Ambassador Byrnes spoke to 21TV on corruption, Ukraine, rule of law and more

Ambassador Kate M. Byrnes sat down with 21 Television to discuss the recent developments in North Macedonia and the region, corruption, rule of law, the war in Ukraine and more.

You can watch the interview here.


Interview of U.S. Ambassador Kate M. Byrnes with 21 Television
March 1, 2022, Skopje

Borjan Jovanovski: Ambassador Byrnes, like everywhere in the world here too we are upset with the war in Ukraine. How far is Macedonia from Ukraine in the present circumstances?

Ambassador Byrnes: Well thank you first of all for the opportunity to come on your show to talk about this critical moment in international security and also how it affects our strategic partnership.

On the subject of Ukraine, North Macedonia as a NATO Ally, as a strong partner in lockstep with the EU, as a responsible member of the international community is joining with the rest of us- with the United and others- to condemn the actions that are taking place in Ukraine right now, Russia’s brutal aggression, its act of war on Ukraine, stepping up to make sure that- that condemnation is clear and strong.

But it’s also stepping up in support of the people of Ukraine, as we all are, providing them the support that they need right now… ensuring at one point that there will be accountability for Russia’s actions.

At the same time, North Macedonia is working with us in NATO and bilaterally to be focused on defending against our allied interests, working through NATO to ensure that our Article 5 commitment is ironclad and that we are prepared to defend against any other further actions that may take place and that we are prepared as an international community to address the long-term consequences of what we are seeing taking place, again with this premeditated, unjustified, and unlawful action by Russia against Ukraine.

Mr. Jovanovski: Our country, as other countries in the region, …we are…we were and still exposed to the Russian influence. Nowadays we see a sharp polarization within the public opinion, between those who are pro-West oriented and the others who are supporting Putin’s policy. Are we vulnerable already?

Ambassador Byrnes: I think what’s important as you’ve seen across the international community in the United States, here in North Macedonia, across Europe, and across the globe frankly is a clear understanding of the need to defend our global security structures and our international systems and our rules-based orders. And in the face of this kind of violation—this stark, blatant action by Russia—it has never been more clear that we have…to be firm in our views and to be vocal and to take a strong position. So I don’t think there’s any room for looking at this in anything but a clear and focused way in terms of what the consequences are.

So when that comes to thinking about…this region and…some of the long-standing views… Look a week ago we the United States had a very different relationship with Russia, the international community had a very different relationship with Russia a week ago, but now when we have seen these actions that have taken place and we see the consequences, the human consequences that are being inflicted upon the innocent people of Ukraine who have done nothing to justify this kind of action or to provoke it any way whatsoever and we know that there are going to be consequences for all of us as an international community whether that’s the humanitarian impact or the economic aspects, but we know we have to take a clear stand, we have to condemn these actions, we have to hold Russia accountable and we have to isolate them, financially and politically, so that there’s a clear message around the world that this kind of behavior is unacceptable.

Mr. Jovanovski: Still I would like to ask you something more about this polarization. Do you see an illustration in this polarization in Macedonia between people pro-West and pro-Putin oriented, kind of an illustration for the failure of the Western world to integrate Macedonia and I’m talking about all delays with Macedonia for the process of the European integration etc.?

Ambassador Byrnes: So first, what we’ve actually seen from the people of North Macedonia is an incredible amount of support for the people of Ukraine. I think all of us who have been watching television have been just amazed by the strength and the courage of the Ukrainian people and I think there has been a profound and wide-spread show of support for what the Ukrainians are doing, for standing up for freedom and democracy. And I think this is something that the people of North Macedonia and this region truly understand at their core and I have to say that I have been very impressed at the way that citizens and also throughout the political leadership people have taken a strong stand on this measure, very, very seriously.

On some of these other issues that you’re talking about in terms of public opinion. Look, I think it’s time for there to be a broad conversation about what we really stand for and I think that people are showing their true colors today. Unfortunately, we had seen Putin through media sources, through other information try to tell a different narrative and unfortunately some of that narrative is still out there.

