Sokol Balla: Hello! I speak to you from the U.S. Embassy where I’m in the company of Mr. Gabriel Escobar, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the end of his first visit in this capacity in Tirana. Mr. Escobar, thank you for being with us tonight.
DAS Escobar: Thank you very much!
Sokol Balla: It is a pleasure. Mr. Escobar, I haven’t seen such a rich career in international affairs in a long time when I saw your CV, but I noticed that you have spent so much time in the Balkans since 1998. What changed since that time geopolitically for the U.S. interest on the Western Balkans and specifically Albania?
DAS Escobar: What’s changed? In the 1990s, this part of the world was really one of problems, now it is really one of opportunities. If you look at the countries of the region, three of them are in NATO. If you look at the countries of the former Yugoslavia, two of them are now EU members. So, it really has changed a lot. And for people who tend to look at the Balkans through the prism of 1990s I always challenge them: the 21 century is going to be a great period for the Balkans.
Sokol Balla: Ok, but as you said, since then we have three countries members of NATO but only two members of the EU. So, the West seems to have like a locomotive with two speeds on different wheels. We have NATO and the United States interest growing stronger, but then we have a weakening presence of the EU in the region, specifically in the Western Balkans. Instead, Russia, China, even Turkey to a certain extent, have had more success in establishing their influence. So, we see things happening in Montenegro, in Serbia, in Northern Macedonia, unfortunately now even in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We see things we don’t like, because it is like an anxiety that is rising in our people here and in Kosovo, that those kinds of things might even happen to us.
DAS Escobar: I. don’t think so and let me tell you. I really came here with three main messages. One, is you are a member of NATO, and a good member of NATO, a contributing member of NATO. Two, we are encouraging the Europeans to look at you the way we look at you, as a good partner and you will be a good member of Europe. And by the way, you are already part of Europe. You are culturally, historically and economically part of Europe, that’s why we believe you should have a seat at the table. So, for people who are disappointed about the speed of the EU, we are confident that they are going to move quickly. And by the way, I would not let the bureaucratic mechanisms of what the EU is, cloud the fact that the EU has created tremendous progress in this part of the world, and in Europe as a whole. Every country that has entered the EU is more democratic, more prosperous, and more stable than ever before. That’s what awaits you when you join the EU.
Sokol Balla: We know that Washington has been our sponsor when it comes to European integration since the first day.
DAS Escobar: Right. You have others by the way. The QUINT is united in that.
Sokol Balla: Well, I don’t know about that. When you see what is happening with Albania and Northern Macedonia, you have visited Skopje, you are now in Tirana. Actually, I’m sure you have noticed a disappointment, even in the upper levels, let’s say starting even from our Prime Minister. What can the U.S. do to make that thing happening faster?
DAS Escobar: Look, the EU is really about values and institutions. So, we already share not only common interest, but shared values. So, it is really now about deepening the institutions. And strengthening the institutions. So, that’s another one of my messages here, is that we want to partner with you on your development. But not only that. We want to find a deeper level of strategic relationship with Albania. We think you’re ready. So, we are ready for that challenge we are ready to work with you across the whole range of opportunities, be it political, military, economic, educational, cultural, we want that relationship with Albania.
Sokol Balla; Actually, that is already happening because we see, fortunately, a bit late, but better late than ever, a growing presence of economical U.S. interest in the country.
DAS Escobar: That’s right!
Sokol Balla: And many people think that that should have happened much earlier. Also, from today we know that another military base is starting to be built in southern Albania. But when it comes to another investment, U.S. investment in the country which is justice reform, people are not that happy. Not only because of the timing, but also because of the results. So, what can be done differently so things can fasten up, so people can feel the influence of the justice reform in their daily lives? I mean, when it comes to land property, when it comes to their investments?
DAS Escobar: Well, the rule of law is the fundamental building block of all democracies, including ours. And every country, including ours, has to look for ways to strengthen its institutions, that are about rule of law. So, when it comes to that, we are working with you through our assistance programs, through our exchange programs, through different types of programs to strengthen the capacity. However, and by the way, we will do our part with regard to sanctions, because we take corruption very seriously. That said, there is no alternative to domestic prosecutions, independent judiciary, independent prosecutors and political will to make all that happen. So, you will see American political pressure on elected leaders, who we consider good partners, they need to be good partners on moving the rule of law forward as well, and believe me, we are quite cognizant and quite open with them about what the shortcomings are. Albania’s has made a lot of progress. I would like to see more and we want to work with you to get more. And hopefully, we will get there very soon.
