Transcript of Round Table Discussion of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer with Albanian Reporters

DAS Palmer: Thank you very much and thank you for joining me. It’s been a real pleasure for me to engage in even a virtual visit to Tirana, which is, let’s face it, a pale shadow of the real thing, and the food isn’t nearly as good. But it really is a joy to get a chance to sit down, talk with some old friends. I had the opportunity today to speak with the Prime Minister, to speak with President Meta, to speak with Lulzim Basha. The Embassy organized a really tremendous conversation with judges, lawyers, prosecutors, and journalists active on justice reform and it was a really remarkably talented, committed group of people. And I had a very interesting conversation about the pace and scope and direction of the justice reform efforts in Albania. For my part, in my conversations with the Prime Minister, President, and Mr. Basha, we talked about the upcoming Defender 21 exercises and the value that we saw in deepening and growing the defense and security relationship with Albania as an important NATO partner, NATO ally. We discussed the upcoming elections, the importance that the United States attached to ensuring that the elections were free and transparent and conducted according to the highest democratic standards. That the candidate lists were clean. That those who should not be entrusted with positions of responsibility were not included on the candidate lists. The importance of ensuring confidence on the part of the Albanian public in the results of the election. So that they can be confident that the results reflect the will of the electorate. That the government that emerges is a legitimate expression of the will of the people. I underscored in all of my conversations the extent to which the United States remains committed to being a good and strong partner for Albania. As well as our gratitude in Albania’s willingness to being a good and a strong partner for the United States. We remain committed to a European and a Euro-Atlantic future for Albania. [We’re] very much hoping to see an agreement on the part of the European Council in June, for the first IGC, the intergovernmental conference that will formally launch the negotiations process, the accession negotiations. In order to achieve that goal in June, it’s important that Albania continue to make progress on judicial reform. And it’s important that the April 25th elections are successful. Not in the sense of a victory for a particular party, or particular candidate, but successful institutionally, process wise, and structurally, so that they are seen as fair and transparent and provide an outcome that reflects the will of those who showed up to vote and exercise their democratic rights. Let me stop there, open it up, and take some questions. And, really looking forward to the conversation that we’re about to have. So thank you all for taking some time today. I’m grateful and I appreciate it.

Mr. Muhamed Veliu, Top Channel: Thank you very much, Brian. Thank you very much Mr. Palmer for finding time and talking with us today. In the past few months, we have seen Ambassador Kim, very active, asking for people with criminal pasts not to sit in parliament seats. In particular, about one individual, current MP Mr. Tom Doshi, who in 2018 has been designated by the State Department. Now Mr. Palmer, everybody in Albania is asking, what do you know about this individual? What sort of corruption has he been involved in? Can you give some explanation for the people who are going to vote. Because Mr. Doshi, for example in Tirana is number one on the list, in Shkodra as well. People must know, what sort of corruption has he been involved in?

DAS Palmer: First, thank you very much for the question. I appreciate it. I understand entirely where you’re coming from. I don’t want to get into the details of particular cases or particular people or particular issues at this point.  But I do want to underscore that those that we identify for sanctions under these kinds of authorities, including the sanctions that would prevent them from being able to travel to the United States, we do our research. We make sure that we have the basis of knowledge that we need before making any such determination. I think it’s really important as Ambassador Kim has said loudly, publicly, and repeatedly that the candidates that the Albanian public will have an opportunity to vote for, are people that they want to entrust with positions of authority and responsibility. And it’s very important, I would argue, for the political parties to do everything that they can to ensure that the lists they put forward as representative of their parties and representative of their values, are full of people that they can support and defend. People that they would want to see in these positions of trust. The lists are far from perfect. There’s still a lot of work to do. And I think Ambassador Kim and the Embassy have been clear in identifying those areas where we continue to have concerns. I think the Albanian people have a right to expect from the political parties and from the political leadership that they will be given choices, good choices that they can make when they go to the ballot box. And there’s a responsibility on the part of the political class that they live up to that obligation. And to ensure that when people go to vote, and they have candidate lists in front of them, that those lists are people that they can be proud of.

Ms. Sonila Agostini, RTSH: Hello Mr. Palmer. Thank you for your time. It is very important for us to understand more.  Did you hear any message from Mr. Meta, Mr. Rama, and Mr. Basha about justice reform that they will continue supporting it the way it is, and did you receive any message from them for the elections, that these elections will  meet the standards?

