Eni Vasili: Good evening, welcome, honored viewers to Open, welcome to News 24. She arrived in Tirana as the Ambassador of the United States in January 2020. She is a career diplomat who worked in key spots of foreign policy in Europe, Asia, and the Middle east. Here with me is the Ambassador of the United States, Yuri Kim. Good evening, welcome.
Ambassador Kim: Mirëmbrëma. It’s great to be here.
Eni Vasili: Thanks a lot for being here. Thank you for this interview.
Ambassador Kim: My pleasure.
Eni Vasili: Always an interesting moment that of politics to speak especially with the American Ambassador, but I want to start a bit differently. I want to ask you about the 100th anniversary of relations between the United States of America and Albania. I don’t want to talk that much about politics of the day . So, I was saying that 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Albania and the United States of America. Among others, this is also an opportunity to do a balance sheet of these relations, right?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s wonderful to be the American Ambassador while we are able to celebrate the 100th year of U.S.-Albania diplomatic relations. As you know, last year, we celebrated 30 years since the restored relationship. And if we look across from the 100 years as well as the 30 years, I think we can say that the two of us, Albania and the United States have accomplished quite a lot. Just looking at the last 30 years alone, when I talk to friends who knew Albania in 1991 and I describe for them what we are doing together now, in 2022, they can hardly believe it. I will just give you a few examples. In 1991, as we all know, Albania was one of the poorest countries in the world and in those 30 years, as Albania broke free from the communist dictatorship, I think the people of Albania have proven themselves to be quite resilient and have inspired the world through their own determination. So, that’s why I announced when I got here that our program here, our agenda is to focus on democracy, defense, and business. So, you’ve broken free of communist dictatorship; the institutions of democracy and law, rule of law, have been installed, and we’re working to strengthen them as much as we can. You’ve gone from a country that is dependent to a country that is a member of NATO in 2009, a country that is on the doorstep of the European Union, and, as of January 1st this year, a country that sits next to the United States, China, Russia, France, Great Britain, as a member of the UN Security Council and that’s a big jump. Then of course the second issue is defense. And in those 30 years, those 100 years, we’ve gone from a communist dictatorship that was closed to the world, now Albania is host to U.S. forces, as of this year. So, this is an historic change. And then of course, finally, on business. Some of the biggest businesses are coming to Albania. We can talk more about this later, but they’re focused on energy for now and I see other areas being opened up as well, including in technology. So, we have the Skavica hydropower plant, it’s not a done deal yet, but it’s looking very good; and we have Vlora, the thermal power plant that will now be bringing in LNG. So, these have huge implications for Albania’s role in the region, not just in terms of Albania’s ability to secure energy for itself but for Albania’s contribution to the region, as a net exporter of energy and energy security.
Eni Vasili: Maybe later we’ll also talk about the names of the American businesses. It would be good if we could have them, the businesses approaching Albania. It is always good news the approaching of the business community from the U.S. to Albania. But, I also want to talk a little bit about the American Week, which begins on the 15th until 21 and I’d like to know what events have been planned. Of course, the entire year would be a celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of relations but the American Week has a special focus.
Ambassador Kim: Yes, we’ll have a number of exciting events. We’ll have the U.S. Air Force band coming here and that’s going to be pretty exciting. We’ll have a big concert out on Scanderbeg Square – I think that is on Thursday, if I’m not mistaken. All the information will be up on our website, but it’s going to be on Thursday here in Tirana and then we’ll have another one on Saturday in Shkodër, which as you know is one of my favorite cities in Albania. And then between, we’ll have American food at Pazari i Ri, and then we’ll have a bunch of American movies that will be playing throughout.
Eni Vasili: And everyone will have access to these activities?
Ambassador Kim: Yes, all the activities will be free and we’re doing this together with the Ministry of Culture so we’re very excited. I’m going to be going to these events myself and I hope that I’ll get too meet as many Albanians as possible.
Eni Vasili: Ms. Kim, you were in Washington last week and media reported about a meeting with former American Ambassadors to Albania. In fact, I want to ask about your official agenda, if there was one such during your meeting in Washington.
