Interview of Ambassador Kate Byrnes with Al Jazeera Balkans

Interview of Ambassador Kate Byrnes with Al Jazeera Balkans 
August 13, 2021

Al Jazeera Balkans: Ambassador Byrnes thank you very much [for] being with us.  

Ambassador Byrnes: Thank you very much Milka. I’m glad to be here.  

Al Jazeera Balkans: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which ended the interethnic conflict in Macedonia. Is North Macedonia today reformed, modern, and multi-ethnic democracy?  

Ambassador Byrnes: Yes, this is a very different country since 2001. The Ohrid Framework Agreement was a vital compromise that put an end to wider conflict and really represented an achievement for the entire region. Since that time, North Macedonia has built on that success, including with the completion of the Prespa Agreement with Greece, it has joined NATO and we were proud to welcome it as the 30th ally last year, and it’s now looking and moving forward to opening EU accession talks.  So, much has changed in the country, building on the values that were in the Ohrid Framework Agreement about offering opportunities, opening up opportunities and equal access for all of the citizens. Now, together with the government’s commitments to a reform agenda that not only aligns with EU aspirations but really meets the needs of the citizens, it’s living up to that promise and those values that were represented back in 2001, and I think most importantly, while democracies need tending, they need to be nurtured, there is no question that North Macedonia is a modern, multi-ethnic democracy, as well as a regional success.  

Al Jazeera Balkans: Over the last years, rights of communities have increased. A lack of connectedness between Macedonia and Albanian youth is still concerning. They attend classes in different schools or in separate shifts and they don’t socialize often, primarily because they don’t speak each other‘s languages. How can this issue be resolved, having in mind that it is often being given political context even though it is essentially of practical nature?  

Ambassador Byrnes: Well again, the Ohrid Framework Agreement was an important foundation for ensuring the rights of all citizens. Since that time, as I mentioned, there has been significant progress, a lot of work to build bridges and to heal those divisions that existed. There are still some challenges and those are a vulnerability for the country, so it’s important to focus on the things that bring people back together, that lead to integration and connection rather than further division. Now, how to address those things is ultimately a question for the people and the leaders of this country, but the ‘why’ is very clear, and that is that in order to build a resilient and prosperous country, you need to tap into the skills of all your citizens. So, that means opening up opportunities to everyone through open, transparent, merit-based processes that give everyone the same shot at success, and it also means investing in youth, not just to ensure social cohesion, but to provide an education that opens up equal opportunities for all so that they can compete on an equal level and have access to those opportunities. It’s ongoing work, that’s what democracies do, we continually strive to strengthen our institutions, to provide better opportunities for the citizens and it’s important that that work continues.   

Al Jazeera Balkans: U.S. president Joe Biden issued an executive order aimed at those who intend to undermine democracy and peace in Western Balkan countries. For agreement in which U.S. played a vital part serves as a basis for maintaining territorial integrity and security. The Dayton Peace Agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UN Resolution 1244 for Kosovo, the Ohrid and Prespa Agreements for North Macedonia. What types of sanctions would Washington impose on individuals or groups that obstruct the implementation of these strategic documents?  

Ambassador Byrnes: As you noted, President Biden made a very important decision to update an executive order that was first issued in 2003. And as you noted, he made very clear, and this is something that assistant secretary Reeker also explained when he was here recently visiting the country, the executive order is intended to ensure that there are no attempts to destabilize the great contributions that have been made towards regional stability and democracy in the region. So, the update to the executive order focuses on actions that might in some way undermine the peace, the stability, the territorial integrity of the areas and states of the Western Balkans. But, it’s also intended to go after those actions that destabilize what makes this fundamentally strong, and that is the institutions. It focuses primarily on the importance of fighting corruption, the corruption that damages not just the interests of foreign policy and national security of the United States as partners and allies, but really gets at the heart of what the citizens are trying to achieve here. So, through this new executive order we have new sanctions, authorities, and tools to be able to protect against financial assets, travel of some of these actors to the United States. Now this is all done through a very deliberate legal process, but it provides another very important tool to remind and to reinforce the importance of the institutions here that are dedicated to providing stable, transparent, and responsive governance.   

