Ambassador Byrnes’ Op-Ed on the Occasion of International Anti-Corruption Day, December 9, 2019

The United States has been a strong supporter of North Macedonia’s aspirations to be a prosperous, secure, and inclusive democracy, fully embedded in NATO, the EU, and other transatlantic institutions.

A very important part of that is the strong security partnership our two nations enjoy.  Just last week in London, we witnessed, for the very first time, North Macedonia seated at the table, beside the NATO Secretary General and surrounded by its future allies.  In early 2020, we expect to welcome you officially as our 30th NATO ally.

Now is the time to look forward, not back – to firmly embed North Macedonia in Euro-Atlantic institutions, solidify its democratic institutions, and grow the economy for the betterment of all citizens and especially for generations to come.

Over the last several months, I have traveled across North Macedonia to speak with university students and hear directly from them.  The young people I have met are focused on building a future that takes into account their concerns and expectations about fairness, opportunity, and transparency.

Values matter.  Demonstrating a commitment to transparency, ensuring accountability, and fighting corruption are critically important tasks for North Macedonia.

Today’s vibrant debate about corruption is possible because of the advancements that have been made in promoting transparency and accountability—ensuring that, unlike in the past, abuses are not simply swept under the rug.  This transparency is a net positive for the country.  It is not always pretty, but increased transparency means that people know more about the inner workings of their government and can demand corrective action.

The climate of media freedom is vastly improved over the situation just a few short years ago.  The media today can freely report on and hold accountable the government, without fear of direct or indirect retribution.  The State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption has taken important steps to more proactively fight against high-level corruption from across the political spectrum.  The government has taken steps to improve public financial management and transparency, for instance by launching a new “Open Finance Portal” that anyone on-line can use to track state spending.

Despite this improved climate, corruption is still a problem.  Too much progress has been made, and the costs of corruption are too high for North Macedonia to allow backsliding.  Our collective expectation, yours as citizens and ours as an international partner, is that progress in fighting and preventing corruption will continue to be a top national priority.

Why is corruption so costly and damaging?  For one, it fuels instability by undermining good governance and giving an opening for criminal elements to take over. It destroys faith in institutions; there is nothing more demoralizing and disempowering to any citizen than the belief that the system is rigged against them and that people in positions of power are not subject to the same rules.  And it discourages investment and drives out businesses seeking a level playing field.

According to a 2018 UN report, the annual costs of corruption worldwide amount to a staggering $3.6 trillion.  One trillion dollars are paid in bribes annually, while another $2.6 trillion is stolen.  This is equivalent to more than five percent of global GDP paid in bribes or stolen through corruption.

Countering corruption is a fight that will require the determination of all elements of society: civil society, the media, the private sector, the judiciary, governing institutions, and of course the public.

There are several practical examples of measures that the parliament and government can take now to help in this fight.  A new law on the Public Prosecutor’s Office is essential to demonstrate the national commitment to fighting corruption and building a stronger prosecutorial institution.  The corruption cases initiated by the Special Prosecutor’s Office must continue in a credible fashion.

Likewise, it is critically important that parliament approve qualified, competent heads of institutions in a legal and transparent manner.  These include the State Audit Office, the Commission for Free Access to Information as well as council positions at the Agency for Audio and Audio-Visual Media Services, the state broadcaster, and the Judicial Council.

These institutions, crucial to government oversight and accountability, have been left leaderless or with expired mandates for far too long.  They must be empowered to do their jobs – for instance, to monitor how political parties are spending their state-allocated funding, to ensure that the media and political parties are properly accounting for electronic and on-line ads funded by the state, and to ensure a more level playing field during election campaigning.  Again, parliament should take action now to show the national commitment towards checks and balances.

As soon as the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption finalizes its national anti-corruption strategy, parliament should act to adopt it before the next national elections.  Any delays will lead to questions over the country’s commitment to further Euro-Atlantic integration.  The timely adoption of the strategy is a win-win for society, a no-brainer.

A democratic, prosperous North Macedonia, grounded in the values of transparency and accountability, makes a great partner for the United States.  We will continue to work with the people and institutions of this country to maintain the forward momentum and create a better future.