Ambassador Kim: You know we had Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried not too long ago and I wanted to follow up on that trip as well. So, I went to Washington and I was there for about a week, meeting with senior officials throughout the State Department, Department of Justice, the White House, at USAID, and other agencies throughout the government. And here’s what I found: people are really excited about how much the U.S.-Albania relationship has grown. They’re excited about all the progress that we’ve made on democracy, defense, and business as I told you. And the piece that really caught people’s attention was not just the progress that’s been made on justice reform and the progress that’s been made in terms of getting a U.S. military presence here in Albania. They were really excited and focused on the energy piece. As you know, President Biden has made it a priority to inject 50 billion cubic meters of gas into Europe, in order to help them become independent of Russian gas and when the Vlora project – if it moves forward and when it’s up and running – that will make a significant contribution to enabling Europe, not just Albania, but Europe to be free from Russian gas, so this is a significant development. They’re also very excited about all the progress that we’ve made together and the partnership that we have at the UN Security Council, where Albania has been a co-penholder with the United States on all issues related to Ukraine. It’s a significant leadership role and I think Albania has surprised the world with how effective and how strong Albania’s leadership has been. This isn’t to say, of course, that there’s nothing that needs progress. There are lots of areas that need progress and of course, you see that reflected in the various reports that we publish from the State Department and in other international reports. These are not secret. We’re very clear publicly and privately with the Albanian Government about the areas where we would like to support more improvement.
Eni Vasili: Like?
Ambassador Kim: So, for example, the big effort for the last few years has been justice reform. so, this continues to be an area that is a priority focus for us as well as the Europeans. And, it’s not simply because it is required by the EU for membership or that we want, as the United States, for our friend and partner Albania, but because it’s the thing that the Albanian people, normal Albanian people, want the most. I think you see it as much as I do in all the polling. I certainly hear it when I travel around this country, when I talk to normal people about what’s on their minds. They talk about their children’s future. They talk about jobs. Young people always talk about jobs, right? And what do they tell me? They tell me that they’ve got all this education, they love their country, they want to stay, but they don’t think they have a fair shot. That’s an issue of corruption. That’s an issue of corruption. Businesses are interested in Albania. I have American businesses contact me all the time now because of what they’re seeing with Bechtel and Exxon and Excelerate. But the issue is that they’re not clear on the rules and I think that when Albania has a judicial system that proves that prosecutions and judgments in court are clear and clean and in accordance with the law, like the rest of Europe and in America, you’ll have more businesses coming in. There will be more jobs for Albanians as well as Americans. On top of that, when corruption is eliminated and people feel that you get a job because you’re qualified, not because you are so and so’s nephew and so and so’s daughter, so and so’s wife and so and so’s husband, that you get it based on merit. This country has so much talent and our wish as the United States is that corruption, organized crime, and rigged courts are eliminated so that the potential, the greatness of the Albanian people can be unleashed, so that you’re a better friend to us and a better partner to us as well.
Eni Vasili: Is Albania on the right path for building these institutions that you talked about?
Ambassador Kim: This is a very difficult path but we believe that you are on the right path and you see that reflected in our reporting, you also see that reflected in the EU’s Progress Reports. Of course, again, this is not to say that everything is 100% and everything is going great. Obviously, there are areas that need improvement and that’s why we say that, on justice reform for example, that it is not easy, quick, or perfect, but it is definitely making progress.
Eni Vasili: I understand and since we’re here, on justice reform, and of course, the expectations of Albanian citizens, also because it has been supported strongly by you, the expectations are very high, let’s stop. In recent days, Prime Minister Rama has made some statements, accusations let’s call them, strong criticism toward the Special Prosecution Office, demanding that they investigate political opponents, Berisha and Meta. What would you consider this – a strong shakeup, justified, or is there something that doesn’t go right in the division of powers, a violation if we may call it such?
