Top Channel: Madam Ambassador, in this 30th anniversary of the re-establishment of Albania-U.S. relations, are you happy with their level?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: I’m very happy with the level of U.S.-Albania relations. I think the great thing about U.S.-Albania relations is that there is tremendous potential and as you know, we have been working very hard to raise the level of our cooperation on democracy, defense, and business. And I think we have made great progress over the last few years. I think what we always want to do though is to keep our focus on the future. So, when I look at what’s possible in the next few years that are coming, I’m very excited about the next 30 years.
Top Channel: What should Albania do to take these relations further, beyond statements about their strategic importance?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: I think that’s a very good question. I think that actions speak much louder than words and so, I think in the last few years, you have seen us make some real progress, take some real action. On democracy, what we mean by that is strengthening the institutions of democracy, which include judicial reform. And so, some of the institutions that were not functioning fully are now functioning and we’re beginning to see some results in democracy. On defense, you saw earlier this year that the United States and Albania, along with some other allies and partners, held the largest, U.S.-led, multi-national exercise ever in history, with most of those exercises being hosted in Albania. So, we’re very proud of that and we’re looking forward to building on that. And, on the business front, we’ve had some huge developments there, including with the prospect of a large hydropower plant being constructed by an American company in Skavica, and then possibly, an additional energy project in Vlora. Beyond that, there are also more signs of U.S. investment in Albania. There is certainly a desire for American businesses to get into Albania, but what we really need with that is the rule of law. The rules have to be clear. The processes have to be transparent and fair. And if there is a contract dispute, when American companies go to court, they need to know that the courts are clean, that the decisions make sense, and that judges and prosecutors are not corrupt. So, this is how all of those things are related.
Top Channel: What will the U.S. do to take these relations forward?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: I think you are going to see a lot more engagement from Washington and that means you will have more visitors here, as you saw last week and a few weeks ago; you will have more generals coming to take a look at Albania and to have discussions with their counterparts here. I’m hoping that the visits go in the other direction as well. Beyond that, I’d like to get more American businesspeople here, to see what we can do and not just in Tirana. You know, several months ago I was in Shkodra, I was in Dibra, and you know I go down south to Vlora and to Fier. I’d like all of these places to be open to American businesses. It’s good for us. It’s good for you. We want more jobs, we want more opportunity for people to earn money, but again, that’s going to require some tough action on cleaning up courts and getting corrupt judges and prosecutors out of the courts.
Top Channel: How do you see Albania’s role in the region and not just in the context of the Open Balkan initiative?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: Albania’s role is increasing. In the region, we’re very pleased to support Open Balkan and other regional initiatives that increase interaction among all the Western Balkans and the key is that these initiatives have to be open to all six members of the Western Balkans. So, we’ll continue to do that. We continue to strongly support Albania’s integration into the EU and we’ll continue to do that. We believe that Albania has met all the conditions and that there should be an Inter-Governmental Conference before the end of the year. We’ll push hard for that. Albania’s role extends beyond just the region though and that’s a new development. Come January 1, 2022, Albania, for the first time in its history, will be a member of the UN Security Council, which is the top body of this international organization. So, Albania will be sitting next to the United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia. So, this is a very big deal and we’re looking forward to working more closely with Albania on issues around the world.
Top Channel: Do you think the U.S. role becomes even more important for the region today, given that the EU is not being able to overcome its internal obstacles to advance the region’s integration? How do you explain that, in the circumstances when not-so-friendly third parties, the EU still can’t take forward its own and the region’s strategic interests?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: I think the United States continues to have a strong interest here. In moments when it has mattered most, for example during the 1990s, the United States have made clear that our interest is in having a Western Balkans region and a Europe that is free, whole, and at peace with itself and I think that you will continue to see the United States become more engaged than ever. In fact, just today, the new Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Gabriel Escobar, is in the region, trying to work on issues in Bosnia, and I believe that very soon he’ll be coming to Albania as well.
Top Channel: In his remarks in Glasgow at COP26, where the U.S. President also made important pledges, PM Edi Rama asked that the larger countries do more because they are also the greatest polluters. Do you agree?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: You will see the United States continue to be a leader on climate change. I think it’s very significant that our Special Envoy for Climate Change is a former Secretary of State, John Kerry. This goes to show that we are very serious about climate change and we recognize that as the world’s largest economy, and the world’s most influential country, we have a special responsibility, so you will continue to see us lead.
Top Channel: Albania and the U.S. are taking forward a major project like Skavica and the LNG one in the Port of Vlora. Will there be other projects?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: I believe so, but again, there has to be an attraction to Albania. In other words, I wish it was enough for the American Ambassador to say ’you should come‘ and then everybody comes. It’s not. Businesses make decisions based on risk and benefit. And so, one of the things that businesses look at in Albania is the state of the courts, the state of property rights, and the simplicity and clarity of procedures. This is why we push so hard on the part of the American Embassy for resolving property rights and I know this is going to be the biggest legal and political challenge that this country will need to deal with in order to normalize. Albania should be a normal country, where normal people and normal countries and normal companies feel comfortable coming and saying, ’you know what, we’re going to invest our money here.’ So, this is a primary focus for us right now.
Top Channel: Can you tell us a bit more about the visit of U.S. Congress members who just left? It was a large group, from both major parties in the U.S.
