An official website of the United States government

Interview with Special Representative for the Western Balkans and Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer
January 12, 2021

For Albanian National Broadcaster RTSH

Screen capture of two men on a video conference call

Lutfi Dervishi: Thank you for this interview.

DAS Palmer: Thank you for having me on the show. It is an honor to be here.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, the United States, paraphrasing a saying of Mr. Reagan, President Reagan, has been seen by democratic countries and by those who aspire democracy, as “the shining city on a hill, the light of which guides freedom loving people everywhere.” But how damaged is the image, the power and the reputation of the US in the world, from after the events on November 3rd and what came after until January 6th?

DAS Palmer: Listen, in the United States, as in any democracy, democracy is tested. We’ve been tested in the past, we will be tested in the future, we were tested on January 6. I think it is important that nobody, friend or foe, doubt the enduring strength of America’s democratic institutions. We will pass this test as we have passed other tests. The right to assemble, the right to demonstrate, the right to speak freely, these are all fundamental to a democracy. On the 6th of January, people crossed that line into criminal behavior. I am confident that there will be consequences for those who broke the law. Investigations are underway but the fundamental enduring strength of American democracy will win out.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, how worried should we be from the announcement today and the warnings of the FBI that there could be armed protests in the fifty states and the state capitals in the upcoming days?

DAS Palmer: I think it is important that our institutions remain vigilant, that law enforcement remain vigilant, but I am confident that the institutions, the law enforcement community will be up to the challenge. So, I think it is something that those in positions of authority need to be mindful of, watchful for, but nothing I think that U.S. institutions are not able to handle.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, what is expected to change in the foreign policy of the new President-elect Biden, in the foreign policy of President-elect Biden as regards countries and regions that [still have] issues to resolve?

DAS Palmer: You know, I don’t want to try and predict the future, predict what the Biden administration will prioritize, how they’re going to approach particular challenges but let me if I may, speak about the Balkans. It is an area of the world that I have worked on for 27 years, I have worked for Democratic administrations, I have worked for Republican administrations, and the U.S. approach to Balkans has been consistent, across the years, across administrations, because U.S. interests are consistent. We want to see a region that is at peace with itself, at peace with its neighbors, stable, prosperous and integrated into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. That’s true today, I have no reason to believe that it will be other than true next week or that the next administration will fundamentally look at the Balkans in a manner that is different than this administration or previous administrations. We want to see a European future for the entire region, for Albania and all of its neighbors.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, you know the Balkans very well and you know that in every country of the Balkans they consider themselves at the center of the world. The question is, is there expectation of higher attention from the new Administration, is it part of the priority list of the new Administration?

DAS Palmer: Again, I don’t want to speak for the administration that hasn’t taken its position yet. I can assure you the Balkans is the center of my world, has been, will continue to be, it is an area that I care about deeply, personally. I am confident that the Balkans will continue to get attention from the U.S. Government, not just from me of course, but from the administration broadly. I think there’s a lot of good work that we can do in the Western Balkans, there’s a lot that we’ve done, there’s still a lot to do and I am confident that the time and attention invested by the next administration will be appropriate.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, fourteen months ago in Pristina you said that in the Balkans, you talked about the “shackles of history.” How present are these shackles of history in today’s Balkan reality?

DAS Palmer: There’s a line that I learned from former Foreign Minister of Greece, former Minister Kotzias, who said, famously, that “history should be a school and not a prison.” I think that history weighs heavily on the Western Balkans. As an American, you know, we have been accused at times of being ahistorical people, but I like to think that we are more future oriented. So, looking forward, trying to think of what the best, possible road is for the region, for the countries of the Western Balkans, I think there is broad agreement on a European future. It can be easy to be distracted by the events of the past, it is easy to get off track thinking about historical grievances. It is very important for folks across the region to continue to look forward to identify those priority areas where they can make progress to create a better life for themselves, for their children, for the future. And in that they will find a strong and willing partner in the United States.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, please allow me to cite something from your book, “The Wolf of Sarajevo.”

DAS Palmer: (laughs) Let me just underscore that it is a work of fiction.

Dervishi: The main character in “The Wolf of Sarajevo” says that he wasn’t certain whether he was looking towards the past or towards the future.

DAS Palmer: Yes, I know exactly which part of the book you are referring to. And that book, which is a work of fiction, talks a lot about the way in which history influences the present and shapes the future. And I think, anybody who works on the Western Balkans, for any degree of time understands the way that history is profoundly present in contemporary politics. It can be a burden, it is something that needs to be understood, it is something that needs to be addressed. History is as much about narrative as it is about truth. And really, I think the priority should ought be on moving forward, looking ahead, identifying the best possible path forward for the countries of the region, maximizing utility, creating the best possible future for young people in particular. And I think that’s achievable. It is achievable in partnership with the United States, in partnership with members of the European Union, but I am confident that the trend lines are broadly positive.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, what could accelerate the Western Balkans’ [integration] into the West? You are the State Department’s envoy for the Western Balkans.

