Sokol Balla: Albania is a strange country even when it comes to its history. We practically do not have the Declaration of Independence. We’ve lost it. We don’t have the Independence Day flag, either. It’s been stolen. And we do not have the building where independence was declared either because it has been destroyed. There are many things that do not go right in our country, but at least we have had friends. And, this Thursday, I have decided to talk and converse with one of the new and old friends of Albania, the new Ambassador of the United States of America in Tirana, Yuri Kim. Madam Ambassador!
Ambassador Kim: Nice to see you.
Sokol Balla: Nice to see you here.
Ambassador Kim: Alright.
Sokol Balla: We’re going to do this?
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…
Sokol Balla: We’re not going to put masks though…afterwards. So, it’s nice to start the interview with you here in Vlora, where we had the independence, and almost on the same day when you had the anniversary of the independence of the United States.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: It’s a nice coincidence.
Ambassador Kim: It’s a wonderful coincidence and I don’t think that I was fully prepared for how emotional I would feel coming here, and even just coming up on the stairwell as you did, to look at this painting…
Sokol Balla: Yeah, I saw you were pretty awed from the…
Ambassador Kim: I found this painting very moving.
Sokol Balla: Yeah, it is…
Ambassador Kim: …because, first of all, it’s wonderful art, but I look at this image of Albanian unity. And I look at this image of Ismail Qemali who is leading, but is also being led.
Sokol Balla: …by his own people, yeah…
Ambassador Kim: …who is helping but is also being helped. And I look at that lamp and he’s still searching. So, it says a lot.
Sokol Balla: It’s also our history, you also see that he is running into the dark, following the light, but nothing is safe…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…
Sokol Balla: So, actually, when I see this picture, I am pretty amazed at how we got up to here, to be frank. Sometimes, we are very critical toward ourselves, but considering our history, we have gone so far…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah. The Albanian people have been through a lot.
Sokol Balla: Yeah…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…but you’re here.
Sokol Balla: We’re here but everything looks fragile here, as this museum.
Ambassador Kim: It’s still standing…
Sokol Balla: It’s still standing…that’s the most important thing.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: How much do you know before you get to a country? This is not your first assignment, right?
Ambassador Kim: What do you mean? As an ambassador?
Sokol Balla: As an ambassador…
Ambassador Kim: It is my first assignment as an ambassador. So, I tried to read as much as I could before I came here. But there’s no substitute for actually being in a country. And so, I’ve been here for five months and I’ve tried to travel as much as possible even with the corona restrictions…
Sokol Balla: pandemic, yeah…
Ambassador Kim: …and so I’ve met two of my heroes now, Scanderbeg and Ismail Qemali.
Sokol Balla: Well, this second guy looks for real, I mean he was the guy who actually did something very, but did you know that – because there are two sides to the story, the official and the unofficial one – did you know that we actually lost the Declaration of Independence and we lost the flag and we destroyed the house where independence was declared? Did you know that?
Ambassador Kim: No, I didn’t know that.
Sokol Balla: Yeah, that’s the other side of our history. Yeah, it’s a complicated story, ours…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, yeah.
Sokol Balla: This is the balcony where they remembered the first anniversary of the independence. It’s a pretty nice view and also they say it’s very fragile. You have to be very careful when you walk in.
Ambassador Kim: I’m not going to walk out…
Sokol Balla: But, this is the only place where we have the picture of, one year after the independence with Ismail Qemali and the rest.
Ambassador Kim: I’ve seen that picture many times.
Sokol Balla: But, you know, we didn’t know until two years ago that it was not the real picture.
Ambassador Kim: Oh, really?
Sokol Balla: Yeah, because the history has been manipulated very much.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, yeah.
Sokol Balla: I remember you went to that institute, you know, for the files…
Ambassador Kim: …the Sigurimi…
Sokol Balla: …the Sigurimi Files, yeah. And you made a point there about full transparency of the past, yeah.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: OK. We can go down.
Ambassador Kim: So, you’ve been to Vlora many times, obviously?
Sokol Balla: Yes, I consider Vlora my second city, after Tirana.
Ambassador Kim: Is that right?
Sokol Balla: Yeah, it’s a nice city, after Tirana.
Ambassador Kim: It’s a very nice city…
Sokol Balla: And nice people. Just be careful there.
You know, when I’m here and I see those statues outside,
Ambassador Kim: Yeah?
Sokol Balla: Because those statues are of some of the signers of the independence declaration.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…
Sokol Balla: To me it looks like Mount Rushmore of Albania.
