Across Europe leading politicians and business leaders are putting their faith in Macedonia, and it’s time America did the same.
This small country, still relatively fresh from independence, has been ignored for too long. Today, it is growing in influence and is now crucial to European and global security, as well as posing great opportunity for American interests.
This weekend the people of Macedonia go to the polls. I am confident they will return the ruling party to power, and that former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevksi, who first took office in 2006, will mark this tenth anniversary with another term in office.
Recent years have not been easy for Macedonia. It has struggled with domestic political deadlock, a fractured relationship with the European Union on its doorstep, and it found itself at the desperate heart of Europe’s migrant crisis.
Yet this result will be a welcome relief to the international community who have been applauding Gruevski’s vigorous reforms to transform the economy, and his leadership in bringing stability and improved security to the region.
The fact that it has weathered these storms and grown stronger for it should be a clear signal of how resilient and influential this country can be.
So why now should America take notice, and why are so many European leaders throwing their weight behind Gruevski?
There are two clear reasons: business and security.
The past decade has seen an economic transformation in Macedonia. Business prospects in the country are healthier than ever, with some of the greatest opportunities anywhere in the world.
In the past couple of months PWC has named the country as the best in Eastern Europe and Asia for paying taxes, KMPG has rated it as one of the top new places for ease of starting a business, and the World Bank recently named it as the 10th best location in the world for doing business.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the UK, the vice president of the ruling Conservative Party Mark Fields MP recently met with Gruevski, commending progress, saying Macedonia should be proud of what the government has achieved.
The UK remains one of the top trading partners with Macedonia, and Fields was keen to insist that he believed his Government would ensure this relationship would ‘keep advancing in the years to come’.
With strong business and trade comes greater stability. And Macedonia’s role in what has traditionally been a very unstable region is vital.
Recently, Grueksi’s ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, held a election rally in the capital Skopje, where the Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz addressed the crowd. It is unusual for a foreign politician to appear in another country’s election – but these are unusual times.
In less than two years more than one million refugees have sought transit through Austria, and many through Macedonia.
The countries were at breaking point. So Macedonia took a stand. It was the first country to make a move, declaring a state of emergency as it reinforced its borders to stem off routes. Foreign Minister Kurz thanked the crowd for the Government’s work: “Without the help of your Government we would not have been able to close the Balkan route. I am very grateful for your support,” he said.
Austria is not alone. In Germany the Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehorfer also praised efforts, criticizing other countries for being slow to respond. “We in Germany benefited from this,” he said. “Macedonia basically did what Germany was supposed to do.” And Edmund Stoiber, a leading figure in European and German politicis, described Macedonia’s actions “succeeding where many other countries couldn’t”
Increasingly European leaders are recognizing the vital role Macedonia will play in the flow of refugees, and also the flow of terror.
In June, Macedonian police arrested four men they suspected to have fought alongside ISIS. Authorities estimate as many as 130 people have fought or are currently fighting alongside Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq. And recent reports indicate as many as 1,000 individuals have traveled from the western Balkans to support militias in Syria and Iraq.
America remains the largest and most successful actor on the world stage. For our own security and our own prosperity, it is time we paid attentions to smaller countries with big potential.
Gen. Ronald L. Johnson (ret.) is the former commander of USACE’s Gulf Region Division (GRD) and U.S. deputy director of the Program Management Office (PMO) in Iraq. He is also a former deputy commanding general and deputy chief of engineers (COO).