– Why is it important for North Macedonia to be part of the Alliance?
By acquiring NATO membership, North Macedonia has fulfilled one of the two strategic goals we have been fighting to achieve for three decades and has become part of the collective security of the most powerful military-political alliance. That should make us proud. We are NATO. We are together with the most developed and most powerful countries in the world, countries with which we share the same values, the same principles, and the same vision for the future. What is very important for us, we decide together and on an equal footing with the other 29 allies. We sit at the same table with the allies and we share our views, we care about our interests, we influence world trends, we make a direct contribution to global security.
– Does North Macedonia have the support of NATO and allies in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic?
In a year that we can call bitter, because of all the challenges we faced in terms of the global health crisis, but also successful, because finally after three decades we reached a state strategic goal, we had the opportunity to see in action what it means to be full member of the Alliance. At three of the four ministerial meetings at the defence ministers level, the main topic was of course dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken by the Alliance to support its members.
First and foremost, as a NATO member, North Macedonia is part of the Crisis Management System of the Alliance. At the beginning of the pandemic, we used the NATO experience in organizing military assistance to institutions, then many of the Allies sent medical equipment that was transported with NATO assistance, and at the end of October 2020, through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Centre, we received 60 mobile ventilators worth 1.4 million Euros. Norway donated 13,500 rapid tests. We received direct assistance in dealing with COVID from the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Poland, Turkey, and the Ministry of Health was assisted by donations from Slovenia, Hungary, USA and Germany. These true acts of friendship show that allied ties are deep and sincere.
Next autumn, North Macedonia will host an exercise with over 2,000 participants of the NATO Disaster Response Centre, for better coordination in crisis management, and that is the meaning of the principle – NATO unites. We are no longer alone in any trouble; no future challenge will find us unprepared.
– What are the main benefits of North Macedonia’s membership in NATO?
NATO protects, unites and strengthens. Membership in the Alliance means security, and without security, there is no prosperity. North Macedonia became a member in circumstances of a global pandemic that was and is a threat to world economy and to ours as well. But the fact is that security brings a better economy, more investment, and thus a better life for the citizens.
Security brings predictability that will encourage investors both at home and abroad that investing in our country is safe.
“Even before receiving our formal membership, from the moment we received the invitation, all creditors, especially the credit agencies that assess our risks, came up with the same sentence – NATO membership will happen, which means greater political stability and greater stability of the companies and the financial system. It affects reduced interest rates and greater capital that is available not only to the state, but also to the economy. “We have already felt that, even in times of crisis – the state could provide money through an EU bond and through our standard creditors – financial institutions,” said Minister Shekerinska in a recent interview.
One of the World Bank reports on our economy in the period of the coronavirus crisis predicted a decline in GDP of 3-4%, but also GDP growth in 2021, one of the arguments being precisely the membership in the Alliance.
In addition, full NATO membership encourages both domestic and foreign investors that this is a country where capital is secure.
The fact is that the interest of certain foreign companies to invest is growing. If some figures are analyzed, it is evident that North Macedonia has managed to maintain the level of investment that some countries have completely lost during the pandemic. A huge benefit is the fact that since we became a member our companies can compete in all NATO bids, which are, for example, related to the supply of KFOR in Kosovo.
– Will Macedonian companies be able to participate in the NATO market?
NATO membership opens the NATO market for our companies. Our country has access to NATO funds, as well as the opportunity for domestic companies to participate in NATO public procurement, which in 2019 amounted to over 5.2 billion Euros. It is a chance for our business community and our companies to participate in the large supply chain and supply of products for the needs of the Alliance. At the press conference marking the beginning of her second term in office as Minister of Defence, Minister Shekerinska announced, as part of the Government’s program, that a Centre for Support of Domestic Companies in the NATO Market will be established in the Ministry.
The process has begun. It is important for us that this Centre is a small, efficient and agile structure in which several real professionals will work and will give direction and support to companies at this large market, which can seriously affect the development of Macedonian economy. The Support Centre for local companies will be part of the structure of the Ministry of Defence. The Centre will help domestic companies to obtain information about business opportunities with NATO, methods and procedures for participating in NATO tenders, but also for greater economic development of the country. Bilateral consultations with NATO member states from the region are planned for exchange of positive experiences and best practices.
What leads us is – the more opportunities for Macedonian companies, the better the economy.
– Is North Macedonia, as a full member, fully integrated in the structures of the Alliance?
