Long neglected by the US, the Western Balkans, particularly North Macedonia, need and deserve renewed interest from the Biden administration. The country had hoped that resolving its dispute with Greece over its name in 2018 would be a stepping stone to joining the EU, but it continues to face obstacles to accession. The United States is in a position to help, particularly with the persistent stumbling blocks of ethnic strife and poor governance. On the former, the US can focus on the roles of disinformation and cyber vulnerabilities in sowing tensions. On the latter, the US should encourage North Macedonia’s collaboration with Estonia, which can serve as a model of good governance. By promoting ethnic harmony and good governance, the US can help bring stability to the Western Balkans and pursue its own foreign policy objectives.
With a new administration, US foreign policy is once again at a pivotal moment. While much recent attention has been on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US is reassessing its foreign policy in all corners of the globe. One of those corners the Biden administration should focus on is the Western Balkans. North Macedonia is uniquely situated to foster stability in both the European Union the Western Balkans and is already fairly on track to integrate into transatlantic institutions. The country’s location, bordering both the EU and Western Balkans, adds to its strategic importance for US foreign policy. Technically already an EU candidate, North Macedonia could use a gentle foreign hand to pull it into the negotiation phase of the accession process. Recent history and the Prespa agreement, which resolved a long-standing dispute with Greece, show that North Macedonia is prepared to make great efforts to join the bloc.
In North Macedonia, ensuring political stability and democratic resilience relies primarily on improving ethnic relations and governance in the country. 1 As such, this assessment will first provide some brief context and background on North Macedonia’s efforts to join the EU, along with the role of other nations and the United States in that process. The paper will then address how to achieve US objectives in North Macedonia in two parts. Part 1 will address how the struggle against disinformation and cyber vulnerabilities can promote ethnic harmony in the region. Part 2 will highlight Estonia as a template for good governance that the US must attempt to set in North Macedonia.
NORTH MACEDONIA AND THE EUROPEAN UNION
North Macedonia started negotiations on the EU’s stabilization and association process in 2000 and became the first non-EU Balkan country to sign a stabilization and association agreement in 2001. 2 This process guides relations between the EU and the Western Balkans and encompasses roughly free trade and political and economic cooperation with a view to eventual EU membership. 3
In 2005, Macedonia became a candidate for accession, 13 years after achieving its independence from Yugoslavia. From 2008 to 2019, use of the name “Macedonia” was the subject of a dispute with Greece, which argued that the name signaled the former Yugoslav republic’s designs on the so-named area in northern Greece.
Greece used its veto power to keep Macedonia out of the EU and NATO and to force the name issue. In 2018, the Greek and Macedonian governments reached the Prespa agreement, which effectively renamed the Republic of Macedonia the Republic of North Macedonia. The deal removed Greece’s veto as an obstacle to North Macedonia’s EU and NATO entry.
In March 2020, the EU launched accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, only to have Bulgaria halt them in November over a demand that North Macedonia acknowledge that the language spoken by its people is not Macedonian — a south Slavic language in its own right — but rather Bulgarian. 4 Diplomats from other EU countries have criticized Bulgaria’s veto, which delays a step that all members had agreed upon. The disagreement jeopardizes what most EU countries consider a strategic priority — increasing the EU’s influence in the Balkan region, where competing powers such as Russia, China, and Turkey are gaining influence. 5
CURRENT STATE OF NORTH MACEDONIA
While North Macedonia’s NATO membership was an initial step toward Western integration, it did not automatically translate into EU membership. The EU’s refusal to begin membership talks with North Macedonia may jeopardize the Prespa agreement, which was politically unpopular but at least boosted the country’s long-term hopes of EU accession. In the three years since its signing, new obstacles to accession have thrown into question the very feasibility of Prespa and the accession process. But while the Bulgarian veto remains a hurdle, it should in no way repel greater US involvement in North Macedonia. 6 With third-party involvement, the dispute with Bulgaria might prove less insurmountable.
Appendix A – Time Frame
1991 — Declaration of independence adopted by the Macedonian parliament.
2001 — Stabilization and association agreement signed.
2001 — Ohrid Framework Agreement signed.
2005 — Macedonia becomes an EU candidate.
