Ambassador Byrnes joined Nazim Rashidi on “Programi200” to discuss the upcoming Strategic Dialogue in Washington between the United States and North Macedonia, to Russia’s war in Ukraine, North Macedonia’s role in Europe’s future, and more.
To watch the interview, click here.
Below you can read the full transcript of the interview.
Interview of Ambassador Kate M. Byrnes with Alsat Television
May 31, 2022
Alsat: Relations with the United States are very important for North Macedonia and the region. In addition to being a great supporter and ally, the United States has often addressed issues that have led to the betterment of institutions and the society in the country. In a couple of days there will be a high-level meeting between Skopje and Washington, called the Strategic Dialogue. What does this dialogue mean? It comes at a time when the country is facing challenges on its EU integration path. Can the United States assume a broader role in supporting reforms and development? We have invited U.S. Ambassador Kate Byrnes to talk about these issues. Thank you very much for being part of this program Madam Ambassador.
Ambassador Byrnes: Thank you very much for having me.
Alsat: I just explained in Albanian, how important the relations are between our country, the region and the United States. And of course, I mentioned the Strategic Dialogue that everybody wants to know what it is all about. So, first of all, I want to ask you to tell our wider audience what the Strategic Dialogue is and why it is important.
Ambassador Byrnes: Well, thank you for that. At its root, the Strategic Dialogue is an open conversation between two partners that are committed to deepening and strengthening their relationship. And as you pointed out, it is a reflection of the fact that the US relationship with North Macedonia has progressed, in such a way that we now feel it opportune to sit down across the table and to have a dialogue about the ways in which we can expand the excellent cooperation that we’ve had thus far– But take it to a new level. To, if you will, evolve the relationship and broaden the conversation, to include representatives of our governments who don’t necessarily day-to-day work on U.S.-North Macedonia issues, but who have an interest in seeing how our priorities could come together for an even more effective and elaborate collaboration.
Alsat: When you use the word “strategic,” it means that something important is going to happen. This meeting will happen only after a few days. Can we have some details? Who is going to meet with who and what topics are you going to discuss more specifically, if that’s possible?
Ambassador Byrnes: Sure. We’re preparing the agenda now, so it’s a work in progress. But the idea is to take a broad list of issues, everything from economic growth and prosperity, to strengthening democratic institutions, to defense and security, and to bring experts around the table in a high-level way to talk about the priorities from each side and to identify areas where there could be synergies. So it has the feel of a working-level meeting, even though it’s being held at a very high-level of representation. There will be a delegation here from the Government of North Macedonia, plus some of their strategic experts and we will have officials, not just from the State Department, but from the Department of Defense; from many other agencies across the big federal government sitting across the table and having these conversations–
Alsat: Do we know the names, who is going to meet with who, maybe the audience is going to be interested to know that? Maybe the Prime Minister is meeting with some other high level officials or…?
Ambassador Byrnes: Foreign Minister Osmani is going to lead the delegation here from North Macedonia. I believe he’s finalizing the list, he’ll include some other members at the ministerial level, and then obviously some experts. On our side, Assistant Secretary Karen Donfried, who recently visited North Macedonia will be the official host, but there will be an opportunity to meet with other officials, both as part of the strategic dialogue and perhaps in addition, on the margins.
Alsat: When we mention the Strategic Dialogue…you mentioned also that broader issues are going to be discussed. Is there a possibility…or how can this dialogue create more opportunities for the people of North Macedonia, perhaps in economy or at a different level? Do you think that it will have that kind of impact, maybe investments or different issues that the United States can help this country with?
Ambassador Byrnes: So that’s certainly the hope and expectation. This is a momentous change. It’s an upgrade, if you will, of our relationship in the sense that we’re now moving forward to this broader agenda. The idea is to put a lot of ideas on the table, see where there might be some opportunities and then move forward. We do expect that there will be a joint statement at the end of the meeting, and this will help us identify some of those areas where we see the most opportunities to follow up in the near term. The idea, of course, of a dialogue, however, is that it’s a continuing conversation. So we will continue to meet at different levels, moving forward into the future to assess where there’s been progress, new areas perhaps where we could find additional progress, all with the intent of ensuring that we’re exploring every opportunity on the table that meets our mutual strategic interests, once we have a clear definition of how both of these countries see the possibilities in the relationships and what we can offer by way of working together.
Alsat: When I started the program, I said that the United States is important for this country, because not only are the two countries partners, but often when the U.S. or US officials give some kind of criticism, then the institutions react, and they become better, but also the society is getting better. In this sense, this dialogue is probably happening at a timeswhen North Macedonia is facing challenges on her path to the European Union. Some say that maybe this dialogue could be a substitution for the European Union. Is this right? Can we say something like this?