We are about to complete the process of full integration into NATO by November 2021, which is an ambitious deadline, but we are going to achieve it. In order to fully integrate into NATO, we have developed a National Plan of activities in several areas: (administration, equipment and modernization, force structure, education, training exercises and evaluation, logistics and medicine, integration of the national air surveillance system with the NATO system, Communication – information systems and cyber defence) and in the past year we have worked hard to meet them.
At the end of 2020, we held a joint Conference with NATO to review progress. The common position is that despite the challenges from COVID 19, the integration process is proceeding according to the originally planned deadlines and we will achieve full military integration into NATO by October 2021, as originally planned.
An example that the integration process is ongoing is the fact that the procedure for harmonization of the Memorandum of Cooperation with NATO in the field of cyber defence has been completed, which will enable a coordinated response of the allies in case of a cyber attack.
– How will North Macedonia contribute to the collective security of the Alliance?
When we say the key benefit of NATO is security and alliance, we are talking about the contribution of all member states, including North Macedonia. We are realistically contributing to the system of collective security, which is the backbone of the Alliance. Thus, we show that we support the motto “one for all and all for one” with our domestic capacities.
One such capacity is of course the TA Krivolak where the manoeuvring space has already been increased. A new 33 km road has been built from the side of Shtip, 17 km of the existing roads have been renovated and a ring road has been made around the entire range. We are doing all this with our own resources, with the new machines of the Engineering Battalion that were procured last year, after 16 years of no investment in this unit. In that way we rationalized our assets – we will spend ten times less for the entire project than the estimates how much we would have spent if we used external companies. The reconstruction of the road infrastructure is planned to be completed by next year before the beginning of the exercise “Decisive Strike 21”, in May 2021, where it is expected that about 2,000 soldiers from the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia, from the US Army, Bulgaria and Greece will take part. This is the training area where our NATO declared unit – the Light Infantry Battalion Group, together with a team from the United Kingdom started their training, where all other units of the Army are trained and it is the training area whose development we expect to increase the number of bilateral and NATO training activities. These investments in equipping the range will create much better training conditions for our members, but also better training conditions together with other allied armies. The development of Krivolak will give us a chance not only to contribute to NATO training, but also to have benefits for our economy and our budget. “Krivolak”, as Minister Shekerinska said recently, is “our identity card”, our capacity that will greatly help security, and help develop interoperability and the training level in real conditions.
The second capacity with which we will contribute is our Public Affairs Regional Centre. We are working on a new concept of this Centre that will meet modern security challenges. In the future, the focus of PARC will be on a range of activities to deal with disinformation and false news because for us, but also for the Alliance, disinformation is a security risk issue and therefore we must have the capacity for an appropriate, prompt, accurate and timely response.
Our military contribution is focused on our NATO declared unit – the Light Infantry Battle Group, whose members, by the end of 2020, conducted their collective training in “Krivolak” together with a mentoring team from the United Kingdom. This unit is our priority with respect to the manning, training and equipping. In this and in similar trainings you can see another benefit from our membership – North Macedonia, now as an ally, receives all kinds of support in the development of its own forces from the allies in the Alliance with greater ease.
– In which missions of the Alliance (as well as the EU and the UN) do the peacekeepers from the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia take part?
When we talk about our contribution to NATO, we are also referring to our long-standing participation in the Alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, first in Operation ISAF, and today in “Resolute Support”.
After all, our Army has been together with the allies in Afghanistan since 2002, and at one time our country was the fourth contributor to this mission, according to the number of inhabitants, i.e. per capita. This is the true demonstration of our commitment to the Alliance, and to all that it stands for – security, peace and prosperity in the world.
Today, the participation of our members covers a number of missions – we remain in the “Resolute Support” mission in Afghanistan, where we respect the principle “in together, out together”, for the first time with our troops we are contributing to KFOR in Kosovo, thus demonstrating our true role as a pillar of peace and stability in the region, and with the members of our army we are contributing to the EU-led missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ALTHEA, and in the mission in the Central African Republic, which is a new experience for us. Of course, we are continuing with our contribution to the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon, under the auspices of the United Nations.
In the coming period we will work on the gradual reduction of the number of troops engaged to provide force protection to the NATO headquarters in Afghanistan, but our presence in the “Resolute Support” mission will gain a new dimension and new quality through the deployment of a surgical team within the Norwegian medical contingent from March to September 2021.