2008 to 2019 — Greek vetoes North Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession talks.
2019 — The Prespa agreement changes Macedonia’s name to North Macedonia and Greece lifts its veto.
March 2020 — North Macedonia joins NATO.
November 2020 — Bulgaria vetoes the launch of North Macedonia’s EU accession talks.
The need for US involvement in the region is pressing. North Macedonia’s instability and exclusion from the tight web of the EU creates a weak spot in the center of the Balkan peninsula where foreign powers such as Russia, China, and Turkey can intervene and ultimately destabilize Europe and, by implication, the US. While other countries in the Western Balkans face similar challenges, North Macedonia’s plight — with EU members Greece and Bulgaria successively blocking its path to accession — is unique.
These roadblocks have led North Macedonia to seek aid elsewhere. Recently, it signed a five-year agreement with Turkey, whose leadership is at frequent loggerheads with its Western allies, to help beef up North Macedonia’s armed forces. 7
The United States can fill a role that these other foreign powers covet, but the obstacles that keep being thrown in North Macedonia’s way naturally undermine any efforts to keep it in the Western sphere of influence. If the US and Western allies fail to help, North Macedonia has shown a willingness to turn elsewhere. The region faces a critical moment.
In order to make North Macedonia more attractive to EU membership, the US can encourage North Macedonia’s compliance. This jibes with the US’s main strategic goal of reinforcing Western values in the region and with the Biden administration’s top foreign policy priority of fighting corruption by demonstrating the advantages of transparent and accountable governance for democracy. 8
ISSUES AND REMEDIES FOR NORTH MACEDONIA
The two main issues the US should continue to focus on to foster democratic stability in North Macedonia are ethnic strife and poor governance. The section below is divided into two parts. Ethnic Harmony will focus on ethnic strife, specifically issues posed by disinformation and cyber vulnerabilities. Good Governance will focus on Estonia as a model of good governance that the US should attempt to apply in North Macedonia.
(Pluralism, minority rights, and ethnic inclusion)
While North Macedonia was generally spared the violence that ravaged the rest of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, hostilities between its ethnic Slav Macedonian majority (about 65 percent of the population) and Albanian minority (about 25 percent) have sporadically erupted. These clashes are partially the result of disagreements over the extent to which the country recognizes and integrates minority communities. Certain Macedonian nationalists fear that offering Albanians and other minorities more rights and autonomy could undermine the dominant group’s influence, damage the identity of North Macedonia, or even splinter the country, especially as it borders Albania. 9
After Macedonia achieved independence in 1991, analysts said many of the country’s policies on citizenship, language, and education favored Macedonians over Albanians and other minorities. Interethnic tensions, fed by segregation, escalated through the 1990s. In 2001, Albanian militants launched a monthslong violent assault against state security officials. The unrest led US and European officials to facilitate the Ohrid Framework Agreement, lest the interethnic conflict evolve into a civil war. The agreement established measures aimed at expanding ethnic Albanian minority rights while disbanding and disarming rebel forces. Its adoption was controversial and difficult, but it is widely cited as an impetus for the restoration of peace and harmony in the country. 10
Importantly, the United States’s major role in mediating the Ohrid and Prespa agreements has earned it a reputation in North Macedonia as a credible broker, and it should continue to support multiethnic initiatives and conflict-resolution processes. Working to resolve ethnic tensions in North Macedonia will help alleviate some of the concerns that EU members have about welcoming the country into the club. The US should also reassure North Macedonians by locking in a more attentive foreign policy toward the country via agreements or treaties that outlast the current administration’s term. Moreover, US cooperation in EU-led initiatives would retrain the US focus onto building democratic resilience in the region and help North Macedonia achieve its NATO 2030 goals and start EU membership talks. The following section highlights issues that the US could tackle as part of its involvement in North Macedonia, specifically disinformation and cyber vulnerability as key hindrances to ethnic comity.
