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Promoting Justice 6,351 Miles from Home

Truckee attorney Mark Lasser helps to improve the rule of law in Macedonia
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A Brief History of Macedonia

Macedonia is a land-locked country that sits in the center of the Balkans, bordering Albania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece. Officially named in most international institutions as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” it is mired in a name dispute with Greece related to the word “Macedonia” and its alleged Greek historical implications. Macedonia was previously a republic within Yugoslavia until it declared independence in 1991. Because Macedonia was occupied by the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1389 for more than 500 years, there is a strong Turkish influence there and throughout the Balkans. Macedonia’s current population is approximately two million persons. It is named after the empire (parts are in present-day Macedonia, Bulgaria, and northern Greece) built during the 300s B.C. by Philip II of Macedon, who was Alexander the Great’s father and a military genius.

Currently, Macedonia contains majority ethnic Slavic and large ethnic Albanian minority populations. Residents speak Albanian and Macedonian, the official national language. The capital and largest city, Skopje, has a historic Ottoman section along the Vardar river, and is surrounded by scenic Mt. Vodno, where a large “millennium” cross on top was constructed in the year 2000 to celebrate 2000 years of Christianity in Macedonia and worldwide.

By MARK LASSER  |  Moonshine Ink

I was sitting in a room at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia with the deputy ambassador, my local legal associate, and the parents and relatives of four ethnic Macedonians who had been brutally murdered, execution style, in April 2012. One of the defendants in the case, an ethnic Albanian and Macedonian citizen, had fled to Kosovo, a country bordering Macedonia with whom the U.S. has close relations. It was a highly tense and emotional setting. One of the parents asked if the U.S. government could instruct the Kosovar government to extradite to Macedonia the person who had absconded. “We know the Albanians will do whatever you tell them … and you Americans always favor Albanians,” the family member pleaded.

After an uncomfortable pause we explained that our mission in Macedonia was to support institution building and the rule of law generally, but not to become involved in individual cases that would violate the sovereignty of both Macedonia and Kosovo.  

How did I get here?

I started my legal career as a business and antitrust litigator in the Bay Area after graduating from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. An avid skier, I later expanded my legal practice to include both San Francisco and Truckee in order to spend more time working and living in Lake Tahoe. I have lived and practiced law in Truckee for nearly 20 years.

Between 2002 and 2009, I worked for nearly five years in Albania and Kosovo on other rule of law and democracy building projects. This Balkans experience led me later to accept another rule of law position in Macedonia in December, 2013 with the U.S. State Department.

Supporting Criminal Justice Reform in Macedonia

A key U.S. foreign policy goal in the Republic of Macedonia is to support Macedonian efforts to improve the rule of law with the ultimate goal of helping Macedonia join the European Union and NATO. To assist with this goal, from December 2013 to 2015 I worked as the Senior Justice Advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje and implemented a criminal law reform project funded by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs within the U.S. State Department. I lived in U.S. Embassy housing and worked closely with other sections of the embassy (including political affairs, police training, and security), other embassies, and international organizations.

In Macedonia, I managed a training program for local judges, prosecutors, and attorneys, and supported capacity-building of the justice institutions. I conducted training myself, and received assistance from a mix of local and international experts. Federal and state judges (some from California) and prosecutors traveled “pro bono” to share U.S. “best practices” and assist with training on various topics, including criminal procedure, sentencing, anti-corruption, judicial and prosecutorial ethics, and anti-terrorism. Local Truckee judge Robert L. “Bob” Tamietti traveled to Macedonia twice to assist with the training of judges and to share California’s experience with probation reform, addressing prison-overcrowding, and employing alternative punishments to incarceration for convicted persons. One prominent federal judge who assisted was the former roommate of Bill Clinton when both were Rhodes scholars, and another was the former chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

During a 2014 U.S. study trip, Macedonian high-level judicial officials (including the chief prosecutor) visited the Truckee courthouse to witness a small town contrast to the urban courts and legal institutions the group visited in the Bay Area. In many ways, Truckee is more comparable to small towns in Macedonia than big cities like San Francisco are.

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May 10, 2018