Ilva Tare: Kam të ftuar sot ambasadoren e Shteteve të Bashkuara në Tiranë, Yuri Kim. Madam Ambassador, thank you very much for being at Euronews Albania, in what makes me very happy to be your first interview at Euronews Albania, in this country. One month after your arrival to Albania, the country went into quarantine mode because of coronavirus. How was the experience of working under such restrictions?
Ambassador Kim: First of all, thank you very much for inviting me here. It’s a real pleasure to be here. I’ve heard about you of course, by your reputation, so it’s great to be here. I love being here in Albania. I got here at a time when people said, ‘it’s the worst time’ because there had just been the earthquake and then, shortly after I got here, the corona pandemic took place. But to me, from what I have seen, this is the best time because for me, I got to see what Albania and the people of Albania are truly like. And what I saw was courage, and perseverance, and hope and I have to say, you know, we’ve done fairly well in managing this situation. So, I’m very pleased to be here.
Ilva Tare: I’ve also noticed that you are very active on social networks. Why did you choose to communicate directly with the Albanian people?
Ambassador Kim: Because I want to know what people are thinking and, as much as I love the reports that I get, as much as I value the information that I get from my staff, I wanted to hear directly from people. I see social media not only as a way for me to tell other people what I’m thinking, but for other people to tell me. I actually do read the comments – sometimes it is a little bit toxic, but I read them anyway.
Ilva Tare: How is the general feedback that you get from that communication, from people talking to you?
Ambassador Kim: Very positive, very positive. What I’ve really noticed here is that the affection that Albanians have toward the United States and Americans is so genuine and I hope that the Albanian people know that the feeling is mutual. We also look at Albania as a real friend and a very special friend.
Ilva Tare: And, actually, you showed that you are a friend, you helped Albania during the coronavirus crisis with some medical needs and infrastructure. What is the total amount that you already have given and is the U.S. planning on further economic help?
Ambassador Kim: Yes. The United States as you know is the largest contributor to humanitarian and health and other issues and so, over the last 20 years, we’ve provided over 140 billion dollars’ worth of aid around the world. For the coronavirus alone, in the last few weeks, we have released 900 million dollars. Of that, about 1.2 million so far has come to Albania. There will be more and hope that people know that the 1.2 is building on a lot more. Over the years, we have provided Albania with about 693 million dollars in assistance and we’re happy to do that because as you say here, a friend in need is a friend in deed. And, what I notice is that this isn’t a one-way street. Some of the comments on social media, when I read it, often focus on ‘the United States has always given to Albania’ and ‘thank you for taking care of us,’ and I want people to know that we feel that Albania has also taken a lot of action to take care of us and to take care of others. So, with this coronavirus issue, when I saw 90 Albanian medics going to the center of the disease in Italy, I found this to be an incredibly brave and moving gesture. So, for me, now that I’m here, I feel part Albanian, I feel proud.
Ilva Tare: There is help and there is also accountability and that’s what the Albanian people have wanted from the U.S. actually, looked up at you, at the U.S. Ambassador here to tell the truth about Albania, about the accountability of governments so, let me ask you for your evaluation of how this government has behaved in terms of the measures taken, the fact that the state of natural disaster was extended until June 23, and the criminal law was strengthened to punish infected people who were breaching self-isolation, which somehow raised concerns among some 30 human rights organizations; they believed it was disproportionate and a violation of individual rights and freedoms.
Ambassador Kim: I think the results speak for themselves in terms of how the government has handled the coronavirus issue. I would say that the government deserves credit, but I would also say that there is credit due to others, including the Albanian people. Because it would not have happened, had the vast majority of people not complied with the very stringent measures. So, as a result of everybody’s contributions, the rate of infections and the number of deaths was kept at a pretty low rate. On the issue of accountability, I think that is the heart of a democracy and the rule of law and you’re right to focus on it. But, it’s not for the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. Government to demand that of the Albanian Government. That is something that the Albanian people have to demand. So, for me, as a representative of the U.S. Government here at the embassy, at any minute I am prepared to answer how we are spending American taxpayer dollars in the embassy and I think that the Albanian people should have the same expectation of their own government. You should demand answers, you should ask questions and…
Ilva Tare: The problem is getting answers, Madam Ambassador and…
Ambassador Kim: You have to keep pressing for it…
Ilva Tare: You have to have strong institutions who work and value transparency.
