Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien’s Interview with 360 Stepeni

In an interview with 360 stepeni Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien speaks about North Macedonia’s great leadership of #OSCE and current political issues. You can watch the interview HERE, and read the transcript below:

360 Stepeni: Mr. O’Brien, first of all, thank you for this opportunity to talk to you.  


A/S O’Brien:  Thank you for having me on.  


360 Stepeni: Obviously, Ministerial Council is the biggest international diplomatic event by far, organized by North Macedonia. And on one hand, it may be recognized as a very positive one in your mind that the organization has somehow managed to keep its footing. But on the other hand, you’ve seen that the Baltic states and Ukraine are not present on a ministerial level arguing that they don’t want to be in the same room with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Mr. Sergei Lavrov. What is your assessment on the level of success of this meeting before us?  


A/S O’Brien: I think this meeting has been a real success. Obviously, it will continue for another couple of days. But I first came to Skopje in 1996 I think – it may have been earlier, but definitely 96 – and at the time, political leaders here were talking about having a seat at the major tables of the Euro Atlantic community. Now, I just was with the ambassador of North Macedonia and NATO, and to see the foreign minister of North Macedonia chair the meeting of the OSCE here in Skopje, it’s really a nice feeling to see that kind of transition. I think one thing that came through all the comments today was how well North Macedonia had done this year in chairing the OSCE. Minister Osmani went to Ukraine three times and visited the other conflict spots. So the OSCE has a unique mission. It’s really about human rights inside the societies that belong to it. And that has to be reflected in a writers piece. So Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a grotesque violation. The continued occupation of Georgia and Moldova is a violation of these basic rights. But it’s also down to things that affect people every day. So the rights of people to marry whom they love, to be free from being imprisoned for their political beliefs, to be free of human trafficking, all across from Central Asia to Europe. The OSCE is a key part of talking about these rights, but also vindicating them. And to see that be managed through a year in which Russia violated every principle on which the organization was based, and Russia attempted to block most of the ways the organization is used to function. Like Minister Osmani did a great job of keeping the organization functioning and carrying out its mandate. So this was in part an acknowledgment of how well the country had done over the last year. And setting it up for 2024. And I think we have an arrangement that will allow the organization to work well going forward.  


360 Stepeni:  Mr. State Secretary Blinken was briefly in Skopje couple of hours, but he left town before Mr. Lavrov landed. Is this a message that this is sending to Moscow?  


A/S O’Brien:  No, it’s a message that Secretary Blinken thought it was important enough to break his schedule to be sure to be here and show support for the OSCE and for the chairmanship of Minister Osmani. The only time he had available on his way from meeting in NATO to meeting in Israel and attempting to help with that conflict was to come last night. Why Minister Lavrov chose to show up late I don’t know.  


360 Stepeni: The U.S. admnistration has supported the so-called French proposal for an agreement that was meant to unblock EU integration of North Macedonia, and for the past, I would say, half year, the process is blocked again on several levels of U.S. administration. There were statements that adoption of the constitutional changes would be beneficial for the country, but it seems like that these messages are not heard by all of the politicians in North Macedonia. So my question is, where do you see the possible way out? Because, as I understand, one of the regional strategic goals of U.S. for North Macedonia to start negotiations with EU and become EU member.  


A/S O’Brien:  Yeah, so we strongly support the EU aspirations of North Macedonia. That’s been a clear majority aspiration. You’re right, some political factions feel otherwise, some might be receiving money from other places, some are legitimate aspirations of a minority viewpoint, but the majority, I think, wants to be a part of Europe, and we support that. Now, this particular compromise, we think, is just a piece of how a state becomes fully European. The US is not a member of the EU, as they remind us regularly, but the EU is built on compromises. Every state and every subregional groupings comes from a place where over centuries they’ve had conflicts of one kind or another – sometimes wars, sometimes just tensions. – and they put those aside in order to be together in this great nation building enterprise of the European Union, and that’s the process that this country is going through now. But [what] we say to both, representatives here and in neighboring countries, is that it’s in everyone’s interest, not simply that each country be in, but that its neighbors be in the EU as well. That’s when the benefits of EU membership really come to fruition so that people are able to enjoy the simple four freedoms, the right to work where they want, the right to live where they want, to move money, where they want to have it, to trade where they want to. These four freedoms are the basis of the European Union. Now, this particular compromise is a way of trying to reach, to get to the goal of entering the EU. It’s important though that North Macedonia and its neighbors work out ways to move forward. Now,  to your point about political actors, I would just say the only way forward is to resolve this issue. There’s an offer on the table. You should take it. If you don’t take it, you’re turning your back on history, frankly. That way may feel satisfying, but it is a way to cost your economy or cause more people to want to leave the country and will generally turn this country backward. And what I’ve loved about this country since I first came here almost 30 years ago is how everyone is looking forward and anxious to be part of this larger enterprise called the EU, and I just encourage every political leader to take up that opportunity.  


