Ambassador Aggeler’s Remarks at “The United States’ and North Macedonia’s Relations in an Age of Geopolitical Turmoil” Conference

“The United States’ and North Macedonia’s Relations in an Age of Geopolitical Turmoil” Conference
organized by
the Presidential Center for Political Education
June 22, 2023

Good afternoon and thank you President Pendarovski for inviting me to join you today. It’s great to see new and familiar faces – what a wonderfully diverse group of young leaders we have here today from the Presidential Center for Political Education.  I’m looking forward to our conversation today.  The President asked me to talk about bilateral relations between the United States and North Macedonia in an Age of Geopolitical Turmoil.  For the turmoil part, I feel like we could just turn on CNN because it surrounds us all constantly.

But let me start by going back a little.  As many of you know, I served at the US Embassy in Skopje earlier in my career from 2010 to 2013as the Public Affairs Officer.  The President, in his previous career, and I worked together on a great program commemorating MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and I worked with Mile and some other colleagues on performances of their band “The Reporters.”  So it is the honor of my career to serve as the US Ambassador here nowwith so many old friends, and it is also a true personal joy to return to a country that I care for very deeply.  Whose people, culture, history, food, wine, I love.

You all as a country have a great deal to be proud of.  I don’t know if pride is something many Macedonians are terribly familiar with, but please do take a moment to recognize all that you have accomplished.    Since independence on September 8, 1991, thirty-two short years, think of all you have achieved.  Three decades, in the grand sweep of history is a relatively brief time period.  And yet you established a democracy that provides all citizens freedom and equality.  You overcame a near civil war that was resolved in 2001 with the peacemaking Ohrid Framework Agreement. That Agreement serves to this day as a model of interethnic cohesion for other countries in the Balkans and beyond.  You made very tough sacrifices that led to your membership in NATO, the most powerful security alliance in the world.  And you’re again moving toward another keystone moment in your history: joining the European Union.

I recognize it has been very difficult at times.  I recognize that the people of this country have made sacrifices and compromises.  But what a tremendous record of achievement in just a little more than three decades.  You should be proud of where your country is today and your status in international fora.  For the United States, North Macedonia has consistently been a bastion of stability in the Western Balkans.

As we say in the US, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.  In just three years as a NATO member, North Macedonia has shown its strength and value as a global security partner.  In just three years, your country has stepped up and been firmly on the right side of history, first with the crisis in Afghanistan and now with Russia’s unprovoked reinvasion of Ukraine.

Don’t underestimate the importance of what your country has done, and don’t underestimate the importance of what it means to be a part of an alliance like NATO.  Our theme today is the U.S.-North Macedonia relationship in times of geopolitical turmoil.  And yes, our partnership and the ways we count on each other are more important than ever.  But given what’s happening in Europe’s backyard at the hands of the Kremlin, we’re talking about cooperation that goes far beyond our bilateral relationship.  It’s working together as part of broader coalitions of security and unity.  It’s standing together, side by side with the international community, as we tackle challenges that have ripple effects not only in Europe but throughout the world.

As Senator Chris Murphy said during his recent visit to North Macedonia, your country is undoubtedly safer because you have a security guarantee from the United States and other international partners because you are in NATO.  I hope that not only helps you sleep better at night, but that it guides your political thinking in the future.  If there is one thing I have learned from my long career in diplomacy, it’s that nothing happens in a vacuum.  Everything has a ripple effect, and everything is interconnected.  You are absolutely stronger as a link in a chain, and the sacrifices you made to join NATO have been worth it in countless ways.

North Macedonia’s contributions to NATO since joining have been extraordinary, and you have shown that you belong at the forefront of international partnerships.  The European Union is next.  Look at your accession to the European Union through the same lens as NATO.  Stronger together, as part of an alliance, for security, progress, and prosperity.  When you have domestic challenges constantly dominating the headlines, it can be easy to lose sight of the broader picture and what it will mean to North Macedonia to be part of what is arguably the world’s most powerful economic bloc.  But these recent times of turmoil have, I hope, shown that isolation cannot be the way forward.  You will keep your language, you will keep your culture, you will keep your identity – and, at the same time, you will gain so much.

Joining the European Union will allow North Macedonia to better address those domestic challenges.  Outmigration is a huge issue – President Pendarovski, you said yourself in front of parliament earlier this year that, according to estimates from the United Nations, the population of North Macedonia will drop from 1.8 million to 1.2 million by 2025 if current trends continue.  That would be more than a quarter of the population leaving the country.  What a stark example of the definition of “brain drain.”  But EU membership can help reverse the trend.  It brings economic opportunity and job creation, it builds trade, it enhances educational opportunities so that young people can then bring their skills right back here to their home country.

Becoming part of such an alliance can also help curb corruption and end your judiciary crisis, through reforms, standards, and oversight.  I saw one recent public poll that said corruption was the top driver of youth migration away from North Macedonia.  The leadership of this country must figure out a way to right the ship – far before you formally join the EU.  The United States will support you, we will continue to invest in you, but we cannot fix it for you.

To take this next leap forward for your country and create a brighter future, there must be political will.  In any country, certain decisions require the government and the opposition to work together – to put aside politics and do what’s best for citizens.  We certainly have our fair share of political gamesmanship in the United States as well, but working across party lines can and does happen.  In the U.S., democrats and republicans were recently able to put aside their differences and work together to suspend the debt ceiling.  Both sides of the aisle recognized the consequences of not being able to pay our bills, and so they worked together to avoid that crisis.  While it’s unfortunately increasingly rare in politics, political opposites can collaborate to get things done.  And it should happen far more often, including here in North Macedonia.

At the heart of the tough decisions ahead – and the heart of why NATO, the EU, your relationship with the United States, and domestic reforms matter – is your people.

We’ll be right there for you and with you – helping create the best possible future with the best possible opportunities for the people of North Macedonia.  Our partnership will always weather any storm.  And I hope that you, as you shape the political future of your country, will never stop focusing on what really matters: your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues.  Your fellow citizens.  Much more than party labels and politics.

In Washington last week, President Biden told me and other US Ambassadors that the world finds itself today at a historic inflection point.  The turmoil in which we find ourselves, this moment of global chaos, is something that presents itself only every sixth or seventh generation.  And this turbulence requires courage, integrity, moral clarity, and true leadership.  It requires us to set aside political squabbling, self-interest, and petty grievances.  I have seen the people of this country do just that before, and I am confident you can do it again to make this country a stronger, more prosperous, more dynamic home for all its citizens.  And we will be right there with you.

Thank you!

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