Sokol Balla: Actually, you came to Albania in the International Day Against Corruption, just the day after we saw other Executive Orders by President Biden, strategy on countering corruption, even today Secretary Blinken announced other designations for corrupt leaders in Latin America, but also in Ukraine.
DAS Escobar: And there will be more.
Sokol Balla: There will be more? Including Albania?
DAS Escobar: There will be more. Including the Western Balkans.
Sokol Balla: Including Albania?
DAS Escobar: I don’t want to preview our sanctions actions but there will be more in the Western Balkans.
Sokol Balla: Ok, then let’s take the talk straight to the point. The State Department designated Sali Berisha and his family as ‘non-grata’ for the U.S. and this was the fourth case after Llalla, Dako and Doshi. Many people wonder why so many Albanians are on this blacklist? So, we don’t see that happening… ok, excluding the case of Northern Kosovo and Serbia in the last two days, we didn’t see that happening much in the Western Balkans. Someone might think, are we Albanians the worst of the bad guys?
DAS Escobar: No! In fact, you will see more! But actually, this is the question we get from a lot of people. Why do we see Russians more targeted, or Ukrainians, or Serbs? But the fact is we follow the corruption where it is. So, and this is an inter-agency, a multi-agency effort that involves Treasury, FBI, Homeland Security, and Department of State to figure out where the corruption is, and figure out where the corrosive influence is. And it is an institutional decision, not a political decision.
Sokol Balla: Ok, but many people would say in the case of Berisha that he has been out of power for many years, eight years now, and other people are currently in power and Albania was and still remains a country where corruption is high or at least the perception of corruption is so high so many people will say, why did you go and condemn Berisha and don’t designate others who are still in power?
DAS Escobar: Because it’s not a political decision. It’s an institutional decision. And if you look at the cases of the designations yesterday in Northern Kosovo, those investigations took years to develop evidence. It is not just this administration, but the previous administration, and the administration before that, so no one should look at these decisions as political decisions made by one administration or by one institution.
Sokol Balla: So, are you suggesting that when it came to the designation of Berisha and his associates and family, the work also took place under the Trump administration?
DAS Escobar: Yes.
Sokol Balla: Ok, so some people here would say that’s a scheme of George Soros and his associates, including Edi Rama and your ambassador here.
DAS Escobar: They’re saying what?
Sokol Balla: They’re saying that George Soros is sponsoring this kind of movement against Sali Berisha because Mr. Berisha blocked the separation of Kosovo or the redesigning of borders with Serbia.
DAS Escobar: Yeah, that’s absolutely not the case. That’s absolutely wrong. That is dangerous.
Sokol Balla: Why?
DAS Escobar: Because I don’t want people to see these decisions and these designations as a political tool. These are institutional efforts to fight corruption. That’s what they are. So, it wasn’t done by one administration, it wasn’t done by one decision-maker, and it wasn’t done by one member or one organization within the cabinet. It was a collective effort and we reached consensus on it.
Sokol Balla: Ok, the first consequence that we see now, that private polls also suggest, that since May when he was designated and especially since he started this “podium” movement, Sali Berisha seems to have become, you know, I’d dare say it, more popular among democrats and generally Albanians. Some people say ok, this is America’s profile weakening among Albanians, which I don’t believe, but people are saying that. Some others see it as a sign that society is maturing, we love America, but we can criticize them when they are making a mistake. Some other people think it was done in the wrong way, what was done to him. But me, as a journalist, going after the truth and after transparency, I would have wanted a clearer answer on why concretely, Mr. Berisha and his family were designated as non-grata by the State Department?
DAS Escobar: Here’s the question for you: Where are the domestic investigators and prosecutors on cases like these. I mean, we did it according to our laws and our regulations and according to our authorities. But you also have some domestically. So, if you want to know, investigate. If you want to sanction, prosecute. If you want to punish, sentence people who are part of this corruption because it’s not about America fighting corruption in Albania, it’s about America supporting your fight against corruption. That’s my question.
