Lutfi Dervishi: Madam Ambassador, welcome to the show.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Lutfi Dervishi: Less than two weeks from voting day, what are your major concerns regarding the elections?
Ambassador Kim: I have hopes, but also concerns as you note. I think this is a very important election that is coming up. After 30 years of democracy, we are at a turning point and I think that the Albanian people have an opportunity here as they do every election to decide which direction they go in. So, this is why I have been telling voters it doesn’t matter who you vote for but it matters that you vote and that your vote is genuine. You have to decide your future.
Lutfi Dervishi: Do you see signs of undermining the integrity of the elections? You get reports.
Ambassador Kim: I do get reports. I hear all sorts of things and we keep a close eye. Ultimately, we have experts who will be making a pronouncement about that. You know the OSCE has sent a team from ODIHR and those are the true experts. So, I will wait for the full report.
Lutfi Dervishi: So when you meet political leaders in the districts, as it was the case in Elbasan or any other city, what do they tell you?
Ambassador Kim: I think they tell me that the election is important to them. That they are working hard. And then they tell me about the concerns that they have about the other side and I tell them they should worry about themselves first and then let the experts worry about everybody else. My sense is that people took seriously, and when I say people I mean the political parties, took into consideration the advice that we have been giving on the importance of having clean candidates and so frankly, the most obvious criminals were not included but are there names of concern? Yes there are.
Lutfi Dervishi: Can we name them?
Ambassador Kim: Well, Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Palmer was here virtually last week and made clear that there are names of concern. They know who they are. The party leaders know who they are. We’ve expressed those views. Ultimately, there’s a process here. The Central Election Commission has to take a look. They have now referred 30 names to prosecutors for additional information and depending on what ultimately appears on the ballot, then voters have the opportunity this time because it’s an open list to decide who should represent them. You asked about names. The United States has been clear about three names. We don’t do this lightly; this takes years of research; some of the information is available and everybody knows it; some of the information is classified so I’m not at liberty to discuss, but I can say that it’s very serious and the Secretary of State does not sign his or her name to these designations easily.
Lutfi Dervishi: When you talk about the names, and the information which is available, the question is: Is this information – and that’s a rhetorical question – available to the prosecutors or to the SPAK or any law enforcement officer?
Ambassador Kim: I think the information is widely available.
Lutfi Dervishi: What is lacking?
Ambassador Kim: I think what is lacking is – I’ll be honest – what’s lacking is courage. And I think that we have seen instances of courage now emerging. I think we need to see more. I’m confident that America’s investment in justice reform, in SPAK, is going to be worth it but this is a difficult moment. As I often say, justice reform is not quick, easy, or perfect but we are beginning to see some results. SPAK has issued their first annual report and in it, they report that they have so far made 588 persecutions, they have confiscated over 70 million-euro worth of illegal goods and possessions. They have investigated 746 individuals. They have sent many of those to trial and of those 114 so far had been convicted.
Lutfi Dervishi: So what you’re mentioning is what you do rather often, look to the facts and not propaganda…
Ambassador Kim: …exactly.
Lutfi Dervishi: We go back to justice reform and results. I Just want to spend a couple of minutes more on the elections. Albania has one of the most severe decriminalization laws, but there are opinions and attempts, including MPs from this legislature, that the law should be amended to include people who served jail terms in countries like Switzerland, Kosovo, not to mention the U.S. blacklist.