DAS Palmer:  Thanks for the question and those are two very important issues, two very important questions. I can tell you for my part,  that I laid out the expectations on the part of the United States that justice reform efforts would continue. That this was not an issue that was relevant only in an  electoral period. Perfection in justice reform is not really the goal. The goal is that that today is better than yesterday, tomorrow is better than today, and this is something that we all need to continue to work on in our own societies – and I include the United States in this – to remain vigilant to hold political figures to account for their behaviour. For those who misuse positions of public trust there needs to be accountability and the public should feel  That the law is something that is applied fairly and equally and that we, all of us, are held to the same standards and we are all of us equal under the law. That is a goal. It is an aspiration. It’s one that we must, all of us, work towards. We’ve seen, I think, real progress in Albania on justice reform, but everybody, certainly the United States, myself, Ambassador Kim, and on this I think I can speak for the Prime Minister and the President,as well as for those leaders of opposition parties – I think we, all of us collectively, understand that there is still a great deal of work to do, and that needs to be a priority for Albania, if Albania is to move forward on its European path. In terms of expectations for the 25th, I think that everyone is working towards a process that is as free and fair as it could possibly be, and there will be a lot of bare-knuckle politicking along the way, and that’s that’s a normal part of democratic politics. But what really matters, and certainly the position that that I’ve articulated and made clear, is that the institutions of democratic governance are strong and seen as legitimate by the public and the processes are transparent and accountable and produce outcomes that reflect the will of the public through a democratic process.

Ms. Marsela Karapanco, News 24: Thank you, Mr. Palmer. Albania is having a tense electoral campaign. In fact, President Ilir Meta said some days before in News24 that whoever touches the vote, their hand will be cut off, while the Defender Europe 21 military exercise will be developed in Albania, one day after the election. Is there any connection between these two issues, the elections and the military exercise here in Albania?

DAS Palmer: There’s absolutely no connection. The only thing I’ll say about the military exercises is that it reflects and underscores the value that the United States places on our relationships with our NATO Allies and partners, not just Albania. But, Defender 21 is bigger than Albania. We’re doing exercises, engagements, with numerous NATO partners and Allies across the region and I think it really is an opportunity for Albania to shine, as a NATO Ally, as a very strategically located country. But it’s not in any way connected to the elections on the 25th of April.  We’ve certainly been paying attention to some of the sharp rhetoric that has been part of the political campaign, but the truth is that the only places where political campaigns are without heat and without edge are places like North Korea or a Chinese, Communist China, where people aren’t really presented with legitimate choices. So, you know, democratic politics has passion associated with it. That’s not only normal, I think it’s actually healthy.

Ambassador Kim: Let me just add on the issue of Defender 21. The dates for that exercise were set well before the date for the elections was announced by President Meta. And these things, once again as Matt said, it depends on the schedules of all the countries that are involved.

DAS Palmer: These exercises are planned long in advance. Ambassador Kim is absolutely right.

Ms. Esiona Konomi, ABC News: Thank you, Mr. Palmer. In these elections, Prime Minister Edi Rama is based mostly on the vaccination process. But, in this process, using huge doses from China or Russia. Is this a geopolitical concern for the USA?

DAS Palmer:  The United States is committed to ensuring that there is access to vaccines around the world.  We have elected to do this principally and primarily through the multilateral mechanisms of COVAX, Gavi. This is the vehicle for which the United States is putting our financial resources in play, and we’ve contributed to, so far, 2 billion dollars. We have another 2 billion dollars in the pipeline, so a total of a 4 billion dollar commitment to this effort. It’s beginning to pay off. You’re seeing vaccines arriving, not just in Albania and the Western balkans, under COVAX, Gavi but really around the world through that effort. I think the Chinese, and the Russians in particular, have chosen to play some kind of vaccine diplomacy where they use these access to vaccines as some kind of political instrument. I frankly find that to be somewhat suspect. I do think that every country needs to do the best that it can to ensure that it is taking care of the public health of its citizens. And that means taking a good hard look at what vaccines are available and accessible, looking at the data, making a decision as a nation state, as a government, whether the data supports approving a particular vaccine or not. There’s gonna be some differences of view on that depending on the standards that are employed. And then within that framework of ensuring maximum public health benefits for their citizens, making decisions about what vaccines to approve, how to acquire those vaccines, and whether to work through intermediaries or directly with companies through COVAX and Gavi or through some other vehicle and do everything that the government can to provide sufficient vaccines to flatten the curve and control the pandemic. We’re all of this doing that. The United States is doing it. The European countries are doing it. Countries in the Western Balkans are doing it. Albania is doing it. This is, I think, a normal thing. The appropriate mix of vaccines, that’s really something for the Albanian government, for the competent authorities in Tirana to make a determination on. The United States is there in partnership with Albania and the whole world. And our principal vehicle is COVAX.

