Katerina: Hello to everyone following us live at the US Embassy Tirana Facebook page! I’m Katerina Hatija, the alumni coordinator for the State Department’s YES program, and a student of informatics.
Merxhan Daci: Hello everyone! I’m Merxhan Daci, a recent journalism graduate and one of the participants of Embassy’s Investigative Journalism Lab project.
Katerina: We have the pleasure of being here today with Ambassador Donald Lu in his residence. This is our first ever Facebook LIVE chat, and we will be asking him the questions you have submitted earlier on the Embassy Facebook page.
Merxhan: If you have any questions that you would like to ask, it’s not too late to make them. Welcome Ambassador Lu.
Ambassador Lu: Faleminderit. Përshëndetje Katerina, përshëndetje Merxhan. Welcome to all of you who are following us live today. I am delighted to welcome you to my home and I look forward to taking your questions.
Katerina: Our first question is on corruption, it comes from Dritan Qoku. He says: Mr. Lu, I’m interested in buying a pair of glasses through which I could see only the problems of the judicial system but not corruption or cannabis. If SOROS is not selling them, can I borrow yours?
Ambassador Lu: Dritan, thank you for a first very spicy question. You are more than welcome to borrow my glasses. The only problem is that without my glasses, I really can’t see anything. Let me say a word about corruption and about narcotics. First, I have seen in my short two years here incredible progress on anti-corruption in Albania. First, as all of you know, through judicial reform – there are big changes coming for Albania in terms of the creation of the independent prosecutor and the national bureau for investigation, BKH, that will be able to go after high-level corruption like never before. Second, on decriminalization, we have said farewell to a number of criminal and corrupt politicians – among them, I can think of Xhelili, Frroku, Muhameti, Petraj, Ndoka and Kokëdhima. Now, we have still a couple who are facing criminal charges – Prenga and Rroshi – but they are under trial as we speak. I think this is an enormous change, not only of legislation, but of culture. Albanian people are tired of these corrupt officials and want to see change. On drugs, I know later on in this chat we are likely to get some very specific questions on drugs, but let me just to start: I value action over words and so the real question should be not who can complain the loudest about the problem of drugs but how do Albanians and international partners, how do we recognize the problems that exist here and how we work together to solve them.
Merxhan: Next we have a question from Geo Taku. Mr. Ambassador, some time ago you said that “any of the judges who has a watch that costs more than my car, is corrupted.” Since that day, have you found any corrupted judges? Because if you have, it means that those judges are corrupted and should go to prison. If you haven’t, it means that there is no corruption in Albania. Then why build all this farce of the judicial reform?
Ambassador Lu: Geo, thank you very much for this question. It is true – my comment about the watches has received a lot of attention from judges and prosecutors and made me no friends in the court. I want to talk for a moment to about what happened in Kosovo. In Kosovo, they had a judicial reform. In Kosovo, 35% percent of judges and prosecutors either resigned or were removed as a result of judicial reform. I think in Albania the percentage will likely be much higher. This reform is moving forward. This vetting is a key part of this reform. I am convinced that once Albanians, through this process, are able to remove judges and prosecutors who are corrupt, who are not qualified or who are politically manipulated. This will be an enormous step forward for this country.
Katerina: We have another question on corruption from Ardenal Ferhati. He asks, are you tired of the Albanian politics and what do you suggest for us who are tired too? What should we do in order to put pressure on them?
Ambassador Lu: Ardenal, in many countries of the world, people are tired of politics. I myself as an American, I watch the news every day and when I wake up in the morning I see stories filled with controversy and very harsh political rhetoric. I think the worst thing we can do is to give up. I both of our societies, in Albania and America, we have sacrificed so much for the democratic freedoms that we enjoy today. What I really believe to be true about Albania is change is right around the corner. And, as I meet young people in Albania, I am convinced the next generation of leadership will bring Albania into a brighter European future. So, I counsel a little patience, Dritan, and I also suggest that you consider being one of those next generation leaders.