Ambassador Kim: Correct…
Ilva Tare: Do you think that’s the case in Albania?
Ambassador Kim: I think that there is always room for improvement, and I think that there are some positive steps being taken and my expectation is that this will continue and certainly the United States of America will support those efforts.
Ilva Tare: Was the change of the criminal law of any specific concern for the U.S. Embassy?
Ambassador Kim: I won’t comment specifically on it, but what I will say is that the process of getting to the law was, I think, a model in that the government proposed something, the opposition voiced their opinions, civil society also made clear their concerns, the president had an opinion; parliament debated, they passed it, the president made further changes and then it was adopted. To me this is a model of how the legislative process in a democracy should occur.
Ilva Tare: And talking about this climate that you mentioned, the model, political actors seemed during the COVID–19 crisis to work together by avoiding the usual political fighting even during a hard time. Do you think this climate is sustainable and that political leaders have the capacity to put people’s interests above party interests?
Ambassador Kim: They have shown through their own actions that it is possible and I hope that the Albanian people will continue to demand better behavior of their leaders. They have shown that when an issue is important, at a moment like the corona pandemic they can put politics aside, they can focus on the greater good, and they can actually talk to each other in a civilized manner and produce a result that is meaningful and I hope that they will continue to do this. There are other issues ahead of us that will require that kind of cooperation and leadership, real leadership, including the election reform, continuation of justice reform and Albania’s integration into the European Union. That will require leadership and it will require leaders to decide that they cannot afford to keep playing politics as usual.
Ilva Tare: I hope that will happen and we will come to the cooperation on the reforms a bit later in the interview. Special anti-corruption and anti-organized crime body SPAK finally was established, with some considerable delay, and is currently investigating some, the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Health, on what the opposition has considered secret tenders although the government claims there were no secret tenders. What do you think about the transparency of government decisions in this crisis, during Covid19, and transparency on public spending as well?
Ambassador Kim: As I mentioned before, governments have an obligation to be able to explain to their taxpayers exactly how tax money is being used.
Ilva Tare: Do you think this obligation has been fulfilled by the Albanian Government?
Ambassador Kim: That is for SPAK to decide. They will look at the facts and I’m looking forward, like everyone else in Albania, to what the results are. But there is a process in place and it is the correct thing for SPAK to decide that issue. It’s not for me to decide.
Ilva Tare: Let’s talk about…let’s not hide when we have the elephant in the room, let’s talk about justice reform. Let’s talk about your evaluation on the status of how the implementation of justice reform is going.
Ambassador Kim: Justice reform is absolutely necessary, and I think everybody agreed on that. In 2016, the popular demand for justice reform was so great that politicians had to adopt these reforms. They did the right thing. It’s something to be celebrated. There are three parts to justice reform: you have to have the legal framework, building the institutional capacity for it, and finally, this can also happen in tandem, you have to implement the law and you have to get the institutions to work. I think the people are right to be a little bit impatient about this. We’ve seen the first part done. We have the laws [from] 2016. We have most of the institutions in place, with the exception of the Director of the National Bureau of Investigation and the Constitutional Court, which is a big deal. I mention all of this to point out that impatient as we are, there has also been real progress. And I say this to say that you should continue to be impatient. You should continue to push and, from my point of view, it is now up to leaders to deliver. It is now up to them to show political will and establish the constitutional court. It is up to judges to begin to show that the courts are functioning. And I think we’ve begun to see that. In the past week, the High Court issued some decisions and we are beginning to see the backlog of cases being reduced and vetting is continuing. So, there is action, but I’m with the Albanian people: it’s time for a renewed push to make progress here.
Ilva Tare: Madam Ambassador, how would you respond to critics that say that the U.S. and EU have pushed for a justice reform that is defective, that has problems, that has created in Albania an unprecedented situation, with no constitutional court, no high court, and actually they do blame internationals for pushing Albanian political leaders. How would you respond to that?
Ambassador Kim: I would say that something like justice reform is extremely difficult. It’s complicated and it’s imperfect, but from what I can see, the basic elements are there and it is up to the real players to begin implementing it in a real way. It doesn’t work because it hasn’t worked. Once it works, it will work.
Ilva Tare: Albanians see you as a guarantor for this reform especially. They believe in what you do is the right thing. Can you tell Albanians that what we have done so far on justice reform is the best that we could have delivered?