Ambassador Byrnes: The Strategic Dialogue is two things. First of all, it is that evolution of our natural partnership, moving and growing and taking on, I think, new aspects, but maybe also some new ambitions. But it’s entirely complementary to North Macedonia’s vision and intention to become a fully integrated member of the European Union; fully integrated into all of the Euro-Atlantic institutions, and hopefully playing a role in helping shape the future of Europe within that relationship. So we see these processes, I wouldn’t say linked, but certainly complementary, because the goals are the same. The idea of the Strategic Dialogue is just to find a different way to have the conversation that maybe produces some new ideas and some new energy.
Alsat: This question maybe comes up, because most of the people view the process of integration as something that will push our institution to get better. And if for whatever reason, that is not going to happen very soon, in the eyes of the people, maybe some other institution or country, in this context the United States, can have this role, in terms of making some criticism or also make some suggestions on how the institutions can get better. Do you think that if the EU is not going to be as pushy as people want, that Washington can do this?
Ambassador Byrnes: Well, first of all, let me clarify, the Strategic Dialogue isn’t about asks. It’s about understanding, and it’s really about what we can do together. But to your broader question: I think you also spoke to this, when you said the citizens are looking for something, they are looking for a democracy that allows for opportunity, that allows for prosperity, that allows people here to build a better future for their children for the next generation, that sees future and opportunity and a rules-based order and a democracy that responds to the needs of citizens. They see the European Union, to some respects, as being a way to achieve much of that progress and a framework. And I think it’s an important framework to have because North Macedonia is in Europe, because the future of Europe includes the Western Balkans, as far as the United States is concerned. So these are natural alignments. But the most important part is what the citizens want and how they demand it. And that’s why the government here needs to be responsive to those needs of the citizens. They can accomplish much of this with support from international partners like the United States, like the European Union, that have been helping in very technical and expert ways to help build the institutions and some of the systems and processes. But at the fundamental basis of all of this, is the drive of the citizens and the importance that the political leadership responds to those drives.
Alsat: You have said it before, and now, and of course, the official position of the United States is that North Macedonia should be part of the EU. But my direct question to you is, what’s your reaction if this does not happen due to the situation that North Macedonia has with Bulgaria?
Ambassador Byrnes: So again, the U.S. policy has been and it still is, that we see North Macedonia’s future in Europe, because we see Europe as needing all of Europe, united, whole, and free and together, to be its most powerful self and most powerful partner for the United States, particularly when it comes to defending the values and principles that mean so much to us. Now, the pace of the progress towards European integration has been frustrating here, and we see that and we feel it and we share it to some degree because we would like to see the process move faster, and the integration processes formally begin to advance. In reality, however, we have seen North Macedonia move towards integration of systems, of processes, because they share those same basic values and principles. So the process has been moving forward. If not in the official start, I think it would be important and this is why we have been so vocal in our support of seeing that process move forward. But even if it gets further delayed, or if it can’t be started by June thereafter– for us, there’s no reason not to continue the process, to use this time wisely, so that the minute that the formal process starts, North Macedonia is as ready as it can be to seize the opportunity and move forward with the ultimate goal of integration. Regardless, however, it is clear to us that the people in North Macedonia, the citizens, are committed to that kind of a future and I think they’ll fight for it.
Alsat: People refer to the U.S. in this context, because in the case of delicate issues, as was the NATO path of North Macedonia a few years ago, there was progress because of the U.S. That’s why probably the questions come naturally when a U.S. official is asked what the U.S. can do and whether it can help even more in this regard.
Ambassador Byrnes: Sure. Well, I am very proud of the role that the United States helped in preparing North Macedonia to be ready for its NATO membership. And exactly as you saw, the minute it was offered the chance to join NATO, it moved very quickly, it showed that it was read, and now in just two years’ time it has shown itself to be not only a good NATO ally, but a really strong and stalwart NATO ally that is delivering, including and hosting a major exercise here, not just a couple of weeks ago. So again, North Macedonia has proven that when given the opportunity, it will move quickly, and it will move well. When it comes to this issue, and frankly in NATO, it is still important to address those bilateral issues. And we’re not a member of the EU, so working through the process is important, and it’s important that North Macedonia uses this opportunity now, and the openings and the opportunities that exist for dialogue with Bulgaria to resolve some of these bilateral issues, so that the process can move forward. And in that regard, the United States, the EU, Brussels, many EU member states, and many of the neighbors are all supportive of that process.
