Great Falls is far from the headquarters of international diplomacy. It’s fair to say that the small community on the edge of the Rocky Mountains has little influence on state affairs. And yet this assumption could be wrong.
On Friday, a delegation of five young judges from the eastern European country of North Macedonia arrived at Great Falls Airport to attend a week-long conference that could help that country in its bid to join the European Union. Her arrival marks the recent success of the Open World Leadership Center, a government-funded program that brings young leaders from countries dominated by the former Soviet Union to the United States to promote understanding of the people and their democratic institutions.
Her visit is funded by a grant from the Congressional Office of International Leadership, a branch of the US Congress. The City of Great Falls International Relations Advisory Commission will host the eight-day event.
“Judges from North Macedonia visit Montana to learn about ethics and the justice system,” according to a press release from the Open World Leadership Center. “In particular, North Macedonia has applied for membership of the European Union. One of the many requirements is to verify your country’s ability to crack down on serious crime and public corruption. These North Macedonian judges are young judges and will soon shape their country’s judicial policy. In addition, they have stated that they also want to learn how to make their courtrooms more efficient.”
Become a target for collaboration
So why Montana and how did Great Falls become a destination for international collaboration?
For more than a decade, a program called Open World has brought young leaders from post-Soviet emerging economies to Montana. Previous delegations have included doctors from Ukraine to learn about telemedicine and Ukrainian firefighters, many of whom are now putting the skills they learned in Montana into practice on the battlefield with Russia.
Founded in 1999, the Open World Leadership Center has enabled more than 24,000 hostings in 2,300 communities across all 50 states, with Great Falls hosting nearly 100 delegates, the press release said.
“The crowning moment was 2012,” said Lynn Baker, Great Falls’ program director and attorney. “We had a group of Supreme Court Justices from the Republic of Tarterstan. It is located in Russia, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) south-east of Moscow on the Volga. Although Tarterstan is part of Russia, it is considered a semi-autonomous republic. “
This visit to Montana included meetings with Montana Chief Justice Patricia O’Brien Cotter and Montana District Court Judge Kenneth Neill. These meetings facilitated the establishment of Tarterstan’s first juvenile court system and helped cement Montana’s reputation as a welcoming destination for cross-border cooperation.
“They’ve never had a juvenile court system,” Baker explained. “If you were a young person who broke the law, they just threw you in jail with the 40-year-olds. Because of what they saw in Montana … they were able to establish that type of system in their own republic.”
Because of this and other experiences, Great Falls is considered a desirable destination for diplomatic exchanges.
“Great Falls, Montana is a city well known throughout Eurasia and the post-Soviet region for the incredible welcome and hospitality shown to these delegates by the residents of that city,” said project co-coordinator Dr. Sandra Ericson. It makes me proud to call Great Falls home.”
Judges schedule meetings with lawmakers, judges, and the public
The current delegation to Montana includes five Macedonian judges, all under the age of 40, who are coming to the United States for the first time to participate in the leadership program and learn about the importance of legislative functions in creating and maintaining democracies.
North Macedonia gained independence in 1991 after the war in Yugoslavia. It is a landlocked country north of Greece, wedged between Bulgaria to the east and Albania to the west. North Macedonia became a member of NATO in 1993 and has repeatedly applied for membership of the European Union. These attempts were blocked by disputes with Greece and Bulgaria.
The Council of Europe has yet to decide on North Macedonia’s current application for membership of the European Union, which is currently under consideration by GRECO, a sub-committee overseeing nation-states’ compliance with anti-corruption standards.
“From the Council of Europe’s perspective, the main obstacle to North Macedonia’s bid to join the European Union is corruption in the country’s judicial system,” Baker said. “GRECO issued its last report in 2021. North Macedonia has made satisfactory progress in all but 10 areas dealing with corruption, both at high levels of government and in the police force.”
“Corruption is a problem that will never go away,” Baker said of North Macedonia’s political problems, “but in a very poor country, it’s a bigger problem,” Baker noted. “The federal prosecutor’s office will talk to you about how we deal with white-collar crime at the highest level.”
“Companies don’t like corruption because it steals bribes,” he added. “It makes investing in big companies risky, and corruption brings with it big organized crime that causes all sorts of problems. Those are the things we’re going to talk about in detail. They are eager to learn and share information about our justice system.”
While in central Montana, the delegation will have a busy schedule. You will meet with federal judges, federal prosecutors, district judges and local attorneys, as well as professors from the Alexander Blewett III School of Law in Missoula, Justices of the Montana Supreme Court in Helena, Gov. Greg Gianforte, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines.
A part of the visit of the Macedonian delegation is also a meeting with the people of Montana. As part of this goal, the public is invited to attend a free presentation with the North Macedonia judges at Great Falls College MSU on Friday. The delegation will speak about their country, culture and experiences during their visit to Montana.
The public presentation at Great Falls College is a good opportunity for local people to experience global interactions and citizen diplomacy, Erickson said.
“What we’re looking for is for people in the area to know they’re coming and want to talk to them this Friday morning,” Erickson said. “They want to get to know Americans. They want to talk to Americans. They want to get to know us and share their country’s experiences.”
Meet the North Macedonian judges
A free public presentation with the delegation of North Macedonia judges will be held Friday at 10:00 a.m. at Great Falls Collage-MSU, Room B-101, 2100 16th Ave. South instead. Guests will talk about their country, culture and experiences during their visit to Montana.