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December 11, 2023

Chargé d'Affaires David Wisner Interview with Panorama for International Anti-Corruption Day

Panorama: Since it is International Day Against Corruption, in Albania there continues to be a high level of public perception of corruption at every level of government. What is your judgment about this phenomenon at the moment? 

CDA Wisner: International Anti-Corruption Day is an important opportunity to reflect on the progress of Albania’s efforts to combat corruption and also to renew our collective efforts to fight corruption. Albania’s justice institutions are making progress against corruption, but it is also clear that more work needs to be done.  

The United States and our European partners can advocate for and support Albania’s anti-corruption efforts, but it requires everyone, all Albanians and all institutions, to make it clear that no one is above the law. No country is immune from corruption, including the United States, but success is possible. The Albanian people want results and we stand with them.   

Panorama: The United States has supported justice reform and especially the investigations by SPAK. Are you satisfied with the balance sheet of SPAK so far?  

CDA Wisner: I think SPAK deserves a huge amount of credit for its efforts. The proof is in the results. We are seeing more convictions, more sequestrations, more confiscations, more investigations, and more international law enforcement cooperation – which means SPAK is developing a reputation as a serious, reliable law enforcement body that other countries can partner with in fighting international organized crime and corruption.  American and other international partners are boosting their cooperation with Albania as a result. 

When people driving corruption as well as organized crime figures are investigated, indicted, arrested, and convicted – it shows the days of impunity are coming to an end. It also sends a message to other corrupt actors.  

Panorama: A few weeks ago, a group of SPAK prosecutors were in Washington DC at the Department of State, FBI, etc. What more do you expect and what do you encourage the SPAK prosecutors to do at this stage?  

CDA Wisner: Albania is a NATO Ally, a friend, and a partner of the United States. We want to support every effort to advance Albania’s EU integration and trans-Atlantic trajectory. This includes our support for justice reform. We have over 40 U.S.-funded personnel in Albania to support and advise law enforcement and justice institutions. It’s a matter of national security for you and for us. Corruption and organized crime hinders economic development, it scares away foreign investment, it undermines democracy, and it drives young, ambitious people to other countries for opportunities.  

SPAK’s visit to Washington DC last month demonstrated how important Albania’s anti-corruption efforts are to the United States. From high-level meetings with the Department of Justice, Department of State, FBI, and DEA, the visit enabled senior-level SPAK officials to establish and strengthen valuable partnerships with U.S. justice and law enforcement institutions.  Though SPAK is still young as an institution, we want it to continue its upward trajectory and expect its members will maintain the level of integrity that all Albanians want to see of them.  

Panorama: Mr. CDA, there are many reactions to SPAK’s investigations against some former Socialist Party ministers and mayors, but also former Prime Minister Berisha and his son-in-law. Can you guarantee the public in Albania that SPAK is independent and not influenced by the government as has happened in the past?  

CDA Wisner: We believe SPAK is living up to that mandate. There is a phrase in the United States that ‘justice is blind.’ The entire purpose for establishing SPAK was to create an independent institution to investigate organized crime and corruption, including at the highest levels of government. That is paramount for it to be truly successful and effective. We have seen high-level officials from across the political spectrum be investigated, indicted, and convicted.  

Panorama: I refer to the political statements of Mr. Berisha, who said that SPAK is “Rama’s whip,” while Prime Minister Rama considers justice reform and SPAK a product of his party for state building. What is your answer to these views of the political parties in Albania?  

CDA Wisner: I am not going to respond to accusations by someone sanctioned by the United States for significant corruption. The United States is proud to support the work of SPAK and other justice institutions and we will continue to support the demands of the Albanian people to end impunity. As I noted, we have invested heavily in the success of Albania’s justice reforms, including SPAK, through our expertise, funding, and political support. We are proud to be a partner with Albania. Every Albanian deserves to live in a country where everyone is equal before the law, where the rule of law works, and where everyone has an equal chance at prosperity. Not only because Albania’s Euro-Atlantic future requires it, but because it is the right thing to do.   

Panorama: Do you believe that SPAK will put an end to impunity in Albania and how will you further support this special structure of prosecutors to be independent and to further increase credibility towards the Albanian public?  

CDA Wisner: The United States will continue to stand by Albania and its Euro-Atlantic path. Ambassador Kim used to say that justice reform is not easy, quick, or perfect, but we are seeing it deliver results. She continues to be right. The United States and our partners and allies will continue to support Albania’s efforts to fight corruption, including our support for SPAK.  

Representatives of the Department of Justice and State, as well as our FBI and DEA colleagues, will continue to stand with Albania. I think it is worth noting that over the past six years, the United States has invested over $27.5 million in law enforcement and justice reform programs in Albania.   