Alsat: That’s why I mean, when we mentioned the Strategic Dialogue, that’s why probably most of the people hope that this needed push or this help, let’s use your words, the institution to get better –when I say your, United States — maybe can be crucial when the relation with the EU will not be there as probably most of the people would want to, but okay.
Ambassador Byrnes: And that would be a great outcome. I mean, whatever we can do to partner together to ensure that North Macedonia becomes the stable, secure, prosperous democracy that its citizens want to see and that we want to see, we would consider positive progress.
Alsat: Madam Ambassador, of course, we have talked about the importance of the U.S.-North Macedonia relationship and the impact it has. As we discuss these issues, there’s a war going on in Europe. How do you see a lot of different influences that this country has, in regards to this kind of relationship, diplomatic relationship, geopolitical relationship? For example, according to some statistics, a lot of people in North Macedonia still maybe see the war in Ukraine with more sympathy towards Russia, or some similar sentiments. How do you see these issues?
Ambassador Byrnes: Well, I think Russia’s war in Ukraine has had a profound impact on not just regional politics, but on global politics. If we back up and remember that in the months leading up to this invasion by Russia of Ukraine, there was extensive diplomacy, extensive engagement to try to deter Putin from taking these actions. There was a real expectation that some kind of reasoning, some kind of diplomatic engagement would be successful, and we saw that not to be the case. Instead, Putin, the Russian government, decided to invade without provocation, a neighboring country, to violate its sovereignty and territorial integrity and to pose a threat, not just to the people of Ukraine, but to all of us who stand by the rules of this rules based order that President Biden has so often referred to: the understanding that there are basic tenets by which nations behave and uphold the fabric of society. In the subsequent months, we have seen actions by the Russian Government and the Russian military in Ukraine that are really hard to believe. The atrocities that we’ve seen taking place, the targeting of civilian infrastructure, the execution-style shootings, the viciousness, the brutality of this war, the rape, not to mention the displaced children and refugees that we’ve seen imposed on the community, and we have yet to see Putin respond in any way to any of the overtures for settling these issues at the negotiating table and not on the battlefield. There have been no concrete steps, no recognition of what is taking place there. And I think it is important that he be held accountable. And I think it’s important that the international community hold him accountable. And that’s why it’s so critical that you have the media, and that you have international experts and observers that are documenting this kind of behavior so they can show the global public, frankly, what is actually happening in Ukraine, and people can understand that this is not something that any of us expected to see. And those of us who have for so long been supporting a rules-based order, who have been investing in our collective defense, as a deterrence against this kind of behavior, now have to face the consequences. And we have to pull together as an international community to demonstrate that there will be consequences for this kind of action, and there will be accountability for the kinds of crimes that we unfortunately continue to see taking place, even today in Ukraine, and in some ways, getting worse.
Alsat: But of course, when you mention all this, and this region has seen so many wars, and people have different sentiments about it, but Russia, on the other hand, is considering North Macedonia as an enemy state, and still the sentiment maybe sometimes that probably prevails in social media or in the different outlets that everything what you explained, it’s not quite come through to the people. Why do you think it’s happening?
Ambassador Byrnes: I mean, that’s really hard to explain. If Russia declares North Macedonia among its long list of enemy states, that’s really Russia’s problem. There are 141 UN members that see things differently and North Macedonia is among them. In this case, North Macedonia is on the right side of history, sending the message that this kind of behavior is intolerable. I think it’s really hard for people to understand and to process what they’re seeing. Again, it’s why it’s so important to get the real truth out there to make sure that there’s media coverage, that there’s international accountability, that people truly get a picture of what is happening so that they can make their own judgments. And again, we’re talking about what’s happening today, and we’re talking about the behavior that we’re seeing. And that’s, you know, it’s a really difficult thing for all of us to digest.
Alsat: The war in Ukraine also created tremendous problems and situations, the economy is one of them. So having in mind the dialogue, the Strategic Dialogue, and everything that can come up from that dialogue between Skopje and Washington, do you think that the United States can provide or help this country if it’s needed for economic issues or other issues?
Ambassador Byrnes: Well, I mean, as you pointed out, Putin’s War is not only having a tragic consequence on the people of Ukraine, but it’s having a tragic consequence for all who depend on energy and food and other issues that Russia has had control over and is now using as a bit of a political weapon. So, I think what’s important in all these situations, whether it’s a strategic dialogue or other formats is that we come together as a community first to identify the challenges that we’re all now facing as a result of Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and figure out if there are ways that we can help mitigate them by working together. First by understanding the nature of the problem, and then looking at the resources available and providing that support to each other. So I’m certain that some of the issues that are going to be discussed during the Strategic Dialogue will include these challenges that not only North Macedonia faces, but the region faces, but particularly how it’s faced here, whether that’s respect to energy supplies, to supply chain shortages, to markets for exports, all of these kinds of issues are things that are exactly the kind we want to put on the table, talk about what instruments and tools we have available and deal with them as a community. It’s the same concept behind Summit for Democracy, where we sit down, we recognize that we all have similar challenges, and we think about ways that we can help each other address them.
