, it’s also business people, business leaders, and others.  So there is not simply one category of those who are considered.

Alsat TV:  What is this blacklist going to change for our domestic institutions?  We have seen many cases when these people aren’t being held accountable for their deeds by our domestic institutions.  There a many cases when they continue their functioning normally.  And there are cases like Nikola Gruevski who already left the country when his name was already published in that blacklist.  What can we do?  What can our institutions do in this case?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I’m so grateful that you asked that question, because this is the crux of the matter.  The United States can sanction an individual but what happens to them, we don’t imprison them, we don’t come over to the country and arrest them.  We simply tell them we are imposing the following financial sanctions, or you’re no longer able to travel to the United States, or whatever form that sanction takes.

What is critically important, and this goes back to my earlier point, is what happens here.  What happens in this country.  Our sanctions do not change the legal procedures or implementation of the laws within this country.  The United States can say here are two names of people that we are going to sanction, and as we’ve seen with the cases that you cited, that remains regardless of any judicial decisions that are made about those individuals, but it doesn’t trigger any kind of legal process here.  That rests with the government of North Macedonia, and that rests with the elected officials that the people of this country have selected.  They are the ones that have to say we demand of our elected officials to be accountable for the corruption that we see every day.

Alsat TV:  What is our biggest problem?  Do we need new and better laws?  Or do we need new people with more integrity to implement these laws, to have more efficient institutions?

Ambassador Aggeler:  It’s not for me to characterize what the biggest challenges are for this country, but I would say that any country can have the most beautiful laws, the most elegant laws, the most beautifully written laws, and if they’re not implemented then it really doesn’t matter.  It’s critically important that the people of this country see that the judicial system here works and that it works for them.  And that they understand why the process moves in the way that it does, and they see that people who they know to be corrupt are being held accountable.

Alsat TV:  We would like to know your opinion about the announced vetting for evaluating the work of public prosecutors, judges and politicians.  Do you think our institutions are capable of claiming and conducting a transparent vetting?

Ambassador Aggeler:  Vetting can be very challenging as we’ve seen in a number of other countries where it has not worked well.  It’s particularly challenging within the judicial system because of the necessity to look at those that are already in office.  And in a system where corruption already exists, it is very difficult to ensure that that process is completely transparent and fair.

Vetting in the United States takes place before you get into the position.  We don’t have enough time for me to describe to you the vetting that I went through to be nominated and confirmed as a US Ambassador.  So, I hope that this country finds a way to move vetting into the process before people get into their positions in a way that’s most appropriate for this institution.

Alsat TV:  It is common to hear that prosecutors and judges can be from the same family or sometimes related or they can be from the same family with politicians.  Do you think this kind of nepotism is affecting our justice system?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I saw the recent report on nepotism.  I can’t speak to those that were, to the children or relatives that were put into those positions because frankly, I don’t know their background.  I do know that nepotism in the United States is a very serious issue and that we have very specific laws and very specific regulations to protect against nepotism.

As I have said before, I think part of that is a question for journalists like you and your colleagues to investigate.  It’s not for me as the US Ambassador to check the qualifications of these people, but if there’s a story there or if there’s real allegations of abuse, they should be investigated and they should be pursued.

Alsat TV:  Madame Ambassador, new changes have already been applied to our government with the idea of a more stable majority, but the numbers to open and change the constitution are still not enough, are less than 80.  What are your expectations and what is your message for the following months of this year?

Ambassador Aggeler:  We’ve been very clear that the United States wants to do everything it can, the US Embassy, everything in its power to help assist this country move towards its Euro-Atlantic integration and thus its membership in the European Union, and we’ll continue to do so.

There are very complicated domestic political issues at play and implications for those issues, but I would say that in my view it has become overly politicized and it is my sincere hope that the people of this country understand the benefits of moving towards Europe, the European Union, the European community and that transatlantic relationship, the Euro-Atlantic relationship.  Because it’s so critical to the economic growth of this country, to trade, to security.  And so we and I will continue to do everything we can to urge political leaders to make the right decision that’s in the best interest of this country and its citizens because that’s critically important right now.

Alsat TV:  Elections are a turning point at any time.  The opposition for VMRO-DPMNE has made it clear that they first want elections and then constitutional changes and the majority states the other way around- first constitutional changes and then elections.  What is the best version according to you?

Ambassador Aggeler:  It’s not for me to say as the US Ambassador what the best way forward is.  Again, the best way forward is not to do this in an overly politicized environment with politicized rhetoric.  It is to move forward as leaders of whichever party in the best interests of the country and its citizens.  That includes a vote on the constitutional amendment.  And that means going forward as a country.

When the elections are is up to the elected officials and the citizens to express themselves to their leaders, but it is my fondest hope that the political leaders will do what they need to do to move towards European integration.

Alsat TV:  The relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria are progressively getting worse.  Do you have any hope that after the following elections in our neighboring country and after maybe a more stable government there, there will be more hope for both countries to rebuild their trust?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I always have hope.  It is, again, my hope that in an overly politicized dialogue that can be put aside in what is in the best interest of the region, and I am very delighted to be the US Ambassador to North Macedonia.  I’m not the Ambassador to Bulgaria.  But it would seem to me that both the leaders and the citizens of Bulgaria would recognize the enormous benefits of this country and others within the region moving towards the EU as well.  The benefits that would offer to them to have another EU member state, or more, or all of them, within the Western Balkans to also be part of the European Union.  That will build the security and the prosperity of all the countries in the region including Bulgaria.

Alsat TV:  We will talk a little bit about the public safety.  Albania had a desperate experience when its system was broken by Iranians, even thought this country is a NATO member from 2008.  And in North Macedonia for some months we are facing continuous bomb threats where the people were scared and students were missing classes.  What can our country do better for greater public safety, and how is USA helping us in this matter?

Ambassador Aggeler:  That’s a really important question right now because cybersecurity is an issue that we discuss frequently as we did last June in our Strategic Dialogue.  It’s a critically important issue in the United States where we have also seen some of these hacks .  Not only Albania but other countries in the Western Balkans have also been affected.  And so we are working very closely with a number of the ministries, with the leadership of the government and with others within the private sector as well to collaborate to the extent that we can, and it’s quite extensive, on cybersecurity.

Part of it is awareness and understanding what those hacks can do as we saw for example with the medical system recently.  The Ministry of Health and the private records of citizens being released.  That’s the kind of thing that is a real danger and we are working with many, many different actors here in this country to address that.

The issue of the bomb threats is something that is very worrisome.  I think we have seen that the Ministry of Interior has been able to implement some protections and those seem to have been reduced recently.  But we have to get kids back in school.  They have to be able to go to school.  We have to keep the airport open.  We have to keep the malls and shops open.  So that’s something that again we have also, our security team has worked very, very closely with officials here at the Ministry of Interior and elsewhere to try to help with that issue as well.

Alsat TV:  What if something worse happens, like life threatening threats, privacy data, and risks of this kind?  How can we stop this and prevent this from happening?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I never like hypotheticals, but I think we have already seen in terms of data being released, we’ve already seen that happen.  I think it’s not only incredibly important for officials to understand the threat but also for individuals, for citizens to understand that their privacy, that their issues, that the ministries within the government that serve them must be protected against these attacks.  Because they can have an enormously detrimental impact on a community, on a society.

Alsat TV:  Ms. Ambassador, it was really a pleasure to have you here tonight.  Thank you for your time and your commitment.

Ambassador Aggeler:  Thanks you so much Fatlume.  I had a great time.

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