Ambassador Kim: Yes, you’re right.
Sokol Balla: I should ask you about other things, but how do you feel about America rewriting its own history? About monuments being removed?
Ambassador Kim: I don’t think of it as rewriting its history.
Sokol Balla: Is it?
Ambassador Kim: No, I don’t think of it as that at all. I think there’s a constant process of debate, a constant process of discovery, and I think that for us, the constant process of trying to make America a more perfect union. I actually believe in all this stuff. I don’t think it’s propaganda, I think it’s what makes America great. And I think the world is sad with us in some ways because it’s a painful moment for America. But, at the same time, I hope the world is also inspired, because what we try to do is we don’t try to run away from the problem, we try to face it. And we do the best that we can. And sometimes, we make mistakes, as any human being does, but we try.
Sokol Balla: But, for instance, Woodrow Wilson…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…
Sokol Balla: We owe him maybe our statehood and then, when you hear that the Americans want to take him out from where he is now as a statue, that’s too much for us. Because he’s like our father, of our history, of our statehood, and they want to remove it…
Ambassador Kim: …yeah…
Sokol Balla: …or they want to decapitate Christopher Columbus, that’s pretty hard, that’s pretty strong stuff… America can handle it, you know, but the rest of the world is watching…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah. History is complex, human beings are complex, so we’ll see, but I think that it’s clear that President Wilson played a very important role in the history of U.S.-Albania relations and I think he should be honored for that.
Sokol Balla: So, we should honor people for what they do, not what they are?
Ambassador Kim: I’m not a philosopher, Sokol.
Sokol Balla: I know you’re a pretty practical person.
Ambassador Kim: I’m a very practical person.
Sokol Balla: And, to tell you the truth I’m pretty amazed at how fast you have adapted to Albania, also in a very difficult situation.
Ambassador Kim: You think it’s difficult?
Sokol Balla: Well, I know for you everything is much easier than for us, but still…
Ambassador Kim: You think so?
Sokol Balla: Yeah, you’ve adapted pretty well. It seems you, different from the other ambassadors, you have two things: you adapt pretty fast and you don’t lose time. Why?
Ambassador Kim: I think that there are many things about Albania and the Albanian people that are familiar to me.
Sokol Balla: Korea?
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, yeah. Definitely, definitely, yes.
Sokol Balla: Tell me something about it…
Ambassador Kim: I’ll tell you, when I got here, I met one person, very important person, who told me, I’m a highlander. I’m from the mountains. And I knew immediately what he was trying to tell me, because my family is also from the mountains. You know, there’s a certain ethos that belongs to people who are from the mountains and who are proud to be from the mountains. I was telling him, my family happens to be from the coldest part of Korea. So…
Sokol Balla: That’s up, going to the north?
Ambassador Kim: It’s in South Korea, but it’s the coldest part of the country and, you know, my people are also survivors. They’re tough. So, I feel a kinship with many Albanians, and then there’s…and when I come to a place like Vlora, with the ocean, I think of Guam…
Sokol Balla: Guam…
Ambassador Kim: Yes, where I grew up, which is of course much smaller than Albania is, but it’s familiar to me. The closeness, the complexity of problems, the difficulty in solving problems because everybody is related to everybody else, you know, there are no independent strings, everything is tied together. So I understand, I think…
Sokol Balla: I’ll tease you right now because I think Guam is also known as the island of the snakes, right?
Ambassador Kim: Oh, no, we had brown tree snakes. Yeah.
Sokol Balla: They are not anymore?
Ambassador Kim: No, they’re still there, but it’s not as dangerous as people think… they are harmless snakes…
Sokol Balla: So, you used to deal with snakes as well,
Ambassador Kim: …they are harmless…
Sokol Balla: so, no surprise there as well, yeah?
Ambassador Kim: No, but you know, Albania is a wonderful country. It has a rich history. It has tremendous potential but also some serious problems, that you have to work through, and I do see it as a…this is not a U.S. project. This is for the Albanian people to decide. You have to want it. I cannot want it more than you. Right?
Sokol Balla: That’s true…
Ambassador Kim: …and we’re here to help as much as we can. It’s always been our honor to do that, but in the first instance and in the last, the Albanian people have to demand it. The Albanian people have to want it.
Sokol Balla: Yeah, but anyway, considering on the other hand that, when it comes to justice reform, we all wanted it, me personally as well, but at the end of the day, it was up to the will of politicians and I doubt they had the will to do it if it wasn’t for you, I mean for the United States.