But the facts show and the facts will show over time, that what they have done and what they are continuing to do against the people of Russia is unjustified, there is no justification for this. Whatever calculations they are making are not consistent with those of us who stand for freedom and for democracy. I think that conversation is taking place.

Mr. Jovanovski: Do you think if Putin goes beyond Ukraine, [the] Balkans is a potential target, having in mind fragile spots like Bosnia and Kosovo?

Ambassador Byrnes: Well, I think that it’s impossible for me to characterize where he may go or what his thinking is and it’s not really helpful to do that. I do think as an international community that we have to be prepared, and we are preparing ourselves for any eventuality. Any threat to our international security, whether it comes from Moscow and the Kremlin or elsewhere.

So, this has really crystallized for us, the importance on focusing on doubling—re-doubling—our investments in the rules-based international order, in implementing Western values, and also strengthening the Western institutions that are responsible for this.

For us here in North Macedonia, it’s actually a galvanizing moment, it’s a reminder that we have been working hard and in partnership with the government and people of North Macedonia for decades towards your Euro-Atlantic integration. Bringing North Macedonia into NATO was a major step and we are seeing the results of that move today actually and how things are playing out on the ground.

So for us it’s very important to see the next step take place, for North Macedonia and for the Western Balkans as a whole move to Europe as part of a Europe that is whole, free, and secure, and that means integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions.

I think what you’re referring to here is this deep sense of frustration and its real frustration, and I hear it too, that these processes have not moved faster. So I do think that one of the things that this moment underscores is the need to get those processes moving again, to accelerate efforts, to see North Macedonia fully integrated, move towards opening its negotiating framework with the European union, advancing on all fronts to bring this country into alignment, not just with EU institutions, but with the aspirations of the citizens here for again, a long period of time.

Mr. Jovanovski: That is my next question. After all its high time for Europe and Western world to be united. The question is do you think that it’s also high time for EU to start negotiation talks with Albania and Macedonia without any delay and not to waste time with…the debate about the events from the 19th century?

Ambassador Byrnes: So, I think obviously the people of North Macedonia they need steps forward, they don’t need any further setbacks. And I think we have been very clear as the United States from the beginning that we support North Macedonia’s accession to the EU. Even though we’re not a member of the EU we believe that it is in the strategic interest of North Macedonia, of the region, of the EU, and even of the United States. So we have consistently said and clear said that we want to see this EU accession process move forward as quickly as possible.

I do think that you are seeing a level of unity and resolve among the international community, among the US, its European partners and the Western community as a whole on the importance of moving forward. Not just to defend our global security, but to advance our shared agenda of democracy and rule of law. And that’s exactly what North Macedonia’s EU accession would help promote, so I’m optimistic that what we are seeing right now with this level of unity, this focus on democracy and role of law, this recognition that it’s never mattered more than in this moment, then we’ll also see some of that urgency translated into positive momentum, including with respect to Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

We have been encouraged by what we have seen as a reinvigorated diplomatic discussion between the two capitals, we’re encouraged by the fact that there are now working groups, that are working not only to look at resolving some of the bilateral differences, but also to try and to bring about some long-term cooperation that’ll benefit the citizens of both countries and help promote the idea that this process of EU accession is truly in the interest of both countries.

So I’m optimistic that there will be some progress ahead.

Mr. Jovanovski: You follow closely as our strategic partner, what are the relations between Sofia and Skopje, in terms of what you said do you believe that this time we are on the right path and that we could arrive at the proper destination in June as wishes are…

Ambassador Byrnes: Look, I certainly hope so. The bilateral discussion has to be one that is undertaken bilaterally and we have always said that. Bilateral issues should be dealt with bilaterally outside of the IGC framework and there’s an opportunity to do that.