Mr. Klesiana Omeri, Klan News: Mr. Palmer thank you for this conversation. I wanted to ask you if the United States will ask for verification from a suspected candidate, even after the election. will the persecution against them continue even after they are elected as deputies.

DAS Palmer: You know, we have expectations. Not just of candidates for office, but we have expectations for those who hold office. So, if what you’re asking me is will the United States insist that our partners in government are people who are clean and who are operating in a manner that is consistent with democratic norms and democratic standards, the answer to that is absolutely.  And we think it’s very important that the judicial institutions, as they move forward in Albania through the reform process, demonstrate that they are an adequate vehicle for ensuring accountability on the part of those who have power. It’s not just the courts. I look at the SPAK being stood up and beginning to do its job, and beginning to do its job effectively and laying down markers. There is a message that is being put forward: that those who have positions of public trust and misuse and abuse those positions will be held to account for them.

Ms. Merita Haklaj, A2/CNN: Mr. Palmer, thank you for the opportunity. I have many questions but the opportunity is for one. The United States of America, through its ambassador to Tirana, is loudly acknowledging our main problems of our elections here in our country, including vote buying, vote pressure, influence of crime and corruption in politics. These are strong assertions Ambassador Kim has emphasized for months, calling for a parliament with integrity in the April 25 elections. Do you feel from the meetings today that the pressure of our American Ambassador in Tirana is going to work this time? Let me add that the Constitutional Court has become operational, functional, but has not yet addressed the fundamental issues that have become part of the strong political conflict in the country. One of these is the validity of the 2019 elections. And you were very active at that time as well. How do you see it this time?

DAS Palmer:  You know that’s an excellent question. Do I feel that the leadership in Tirana is hearing our message? Absolutely. Ambassador Kim is many things, but she is never anything other than clear. And that I think, is an important value when we’re communicating on issues that are as important as justice reform, as accountability. The United States, I think, has an obligation or responsibility to Albania to be clear and unambiguous and our messaging on this. We have every expectation of holding Albania to a high standard. It’s not a standard, frankly, that I think the country will meet tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. What we would like to see is an Albania that is ready to take its place as a member of the European Union and there are 80000 pages of rules that go into the acquis, and a requirement to demonstrate that there is a strong track record on transparency, and on holding those who behave in a manner that is corrupt to account. That’s one of the fundamental values of the European Union. It’s one of the fundamental values of the Transatlantic alliance. Anti-corruption is a core value, not just for the EU, but it’s a core value for NATO. It’s a core value for the United States. Something central to our partnership with Albania. Progress has been made. There’s a hell of a lot more to do. And what we want to see is significant figures, people of influence, people who have in the past had an expectation that they would be protected, need to be held to account. There need to be prosecutions. There need to be convictions. Those that are convicted need to serve their sentence. This is what accountability looks like, and things are moving in the right direction. I think the trendlines are broadly in the right direction, but we’re impatient. And I believe the Albanian people are impatient. And we would like to see progress in this area accelerated and examples made.

Mr. Ardit Hoxha, Euronews: Thank you. In fact, I had many questions, but since we have to make only one question, I’m asking you Mr. Palmer: Considering the changes to the electoral code over the past year, but also the large-scale implementation of technology,  what kind of elections does the U.S. expect from Albania on April 25th? Do you see the premise that they’re really qualitative steps for Albania in the electoral process?

DAS Palmer: You know, I don’t want to prejudge what’s going to happen on the 25th.   Up we take our cues, frankly, from the OSCE/ODIHR missions that set the gold standard for these kinds of election observations. I look forward to the report that the OSCE/ODIHR team will produce. The report that they produced from the last elections guided in many ways our efforts to support electoral reform in advance of these elections. And I think there was agreement reached in Parliament on some pretty important, pretty far-reaching electoral reforms. I have every reason to believe that if those reforms are implemented and acted upon, that these elections will be a step forward, a step in the right direction, and that’s really what we’re after. We’re after positive progress. We’re after not perfect, but we’re after better and a sense that things are continuing to move forward on the reform front in a manner that will be reassuring for the Albanian public. So they know that when they go and cast their vote, that vote will be counted. That it will be counted fairly alongside the votes of hundreds of thousands of others who are casting their vote. And that the outcome, what is produced in the form of a parliament, the elected leadership will reflect the aggregate of those votes. There are certainly challenges along the way, that are not about the vote counting process, but are about the media environment and the conditions. That’s something that OSCE/ODIHR also addresses. It’s an area where we also want to see progress and reform: a positive media environment, equal access to the instruments that allow parties to get their voice heard.

