Comandant Haxhiaj, representatives from the Albanian Government, military officers, ladies and gentlemen,
The Western Balkans is a incredible place, but it remains a complete mystery to me. Every day I spend in Tirana I realize how little I understand about Albanian society and culture. What I know is that this is very much a region that respects history and relationships. As foreigners, if we do not understand this context, there is no way for us to understand how things work today.
I am honored to be invited to talk about American policy in the Balkans. I hope you will make this a discussion and conversation because I look forward to learning from you.
I will start by outlining American policy in Albania, then I will expand to talk about our policy in the rest of the Balkans.
Since the fall of communism, the Albanian and American relationship has had its high points and low points. Prime Minister Rama said recently that our relationship today is the strongest it has ever been. I agree with him. And I think this is true because Albania is today focused on the key reforms that will make it a stronger ally and partner of the United States, the European Union and its fellow Balkan neighbors.
I would divide American policy in Albania into three baskets – 1) to support the critical reforms necessary for EU accession, 2) to help Albania become a stronger NATO ally and regional partner, and 3) to promote democratic institutions and free market reforms.
First, when we say support critical reforms for EU accession, I want to stress that it is the reforms that we care about most, not the details of the EU accession process. We are not an EU member country and the speed of Albania’s EU accession is for member states to decide. We care about critical reforms that will irreversibly change this society, particularly in the areas of organized crime, corruption and judicial reform. Our efforts to support the removal of criminals from parliament, to establish a National Bureau of Investigation, and to push reforms of the justice system are at the heart of what we believe needs to be changed. The EU accession process is one of the incentives for Albania to implement these vital reforms and we are working closely with our European colleagues to advance these priorities
Second, making Albania a stronger NATO ally and regional partner includes increasing the capacity and interoperability of Albanian Armed Forces, support for Albania’s deployment of troops – both on NATO missions and other international operations, and promoting increased Albanian defense spending to fulfill our common commitment to contribute to the Alliance. It also means supporting some of Albania’s non-military activities in support of Alliance values. These include promoting efforts to counter violent extremism and foreign fighters as well as to promote constructive relations with in the region, particularly with Serbia.
Finally, promotion of democratic institutions and free market principles includes our work with developing the NGO sector, encouraging independent media, backing critical economic reforms and promoting American exports and businesses. When we talk about NGO and media sector development, we are particularly interested in NGOs and journalists that conduct watchdog activities to provide a disincentive for corruption, criminal activity, and human rights abuses.
This in a few words is our policy in Albania. Now allow me to expand our discussion to Albania’s Balkan neighbors.
Senior colleagues in the U.S. State Department have called the Balkans “unfinished Europe”. This is a reference both to the fact that NATO and the EU have not accepted all of these countries as members, but also the sense that critical economic and democratic reforms remain unfinished. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland spoke this year about three goals of the United States in the Balkans:
First, to turn the page on old hatreds and new rivalries. This is a reference in part to the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, but also the internal strife within Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. These countries waste too much time fighting amongst themselves and not enough time building their societies.
Second, to kick-start prosperity and growth by connecting countries in the region. This includes building new roads, rail links, energy infrastructure and ports. Ultimately, only regional development, integration, and energy security will promote prosperity and growth. This process will help countries in the region put aside old rivalries and reach their full potential.
And third, to defend the Balkans from threats to both individual liberties and strong state. By this, we are particularly concerned about the ongoing influence of crime, corruption and violent extremism. We are looking for ways to partner with countries in the region to confront these challenges within countries, but also across national borders.
In conclusion, the appeal of EU and NATO membership—aided by U.S. engagement and assistance— has been a transformative political and economic force for the western Balkans. Progress is happening; Albania and Croatia joined the NATO in 2009; Croatia became the 28th EU member in 2013; Montenegro is making steady progress on EU accession negotiations and is in “Focused and Intensified Talks” this year to qualify for NATO membership; in September Vice President Biden stated that the United States supports Montenegro’s membership in NATO provided that Montenegro continues pursuing reforms and boosts popular support for NATO accession; Albania’s 2013 elections were a sign that peace democratic transition is possible in the Balkans; Serbia and Kosovo are making landmark progress toward normalization; and, lastly, Bosnia and Herzegovina has negotiated its EU Stabilization and Association Agreement.
Since 1990, the U.S. Government has provided over $7 billion to support these efforts through democratic reforms, focus on rule of law and counter-corruption efforts; aid the transition to market economies; advance post-conflict reconciliation; and support law enforcement in the fight against organized crime.
The issues before us – democracy, prosperity, and values-based governance – are not new. The United States has been working on them throughout the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe for more than two decades. But today, with severe security challenges to Europe’s south and in its East, this region sits in the balance.
Either the work of the last twenty years can be completed with wise decisions by courageous leaders and people pushing for a better life, or this region can fall prey once again to the risks, hatred, and outside interference that brought it grief so many times before. The United States continues to stand with its partners in the Trans-Atlantic community in support of a Balkans finally whole, free, at peace and prosperous.