Transcript of Voice of America Interview with U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu

Voice of America:  Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being with the VOA today. It’s been a year since you arrived in Albania. Can you share with us your experience during this time?

Ambassador Lu: Thank you, Armand for the invitation to join you on VOA. What strikes me most about the past year are the unforgettable images of Albania that I have seen.  Some images were beautiful and joyous — like hiking up to a waterfall in Valbona or meeting bright young people at an Iftar in the town of Ndroq.  Some images made me think and reflect — like visiting the prison at Spac or talking to people who were coping with great difficulties in the community of Bregu i Lumit in Tirana.  I have tremendous faith that the future of Albania is bright.  And that 2016 will bring even more positive changes that will touch all of our lives.

Voice of AmericaYou have been very involved in working closely with Albanian politicians to find solutions to many important and complex issues. What are these relations like – easy, tough, or frustrating?

Ambassador Lu: it is a great question. I get asked a variation of this all the time. It is very unusual as an American diplomat to work in a country where Americans are so welcomed, welcomed by the people of Albania but also by the leaders of Albania. We have wonderful relations with every political party and every part of the government. It’s fairly extraordinary in my experience to have such a close working relations on such a broad range of issues.

Voice of America: Decriminalization was one of the toughest to approve by Parliament. We have seen some baby steps so far, a few politicians have left or are about to leave the parliament? Do you think this helps to cut the ties of politics to the crime world?

Ambassador Lu: I think this issue of crime and politics is very important not only in Albania but in many other countries.  I think the Albanian people should be very proud of the progress they have seen in the past year.  For the last year’s local elections we saw political party leaders from the right and from the left, both, take people off of the list of candidates when they had criminal records.  We have also seen that the Kuvendi has suspended the immunity of quite a few deputies who are facing criminal charges. As you know, Mr. Ndoka and Mr. Frroku have resigned their seats in Parliament.  Mr. Doshi and Mr. Prenga are facing criminal charges right now. And there is the decriminalization law, we fully expect as a result of this law some members of the political class will be leaving politics. There is one part of the law that I really like and that part is that the law requires every person in elected office to fill out in writing a declaration and the declaration says ‘I have a conviction in Albania in this time for this crime, or I have a conviction in another country, any other country on the planet.  You have to declare when you have committed crimes and been convicted. If you don’t and you lie on the form, this in itself is a crime for which you can be prosecuted.  This is the toughest law in Europe for decriminalization and a powerful tool to separate these worlds of crime and politics.

Voice of America: How deep run the relations of politics and crime in Albania?

Ambassador Lu: Honestly, I am not a policeman; I am not an expert on the world crime.  I would say, as someone who has only been here for a year, that there are some serious links between these two worlds and it is very important for all Albanians to support the process of separating these two worlds.  I have worked in other countries where criminals try to serve in parliament or political for the immunity that you get, but in a normal country, in a normal democracy, no criminal wants to be in politics.  It’s bad for business; it draws attention to their criminal activities. And that is what we want to happen in Albania, for criminals to think ‘It is not good for my business to be involved in politics’.

Voice of America: Mr. Ambassador, you have invested in justice reform. Earlier you said you feel encouraged that Albanian leaders have agreed to support the Venice Commission opinion. But discussions over the recommendations of this commission appear to have deepened disagreement. Are you concerned by the latest developments?

Ambassador Lu: Armand, I am very confident that in 2016, in spring 2016, Albania will achieve a deep judicial reform.  Why am I so confident?  First, it is quite clear that the Albanian people demand this reform. Secondly, the Venice Commission has spoken loudly and clearly.  They have said that this reform is essential for Albania and that it is urgent. European Union has said that this reform will open the doors for Albania’s desire to have EU accession talks.  Finally, this reform has the full enthusiastic support of Albania’s strategic partner, the United States. You’re absolutely right.  About ten days ago the ad hoc committee of the parliament sent the current draft of the law as well as comments and opinions of political parties to the Venice Commission.  With that important decision, concluded the work of the experts, and the experts have done a fantastic job – the high-level experts, the opposition experts and the experts form the Ministry of Justice.  But now is the time for the political to do their work.  Political party leaders need to work together to find a formula that can be supported by both opposition and government.

Voice of America: Do you think that Albanian politicians have a hidden agenda behind their public positions on judicial reform?

