Opinion

Opinion | Rachelle G. Cohen

Macedonia could use our friendship — and we could use theirs

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of Macedonia (left) walked through Skopje with a top EU official last week. The visit came one day after the European Commission recommended that the EU launch membership talks with Albania and Macedonia.
Boris Grdanoski/Associated Press
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of Macedonia (left) walked through Skopje with a top EU official last week. The visit came one day after the European Commission recommended that the EU launch membership talks with Albania and Macedonia.

SKOPJE, Macedonia

SO THERE’S DYSFUNCTION in Washington and too many empty offices on the upper floors of the State Department. And yet here in this corner of the former Yugoslavia that has known more than its share of conflict, corruption, and ethnic upheaval, a merry band of Americans work on the assumption they can spread American values — values like rule of law and free press and open courts.

Sure, what better place to further the case for American values than here, the fake news capital of the world. It’s a story their own mainstream journalists find amusement in retelling. How a bunch of unemployed young wiseguys in the tiny town of Veles peddled fake news to gullible Americans during the 2016 election and made a decent profit off the Google ads they generated.

But Macedonia is more than a punch line. It is a strategic partner in a region where the United States needs its friends. It longs for NATO membership, and its young people embrace American culture — music, Burger King, and English — as their own.

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It’s also home to the highest per capita ratio of returned foreign fighters. And it’s in the crosshairs of Vladimir Putin for its westward looking ways and its NATO aspirations.

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Yes, it’s complicated. But it’s what American diplomats and the private citizens who answer the call to work with them do here and in countless other places around the globe while Washington dithers.

“To help Macedonia be an effective ally, that’s deeply in the US interest,” said US Ambassador Jess L. Baily, a career member of the foreign service posted here since 2014. “As a basic proposition, when there has been conflict and instability in Europe, it has come back to haunt the US. So these are good investments.”

It’s not sexy stuff. It’s making progress toward more openness in government in inches. But when you see major backsliding in so-called democracies like Hungary or Turkey, a little progress is a good thing.

So on a warm spring day in a stuffy downtown hotel room, Macedonian judges and a handful of journalists — not a match made in heaven — sit around a long table, staring each other down. It’s a first. They’re making a little bit of history here — venting, yes, but asking questions of each other and their American speaker. That would be me — come to preach the gospel of talking through their problems.

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The rules are different here; defendants aren’t even identified by their full name unless and until they have been convicted. It’s initials-only when an indictment is handed down. But, as people here noted repeatedly, it’s a small country, with only two million people. And if it happens to be the former cabinet minister who’s indicted, it’s certainly no secret for long.

There’s a special prosecutor’s office here now, bringing one corruption case after another, and one of its superstars is Lenche Ristoska, a woman it is said who is adored by about two-thirds of the country and feared by those who have good reason to be looking over their shoulders. The icy blue eyes don’t hurt either. She is part of a new generation of leaders, leaders not afraid to challenge the status quo.

The rules are changing here, slowly but changing nonetheless. And in a little country with big dreams, where Americans are still the good guys, sometimes a win is a win is a win.

Rachelle G. Cohen, former editorial page editor of the Boston Herald, traveled to Macedonia as a pro bono guest speaker at the request of the US Embassy.