It is very important that today North Macedonia has shown its true place in the region, as a country that takes responsibility for the stability and security of its immediate environment as well. Recently, 44 of our soldiers have become part of the NATO-led Kosovo Mission, KFOR, where we are contributing with staff officers to the General Command in Prishtina and troops for providing force protection to the KFOR Regional Command West. Additionally, for 2021 we are planning to increase the contribution to the KFOR mission.
By participating in all these missions, we are demonstrating our value and our determination to participate in the development and implementation of NATO policies, but also to follow the policies of the European Union, which is our next goal and to which we naturally belong.
– How many meetings of NATO’s North Atlantic Council and Military Committee were held in 2020 and at what level?
This year is special in many ways. The restrictions we faced, and are still facing, meant that we had to live and function differently from what we considered normal. But at no point did we, collectively, in NATO, allow this to affect the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. Despite the challenge we faced, NATO countries remain safe and peaceful.
NATO’s decision-making process is based on consensus, which means that every NATO decision is an expression of the common will of all 30 member states.
NATO’s highest decision-making body is the North Atlantic Council (NAC), Chaired by the Secretary General. The NAC meets three times a year at the level of defence ministers and twice at the level of foreign ministers. This year, in order to coordinate our joint activities for responding to the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus, the defence ministers had an additional emergency meeting. In total, the Minister of Defence participated in four, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs in two NAC meetings. Of course, after the pandemic broke out, through a protected video conference connection with NATO established at the Ministry of Defence. The pandemic may have changed the course, but it did not in any way affect the continued contact and coordination with the Alliance and its allies. On the contrary, these activities went smoothly, on all levels and in all areas of the defence.
NATO’s highest military body is the Military Committee, which advises the North Atlantic Council on military affairs. The Military Committee meets three times a year in a session of the Chiefs of Staff. This year, all three scheduled meetings were held, and they were attended by the Chief of the General Staff of the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia. As a full-fledged member, for the first time, our voice was important; for example, in the election of the new Chair of the Military Committee. This creates more opportunities for conducting defence and foreign policy and establishing closer ties and mutual interests with important countries.
Even before the Republic of North Macedonia became a member of NATO, our representatives participated in meetings in this order that were open to partners, but without the right to vote. What has changed fundamentally is that now North Macedonia participates in the decision-making.
This year we held the first multilateral talks between the Republic of North Macedonia and NATO, as the first talks in this format that our country held as a full-fledged member of the Alliance within the NATO process of defence planning, as well as the annual conference for integration of the Republic of North Macedonia in the NATO defence structures. It shows that our integration into all structures of the Alliance, which began after attaining the full-fledged membership, is proceeding smoothly, despite all the challenges we have faced globally.
– Does the Army of the Republic of North Macedonia meet all the standards and criteria of the Alliance?
The Ministry of Defence, especially in the last few years, has been actively and continuously investing in the Army and its members, because we believe that without motivated soldiers, we cannot move forward. In the past, structural problems were created that required systemic solutions, which were also a priority for Minister Shekerinska. And the facts best show that the words have been translated into deeds. We have managed to make a real and really big step forward when it comes to the standard of all members of the Army. When we compare that the income of a professional soldier before 2017 was around 20,000 denars, and now with the two salary increases of a total of 16 percent and the award of rent compensation of about 8,000 denars, the monthly income is over 30,000 denars and we really need to confirm that a real step forward has been made in the area of salaries. That is over 50 percent more funds for the families of our members of the Army!
But, the commitment to the standard of the members does not refer only to their increased salaries. This is followed by all those benefits that previously either did not exist or were not respected. For the first time, all members received a beneficial length of service. Higher fees were provided for pilots, aviation staff, doctors, critical specialties. Additionally, the payment of the jubilee award was provided, the best conditions for retirement with the ten best years were introduced…
The military profession has become a coveted profession, and this can simply be seen through the interest in admitting professional soldiers to the Army. The fact that about 1,800 candidates applied for the last competition for the place of 200 professional soldiers speaks for itself, and is in itself a great success. This guarantees competitiveness for each job, which in turn guarantees quality. The same was the case in the previous competition for 70 professional soldiers when 700 candidates applied. If we compare this with, for example, the competition three years ago when 200 candidates applied for 125 position openings for professional soldiers, it becomes clear what has been done for the standard of soldiers and to what extent has the military profession become interesting for the young people.