I have had the opportunity to meet with the new Prime Minister as well as to meet with a number of the ministers that are now involved in various aspects of the discussions, and what I hear from them is a commitment to using this moment of opportunity of new opening with the new government in Sofia to try to resolve some of these differences and to try to reach an agreement that will allow the process to move forward so that North Macedonia can hold its IGC and then begin the process of moving through the opening and closing of chapters and meeting requirements for eventual EU membership.

So we’re obviously watching this very closely, we certainly hope that these discussions generate that kind of momentum and help bridge these differences, so that everything can move forward. And then once the IGC is held that this same sense of urgency will then be applied to meeting the actual requirements and delivering on the reforms to your ultimate integration into the EU.

Mr. Jovanovski: Talking about the reforms your focus is mostly on the the reforms processes under the judicial system. The United States invested a lot in those processes, you met yesterday the Minister of Justice… the new Minister of Justice Nikola Tupancevski. Where [are we] with these reforms, we have been talking about the reform process in the judicial system since I started to work as a journalist. I’m not young as you see, so these reform processes have been very high on the agenda for decades already, where are we, could we arrive at the destination?

Ambassador Byrnes: So our relationship with North Macedonia for a long time has been focused on helping North Macedonia fully integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions, whether that was NATO and now as we focus on the EU. It is true that a huge part of our effort here has been focused on rule of law and there’s a reason for that. First and foremost because rule of law underpins all democratic institutions, all economic prosperity, and ultimately security. It is the fundamental factor in ensuring that the needs of the citizens are met.

So, we have endeavored through our various programs and our offices here to try to help support the government’s agenda on moving rule of law efforts, and particularly efforts related to the independence of the judiciary and the functioning of the judiciary forward. That has been a big focus and we have a number of programs that work on that.

This is a hard problem, this is a complicated issue. Much of democracy is complicated and I think, you know, there’s a great quote that President Biden referenced at the Summit of Democracy that he hosted in December, and talking about some of these issues. He quoted our late civil rights leader and former congressman John Lewis, and he said “democracy is not a state, democracy is an act” and we have always seen moving forward on democratic reforms, on rule of law reforms as something that takes work, it takes hard work, and it takes a lot of guts, and energy, in order to be able to ultimately root out corruption and the graft and cronyism that have held back progress and really get at some of the fundamental problems.

What we have tried to do in the last few years is really target our assistance and our cooperation on the areas that the citizens have said are their priorities. So we look at some of the polls that are out there. There was a governance and democracy poll last year, in which 83% of citizens in North Macedonia who participated said that corruption is either a serious or a very serious problem. That’s huge. And we also saw a Eurothink poll very recently that said only 8% of the citizens here have confidence in the judiciary and in the prosecution. So, for us that’s a message that this is a place to put our investment, and so these are the conversations we’ve had.

As you noted I did meet with the minister of justice, reiterated our support. They have an agenda. They have a government agenda, it’s keeping also with their EU agenda and the commitments their making in order to prepare themselves for eventual EU membership and what we’re looking to do is to try to align our expertise, our assistance into helping them meet those goals. But ultimately it’s the citizens that are going to set those goals for them and that are going to hold the government to account on those kinds of reforms.

Mr. Jovanovski: You mentioned the capability of the judiciary and it’s a huge frustration, people need the rule of law; an impartial judiciary. So after all.. you as an ambassador, [the] previous ambassador [from] the United States, you follow those processes very closely. After all the experience you have, what are the main obstacles that we are not able to achieve what we need to achieve after so many years of reforms? What’s the main obstacle, political, business, shadow forces, what’s the problem?

Ambassador Byrnes: I don’t think there’s one obstacle to progress. I think the problem is that the system is open and vulnerable in many different places. And to be truly successful you have got to attack every level of the institutional and of the system in order to be successful. And so that means it’s a combination of promoting transparency, making available to the citizens and the voters what is actually happening.

