This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service. Some information is from Reuters.
WASHINGTON — U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer says an unresolved extortion investigation in North Macedonia could undermine prospects for the small Balkan nation’s long-awaited European Union accession talks.
North Macedonia’s former chief Special Prosecutor, Katica Janeva, unexpectedly tendered her resignation last month amid allegations that she masterminded a scheme to extort millions from an indicted businessman in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Janeva’s Special Prosecution Office (SPO), an organized-crime-busting outfit also tasked with addressing high-level corruption, has long been emblematic of the former Yugoslav republic’s transatlantic aspirations. By spearheading investigations of the now-ousted authoritarian regime of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, Janeva’s office was largely mandated to restore rule of law.
“These are serious charges and all such serious charges require a serious response,” Palmer told VOA’s Serbian Service. “We support a complete, thorough, transparent investigation of these charges and, if the evidence is there, then appropriate prosecution. This is really an opportunity for the authorities in North Macedonia to demonstrate fealty to adherence to the rule of law.”
The country changed its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia in February, ending a more than two-decade dispute with Greece over its name, and removing an obstacle to EU and NATO membership.
Just last week, EU commissioner Johannes Hahn said Skopje needs to reform the judiciary to ensure it can handle high-level crime and corruption cases before the EU can set a date to start accession talks, but that he was “confident that the decision (on the start of EU accession talks) will be taken in October.”
Palmer said he’s optimistic talks can begin this fall, but that resolving the Janeva investigation will be key to ensuring it happens.
Both of North Macedonia’s major political parties have been squabbling over the drafting of a law to regulate the prosecution, which will determine the fate of the special prosecutor’s office that Janeva used to run.
“We believe that North Macedonia has earned that opportunity [to have EU accession talks begin this year], but ... signals that the government sends — and the success of the SPO law — will be important to that.”
Whether new legislation can be ratified, a precondition for EU accession talks, will determine the pace of North Macedonia’s European accession process, which is why both U.S. and EU officials have repeatedly pressed both parties, the right-wing opposition VMRO-DPMNE and ruling Social Democratic Union, to come to an agreement.
Meetings between party officials earlier this week produced indications of progress, but working groups are still in negotiations.
“It’s important that these parties come together, negotiate, resolve their differences and reach an agreement on how the SPO can be reformed or modified in a manner that advances the interests of the country,” Palmer told VOA.
“There’s been enough politicking. The time for politicking is over. Now is the time for statesmanship,” he said.