Ambassador Kim: I think, Sokol, that you know, I’ve said this before, Albanian people underestimate their own power and their own importance. There’s a trick that I think politicians sometimes play, where they can fool people into thinking that they have no power. But, in a democracy and, with all its flaws, Albania is still a democracy, the people matter, you are the masters. So, I hope that people don’t forget this.
Sokol Balla: Well, people don’t forget that, but on the other hand, when they see the result after 30 years is that they actually don’t matter. They do vote and their will is not being respected by their politicians.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, I have a different point of view.
Sokol Balla: Which is it?
Ambassador Kim: I think that the Albanian people matter. I think that what the Albanian people want makes a difference. Change of a dramatic kind is never instantaneous. It’s never easy. And it’s never a clean linear movement. Change makes progress in a cyclical way. It’s like watching the tide come in or the tide come out. It’s not progressing simply like this, it goes out, it comes back in, it goes out, it comes back in. So, the hope for people is not to give up when they see the tide go out momentarily, because it will come back in, stronger than ever. I’m an optimist, in this sense.
Sokol Balla: Well, me too, but I’m also realistic, Madam Ambassador, when I see myself. After 30 years, it’s like my generation has lost it, and I just hope that it’s going to be the right time for my kids…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…
Sokol Balla: …but you’re still optimistic?
Ambassador Kim: I’m always optimistic…
Sokol Balla: …as you say the tide will always come back.
Ambassador Kim: I’m always optimistic. Americans are always optimistic.
Sokol Balla: Thank God for that. Ok, I’ll see you later then?
Ambassador Kim: I’ll catch up with you…
Sokol Balla: See you, yeah…
Ambassador Kim: OK
Sokol Balla: Bye.
We continue our trip here in Vlora with the U.S. Ambassador in the Pashaliman military base. Madam Ambassador, this is an amazing view of the bay of Vlora.
Ambassador Kim: It’s beautiful.
Sokol Balla: And also the history is here as well.
Ambassador Kim: Well, I look at history, past, future, definitely.
Sokol Balla: That’s Russia… That’s NATO.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: Quite a lot of progress.
Ambassador Kim: Yes.
Sokol Balla: So, I remember that before you, another ambassador should have come here. Madam Kavalec. She was supposed to coordinate the work against Russian influence and then, suddenly, she didn’t come. Did you inherit her mission as well? I mean, politically?
Ambassador Kim: Oh, you know, for us, it doesn’t depend on the ambassador; it depends on the President. And the President of the United States remains Donald J. Trump. I’m his representative, just as Cathy Kavalec or anybody else nominated for the position would have been his representative. So, no change in policy.
Sokol Balla: Is it true that from Albania, it was lobbied as well against her? Against her coming here?
Ambassador Kim: I have no idea.
Sokol Balla: You have no idea or no comment?
Ambassador Kim: I have no idea.
Sokol Balla: So, this is a very important piece of history here as well and since the Ottoman empire, Albanians have fought for it. And, now it seems that the Turks want it back. Have you heard that?
Ambassador Kim: I know that looking around, I can see why anybody would be interested in Pashaliman. You know, I think it’s really important as we look around the world, we have a clear sense of who our friends are and who our not-friends are. And all I would say is that we are proud to be NATO allies with Albania just as we are proud to be NATO allies with Turkey.
Sokol Balla: This submarine here is also a piece of history and this also represents a past that we are not very proud of. I mean the presence of Russia and the Soviet Union here, communism. You know, in this time of changes, even in the American politics, it seems as if the United States have lost a bit of focus on the region. Is that so?
Ambassador Kim: I disagree with you. I disagree with you. I think there is a renewed focus on the Western Balkans and what it means to have a U.S. presence here. And I think you’re going to see that continue. It’s not an accident that we have several high-powered people who are focused on the Western Balkans, including Matt Palmer and Rick Grenell. And you’ll notice, Ambassador Grenell stepped away from just about everything except for the Balkans issue and I think that that speaks to the importance we place on it.
Sokol Balla: To be frank, actually, I know that you’re not, I mean I know that the Embassy of Kosovo would have spoken much much larger words about it, but the failure of realizing the first meeting in Washington, actually it scares Albanians because it seems that they want to represent it as the failure of the politics of the United States in the Balkans.
Ambassador Kim: I think that…
Sokol Balla: Or you think it’s not over yet?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s overblown, yeah. To call that a failure, I think is a mischaracterization. Things happen so let’s see what happens in the next few weeks and months.
