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Wahl: Reforms aren’t painless anywhere, political unity needed to complete them

To complete the necessary reform processes requires vigor, determination and stamina and political unity, the new Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje, Ambassador Kilian Wahl, says in an interview with MIA.

Skopje, 7 December 2022 (MIA) – To complete the necessary reform processes requires vigor, determination and stamina and political unity, the new Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje, Ambassador Kilian Wahl, says in an interview with MIA.

In the last few years, Wahl notes, the country has made significant progress towards its national strategic goals. “Reforms are not painless processes anywhere in the world, not only in North Macedonia. It is tempting for politicians to capitalize on this and score points. This is also not unique to North Macedonia. We should widen the perspective, look at and seize the opportunities that lie before us,” he adds.

The Ambassador says the OSCE Mission has a wealth of expertise to support the country’s efforts to create policies that will benefit the citizens of North Macedonia, and to build the capacity of state institutions and civil society groups to implement such policies.

“I look forward to working closely with leaders from across the political spectrum to try to get the political buy-in necessary for our efforts to have the maximum possible positive impact,” Wahl stresses.

The OSCE Mission to Skopje this year marks its 30-year presence in North Macedonia. MIA conducted the interview with Wahl on the eve of the three-month campaign marking the 30th anniversary.

Asked about the message relayed by the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier during his last week’s visit to the country saying the EU path is worth the next difficult step – the constitutional revision – and whether it is realistic for the country to join the bloc by 2030, Wahl said the goal is viable, but it is connected with the extent of implemented reforms.

“We are helping North Macedonia’s reform efforts in the areas that I have outlined earlier. We have supported the country to accomplish a lot since the founding of our mission 30 years ago, but more remains to be done. Under my leadership our Mission will engage even more with our partners and beneficiaries in order to help North Macedonia reach its strategic goals. Could North Macedonia join the EU in 2030? Absolutely. It requires vigor, determination and stamina to complete the necessary reform processes. And political unity,” he tells MIA.

The Ambassador also says that North Macedonia’s OSCE chairpersonship next year is a “big undertaking.” “The fact that North Macedonia has gone from becoming a consumer of international support to heading the world’s largest regional security organization shows just how far your country has come since independence,” Wahl says.

In the interview, Wahl also touches upon the current proposal on removing Article 102 from the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services as well as on the Mission’s activities aimed to open a discussion on defining MIA’s status so as to improve the news agency’s functional independence and long-term sustainability.

Ambassador Kilian Wahl is a distinguished expert in crisis prevention and crisis management with a wealth of experience in dialogue facilitation, security sector reform and institution building with special emphasis on South East Europe, says OSCE Mission’s website. Before taking office as Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje in November 2022, he served as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

Read the interview in full below:

You recently took over the post Head of OSCE Mission to Skopje. You already had meetings with top officials, who briefed you on developments in the country, the challenges, the problems. What are your first impressions about the situation in North Macedonia and the possibilities for the OSCE Mission to further develop and implement planned activities?

Before I took up my mandate last month, I was a frequent visitor to your country. For me, coming back to North Macedonia and Skopje immediately felt very pleasant and familiar, and I look forward to my time here.
In my initial meetings, I have been listening more than speaking, as I want to learn how our partners see the situation in the country and how they evaluate the work of the Mission. Based on what I heard in these meetings, my first impressions is that the OSCE Mission in Skopje has a very good standing with all our partners from state institutions. This is a testament of the Mission’s relevance and value, and it makes us even more determined to continue to work with our partners in areas where they ask for support. During my first meeting with Foreign Minister Osmani, I committed the Mission to support the country’s upcoming OSCE Chairpersonship in any way we can. This is a big undertaking, but the fact that North Macedonia has gone from becoming a consumer of international support to heading the world’s largest regional security organization shows just how far your country has come since independence.

What are the OSCE Mission’s priority activities for the coming year?

We are still planning our activities for next year, but I can tell you a bit about the key areas where we will be working. On the security side, we will focus on supporting the development of democratic policing, working to improve how the police communicates with the public and improving the professionalism of the police to fight modern crime, including transnational threats such and cybercrime, violent extremism and trafficking, whether of people, guns or other contraband.

We will also continue to support improvements in the area of rule of law, where public trust in the judicial system is extremely low. The Mission will monitor trials, including of cases of high-level corruption, and support efforts to implement key reforms to make the justice system more fair, impartial, gender-sensitive, effective, accountable and transparent.

Supporting anti-corruption measures will be a high priority for us. And we will work to improve democratic governance and freedom of the media.

We will also do a lot of work to support improvements in citizens’ ability to enjoy their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. For example, we will continue working in partnership with state and non-governmental partners to combat discrimination, hate crimes, violence against women, and domestic violence and to promote gender equality.

So, all-in-all, we will have a broad range of activities, all of them designed to help address issues of importance to the people of North Macedonia.