Merxhan: Let’s move to some questions on judicial reform; we received over 40 on this issue. We’ll start with Geri Llupo. Ambassador Lu, do you have a Plan-B on the Vetting Law and the judicial reform should the Constitutional Court declare it anti-constitutional and should the Venice Commission announce its compliance with the new constitution? And in the same vein, Ilir Vata asked the most liked question on our page. It is: Do you consider the Constitutional Court’s decision on the Vetting Law as the EU and U.S. investment gone bad? What is your message to the Albanian politics in general, the justice system and to the Albanians who eagerly wait for the fight against corruption to succeed?
Ambassador Lu: Thanks very much. Geri and Ilir, wonderful questions and questions I know a lot of Albanians are asking. Plan A and Plan B for this vetting implementation is the same – It is to respect the authority of the constitutional court and to implement the Constitution of Albania. So, before the court there is a decision and I think there are two obvious outcomes. One would be for the court may decide to uphold the law, which would mean then, immediately afterwards, the government and the parliament will implement the law with the support of international monitors. The second option is that the court may find that there are problems with the law, things that they will ask be changed. And so they will then send that back to the parliament and my hope is the parliament very quickly will make those changes and reapprove the law. The reform is moving forward despite this small delay.
Katerina: We have another question on judicial reform and Endri asks: Would you say that your mission as an Ambassador has failed if the judicial reform will not be implemented?
Ambassador Lu: Endri, I think it is normal for Albanians to be a little worried about the implementation of such a big and sweeping reform. What I would like to repeat is that this reform is irreversible. It was adopted by unanimous support in the parliament and it is part of your constitution. There is no going back. There is no reversing this reform. What I believe to be true as well is that all of your international partners stand with the Albanian people to help to ensure that there is a high quality of implementation of the reform. There is a movie I like very much called Apollo 13 and in that movie they have a famous line, which I think is true for this judicial reform process, they say: “Failure is not an option.”
Merxhan: OK, let’s move on to a question from Dritan Haxhia. Dritan asks: Honorable Ambassador Lu, can you tell us how do you manage to keep such an enviable calmness during your meetings with state officials and other politicians, knowing how corrupted and what scoundrels they are? What should we do with them? Best of luck!
Ambassador Lu: Dritan, so I was born in Hollywood, California, and my grandmother actually comes from Hawaii and we Californians and Hawaiians are known in the United States as being calm people, very laid back. In addition to that, I’m 50 years old, in the next few years I’ll get to retire and I know I get to retire to a beautiful place like California. This issue of corruption, of the scoundrels you talk about, corruption is true in all of our societies. American jails are filled with criminal and corrupt politicians and government workers. We have mayors, we have judges, we have governors; we have local officials in prison today for corruption. It’s not whether corrupt officials exist; it’s whether our societies, our democratic societies are smart enough to catch them. I have been very impressed in two years in Albania. The Albanian people are very smart; I have great confidence in them.
Katerina: Now we have questions about drugs; we have received almost 20 questions on this issue. Erenik Peka asks: Ambassador Lu, how come the United States has never spoken on the danger we face from all the drugs that are being planted everywhere? Please, tell us, are we in danger? And Irina asks the same question: You have spoken about everything but the cannabis planting from north to south.
Ambassador Lu: Erenik and Irina, what is clear to me is that the work of the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian service flying over Albania to map illegal drug production has concluded that cultivation of drugs has increased over the past year. What I have said before and I repeat now is that the entire government of Albania needs to do more. As foreign partners, I think we need to do more as well. Let me list some of the things that the United States is already doing. First, the American Drug Enforcement Agency – DEA – is working very closely with Albanian authorities to arrest drug traffickers, big fish, and we are particularly focused on those trafficking heroin and cocaine through this country. Second, for seven years, we have worked with the Ministry of Education in the schools of Albania, to help to teach young people about the danger of drugs. I have in my career lived in many countries where a whole generation is lost to the terrible spread of illegal narcotics; and, third, through our training, through our technical expertise and through the deployment of commercial technology, high-tech scanning technology, we are supporting Albanian border police and customs in the seizure of more illegal drugs coming into and going out of Albanian borders. I do really want to say though, that for all of those people who are critical of what’s happening right now and fighting in the media over the drug problem, my request to all of them is: stop fighting and try to find a way that we can both recognize the very serious problems that are happening in Albania and work together to solve them.
Merxhan: We have a question about American investment in Albania. Armand Alushaj asks: What is the amount of the American investments in Albania and why don’t you work to raise the bar?
