Ambassador Aggeler spoke to Macedonian Radio Television about her career in diplomacy, her work in North Macedonia, and current political issues in the country, including rule of law, the fight against corruption, and more.
To watch the video, click HERE.
Below you can read the transcript of the interview:
Ambassador Angela Aggeler
April 11, 2023
MRTV: Coming as Ambassador to your country is an honor for me in my career. This is a country that I know, that I care about a lot, and I want to do everything in my power to help it achieve its aspirations and goals.” I quoted an excerpt from your recent interview. Ambassador Aggeler, in the time between your departure and return, Macedonia changed its name and became a member of NATO. It [is] on the path to the European Union. The big picture of the Euro-Atlantic integration seems successful, but what about the details?
Ambassador Aggeler: Let me start by saying, first of all, [Stole], it’s great to be with you again after a number of years. We know each other from when I was here before, and congratulations on your new show, which I think is a great format. Thank you for inviting me to talk with you and for asking really the fundamental question for me.
It is the honor of my career to have returned to North Macedonia as the United States Ambassador here. It’s, as you said in the quote, it’s a country that I know a little, I care about deeply, and I want to do everything in my power with my wonderful team at the embassy to help this country and its citizens meet their priorities and their goals. And those have been very clear.
First of all, to get into NATO, which they did, and which required this country to pass a constitutional amendment to change its name which is an incredibly difficult thing for a country to do. And yet the citizens, the leadership was up to the task.
So today, yes, North Macedonia is not only in NATO but an incredibly important ally in NATO, contributing significantly to Ukraine and to other NATO efforts, and coming very close to meeting their two percent goals.
Some things have changed, and yet a number of challenges still remain as you certainly recognize. So I want to do everything I can to help support those goals, support those priorities and move the country with whatever help we can provide towards its goal of entering the European Union.
MRTV: Rule of law, the fight against corruption, public administration reform— these are some areas that for years have been noted in State Department and European Commission reports for which improvements are needed. It is [has been difficult] going. The United States has spent millions of dollars for more efficient institutions—I believe you will not ask for the money back. How do the means justify the end?
Ambassador Aggeler: Listen, everybody always wants a return on their investment, right? The United States has since in the last 30 years, has provided over a billion dollars in non-military assistance to this country and close to about half a billion in military. $560 million of that over $1 billion has been focused on anti-corruption, on good governance and rule of law.
Unfortunately, what we see today, as you mentioned, is that we have not reached the potential that this country in its governance could and should. That’s not a great return on investment. And I want to support in every way possible through our programs and through our efforts fighting corruption. Because the people of this country are tired of it. The people of this country see corruption in their lives every single day and have made very clear in polling, in support for the judiciary, in every conversation I have when I leave Skopje, that they’ve had enough.
So the United States plays an important role in that. Reform in these areas is important to get into the European Union. But more importantly than that is the fact that reform and real change in these areas is good for this country and good for the people of this country.
So it is my fondest wish, and I will work every day, to try to support those goals and to help make those important reforms.
MRTV: Washington is working on sanctions lists that may include individuals from the country. I understand this is a subtle issue, but when can we expect the blacklist to be released and will it include politicians, business persons?
Ambassador Aggeler: This is a question that I get asked quite frequently, as I’m sure you understand. First of all, as I’ve said, there’s more than one list. There’s not simply one blacklist. There are different sanctions lists that are developed in Washington. There’s a very careful and thorough legal process to review those individuals who have been placed for review and consideration for sanctions.
So we are in constant touch with Washington as they develop those cases, as they look at the evidence and determine whether or not a person is eligible for sanctions.
But an important point on this is that the United States can sanction individuals, whether they are current or past government officials, whether they are business people with deeply corrupt practices. So there’s not a limitation on who might be considered under our sanctions. But when an individual is sanctioned by the United States, we don’t come in and arrest them. We don’t take actions except say we will impose financial sanctions or visa sanctions. We leave that and the implementation of the laws that these individuals have broken to the government of North Macedonia.