Mr. Thimi Samarxhi, Vizion+: Thank you Ms. Ambassador Kim and thank you Mr. Palmer. Mr. Palmer, I heard you mention a word, North Korea, which is used a lot by our President, and you mentioned judicial reform, and your involvement in our 2019 elections. Looking back at the time, I find many Facebook posts, tweets, comments from the president who declared you had his side. After two years, how are your relations with the president? Are they normal? How do you see the involvement of the president in these elections, because the president should be above all the parties and we can see day by day that he is not. He is involved in this campaign. He’s asking just that change will come after 25 April. How do you see this involvement of the president, and how can this affect the situation around this election?

DAS Palmer: For my part, the relationship with President Meta is excellent. He and I have known each other for a lot of years. We’ve had many conversations and we speak to each other very openly, and frankly, and candidly, which I think is the way that Allies and partners should speak to each other. The United States, me personally, we don’t have a side. Our side is Albania. It’s the U.S.-Albania relationship. We work well and closely with the current government. We will work well in closely with whatever government emerges out of the elections on April 25th. I am confident that whichever party is victorious on the 25th of April, whoever the Prime Minister is after the 25th of April, is someone who values the partnership with the United States. I’ll leave it there. We don’t take sides in anybody’s politics.

Ms. Nertila Dosti, Ora News: Hello Mr. Palmer, Albania seems to be backtracking in the reports regarding media freedom. The European Council has criticized the anti-defamation law, while an independent court decided Albania owes 110 million Euros to Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti for shutting down his TV station.  Do you think that these records demonstrate poor media freedom?

DAS Palmer:  I think there’s absolutely work to do on media freedom, not just in Albania but across the Western Balkans. Our vision for the region is a region that is on its way towards integration with European institutions, including in particular the European Union. That’s gonna require considerable effort in the area of media freedom, and I think there’s a lot of work to do in Albania. But I don’t think that is a unique challenge. I think it’s one that’s broadly shared across the Balkan region.

Ambassador Kim: Can I just add a clarifying note, just to prevent any misunderstanding. What Deputy Assistant Secretary Palmer said is in reference to media freedom and the media environment overall. It’s not a comment on the case that you raised.

DAS Palmer: Yes, I’m not commenting on the particular case. Just broadly speaking with respect to media freedom. I think that there’s a great deal of work still to do, and that will need to be, progress will need to be made in order for Albania to advance on its European path.

Mr. Arsen Rusta, Report TV: Thank you, Mr. Palmer. I have two questions, but included in one. After two years, are the results of SPAK what you expected? Are these elections the last chance for us to reach the destination of the European Union?

DAS Palmer: I think SPAK is making progress. I don’t have an objective yardstick against which we are measuring progress over time. But the goal is to work with SPAK as partners, to help them build the capacity to be able to act in a manner that is conducive to good governance, transparency, and in the case of SPAK, accountability. Which is really what it is kind of aimed at. Can you rephrase that second part for me?

Mr. Arsen Rusta, Report TV: Do you think the democracy in these elections is the last chance for the people of Albania to reach our destination in the European Union?

DAS Palmer:  I think it’s very important that the April 25th elections are conducted in a manner that is demonstrative of positive forward progress on democratic reforms and electoral reforms. One that makes the European Council comfortable in June with greenlighting the first IGC for Albania, which is something that we think Albanian has earned, and something that we would very much like to see acted upon.

Ms. Klaudja Karabolli, Syri TV: Thank you for this opportunity. The U.S. is talking about observation in every polling station, but the vote-buying process is happening before the date of elections, April 25. How will the observers detect the problems and the vote-buying?

DAS Palmer: I don’t want to speak on behalf of the OSCE, but I know that this is again a problem, a challenge that is not in any way unique to Albania. Something that I very much anticipate and expect those experts from the OSCE, who are charged with monitoring electoral conditions, providing reports and recommendations on reforms that are necessary in order to strengthen the system, I am confident that this is something that they’re gonna be tracking closely as well.