– What are the priorities in improving the conditions for the soldiers?
When we talk about the conditions for the soldiers, we can talk about several elements – about the improvement of the working conditions, about the renewal of the personal equipment of the soldiers, about the modernization of the armament.
This year’s budget provided for over three times more funds for reconstruction of facilities and infrastructure in the Army. Of course, the pandemic is a huge challenge in the realization of our plans, but the fact is that the reconstruction projects are moving forward. The Southeast Europe Brigade Headquarters – SEEBRIG HQ is located in a completely renovated building in the “Boro Menkov” Barracks in Kumanovo, a building that was completely dilapidated before. Today, this facility is a true representation of an Army and a member state of the Alliance. We are doing the same for our soldiers. The Honours Battalion, the Ranger Battalion, the Signals Battalion and the 3rd Logistics Battalion will be housed in two completely renovated buildings at the Ilinden Barracks. These buildings that were really left to the ravages of time are being renovated into buildings that are worthy of our soldiers. Buildings with new electrical, plumbing and heating installations, with replaced floors, windows and doors, with a new energy-efficient facade, new roof construction.
In terms of personal equipment – we provided new uniforms and boots at the same time. This has never happened before in the history of our Army.
We also started with a comprehensive process of equipment modernization. In addition to the procurement of new engineering machinery, last year, in accordance with the Government to Government (G2G) contracting principle of agreement, we signed the first contract with the US Government for the procurement of light armoured combat vehicles, two types – Oshkosh JLTV and Stryker that will completely change the face of our Army. A total of 151 vehicles will be procured in a period of four to six years, and the arrival of the first vehicles intended for the Light Infantry Battalion Group is planned for 2022. Mountaineering equipment has been provided for the Army and new equipment for personal protection of all members of the Light Infantry Battalion Group is being procured, and the projects on cyber and air defence are continuing.
– How much are the values of the Alliance incorporated in the Macedonian society?
The values of all NATO member states are clear – democracy, freedom and the rule of law, and respect for public debate in the Allied democracies. In the last 3 years we have achieved strong breakthrough in these values in society, and therefore Minister Shekerinska has repeatedly emphasized that the NATO membership was not presented to us as a gift only because of the resolved dispute with Greece, but that we earned it through reforms and results.
Recognitions for the breakthrough in these values come throughout the year, through domestic and international surveys, which show that North Macedonia is sometimes ranked even higher in comparison to certain members of NATO and the EU.
This year, the Ministry of Defence received the highest score for transparency from the Center for Civil Communications – first place among all institutions at state and local level. It’s an amazing jump in just 3 years – we went up by 45 places. Two more confirmations of this breakthrough in transparency and good governance followed – Transparency International’s international confirmation of attaining the second place in the CEI for operational integrity, which recognizes us as better than 4 EU and 6 NATO member states, and a few years ago the confirmation from Metamorphosis and ACTION SEE – here, with 72.47% as a ministry, we are in second place in the assessment of good governance and openness of the institution, and at the level of the whole country North Macedonia is in first place in the region, rated as the most open executive power of a country before Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Today, there is no difference in the values of the citizens of any ally, with the values of the Macedonian citizens, the Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Roma, Bosniaks and everyone else. North Macedonia is a country of all and a country where everyone is respected. This is also reflected within the Army. An example, of course, is the interest in entering the defence system, which is equally great in all ethnic communities. At the last competition, about 500 Albanians expressed interest in becoming professional soldiers in the Army. This is because, like the Macedonians and the other ethnic communities, they consider this Army as their own.
North Macedonia is one of the leading countries in the implementation of the United Nations Resolution 1325, which is the basis for the NATO member states in the field of gender equality and gender perspective. It is an exceptional value of modern democracies that know that with the full, inclusive involvement of women in defence, not only as figures, but also in the process of working, decision-making and leading, we are gaining another great capacity.
Therefore, we can be both clear and loud when we say that our country fully, without exception, lives the values that are at the core of the Alliance. After all, that is why NATO membership, as well as membership in the European Union, are our strategic goals. Our place is in both of these organizations.
What projects in the field of cyber security were worked on in 2020, what are the priorities in this area this year?
Cyber security is an area that we take very seriously and which was one of our priorities in 2020, as well as in 2021. Cyber threats to the Alliance’s security are becoming more frequent, more complex, more destructive and stronger. This tendency has also been present during the pandemic. NATO is continuously adapting to the latest developments and taking measures to defend its networks and operations against the growing sophistication of the cyber threats and attacks it faces. In this respect, the cooperation with the EU has been intensified.
