December 6, 2022
Sitel TV: Ambassador Aggeler, thank you very much for being with us this evening.
Ambassador Aggeler: Thank you so much for having me here, Slavica, I’m really pleased to be here.
Sitel TV: This is not the first time that you’re in Macedonia and at the United States Embassy. You were Public Affairs Counsellor some ten years ago. What has changed in Macedonia since the last time you were here?
Ambassador Aggeler: It’s a great question and it’s one that I’ve been asked really, ever since I got back here.
First of all, let me start by saying what a great honor it is for me to be back in North Macedonia and to serve as the United States Ambassador to this country. It’s a country that I know a little bit and care about very deeply, so to come back as President Biden’s Ambassador here is truly an honor.
I come back with a sense of recognizing that some big changes have happened in this country, but also recognizing so many of the things that I know and love and also, recognize as challenges for this country.
For example, the greatest change, obviously, is the change of the name. This was a very difficult decision for the people of this country. Having been here from 2010 to 2013, I remember those conversations, and frankly, at the time that I left, I did not think at that time it would be possible to go through the process and make the decisions to change the name. So, I applaud the people of this country for taking those hard decisions. That’s a very obvious change.
But so many of the things that I know and love about this country are unchanged. The people, the young people, they are so dynamic, they’re so smart. The opportunities are still here in this country but there are also challenges. Some of them are new. For example, taking the necessary reforms to join the European Union, for now our newest NATO ally. But also issues that were here before such as rule of law issues, governance, educational challenges, and of course, corruption.
Sitel TV: You come with a very serious background in diplomacy. What will your priorities be in the [three-year mandate] in our country?
Ambassador Aggeler: My priorities first and foremost are to continue to build on the friendship and the partnership that the United States has with North Macedonia and its people. We have, since we recognized this country after independence, we have been steadfast and this country is not only a friend and a partner, but now again it’s our newest strategic ally in NATO. My priority is building on the strong connections that we have and the partnerships that we have in order to do what we can to support this country, first of all, in its EuroAtlantic aspirations in becoming a new member of the European Union, and to fully integrate into Europe which has been the stated goal of this country for decades.
Sitel TV: You announced today that sanctions team from Washington is here to take more aggressive look at past and current corrupt actors and to consider all possible responses. You tweeted North Macedonia’s justice sector needs more investigations, prosecutions, to show that no one is above the law. It was announced even before you came to Macedonia that you will work with interagency partners to help North Macedonia develop a national strategy that effectively holds corrupt actors accountable. How serious is the corruption problem in our country in your opinion? And do you believe that sanctions will be an effective way to deal with it?
Ambassador Aggeler: My opinion is reflective of what we hear from the people of this country. What I know that you hear from your fellow citizens. That is that corruption is arguably the greatest challenge facing this country and particularly as it moves towards the European Union, as it moves to become a fully integrated member of the European community, in order to make those reforms and to open this country up to the kind of investment that I believe it should have and should see. To open it up to broader tourism, to full integration into the European community. I believe that will take serious addressing of the issues of corruption.
And corruption is not simply bribery as we know. Corruption takes so many forms. And as I travel around this country and I talk to everyday people here, they talk about corruption every time they want to see a doctor, every time they are looking for a job, every time their child is applying for schools. And frankly, corruption has led to what I think is a real disaster for this country in that so many of the young people don’t want to stay. That so many young Macedonians of whichever community, are looking for the first opportunity they can pursue work or a life in another country. That’s a tremendous loss, because in my view, the young people of this country are quite frankly, arguably, the greatest resource and they are the opportunity to build this economy. By losing them I think that this country loses a very fundamental part of an important foundation.
Sitel TV: For years, and I daresay decades, the United States has invested in building capacities for fighting corruption, for rule of law. You have trained employees, staff, helped in drafting regulations, their implementation. Is it devastating to see the outcome? And that is single digit trust in the judiciary?