Ambassador Lu:  Many journalists have asked this question, of whether Albanian politicians have the courage to pass this reform.  I would turn the question around: I want to say, how can they not pass it? The people of Albania have spoken in favor of this reform; all of Albania’s international partners have said that they support this reform.  We call on the Albanian people to stand up for this reform and to hold their political leaders accountable.  At the same time, the Albanian people can count on us, the international community, both Washington, Brussels, but then from any European Union capital, to be actively involved in the passage of this reform, a reform which we believe will be the most important step forward in Albania’s democracy in 25 years.

Voice of America: You and your colleague, the EU Ambassador, have been criticized because you are too involved in the Albanian politics, that you have gone beyond your mandate as ambassadors, or that you have been biased. How would you respond to this criticism?

Ambassador Lu:  I would ask: what is the role of a foreign ambassador?  In my mind, the main job of a foreign ambassador is to pursue the national interests of his or her country.  In my case, that is the national interest of the United States. And I have very clear instructions from my highest bosses in the State Department and the White House that the number one priority of the U.S. government in Albania is to support reforms, for Albania to join the European Union.  And what is the most important reform needed for this process?  Clearly, it is the judicial reform.  So, Albanians can expect that I as ambassador, we as an Embassy, will continue to speak out without fear on this issue.  We invite all Albanians to join a national dialogue about this important issue.

Voice of America: Corruption remains the Achilles’ heel. So far we have not seen any serious efforts or a serious fight against the phenomenon; the fight against it has remained at a very low level. You have spoken about corrupt ministers. What is the basis for your accusations? 

Ambassador Lu:  Corruption occurs in all countries on the globe; corruption exists in my country.  There are members of Congress, there are governors, and there are high court justices in my country in jail for corruption.  I believe that corruption is a war that is never won; it is a battle that must be fought every day.  Fundamentally, it is about the willingness for the people of a country either to accept corruption and pay bribery, or stand up with courage and fight corruption.  When I worked in Central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan, 13 years ago, at that time there a very small, quiet movement started in universities. University students said “we are done with this corruption; we refuse to pay bribes to our professors and we refuse to be involved in corruption to pay for our grades.”  And they signed a pledge: “We will not pay these bribes.” And it spread very quickly in universities, and then it spread to other sectors of the society and then it spread to other countries of Central Asia.  It is very powerful when citizens stand up against corruption.  What we see today in Albania is — even in the University of Tirana – we are seeing that impulse, that desire for regular people to stand up against corruption. I think in Albania this is how this mentality changes; this is how corruption ends.

Voice of America:  Mr. Ambassador, how would you describe relations between the U.S. and Albania? What are the key priorities for the U.S. besides judicial reform?

Ambassador Lu: I have worked in the diplomatic service for about 25 years. I have never worked in a country that has such close relations with the United States.  I think those relations are getting stronger day by day.We work together in a vast number of areas. Let me describe three main priorities that we have as Americans in Albania.  First, and I have discussed this before, our main priority is to support the reforms that help Albania join the EU.  Second, we remain committed to helping Albania continue to become a stronger NATO ally; third we want to be a supporter of Albanian people in developing their democratic institutions.  For this year, what we are planning to do, in addition to judicial reform, we have three other priorities: first, to continue to work on this initiative to create and then train a National Bureau of Investigation, based on the American FBI, that will be there for the Albanians to investigate corruption.  Second, we are already working very closely with the Ministry of Defense and other NATO countries to help develop the Armed Forces, specifically important units of the military to serve with NATO forces anywhere in the world.  And then finally we are very committed to the development of Albania’s NGO sector and of its independent media, as a watchdog against possible abuses by the government or opposition.

Voice of America:  One last question, Mr. Ambassador. You have often chosen to speak in Albanian, even when talking about important issues. What I would like to know, out of curiosity, why did you choose to speak in Albanian? Are you perhaps trying to make sure that your messages are not misrepresented?

Ambassador Lu: Thank you for the question.  I try to use Albanian language every day because Ambassador Bill Ryerson has said me somethingAmbassador Ryerson was the first U.S. ambassador after the fall of communism and he speaks an exceptional Albanian.  He has told me that the only way to learn a language is to have the courage to use it. He also told me that this is the only way to start understanding the ordinary Albanian, not just the political elites.  In my lifetime, I have learned eight foreign languages, and, undoubtedly, Albanian is the hardest, but also the most beautiful.