Ambassador Kim: There are a lot of loopholes and I think that Albanian voters are smart. They know who is doing what. To the extent that you ask for the help of the United States, we have given you a very clear indication of who should not be in parliament, who should not be representing you. This person is somebody that is barred from the United States of America, from the entire country, by the Secretary of State, for significant corruption, so I think that outweighs any dyqan bill that he has paid, any hospital bill that he has paid. It doesn’t mean he’s a good guy because he came to your daughter’s wedding. The man does not belong in parliament. Okay? So, I think voters need to think about this. They have to wonder, you know, when criminals and others come to them to buy their votes… Why do I call them criminals? Because the act of attempting to buy votes is a crime. So, you are a criminal. If you are trying to buy a vote, you are a criminal. For voters, they have to decide, Am I going to sell my power? Am I going to sell my dignity? Am I going to sell my children’s future? I think the answer should be: No. If someone done nothing for you besides doing terrible things, stealing from the public for four years or however many years and then right before the election they show up and they pay your bills or they give you a used iPhone, you know, you’re worth more than that! Albania is worth more than that. Albania’s children are worth more than that, so this is a real moment. Don’t take it lightly; don’t sell your vote; don’t try to buy a vote and if you buy a vote, then you should go to jail and I hope that prosecutors around the country will take their duties seriously. I know that there are lots of complaints from the last election that people who clearly committed crimes were not prosecuted. I don’t think that should happen this time. This is a situation where I think people are right to be angry; they are right to be unhappy; and they’re right to demand justice and some accountability here.
Lutfi Dervishi: What you mentioned is that we have persons who clearly do no good to the name of Albania of being in parliament. And if we talk about a triangle, that we have a timid institutions or prosecutors, political leaders who don’t have the courage, and it seems that you last best hope is the Albanian voters?
Ambassador Kim: Albanian voters are the first-best hope. This is the basis of any democracy, the voters. And so I think that people have been brainwashed into believing that they are powerless. The fact that someone is trying to buy your vote should be an indication to you that you are not powerless. That’s your power. Your vote is your power. Albanian people around the country, when I meet them, they tell me that they are sick and tired of corruption; they are sick and tired of impunity; they are sick and tired of criminals who are sitting in Parliament. Well, this is your moment. You show me through your actions, you show yourself through your actions that you mean it. It can’t be the case that you ask me my opinion as the United States, I give it to you, and then you keep doing the same thing. If you want change, vote for change. If you want criminals, vote for criminals. But you have to match what you say you want with what you actually do. And April 25 is the moment.
Lutfi Dervishi: …is the moment. Madam Ambassador, talking about the hopes and expectations and concerns about April 25 elections, you’ve played a major role making sure that the political parties come together, reach an agreement and make sure that they will have legal infrastructure for the elections. In a way, you have been a guarantor of the June 5 agreement. Are you a guarantor of the implementation of this agreement?
Ambassador Kim: I think that the guarantees in any democracy for an agreement like this are institutions but they are also the responsibility of political leaders, in particular those who are elected but also those who wish to be elected. If you give you a word that you are going to do such and such, then you have to do it and of course we guarantee that with institutions so for example, in this case, there are the commissioners of the CEC who will have the responsibility to make sure that the agreement is implemented so that’s what we look to. Ultimately though, the true guarantors in any democracy are the people and, again, your vote on April 25 is the ultimate power.
Lutfi Dervishi: What are your expectations about the role of the media during this election campaign campaign till April 25, including voting day?
Ambassador Kim: Media is extremely important. Reporters are extremely important. They have to do their job with professionalism, integrity, and with ethics. I’m very well aware that various news outlets here in Albania are affiliated with one side or another. I think that reporters have the responsibility to try to present the facts to the best of their ability. What that also means is that you don’t just agree with somebody because they’re from the party you like. You have to keep asking the tough questions. I’ve said this in other interviews as well, I have respect for reporters who ask me tough questions. if I’ve said something ridiculous, you should challenge me. If I’ve said something that’s not clear, you should force me to clarify it’s my job to answer and I think it’s the job of reported to demand answers on the half of the people.
Lutfi Dervishi: The Embassy obviously will monitor the voting day. Do you have a favorite city to watch?