Ambassador Kim: I think that no one should ever claim perfection. It is not possible. But what I can tell you is that for the American government, justice reform in Albania remains a priority and, for me personally, it remains a priority and I plan to give everything I have to make this real. It will mean that there will be some frustrations, I fully expect that, because there are some who don’t want it to happen. There are also issues of capacity. But what I can say is that I will make my best effort; everybody around me will make their best effort and it is now up to the political leaders to show their seriousness in making this happen.
Ilva Tare: I’m going to give it a try although i know that diplomatically you cannot answer this, but do you know who doesn’t want it?
Ambassador Kim: I think that there are many who don’t want it.
Ilva Tare: And you are still working with them?
Ambassador Kim: I think that there are many who don’t want it. I work with a wide range of people and I will continue to do so.
Ilva Tare: Ambassador, you met on April 13 you met with JAC and High Court Chair Ardian Dvorani for whom the president has asked the HJC to dismiss due to the expiration of his mandate since 2014. The HJC has asked for the opinion of OPDAT and EURALIUS before deciding on this. What is your opinion on this matter?
Ambassador Kim: I think the courts should make use of all the resources available to them, including technical advice, but ultimately they have to follow the law and ultimately they have to be able to show that they are able to make decisions on a basis that reflects independence and integrity. They should not allow any external factors to interfere with the decision –making process. Of course, as I said before, everyone is free to express their own opinion; I can express it, you can express it, anybody can. But in the end of the day, the value of having a court in this framework of judicial reform is that they operate with independence and integrity.
Ilva Tare: So no matter what the opinion of OPDAT or EURALIUS is, it is the HJC responsibility to take a decision?
Ambassador Kim: Absolutely.
Ilva Tare: Because they may say as an alibi that this is what the internationals want…
Ambassador Kim: It is time to stand up. Stand up on your own two feet. Show the Albanian people that you can function. It’s time.
Ilva Tare: What is your evaluation on the reforms. We have a list of reforms to fulfill, electoral reform and other important ones to start negotiations officially with the EU. It’s a long-awaited process and we’ve done our part that was usually problematic and the EU had its own struggles. How do you see the process of electoral reform so far? Yesterday we had statements from the opposition and majority that seemed a bit of a set back from the initial goal of approving a consensual reform.
Ambassador Kim: I think that rather than focusing on every single step, I think that we do need to step back a little bit and look at the big picture. And in the big picture, what I see is that the opposition, whether in parliament or outside of parliament, have all agreed to sit at the table. It is now the responsibility of everyone at the table, whether they are in the minority or the majority to really listen to each other’s ideas and then to take those ideas, take the advice of OSCE and ODIHR and try to come up with a set of reforms that are really meaningful. This is really the time to show what they have. I think over the next 6 months, there are going to be some important decisions that will have to be made, some important negotiations that will have to be closed, including on electoral reform, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results. But, it’s good that they are sitting at the same table. And I think they feel a little bit of pressure to come up with a meaningful result.
Ilva Tare: Going back to justice reform actually, I wanted just to make sure whether in the meetings that you have had with the Albanian political actors and factors, in your capacity as U.S. Ambassador have you asked them to renounce their desire to appoint judges or prosecutors?
Ambassador Kim: The law is pretty clear in my mind as to how justice reform should proceed and how judges should be appointed. Where there are questions, I think they are appropriately referred to the Venice Commission and they should be ultimately referred to the Constitutional Court. That’s who gets to decide the interpretation of the law.
Ilva Tare: …which is not in place right now…
Ambassador Kim: Correct. So we have to fix this problem. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean everybody in Albania but in particular the leaders of Albania. It’s not for me to fix. I can speak for the United States of America and can say that our expectation and our desire for our Albanian friends is that the Constitutional Court should exist but ultimately, it’s for the Albanian people to demand of their leaders that they take action. And it’s the responsibility of the leaders to be responsive to what their people are asking of them.
Ilva Tare: Madam Ambassador, do you think the U.S. supports certain majority or government in order to protect stability as some critics say? Is this the case?
Ambassador Kim: I think we work with every government that is in place, that is legitimately elected, and legitimately in place. That’s our job, we don’t discriminate. But regardless of elected governments, our relationship is with the people of Albania, with Albania as a country, not a specific party. I make a point of communicating and reaching out and touching as many people as I possibly can. You asked earlier why I am so active on social media; it’s for that reason, because the relationship is a very broad one and the excellent relationship we have with the Albanian government is one element of it, but it’s just one element, and I appreciate the fullness of the relationship.
