Interviewed by Zorica Trajkova
Zorica Trajkova: Your Excellency, Ms. Byrnes, you were appointed an Ambassador to North Macedonia about a year and a half ago. Can you please tell our readers, what intrigues you the most about this position?
H.E.Ambassador Byrnes: So, the most intriguing and also most rewarding aspect of this job is having the opportunity to support North Macedonia at such a critical juncture in its path to EuroAtlantic institutions. For more than twenty years, North Macedonia has been working very hard on this path and the United States has been a champion throughout. We have long fostered a vision of Europe that is whole free and at peace with the Western Balkans an integral part of that and North Macedonia has always had a special place in that vision. As Ambassador of the United States here in the Republic of North Macedonia, I have the opportunity and the privilege to work with great people in public service, in business and in civil society who not only share those same goals and objectives for North Macedonia, they are actively working to help achieve them and that makes this a particularly special time to be here and to see North Macedonia succeeding in its goals of achieving an inclusive, secure and more prosperous future.
Zorica Trajkova: Ms. Byrnes, you have been a diplomat for a long time, representing U.S. interests in many countries like Spain, Bolivia, Hungary, Turkey and Greece. Being well familiar with the current socio-political situation on the Balkans and in our country, could you please tell our readers in what respect is North Macedonia a challenge for you?
H.E. Ambassador Byrnes: I think the greatest challenge has been and is, how to address corruption and rule of law issues effectively. As you know, we have invested a lot in this effort as has the Government as have the many international partners. Yet, progress is slow, sometimes it is painfully slow. Corruption has both a long history and deep roots here in the country and it is a challenge that North Macedonia has to face and resolve, but we have committed to being a partner in that effort. Our objective has been to work to strengthen the institutions that are created to tackle corruption and to engage the private sector, civil society and citizens in order to make an impact and to show real results. Our efforts focus on transparency and accountability, because we believe that as citizens understand what good governance and rule of law look like, they would expect more and demand more of their government and of their judiciary, of their institutions. We have also been investing in the next generation of judicial and prosecutorial leaders, sponsoring legal clinics and doing case-based mentoring. We have supported training of journalists to report accurately on court procedures. We have also invested in new technologies like courtroom audio-recording equipment so that citizens can see and understand what is happening in the court systems. So, these things, promoting transparency and rule of law, strengthening accountability, rooting out corruption, these are all extremely long-term challenges and that is why we remain committed as a partner, but we are always seeking better ways to be even more effective in combating what is truly a very complex problem here in the country.
Zorica Trajkova: You have actually answered my third question which is connected to your priority in this position as an Ambassador. What do you actually expect to achieve by the end of your term?
H.E. Ambassador Byrnes: Well, I think, you know, getting at the problem of corruption and strengthening the rule of law is the heart of this, but I would say that I do have three top priorities as the U.S. Ambassador here in North Macedonia. First it is quite broadly – to support North Macedonia’s efforts to embrace inclusive democracy, citizens’ responsiveness, and the government’s strengthened rule of law. The second is to support efforts to fully integrate into Euro Atlantic institutions and the third is to help North Macedonia build a stronger and more diversified economy. As you know, I was very lucky, just about a year ago, to be here and to be able to join the celebrations as North Macedonia came into NATO and I hope to see North Macedonia begin its accession talks with the EU this year. Similarly, but separately, I hope to see a renowned commitment to implementing new reforms that are necessary for EuroAtlantic integration. But I think that we can and we will make even more progress in strengthening our relationship and our bi-lateral partnership beyond diplomatic and military engagements and we will be able to do much more in the commercial and investment sector, in science and technology, energy environment, education and culture and I think there are even more opportunities to building stronger bridges.
Zorica Trajkova: Your Excellency, what are your impressions so far from our country and our people? Is there anything you find pretty easy or difficult to adapt to?
H.E. Ambassador Byrnes: First of all, I have to say, North Macedonia is a beautiful country with warm and hospitable people who have welcomed us here in Skopje and in every part of the country that we have been able to visit. Before we came, we had heard a lot about the beauty of the national parks and the many outdoor offerings that were here, but I have to admit that we have been amazed by the diversity of both nature and the activities. In addition to doing the things that we have always loved to do like hiking and biking and skiing, we have actually learned new sports including: fly fishing and rock climbing, from literally world class experts here in the country. We have also had an opportunity to visit some of the impressive cultural and historical sights and once again, the richness that exists here is striking. My hope is that in the coming years, we’ll have more of an opportunity to experience modern cultural and music scene, sometimes that we didn’t have an opportunity to do in these last few months, but in area that I know that MAAA has been also quite active is the recent 20 anniversary concert and I think almost infamous 2019 disco night.
