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New US Ambassador Brings a Breath of Fresh Air, But Challenges Loom

May 13, 2006


By Christopher Deliso

A quiet but noticeable improvement in the Macedonian opinion of American diplomacy can be detected these days in Skopje. It is a result of the changing of the guard that occurred last fall, when new US Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic finally arrived in Skopje.

Her predecessor, Lawrence Butler, had made himself unpopular through various gaffes and minor scandals. Butler seemed rude and patronizing to many Macedonians. Despite his good knowledge of their language, he often made derogatory, offhand remarks about everything from the quality of Macedonia’s food to that of its helicopters. He was summarily shipped off to Sarajevo to crunch numbers as the assistant to the UN’s Bosnian viceroy, Paddy Ashdown- thus flushed entirely from the US system.For once, it seems that the State Department is trying to learn from its mistakes. Earlier this year, Ambassador Milovanovic pointedly stated that she intended to assume a less visible public presence than did Butler, who had been in the habit of popping up on Macedonian TV screens frequently with one decree or another. In an interview with Utrinski Vesnik on March 13, the new ambassador spoke openly on this issue:

“there are a couple of things: first and foremost, I am not Larry Butler, I am Gillian Milovanovic… I came here believing that Macedonia, if it is a couple of years away from starting EU negotiations, maybe less, if it’s a couple years away from getting an invitation to NATO as we all hope, than it is a country that doesn’t need me standing out and making a bunch of declarations all the time.”

Of course, the ambassador qualified this by saying that Butler’s brusqueness “probably was very much needed three or four years ago.” In fairness to him, Butler did preside over a very trying time in Macedonia and one which was filled with potential political minefields, as the country emerged shakily from the 2001 war.

However, under Butler’s watch many things were done, and none of them were pretty. From 2002’s heavy-handed election interventionism and empowerment of terrorists into politicians, to punishing innocent businessmen like Blagoja Samakoski for the crime of successfully competing with American industry and relocating the American embassy to the historic hill of Kale despite widespread protest, Butler turned out to be a cynical and divisive force in a small but disgruntled country.

However, the US got its way with the new embassy, as was to be expected, and Butler’s replacement officially inaugurated it on March 22.

American ambassadors are all but invincible to pressure from average local citizens, which is why they are so happy to speak with them. But it’s another thing when they enrage the paymasters back home. So despite everything else, it was ironically something relatively trivial – the gay billboards fiasco – that torpedoed Butler. A scandal broke out in January 2004 when it was claimed that the US Embassy was supporting a billboard campaign in Skopje praising the homosexual lifestyle. The news did not go down particularly well with the folks back home at the National Prayer Breakfast.

An important test of Ambassador Milovanovic’s diplomatic dexterity came with last week’s televised interview – her first since arriving in Macedonia – for Skopje’s Kanal 5 TV. Despite some difficult and persistent interrogating, Ambassador Milovanovic remained patiently good-natured, and sought to reassure viewers about why the US feels optimistic about the country’s future.

But Who Will Mark the Border?

For example, when asked to address the controversial topic of the Macedonia-Kosovo border demarcation, the ambassador went beyond the expected diplomatic fluff and actually offered a meaningful answer to a question that has not been articulated very well in the past.

Macedonians are justifiably worried about the border issue, because Kosovo Albanians constantly complain that the 2001 border demarcation between Macedonia and Yugoslavia is illegal, as they were not consulted in deciding it. The Albanians have fanned the flames by laying claim to 2,500 hectares of Macedonian territory, near Tanusevci and the strategic fortress hilltop of Kodra Fura, which has commanding views south to Skopje and north as far as that militarized monstrosity with a Burger King too, America’s Camp Bondsteel.

Obviously, army control of this wooded ridge is of vital importance for Macedonia’s national security. Since many believe that independence for Kosovo Albanians will only whet their thirst for annexing such strategic areas, the Macedonian media has become obsessed with the topic of border demarcation, and whether it will be conducted before or after the final status of Kosovo is decided.

The major irritant of government-speak lately has been the propensity for officials to speak of the border issue as merely a “technical” one. However, this has not been defined. Is “technical’ understood in the same way by Prime Minister Buckovski as it is by his Kosovar counterpart, war crimes suspect Agim Ceku, or as it is by a Tanusevsi village farmer? If not, what can we expect to happen?

In this context, Ambassador Milovanovic provided an interesting response when asked to define the meaning of the word “technical’ insofar as the border issue goes. She handled the topic tactfully, making the first plausible explanation that we have yet heard. The ambassador defined the technicians as being “presumably cartographers… people who deal with questions like how you take a line on the map and figure out where the border is. These are the people who will figure this out… not the U.S. Embassy, and frankly, not any of the political leadership either.”

She went on to state, optimistically, that the whole issue has been blown out of proportion:

“this has been turned into a problem, when in fact it is a good thing. All of the omens are good. There is a future plan to demarcate the border in a technical manner, and everyone should actually be pleased about that instead of worrying about what is the angle here and there. I think this is going to work out fine for Macedonia, in the way it wanted.”