Ambassador Kim: There are many cities that are important. As you know I have been to several cities over the last few weeks. This week I will do some more travelling. Next week, I’m going to visit another place. On the day of the election I will go to some of the key places. We haven’t set the plan yet, but from the American Embassy alone, we have about 23 or 24 teams. They will be spread all over the country. That is on top of the many teams that other embassies will be also be sending and, of course, you know that OSCE/ODIHR has sent the official team. But we’ll be watching, very closely. And as I said before, we’ll be relying ultimately on the OSCE/ODIHR to provide their expert opinion.
Lutfi Dervishi: WIll the U.S. act as a referee if there are disputes about the election?
Ambassador Kim: I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. I think that’s not our role. If you are saying, do we care what happens? Yes, we care. Do we have a preferred candidate for winning? No, we don’t. That’s not the position of the United States. What we care about is institutions and processes. And so, that’s why I don’t talk about this candidate or that candidate, this party or that party, what I talk about is the importance and critical importance of making sure that the rules and the process are fair, they’re transparent, that the playing field is even, and that the rules are implemented in a way that is timely as well, so everybody has a fair shot. That’s what we are interested in.
Lutfi Dervishi: You have said that Americans and you, yourself are optimistic by nature. I just have a question about these elections, which are very very important. This election will be the 10th parliamentary elections since 1991 in Albania. Only three elections 1992, 2005, and 2013 have passed the test of being accepted by the losing party. What makes you optimistic that the upcoming elections will be free and fair and the result will be accepted?
Ambassador Kim: There are no guarantees in life, but when I look at the situation, as you know, I’m very heavily in discussions with all the relevant leaders. I think they understand the importance of following the rules to the extent possible, of being transparent. I think they understand how important this is for Albania’s future. I think they understand how important this is from the perspective of the United States, as a supporter and a friend of Albania. We’ve been with you for 30 years now and we’re very happy about celebrating 30 years together this year. We’ve made a huge investment in Albania as a democracy and as a prosperous democracy. We’re not going to lose that investment. In fact, what we prefer to do is bring in more investment, more of the traditional investments, on the business. That’s why you hear me often, Lutfi, talk about democracy, defense, and business and these three things are tied together. My dream is that we’re going to have a situation in Albania where the rule of law becomes stronger and stronger so that I can tell American investors: the rules on investment in Albania are clear. If you come here, you will find a population, a workforce that is capable and that can be trained; that you will find a court system that will give you a fair judgement in the event that there is a dispute; that it is worth it to come to Albania to create jobs. I would love to see that happening from Shkodra to Saranda. I think it’s possible but you know they have to make some tough decisions here. If you don’t have a good clean court system, people will not invest.
Lutfi Dervishi: I have one last question about the elections and then we’ll jump to the favorite subject of justice reform, which is the biggest thing in town at least since July 2016. The question has to do with the Albanian political crisis. The country has gone through many crises and before coming to Albania, you have said that you studied a lot Albanian politics. Do you have any idea of the roots of the Albanian political crisis?
Ambassador Kim: What do you mean?
Lutfi Dervishi: We have crises at least twice in the decade 1991, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2010…less, and 2017, so a lot of crises for a small and young country to suffer.
Ambassador Kim: I think that a lot of new democracies, and Albania is a new democracy, 30 years in an individual’s life is a long time; in a country’s life, it’s not a long time. And, this isn’t to make excuses of course, but it is to say that Albania is special in many ways but having some degree of difficulty and turbulence in its development as a democracy, it is not unique, not that special I’m afraid. But, it is important to stay focused on the end goal, to continue to make demands of your leaders and to make it increasingly difficult for political parties or political actors to misbehave, and that includes attempting to reject the results of a legitimate election. So, when I hear people making comments about you know, if we don’t win it’s because the other side cheated, that’s not an acceptable thing to say. That’s very unfortunate. It reveals to me that you think you might lose. Someone who is confident that they will win does not say stuff like that.
Lutfi Dervishi: Last question. You said, ‘we reiterate that we will hold leaders to account. We’ll take appropriate actions in response to those who accept or promote violence, accept or promote violation of electoral laws and international standards, and attempt to otherwise undermine the integrity of and the confidence in the electoral process and its results. Do you have a plan in place?
