Ambassador Byrnes sat down for an interview with Kanal 5 TV to talk about a wide range of issues including current developments, Kosovo, challenges imposed by the COVID pandemic, rule of law, and the importance of North Macedonia not giving up on its EU integration prospects.
Interview of Ambassador Kate Byrnes with Kanal 5 TV
February 19, 2021
Kanal 5: Macedonia, like the rest of the world, is still struggling with the pandemic caused by the coronavirus. Our hopes rest with the vaccines, but we, like most poor countries, can hardly get [any] vaccines. What happened with the COVAX mechanism, which seems to have failed since it was supposed to ensure equitable distribution throughout the world?
Ambassador Byrnes: I think you are absolutely right [that we are all counting on the vaccines]. All of us are deeply interested and invested in trying to solve this COVID-19 pandemic and to get through it as quickly as we can. The COVAX mechanism that you referred to was actually created as a system that would provide equitable access to all countries to safe and effective vaccines, and particularly smaller countries that have limited resources for procurement, for testing, for approvals. Now, while it is certainly true that the COVAX mechanism has taken a lot longer time than anyone would have hoped, it is working, it is working very slowly, but day by day COVAX is procuring more of the vaccines that have been proven and tested to be safe and effective and it’s working on getting those now out and distributed. I think they have already announced a schedule for North Macedonia to begin to receive its vaccines through this mechanism and hopefully, through this program we will be able to start seeing vaccines throughout all of the world. Right now all of us everywhere are interested in the same thing, which is getting as many of our people vaccinated as quickly as possible. But ultimately, in order for us all to fight this pandemic we need to make sure that vaccines are available across the globe and that everybody has access.
Kanal 5: You mentioned the COVAX mechanism. In the meantime the authorities are trying to ensure some alternatives, through donations or help from foreign countries. Can we expect vaccine shipments from the U.S? You have helped many times thus far.
Ambassador Byrnes: We have and as you noted, addressing the COVID-19 problem is much more than just the pandemic, more than the vaccines. There [are] a lot of issues at stake here. We did provide direct assistance to the government here, $6.7 million in immediate pandemic relief, which also went to not only economic and social recovery, but also to help prepare for the roll-out of the vaccines. And that, of course comes on top of two decades of investment and helping to strengthen the health care system here so it would be prepared for a crisis just like.
Now, with respect directly to the vaccines that you mentioned, we are primarily working through and supporting the COVAX mechanism. We are not, as some governments are doing, negotiating sales directly with governments. So, our funding goes directly to the COVAX mechanism, and it comes on top of the billions of dollars of investments that we’ve already made into the research and development that helped generate some of the vaccines that are now safe and available today. We are looking at things like what we might do with surplus vaccines, and there again we are going to look at prioritizing the smallest countries, the most high-risk, and those with the least resources. So, the COVAX mechanism is going to continue to be a part of our effort to address this at the global level.
Kanal 5: Beside COVID-19, Macedonia in 2020 faced another problem. In December it was unable to start EU membership talks, although there was a unanimous decision in March adopted in Brussels. On several occasions, the United States, through yourself and through the State Department, has expressed disappointment with Sofia’s decision. What more can Washington do in this regard to convince Sofia to lift the veto?
Ambassador Byrnes: Well, 2020 was also the year that North Macedonia entered NATO and for us that’s an important milestone and an important mark. But, as you noted, when it comes to the EU accession, we were very disappointed that Bulgaria chose to block the start of the accession negotiations. We’ve said that, we’ve said that repeatedly. Of course, the United States, but also Bulgaria have long been strong supporters of the integration of the Western Balkans into both NATO and the EU. We believe we are all part of the same NATO family and it’s in all of our interests to see the EU accession process move forward as well. Now, what we have said is that we hope that the EU accession process will be able to proceed as quickly as possible and that any bilateral disputes should be dealt with outside of the EU accession process. They should be held apart from that discussion.
We do see it as a positive sign that North Macedonia and Bulgaria continue to discuss these bilateral issues, to do it outside of the process, and to make progress in that regard. And we are going to continue to champion and to express our support to keep those issues separate from the EU accession process, because this is important to be able to move forward.
Kanal 5: The EU had the same position but for the time being it is not helping us. What are the chances now to see an American diplomat as a facilitator in the process to help us find a solution? It happened often in the past. In 2001 with the Framework Agreement and with the Prespa Agreement.
Ambassador Byrnes: The solution here to these bilateral issues comes from the bilateral dialogue, so it must be done through the bilateral dialogue and I would note that North Macedonia has a proven track record of dealing with contentious issues with its neighbors and resolving them in a constructive way. So, while we are going to continue to stay engaged, we are going to continue to champion our support for North Macedonia starting its EU talks, we are going to continue to advocate that bilateral issues remain apart from that discussion, we do have full confidence in your government that it will be able to come to an acceptable agreement with Bulgaria.