Media is one of the fields where the OSCE Mission has been active. You are coming at the helm of the Mission at a time when the issue of changes to the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services is in focus, amendments that would result in allocation of Budget funds to finance campaigns of public interest. Reactions followed from all journalism-related associations, claiming the move would revive political pressures on editorial policies. What is the Mission’s position on this matter?

The OSCE Representative for Freedom of Media discussed this issue during her visit to Skopje earlier this year. The OSCE believes that the primary channel for government communication with the public should be through public media, such as the national public broadcaster. Nevertheless, government advertising for public interest campaigns in private media can help ensure the public is well informed while also improving the media’s financial sustainability. To do so, and to minimize the risk of the misuse of public funds and media capture, it is essential that legislation and practice are transparent, non-discriminatory, and fair. Because this issue is so important, and because it carries both potential benefits and risks, it is essential to develop the relevant legislation in an inclusive and transparent manner, through an open and constructive dialogue with media and other relevant stakeholders. This will also help to create public trust and confidence in the eventual legislation. Should the authorities here wish, the office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media is also ready to analyze the draft law’s compliance with relevant OSCE commitments and international standards in the field of freedom of the media.

As far as I know, one of the Mission’s activities in 2023 will be to define the status of state-owned news agency MIA, which is currently under the Government’s jurisdiction and its financing depends on the executive. Free journalism in MIA is currently a fact but if the agency’s status is not resolved, this freedom will depend on every incoming government. What activities are there in the pipeline in this regard? Also, what is your opinion about the financing mechanisms of state-owned news agencies, which represent the front-runners in the fight against fake news?

Public media, along with enhanced institutional transparency, are crucial in keeping the people well informed and tackling disinformation. To achieve this, public media must be financially stable, free and protected from possible arbitrary government decisions and political pressure in order to maintain editorial independence. This is a topic that is very close to me as I used to be a journalist for the public broadcaster of Germany.

MIA serves as the country’s primary source of news, with online and local media heavily relying on its reporting on national and international issues. Last December, the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption recommended that the status of MIA be regulated under separate legislation. Both the SCPC and the Association of Journalists believe that MIA’s operational structure should be reformed in order to increase its institutional independence and sustainability.

In line with these suggestions, next year our Mission will engage with a wide range of stakeholders to discuss how to improve MIA’s functional independence and long-term viability, with the goal of producing an evaluation report that will include a conclusive set of recommendations.

Your CV reads that you are an expert on crisis prevention and management, a good connoisseur of the state of play in Southeast Europe. Your predecessor, Ambassador Clemens Koja, said in his last interview with MIA there is high political polarization in Macedonian society. This polarization leads to blockades in the country’s progress in all fields, resulting in domestic mini-crises. How can you, as expert in this field, provide a contribution?

I hope I can contribute by being an honest broker between all factors of society, a trusted partner if you like. I am a guest in this beautiful country so my role is not to preach and lecture but to engage in dialogue. This entails the acknowledgment of successes as well as critical reflections on areas where progress is missing with a view to finding solutions.

In the last few years, the country has made significant progress towards its national strategic goals. Reforms are not painless processes anywhere in the world, not only in North Macedonia. It is tempting for politicians to capitalize on this and score points. This is also not unique to North Macedonia. We should widen the perspective, look at and seize the opportunities that lie before us. Our Mission has a wealth of expertise to support the country’s efforts to create policies that will benefit the citizens of North Macedonia, and to build the capacity of state institutions and civil society groups to implement such policies. I look forward to working closely with leaders from across the political spectrum to try to get the political buy-in necessary for our efforts to have the maximum possible positive impact.

Speaking of regional crises, you served as political advisor in the EU-mediated dialogue in Kosovo, as part of the European External Action Service. What is your comment on the latest Belgrade-Prishtina developments and the recent turmoil related to the register plates. Agreement has been reached but Serbian President Vucic has said he is not interested in mutual recognition with Kosovo?

Now that I have moved to Skopje, my focus is on developments here, and how external developments affect the situation here. I was pleased to see the recent agreement, which proves that the EU facilitated dialogue works and produces concrete results for the benefit of the people. It has lowered tensions, which is good for the entire region, including North Macedonia.

The crisis is broader and concerns the whole of Europe. There is a war in Ukraine, the work of the OSCE Mission in this country has been questioned by Russia. How it OSCE currently operating in Ukraine?

Earlier this year, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine and the OSCE Project Co-ordinator’s Office closed because the participating States were unable to reach consensus to extend their mandates, due to the position of the Russian Federation. That said, on 3 August, the OSCE Chairperson Rau and Secretary General Schmid announced a new programme that will start out by implementing approximately 25 projects that will benefit the people of Ukraine. In September, when Minister Osmani presented North Macedonia’s priorities for its year as chair of the OSCE, he emphasized that the “…war erodes the foundations of the OSCE. It runs counter to the principles we have agreed upon and hold dear.” At that time, and again at last week’s meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Lodz, Poland, the Minister stressed that Ukraine will be the chair’s top priority next year.