Ambassador Aggeler: I think it is deeply disappointing, even in the month since I arrived in this country and it has been a month today, I have seen things which have been confounding, which have been troubling, and which have been as I said in a tweet — and by the way, thank you for following our Twitter site. It is a tremendous disappointment as we look, and you say so correctly. We are talking about decades of investment. We are talking about millions and millions of dollars paid for by the U.S. taxpayers to invest in this country’s judiciary. At this point it’s fair to say that we have trained in one form or another well over a majority of those within the judicial system in this country.
And so, I believe that as a return on that investment that we, but more importantly the people of this country, deserve to see a return on that investment and they deserve to see a judiciary that works for them. That shows them that they can receive justice. That it’s available to them. That would be the payoff that we in the United States and the Embassy and in Washington are looking for. To simply know that the people of this country can look to their judges, their prosecutors, their investigators and know that they’re going to get equal justice for all. That would be great.
Sitel TV: In that direction, your position regarding the election of new head of the Prosecutor’s Office for fighting corruption and organized crime, in which you clearly indicated that it raises suspicions of political interference has been welcomed by wide public support. But at the same time, however, we see silence from those that are most responsible and that is the Council of Prosecutors which was in charge of the “puzzling” or confusing election that happened. How do you comment on that?
Ambassador Aggeler: I already have, and my statement that I found it puzzling remains true. I found it puzzling when it happened, and I still find it puzzling. And my being puzzled by it is reflected in, as you said, eight percent of the people of this country have faith in the process.
I don’t know exactly what happened. I don’t presume to say that I know exactly what the process was. But it’s very curious. There are too many things that are left unanswered.
This has nothing to do with the gentleman who was selected. This has to do with the process. And the process, in order to build that trust from eight percent to double digits at least, requires a process that people can look at and say oh, I understand what happened. I understand where the votes came from and how this process went through. And frankly, it’s not just the election of this particular individual. It’s about the whole process, that a citizen of this country can look at any judicial process and say I understand what happened. Whether I agree with it or not is a separate thing, but that I know how this election took place and that I, as a citizen of my country, believe that this process is aimed at serving me and the greater good.
Sitel TV: The fight against corruption, rule of law, is going to be definitely one of the hardest tasks for Macedonia in its EU integration process. But speaking of EU integration, there is still great uncertainty and disappointment about the whole process.
After the Prespa Agreement, we all believed that that was the last obstacle, and that now the path for integration will be wide open. But then came the veto from Sofia for historical questions and not for any issues that are connected to the EU agenda itself. And a huge disappointment happened and a drop in trust in EU institutions and in EU integration. Now with the French proposal, this process should be unblocked but there is still one obstacle, and that is the change in the constitution.
How should citizens believe now that this is the last thing and that there will be no more and more and new and new obstacles on the way coming from Sofia that are not related to the EU criteria itself?
Ambassador Aggeler: I think that’s a really important question. It’s a conversation that is critical for the citizens of this country to have and to have with their leaders. As I said earlier, I do understand what the people of this country have accepted and what they have done, and the decisions that they have taken, and the decisions that the leaders at the time took, and they were hard, and they were unpopular, and they were difficult. Changing the name is something that no other country has had to do. This country did it and this country has remained strong, has become an incredibly valuable member of NATO, is making significant contributions to Ukraine for example. That shows me how strong this country is and how strong the people of this country are as well.
I believe that, again, we see that difficult things are being asked of the people of this country. Again, sacrifices. Again, compromise. I can’t speak for Bulgaria. I’m the U.S. Ambassador. I can’t speak for the EU. But I do believe what I have heard from Macedonian friends and contacts for almost two decades, and that is this is what at the end of the day the people of this country want. They want to be focused towards Europe. To have access to the markets of Europe more than they do now. To become a fully integrated member of the European community and to be part of the Euro-Atlantic membership essentially and community.
I believe, and I will do everything in my power to help support that Euro-Atlantic aspiration because I think it’s important and I think it will make a huge difference in terms of the economy of this country, in terms of the opportunities that are available to young people in this country. So I and we at the Embassy and in the State Department will do everything to support that, recognizing that not only is it a difficult decision to move forward with the constitutional amendment, but also to, as you discussed, to make the reforms that are necessary for that membership.