Zorica Trajkova: I am going to connect my next question to what you have just said. This Covid-19 crisis has affected everyone, so how does it affect your everyday activities and in what respect has your work agenda changed because of the pandemic in the last year?
H.E.Ambassador Byrnes: There were, first and foremost operational changes and personal engagement is of course an essential part of diplomacy and when the pandemic curtailed our ability to have in-person meetings, we had to find new ways to meet, to collaborate, to do business. I think we did a great job taking advantage of online platforms and moving to new technologies, just as so many of our partners here in North Macedonia have done. It’s not the same of course, and we have lost many of the advantages of meeting in person and having those personal engagements. But at the same time, our innovation has brought some significant results, including extending our reach to audiences in parts of the country that we haven’t engaged with before. For example, over the last six weeks, we had three American Corners events with speakers from across the United States, engaging with and each one of them over a hundred virtual participants and that would have been inconceivable for us an year ago. Another good example is our July 4 event. Instead of hosting just a few guests here in Skopje, we were able to invite an audience of more than 250,000 people around the world. So, while what we are looking forward very much to the day when we can return to in-person day activities I can assure you that we are going to continue to maximize all that’s available online, because it has truly opened new doors of access for us. So, that’s on the operational side. But, If I could, I just wanted to add that substantively the pandemic also had a significant impact on our agenda. We recognize the importance of health issues as part of our bi-lateral relationship and the importance of investing not only in health institutions, but in scientific, technological and medical collaboration between our two countries. We were as a first step, able to redirect 6, 5 million dollars of assistance directly to North Macedonia, now we are focused on ways to support the recovery efforts from the pandemic and all of this is part of a new, shared security agenda in which we can help each other confront the new global challenges everything to a possible future pandemic to climate change and I think that here our exchanges are going to have an extremely important role to play.
Zorica Trajkova: Ms. Byrnes, how do you see the Macedonian-American Alumni Association and its role in our country? Do you think that the cooperation between our Association and the Embassy should be maybe strengthened or somehow changed in the future?
H.E. Ambassador Byrnes: Well, first let me say, I have been impressed at how to the degree at which the Macedonian-American Alumni Association has really established itself here in the country as a bridge between the U.S. Embassy and the broader society. It adds space to dozens of professionals across so many fields who have invested in that relationship and continue to give back to both the United States and North Macedonia as part of this. You know very well that MAAA has been a great partner in promoting our exchange programs and I hope that you will continue to encourage and inspire the next generation to look at the United States as a place to further their educational and professional skills and to bring those skills back here to North Macedonia. MAAA has also supported a number of fantastic initiatives from education to disadvantaged youth to more recently, helping create a coordinated regional response to the pandemic, that was an extremely innovative proposal. So, I am hoping that with the range of expertise, among your membership, you are going to continue to play an important role in supporting initiatives at the cutting edge of everything from fighting corruption to addressing some of these new challenges: enhancing environmental awareness, expanding scientific technological innovation and collaboration and helping the next generation find solutions to the coming problems as well as those that we face at the moment.
Zorica Trajkova: Your Excellency, you often say that the future of a country lies in the hands of the youth. So, how important do you think it is to invest in the development of our youth leadership skills and how can we best do that so that we prevent this brain drain which happens in the last few years?
H.E. Ambassador Byrnes: Thank you. Well, brain drain is another complex problem, but you know whatever the problem, but investing in youth is one of the most critical and impactful investments any country can make. Throughout North Macedonia, I have met the most talented, educated, articulated, creative young people, who unfortunately feel like they have too many obstacles in their way to be successful. And there are things that can be done institutionally to help them and we are working with a number of partners as you know and a number of government partners, business partners, civil society organizations to try to create opportunities for everybody to have fair access to create platforms for these young voices to be heard and to identify incentives that would encourage them to use their talents here in North Macedonia. But, in addition to those programs, there is a real need for direct leadership development and support and I think this is an area where MAAA can make a particular , direct and critical contribution. Because if they don’t have these leadership skills, they won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are slowly opening up to them. Each of you as members of MAAA has a powerful leadership story of your own. You have had both successes in your home country as well as in your pursuits abroad and I encourage you to not only share that leadership story with those who are in your organization and in your professional network, but take them to the American Corner, share them with the broader audience and use those leadership lessons to help mentor the next generation. Because, if we can help young people develop their voice and develop their confidence, it is such a powerful motivator and it will make the difference for them in terms of helping them see, that they cannot only achieve that future that they aspire to, but that they have partners in that effort. If they build that future, I am sure they are all going to benefit.