Disinformation is different from misinformation, or the spread of incorrect information that is not endorsed with a negative intent. Disinformation is the deliberate spread of false or misleading information with the intent of influencing public opinion or the public perception of a particular event. 11
North Macedonia has not only suffered as a major target of Russian disinformation, but it has also proved a source of homegrown and domestic for-profit disinformation. In 2016, during the US presidential election, English-speaking North Macedonian youth (“content creators”) realized they could make money by developing fake or distorted news for US websites. 12 While the domestically sourced disinformation is spurred more by the profit motive than ideology, it plays readily into Russia’s disinformation efforts in the US and its aim to sabotage ethnic peace in Balkan countries, including North Macedonia. 13
Appendix B – Impact of North Macedonian Disinformation Campaigns on the US
According to a Stanford Internet Observatory and Graphika study, Macedonian website operators have changed their social media tactics to better target conservative Americans.
Perhaps in response to crackdowns by major social media platforms, these North Macedonian content farms have modified their methods to be more robust and operate on sites less likely to be taken down. While the North Macedonian operators of these sites are motivated solely by profit, American right-wingers unknowingly consume foreign-amplified material. Reposting Donald Trump’s tweets and material from other right-wing news sites has helped these North Macedonian content farms develop an audience and generate traffic, in the process possibly contributing to American polarization. 14
Some countries that have been victims of Russian disinformation, like Estonia, have implemented counter-disinformation strategies. 15 After the chaos of the Bronze Night and cyberattacks in 2007, Estonian officials realized that state-run Russian media regularly targeted Estonia’s ethnic Russian minority in an effort to widen the gap between Russian speakers and the Estonian majority. 16
Appendix C – Estonia, Russia, and the Bronze Night
A 2007 battle over a controversial Soviet statue ushered in a new era of Russian meddling in foreign affairs. Plans to move a bronze statue of a Red Army soldier in Tallinn sparked protests, indignation, and the first nation-state cyber assault. A 2020 study showed how these incidents fit into a new type of foreign influence, in which Russia used disinformation and cyberattacks to sow chaos. 17
Estonia’s counter-disinformation strategies have been particularly effective because they are a coordinated government effort built around citizens. Specifically, the country’s media literacy program, integrated into school curricula, teaches students to interact safely online, identify reliable information, exercise critical reasoning in reading online sources, and protect their personal data. 18 To make North Macedonians more media savvy, the country needs a renewed, comprehensive approach rather than multiple sporadic initiatives from the US and the EU.
USAID’s Center for Education within the Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation should encourage a unified and strengthened approach with its allies and North Macedonia’s government to provide media literacy training to North Macedonian youth and help them develop healthy information consumption habits, recognize disinformation, and become responsible members of information communities.
North Macedonia is also susceptible to state-sponsored disinformation from Russia, which spreads false or misleading information in the country by exploiting and exacerbating the cleavages between ethnic groups. It uses social media and the online ecosystem to create distrust and disruption. Many content creators also make money by translating Russian disinformation news into Macedonian. Foreign disinformation campaigns in North Macedonia typically involve social media, particularly Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but it is traditional media, particularly community and local media, newspapers, periodicals, and television, that spread them widely. 19
The US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs should promote its work to the European Federation of Journalists and its affiliates in North Macedonia, the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers, and the Association of Journalists of Macedonia. Through a systematic approach, these institutions could bring expertise to North Macedonia’s journalistic community to blunt the force of disinformation in the longer term. 20
Cybersecurity and disinformation efforts involve similar operations, methods, tactics, and outcomes, as both types of attacks are tools for disruption.
North Macedonia has been prone to cyberattacks over the last few years, and its lack of cybersecurity experts and training is a massive vulnerability. 21 While NATO provides training and responds to cyber threats and attacks against its members, it expects its members to have a certain level of autonomy in their own intelligence and security structures. During the last North Macedonian parliamentary election in July 2020, the election commission suffered a denial-of-service attack that brought down its website while it was showing the results from polling stations. This was viewed as an attempt to disrupt and discredit the commission and the conduct of the election, which generated doubts about the fairness and the results of the election. 22
Just as it did for Montenegro in 2019, the Department of Defense should dispatch US cybersecurity experts to educate and train North Macedonia’s defense officials to protect against cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. NATO should follow up this training with regular updates and exercises. 23
Transparency and anticorruption
According to the Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), 24 North Macedonia is currently working on the restoration of the system of checks and balances and strengthening its judiciary capacities as part of greater efforts to counter organized crime.