Ilva Tare: And to go back to electoral reform, do you think the parties will respect the deadline, May 31, of approving it?
Ambassador Kim: I hope so. The European community will be looking at this issue very carefully, as a first indicator of how well Albania will be able to comply with the 15 requirements, ahead of the start of negotiations. I think they are under a little pressure here to produce.
Ilva Tare: Are you putting pressure on them?
Ambassador Kim: I’ve expressed my hope to them that they will do their jobs. They feel the pressure from the Albanian people.
Ilva Tare: Talking about, and this is a personal opinion now, I believe with the U.S., Albanians, the people of Albania, have always had a very healthy relationship, an alliance that sometimes would not even justify. In the past 30 years, Albanians loved America and we have always loved the strategic partnership with the U.S. but we somehow have not seen it materialized in more interest expressed in the country. For example, Chinese investors are present in the country, in key sectors such as oil or the airport. Russian investors are bringing grain, although there are some restrictions now, but they seem to have the same policy as with gas. Albania seems not ready to deal with it. Where are American interests in Albania? When will we see some American capital in this country?
Ambassador Kim: I will disagree with you.
Ilva Tare: Good.
Ambassador Kim: There is evidence that where you don’t see evidence, I see lots of evidence of the strength of the U.S.-Albania relationship. Even before I arrived here I said that my top three priorities when I come to Albania will be to strengthen our defense relationship so that Albania is an even stronger NATO ally than it already is; secondly, that we would work to support the development of Albania as a democratic nation – the rule of law, anti-corruption, justice reform, election reform, all of those issues; and finally, to look for opportunities to expand economic and trade relations between the U.S. and Albania. These three things are connected. They are connected because they require transparency and adherence to the rule of law. So, what I try to emphasize with leaders here, with those who make the rules, whether it’s politicians or members of the judiciary, is that business decisions are going to get made on things like whether contracts are enforced. Why would I put my money into a contract where I’m not sure if the courts are fair, if I’m not sure that the process for applying is transparent, if I’m not sure that someone else isn’t going to do a favor for another company? So, you need transparency, you need a process, and you need some guarantees of legal enforcement. So, once we have those pieces, I’m sure that we’re going to have lots of interest. In the meantime, I would point out that the American Chamber of Commerce is very active in Albania, now more than ever. You may have seen that the American Company Coca-Cola made some contributions for the fight against COVID. So, I think American companies, American presence is so pervasive here that it’s almost like air and we don’t notice it, but it’s here and what I see is that over the course of the last 100 years, at critical moments, the Albanian people and the American people have always chosen each other. 100 years ago, when the great powers were trying to divide Albania and make it disappear, the United States listened to Albania and said, no, Albania has a right to exist. 90 years later, we were there again when Albania and the Albanian people were under attack; when you rejected communism, we were there to support, and on and on. So, we have a long and I think wonderful relationship together of mutual admiration, mutual help, mutual interest. You asked about others who are trying to get in on the game. I don’t think that I need to give any Albanians a lecture about all of the others. You know very well what the history is from your own experience. And my expectation is that the United States and Albania will always continue to choose each other first because we have so much more to gain and so much more to do together.
Ilva Tare: So, I trust it is on us now to improve the climate for investment and then American capital will come.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Ilva Tare: What are the sectors that U.S. investors would be most interested in in Albania?
Ambassador Kim: I think infrastructure and energy are always of interest. There are going to be consumer goods. I think the coronavirus will affect trade for many countries and many regions around the world but there are opportunities here and I’m hoping that the legal framework will be in such a state and the operation of it will be in such a state as to demonstrate to American investors that Albania is a good bet.
Ilva Tare: We mentioned civil society but there is also another important pillar in a democracy – the media. What do you expect the media to do? What do you think they should improve?
Ambassador Kim: I think the media should continue to provide real information that is well-researched and to provide both sides of the story so that people can make up their minds. And I do hope that journalism in Albania becomes the strong pillar that it is in every democracy. Sometimes journalists ask questions that make people uncomfortable, as you did today, but it’s your job and I respect that. You have a role to play, I have a role to play and they are important roles I think and if we don’t play them to the best of our ability, the entire project suffers and so I have nothing but respect for Albania’s journalists. I’ve met many of them already and I’m looking forward to meeting more.
Ilva Tare: Ambassador Yuri Kim, it was a privilege talking to you. Thank you very much for this interview.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you so much.