Ambassador Kim: I spoke about this the other day, when the Justice Minister repeated what the Prime Minister had said. The view of the United States is that when we look at justice reform, we will know that it has truly succeeded when it is no longer considered normal or appropriate for political leaders, whether they are in power or out of power, but especially if they’re in power, to be calling for the prosecution of specific individuals. What we want to see is not specific individuals being called out but for a justice system to be in place and for institutions to have both the will and the ability to enforce the law, equally, on everybody, so that nobody is above the law. The law applies equally. So, I’m looking forward to the day when we can have that confidence in Albania’s justice system, in Albania’s prosecutors and in Albania’s judges.
Eni Vasili: Does the lack of a balance sheet by SPAK on issues of corruption that you mentioned earlier as one of the ways to save the country and make it a worthy friend of the United States of America delegitimize it, the lack of arrests of the big fish, as other ambassadors before you said would take place?
Ambassador Kim: Thank you for asking that question. I brought some facts, because I think that there are many people who, for whatever reason, want to say that justice reform is failing, or that SPAK is not working. I will tell you that in my conversations with normal Albanians, not people who have fancy titles or fancy villas or houses, normal Albanians. You know what they tell me? They tell me that they believe in the work of SPAK and that they can see finally that there are real results coming from justice reform. You know why they say that? Because here are the facts: the cases against the Emiljano Shullazi group, against Avdyli group – this is the Shijak group, Petrit Sulejmani group, Esat Mehmeti group, Admir Hoxha group, and the group of Ndoka were convicted with final decisions. Several other dangerous criminal groups are now under investigation and in trial. The Durrës group, the infamous Durrës group is in trial. When you talk that they’re going only after small cases, I’ll point this out: the former Minister of Interior, the former Prosecutor General, two former mayors have all been convicted with a final decision. There’s no question, they have been convicted. A former Environment Minister, a sitting member of parliament, and many other officials, at various ministries, are under investigation for the incinerators’ case. Judges and prosecutors who were convicted by court of first instance for the criminal offense of corruption, I won’t name names, you can look them up. The court of first instance convicted the entire central structure of the state that conducted public procurements on behalf of all state institutions – this is related to the tender on the State Police uniforms. They are on trial for corruption, abuse of office, and false declaration of assets. Other judges and prosecutors are also under investigation. Three mayors are currently on trial. 190,000 square meters of land in Lalzi Bay were seized. Several criminal cases are under investigation for abuse committed against other public property. I’ll tell you some statistics from 2021 alone: 715 criminal proceedings were conducted against 519 suspects; 239 accused persons were sent to trial, of which 84 were for organized crime, 96 for corruption offenses, and 59 for other related offenses; 230 defendants were convicted, of whom 94 were for organized crime and 136 were for corruption and related offenses; assets worth over 70 million euros have been confiscated and transferred to the state for use by the public. Those are real facts. Those are real facts and if you compare that data set to what has come before, I think it’s very clear that progress is happening and normal people understand that. People who have a political agenda can talk all they want about nothing has happened, or only small fish or this or that. Normal people have eyes, ears, and a brain and they can see what’s happening.
Eni Vasili: Ok, the facts are those that you listed, but I want to say something. Expectations from SPAK are very great because impunity has been very great in Albania and that’s why high officials are expected. Everything you listed is true, many former functionaries among them, which among them would you consider the big fish that meets that high expectation of citizens for high officials, current, not former?
Ambassador Kim: I think this is a process and it takes time. So, again, justice reform will not be easy, quick or perfect, but we’re seeing the progress. I will ask you: when was the last time that two ministers of the ruling party were put in jail? When was the last time? I don’t think that you’d have a good answer on it.
Eni Vasili: No, I don’t have an answer at all…
Ambassador Kim: When was the last time that members of parliament have been investigated and their assets seized? I don’t think you have a good answer for that either. And I know that right now, the tendency is to try and count how many on this side, how many on that side, and I think that what SPAK and the other elements of the new justice institutions must show is that they are independent, that they operate with integrity, and that they are executing the law. Rule of law. No one is above the law.