Ambassador Kim: I think we have many options. I don’t discuss those in public. But, I think that people understand that for the United States, this is serious business and I think President Biden and Secretary Blinken have made very very clear the centrality of the rule of law, fighting corruption, and strengthening democracy around the world. And we don’t do it because we think it’s nice to do; it’s not charity work. We do it because it’s in the national interests of the United States to have allies that are strong, capable, and prosperous. We want to make sure that Albania as a NATO Ally is the strongest that it can be because we believe in you in the same way that you believe in us and so that’s what I think about this year as we consider the 30th anniversary, but also as we had towards the election. It’s a time to decide what kind of country Albania is going to be.
Lutfi Dervishi: So the key words: rule of law and corruption. We are now almost about to talk about justice reform but the right after a short commercial break.
Lutfi Dervishi: We’re back to the studio with U.S. Ambassador to Tirana Yuri Kim. Madam Ambassador, when we talk about justice reform, you have said that demand for perfection is a way to prevent progress. Can you explain a little bit what you mean and how that phrase is related with justice reform?
Ambassador Kim: We have a saying in America, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and what we mean by that is that sometimes, when you demand perfection, you know, it’s a way to delay something from moving forward. You know, if you’re building a house, it’s to say that you have to destroy it because the curtains are too short. So, the demand for perfection can sometimes get in the way. On justice reform, I tell people over and over, don’t pay attention to the propaganda. The demand for perfection is propaganda, right? Pay attention to the facts. What is different today from when the country was, where the justice system was a year ago, 2 years ago, 3 years ago and then chart your way forward based on that progress. Earlier in the show, I had mentioned to you the number of prosecutions, the amount of assets that are being taken away, the number of people for being put in jail. Those numbers are going to increase little by little and the type of individuals that are going to be held accountable is going to change also, little by little. Again, it’s not quick, easy, or perfect, but we’re definitely seeing progress and I think people should not lose sight of the progress or the end goal and they should continue to demand more. Don’t give up, this is not the moment to give up.
Lutfi Dervishi: When you talk about justice reform, you mentioned progress and you have stated that progress just enough to alarm those who do not want it…
Ambassador Kim: …that’s right…
Lutfi Dervishi: …but not enough for the Albanian people to feel that there is justice. When do you think that the saying ‘all equal before the law’ is not just a slogan?
Ambassador Kim: So, I think that we’re sort of at the balance point here, that’s why I mentioned that it’s just enough to scare those who are opposed to it but not enough to satisfy those who want full justice. I don’t know that I know to identify exactly…
Lutfi Dervishi: Sorry to interrupt you here. When we talk about justice reform, we know the champions or most people know the champions, but not the saboteurs.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah… I don’t understand your question. Is it a statement? Is it a question?
Lutfi Dervishi: It’s a question in the terms that we know the good guys but not the bad guys.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Lutfi Dervishi: …or the public doesn’t know as much as it knows the good guys and the champions of justice reform but it’s not well-informed about the bad guys and those who feel it now and if we can talk about how do you feel that they are feeling the consequences of the justice reform, those who don’t like it.
Ambassador Kim: I think that they reveal themselves through their own words and actions and I think that the Albanian people are smart – they are smart – and they can see who is for and who is against justice reform. I think that, you know, when I say that it’s not to say that justice reform cannot be criticized at all. So I hope that there is no misunderstanding there. For any big reform, it’s important to have serious examination of the progress that’s taking place and to make corrections along the way. To insist that something is perfect and cannot be touched at all is not a good position to be in, it’s not reasonable. So there is room for criticism; I often think about ways to improve the implementation of justice reform but I think that there is a difference between doing that and pretending that justice reform is the exact opposite or pretending that you know nothing has happened and hoping that people will lose hope or pretending that justice reform is designed for corruption. It’s an insane thing to say frankly and I think most people understand that.