So we can cite people and place our sanctions on them, but any further action comes from the officials here.
MRTV: Between the two intergovernmental conferences with the European Union, constitutional amendments should be adopted, which Brussels [the EU] requests now. The government is seeking consensus, the opposition is opposing for now, offering its own ideas. The country already made one big concession – it changed the name that was supposed to be a condition for joining both NATO and the EU, but matters have gotten complicated in Europe. Now Bulgaria is seeking new conditions. Is it fair, although I am not sure that we can talk about fairness in politics?
Ambassador Aggeler: That’s a really important question, and it’s a very important question for the citizens of this country. Because what we saw with the Prespa Agreement was that an incredibly difficult choice, which frankly when I left Skopje in 2013, I did not believe that this would be resolved. It seemed to be an unsolvable problem and question, but they did. And they did change the constitution. And I believe that this country has made compromises as no other country has been asked to make in order to join these institutions. And they have shown that they are willing to make tough decisions and hard choices in order to meet their goals of getting into first NATO and now the European Union. And this is being asked of them again. This is what happens when a country enters a consensus organization.
So yes, they are being asked by Bulgaria to make certain changes. That is a decision for the officials and the leadership of this country. But people have shown that they are willing, as I said, to make those very tough decisions in order to move forward, and I’m confident that they are up to the task again.
MRTV: How [is it possible to] build good neighborly relations under such circumstances?
Ambassador Aggeler: In terms of Bulgaria or in terms — listen, I am the U.S. Ambassador to North Macedonia, happily so. I can’t speak for Bulgaria. I do believe that the people of Bulgaria must also recognize the tremendous benefits of having their neighbor enter the European Union as well. There are very real benefits in terms of stability, security, trade, economy, tourism, and so it is my hope that the leaders of the two countries will recognize that and frankly work together on de-politicizing any of these issues and simply working towards what is mutually beneficial.
MRTV: In the past period, we witnessed cyber threats, [false] bomb threats sent to schools and other public facilities. Your security team worked with the Interior Ministry. What is the epilogue of this cooperation?
Ambassador Aggeler: I’m very pleased to see that the threats against schools in particular seem to have diminished greatly. I know that the Ministry of Interior and others have worked very hard to put systems in place to screen some of these threats that were coming in and still more work is to be done, but I applaud the government for what they have done thus far.
Cybersecurity writ large is a huge challenge. It is globally a huge challenge. We’ve seen it in the United States and here in the Balkans other countries have been hit very, very hard with some attacks and hacks. So this is something that we are working with the government and other institutions very closely to try to put in place different programs, different systems that will help protect against it. Because the important thing in terms of cybersecurity is not to respond to it after you’ve been hacked. It’s critically important that the systems are put in place to protect the institutions, so we’ll continue to do that.
MRTV: Thank you for now, we’ll resume shortly. In the meantime, let’s see how the relations between our country and the United States have developed, establishment of diplomatic relations and everything that followed after 1994.
MRTV: We resume the conversation with Ambassador Aggeler, now on more informal and less known topics for the wider audience. Ambassador, your diplomatic career includes missions in Pakistan, France, Vietnam, India, Burkina Faso, Hungary, and of course North Macedonia. Which culture made the strongest impression on you?
Ambassador Aggeler: That’s a great question. You may not know that my father was a diplomat also and I grew up overseas. I didn’t actually even live in the United States until I was 16 years old. And so living overseas is a part of my life and a part of who I am. And it’s something that I appreciate so deeply.
Obviously this country is a place that I love because I’m thrilled to be back. And each country in which I’ve had the great honor to serve has taught me things, has helped me understand other cultures, has made me appreciate my own country even more.
So I have taken away impressions, a great deal of appreciation and a love for food from all over the world because I’ve had the opportunity to serve in so many wonderful places.
MRTV: How does North Macedonia differ from the other countries you have served in? Of course, there is delicious food here.