Eni Vasili: In fact, Prime Minister Rama as I said earlier appears to have a different opinion on this. Would you call that political pressure on SPAK?
Ambassador Kim: I think that there are different ways of expressing support for justice reform and I think that I’ve expressed the view of the United States on this issue very clearly.
Eni Vasili: Let’s pause, since we more or less entered into politics, I’d like to pause on a moment that also has attracted the attention of the Albanian public opinion. Let’s go into the situation created between you or the U.S. State Department and Mr. Berisha. recently, an online petition of some Albanian citizens has been sent to the State Department, stating that the representative of the United States, that is you, should stick to the diplomatic status and the petition ends with the phrase, Ambassador Yuri Kim, Enough is Enough! Do you have an opinion as to who may be the initiator or initiators of this petition and did it bother you? Did you believe it and did it bother you?
Ambassador Kim: I think people in a democracy have the right to express their views. Sometimes they’re based in fact, sometimes they’re not, but regardless, they have the absolute right to express that. So, I respect the views that are being expressed. I will say this – I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding as to the role of the American Ambassador, or the actions taken by the American Ambassador. I don’t act on a personal basis. I’m not here on vacation, you know. I represent the President of the United States and I speak for the United States. I think the Secretary of State, the President have been very clear about the importance of fighting corruption and in fact, last June, President Biden issued a declaration stating that the fight against corruption is a national security interest of the United States, is a core national security interest of the United States. So, make no mistake, we’re going to continue to hold accountable those who are engaged in corruption. The other issue is this, whether that’s part of my diplomatic limit or not here in Albania. It absolutely is. I don’t make up my own job description. I have a specific set of objectives that I am required to achieve, as the representative of the United States and I’m a committed public servant and I will continue to do my job as directed by the President of the United States.
Eni Vasili: I understand. Nevertheless, the opposition or part of the opposition has two pieces of criticism toward you: that you seek to appoint its leaders with your interferences, by interfering with the internal affairs of the opposition, and that you did not take strong positions toward affairs of the government. Do you have a comment on that?
Ambassador Kim: I think that they’re mistaken, with all respect, they’re mistaken. We don’t tell people who to vote for, whether it’s in elections or in their party. What we do is we provide facts and we make very clear what the U.S. position is. But ultimately, how this country is run and who runs it, is a decision of the Albanian people.
Eni Vasili: Yes, but in all likelihood, on May 22, Mr. Berisha is expected to be elected chair of the Democratic Party. How do you await this return of Berisha?
Ambassador Kim: The U.S. position on persons who are designated by the Secretary of State for significant corruption or for undermining democracy is very clear. So, I’m not going to repeat it here.
Eni Vasili: Yes, but could you tell us what U.S. relations would be with an opposition led by Mr. Berisha now that as you said he’s been designated? Because it already seems that his candidacy and his victory are almost a fact.
Ambassador Kim: The U.S. position on this issue is very very clear, but the bottom line is that we’re not going to be dealing with someone who is designated by the Secretary of State for significant corruption or for undermining democracy and it will be unfortunate that we won’t be able to have a normal relationship with a party that we have had a special relationship with for so long.
Eni Vasili: Mr. Berisha has said, stated that the designation may be annulled if the administration changes in the United States. How true is that?
Ambassador Kim: More than 200 people have been designated by the Secretary of State for significant corruption and they have been barred from entry into the United States, they and their family members. Of those, zero have had their designations rescinded. I don’t think that it is realistic to think that a change of government will somehow will change the facts. The facts are clear and I think every Albanian understands the facts.
Eni Vasili: However, some local by-elections were held on March 6 and another criticism toward you, always by this part of the opposition, has to do with March 6 and I would like to know how you interpreted it. It seems that through this vote, democrats gave support to the Re-Establishment Committee and Mr. Berisha. Always from this part of the opposition, the criticism comes that you are against the will of democrats, i.e. their majority. Do you have a comment?
Ambassador Kim: I think Albanian voters have the right to make their own decision. We would hope that they make their decision in consideration of all available facts.