Uncertainty is present, the war is ongoing. How realistic is the spillover of the crisis in the Western Balkans, considering the unresolved issues in the region – the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Kosovo-Serbia row, the North Macedonia-Bulgaria dispute – and how much are they used in geopolitical terms between the West and Russia?

We are monitoring the situation very closely – together with all of our sister missions in the region. At this particular point in time, we are seeing negative developments primarily in the economic and energy dimensions, where high levels of inflation and in particular high prices for energy have impacted many people’s standard of living and caused real hardships. This could affect the security situation if the trend continues, which I do not see at the moment. But, in any case, it is all the more important under current circumstances for the countries in the region to increase efforts to resolve the unresolved issues you spoke of, both within each country and among them.

North Macedonia will chair OSCE in 2023, taking over the presidency amid exceptionally delicate geopolitical developments. What should, according to you, be in the focus of the chairpersonship?

Foreign Minister, and soon-to-be Chairperson-in-Office Osmani, has already set out the country’s priorities for its year as chair. They are spot on and there is nothing to be added from my side. As I already mentioned, during my first meeting with the Minister, I committed that at our Mission we will do everything we can to support the success of North Macedonia’s chairpersonship.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid a visit to North Macedonia last week, saying the EU path is worth the next difficult step – the constitutional revision. Even if we overcome domestic misunderstandings and those constitutional changes are passed, how realistic is for North Macedonia to join the EU as a full-fledged member by 2030, considering the current geopolitical developments?

We have a distinct mandate as the OSCE Mission to Skopje. One of our Mission’s main roles is to support the country to fulfill its OSCE commitments. We are helping North Macedonia’s reform efforts in the areas that I have outlined earlier. We have supported the country to accomplish a lot since the founding of our mission 30 years ago, but more remains to be done. Under my leadership our Mission will engage even more with our partners and beneficiaries in order to help North Macedonia reach its strategic goals. Could North Macedonia join the EU in 2030? Absolutely. It requires vigor, determination and stamina to complete the necessary reform processes. And political unity.

North Macedonia is in the process of bilateral screening with the EU, most recently on Chapter 23. We have seen the Judicial Council President resign, questions raised over the election of the head of the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime and Corruption, on top of the eight-percent trust of citizens in the judiciary. What activities is the OSCE Mission planning to undertake in support of judiciary reforms?

A well-functioning, independent and impartial judiciary is essential for every democratic society. With that in mind, our Mission is working hard to support justice sector reform. We are helping to prepare new drafts of the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code to incorporate international best practices that will better protect citizens’ rights.

Of course, we all know that creating good laws is not enough. They also have to be well implemented. We are supporting national efforts to improve training for judges and other legal professionals so that they can better administer justice for the citizens of North Macedonia. Recently, we began engaging in support of judicial digitalization, which will make the judiciary more transparent and allow it to provide quicker judicial services. I’m sure many of your readers already know of the Mission’s work monitoring trials in cases of national significance. What they may not know, is that based on this work we have prepared several reports with recommendations to improve judicial practice that have led to concrete improvements, including in the quality of cross examination of witnesses and the presentation of evidence by the prosecution before the court.

The Mission is active in the field of gender equality and women empowerment. We are doing this interview in the midst of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. How is the Mission contributing during these 16 days but also throughout the year?

In addition to supporting the 16 days of activism campaign, we are conducting a number of activities to assist in the fight against Gender-Based Violence in North Macedonia.

One area we are working in is combating online gender-based violence. Technological advances have made it possible for perpetrators of violence against women to commit their crimes from a distance, as happened in the Javna Soba case, in which only two out of the thousands of men implicated were prosecuted for child pornography. We are advocating for swift passage of amendments to the Criminal Code that, for the first time, would define gender-based violence as violence against women because of their gender. If the amendments are adopted this would pave the way for the country to address gender–based violence per international standards.
The Mission has worked with the Ministry of Internal Affairs for many years to strengthen police response to incidents of gender-based violence. This year, for example, we supported specialist training for the police on victim care, ensuring victims’ rights, and applying a victim-centred approach to investigation and evidence collection in gender-based violence cases. The Mission has also created a Handbook for police officers on preventing and combating domestic and gender-based violence, and worked with the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Health and UNDP, to design a risk assessment process to improve the police response to such cases. We will continue to provide such assistance in 2023.

The Law on Gender Equality is currently under revision and we will undertake all efforts to help finalize the draft and have it adopted as soon as possible. North Macedonia is a leader in the region in that area and has good practices to share with its neighbors. Without gender equality we will not get rid of gender-based violence.

Ana Cvetkovska

Photos by Darko Popov

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