Ambassador Lu: Armand, thank you. It is true that American investment is low in Albania. And in fact, with the departure this year of investment in the oil sector and in the Rinas Airport, it’s shrinking. Now, the United States is a free economy, like Albania; we cannot instruct companies on where they should invest. What we can do is work with other governments to help them build a business environment which attracts foreign and domestic investment. In Albania, we have seen huge steps forward this year, most notably judicial reform. Under judicial reform, international and domestic investors will know that their investments are safe and protected by the law. In addition, we have seen steps forward this year in issuing building permits and anti-corruption for business. We are working every day with the Government of Albania and the business community to help them look at questions like contract sanctity, on a predictable tax regime, and on making sure that the rights available to all business people, whether they be domestic or international, are protected under the law. I am confident, if the government focuses on these priorities, that American investment will return to Albania.
Katerina: We have a few questions on young people and the future of Albania. Skerdi Lamçellari says: I have posted this question many times but I never get an answer. Mr. Lu, what is your opinion on the unemployment rate and how do you explain the fact that many people – mostly youth – want to immigrate to the U.S.? And Romina Kaloshi asks: Mr. Ambassador, do you think the Albanian youth has any future in this country, considering that everyone wants to leave? And I am one of them, and cannot see a future here.
Ambassador Lu: Skerdi and Romina, I get this question a lot. In fact, I recently had a conversation with young people at the European University of Tirana and I’ll tell you what I told them. People tell me that young people want to leave Albania and yet, I don’t meet those people; I don’t buy that story. I think it’s very true that some students want to study abroad, in other countries. That’s true in the United States, it’s true in Europe, it’s true in Albania; that’s normal. But, I meet all these young people who want to stay here in Albania and who want to contribute meaningfully to the development of their country. This is a beautiful country, with plentiful natural resources and rich farmland. What I believe to be very important though is that young people feel the confidence that after they work hard in school, in university, and graduate that there will be jobs waiting for them after they finish. To have those jobs it’s important that government and society attract investment, attract investment from Albanians and from foreigners, to fuel economic activity and create employment. And through that, I can see steps moving forward but we all have to work harder.
Merxhan: Skerdi Vila has a question about Albania’s military. He asks: Mr. Ambassador, does the U.S. have any plans for strengthening and modernizing the Albanian military forces?
Ambassador Lu: Thank you, Skerdi. This is something we really like to talk about. It is one of the three main goals of the U.S. government in Albania, which is to help Albania be a stronger NATO ally. We are doing a number of things to help Albania’s military. First, we provide to Albania the opportunity for Albanian officers and Albanian soldiers to study in the United States. Second, we are bringing training here to Albania, intensive training for your special forces. Third, we have helped to create the capacity within the Albanian armed forces for a world-class response for the identification of and the disarming of explosives. We are also supporting with money, technology, and equipment the modernization of Albania’s military and helping it to be compatible with NATO standards. Lastly, but I would say most importantly, we work with the Minister of Defense and her Armed Forces to make sure we are also talking about issues of human rights in the military, and anticorruption, because ultimately, we believe NATO is not only a military force, but an alliance of values.
Katerina: Here we have an interesting question, Gazemend Hasa asks, Mr. Lu, from 1 to 10, how would you rate the SP-LSI government?
Ambassador Lu: Gazemend, a really tough question. Let me see if I can answer it this way: some of the ministries of this government I would rate at a ten. Other ministries I would rate at a zero. This government is doing important work in reform, but parts of the government are also disappointing the Albanian people and not living up to the expectations. Now, the obvious follow-up question is: Mr. Ambassador, who are the 10s and who are the 0s. As a foreigner in your country is not up to me to tell you who are the 10s and who are the 0s. I think that is really a job for the Albanian public, for investigative journalists, and for civil society to reveal. I will say I have to be a little careful as an American diplomat as well. I am constantly being provoked by the media to try to discover whether the U.S. government favors the Socialists, or the Democrats, or LSI. I want to say very clearly: what we are committed to is doing our jobs. In my case it is to represent the American people and for me, the best way to represent the American people, is to have relations with a broad spectrum of political parties in support of American interests.