Sokol Balla: And I absolutely agree with you, that was a rhetorical question. I absolutely agree with you.
DAS Escobar: Mine was not.
Sokol Balla: That justice here is not doing the job properly, but helping the justice, does it mean that you will also provide proof and files and evidence to the Albanian justice system when it comes to the case of Mr. Sali Berisha and his family?
DAS Escobar: We have a great law enforcement and legal cooperation system already set up and yes, we can do that.
Sokol Balla: Are you doing that?
DAS Escobar: I’m not going to comment on diplomatic communications, but part of the bilateral relationship, which is deep and it’s broad, involves cooperation not just on the military, not just on the political level, but on law enforcement and a range of issues both bilaterally and multilaterally where we share common interests and common goals.
Sokol Balla: Mr. Escobar, Berisha claims that he will take over, literally, and literally tomorrow the Democratic Party in a rally that he has called in Tirana. Last week, Mr. Basha, the Chairman of the Democratic Party told me in an interview that he is prepared to confront Berisha and his people in all, I’m quoting here, possible scenarios. But many wonder if he can really stop Berisha and some people say now, the authorities are not doing the job, the justice system is not doing the job, and now the U.S. has to finish the job. How do you answer that?
DAS Escobar: Look, our relationship is a mature relationship between NATO allies. It’s not up to us to pick your leaders, but I would encourage the people to think very carefully about which leaders they choose, about which path they want Albania to be on. And we hope that the answer is one that is European-focused, committed to NATO, and committed to the fight against corruption.
Sokol Balla: Your ambassador here has made clear the position of the State Department on what will happen to the Democratic Party if things go in Berisha’s way. Do you have another message to fill that up?
DAS Escobar: Well, we don’t meet with him. He’s designated. So, there will be consequences if the Democratic Party chooses somebody who is designated to be their leader.
Sokol Balla: Like? You have chosen before, I mean the State Department has chosen before even political organizations that have been on the list, on the black list…
DAS Escobar: …very rarely…
Sokol Balla: …very rarely, would that be the case?
DAS Escobar: I don’t see why that would be the case. And I know people like to compare him to the case of Milorad Dodik, by the way we only meet with him because he’s in the tri-presidency, we meet with the presidency, not with him. We don’t meet with him in East Sarajevo, we don’t meet with him in Banja Luka, we don’t meet with him in Pale, and we definitely don’t invite him to Washington and he is not invited to Brussels or any other European capital. So, think about that as an example.
Sokol Balla: On the situation in the DP, again, so you’re saying that the scenario that Sali Berisha back, you have an answer on that?
DAS Escobar: We have a policy about that. But look, I really want to talk more about the bilateral relationship than just Sali Berisha because Albania is more than just Sali Berisha. This is a really dynamic country with a lot of opportunities that is showing leadership across the board in NATO, in the bilateral relationship, and now within the Security Council, I want to talk about that, that’s where our relationship is going, that’s where our relationship is going to be. And that’s where we want our solid partners to be, to figure out who are the leaders who are going to move Albania in that direction. So, I don’t really want to talk about the past because it’s already in the past, let’s talk about the future and let’s talk about the tremendous opportunities that we have here with Albania. And let me tell you something else: one of the reasons that this administration has spent a lot of time and focus on this part of the world is that the Western Balkans are a really tremendous growth opportunity for the economy, a tremendous growth opportunity for partnership. If you look at this part of the world, it is the fastest growing part of Europe. It has people who are really, really focused on creating a better future for the people, that’s what I want to talk about.
Sokol Balla: And I absolutely agree with you because the will of the people is exactly that…
DAS Escobar: …yes…
Sokol Balla: …but that sometimes goes against the will of political leaders. That’s why I insist on the case, not on the case of Berisha, which I agree with you, he’s the past, but is the message that you’re giving with him, that other leaders should listen and be afraid?
DAS Escobar: The message that I’m giving is: we see our partners among the people who are focused on European integration, NATO partnership, and anti-corruption. That’s who we are going to partner with. And by the way, they’re not all in the political sphere so, if we don’t find them in the political sphere, we’re going to find them in civil society, in youth groups, in the private sectors, we have a lot of partners here and we’re going to make things happen.
Sokol Balla: Ok. Mr. Escobar, thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
DAS Escobar: Thank you.