Regional cooperation is at the heart of OSCE’s approach to security, and North Macedonia has significantly contributed to regional stability and security, serving as a role model for the region and beyond, OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid told MIA in an interview.
In the interview that follows, she also speaks about the war in Ukraine and its consequences as well as what the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is doing to help.
Ms. Schmid, you are participating in the Prespa Dialogue Forum, which coincides with the fourth anniversary of the signing of the Prespa Agreement. Do you think this Аgreement was successful? Can it be used as a model for resolving other open issues in the region?
Let me start by saying I am very happy to be back in this beautiful country and am very much looking forward to speaking at the Prespa Dialogue Forum. I was last in Skopje in October 2021, when I met with senior government officials and our dedicated staff at the OSCE Mission to Skopje and our Field Office in Tetovo.
As the Secretary General of the world’s largest regional security organization, I know that regional cooperation is vital for sustainable peace and security. In fact, regional cooperation is at the heart of our approach to security in the OSCE. I am truly impressed with how North Macedonia contributes to regional stability and security. Your country has achieved so much and sets a good example for the region and beyond.
The Prespa Agreement is very much part of that and a great success. It provides space for progress and makes it possible for North Macedonia and Greece to address common concerns. Without it, solving challenges like transnational threats, organized crime, border cooperation and trafficking in human beings would be much more difficult. The work done in these areas has had a real impact in the whole region.
Europe today is facing a war on its territory, speeding up EU bids of non-member states and looking at EU membership as a security issue. Could this accelerate North Macedonia’s membership in the EU, given the blockade by Bulgaria, which clings to its hardline position and does not give any indications that it will lift the veto in June?
While ultimately this is a decision for the EU Member States, I spent a good part of my career with the European Union, so I know very well how many criteria candidate countries have to fulfill on their way to EU accession. The European Commission has been very clear that North Macedonia is fulfilling the conditions for accession negotiations.
North Macedonia is part of the troika chairing the OSCE from 2023. Our presidency comes at the most challenging moment the organization has faced in recent history – the war in Ukraine. The country needs to present its chairpersonship’s priorities. What recommendations would you give us?
I have had the privilege of working with Foreign Minister Osmani and North Macedonia’s OSCE Ambassador Djundev ever since I arrived in Vienna in January 2021, and now more closely as North Macedonia prepares for its OSCE chairpersonship in 2023. Ambassador Djundev and I are in touch almost every day. He is an excellent diplomat and we are fortunate that he is leading the delegation of North Macedonia to the OSCE in Vienna.
Minister Osmani will present North Macedonia’s priorities to the OSCE states in July, and I am very much looking forward to it. I imagine that he will want to address challenges beyond security’s traditional military and political elements, including also economic and environmental aspects, as well as human rights and the rule of law. I think there is a lot other states can learn from North Macedonia.
The One Society for All strategy, for example, is a solid framework to help improve social cohesion. It is a model that can also help others tackle future challenges.
As the OSCE Secretary-General, you are closely following developments in Ukraine. How many refugees have left the country so far? Which countries do they go to? Are there any cases of people returning to Ukraine?
The war against Ukraine continues to have an appalling human cost, causing unimaginable suffering for millions of people. We remain present and committed to supporting the people of Ukraine in these extremely challenging circumstances and will continue to do so. For example, when people flee their homes in large numbers, the risks of trafficking in human beings skyrockets.
No country can handle this alone. We are working in Ukraine and its neighboring countries to address this challenge. With the support of our field operation, the Project Coordinator in Ukraine, in April, thousands of internally displaced people in eight regions of Ukraine were informed about how to avoid the risks of human trafficking.
The OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings is working closely with neighboring countries and has published recommendations not only on how states can reduce the risks and support the victims but also specific guidance on how to reduce trafficking that’s facilitated by technology.
And there is so much more that we do – from organizing webinars for journalists on chemical security risks, to engaging experts who analyze environmental damages and propose environmental rehabilitation solutions. We also look at how the war can affect different parts of the population, specifically women and girls. We work closely with our partners, giving practical guidance for service providers to survivors of gender-based violence. We will continue to use our experience and expertise to support Ukraine today and into the future.
There were fears in the region that the conflict would spill over into other European countries, including the Balkans. In your opinion, is there any danger of this happening?
The war against Ukraine has to stop. It continues to have an appalling human cost, causing unimaginable suffering for millions of people.
We are seeing the effects of the war against Ukraine in the neighborhood and beyond, and it has worsened the economic prospects for societies across the region. Governments are facing serious challenges to mitigate the socio-economic consequences of the conflict. OSCE field operations are closely following the situation and are adapting their work as needed to continue providing support based on the real needs governments and communities face every day.
The OSCE looks at security through a comprehensive approach, to help increase states’ and societies’ ability to socio-economic and security challenges. For example, OSCE Field Operations in the region are working with local authorities to counter illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons. We also support reconciliation and people-to-people contact. With a presence right across South-Eastern Europe, the OSCE is especially well-placed to work in projects like these and to continue to be active in conflict prevention and resolution.
The OSCE monitored the last elections held in the country, the local elections in October last year. Have you given any recommendations? What has been implemented so far? What more should be done and how do you assess the reform processes in the country?
Last October’s local elections were observed by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) – an independent institution of the OSCE that has 30 years of experience with elections.
They published the final report on the local elections in March of this year, which includes their findings and recommendations. Let me add that the progress made by North Macedonia in passing key reform legislation in recent years is significant.
Implementing these reforms will support socio-economic growth, strengthen institutions, and improve the lives of your citizens as well as their trust in the government. The OSCE, and particularly our Mission to Skopje, is there to support the country.