Appendix D – High-Level Corruption Prosecution in North Macedonia
The current State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption (DKSK), appointed in 2019, is considerably more aggressive than commissions established under the previous VMRO-DPMNE administration. Its influence is still extremely limited, however: In 2019, only eight criminal and 24 misdemeanor cases out of 1,165 resulted in charges filed. Moreover, none of the charged cases were connected to high-level corruption. From January to June 2020, DKSK deemed only 7 percent of the 196 complaints it investigated worthy of further examination. According to a report by the Institute for Democracy, the DKSK has very rarely prioritized high-level corruption cases. 25
A challenge for North Macedonia is to preserve momentum in its anti-corruption campaign in the face of political unpredictability. The Biden administration has already promised to engage closely with its European partners on transatlantic strategy throughout the Western Balkans. In the case of North Macedonia, the nation struggles with inadequate institutions, widespread corruption, democratic backsliding, and growing geopolitical competition.
The US has the agencies and expertise to encourage North Macedonia’s efforts to reach the European Union’s standards. This part of the paper aims to show how the US can marshal USAID and European programs, funding, technical assistance, and well-chosen partnerships to advance good governance and anti-corruption measures in North Macedonia.
As USAID notes in its current development strategy for North Macedonia, 26 the drive for good governance and against corruption requires that:
- The public sector be held accountable for the equitable and timely delivery of public goods and services, through increased liability and transparency in government procedures and effective anti-corruption practices.
- Citizens encourage an accountability culture, taking an active role in the battle against corruption.
With corruption reined in, North Macedonia would have a chance at economic prosperity and social cohesion, and ultimately a more self-sufficient future that is resistant to hostile influence. 26
The US contribution in the fight against high-level corruption, which is fully in line with the revised US national security strategy, 27 could be a game-changer in building an even stronger partnership between both countries, ultimately strengthening US ties to the whole region. Despite North Macedonia’s NATO membership, the country is still struggling with the rule of law and corruption, which is a key problem for its rickety democracy. 28
Anti-corruption and good governance at the government level
The root of corruption in North Macedonia can be traced to the public prosecutor’s office, which oversees criminal proceedings, according to Simonida Kacarska, director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje. 29 A 2017 report by an expert panel advising the European Commission reached a similar conclusion. Sources in the country told the panel that the work of the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime and Corruption suffers from “direct and indirect external influences when investigating high-level corruption cases.” 30 Moreover, the public prosecutor’s office seems to operate mostly in a reactive way, awaiting orders, and shows little interest in the outcome of cases it investigated. 30 This approach does nothing to help prosecutors determine which practices work and which do not, and to avoid future mistakes.
Finally, the recruitment and promotion procedures for police officers remain opaque and seem to rely heavily on candidates’ political party affiliations. The police department lacks “strong promotion/appointment criteria” and a “binding link between positions and ranks,” according to the experts’ report. 30
Recommendation 4: The European Commission has already invested significant resources and time in analyzing and evaluating anti-corruption measures in North Macedonia. US cooperation and knowledge in these initiatives would help North Macedonia implement the EU’s policy recommendations. USAID and the European Union should formally commit to cooperation on aid programs to strengthen the rule of law in North Macedonia.
Enhancing EU/USAID cooperation
The European Commission and USAID should cooperate not only in helping North Macedonia implement certain policies, but also in planning future assistance. At the moment, the US’s policies revolve around short and tailored programs, which might work in the short term but do not address issues in a systematic way. With the help of the EU, the US should focus on building accountable and resilient state institutions in North Macedonia, which will help with EU accession and NATO 2030 goals. 26
In its efforts to support stability in the Western Balkans, the US can learn from the success of countries in reasonably similar circumstances. The case of Estonia’s ascent to liberal democracy and efficient governance, for example, can provide particularly compelling and replicable lessons. Estonia itself is already collaborating with North Macedonia with a boost from the United States.