They’re going to be difficult. It’s a long process. But in my view, it’s worth it and we want to do everything we can to support the people of this country in their efforts to, first of all, make those reforms happen that I think the people want to see, and then to move towards achieving that goal.
Sitel TV: The opposition does not support the constitutional changes and they are demanding some kind of guarantees that Macedonian language and Macedonian identity will not be endangered in this whole process. Are these kinds of guarantees possible?
Ambassador Aggeler: Again, I can’t speak for either the EU or Bulgaria. It is not my impression that that is true. It is my hope that an opposition isn’t taking a certain stance simply to oppose, to be against. This is something that in my view goes well beyond politics. This should not be about party. This should be about what is for the good of this country and it would be my fondest hope that those voices on the other side, voices around the country that are questioning this, would take simply a hard look at what they believe is in the best interest of North Macedonia, of this country, of all of its citizens and make the kinds of decisions and make the kind of statements to move forward in making this country stronger rather than trying to weaken it.
Sitel TV: In your addressing the Senate before you came as an Ambassador here, you mentioned regional initiatives such as Open Balkan and Common Regional Market. Does the U.S. see these initiatives as a parallel process to the EU enlargement? Or do you think it’s a substitute because the whole region is moving really slowly towards the EU?
Ambassador Aggeler: My understanding, and I’ve had conversations with my colleagues, other U.S. Ambassadors in the region, is that the government is looking at these initiatives as opportunities and again, we are not a part of either of those, but an opportunity to make trade, to make movement of goods and services and individuals freer across the region, to increase the opportunities for commerce amongst the different countries, in my view has to be positive.
I don’t think it’s a matter of choice in that it has to be one or the other. If these opportunities can help this country increase its trade, if it can help this country move goods and services across borders, then I certainly think it’s something that’s important to consider and pursue.
Sitel TV: Well Macedonia is struggling very deeply with economic and energy crises. Can the U.S. help in this regard?
Ambassador Aggeler: That’s a great question, and frankly, it’s not just this country, it’s countries around the region and it’s a global challenge. We saw in the United States that gas prices, for example, reached highs that they have not seen for decades. And so, this is not limited to North Macedonia. But it is a particular challenge here now, and I recognized that inflation, for example, again as I talk to friends and contacts and people around this country, they talk about how inflation is really affecting them, how the price of gas, in whatever its form, is very much affecting them. So this is a real challenge.
We will do everything we can. We have a number of U.S. energy companies, for example, who are looking at various opportunities. The government, I think, has done a good job of managing some of the flow of gas. And it is my understanding that this winter they will be able to provide the gas that people need to heat their homes and to stay warm. And then I think there are other opportunities that we are pursuing within the region to expand energy resources here in this country and with its neighbors as well.
Sitel TV: You mentioned at the very beginning from the problem of young people wanting to leave Macedonia. Polls show that — you must certainly have seen those polls — that two-thirds of young people want to leave our country. Since your arrival I can see that you have met quite a bit of young people throughout the country, not only in Skopje. What is your advice? How should we try to keep young people in Macedonia?
Ambassador Aggeler: I have to say, again, because I believe this so strongly. That they are this country’s greatest resource and I think they’re fantastic. The young people of this country are so smart, they’re so talented in so many different sectors, whether it’s IT, whether it’s education, so many of these other areas. A young person, regardless of where they’re from, needs to believe that they have opportunities, that they are going to be able to pursue a career that will be one in which they can excel and prosper, that they can support their families, that they will have the health care that they need to take care of their families, that there is an educational system for their kids, that they see a future.
In the absence of a tangible future, they’re going to look elsewhere. That’s true here and it’s true around the world.
So, I believe that the leadership in this country, and citizens as they look at their officials, need to ensure that people are looking at that very carefully and saying what are we offering to our young people? What is it that we can offer them to make them want to stay here? And frankly, I think that European integration is a part of that. That will open up other opportunities in this country that will help keep some of those young people here.
Sitel TV: Ambassador Aggeler, very good messages. For the end of this conversation, I would like to welcome you again in our country. It’s good to have you back.
Ambassador Aggeler: Thank you so much Slavica.
Sitel TV: Thank you very much for being with us.
Ambassador Aggeler: Thank you.
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