Alsat: When you mentioned the challenges, what do you think our country…Or what do you think, what’s the most challenging thing for our country? You have been critical for a lot of things, anti-corruption is one of them, for example. You have constantly, as the United States, made remarks about the way some institutions are doing their job, but what do you think are the main challenges of this country?
Ambassador Byrnes: First of all, there are those global and regional challenges that we’ve discussed that many, many countries are facing, and that we, you know, we work very closely with our partners here to figure out how we can address. But as you note, there are some particular issues in North Macedonia that concern us, and the reason that we are vocal about these issues is because we want to help and be supportive of efforts, frankly, efforts that are ongoing here within the country to address them in ways that we can apply. Two of those issues, I think most importantly, number one is corruption. Now, again, corruption is not an issue that we have identified solely as a problem in North Macedonia. President Biden launched an entire initiative on Summit for Democracy, which is based on the principle that all of us as democratic societies are confronted with this challenge. The problem of corruption undermines our democratic institutions on a regular basis, and it is an ongoing effort to identify those problems of corruption. I think here in North Macedonia, that has to be a priority, because your democratic institutions, while they have a strong basis are still developing, and that constant undermining of corruption is a threat to the future security and stability and prosperity of the country. I think the second issue that deserves focus is the situation of young people here. And our real concern about the fact that young people are disillusioned by the opportunities here. They’re disillusioned when they don’t see government working, and most importantly, government working for the citizens. So the young people here need to be encouraged to see a future here and getting after corruption and getting after some of these problems with the institutions themselves is a very powerful way to address their very concerns.
Alsat: When you mentioned these two issues, are these two issues going to be raised during the Dialogue that is going to happen after a few days…because our leaders, sometimes, our ministers, have to hear this directly.
Ambassador Byrnes: Well, we have to have a conversation about the importance of strengthening democracy, that’s certainly on the discussion. In fact, we’ll have a specific part of the Strategic Dialogue that is focused on the issue of good governance. So on the issues of digitalization, of transparency, about providing systems and checks and balances, that are important to ensuring that there is good governance and that there is a strong set of institutions outside the government as well, whether that be civil society, and independent media, and other aspects. And again, these are areas where we can say we have similar problems, as we did with the Summit for Democracy: “Here are some of the solutions that we found that can be helpful.” And are there things that we could actually do together that would help both of our efforts and to help benefit the region as a whole.
Alsat: Madam Ambassador, you’re going to be in our country maybe for a few more weeks or months. Your successor is announced. If you are supposed to leave her a kind of a note, what would you say to her? What kind of job she has to continue?
Ambassador Byrnes: Well, first of all, you’ve seen the announcement from the White House with an intent to nominate a successor and that process is still ongoing. So I have to be very respectful about the process and I can’t really comment further at this time.
Alsat: Yes, we know that’s fair, because we know it takes maybe weeks, months, all the process we have seen in our history. It takes some time when one is appointed, but still, what will be your suggestion? Let me make another note, I know that the American diplomacy doesn’t work in a way that the ambassador decides something even though they all leave their mark, like yourself, but still, in the long-term, what is going to be something that you will leave as a note to the next ambassador?
Ambassador Byrnes: Well, let me actually put it in terms of the premise of the Strategic Dialogue, which is that in a short period of time, basically, since North Macedonia joined NATO, we’ve seen profound progress in our bilateral relationship. And we are at a very different stage. It’s precisely why we’re able to launch the Strategic Dialogue for the first time with North Macedonia, because we’re really approaching the relationship now as partners. The intent of the Strategic Dialogue is just that, to think about areas where we haven’t had the full diplomatic cooperation, we haven’t explored all of the opportunities that we could. We’ve done a lot on the defense and security side, there’s still more to do there, but there’s so much more that we can do in some of these other areas, whether it be economic, energy, climate, good governance, working with young people, cultural exchange, education exchange. So, I think just as the Strategic Dialogue offers some excitement about the future opportunities, and sends a signal that there’s much more that the United States wants to be invested in, I think that’s going to be a good roadmap for both countries to continue to build this partnership going forward. And it’s great that it’s going to be a two-way discussion.
Alsat: Madam Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview.
Ambassador Byrnes: Thank you so much.