Sokol Balla: One thing that I really don’t understand is that why you have two envoys for the same thing. Why one envoy from the President, one envoy from the State Department? Are they the same thing or sometimes?
Ambassador Kim: So, just to clarify. They’re both representing the President of the United States. They’re both in the executive branch. And I think a lot of people have made a lot of hay out of this, but I will point out, for important issues, it is not unusual to have more than one envoy so, 10-15 years ago, when I was working on North Korea, for example, we had two envoys, same setup. One person was at a more senior rank, who was working on the Korean Peninsula overall, and then we had another person who was working on North Korea nuclear issue. So, it’s not unusual.
Sokol Balla: How important remains Albania when it comes to the military point of view, for the United States?
Ambassador Kim: I think for us, it’s very important. Every ally that we are side to side with in NATO is important. For Albania, the United States has invested many many millions of dollars, in the relationship and in trying to improve Albania’s capabilities as an ally. We think that it is money well spent. When we look at the contributions that the Albanian military, that Albanian forces have made, even to include the sacrifice of life from time to time, we are proud to be your ally. I think so far, we have provided over 180 million dollars in defense assistance, just in the last few years. And I think that we’re going to see that continue and we’ll see more of this … less of that.
Sokol Balla: Yeah?
Ambassador Kim: Yeah!
Sokol Balla: Even when it comes to influence, right, because that’s very important.
Ambassador Kim: Absolutely. And you know, Albanians don’t need a lecture from anybody about history. You know it well and I think you know very well who your friends are and who you can count on, when times are tough.
Sokol Balla: I hope it’s you.
Ambassador Kim: It’s definitely us.
So, are you enjoying it?
Ambassador Kim: It’s the best, yeah.
Sokol Balla: This is Sazan, our biggest island, also known for the snakes. Like Guam.
Ambassador Kim: Not at all, this is an exaggeration. I’m sure there are no snakes there.
Sokol Balla: I’m a journalist, you know, exaggerating is part of the job.
Ambassador Kim: I know, I know. You guys are the worst.
Sokol Balla: No, come on. Yeah, some of us, not all of us. But, I heard you also wanted to become a journalist?
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: Journalist and lawyer, I think?
Ambassador Kim: How do you know this?
Sokol Balla: Yeah, well, we have our own sources.
Ambassador Kim: It’s true. You have your own sources. I wanted to become a journalist and I actually was a reporter…
Sokol Balla: Oh really?
Ambassador Kim: …during the summers. Yes. I wrote for the local newspaper and then for my college newspaper. Really, I think journalists are pretty cool.
Sokol Balla: It’s a tough job, but I think yours is tougher.
Ambassador Kim: You think?
Sokol Balla: In Albania especially! Lots of snakes…
Ambassador Kim: Nooo.
Sokol Balla: Not only in Sazan.
Ambassador Kim: Nooo, it’s a pleasure being here. I think for any U.S. Ambassador, Albania is a dream job, because you are surrounded by people who first of all, they love America. Second, it’s a place where, you know, we have a very special relationship. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced anywhere else and the country is going through some pretty important changes.
Sokol Balla: Changes.
Ambassador Kim: Changes, yeah, and I think we can make a difference, we can make a positive difference.
Sokol Balla: Yeah, many people think that it’s time for a change. Although, sometimes change here is interpreted as just a normal rotation of power. Sometimes I’m also in doubt about that – is the rotation a change or is a change a rotation?
Ambassador Kim: It’s up to you guys to decide.
Sokol Balla: How do you see it?
Ambassador Kim: I think that rotation of power, if that’s what the people want, if that’s what they decide, is always a good thing in a democracy. It’s like the circulation of blood. But it’s definitely one of those things where, you know, in my country too, in just a few months there’s going to be an election. And in a few months here in this country, there will be an election, hopefully, and we’ll see what the people decide.
Sokol Balla: Why do you say hopefully? You still have doubts?
Ambassador Kim: No, no, no, I have no doubts…
Sokol Balla: …about the elections I mean…
Ambassador Kim: …of course they’ll happen.
Sokol Balla: What do you think is going to happen with electoral reform? It seems pretty complicated when it comes to votes. Because, ironically, you have the majority that says I like the changes, but I don’t have the votes. You also have the opposition outside the parliament, which says I like the changes, but I don’t have the votes. And then the guys who have the votes are not OK with it. I mean the parliamentary opposition. How do you see that coming out?