Kanal 5: The public here has high hopes for the new U.S. President, Joe Biden. There is a prevailing belief that he will be more engaged in the Balkans than his predecessor Trump. Are these expectations realistic?
Ambassador Byrnes: think it is really important to recognize that the United States has been heavily engaged in this region for two decade–more than two decades now, in fact. I would say that in the past few years we have been robustly engaged not only in promoting North Macedonia’s entry to NATO, which was a big focus of the previous administration, but also in promoting regional stability. With that said, I have every confidence this this high level of engagement will continue under the Biden-Harris Administration, both in addition to supporting North Macedonia’s entry into Europe, we are also working very intensively bilaterally on a wide range of priorities, everything from trying to promote economic investment, to youth empowerment, more recently regional cooperation including on energy issues, and most importantly, in a combined effort to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kanal 5: I mentioned the Prespa Agreement. During the negotiations, you served as DCM in Athens and I assume you closely followed the course of negotiations. Some Macedonians will probably never accept that solution. Was a better solution possible? Can a better solution be achieved in future? Probably the response to this question will help some people accept it we know that a better solution was not possible.
Ambassador Byrnes: The Prespa Agreement was a compromise. It was a difficult compromise and I know that it was a difficult thing for people in this country to accept it, and I don’t want to minimize that in any way. But what we think is important to focus on, is the results that were achieved with that agreement. First and foremost, coming to a solution on the name issue opened the door for North Macedonia to enter NATO and its now paving the way for the upcoming EU accession talks.
It is also important to note, maybe this does not get much attention, the important increased cooperation that is now taking place between your country and Greece as a result of that agreement. You are seeing a wide range of collaboration on everything, from energy and trade, economic development, which is in a long-term benefit of the country.
Kanal 5: Ambassador, you said it opened the door to NATO. That is clear since we were blocked with the veto which Greece imposed back in 2008. We overcame that, but without a clear EU perspective, some people believe the price was too high. Was it worth it, what is the benefit and why should we be happy that we are part of NATO?
Ambassador Byrnes: First, on the European Union, I do believe that you have a clear EU membership perspective. The United States very much believes in your European future, the EU itself does, and most importantly, I think your people believe in that European future. It is important to recognize that even though the recent events have been frustrating, it is understandable that people are frustrated by this, that’s an important goal you shouldn’t give up on, this may be a marathon, but it is achievable and I believe that it will happen.
When it comes to NATO, it isn’t for me to say whether or why people should be happy about it, but I would say that since joining NATO your country has seen some real results. First and foremost, NATO is helping modernize your military, it is helping improve cybersecurity, it even provided ventilators last year to help with the effects of COVID-19, and above all else, NATO provides collective security through the Article 5 guarantee and even today, it provides you a seat at the table as a decision-maker in the world’s most powerful alliance. And we are seeing that happen even as Defense Ministers continue to meet in Brussels right now. So I think that these are really important benefits for the country.
Kanal 5: In one of your recent interviews, you said that the Bulgarian veto opens room for foreign influence by third sides, particularly by China and Russia. In which spheres do you expect this [influence]?
Ambassador Byrnes: The Bulgarian veto was regrettable on a number of levels, but one of the things that it did was it caused some people to question the credibility of the EU, of the EU’s commitment to enlargement and I think that has opened the door for some disinformation. So, it’s important not to let that happen. It’s more important to keep in mind that that no matter what happens out there, the most important relationships for this country and for its future are the EU and NATO, and nothing will displace that.
Kanal 5: A large majority of the Macedonian citizens strongly support the country’s EU membership as they hope it will help us become a strong and prosperous democracy governed by the rule of law. The Government assures us that it can achieve this goal even without officially starting accession talks. However, the experience from the past 30 years of independence, as well as the latest reports by Transparency, the Economist, the Financial Times, etc. say the opposite. Do you believe that this government has the capacity to carry out the necessary reforms in the country?
Ambassador Byrnes: I do believe that. Reform isn’t just something that’s a necessity for EU aspirations. It’s a necessity [for the country], it’s a requirement to progress.
Your country is facing a very serious challenge right now. In particular, young people who are looking around and wondering if they have prospects here, if they can make a living here, if there is a fair wage and opportunities for them. You have average citizens who are frustrated by the corruption, the lack of rule of law and reforms and the kind of progress that they’d hope to see by now. So, I think that these are very important issues, but I do think that there are some very concrete steps that can be taken relatively quickly to show and to demonstrate determination to address these issues.