North Macedonia, as a new member, is continuously working on strengthening the national capacities for dealing with cyber attacks, and NATO is helping us in these efforts. A cyber security strategy has been developed and a procedure for signing a Memorandum of Cooperation with NATO in the field of cyber defence is underway, which enables a coordinated response of the allies in the event of a cyber attack.
In 2021, the defence budget clearly shows that cyber security was one of the priorities. With a 38 percent increase in equipment and modernization compared to the 2020 budget, we will work on equipping and modernizing the Army, and part of those processes is the procurement of IT equipment, crypto-protection equipment and cyber defence. This is not only a declarative support to these commitments, but a real step towards the establishment of a cyber-protection system that is appropriate for a NATO country.
Between 27 January and 7 August 2020, the Military Academy, in cooperation with the NATO School of Oberammergau (NSO) and the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) of Monterrey, organized 2 (two) advanced ten-week NATO trainings on “Network Security” and “Network Vulnerability Assessment and Risk Reduction”. The sponsorship for these trainings was provided by the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) program and the Ministry of Defence.
The two trainings were attended by more than 30 students from 7 different institutions (MoD / ARNM, MIA, MISA, MFA, MKD-CIRT, ANS, DSCI). During the training, the trainees obtained internationally recognized certificates from the NATO School in Oberammergau, as well as the CEH (Certificate Ethical Hacker) certificate from the EC-Council.
– Will NATO membership reduce the number of people with NATO security certification, which happened in other countries when they joined the Alliance?
All officials, but also all employees whose job responsibilities involve working with NATO classified information should have a NATO security certificate. As a partner country, North Macedonia used to exchange classified information with NATO and a number of officials and employees had access to NATO certificates previously, but only to a certain degree of secrecy.
After the membership, in cooperation with NATO, a process of security clearance vetting started for the employees, who according to certain estimates have contact with NATO classified information within their work responsibilities. The vetting is performed according to NATO standards and this process is known to the public as re-vetting.
Security checks are usually lengthy, and from this perspective it is not possible to predict with certainty when this process will end, but it is true that a reduction in the number of people who will have access to classified information is expected.
With the 2020 budget, we have completed another important project in the Ministry – the accession to the NATO Classified Information Access Point, thus fulfilling another important criterion of the Alliance even before the full-fledged membership.
– Will North Macedonia manage to meet the requirement – to have a 2 percent of gross domestic product defence budget in 2024?
The defence budget is, in fact, the basis of all processes. Without funds we cannot realize any project. And, it is not only the amount of funds that indicates whether we will have development or not, but also the way we spend those funds. It is important for us that the citizens’ money truly have an impact on the development of the defence.
At the NATO Summit in Wales, the Allies agreed to increase defence spending, with national budgets reaching 2% of gross domestic product by 2024.
Our defence budget, for the third consecutive year, has been increased, and we are moving towards the desired 2%. In 2021, the defence budget will reach 1.57 percent of GDP, i.e. over 11 billion denars. This year, for the first time, we are fully fulfilling the second obligation that arose from the Wales Summit – and that is more than 20% of the defence budget to be allocated for equipment and modernization. “With these funds, which are 38 percent more than the budget allocated for 2020 for equipment and modernization, we are rejuvenating the Army, improving the standard of army members, ensuring quality logistics support, reconstruction of army facilities, better conditions of our largest training area Krivolak and providing stable funding of the Army which is part of the Alliance.
These funds, as the Minister underlined at the press conference at which she explained the budget for 2021, are first and foremost for our Army, for our country, for our citizens and for their and our common security.
“With the proposed 2021 defence budget for new 0.2 percent of the GDP, with the allocation of 25% for modernization, we have shown that our words can be trusted. That we continue to fulfil the obligations as we did in the period when the NATO membership was pending. We are not doing all of this, all this investments, investing in people and equipment, we are not doing it only for NATO, but first and foremost for our country, for our citizens and for their and our common security. A good state means a good Army, and a good Army needs investments. What we have shown in the past years, we will continue to do in 2021. To invest where the results are already visible,” said the minister.
And, in parallel with that process, it is extremely important for us for the citizens to know where their money is spent, for which we have provided full, maximum transparency, which is seen through the domestic measurements for transparency of the institutions, but also through international measurements.