Ambassador Kim: It’s complicated, because I think, the opposition that is out of parliament, made a mistake. They shouldn’t have walked out. That said, they also won a lot of votes in the last elections so clearly they represent a significant portion of the population. So they need to be part of the discussion, which is why I think it is a very good thing that they came to the table to negotiate the electoral reform issue. At the same time, the opposition that stayed in parliament did exactly the right thing. In a sense, they saved Albanian democracy. And of course, the majority is the majority. What I do know is that on June 5th, the parties agreed and, as far as I’m aware, they have written up the laws that codify the agreement that they reached and that’s a good thing. My expectation is that they will preserve that. That is sacrosanct.
Sokol Balla: What is achieved, you mean the agreement?
Ambassador Kim: June 5th has to go through as is. You can’t open that back up. You can’t do it because that would be a violation of a lot of trust. And, I think, if you give your word, as a politician, as a diplomat. If you don’t keep your word, you have nothing. So, I have every expectation that leaders here will do exactly what they told me they were going to do, which is that they’re going to pass June 5th. Now, I’m also aware that for many people, June 5th is not enough.
Sokol Balla: Yeah.
Ambassador Kim: Because what people are talking about when they talk about change and electoral reform is they want [an] open system. And I can understand that, but as I’ve said before, you know, our immediate goal is very specific. It is to make sure that Albania gets into the EU. The rest of it, if an agreement can be achieved, that’s great. Go for it. But what we don’t want is a hostage situation where something that is extra, holds something that is necessary as a hostage.
Sokol Balla: I understand.
Ambassador Kim: That can’t be and I can’t support that.
Sokol Balla: So, that’s a kind of message that goes mainly for the government because they have the votes, they have the ability to play with the votes in the parliament. But you’re saying the agreement is a no-go area, right?
Ambassador Kim: [What] I’m saying is that the agreement, June 5th, is closed, we can’t open it back up again.
Sokol Balla: But you know, when we talk about rotation and change, people want change and they see open lists as a sign of taking so much power from the politicians and handing it over to themselves.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: And that’s the saddest moment of the situation, because whatever the politicians want to achieve, they achieve it, and whatever the people want, they don’t. That’s why people feel sad.
Ambassador Kim: Let’s see what happens.
Sokol Balla: Ok, since we’re reaching a certain destination, how do you see European integration process?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s a historic project and I congratulate the Albanian people and the Albanian government [for] getting to this point in its history. This will change Albania’s future, and I was saying to Luigi Soreca, the EU Ambassador, that we are the friend of Albania for the last 100 years and you want to add the EU as another friend for the next 100 years. I know we talk about what is to be gained by the process. It’s not just about what is to be gained, it’s actually what is to be done. And so, this is going to require that the Albanian government and that Albanian political leaders, Albanian lawyers, judges, prosecutors really join forces to make justice reform real. It’s hard. I know not everybody wants it. Not everybody wants all the pieces, but it’s really necessary and what I also know is that the vast majority of the Albanian people desperately want it. What I also know is that the American businesspeople that I talk to desperately want it. No one’s going to invest in Albania unless they have a sense that contracts are going to be enforced, that if there is a dispute, if they go to court, they will get a transparent and fair judgment. I’ll give you one example: the duty free situation at the airport. What a shame! When I think of that, I am ashamed for all the people involved in that case. It was a big opportunity and instead, I think the way that the situation turned out where a contract was not enforced as it should have been, gives exactly the wrong message. I hope that changes.
Sokol Balla: How can it change? Because the example…
Ambassador Kim: Justice reform. Justice reform. Vetting. Judges who are clearly corrupt should be out of there. They should not be sitting in those courtrooms. They should not be making pronouncements about anything. They should be out of there.
Sokol Balla: They should be put in jail actually. I’m saying that. But anyway, when you see what is going on with the Constitutional Court, all the surrounding people in conflict of interest with it, people lose not only patience, but they lose faith.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: Because before Dvorani was involved, things were going bad. Now that Dvorani is not there, things are going good. So it seems that the moment justice institutions come into political balance, politicians are okay with it. The moment they are going to be changed, then they fight for it. So this is the moment where we say, okay, the United States were involved, why at the end they accept compromises?
Ambassador Kim: I think you have to see how…
Sokol Balla: Because I don’t think for this reform we need compromises.