Ambassador Aggeler: I absolutely love North Macedonia. And as I said earlier, it’s such an honor to be here as the U.S. Ambassador. It’s also an enormous pleasure to be here because there is so much about this country that I love. There’s so much culture and heritage. I even enjoyed studying the language which I’m trying to study again, so the next time we can do this “на македонски” [in Macedonian] . But there’s so much that I love about it.
The thing that for me I take away, especially when I’m able to travel around the country, outside of Skopje is how incredibly warm and wonderful the people are, and how welcoming they are, and as you said, the food. I absolutely love the food and so it’s such — I’m having a great time being back.
MRTV: Among the numerous awards you have received for your diplomatic work, you also have one for language. You speak French, Macedonian and some Hindi. Which of the languages was the hardest to learn?
Ambassador Aggeler: The hardest language I’ve ever studied is not on that list because I can’t speak it, and that is a combination of Hungarian and Cantonese which I studied when I was a child. Those are very difficult languages.
This is not easy. Macedonian is not an easy language to learn, but I so enjoy being able to have conversations with people as I travel around the country. So every language brings its challenges and it’s just a wonderful opportunity though, as a U.S. diplomat, to be able to study other languages because it helps you understand the culture and it helps you really make a connection with the people that you can’t if you’re going through an interpreter.
MRTV: You are a graduate of the University of Utah. You have also worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. What is it that connects you to this area?
Ambassador Aggeler: Again, as I said, I returned to the U.S. as a teenager and studied at the University of Utah. Utah is a beautiful state and full of amazing nature and sports and outdoor activities which I really love and appreciate and still have friends and family there.
Home is really Washington, DC where the National Gallery is. I worked there for some time before my husband and then I joined the Foreign Service, and it’s just such a great privilege to work in a place like the National Gallery and be surrounded each day by beautiful art.
I’ve always appreciated art. My parents did. But having that opportunity, it taught me a great deal about how to appreciate museums and different types of art, and I have been able to take that with me, that love that I always had everywhere that I travel to see the beauty in other places as well.
MRTV: In this room in your residence we can see works of art, some are part of the “Art in Embassies” exhibition. What is the idea of the “Art in Embassies” exhibition, how many works does it contain, and where else can they be seen?
Ambassador Aggeler: The idea of Art in Embassies is to bring American art and American artists to those who might not have a chance to see it. We don’t have here, for example, or in my previous posting in Pakistan, didn’t have the opportunity to bring over a lot of American artists or American art, and so the idea was to in an Ambassador residence and in our embassy as well, to represent the art that both cultures and countries can appreciate. I’m very lucky to have been a le to have chosen a number of pieces that I absolutely love to be in the residence here and I have many, many Macedonian friends and contacts who come into this house. So I’m able to show them some of the real beauty of American art in this residence here in Skopje.
MRTV: You visit the ancient cities in the country which witness ancient times and are monuments of culture. Are they sufficiently taken care of to be a magnet for tourists and Business development?
Ambassador Aggeler: I think this is, and I really appreciate you asking the question, because one of my favorite programs that we have at the State Department and that has been very active and I think successful here in North Macedonia is the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. It’s very near and dear to my heart because of my great interest in art and history and museums and culture, and it enables us to work with professionals here on projects like Stobi or Heraclea where we have had different projects to help support the surveys and archaeological work on some absolutely spectacular world treasures that are captured in those places. And there are many, many others around the country.
But I believe, and was just at Stobi actually two weekends ago. I love going there. It’s just magnificent. It’s such a treasure. And I do believe that this is an opportunity for this country to highlight some of, as I said, real cultural treasures and heritage. And I know that there are people around the world that are fascinated by these things and they perhaps are not thinking about North Macedonia as where they should come to appreciate and enjoy these treasures. And I hope that tourism can expand to welcome people here to truly appreciate what this country has to offer in terms of just these beautiful, beautiful examples of ancient history.
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