Al Jazeera Balkans: A non-paper has emerged, circulated in Brussels, by Slovenian Prime minister Janez Janša. The document proposed formation of a greater Albania and greater Serbia, as well as a division of Bosnia and Herzegovina. EU dismissed the document but these ideas stir unease in the region. In your view, what might these ideas bring about?   

Ambassador Byrnes: The specific origins of the document that you referred to are less than clear, and in fact, to our knowledge, nobody has yet publicly claimed authorship of this document. So, rather than speaking to any specific non-official think tank type pieces I will stick to explaining what U.S. policy has been and is. And that is supporting a future for the region that is forward-looking, that is focused on integration into the European Union.  Again, we find that some of these ideas that have been floated out there tend to look backwards, tend to look through the lens of nationalism, which is quite narrow, rather than being focused on the things that the citizens and the people of the region really care about, which is opening up opportunities, which is creating greater connections, creating greater opportunities. So, that has been our focus, it will continue to be our focus and I think it’s really what the people of the region want. But again, we stand by the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all the states in the Western Balkans. Let’s try to move forward and move towards integration and healing.   

Al Jazeera Balkans: Over the last 30 years, Macedonia has been continually investing in stability. Three years ago, the country signed the Prespa Agreement with Greece and changed its name to North Macedonia to enter NATO. What are the benefits of the Agreement for the bilateral relations with Greece, but also the broader benefits?   

Ambassador Byrnes: Yes, so the Prespa Agreement was an important and significant achievement and it provided a number of significant benefits. First and foremost, we have seen much greater connections, dialogue, conversations, and even action between North Macedonia and Greece. Just last month for example, on July 9th, the two countries signed an agreement to construct a natural gas interconnector, and that is going to expand access for North Macedonia to more energy supplies, it’s going to increase its independence, it’s also going to increase the independence of energy for the entire region. In addition to that, we’ve seen a lot of investors come here, look at North Macedonia, seek new opportunities or expand the activities they already have ongoing, which is just another sign that NATO membership, resolving of issues between neighbors, greater cooperation, greater integration brings real benefits for the citizens. And I think In addition to all of that, it’s important to note that the Prespa Agreement demonstrated something else, and that is that the Western Balkans in general, and North Macedonia in particular, can not only succeed but they can lead, and that they can deal with difficult issues, they can resolve conflicts and they can contribute to greater regional coordination and security.   

Al Jazeera Balkans: After signing the Prespa Agreement Macedonian politicians said the sky is the limit, referring to Macedonia’s EU integration. But instead, the country has been facing a three-year standstill due to a bilateral issue again; this time with neighboring Bulgaria. Is the U.S. actively engaged in bridging the differences between Skopje and Sofia?   

Ambassador Byrnes: So the United States has been a longtime supporter of North Macedonia’s accession to the EU. It’s something that we have championed very actively, because we believe it’s in the interest not just of North Macedonia, the region, the European Union, but also of the United States. North Macedonia and Bulgaria are neighbors, they’re now NATO allies, they can and they should resolve issues through constructive engagement and negotiations. The important thing is that the EU integration process moves forward. It’s important, especially for the people here in North Macedonia who have worked hard and aspired for this moment, but it’s also in the interest of all of us who care about North Macedonia, who care about the region, who care about stability, and who want to work towards a better partnership between the United States and Europe and its Western Balkans allies.  

Al Jazeera Balkans: Corruption is an issue in Macedonian society and suppression mechanisms are weak. Prosecuting and judicial bodies lack capacity and power to resist political interference and corruptness such as the case with the former head of the special prosecutor’s office, Katica Janeva. What mechanisms are needed to tackle this longstanding problem?  