Merxhan: Klajdi Gorrea wants to know about European integration. Klajdi asks, Will we ever become as one of the European countries? Do you think we are on the right path?
Ambassador Lu: Klajdi, I am guessing you are a young person. My theory is older people, people who have seen all the change of the last 25 years, much of that change very positive, can see the progress Albania is making towards a European future. For some young people is a little harder to see that progress, but think of us foreigners. We are a little as time travelers in that we get to check in with Albania every few months or years and we see change happening in very big steps forward. I had a visit a few months ago from Ambassador John Withers, our former ambassador here and just recently in September by Ambassador Alex Arvizu. Both of them had been away from Albania for several years and they were amazed by the progress this country is making. And, I will tell you, honestly, I have only been here for two years. I am very impressed with what I have seen, on decriminalization, on judicial reform, on anti-corruption. And for me, what is the most compelling evidence that Albania is moving forward is the fact that some corrupt politicians, judges, and prosecutors are afraid, and maybe, they ought to be afraid because change is happening.
Katerina: I think many of us are curious about U.S. elections coming up this Tuesday. Sabail Gjyli asks: Who will you vote on November 8th and why?
Ambassador Lu: So, many of you know that for American citizens living overseas, you vote by mail. In my case in the state of California, they emailed me a ballot about a month ago. My wife and I both filled in our ballots, we sealed them up, we put them in the mail. So I have already voted. What I also know as a government employee, as a civil servant, I have to remain neutral in this election publicly. So, I cannot tell you who I voted for but I can also tell you that whoever gets elected in Washington, I will work for that person. We have a proud tradition in the United States, of civil servants, government professional employees, working with Democrats, working with Republicans, supporting whoever is to be elected representative of our country.
Merxhan: Well, we have some more questions coming in, this one is from Donald Hysaj. Mr. Ambassador, hello. I just want to hear it from you personally Is America really the place we hear and see on the media? The place with street painted of gold or is it just dirty and dark? My point is, is it really worth leaving Albania seeking a better life in the U.S.?
Ambassador Lu: So, Donald, one of the things I hope you and many other Albanians have an opportunity to do is to visit the United States. We have every year greater and greater numbers of Albanians travelling to the U.S. to do business, to visit Disneyland, to go and see relatives living in Boston, Detroit, or Los Angeles. It’s one of the best parts of our relationship, the travel back and forth between our countries. But, you ask a really interesting question: is the United States really like it is in the movies? As someone born in Hollywood, I will admit, American movies do not portray the full picture of the United States. And for those of you who visited the United States, if you only go to New York, Washington D.C., or Los Angeles that is also not really the real America. In my opinion, when you get to travel to America, I would love for Albanians to visit the big cities, but also visit the small towns and villages of the United States. Many of our students who travel from Albania to the United States, get to experience small towns and communities across the U.S. and what they find is that America is a lot like Europe and Albania. There are rich communities, there are poor communities. There are communities that are thriving in terms of and integration and tolerance, and there are communities that struggle everyday with issues of race, with gender, with violence. We have problems in the United States, but, we, as a democracy, like Albania, are learning to live with those problems and to talk about them and find ways to solve them.
Katerina: Here’s a question from Leonat Muskollari. Leonat says, Dear Mr. Ambassador Lu, respecting your professional work in performing your duties, I would like to ask a question short and simple, but I hope to be long answered: Where do you see Albania, You and the country that you represent (USA) , in the next 10 years, the next 20 years? Thank you!
Ambassador Lu: I had the honor of being invited to speak at a graduation last year and I actually chose this topic to talk about: where will we be in ten years? Because I have a daughter who is 11-years old, in ten years she will be graduating from University, I hope, and so, I would like her as someone who has spent years now in Albania to come back to this place. And here is what I would like her to find: I would like her to find an Albania which is stronger in its democracy, where your newspapers are not filled with the bickering between political parties that really has no substance, but a place that really talks about the important issues that unite and divide this great country. I hope it is a place that she’ll find when she comes back where NGOs, where journalists, where civil society groups are stronger, where they have influence to make a change in the country, because I firmly believe that the future of this country is tied to the development of civil society. I believe she will return to a place where women have an increasing role in society, that we will in the next 10 years see a woman Prime Minister of this country, a woman President, a woman head of a political party. I joked with some of the senior police officials I hosted for lunch the other day: we were all men on the American side who work on security and all men on the Albanian side who work in the senior levels of the police. I joked with them: when we have this lunch again in five years, I would be surprised if there are any men; that at the rate women are advancing through the police forces, in the security forces of both of our countries, they will play an increasingly important role in leadership. And, lastly, I return to this question of security. I believe that the United States and other NATO countries made a very smart decision in welcoming Albania to NATO. We have already seen Albania contributing in important ways. I would like to see Albania a stronger country, a country able not only to defend its own borders, but offering security to a broader set of NATO countries, and to partners within the region.
