TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRESS CONFERENCE OF DEFENCE MINISTER RADMILA SHEKERINSKA ON THE OCCASION OF GOVERNMENT’S FIRST 100 DAYS

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Dear journalists and media representatives, good day.

A little over 100 days ago, I accepted the challenge of being Defense Minister of the Republic of Macedonia, knowing that the defense and army of our country together are one of the two key foreign policy strategic goals and pillars on which our country rests.

I was also motivated by the fact that I once headed a young team that started from scratch and managed to give Macedonia the candidate status for EU membership. To be honest, we are all aware that our country faces major problems and that these problems are visible in complex areas such as the defense, but I did not expect that after completing so many programs for NATO membership in 17 years and the at the beginning of the 18th, I will find not only a situation stuck at ground zero, but a situation with a red minus. And in all respects: extremely low budget for the Army and the defense, lack of basic conditions for day-to-day execution of soldiers’ obligations, obsolescence and lack of maintenance of the equipment, strained relations, 82 million Euros worth of contracts signed with one firm, nullified only a few days before the election of the new government. There was not enough money to pay the salaries of the employees in the MOD and the ARM, and on the other hand, after we took away the secrecy of the travel documents in the country and abroad, as well as the representational expenses, the whole public could see that on the expense of the military which had no boots, officials from this ministry spent money easily, excessively and without any restrain. I realized that in some areas the situation was worse than the most dire predictions.

Despite the declarative commitment of the last government for NATO membership, we found halted reforms and postponement of all key processes. Instead of every day closer to the desired NATO membership with each passing day, with the everyday irrational squandering in the defense, the country was increasingly moving away from that goal.

The situation was worse than all our expectations and predictions, but in politics I always worked with a strong belief that if there is a clear political will, a clear goal and a responsible work, it is possible to improve things. Let me use today’s press conference to announce what we started and completed during the first 100 days in the Ministry of Defense as part of the new Government.

1. We returned the focus on the key defense reforms and our NATO membership

On the first day, as a Minister of Defense, I pledged to devote myself to strengthening the international reputation and position of our country, and its consensually declared strategic goal – NATO membership. I have committed myself to providing the necessary reforms that will increase our security and guarantee the professionalism and efficiencz of our Army. After one hundred days of work of the Government and after one hundred days of working as the MOD, I am happy to say that the Republic of Macedonia is once again seen as a credible entity on the international arena, and that the focus on the key defense reforms and our NATO membership has been restored. We gave our word and we are really sticking to it every day.

From the first official visit of the government delegation to Brussels where we had meetings with the first people of the EU and NATO, through my meetings with colleagues, defense ministers from several countries in the region (Albania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Romania) and representatives of almost all NATO member countries, we have made a breakthrough in presenting the new government policy of returning the country on the path of good neighborly relations, partnership and cooperation. We have demonstrated that that we are ready to face the problems and solve them, not to seek only the culprits and to pile up the unresolved issues.

The international community and NATO recognized our determination to use the second chance after 11 years of standstill. To deliver the reforms we have committed ourselves to. This was followed by the clear support of the US Vice President Pence, who clearly stated that the US, our strategic partner with whom we concluded this strategic cooperation agreement, stands behind the Republic of Macedonia in its commitments for NATO integration.

The NATO Alliance is a serious organization, its members are serious countries, and membership in such an organization is obtained by meeting serious criteria. But, NATO membership for the Republic of Macedonia means much more. This means safe and secure citizens, stronger economic growth which brings security for the investors, this means a higher standard of living, because reliable investors and safe citizens are willing to invest, create jobs and pay better salaries. Only with a stable region and a secure Macedonia, our economy achieve positive results, and the standard will grow.

Strategic partnerships are not only words. We turned them into deeds. The joint exercise “Dragoon Guardian” confirms that the Republic of Macedonia is a serious partner that NATO and the strategic partners can rely on. Just like our participation in NATO peacekeeping missions, for which the ARM and Macedonia receive only praise, have shown that this strategic partnership is a plus for both Macedonia and NATO. That is why I met with our peacekeepers from Afghanistan, that is why I visited our soldiers on the exercises in Romania and Slovenia – to show that our country appreciates their sacrifices and efforts.

Keeping our word also refers to our strategic goals. This means that both as a Government, and in my capacity as the Minister of Defense we will stick to the obligations that Macedonia has long declared in terms of increasing the defense budget, which is the basis for obtaining a high-qualified and professional army, and an army equipped with modern equipment. For that purpose, we proposed and the Government agreed that in the future budgets each year the funds allocated for the defense of our security, for NATO membership, will increase to the obligation of 2% of the GDP.

Macedonia – 30th member of NATO, not only because of its strategic goal, but also as a guarantee of the safety of our citizens, a modern and satisfied Army and a country with secure economic growth.

2. We restarted the blocked process for the preparation of the Strategic Defense Review, which is a key document defining the defense reforms and reforms in the Army, a key document for NATO membership.

When I assumed office, I encountered a complete block of the process of drafting the Strategic Defense Review. This is the key defense document of the country which enables building consensus in these policies and which brings Macedonia closer to NATO. The strategic defense review is the basis on which the Long-Term Defense Development Plan is built which is the foundation for all decisions related to the modernization and equipping.