Panorama: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has declared four Albanian politicians and former officials as non grata in the implementation of President Biden’s Executive Order for sanctions against corruption in the Western Balkans. Will these sanctions continue against other corrupt individuals in Albania?  

CDA Wisner: While we don’t preview our sanctions actions in advance, the United States will not hesitate to act when corrupt actors seek to line their own pockets, serve their own interests, and profit from corruption at the expense of ordinary citizens. President Biden signed an Executive Order in June 2021 declaring that anyone threatening peace, security, stability, or the territorial integrity of any area in the Western Balkans would be subject to U.S. sanctions.  

The White House has emphasized repeatedly that corruption is a threat to the national security of the United States, our partners, and allies. It saps economic growth, facilitates organized crime, and undermines democracy. We have seen U.S. sanctions in Albania, but also in other Western Balkan countries. This November, several individuals and entities were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for corruption and enabling malign influence in the region.  

Panorama: In your investment climate report, the United States reiterated concerns about corruption in that area. What is your assessment? 

CDA Wisner: As I mentioned in my remarks to the American Chamber of Commerce last month, we want to help Albania grow more prosperous and more connected with the U.S. economy.  We know this only happens with an open, transparent, and competitive business environment. The U.S. Embassy is committed to partner with AmCham and Albanian businesses writ large to fight corruption, advance the rule of law, and protect property rights. There is still so much untapped potential for trade and investment in Albania, but Albania needs to continue to improve its investment climate and continue to combat corruption to realize its full potential.   

Panorama: Parliament has been deadlocked for two months, as the opposition claims that its constitutional rights have been violated by the rejection of committees of inquiry. To your call for dialogue, the majority responded by creating a draft law that, according to experts, limits the right of the opposition to establish investigative committees of inquiry. What is your position on this? 

CDA Wisner: As we have stated before, a vibrant opposition is essential in any healthy democracy, this said, the United States and many of our partners, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and EU, have expressed concern over the events taking place in Parliament over the past few months.  

There can certainly be disagreement on policy, but there needs to be constructive dialogue, respectful debates, and a recognition that elected officials from any political party work for the people, to serve the Albanian people, and to move Albania forward on its Euro-Atlantic path. 

Our own Congress has very vigorous and sometimes contentious debates, including through our investigative commissions. Our investigations have, on many occasions, led to important political and policy progress. As a general principle, legislative mechanisms take time and are difficult, but a range of tools are important to ensure democracies can debate developments.    

Panorama: There is a perception among media analysts that the country has a weak and divided opposition and that the powers are controlled by one hand which is Prime Minister Rama. How would you respond to this perception that the internationals support the stabilocracy at the expense of the standards of democracy?  

CDA Wisner: It is the Albanian voters who choose their elected officials and representatives in Parliament. That’s why elections are so important in a democracy. Political parties also have the responsibility to ensure they are putting forward candidates deserving of the public’s trust and who will serve the best interests of their constituents. A strong, vibrant opposition, an active and vigilant civil society, and a free and independent press are all essential in any healthy democracy. 

Panorama: Mr. CDA, what has made the most significant impression on you in Albania during your stay here and how would you assess the relations between Albania and the United States at this moment? 

CDA Wisner: Albania is an incredibly beautiful country with warm, kind people. My family and I have been here for nearly four months, and I have been inspired by the people I meet as I travel around the country. I’ve found Albanians remarkably educated and interested in world affairs and I am humbled by the excellent foreign language abilities of the people I have met. I should also share that the food is incredible – I love the Pace and Kabuni, for example. 

I understand that Albanians want reforms to move more quickly. I understand that. I want the same thing for both Albania and the United States. I also think it’s important to reflect on how far Albania has come as a democratic country in only 32 years. You survived a brutal communist dictatorship and are now a NATO ally with the United States. You sat with the United States on the United Nations Security Council for the past two years standing up for Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s brutal invasion. You are now part of the United Nations Human Rights Council advocating for those without a voice. You are a stabilizing force for good in the Western Balkans region and on the path to EU accession. These are remarkable accomplishments that should make every Albanian proud. 

In terms of relations with the United States, they are stronger than ever. I mentioned our cooperation and partnership on an international level. Ambassador Kim said, and Ambassador Designate Kostelancik reaffirmed during his confirmation, that our focus here is Democracy, Defense, and Business. In addition to our support for justice reform and law enforcement, which is showing positive results, our defense ties have never been stronger. We see American and Albanian soldiers training next to each other as NATO allies. We see business and investment continuing to grow – U.S. foreign direct investment reached a new high of $270 million through June 2023, an increase of 33%. The U.S. ranks sixth in terms of the origin of imports in Albania, up from 9th last year. It’s all connected to the anti-corruption efforts and justice reform that demonstrate to foreign investors, to tourists, to NATO allies that Albania is breaking from the past and moving forward toward the West, stronger and more capable than ever.