The Deciders

It is reassuring to hear such words, even if most Macedonians believe in their heart of hearts that the Kosovo threat can never be entirely discounted. Indeed, it has to be remembered that in July 2003, Albanian peasants in the border village of Debelde forced the mighty United Nations to stop its plans to build a border crossing in the vicinity.

This reaction was also seen two months earlier in Macedonia, when Albanians in Vejce prevented bereaved Macedonians from visiting the scene of where their soldiers were killed by a cowardly terrorist attack in the 2001 war. It was highly revealing to see the representatives of the most powerful nations on earth humiliated by a handful of peasants. Butler was forced to beg them for free passage- to no avail.

Therefore, when Ambassador Milovanovic states that “not any of the political leadership” will decide about border demarcation, she may turn out to be right- but in an unwanted way. It is highly likely that local Albanians will openly resist any agreement short of their maximal demands, since the ultimate goal for these border-dwellers is to be merged with Kosovo, or at least be allowed borderless transit without being encumbered by identity documents or police.

In fact, A1 TV reported on Friday from the border of Tanusevci, and the strategic mountaintop of Kodra Fura, interviewing local Albanians who left no doubt where they think they are living already: Kosovo.

“Kodra Fura is on Kopiljaca, where is located the highest point. This since forever has been Kosovo land and it still is,” said one local.

“This land is Kosovo,” reaffirmed another skull-capped farmer. “Half of the villages of Mijak and Debalde lie in Macedonia. And if Pristina and Skopje make a deal on this, we will not accept this decision.”

All these local realities considered, it is clear that Ambassador Milovanovic will have to rely on her proven poise in the future. With Kosovo chafing at the bit and Montenegro set to take the suicidal plunge by declaring independence, it looks likely to be a wild ride in the months ahead, and arguably the most challenging diplomatic assignment for any US ambassador in Macedonia since 2001. Cool heads are needed at this historic moment, when more can go wrong on more frontiers in the Balkans than perhaps at any time since the 1990’s.

Hot Spots and Terrorism: Understated Threats, or Non-Existent?

It is always a difficult issue for diplomats to decide when to be discreet and when to be truthful, even if the latter means sounding the alarm to understated threats. One criticism that could thus be made of the new ambassador is her glossing over of terrorist threats. In a March 3, 2006 interview with Radio Free Europe, the ambassador was asked whether any “radical forces” or “extremist forces” continue to exist in or around Macedonia, forces that might “endanger the stability of Macedonia, or the region around Macedonia.”

The ambassador managed to escape from the tough question by linking any hot spots with the usual election intimidation tactics seen in villages, without however identifying them, merely noting that “elections can get excitable, and people can get excitable.”

That very minor threat aside, considering the massive amount of data streaming in daily about armed groups (ethnic, Islamist or otherwise) that pose significant threats to Balkan security, Ambassador Milovanovic’s statement that the US is “not aware of any particular threats in this region” strains credulity. Yet since testimony from numerous American officers in neighboring Kosovo, for example, indicates that the Islamic extremist threat is being dealt with only sluggishly, we are left uncertain as to whether the ambassador’s extraordinary statement is informed by careful discretion or perhaps by a counterterrorism force that may be asleep at the wheel while heading for that proverbial highway on-ramp.

An Election without Foreign Interference?

All in all, however, the ambassador’s first televised performance left little room for criticism. She was soft-spoken and sensible, conveyed poise and above all expressed optimism about the country and its future. While diplomacy should never be reduced to a mere popularity contest, it seems that Ambassador Milovanovic is benefiting simply by not being, as she said, Larry Butler.

So far, she seems to be better liked by Macedonians than were either he or his predecessor, the bullying Mike Einik. Future events, not entirely up to any single person to decide, will show whether Milovanovic can capture the affections of Macedonians as did former ambassador Christopher Hill, who was rewarded for his service by being promoted to the top job in Poland and then South Korea.

However, Milovanovic’s statements of conviction do have an uncanny resemblance to those espoused by Hill. Speaking in 2004 of the disastrously heavy-handed style of US diplomacy over the past few years, the former Macedonian ambassador noted:

“we need to figure out a way to calm down this notion that we are missionaries out there making the world in our image. Americans have got to start speaking with a softer voice, whether you’re right or left. To some extent, we’ve been shrill. The bigger you are, the softer you should speak.”

This is the sort of sentiment that Ambassador Milovanovic seems to have brought with her to Skopje, if the recent interviews are anything to go by. And indeed, when speaking about the upcoming parliamentary elections in last week’s interview, the new ambassador reiterated her previous intimations of a new policy of non-interference: “it is not up to us [America] to be picking and choosing who should be in government and who should not.”

This non-interventionism is such a revolutionary concept that readers might be forgiven for not actually believing it is possible. But if the powers-that-oversee genuinely mean it and intend to follow it this time around, then no one will be able to blame the American ambassador for whatever the results of the election turn out to be- something that can only be productive for both sides in the long run.

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