Ambassador Yuri Kim: Yes, you know, members of Congress travel around the world from time to time to see for themselves what the situation is and to talk to leaders. Yesterday, we had four members, three were from the House side, there was one Democrat and two Republicans, and then a Senator who came and she’s a Republican. I’m very proud of the fact that American lawmakers are able to work together across the aisle and when it comes to foreign policy and other issues of national interest, they are able to rise above party politics and try to find common ground. The reason that they came to Albania, there are many reasons. The immediate reason was that they had heard about what the Albanian Government and what the Albanian people were doing to take in Afghans who were in danger. I think they were amazed to hear about the history of Albania, your tradition of hospitality, but also your tradition of taking care of those who most need help when they ask for it. So, they came. We visited with some of the Afghans who have been evacuated. They had a long discussion. And then, on top of that, they had official meetings with Prime Minister Rama and then with the Chairman of the Democratic Party Lulzim Basha. And those discussions were very fruitful; we don’t always agree on everything, but I believe that we know that this relationship has so much to offer and that our cooperation with the government is important, but also that the voice of the opposition is also extremely important and necessary in democracy.
Top Channel: The U.S. has had good relations with almost all Albanian governments of different parties, the DP and SP. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State designated former PM Sali Berisha, an important figure and close collaborator of the U.S.. How do you explain it?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: We look at the facts and we don’t look at people’s political parties. I know there are some conspiracy theories that somehow this is targeting one side or the other. I would point out that there are four people, so far, designated by the Secretary of State, since I believe 2018. And most of them are not with the Democratic Party so, party has nothing to do with it. We look at the facts; it goes through a years-long process usually where we review all the information. The decision makers ask more questions and by the time that the decision to designate reaches the desk of the Secretary of State, no matter who it is, we are 100 percent sure. And the fact of the matter, also is that by the time someone is designated, and I’m not talking about just Albania; look at who else the United States has designated around the world, there is no one on that list where the people look at the designation and think: hmm, that’s a mystery. It’s not a mystery. The evidence is staring you in the face. So, we’re very confident with our designations and I must tell you that President Biden has made it very clear through some of his Executive Orders and a Presidential Proclamation in June that, for the United States, corruption is a national security issue. We want our partners and allies, like Albania, to be strong and secure, to be true democracies. Corruption gets in the way of that, so, if your next question is going to be ’Will there be more designations?’, let’s see, I believe that there will be and we will continue to call out those who engage in corruption, those who undermine democracy, and this country, which we consider a close friend. We will not abandon you. We’ve come too far. The United States has invested too much and the American Government cares too much about Albania to let this go.
Top Channel: Will there be other designations? Will the Treasury Department get involved?
Ambassador Kim: We have a number of tools that are available to the United States Government – State Department designations, Treasury Department Designations, and others. So, we will have to see. It’s a very closely held process, meaning it’s very confidential, so I don’t have any information that I can share at this time.
Top Channel: What happens in your relationship with the DP if former PM Sali Berisha assumes charge?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: We will not be engaging with anybody who is designated by the Secretary of State. That’s a worldwide policy and it has nothing to do with individuals, but as a general matter of policy, we cannot imagine a scenario in which me or any of my successors is going to be pretending that everything is okay and that we just go and have coffee with somebody who is designated by the Secretary of State for significant corruption. It’s not going to happen.
Top Channel: Does the U.S. support DP Chair Lulzim Basha?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: We recognize the person who has been duly elected as Chairman of that Party and I will continue to go and see Mr. Basha in his capacity as Chairman of the Party. And as you saw, lawmakers and other visitors from Washington will do the same.
Top Channel: What are the main problems you want Albania to correct? There’s a lot of talk about corruption and organized crime.
Ambassador Yuri Kim: You have really identified the core problem in Albania. I’ve now been here for almost two years and they’ve been very special and very wonderful years. I see the intelligence, the hard work, and the joy of the Albanian people. I sense their hope, but I can also feel their frustration, and the United States as a friend and ally of Albania and as a champion of the Albanian people and their desire for democracy, we want to do everything in our power to support you so that this country can be as fair as possible, as democratic as possible, as strong as possible, and as rich as possible. Corruption and organized crime get in the way. So, it’s not an accident that in all our reports that the State Department issues, we identify corruption and organized crime as serious concerns. So, we’ll continue to work with the government, we’ll continue to work with the opposition, we’ll continue to work with civil society, and we’ll continue to work with international organizations to address these issues. Our intent is not just to identify problems or to criticize, that’s easy. Our intent is to work with partners to fix the problems in a meaningful and real way.
Top Channel: Are you happy with SPAK’s work today, almost two years after its establishment?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: SPAK, you’re right, is coming up on its two-year anniversary and I will leave it to Arben Kraja to provide the full information about how much progress has been made. For our part, as you know, the United States has invested tremendously in justice reform. We are very pleased to see SPAK operating now and beginning to deliver results. So far, more than 250 people have been convicted, they’ve been put into jail. More than 80 million euros worth of assets have been confiscated successfully. That’s almost two years, that’s how much has been confiscated. Do you know how that compares to the past? From 2011 to 2019, 20 million euro was confiscated in that amount of time. So, there’s a huge difference. I think that the public also has seen some very high-profile cases that have been announced. And we’re pleased to see that when SPAK goes to court, they win 90 percent of their cases. That’s a pretty good success rate. So, we’ll continue to strongly support the efforts of SPAK. We’re pleased to see the National Bureau of Investigation have its full complement of investigators. That should help a lot and we will continue to encourage all other institutions, all other judges and prosecutors, to do their jobs, including through the vetting process.
Top Channel: Your opinion on the work of the vetting bodies and their mandate?
Ambassador Yuri Kim: I think that’s in discussion so I won’t say anything further. I think the view of the United States is clear on this issue.
Top Channel: Thank you very much.