Relevance of Estonia for North Macedonia
In May 2021, Nikola Dimitrov, North Macedonia’s former foreign minister and current deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, said Estonia’s experience in the EU integration process could serve as a useful model for North Macedonia. 31 The post-communist countries have similar demographics: Roughly one-third of Estonia’s people are ethnic Russians, and roughly one-fourth of Macedonia’s are ethnic Albanians. Both of those large minorities look elsewhere for leadership, Estonia’s Russians to Moscow and North Macedonia’s Albanians to Tirana, according to Luke Zahner, counselor for public affairs at the US Embassy in Skopje.
In 1991, Estonia threw off Soviet occupation to win its sovereignty. Then Mart Laar, the newly independent country’s first prime minister, progressively moved Estonia through a decade of modernization, laying the groundwork for the country’s entry into the digital era. Ever since, Estonia’s famous embrace of e-governance has brought transparency and best practices to public administration. 32
Existing initiatives between North Macedonia and Estonia
Estonia and North Macedonia have collaborated through the EU’s Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, which provides money and technical help to meet the standards for EU entry. Timčo Mucunski, a leader of the VMRO-DPMNE party, which was in power for a decade until 2016, said North Macedonia also seeks advice from Estonia and the countries have worked together effectively in the past. 33
Additionally, the European Union and Estonia’s foreign ministry fund the Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda (ICEDA) project, which helps civil society groups in North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo better harness the power of information and communication technologies.
Zahner, the US Embassy spokesman, said the North Macedonian and Estonian parliaments are also partners in a program run by the National Democratic Institute in the US and funded by the Swiss government. The US Embassy in Skopje is building off that partnership to encourage Estonia to “adopt” North Macedonia, advising the country on e-governance and cybersecurity issues. This collaboration would also give North Macedonia an ally within the EU that understands from experience North Macedonia’s position. 34
Additionally, to facilitate ties among the US, North Macedonia, and Estonia, the US State Department has matched $250,000 in Estonian funding for development projects in North Macedonia under a program that helps newer EU members to become aid donors instead of recipients. 35 The first project, launched in October, aims to promote North Macedonia’s adoption of digital technologies for governance and its technical parity with EU standards. It includes expert seminars and workshops on e-governance challenges and solutions, visits from Estonian experts to advise on specific e-governance tasks, and study trips of North Macedonian experts and policymakers to Estonia. ((Janne Jõesaar-Ruusalu, Head of EU General Affairs and South Eastern Europe in Estonian MFA, Interview with author, November 18th, 2020)
The US State Department should continue to encourage and fund this three-way relationship with North Macedonia and Estonia, to help North Macedonia implement e-governance nationwide and slowly build the government’s resistance to corruption.
The Western Balkans, specifically North Macedonia, is a region of great interest in global politics and stability, yet the United States in recent years has not been a major player there. With a presumed shift in US foreign policy under the Biden administration, the US would do well to become more involved in the region, lest other global powers such as China and Russia move in to fill the vacuum.
As the US gaze shifts from Afghanistan to competition with Russia and China, North Macedonia is a natural area of focus. Not only is it key to bringing stability to the region and countering detrimental governing influences, but North Macedonia is also ripe to join the EU with some additional third-party support. US involvement could help overcome obstacles to EU accession, such as the Bulgarian veto.
To achieve foreign policy objectives in the region, the US must apply some of the outlined strategies to address the two key concerns of ethnic strife and poor governance. Accomplishing such objectives should help not only bring stability to North Macedonia and the wider region, but also would align with US foreign policy objectives under a new presidential administration.
- The United States must become further involved in the Western Balkans to help stabilize the region and facilitate North Macedonia’s EU accession.
- The US should support local conflict resolution and treaty-making to encourage ethnic harmony in North Macedonia.
- The US must focus on combating disinformation in the region through media literacy initiatives with young people and journalists.
- The US should send cybersecurity experts to North Macedonia with training and oversight from NATO.
- USAID and the EU should formally agree to cooperate in promoting assistance programs and strengthening the rule of law in North Macedonia.
The US should turn to Estonia as a model of good governance for the Western Balkans and establish a three-way relationship with North Macedonia and Estonia to promote e-governance that is resistant to corruption.
- David Phillips, Director of Peace-Building and Human Rights Program at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Interview with author, May 17, 2021.[↩]
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