Ambassador Kim: I think you have to see where the story ends and we’re a long way from the ending of the story. I will say to you that I take the vetting process very seriously. And I think judge Dvorani is one of the judges who clearly passed this very tough process. I have faith in that process and I have respect for the judge. What happens between now and whoever knows, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens, but I think that the key point now, in this moment, is that we have the Venice Commission opinion and I think it’s an opportunity, and we need to keep our eyes on the prize and look for ways to keep moving forward. I don’t like to get bogged down in theological questions. I don’t like to get bogged down in philosophical issues. As I’ve said before, I’m not a priest to judge who is pure and who is impure, I’m not a police officer to decide who should be in jail and who should not. I’m just an American diplomat and I’m here to represent my country’s interests, which happen to include a future for Albania as a strong, sovereign, democratic nation. That’s why I’m here and that’s my mission.
Sokol Balla: You think that the way it is going, we are going to have an independent constitutional court?
Ambassador Kim: I think if you want it and you fight for it, and you give it some time and effort, yes, I do believe it. I think what’s not going to happen is that it’s not an instant process. That’s not it. It’s not: all of a sudden you’re going to have a court system that is 100% perfect. If that’s your expectation, then you’re going to be disappointed. What will happen is that you’ll see progress and you’ll see something terrible happen, and then you’ll see progress again. As I said before, it’s like watching the tide come in and the tide go out. It’s not a simple, clear, linear process.
Sokol Balla: While we’re in the waters, let’s talk about the fish, or big fishes. We’re still waiting for them to be caught, but you’re suggesting that we should wait.
Ambassador Kim: I think that you …
Sokol Balla: You know what I’m referring to, right? To the big fishes?
Ambassador Kim: You know, I just arrived six months ago and I know what my job is. So I want to talk about my mission. And as I’ve told you before and I think the Albanian people know this, I’m a very practical person. And what I’ve said is that justice reform has to continue, we have to persist, and justice reform has to show results. I’m not the judicial system.
Sokol Balla: Well…
Ambassador Kim: The United States is not the judicial system. And if you insist that we are, you’ve misunderstood the project.
Sokol Balla: No, absolutely not. But we know that without you, we wouldn’t even come to this point. And maybe that’s why our expectations are a bit higher when it comes to that…
Ambassador Kim: We will always support you with everything that we have. But at the end of the day, it’s you country.
Sokol Balla: Yeah, yeah.
Ambassador Kim: It’s not my country.
Sokol Balla: I’m just asking, I’m not making a suggestion that you are responsible, but then you see SPAK is taking the work so slowly. I mean, there is no results. Then you see the National Bureau of Investigation not being…
Ambassador Kim: We saw last week actually that they made some progress with these cases involving Italian organized crime and Albanian organized crime. So, it’s happening. And I think we have to keep persisting with the project because this is the moment in which those who don’t want it are going to try to persuade the world that it’s not working and therefore we should throw everything out and declare defeat. Well, I’m not ready to declare defeat and I don’t think the Albanian people should be ready to declare defeat. We are in the midst of the battle. It’s time to be brave, it’s time to fight. This is not the time to give up.
Sokol Balla: Yeah, don’t worry. I’m not jumping into the water yet.
Ambassador Kim: I feel like it’s in there, you know, when I meet Albanian people, especially the young people, and when I go to places like Kruja, when I go to places like the house that we were just in, in Vlora, it gives me hope and it makes me believe that there is a lot of courage and a lot of perseverance in the Albanian people. And I think they have been told to give up many times and they have decided many more times than that not to give up. And this is another one of those moments. You just got to keep going.
Sokol Balla: Yeah, but as I said, the whole point is that people keep losing hope and this strait is the closest point to Italy, only 70 kilometers, and this place here has been like a harbor of refugees and people used to leave from here with boats…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, I’ve seen the pictures…
Sokol Balla: Many people died here as well…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: And today, if you ask the majority of Albanians, especially young people, they don’t see a future here, that’s what worries me. It’s not about me, as I said, I’m 47 now, it’s about my kids.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: So, they need to have a future here. But you can’t have a future here where the criminal sits with me at the same table, is being elected into parliament, or sponsors certain judges or prosecutors. So, this has to end. Do you think justice reform will reach that critical point?
Ambassador Kim: I think justice reform is essential to make the changes that you are talking about. And I said in my very first speech when I arrived here in Albania, that I think it’s a terrible thing to see all these young people looking for a future outside Albania. I think it’s the responsibility of political leaders; I think it’s the responsibility of judges, lawyers, journalists, everybody who has even an ounce of power in Albania to make it better. We will support, but fundamentally it’s not my job. It’s your job and so I’m going to ask you, what are you going to do to make Albania better so that young people will stay. What are you going to do? I’ve told you what I am going to do. I want to know what you are going to do.