Ambassador Byrnes:  Corruption is an issue and it’s very important.  For a resilient prosperous country to thrive you need to have accountable institutions and a government that responds to the needs of the citizens. There is still a perception here that those with political power or deep pockets receive a different kind of justice than the average person. And this creates disparities, it creates resentments, it can drive young people to leave the country, to look for opportunities elsewhere.  And in the worst cases it erodes civic values and public trust. So it’s really important to keep a focus on building those institutions that are transparent, that are accountable, that increase trust and not erode trust. It’s important work for the government to do, and they are very engaged in this. There’s a lot more to be done. I think it’s important that all of the political parties focus on working together to eliminate corruption in all its forms and at every level, and it is one of the focuses of our strategic partners to assist them with that effort.  

Al Jazeera Balkans: U.S. investors have opened factories in the free economic zones in the country. The latest notable project is a deal won by [the] U.S.-Turkish consortium Bechtel and Enka to construct three highway stretches in Corridors 8 and 10. This deal prompted reactions as authorities pursued direct talks circumventing tender procedures. Does Macedonia’s strategic partnership with the U.S. mean that American companies in Macedonia have an advantage when negotiating deals?  

Ambassador Byrnes:  One of our priorities in helping North Macedonia build stable, resilient, and prosperous democracy is expanding opportunities for investment, because investment is important for the economic growth of the country and the wellbeing of its citizens. We work very hard to identify and seek opportunities, also for American companies, to expand their investments here in North Macedonia, and particularly in areas that are critical to sustainable long-term economic development, like investments in infrastructure. Obviously, it is a government’s job, not just a priority but it is a job, to expand trade, to promote much more engagement in regional markets, and you need infrastructure to do that.  That’s the government’s job, but it also has to do it in a way that is transparent and that is in accordance with its own laws. And that transparency is just as important for U.S. investors and other investors, it’s even more important for the citizens of the country here. It’s something that we share as a value. So, all of these things have to be part of the considerations. But we are pleased to see that American companies are taking a fresh look at North Macedonia and they’re looking at ways to make a difference here and to help the region grow and prosper.  

Al Jazeera Balkans: USAID has been continually assisting the democratization and modernization of Macedonian society and institutions. Natural resources in the country such as air, water, and soil are being polluted and are not being sufficiently preserved. Is the USA taking steps to raise awareness of these challenges?  

Ambassador Byrnes: Protecting natural resources, promoting green initiatives, is also a priority for our government and here, we are working very much at the local level, in particular to raise public awareness because we think it’s important. First, I will say that I was very glad to hear that North Macedonia will have a little bit more time to address the issues raised by UNESCO with respect to Lake Ohrid, because, like many other natural treasures around the world, this is heritage that should be protected and preserved for the citizens above all, and it’s good that there will be a focus on doing that. More broadly, through our American Corners throughout the country, we’re engaged through the leaders of the corners and the students who volunteer at them to try to raise public awareness, to try to increase the cooperation between individual citizens, NGOs, the private sector, and government to address some of these issues. For example, we just supported, through the American Corner in Tetovo, a summer school on the EU and on how citizens, young people in particular can address the issues that matter to them. Our American Corners organize cleanup projects around the country, they are working on a project to geotag illegal dumping so they can help government and private sectors work together to address these issues. In addition to that, I was very proud that earlier this year on April 22, which was Earth Day, we were able to announce the relaunch of a project here called Globe, which is a program based with NASA that includes educators, scientists, teachers, and public citizens that endeavors to put skills and tools into the classroom so that young people can gather their own data, create their own solutions and that they can be the lead and moving forward to a cleaner and better future. So yes, we are very engaged in trying to raise awareness, but also to raise capacity so that the people can work towards that brighter future that they want to build.  