There is a need for a system of accountability, so that’s both in terms of judicial structures, but also individuals who hold particular offices. Those individuals need to be qualified for their positions and then they need to be held accountable for doing their positions and conducting their positions and for making sure the systems work.

So, I think there’s a number of things that the government has to tackle. They have a very complex plan on anti-corruption, on reforming the judiciary, and we are working actually very much in conjunction with our EU and other international partners to see where we can make the most difference in providing some assistance. For us, one immediate focus of course has been on the appointments of judges and prosecutors, supporting the academy of judges and prosecutors, so there’s a system for making some of those appointments, but we’ve also been focused on other areas. For example we have a team this week doing some virtual judge mentoring, one-on-one mentoring, to see where we can be most helpful and helping provide [that] support.

Mr. Jovanovski: Talking about experience, the United States was the main supporter of SPO if I may say. Of course European Union was there, but United States was focused on this project. This project failed, unfortunately, we know the story. What have you learned out of this?

Ambassador Byrnes: Well, I think the experience of this and particularly the fact that there are still cases from the former SPO that are still working through the system, is that people want to see justice delivered and that means they want to see cases move through the system, they want to see them be treated by competent professionals, free from political interference and with an ultimate resolution that provides accountability for whatever has been proven to be the crimes committed.

So, we have seen there’s an urgency to complete the work of the former Special Prosecutor’s Office cases, get them moving through the system and to see justice delivered on these issues. And we have also seen, and this was addressed in the subsequent law in the Public Prosecution Office that there’s an important need to be made to look at the processes and how both the positions and the processes are governed to ensure that these cases will move through the system without political interference. There’s still a hard challenge ahead, but there’s a lot of folks who are focused on trying to make the system work.

Mr. Jovanovski: That is my next question. What is the destiny of the SPO cases? Many people believe those are objects of different political deals?

Ambassador Byrnes: First of all there’s a juridical answer to that, which is that they need to move through the system, but the second point that I think you’re alluding to is there’s also a perception issue, right? The citizens want to see justice served—

Mr. Jovanovski: —And they almost do not believe that there will be some outcome out of the process—

Ambassador Byrnes: Right and any delay in justice only further undermines their confidence in the institutions which is why it’s so important to take a holistic approach and to look at the systems. Until these systems begin to deliver in an efficient way and to move these cases forward, the citizens aren’t going to be able to trust… and it’s not just you know equal protection under the law it’s equal accountability under the law, and this is what citizens are really seeking.

Mr. Jovanovski: Fighting corruption is high on your agenda, high on everybody’s agenda of course, nobody wants to see corruption everywhere, but could we be more specific talking about the corruption? Where is this corruption right now? I mean we know there is a cultural problem, corruption is everywhere, people, some who used to live with the corruption, but could we be more specific to define what are the main sources of corruption?

Ambassador Byrnes: So, it’s very interesting you say that. We have been working, as you know, for many years on the issue of corruption. But one thing that happened last year was that President Biden recognized that corruption was an international problem. It was on the level of a problem that he recognized no one nation could answer alone. And he issued an executive order that put fighting corruption front and center in our national security policy.

So we now have a national security policy that says fighting corruption is in our national security interest. And he followed that up by launching an initiative called the Summit for Democracies in which he pulled together communities of democracies from around the world to have a common dialogue and discussion about how we could come together using our resources to help exactly what you’re talking about: how to figure out where does the corruption exist, and then what can we do to get at it.

Now for every country it’s going to have to be a national solution, but there are ways that we can work together, and we were very pleased to see President Pendarovski in December at the Summit for Democracies stand up and outline a whole-of-government approach to fighting corruption and promoting good governance that would involve every level of government and invite participation, also from the private sector, from NGOs, to be part of this global effort. And through that we’re looking at ways where we can bring our best practices, our shared expertise, and to some degree some of our tools and instruments to bear, to help support each other to take on these issues. Because at the end of the day again it’s up to us to fix our democratic institutions and to make sure they’re accountable, but there are ways that we can support each other in that process.

