Ambassador Angela Aggeler’s Interview with Kapital

Ambassador Aggeler / Photo by: Petar Stojanovski DW

Kapital:  PM Kovachevski was recently in the United States for meetings with senior administration officials. He met with Secretary Blinken and other high-ranking representatives of political life in Washington. Considering that North Macedonia is a strategic partner of the United States, how do you evaluate the visit and the strategic relations between the two countries?  What’s new on this topic?

Ambassador Aggeler:  The Prime Minister had an excellent trip to New York and to Washington, DC, where he met with senior U.S. officials at the United Nations and then at the State Department and on Capitol Hill.  It’s always good to have friends visit, and the warmth with which the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were welcomed shows how deeply Washington values this friendship.  We’ve been working together since your independence, and the strength of our partnership is very important to the United States.

As you say, North Macedonia is a strategic partner, and plays an important role in the region that should not be underestimated.  No other country in the Western Balkans has the same ability to bring different regional leaders together for constructive dialogues, and your peacemaking efforts have done a great deal to bring stability and security to the Balkans.

But the U.S. has been clear—and the people of this country understand—that internal reforms are needed, especially in the fight against corruption.  More work needs to be done, and let me repeat that this country and its citizens will always have the support of the United States.  You need not tackle these tough issues alone.

Kapital:  Were ideas for new projects raised at the meetings in Washington?  Maybe new infrastructure investments?  How satisfied are you with the current economic relations between the United States and North Macedonia and what do you think are the major obstacles to having more direct American and foreign investments in the country?

Ambassador Aggeler:  Both ongoing and possible new projects were discussed during meetings in Washington.  Secretary Blinken and other officials—all of whom are familiar with North Macedonia and the region—wanted to discuss a broad range of challenges and opportunities.  Infrastructure was certainly a part of that.  Energy diversification and clean options are of interest to the Secretary, as was an update on major projects like the Corridors 8 and 10d.  This country offers enormous opportunities in IT, agriculture, tourism, and in many other areas.

Economically, we work quite well together, but U.S. investment and trade are not as robust as I know they can be.  U.S. businesses and investors look for environments in which they can see a healthy return on their investments.  This requires clear adhesion to rule of law, a visible commitment to fighting corruption, respect for contracts, a skilled workforce, and a transparent bureaucracy.  There are some excellent opportunities for U.S. businesses to supply European customers from facilities here in North Macedonia, but transparency and good governance are necessary to seal the deal.

The United States Government and our Embassy do not direct deals and do not negotiate contracts on behalf of private U.S. businesses.  Nor do we tell US companies where and in what sectors to invest.  We do, however, actively advocate for greater U.S. investment and for reforms to encourage that here in North Macedonia.

Kapital:  What is the U.S. position on regional integrations in the Western Balkans such as the Open Balkans Initiative?  What can this Initiative change in the economies of the Western Balkan countries in conditions when the population in almost all these countries is emigrating to developed EU countries, as well as to USA and Canada?

Ambassador Aggeler: Any programs or partnerships that promote the growth of trade in the region and the efficient movement of goods, services, and labor across borders deserves serious consideration and can strengthen the economy.  They can also speed Euro-Atlantic integration in this country and across the region.  Reducing the time trucks spend waiting to deliver goods provides immediate economic benefits to companies and consumers.

I believe economic growth and greater opportunities that come with that will reduce emigration of Macedonian citizens.  They will find a well-paying job right here at home in a country with a dynamic economy, and the safety, security, and hope for their children’s futures that people around the world seek.   But we hear each day that people are leaving due to oppressive systems of political patronage, corruption, unclean cities, broken streets, and infrastructure that doesn’t work for its citizens.

Kapital:  How do you assess the level of economic cooperation among the countries of the Western Balkans, and how can this cooperation be stronger and more dynamic?

Ambassador Aggeler:  Greater economic cooperation would be enormously beneficial to North Macedonia and its neighbors, and the removal of trade barriers would be a good step forward.  The economic relationship with Greece has grown significantly since the countries settled political disagreements, and serves as a demonstration of how broadening economic ties can benefit both countries and the region.  The American Chamber of Commerce here worked with its counterpart in Greece to bring a trade delegation to North Macedonia last year.  These kinds of business exchanges will hopefully encourage more cross-border cooperation and investment.

Kapital:  Let’s talk about the U.S. assistance for the development of the Macedonian society and the non-governmental sector.  USAID has been a strong supporter of the changes here and the development of the economy and society for many years since independence.  In which direction will this cooperation between the USA and North Macedonia continue?

Ambassador Aggeler:  USAID is our largest and most visible development office here at the Embassy and their investments in North Macedonia over the years have supported this country’s priorities and aspirations since your independence.  But their programs have been magnified and supplemented by grants and exchanges through our Public Affairs Section, the office of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, and a variety of other U.S. government projects.  In the last thirty plus years, our non-military assistance has reached over a billion U.S. dollars.  American taxpayer investments are proof that the United States is fully committed to supporting North Macedonia across all sectors as you work to achieve your stated goal of full Euro-Atlantic integration.