Eni Vasili: Do you have a comment or position on the resignation of the former chair, Mr. Basha?
Ambassador Kim: No. You know, we issued a statement when Mr. Basha resigned, expressing respect for his decision.
Eni Vasili: Madam Ambassador, okay, let’s leave the opposition and stay on the government, briefly. The latest report of the U.S. State Department on our country states that corruption is spread in all branches of governance. First, as a general view, what is your judgment of the governance of Mr. Rama?
Ambassador Kim: As I said earlier, there are great areas of progress between the United States and Albania. But there are also areas where we want to continue to provide strong support for improvement. corruption is one of those issues. I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anybody what you read in our reports, that corruption is an issue at all levels of government. So, I think that there are actions that need to continue to be taken, and to be intensified to address this problem. And, I believe that we are seeing some of that and I can assure you that the United States will continue to work closely with the government, the opposition, NGOs, everybody who’s a stakeholder, to try to improve the situation.
Eni Vasili: I’ll stay on on this a bit, the main problem stressed in international institutions’ reports is that in Albania, there are problems with competition and free competition. I quote, “Most public money goes to few oligarchs’ hands who then as a reward or obligation help the prime minister to win elections and it goes on that way for years,” reports state. Have you seen that, do you agree?
Ambassador Kim: I think all of these reports are worth reading and worth taking action on. You know, USAID’s mission here is very specific. It’s to strengthen democracy and foster an environment that allows for not only democracy, but also prosperity, transparency, good governance, employment, and independence.
Eni Vasili: Madam Ambassador, I know that the minutes are up and I don’t want to take up more than we’d planned, but I have a last question: maybe from all your experience in Albania, what is the thing that most disturbs you from Albanian reality and what is the think you like the most?
Ambassador Kim: I think the thing that I have noticed, especially these days, is that Albanians don’t have an accurate, up to date image of themselves. I think that when I talk to Albanians, you describe your country and your people in ways that to me suggests to that you’re looking at yourself through a mirror that is smeared. So, as a friend, let me tell you what we see: we see a people who are incredibly hard working, who have persevered, who have suffered, they’ve suffered, 45 years of communist dictatorship preceded by 500 years of occupation by an empire. We are proud and impressed by all that the Albanian people have achieved, especially in the last 35 years. You threw off the shackles of communist dictatorship. Challenges remain, obviously, and your country can be so much more than it is, but think about all that you have achieved. Think about, once again, the fact that you are a NATO member; you will, you will become an EU member and every member state acknowledges that the Albanian people and the Albanian government have made the changes necessary to be a full member of the EU. You have been the Chair-in-office of the OSCE, one of the most important security organizations in all of Europe. You are now sitting, literally, at our side, on the UN Security Council, leading the world’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is a key issue, a key challenge that will have consequences not just for Europe, but for the entire world, what kind of world we live in, what kind of rules are set, what kind of behavior is tolerated, what kind of brutality and breaking of international laws will not be tolerated, who will be held accountable, how they will be held accountable. Your representative at the UN Security Council is doing a magnificent job representing your country. We’re extremely proud. When we look at this country, we see a country full of potential, we see a country where companies like Bechtel, Exxon, Excelerate and so many other companies want to be here. It’s not just because we have an emotional attachment. Companies make calculations as to where they’re going to find the best workforce and the best conditions for profit, right? And when they look at Albania, they see a country where there is clearly a capable educated workforce. I hope that the rest of the country also understands this. I hope that Albanians continue to have hope because that’s what we have for you as well. I know that there are some who want you to give up, who will tell you nothing has changed. They’ll pretend justice reform is a failure. The will pretend that everything in Albania is horrible. They will pretend that the world does not think much of Albania. They’re wrong. They’re wrong. They’re misleading you and what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to kill your hope. They’re trying to kill your future. And you mustn’t accept that. You must fight back. You have to hold on to your hope. You have to remember who you are – this is the land of Scanderbeg. Persevere! Fight!
Eni Vasili: Madam Ambassador, thank you for being on Open tonight. Thank you for the explanations you offered.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you.