Sokol Balla: Well, I promise I’ll keep fighting. What has been the most difficult moment until now? Was it that night, shaking that piece of agreement from your compound for the electoral reform or…?
Ambassador Kim: What’s been the hardest moment?
Sokol Balla: Yeah?
Ambassador Kim: Honestly, I have a very high pain threshold so I think I have not had a hard moment yet.
Sokol Balla: Wow, ok.
Ambassador Kim: I’ll let you know when I…
Sokol Balla: You’ll let me know, ok… Thank you. Enjoy the ride.
Ambassador Kim: Alright. Thank you.
Sokol Balla: We’re back to this last segment of this unusual day with U.S. Ambassador to Tirana Yuri Kim. I have been with her in some of the moments of her day today to understand more and to know more the person in whom many Albanians invest their hopes and trust about important things occurring in Albania, of course starting with justice reform, electoral reform, and many other important things for the future of the country. So, I’ll close the program with Ms. Kim continuing again the conversation about how she saw Albania today here in Vlora. Madam Ambassador, we are in the last steps of your visit here in Vlora, so, I guess this is not the first time you are coming here?
Ambassador Kim: This is actually my first time…
Sokol Balla: Really…
Ambassador Kim: Yes…
Sokol Balla: Okay. So?
Ambassador Kim: It’s been a full day. It’s been amazing. I had a chance to visit with the Mayor. I had the chance to visit with some of the customers in the hotel I’m staying in. You were there when we went on the “Butrinti” in Pashaliman, with the Defense Minister.
Sokol Balla: Yeah, I got tanned there.
Ambassador Kim: You did get tanned, and then I had a chance to visit with some young people at our American Corner and also to visit with some people who have been participating in a USAID program. So, it’s been a really full day, but I learned a tremendous amount and I’m glad I was able to come.
Sokol Balla: Did you visit any American investment in Vlora, or is there any?
Ambassador Kim: I’m not aware of any right now, but as I said before, as I said to the mayor, I think it’s important for Albania to get justice reform and the rule of law really set because that will attract investments. People will not invest if they don’t have confidence that the laws will protect their rights. They will not come if they are not confident that if they go to court, they will be able to get a fair and transparent judgment.
Sokol Balla: Okay. This is something that I’ve been hearing from U.S. Ambassadors for the last 20 years, but I hope that your effort with justice reform will change that. Because you know, I’ve got nothing against Serbs, by the way, but when you see that Serbia has gotten two or three billion U.S. dollars as investments, ironically, I would have taken a couple of bombs so I can have some more investments. But anyway, maybe the rule of law in Serbia is different than here. What are the U.S. investments in this country, then, except strategic, military – you said to me earlier that there are about 180 million USD in investments in the military.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Sokol Balla: What is the main U.S. investment in this country?
Ambassador Kim: The main U.S. investment…
Sokol Balla: Political, military, human…
Ambassador Kim: I think we have a very broad investment in Albania. It begins with the military relationship. Security is extremely important. We have been here supporting Albania’s development as a democracy, supporting the development of Albania’s infrastructure, for example its health infrastructure; we have supplied many hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 20 years. What I’d like to see though is investment as most people understand it, which means American businesses. Really important.
Sokol Balla: And you said that in your speech in the Senate, right?
Ambassador Kim: Right, exactly.
Sokol Balla: One of the three main points that you mentioned there.
Ambassador Kim: That’s right.
Sokol Balla: And actually I liked it very much because it is the very first time that a U.S. Ambassador comes with that kind of agenda, because I think money changes everything, investment changes everything…
Ambassador Kim: So I have three priorities: defense, democracy, business. And to get the business investment, you have to have the rule of law. You have to have a sense of contract enforcement. You asked earlier about other countries. I want to focus on Albania and I think what’s important to recognize about Albania are certain factors, including scale. It’s a small market so the reality is you’re going to have to work harder to draw investment than larger economies, right? Because in larger economies, it’s obvious why you should be there. I think with Albania it’s not that obvious. But my job here is to say to American investors: if you come, we will be able to help you make money here, we will help you create jobs in America, and create jobs in Albania. So, that’s my goal.
Sokol Balla: You said that one of the points of your agenda here is also democracy. Is that a real concern? Should we be really concerned? Because the accusations we hear and we also listen to media reports, when it comes to electoral fraud in the country. You know, I’m not a naïve person, I’ve been seeing things here since 1991, so I know that a vote here can be bought and can be sold. But then the opposition has put that on a much higher level as a discussion, which I think helps solve the issue faster, but I’m not sure if the accusations that are made in public are on that scale or not. Does that concern you?