Collaborating with your government, municipalities and institutions at all levels, Embassy programs have targeted economic growth, competitiveness, regional economic integration, and the reduction of trade barriers.  Our economic team talks to the chambers of commerce, encouraging public-private dialogues and promoting export opportunities.  Our team also works on energy independence and security —an urgent issue for us all that goes beyond economic implications.

Cybersecurity and disinformation are huge problems the world over, and that’s another area on which we’re focused.  We support media literacy programs, teaching youth how to determine what’s trustworthy, how to tell fact from fiction.  We have significant projects across the education sector, including numerous exchange programs, as well as cultural programs such as my favorite, the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation that has provided $1.8 million on sixteen projects across the country.  And of course, we also have programs dedicated to fighting corruption, and addressing it when it does occur.  Of the billion dollars the US has provided in assistance to this country, about half of it has been focused on good governance and rule of law, so I would suggest the rate of return on our investment has not been great.  However, we will continue to work with officials and citizens genuinely interested in fighting corruption, holding officials accountable, and identifying and reducing vulnerabilities in the system that allow corruption to thrive in the first place.

Kapital:  Regarding economy and infrastructure investments, more precisely the project on Corridor 8 and Corridor 10d that will be built by the American giant Bechtel in cooperation with Turkish ENKA, what will this project mean for the Macedonian economy?

Ambassador Aggeler:  The Corridors 8 and 10d project represents the single largest infrastructure investment in the history of this country, and the benefits to citizens are enormous:  many good jobs, contracts with local companies and vendors, and partnership with one of the most respected U.S. companies operating in the Balkans and across the world.  When completed, the roads will cut down travel time across the country, enhance security and accessibility with other NATO partners, increase trade, and make this country a vital transportation hub through the Balkans.

Kapital:  In the recent period, the Macedonian public is agitated due to some controversies on the project that will be built by Bechtel ENKA. The Macedonian opposition continuously pressures about lack of transparency in the process and accuses of corruption…Your comment please?

Ambassador Aggeler:  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if there are signs or allegations of corruption, investigate it.  If the investigation finds corruption, prosecute it.  There must be accountability for everyone, everywhere.  At the same time, over-politicization of issues can sometimes be just as damaging as corruption itself by preventing good projects from moving forward and sending a message to other potential investors that doing business in North Macedonia is too complicated and bureaucratic.  Let’s separate fact from fiction, the truth from allegations.  That is the role of a competent and independent justice system.

Kapital:  How do you evaluate the energy future of North Macedonia and the region and investments related to energy?  The major energy crisis related to Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, the increase in the prices of gas and consequently of electricity have triggered strong shocks in the economy! According to all relevant analyses, North Macedonia has handled the crisis well, but additional large investments are needed in this sector?

Ambassador Aggeler:  The government and people recognize that North Macedonia needs to move away from coal-fired power plants that pollute the air we all breathe, and increase renewable energy sources.  Nothing demonstrates the urgency of this transition more that the choking smog we all experienced this past winter in Skopje and around the country.  Energy independence and security are critical issues across the globe, and Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine has sharply highlighted that need.  In the short-term, I hope the country makes every effort to secure natural gas that doesn’t come from Gazprom and complete the interconnector with Greece.  That should be a non-partisan priority and receive full approval from Parliament.  But a reliable and secure source of gas should not be the endgame.  We should all be working towards expanding and enhancing energy markets with alternatives.

This is an area that requires urgent attention.  I encourage officials to make coordinated, strategic decisions on energy investments, and work to get North Macedonia away from its reliance on coal.  Projects like the Chebren HPP are essential for balancing the grid and cutting down dependence on fossil fuels.

Kapital:  How do you see North Macedonia’s investment in the gas terminal project in Alexandropoulis (Greece) and the lease of gas quantities in this investment?

Ambassador Aggeler:  This is a great opportunity, and we would like to see North Macedonia as an equal partner in the Alexandropoulis project.   And this is an opportunity to secure gas supplies from this source regardless of whether or not you become a shareholder. Diversified gas supplies are vital to your energy security, and we hope to see continued progress away from reliance on Russian imports.

Kapital:  For years, USA invests in strengthening the capacities of the Macedonian judiciary.  How do you evaluate the current results in this area?  What should be done next?  We often talk about massive corruption in the society, on the political scene, and in the justice system.

Ambassador Aggeler:  As I noted earlier, when it comes to progress in the judiciary, we’re disappointed.  We’ve invested half a billion dollars in rule of law and governance programs in the last thirty years, but have not seen the improvements and reforms we might expect with such a large investment.  At the end of the day, though, systemic corruption across the country in all sectors hurts the people of North Macedonia more directly than it hurts us.  You all deserve a society, a judiciary, a government whose actions are transparent and serve you – its citizens.  That is a cornerstone of a fair and functioning democracy.

That is what the government should focus on, regardless of the party in power.   The judiciary must be an independent, fully funded, and non-political branch of government.  Leadership should want that, and you should demand it.

The United States will continue to work with those who fight corruption in North Macedonia, who seek to build the prosperous and dynamic society that every citizen deserves.  And we rely on those citizens to demand integrity from their government to achieve these goals, and consequences for those who betray the public trust.  We will always be by your side in these and so many other efforts that will bring this country into its rightful place as a secure and prosperous member of the Euro-Atlantic community.