Merxhan: Ramazan Peksani asks what the role of the U.S. Ambassador will be for the upcoming Albanian elections in 2017?
Ambassador Lu: So, I have the hope that the U.S. Ambassador and the U.S. Embassy will play a smaller role than we played in the last elections, the local elections of last year, meaning that in the last elections I spent a lot of time working with my colleagues in the international community and the political parties to try to convince the party members not to nominate criminals for elected office. Albania has adopted as of December of last year the strongest decriminalization legislation in all of Europe and I think that legislation will help Albanian institutions, Albania’s democracy to fend against having more criminals in politics. So that is something I hope we do less of. I would hope that we are active, together with Albania’s civil society, together with the political parties, in looking into the kinds of changes that will prevent vote buying; that will prevent criminal intimidation at polling places; that will prevent the kinds of abuses that we have seen in recent years. We are very committed to that. We are putting important resources towards that and I hope Albanians will fight for these free elections.
Katerina: We have a question from Ana Rakipi. She just posted a comment that the media is biased. Can that change?
Ambassador Lu: I have worked for 27 years in other countries. I would argue in my lifetime and in my professional experience Albania has, compared to all the other countries I have served in, one of the freest media environments, meaning that there are no secrets in Albania. The journalists of this country find out almost every detail of every potential secret almost before we know the secret itself. What I do know is also true, is that like in my country and many other countries, the media environment is increasingly biased. It is biased in favor of the people who own these media outlets. This is dangerous. It is dangerous in Washington DC, it is dangerous in London, it is dangerous here in Tirana. I don’t know how we solve that problem together but I think part of the answer has to lie in courageous journalists, many of whom are young journalist who are willing to say, often online and not in print media or in television, willing to say what is true, even when the people who own the media, even when the government, even when the opposition disagree with that line. There are still people – we can see them every day – putting out the truth.
Katerina: Kostandin Basko has some personal questions for you. He asks, Mr. Lu, what do you think about Albania and its people – because I think beyond your job and your engagements as an Ambassador, you are a human being with taste, desires, passions as anyone else. Thank you!
Ambassador Lu: What a nice question, Kostandin! I appreciate it when people recognize that I am a person, that I have feelings because I think it is easy to often to compare the person with the institution. I have been so impressed with the Albanian people who I have met over the last two years. These are brave and proud and successful people. This is a people who has sacrificed tremendously over the last 25 years. These are young parents who have sacrificed everything to provide for their babies and their young kids. These are slightly older parents who have given up their life savings to allow their children to have good education. These are brave men and women who have rescued young women and girls from prostitution and human trafficking. They are courageous journalists who risk their lives every day to uncover stories of corrupt politicians, of children being abused, of mayors and judges who are demanding sex in exchange for official decisions. I have seen the best of what Albania has to offer. I find Albanian people to be brave and to be heroic, to be something that every Albanian family should be proud of. It is an honor for me to serve here in Albania and to fight along with the Albanian people for the kind of changes that will bring Albania into this European future.
Katerina: Unfortunately we are out of time. We tried to cover as many topics and answer as many questions as possible today.
Merxhan: The transcript of the conversation will be available soon both in English and Albanian on the Embassy website and Facebook.
Ambassador Lu: Katerina, Merxhan, thank you both for taking time to be with us today. You are two examples of the kind of leadership of young people that all Albanians should be proud of. I want to thank the many, many people who sent in questions on our Facebook page. They were tough questions and you made me sweat a little bit. I hope we can do this very soon again. It has been a pleasure to welcome you into my home.