The United States has been a strong partner of North Macedonia since its independence and USAID has played a very critical role in helping the country achieve the success story that it is today. They have done incredible work across a number of fronts. On the economic front, they’ve been focused on helping to build a more business-enabling environment; access to financing, opportunities for the private sector that will lead to long-term sustainable growth. In the energy sector, they’ve worked with the industry in the sector to help move towards EU requirements, to organize internal energy markets in a way that is transparent and it leads to the opening of opportunities for the kinds of energy integration that we see on the agenda today. They’ve done a lot of work on the governance side and this has been particularly important. They’ve provided support for the Sobranie to increase capacities of legislative and oversight functions; worked with the Women’s Parliamentary Club to help encourage women parliamentarians to take on these leadership roles that are so important. They’ve also worked on things like code of ethics so that parliamentarians can represent the best of ethics in all of the functions of their duties, and done the same in government and in the business sector as well. A huge portion of all of these activities is focused on rule of law. I think what’s most important about USAID today is that now more than ever the Government of North Macedonia is actually in the lead in developing and creating and implementing these initiatives that USAID has supported for many, many years. We are in a supportive role, we are facilitating some of the opportunities through our technical assistance and expertise, but it is the Government of North Macedonia that is in the lead. And of course to be truly successful they need to continue to keep focusing on these rule of law and anti-corruption efforts, that’s the best way to ensure the ongoing success for all of our programs here but most importantly so that the citizens can actually see and experience the kind of democratic and prosperous society that so many have worked so long for.  

Al Jazeera Balkans: We live in times of a global pandemic. Is the U.S. considering sending COVID-19 vaccines to North Macedonia and other Western Balkan countries?  

Ambassador Byrnes:  Obviously, this pandemic has been a critical test for all of us.  None of us were prepared for the impact and we still don’t fully understand all the challenges we’ll face not just with the pandemic but with the economic recovery that is associated with it.  The United States has been very much engaged with its global partners, including its partners here in the Western Balkans, to address this problem together, through international organizations and through our own engagements here in North Macedonia to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic.  From the beginning and earliest stages we have provided over $6.7 million in assistance, primarily in equipment, in preparing for the vaccination rollout campaigns, and this came on top of an investment of over $11 million of assistance in just strengthening the healthcare sector so that it would be prepared to deal with crises like these. The United States has now rejoined many of the international efforts. We are providing $4 billion in assistance and now, additional vaccines, surplus vaccines to the COVAX Mechanism which is part of the Gavi Alliance, and North Macedonia is a member of that. So again, we’re looking at opportunities to work with our strategic partners to help them in this crisis, but also to be prepared for whatever else and future challenges may bring.  

Al Jazeera Balkans: This is your third year as the head of the U.S. mission in Skopje. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Macedonian society in your view?  

Ambassador Byrnes: I think it’s very clear that North Macedonia has a European perspective, that it has clear aspirations about the kind of future that it wants for its citizens, and it has an agenda, a reform agenda, that it is actively working on. It does have some long-term systemic challenges that are just hard work. And I think we talked about the importance of building these independent institutions.  That takes time. Fighting corruption, again that takes time, to root it out at every single level. And that’s where I think strategic partners like the United States can really make a difference.  By focusing on rule of law, on strengthening institutions, and fighting corruption we can help North Macedonia take advantage of the now global opportunities, the opportunities to better integrate with its neighbors, for more trade and investment to come to the region, if they do the hard work of implementing those reforms. So that’s what we’re focused on, and have been focused on, now for several decades.   

Al Jazeera Balkans: Ambassador Byrnes how do you like to spend your spare time?  

Ambassador Byrnes: Well, I feel very fortunate that I happen to be in such a scenic and friendly country, that I’m able to travel. I really enjoy outdoor activities and hiking and I’ve had the pleasure of exploring beautiful mountains and national parks here but also visiting a number of cultural and historic sites. I’m also very proud that recently I had the opportunity to showcase some of these great opportunities to our state partners from Vermont who were here on a visit. I’m actually just back from Bitola where we had an American folk ensemble, young musicians and dancers performing at the Ilinden Days festival, and today they’re in Ohrid. So I’m very much hoping that I’ll have the opportunity, and many more Americans will have the opportunity, to discover the great opportunities, the incredible heritage that exist here in this crossroads of the Western Balkans, and to protect it. Because really, in addition to being a success story, a modern multi-ethnic democracy as we talked about, it’s also just a real treasure.  

Al Jazeera Balkans: Ambassador Byrnes thank you very much for this interview, thank you for your time.  

Ambassador Byrnes: Thank you very much.