Lutfi Dervishi: I will quote the State Department annual report, “Prosecution and especially conviction of officials who commit abuses was sporadic and inconsistent. Officials, politicians, judges, and persons with powerful business interests often were able to avoid prosecution.” My question is, “Do you see signs that the days of impunity are over?”
Ambassador Kim: I think that there have been some very important prosecutions announced by SPAK. These began last summer and we’re watching these very carefully and I think that will give a good indication as to what will happen in the future.
Lutfi Dervishi: You have stated that justice reform is business. How far or near do you see the day when the American ambassador will say to an american businessman or company, if they ask “Can I invest in Albania?” and the answer would be “yes?”
Ambassador Kim: I hope it will be soon.
Lutfi Dervishi: …during your tenure?
Ambassador Kim: …I don’t know how long I’m here. But, I do hope that it will be soon. And, I’m always optimistic. I tend to be optimistic, but I also know that optimism is not enough; you have to work hard and it’s not just my job to work hard, you know, I’m just just a foreigner in your country, so ultimately it’s up to the Albanian people to decide.
Lutfi Dervishi: Let me move to another thing, very interesting that you’ve said when it comes to the EU. For the EU, it’s not about what you gain, but more about the things that have to be done, you have to do. So, the advice is that we have to do our part in making sure that democracy will flourish and that justice reform will take strong roots, but then the question is: Is the Albanian model of justice reform to be recommended for other countries who suffer from weak and corrupt judiciary?
Ambassador Kim: I think that every country is different so you have to take into consideration the specific situation from place to place. You know, I’ll go back to something that you said, not just justice reform, but democracy in general and investment, about what is to be gained and what is required to be given. Democracy and the future of Albania, it’s not going to be a situation where somebody builds you a house and you just move in. This is a massive, difficult project. You and I, and when I say “you,” I mean the Albanian people and when I say “I,” I mean the United States, and all your other friends around the world, including the EU. This is a project that we undertake together and we have to lay the bricks down together, brick by brick, and build the house and then you get to live in it and I think that there will be profound satisfaction and a profound sense of achievement from having done that. This is not a project that will be given to you. It is a project that you will have to build and we’ll help you.
Lutfi Dervishi: Talking about American investments, there is an MOU for the Skavica hydropower plant. When do you think it is expected to be finalized?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s in discussions between the companies and the Albanian Government, so it’s in their hands. The U.S. government laid the framework for these types of large investments and within that same hour, we made it real. I’d like to see more of these investments. The large companies have a different kind of calculation when they invest in places like Albania, but what will be the true indicator of success as a destination for foreign investment is whether the country is able to attract medium and small businesses, because those businesses really have to look at all the rules and figure out whether they can afford to be here and whether they’ll make make a profit. None of these companies does it for charity. I think that if we can get the rule of law strengthened here, and if you can clarify the rules on property rights, and then show that you have a court system that gives reasoned, credible, and transparent decisions you will have a lot of investment here. We’re not there yet. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Lutfi Dervishi: I hate hypothetical questions, but I’ll allow myself one. Five years from now, what would you say about the justice reform in Albania?
Ambassador Kim: I hope that 5 years from now will be able to look back and say, that was a good start and now look at how much progress we’ve made. I hope that having judges in your system who take bribes becomes completely unacceptable, not only morally, but in terms of the law. I hope that there will be a new generation of prosecutors, judges, and lawyers, and citizens who insist on a higher standard for Albania. When people say that Albania has always been corrupt, or Albanians are like this or Albanians are like that, I think it’s a lot of nonsense, and it’s designed to kill hope. And, as I say, hope is a weapon, hope is a tool and it’s not something that you should let others kill so easily. So, look to the facts, think about your future, think about your children, go to the polls on April 25 and vote on that basis, whether you want somebody of a record that is shameful to be representing you and collecting your tax dollars as a member of parliament. If I were an Albanian citizen, I would not accept that. The United States is always honored to be able to help our friend and we’ll always be here but this is your part now, you also have to decide. You’ve asked for our opinion, we’ve given it. We hope you listen.
