Transcript of Interview with U.S. Ambassador to Albania Yuri Kim

with VOA Albanian Service

 

VOA: Ambassador Kim, thank you for this interview. Through almost one year of your presence in Albania, the focus of your public statements has been justice reform. Recently, you have spoken often about the Constitutional Court, insisting on the need to make it functional within this month. How realistic is this objective, considering that so far, it has taken a long time (more than one year) to evaluate candidates, while two of the three current vacancies have been announced less than three months ago? 

Ambassador Kim: Thanks, first of all for the opportunity to speak. I want to take it back a little bit. I know that people here focus on justice reform because that’s what catches their eye, but I want to make it clear that our approach here in Albania is broader than just justice reform. Justice reform is part of a bigger agenda and, as many people know, we focus on democracy, defense, and investment or the business aspect of it. All of those three agenda items require a degree of rule of law and transparency, in other words, justice reform, because democracy is about institutions, but it’s also about Albania’s future in the EU and you need justice reform for that. Defense is about security. And corruption and the lack of rule of law create some vulnerabilities for Albania so we don’t want that for a NATO ally. And finally, for investment, when investors look at opportunities, they judge issues of transparency, predictability, and the availability of courts that are able to render fair and transparent decisions. So, this is why justice reform is important and I think that most people perceive that I talk about justice reform a lot because that’s what’s on their minds. So, I focus on that in terms of the agenda now. I think people are right to be impatient. It’s been four and a half years since the laws were passed in 2016. And when I look at the situation, although I’ve been here for less than a year, it seems to me this is not a matter of law or technicalities. It’s really a matter of political will. And I think that after four and a half years, when all the key players, those with power and responsibility, have all expressed their political will to implement justice reform, it’s time. So, December 31 may seem a little bit random but it’s a long time coming and I have to say that when we, from an expert point of view, look at the rules, look at the requirements, look at the Venice Commission opinions, there are now two of them in the last few months, when we look at the constitution, your constitution that is, international standards, EU requirements and our own expectations, there is no practical reason that it’s not possible to have a functional Constitutional Court by December 31.

VOA: Ambassador Kim, it seems as if the same situation of one year ago is repeating itself. So, we have a limited number of candidates, one candidate in all three vacancies. Is there a risk for another clash between the presidency and parliament? 

Ambassador Kim: I hope not. I think it’s a little bit different this year and the big difference is that people are much more impatient. The difference also includes the fact that we have two Venice Commission opinions that make it very clear that all the players need to make urgent action to bring a functioning Constitutional Court in order. And then finally, in March, we had a decision by the EU to begin to look at opening negotiations with Albania for EU membership. So, those are very major differences and I’ll tell you one other thing. In October, the U.S. and Albania signed the first ever Memorandum of Understanding on Economic Cooperation and then, immediately after that, we had one of the world’s biggest companies, Bechtel, signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Albanian Government for Skavica and if that is able to be completed, you’re talking about a deal that is worth $600 million, at least. So what it does is that it shows you what’s possible when the rules are more transparent. It shows you what could be possible once the Constitutional Court comes on line. And so, I think it’s really important to get moving now. It’s important to put actions to the words that people have said about their political commitment, their political will to implement justice reform and have a Constitutional Court in play. No reason that we can’t have one.

VOA: So you are convinced that we can have the Constitutional Court functioning in December?

Ambassador Kim: So, as I said, we’ve looked at it from all angles and there’s no reason why it can’t happen. And I will tell you this. I have the word of the Speaker of Parliament and I have the word of the President of this Republic. And that President also happens to be a fellow highlander. He and I are both from the mountains and, when a person from the mountains gives you his word, that he has the political will and that he is serious about justice reform as soon as possible, I don’t need anything more than that. So, yes, I believe that we will have a constitutional court by December 31st.

VOA: Ambassador Kim, there is increasing criticism of the vetting process, including by parliament itself, that is not proceeding with the required speed. On the other hand, a group of removed magistrates, are filing lawsuits and have taken the case to Strasbourg. Is there a risk that the process may be questioned? 

Ambassador Kim: I think that any big reform like this, especially when it involves people’s careers and reputations, is always subject to criticism. There is a process for addressing those through appeals and I think that it’s designed that way so, I’m not worried. I’m a little worried that we need to catch up to replace those who have been removed as quickly as possible. And that’s why you see the United States, but also the EU and other foreign governments as well as NGOs, focusing so much on getting people into the School of Magistrates to get them trained, whether that training is now taking place online or in person, in some cases, but that’s where our focus is. We’re firmly focused on the way forward.

VOA: Ambassador, Kim, often, when you’ve spoken about justice reform, you have mentioned the fact that in your opinion, it is not perfect. What could have been done better, in your opinion? 