First and foremost, seeing some of the corruption cases that are in the courts right now move forward would be a very strong signal, as would Parliament swiftly adopting the National Anti-Corruption Strategy and the meaningful implementation of that strategy. And the newly created office of the Deputy Prime Minister can use its new voice in order to ensure that they call on every public sector official at every level to exercise the highest ethical standards, to ensure that people who are qualified positions receive them based on their qualifications, not on their political affiliation and that, when there are problems, that they are addressed fairly and transparently. I would also call on officials outside the government to do their part as well, to make sure that they are modeling the right behavior for all citizens.
Kanal 5: We were ranked on the 111th position in Transparency’s report, which is the worst ranking in the past 10 years. The government says that in reality corruption has not increased, rather it is just the perception. You have been in the country for two years and you often meet representatives from the government, the parties as well as common citizens. What is your perception? Is corruption growing in Macedonia?
Ambassador Byrnes: There have been very significant efforts made to fight corruption, but they have been slow-moving and they have not been enough and here in this case I think perceptions matter enormously.
If people perceive corruption, then it is a problem and this is something that they struggle with every day. So it is important to address that, it’s important to recognize the fact that if this makes an impact on people’s lives. [Even if] they are not suffering from big corruption at the national level, [many are suffering from it at] the local level and the indignities that it’s required, to make small payments to get access to basic services – all of these things have an effect on the population and they undermine confidence in the government, they undermine economic growth, they undermine opportunities, and above all, they take away people’s dignity.
It’s a responsibility of everyone to address this issue. We talked about the fact that the government has a responsibility, it’s true, but it’s not just the government responsibility. There are many other actors. The institutions have to do their part, businesses have to ensure that they are following the most ethical practices, all public officials need to set very high standards and live by them, civil society, the media, they need to shine up spotlight on corruption, not with intent of trying to raise political issues, but to try to fix the problem. And above all, the public also has its role to play, it has to call out corruption when it sees it and has to say ‘we won’t tolerate it.’ One thing that is important is that as citizens and people become aware of what rule of law and good governance look like, they are going to demand more of it. They are going to require and ask their government and the judiciary to demonstrate real results. That’s a good thing, it’s a reasonable thing, but it also drives an important reform effort, which frankly needs to be accelerated.
Kanal 5: In the past 20 years, the U.S. has invested a lot in education and equipping institutions that should fight crime and corruption, but unfortunately, the citizens still do not have confidence in the judicial system. What in your opinion is the reason for this failure?
Ambassador Byrnes: We have invested a lot in trying to build on the kind of institutions that will ultimately provide confidence and impartial justice, but it takes time and people are frustrated with the length of time that it’s taking. So, again, I think it is important that there be efforts to accelerate these reforms, to put a little bit more behind them, because it takes time. Reforming the judiciary is not an easy process. First of all you have to make the right changes, they take time to be implemented and even after that, it takes time for the public confidence in these institutions to grow, but in the end of the day, a free and impartial judiciary, independent prosecutors offices, these are non-negotiable elements for a responsive democracy and they are also key ingredients to long-term growth and economic stability and to the right kind of investments that this country needs for its future. So, it has to be done.
Kanal 5: You say it takes time, but are we on the right path is probably the key question?
Ambassador Byrnes: I think there is no question that the country is on the right path. It’s not a question of understanding the work that needs to be done. It’s a matter of prioritizing the work that needs to be done, and again it means everybody getting behind it, those in government, those outside of government, but everybody keeping up the pressure to complete these reforms and to kind of create the society that the citizens want and deserve to live in.
Kanal 5: One of the major problems in this country is that the ruling and opposition parties cannot reach consensus on any strategic issue. That was the case with Bulgaria Treaty, the Prespa Agreement, the PPO Law, the language Law…now over the Population Census. In your opinion, what is the reason for this? Is the opposition not constructive, or is the government stubborn?
Ambassador Byrnes: Let me start by saying that obviously, in a democracy you want to get as much consensus as you possibly can, particularly on the most critical issues. That’s an important goal, but it isn’t always possible and you cannot have all of your policies subject to the aproval and buy-in of every single politician, let alone every single voter. Policies have to move forward.
Now, there is an important role for a constructive opposition in a democracy. It’s absolutely vital that they represent different political voices, but even when there are deep ideological disputes, there also has to be respect for the institutions, respect for the individuals, and also respect for the electorate. We need to have space in which differences of opinions can be aired, but [these differences cannot] be used simply to obstruct governance. So, creating the space where you can have good, constructive political debate and an airing of political views is important, but you can’t let it break down the respect for institutions and again, for the voters and the electorate. It is absolutely critical, particularly on some of the toughest issues that this country is facing today, that there be an effort to get behind them.