Lutfi Dervishi: We talked until now about what you would summarize in one word, democracy – elections, rule of law, justice reform. Let’s talk a bit about defense and I’m asking the producer to show a picture, Defender 21. So, the picture is at Rinas, Mother Teresa Airport, and the question is “What’s the message of the biggest military exercise in the region?”
Ambassador Kim: I think what it shows is that the United States is serious. When we say that we’re going to be strengthening our relationship with our friends and Allies, that we intend to stay the pre-eminent military alliance, military force around the world, to do that you have to exercise, you have to practice and so this is one of those events where we’re going to test how quickly and effectively we can bring troops and equipment in from all over the world into Europe, and how quickly and effectively we can move them up towards the Black Sea region and ultimately ensure that, if it ever becomes necessary for the United States and its friends and allies, we’ll always prevail in any military confrontation. That’s the goal and we chose to do this in Albania because, number one, I think anybody who looks at a map will understand the geostrategic importance of Albania. I also think that this is the right moment to move forward on all three fronts: democracy, defense, and business. And I say it over and over, these three things are related, they are not independent elements so we’re looking forward to that. It’s going to be up to 6,000 troops coming in. This will involve also about 26 different countries also contributing troops and assets and I believe that the exercises will take place in about 30 different sites across 12 countries in central Europe and in the Western Balkans. So, it’s going to be big. This was planned well before the election date for Albania was set so I don’t want there to be any confusion about that. This was…
Lutfi Dervishi: …an unintended air of security…
Ambassador Kim: I know, people here have this conspiracy… You know, if it adds that, then I’m glad for it, but it’s not designed for that purpose. And then you’ll start to see a lot more movement after the elections. That will go in through June. It’s actually a series of three different military exercises that kind of overlap or intended to show different things. The first week of may we will probably have some very important leaders coming in to observe
Lutfi Dervishi: Military or political leaders?
Ambassador Kim: Military, but I believe that there may be some civilians as well who will come in. I think that there is a lot of interest in Albania from Washington these days. It’s unfortunate that the coronavirus has prevented us from doing a lot more in person, but I think the fact that we are clearly strongly supporting your elections, and strongly supporting compromise among all your political leaders, and accountability from all your political leaders, is an important sign. I think the fact that we have had a historic economic memorandum signed and some concrete results already from that memorandum are notable. The fact that there will be the largest military exercise in the Western Balkans ever taking place is also significant. So, if anybody asks does the United States care about Albania, I think the answer is very obvious: yes!
Lutfi Dervishi: How pleased are you with the Albanian commitment of implementing the Wales pledge to spend not less than 2% of the GDP for defense?
Ambassador Kim: I think Albania is doing it’s best to stay on track and we want to keep it that way, we’d like to see Albania like every other ally, doing its best to carry its share of the burden and I think despite the challenges of the corona situation, Albania’s done a good job.
Lutfi Dervishi: Allow me a couple more questions, but from a more personal angle, not as a U.S. diplomat. You have mentioned the advice from your father, that the key to success in your career: seek out the company of those you admire and wish to be like and avoid the company of those you do not admire and do not wish to be like. I wonder what your father will say to you when he sees you in the company of Albanian politicians?
Ambassador Kim: I think that every country has a variety of people in politics. I must say that I really enjoy meeting regular Albanian people and I try to get out as much as possible and I hope my father will come and visit me soon. I think he would love it here and I think he would think that there are a lot of admirable people in Albania whose company I should seek.
Lutfi Dervishi: And the last question, you talked about the role of luck and hard work, which makes a difference at the end of the day. What does the Albanian people need those days, more luck or more hard work?
Ambassador Kim: I think both.
Lutfi Dervishi: Both. Madam Ambassador, it’s been a pleasure that you were part of this show.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you so much.
Lutfi Dervishi: Thank you.