DAS Palmer: I think we have reached an important juncture, it is important now that the European Union find a path forward for holding the IGCs, the Inter-Governmental Conferences, for both Albania and North Macedonia; launch those processes. Certainly, both countries have met the requirements, qualify under the terms that were laid out by the European Union. I think that that is, it is going to be a watershed event. We would like to see that happen as soon as possible. We understand some of the complications, some of the reasons why this is taking longer that I think we would all like it to take. But that would be an important milestone that sets both North Macedonia and Albania firmly on the accession path. There are other areas where it will be necessary and important to make progress, we’d like to see the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue produce an agreement on the full normalization of the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina. We support Miroslav Lajcak’s process and the effort being led by the EEAS in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We would like to see progress made on the fourteen priorities of the European Union and the five plus one agenda established by the office of the High Representative, but Bosnia-Herzegovina too has a European path and a European perspective. It will require courage and leadership on the part of the political class to seize that opportunity.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, in October 2019, you expressed the disappointment of the US at the time for the decision of the EU and how other actors such as China and Russia could fill the void. Are you still afraid that these actors would fill the void from the delays in the de facto opening of the negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia?

DAS Palmer: Certainly it’s a risk, right? This is an issue that we have watched very carefully over the years and I think that we must, all of us, be vigilant about the role that outside powers play in the Western Balkans. Russia, China, these countries have a vision for the Western Balkans that is inconsistent with the interests of the countries of the region as they have defined them, what the United States wants for the countries of the Western Balkans: democracy, stability, peace, prosperity, membership in European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. This is our vision for the region. This is the vision that the countries themselves have identified as their vision for their best possible future. I assure you that that is not Russia’s vision, it is not Russia’s ambitions, it is not Moscow’s goals. Moscow believes that its strategic interests are best served by a region that is divided against itself, that is suspicious, that is fractious, where there is conflict rather than cooperation. That’s a strategic environment that Russia feels it can best take advantage of. So, we are working to promote habits of cooperation amongst the countries of the Western Balkans and to support them on the path forward to Europe.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, let’s go back to Albania, if we may. The elections will be on April 25th. Do you have a message for the political stakeholders and for the Albanian government for these elections?

DAS Palmer: I think the message would be, first of all to congratulate the people of Albania on progress in democratic development. The agreement on the electoral reforms was very encouraging, consistent with the ODIHR recommendations. We want to see those agreements, the new rules, implemented and the elections in April to be held in a manner that is fair, that is transparent, in which the political class is held accountable. And we want to see the will of the Albanian public expressed at the ballot box and that then translated into the composition of Parliament, and policies that reflect the expressed desires and ambitions of the Albanian people. That’s the way that democracy works. And we are hopeful that elections in April will offer a fulfillment of those ambitions.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, as regards to Justice Reform in Albania, there were very high public expectations and the US has invested itself very much in this reform. I wanted to ask, what are your expectations towards the newly established institutions or those that are to be established?

DAS Palmer: I think it is very encouraging that the High Court and the Constitutional Court have quorums. We’d very much like to see the full complement of judges in place is those institutions, to deliver the highest possible quality of justice. We look at institutions, new institutions, like the National Bureau of Investigations and the SPAK as offering opportunities to strengthen the rule of law, to create the kind of transparency and, frankly, accountability that the Albanian people demand and that they deserve. So, in this process, the process of establishing, building, strengthening these kind of institutions, the institutional framework that underpins good governance, transparent governance, and accountable governance, the United States will work hand in hand with the leadership in Albania, with the political class, and with the Albanian public to help make that a reality.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, the United States have an efficient tool against corrupted politicians and officials, the “black list.” Would there be new Albanian names in this “black list?”

DAS Palmer: We don’t preview decisions on sanctions, but we are aware as, I think, many others are aware, that these are important, effective, and powerful instruments in advancing rule of law and in holding those who have misused public position accountable for that. We have not been shy about using that instrument in the past, we will not be shy about using it where appropriate going forward.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, Kosovo is holding early elections. What are the challenges that the new government should overcome after February 14th?

DAS Palmer: Sure. You know, elections are the bedrock of democratic practice. The elections in February, will produce a new government in Kosovo and the United States will be a partner for that government. We will be a good partner for that government, as we have been for previous governments in Kosovo. I think it will be important for that government to come to grips with some of the issues that continue to be challenging for the country, including rule of law, transparent and accountable governance, promoting economic growth and development opportunities for foreign investors to put money into Kosovo, the opportunity to ensure that there’s a vibrant economy that allows for young people to assess that their future is best served by staying in Kosovo rather than emigrating. I think there will be a need to assess Kosovo’s approach to the dialogue with Serbia, to find a way to come to grips with the issues that are on the table in the normalization agenda, to make progress in strengthening and improving ties with all of its neighbors, including Serbia, normalizing the relationship with Belgrade, sending Kosovo firmly on a path towards integration into the European Union and eventual membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Let me take this opportunity to thank you for having me on the show. I value the conversation and I hope that I have offered you some insights into our thinking about the region and about the relationship between the United States and Albania, which is firm and of enormous value to us. One where we see a lot of continued opportunity to develop and grow the bilateral relationship. So, thank you again! I look forward to the next opportunity to join you and talk about this region and the world.

Dervishi: Mr. Palmer, thank you very much for your time. I truly appreciate the time that you gave to the public broadcaster here in Albania.

DAS Palmer: It was my pleasure, thank you!