Ambassador Kim: I’m not in a position to judge that, but what I can say is that the OSCE has come up with a set of recommendations, this is ODIHR, as you know. These are part of the requirements for Albania to move forward on its path toward full EU membership. And so, in that respect, yes there are areas that need to be improved, and I think the June 5th agreement helps Albania move forward in that regard.
Sokol Balla: Do you think that, because one of the things that has happened here is that whoever lost elections, they never went well with it. Some didn’t recognize it, others recognized it but opposed it later on, and it has happened with the socialists in opposition or the democrats in opposition. Do you think that the set that has been agreed to on June 5th agreement will also set up a new era on that, that whoever loses the election actually accepts the result?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s a step forward in that direction. I can’t make predictions on what people will actually do, but I think you have the elements that allow for a freer and fairer election, something that the Albanian voter can have faith in. So, we’ll see where we end up.
Sokol Balla: It’s not over yet, as you say, yeah?
Ambassador Kim: That’s right.
Sokol Balla: Let’s talk about something that has really interested me since maybe December 1990 when the Democratic Party was born. And actually the relations with the U.S. were re-established a few months later. And ironically, I always say that when it comes to relations between the U.S. and the Democratic Party, the U.S. has lost track of patient zero, if we’re talking with the language of Covid-19. I don’t know why, but I always considered the DP a new political U.S. investment in this country, but then you always end up having problems with it. Not with the party, but with its leadership. Is there anything that has gone wrong?
Ambassador Kim: I think that relationships are complex. They change over time. But I think that the relationship between the United States as a country and Albania as a country, Americans as a people and Albanians as a people, remains extremely strong and I only see it getting stronger.
Sokol Balla: The other thing that I wanted to ask you is why you keep forgiving some people that make mistakes, and then still are Luli Basha, Luli Basha, Luli Basha to you?
Ambassador Kim: I’m not quite sure what you mean.
Sokol Balla: I don’t know, it’s like since 2019 with the political crisis, Mr. Basha has done let’s say some mistakes, that have been considered mistakes by the U.S., but still you keep forgiving him.
Ambassador Kim: I’m not quite sure what you mean by that, but my job is not to decide who is the leader of what party. That’s for the parties to decide. My job is not to decide who is the leader of the country. That’s for the Albanian people to decide. And, as a diplomat, I engage with whoever is in power, legitimately, and I engage with whoever is able to influence events in the right way.
Sokol Balla: You say that it’s not your job who is the leader of this country. Then, why was that strong reaction on March 2nd? Was it only to protect the American flag?
Ambassador Kim: I think that it’s very important for people to be clear about what the U.S. position is. I don’t represent anybody else except the United States of America. I don’t speak for anybody else besides the President of the United States of America. And when I think that there could be a misunderstanding about where the United States stands or where the President stands, then it’s my duty to make sure that the correct perception is able to expressed.
Sokol Balla: Maybe for the first time in many years, maybe since 2016 when justice reform was approved in the Albanian parliament and today, for the first time ever, we see a certain animosity towards, I’m not saying against, but towards the United States. You know much better than I do that we are a very pro-American country. Many of us think and believe that we should be the 51st state of the US. Why do you think this kind of animosity? Do you think it is because of other influences or because of what the U.S. is doing when it comes to justice reform in this country.
Ambassador Kim: I think if you read the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, it talks about great power competition, the resurgence of great power competition. And I think you’re seeing some of that playing in Albania as well as in the rest of the Western Balkans, the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world. Are there some who would like to exploit these issues? Of course. But when I go out on the streets, when I talk to the Albanian people, all of them universally express nothing but strong friendship toward the United States and I hope they know that that sentiment is returned and I consider it job number one to make sure that that friendship, that alliance, stays as strong as possible.
Sokol Balla: Well, I thank you very much for the day we had today. I really enjoyed it and I really enjoyed knowing you better and I hope the Albanian people will know you better and see you for what you are – a real American.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you so much.
Sokol Balla: Thank you very much for being with me today.
Ambassador Kim: Pleasure.
Sokol Balla: This was a day summarized in short, in a few minutes, for my viewers in the program, of the new U.S. Ambassador, as I would say in English, Yuri Kim as you’ve never seen her before, at least so far. Real Story will be back again on Thursday at 21:00. Until then, from me Sokol Balla, good night.