360 Stepeni:  But it’s most likely that this parliament won’t pass the constitutional changes. What next?  


A/S O’Brien: Yeah, well, I mean, you’re headed into an election season and we know everything is difficult in an election season, so I won’t comment on whether things will get done now or later, but it’s clear there’s an offer on the table. Now, someone may say they can come up with a better offer, but unless they tell you exactly what it is and they tell you why other people would accept it, they’re just trying to fool you. And I hope the voters are smarter than that.  


360 Stepeni:  You mentioned better offer because this is something that is being repeatedly said, said by the opposition main opposition party, former diplomat, and that is these kinds of circumstances, they won’t pass kind of the social changes under Bulgarian dictate and they won’t even accept it in the next period if they come to power. So having in mind that you are the US top diplomat in charge of Europe, what is your understanding, is there any chance of interventions in the EU framework or changing the global context, if, when you say, someone can get you a better offer? 


A/S O’Brien: I think, no. Look, there’s an offer on the table. And if you want to know who someone is and how they’ll act in power, see how they react to that offer. If they could say in very clear terms, here is an alternative and I believe that’s acceptable to others, then you can evaluate whether they’re right or wrong. If they say, I have a better offer, but I’m not going to tell you what it is, you wouldn’t buy a car from that person. So I don’t think you should vote for them either. But that’s that’s a choice for the voters here. I’m not voting you. People can choose what they want.  


360 Stepeni: The rule of law, influence over judiciary and widespread corruption they cite as the key problems. And what are the urgent steps that need to be taken to remedy the situation from your point of view?  


A/S O’Brien: Yeah, I think what we want to see is an end to have any sense that political elites tilt the game to benefit themselves or the people who support them. So some of that we do through our sanctions policy, but sanctions are only a piece. I mean, it’s a way of marking out individuals and describing their behavior as unacceptable, so that they can’t get rich or travel the world with the benefits of what they steal. But more importantly are changes that people here will make, the government make, and the citizens will make, to put in place people who will use public power for the benefit of the public, not for the benefit of those who are closest to them. And so these changes will come really through the EU process. And I’d say if somebody tells you they’re against the EU, maybe they’re against being honest in public life. And I think it’s a hard question that voters have to ask of their leaders. What will you do, so that when I let you have authority, I know you will use it for all of us and not just for you.  


360 Stepeni: Briefly, you mentioned sanctions, we’ve seen an influx of Macedonian citizens being designated on the so-called blacklist, the US blacklist. Do you think that this works, because some of those people are still doing business as usual? You know, there is a sense among citizens that they are not giving the real effect.  


A/S O’Brien:  It’s one part of an overall strategy. Partly what it does is say to other people, don’t be like this. If you want to be part of the future, you have to behave in a different way. But we also need to create rules so that people know how they should behave and then see those rules enforced so that other people are not in a position to get put on a blacklist. So all of this has to work together. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not that someone gets put on a blacklist and magically corruption disappears. It takes some time to change a culture and to have the people who are associated with corruption gradually move down. It does happen. It just takes some time. Took time in my society, it took time in European cultures and it will take a little bit of time here as you move toward the EUm, but I think we’ll get there.  


360 Stepeni:  Any new designations?  


A/S O’Brien:  Don’t speculate on those at all.  


Thank you very much.  


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