Ambassador Kim: I’m a very practical person and when I say something like that it is so that everybody understands and has a realistic expectation of what’s possible and a realistic expectation that this is not going to be quick, it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be perfect. So, I say that not as criticism but as a factual description and also to say that we’re going to have to work hard and the ones who are going to have to work hardest are the Albanians, not the foreigners. Ultimately though, in my view, and I think it’s pretty laid out in the laws, there is responsibility that belongs to certain officials. You look at justice reform, four and a half years, why hasn’t there been a constitutional court? It’s not because the Americans don’t want it, because we do. It’s not because the Europeans don’t want it, they do. It certainly is not because the Albanian people don’t want it, because they desperately want it. There are people who are responsible to take actions and so, that’s why I keep saying that it’s a matter of political will. It’s time to demonstrate your political will is true and put action to words.

VOA: Ambassador Kim, corruption is a disturbing issue in Albania. If we look at the laws, approved strategies, they are not lacking. What is lacking is punishment of this phenomenon. And the consequences in society and even the economy are known. How problematic is the situation in your opinion? 

Ambassador Kim: I think everybody acknowledges that corruption is a cancer here in Albania. It’s reputational but it’s also real. If you look at all the studies that have been put out, whether it’s the Transparency Index, reports that even the State Department issues on an annual basis, it’s clear that corruption is a problem. And I also hear stories here. You know, I talk to people. I don’t just sit around and talk to government officials. I try to get out as much as possible, I watch television and I try to watch the same things that I understand Albanians like to watch, and I try to get a sense and what becomes very clear is that the reality and the perception is very dangerous. And that’s precisely why it’s important to have SPAK fully functioning. As we’ve seen in the last few weeks, the Special Prosecution Office has announced some real concrete steps on significant cases and we’re now in the process of helping the Albanians stand up an NBI, its own FBI, so that investigations can be accelerated.

VOA: SPAK created high expectations. There are a series of lawsuits and denunciations, for instance on concession agreements in several sectors, or other issues that have there are questions about, but still, it does not seem that there are enhanced investigations. You have given open support and trust in the activity of this prosecution body, but it seems there is an impression that the SPAK hesitates to deal with the higher levels… 

Ambassador Kim: Armand, I’m thinking that your questions were written maybe last week or maybe the week before. Because I will tell you, look at the facts, don’t pay attention to the propaganda because I know that a lot of people want to pretend that nothing is happening, nothing can ever happen, and everybody has to accept that Albania is corrupt and this is the way life is. No. Look at what’s happened in the last few weeks, look at the cases, the arrests, the prosecutions that have been announced by SPAK, by the Special Prosecution Office. These are significant. And I understand that there’s been some controversy in the press because in at least one of these cases, everybody wanted to pretend and not say anything. So there’s a little bit of a conspiracy of silence around corruption and organized crime in Albania. And I think those days are going to be behind us, but it does mean that people have to persevere. I don’t think that people should wait forever. I don’t think that people should have to wait until the next election to have a Constitutional Court. They shouldn’t have to wait until after a decision of the EU to have more rule of law. They want it now. They wanted it a year ago. They wanted it four years ago. They wanted it 30 years ago. It’s time. It’s time. No more games.

VOA: One measure used by the U.S. to fight corruption is the prohibition of individuals to enter the U.S. or the denial or revocation of visas. According to a figure published a long time ago, there are about 170 officials and former officials that this was applied to. Do you continue to use this right and is the list expanded? 

Ambassador Kim: We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to address the issue of corruption because it is so destructive. And it causes us tremendous pain and frustration to see corruption keeping down a country like Albania. I’ve said this before – when I travel around the country and I talk to young people here, it’s inspiring because they’re bright, they’re engaged, looking for ways to educate themselves and to really make a contribution. And I think it’s the responsibility of those in power to change the situation in Albania, to remove corruption, to provide a Constitutional Court by December 31st, to stop the excuses, and create a country where young people want to stay. They are a treasure and they can be a huge asset for this country and that’s why I keep pushing. On the part of the United States, we have a campaign against corruption around the world so this is not just about picking on Albania, but of course, as the American Ambassador to Albania, I’m focused on this country. But I do hope that people understand that I’m coming from the intention of trying to help you be the country that you should be. The United States is not trying to impose anything and I think most people understand that.

VOA: If I may ask you one last question. A few days ago, you replied to an Albanian media outlet that criticized that the American administration for turning a blind eye to the developments in Albania. To be honest, there has been such criticism before. How do you feel about that?

Ambassador Kim: I think the fact that we have spent millions of dollars in Albania with our justice programs, law enforcement cooperation, technical advice on prosecutions, and in other respects is proof positive that we put our money where our mouth is. We put our action to our words. And I know that sometimes there is frustration, that the United States should be doing more, or “you should speak out about this issue or that issue.” You know, we have to prioritize and, unfortunately, we can’t do everything at once. But, I would also say this: primary responsibility for a country should never be left to a foreigner. I think that the United States is in an honored position here. It is a deep honor to be here. And it is an added responsibility for us to have the trust of the Albanian people but ultimately, if you look at the Albanian constitution, there’s no section on the responsibilities of the United States or the responsibilities of the Embassy or the American Ambassador. There are sections on the responsibilities of the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker, members of parliament and other people who are elected into office by the Albanian people on their behalf and those who are selected into positions of power and responsibility. So, I think that the Albanian people are right to demand more action, more quickly from all of the people that they have put into positions of power and responsibility.