The first Strategic Defense Review was conducted in 2004 and it was the basis for our reforms aimed at NATO membership even in that period.

The previous government pledged, and it also informed NATO that it had begun work on the Strategic Defense Review and that it would be ready by mid-2018. It is a serious document that requires long-term work.

The information issued by the Government was that it was started almost two years ago, but I did not find a single written page in the Ministry of Defense.

For the past 100 days, this has been one of our key priorities. We started working on this document and we have already provided advisory support from the US, UK, Bulgaria and the NATO office in Skopje. We want to use the support system that helped Montenegro to become the 29th NATO member, and we have already received Slovenian support to that end.

We have restarted the whole process despite the delay, and we intend to present this strategic document for discussion and public insight by June this year. This document will define how the ARM will be transformed, how the ARM will be modernized, the manner of reforming the entire sector and how Macedonia will obtain its NATO membership.

  1. 1.      The internal situation – improvement of the situation and more efficient MOD/ARM

Our goal and our important task was to improve the conditions and make the defense, the Army and the Ministry more efficient and with higher quality in its tasks.

You are familiar with the case of the termination of equipment contracts. Only two days before the change of government, four of the concluded contracts were terminated, all having had the same contractor. Thus, the ARM lost 82 million Euros for modernization this year.

We also found that the funds for salaries in the MOD and ARM were spent excessively by the end of May 2017 and we were aware of the risk of not having enough money for payment of the salaries, pays and benefits for missions and part of the pensions that are paid from the defense budget through the Pension and Disability Insurance Fund of Macedonia.

With the budget rebalance, we provided unobstructed payment of salaries, allowances of the Army members, the salaries of the personnel deployed in missions and the pensions that I mentioned previously (persons who got early retirement under the Military Service).

The absence of care of the previous management was also revealed in the unfulfilled obligation under the Collective Agreement to help the families of MOD and ARM employees in the in last year’s floods. That injustice has been corrected, we paid the indemnity.

On the other hand, there are shocking examples of squandering money for which we plan measures and changes in the manner of work in the Ministry. In addition to the dubious contracts and the secret representation expenses, it is interesting that on 1 June I encountered a situation with unreturned advances for business trips, tuitions and missions in the amount of 128,670 Euros and 234,108 USD, part of which were due for months and years. It took me nearly three months to get most of them back so that the law is observed by everyone and for everyone. Lawsuits are filed for 6 persons for debts in the amount from 4,000 Euros to 5,500 USD. One of them, unfortunately, is also a member of the Cabinet of the former minister, who no longer works in the MoD and who was given just 15 days before the election of the new government an advance of 5,000 Euros for a business trip that lasted 3 days. What we are doing right now is changing part of the procedures so that this situation can never be possible again.

I talked with representatives of the four unions about the really poor standard and working conditions of the soldiers. Our common goal is that the policy of improving the situation that begins at the top of the hierarchy reaches every soldier.

In the 2018 draft budget which we are already negotiating, my key objective is to provide better and dignified working conditions and improve the equipping level and the readiness of the Army.

We have already selected the most favorable bidder and we signed a contract for procurement of 3,000 military trousers. Our goal is to provide new uniforms for the entire army next year.

 We have also begun a procedure for reconstruction of two facilities in the barracks “Goce Delchev” and “Ilinden” in Skopje, but I want to assure you that this is only a very small segment of the substantial and urgent needs for refurbishing of the premises in which our Army reside and operate. But, I am planning a special press conference on this topic on which I will explain the situation and our plan how to solve the problems.

Some of the representatives of the trade unions complained about the politicization of the selection of professional soldiers, the reception of cadets at the Military Academy and the general level of politicization in the work of the MOD and the Army in the previous period. We have introduced changes in the admission procedure for students at the MA, we have increased the transparency, which has already yielded results. The testing of the candidates is now performed anonymously using a code, without a name and surname, the psychophysical testing is conducted entirely in the Military Medical Centre, but also with external members of the State Medical Clinic. The epilogue is – 23 candidates have been admitted and I am pleased that in a transparent procedure we succeeded to get candidates who meet the requirements for equitable representation, but we also have male and female members, which indicates that the military, officer profession and career in the ARM is not exclusively a male domain.

In the end, I would like to emphasize my satisfaction that during the past three months, the MOD and the Army were at the disposal of the citizens for help. The ARM was involved in the extinguishing of the fires, and the Ministry of Defense provided monetary rewards for the soldiers involved in the fire extinguishing. The funds will be paid when it will be legally allowed, once the entire election procedure has been completed. The Ministry of Defense made available the capacities in the military camp in Ohrid for the citizens who were upset by the numerous earthquakes, and the ARM is also helping today in the construction of the local bridges that were destroyed in the floods in Tetovo region.

It shows that the relationship between the citizens and the Army is strong and that only in this way we can make this country a safer and better place to live.

I am aware that the strong pressures for political partization from the past have reduced the motivation of the professionals in this sector. Professionals make the institutions strong and efficient and this will be one of the permanent policies that will be important for Macedonia becoming a NATO member and improving its Army, guaranteeing the security of its citizens.

 Thank you!

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