Mr. Jovanovski: Do you see the corruption in the high political level and do you think that we have learned well the lessons out of our experience with the “Capture State?”

Ambassador Byrnes: I certainly think what you see in North Macedonia is a very dynamic discussion about corruption and the dangers of corruption at every level. I mean I have been struck as I’ve traveled around this country, the number of people who have raised the issue with me, the number of polls and research, that is being focused on the issue of corruption.

So I think what you’re seeing here is a whole of society discussion about the importance of corruption of calling it out and correcting it, that is what I would say a signal that your democracy is alive and that it’s strong. Now, having to deal with these problems of corruption is tough work and as we’ve talked about before, democracies require constant attention, they require constant work, and particularly some of these problems which touch on people’s vested interests and deep cultural practices that need to change, but I do think what is most important here is that you have a very, very vocal, and very energized civil society NGO sector that is forcing the government to be responsive on some of these issues. It’s a huge demand signal, people want results and they want actions.

Mr. Jovanovski: I’m sure that when you meet the minister, or the Prime Minister, or the other ministers, I’m talking about the Minister of Justice, they say that they are really dedicated to fight corruption. Do you think there is a real political will this time to fight corruption properly?

Ambassador Byrnes: I think so. I certainly hope so. I mean, look that’s been the tenor of all of my discussions that I’ve had with the government as they’ve taken the time to sit down with me and to share ideas. There appears to be a very reinvigorated agenda that is focused on democracy, on rule of law. There are other issues that we talk about of course, energy security, the climate, and the pandemic, but the foremost issue that they have raised with me in our meetings is the importance of advancing these real reforms, the recognition that there have been a lot of plans, and now is the time to implement and to make concrete progress, and that’s certainly the way we see this issue and the opportunity. What we found with the Summit for Democracies was a level of motivation and momentum that we’ve never before applied to this problem set. I think the government recognizes that this is the number one issue that citizens are expecting them to address and so they have a responsibility to move forward, and I found them to be open and direct with me, in terms of inviting the participation of my embassy and our government, working with the international partners to help support a positive agenda. So we’re going to use this opportunity to try to respond also to that invitation on their part to work with them on many of these key issues.

Mr. Jovanovski: One more question, in order to achieve those important goals for us like judiciary reforms, fighting corruption, it’s very important to have a proper political dialogue and my impression is that we don’t have a proper political dialogue. What’s your understanding, what do you think, what is the problem with the dialogue, ruling parties, opposition?

Ambassador Byrnes: Right, obviously the lifeblood of democracy is political discourse and political debate and you know ideally that debate should be diverse, should bring to light new ideas and those ideas should be shared, and then the next focal point of democratic debate should be building consensus and working towards shared goals and shared visions, again maybe with different perspectives and different policies and points of view, but coming to a consensus that actually advances the agenda, and look this is a problem for democracies, right? Because we invite different opinions, we invite citizen’s participation in the process, we invite different political views into the process and sometimes that means that reaching consensus is hard. I think the most important thing here is to stay focused on the central goal and to understand that there are some really key things that are both expected by the citizens and aspired to by the citizens that everybody should be working toward, and again I would hope that in this moment of world events, with all of this focus on defending the rules-based order, and of recognizing how important democracy and rule of law, and standing up for freedom, and standing up for democracy is that will also help people focus on what is really important and at the end of the day where they need to come together, and obviously there will be certain differences on some issues, that’s healthy, we recognize that, even in our own country it is an important part of democratic debate, and for us in our partnership what we have focused on is the aspiration of the citizens of this country, to have a better future for their children, a more secure and prosperous future that is based on the country’s full integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, being a part of Europe and all of the Western values that it brings with and one that is in close partnership with the United States so I think there is a real moment of opportunity here, and that we should all be focused on trying to seize it and to meet that moment.

Mr. Jovanovski: Ambassador Byrnes thank you very much for your time.

Ambassador Byrnes: Thank you very much.

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