Kanal 5: The opposition complains that none of their proposals have been accepted, including on the census, specifically with regard to the census. Do you believe that there can be an honest census operation in such a circumstances? The opposition suspects that the results will be tuned.
Ambassador Byrnes: I think you need to have a census and I was pleased to see the Census Law passed in Parliament, and that it passed with some support from some members of the opposition, because it has such a critical function. Your country, as you know, has not had census data for 20 years, and that lack of accurate population data makes public policy-making very, very difficult. From our perspective, it is important that there be a census that it move forward as a statistical exercise, not as a political one. The policy makers have these kinds of tools and we have confidence, we have every expectation that the census would be conducted in a professional manner and that it would be used to gather accurate data that can then be used to inform public policy making as well as to target investments that are necessary for your long-term growth.
Kanal 5: The opposition is again urging early parliamentary elections, this time to be conducted together with the local elections. Can elections be a solution for achieving political stability, or will they be a waste of time?
Ambassador Byrnes: I think it is important to remember that political stability comes from good governance. Elections are a key part of this, they are an element, because of course, they express the voters’ voice and their judgement, but they are not the only element and they are not a solution to all of the problems. That requires strong institutions, political actors that respect those institutions, depoliticized bureaucracies that operate the institutions, as well as a free and impartial judiciary that can dispense justice. It’s all these elements together that provide a strong stable democracy and society going forward.
Kanal 5: The political intolerance between SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE lasts for quite a while, since the Przino negotiations. It culminated in Parliament storming on April 27, 2017 for which there is an ongoing trial. Many made parallels between this event and what happened on Capitol at the beginning of the year, when Trump supporters broke in. Do you see any similarities both in the events and the institutional response here and in the United States?
Ambassador Byrnes: I think it’s hard to make comparisons between the institutional response to the events in Washington DC and the response to the 2017 Parliament attacks here, simply because our legal systems and our processes are so very different in each country.
Speaking about the events in Washington on January 6, they were truly shocking, they ran contrary to rule of law and to our firm democratic principles. But they were also an example of how resilient our democracy is. It was very important [to note] that just hours after the protestors were removed from the Capitol, members of Congress were back inside and they were doing their job, meeting their constitutional requirement to certify the election results. With this process, we’ve been dealing with it in a very open and transparent way for the whole world to see. We haven’t been trying to hide what happened there, in the way that you see sometimes unfortunately, in some other places around the world.
I think that one of the most helpful lessons from what happened in Washington on January 6, is the message that strong, stable, and transparent institutions can be the solid foundation that can weather even the harshest of storms, even the toughest of challenges. That’s one reason why so much of our effort here, of our partnership with North Macedonia, has been focused on helping to build the strength and the resilience of the institutions. Because even in a long-standing and long-established democracy like ours in the United States, we still have to work to maintain our resilience and I think it’s important, again, with the challenges that you face, that you continue to fight for that future that you want to have, that you continue to build towards the European future, don’t let up on corruption, seek the kind of reforms that the citizens want and deserve, because it’s only through that effort that you will be able to realize that future. And you are going to have a lot of strong supporters and partners in that effort, of course international community, certainly from the United States.
Kanal 5: The opposition here immediately condemned the events on the Capitol, and here, they accuse the court trial as being political. Are there similar accusations in the United States?
Ambassador Byrnes: There are political differences in the United States and different political opinions, but I think that what this incident in Washington confirmed for all of us is confirmation that we trust our institutions, and that they are worth investing in. I think, again, that for most Americans who viewed that, they were shocked. It was condemned widely across the political spectrum in the United States, as it was around the world, including here in North Macedonia. Most importantly, the fact that the institutions got back together to do their job, are doing their jobs, the process of accountability is ongoing – and that’s an important message. You need to get behind the institutions of your democracy and stand in support of them. That’s why we defend the Constitution of the United States with such passion and fervor.
Kanal 5: In the end – perhaps the issue of the status of neighboring Kosovo is most important for the region. Some Kosovo politicians are pretty frustrated that the negotiations with Serbia are stalled, so they announce possible merger with Albania that would mean an introduction to some sort of Greater Albania. Would the US support such a move?
Ambassador Byrnes: As is common diplomatic practice, I am going to refer any specifics questions related to Kosovo to my colleague in Pristina, but I will say this about the U.S. government position when it comes to Kosovo. We support a sovereign, independent, and multi-ethnic Kosovo. President Biden has actually spoken on this and I would refer you to his comments, when he has said that a comprehensive agreement between Kosovo and Serbia “must preserve the sovereignty of both states.” That’s pretty definitive language.
Kanal 5: So, you will not support a merger of Kosovo and Albania.
Ambassador Byrnes: We support a comprehensive agreement that preserves the sovereignty of both states.
# # #