Our relationship is with the people of Albania, not with one party and not with one person

Transcript of Interview of DAS Escobar with Grida Duma, Top Story, Top Channel

Grida Duma: Mr. Escobar, welcome to Albania.

DAS Escobar: Thank you.

Grida Duma: Welcome to Top Story. I am happy and I am grateful for this opportunity to have this important interview with you.

DAS Escobar: Thank you very much.

Grida Duma: Thank you. Anytime you return to Albania, we have important elections, that’s for sure.

DAS Escobar: That’s true, yes.

Grida Duma: Is this recent visit of yours focused on the local elections or also on developments in the region, such as the Kosova Serbia talks. The Albanian public is divided somehow. Albanians think that Albania has a role to play, and it is not playing it fully, or the other part is thinking that this is an issue for the Kosova institutions. What is your stance on this?

DAS Escobar: Well, look, I’ll start with the very first question. My visit here is absolutely not tied to the local elections. It is part of regular consultations that we have with close allies. And Albania is a close ally. I do have to say that with regard to the Kosova-Serbia question, what we have in this new Normalization Agreement is a historic agreement on friendly, constructive relations between two partners that haven’t enjoyed a lot of trust.That agreement, which was facilitated by the European Union, supported by the United States, was supported in almost every respect by the countries of the region. The negotiations were held in North Macedonia, and it wouldn’t have happened without their support. But it was also supported by the governments of Albania and Croatia and others in the region. And we do see a very important role for Albania in regional stability. And they’ve proved it.

Grida Duma: The report or the notes that we have read in the media and in our institutions, as well as the Department of State’s report on Albania, focus on corruption, on a lack of independence in the judiciary system, on gender violence, on media freedom, on many issues that are important for building institutions in the function of democracy. After 32 years of transition, institutional transition, and not real democracy functioning as we see it, does the United States have a comment on the fact that we are lacking a real functioning democracy?

DAS Escobar: Well, I want to start with the beginning of your question again. The Human Rights Report, the International Religious Freedom Report, the Trafficking in Persons Report – all of those are Congressionally mandated reports that we do on every country and, in some cases, we do them on ourselves. And what it means is that we care enough about these issues, about trafficking, human rights, and religious freedom, that we want to make sure that we catalog it as a way of engaging with governments to find improvements. So, I would say that the report, which is a required report, should be seen as one of constructive criticism. And I don’t think that the one that we have done here is completely out of line with the reality, nor is it out of line with the trends in the rest of the region and the rest of Europe. I would focus on the areas for improvement, rather than on the areas where people could see it as a political, or a politically-motivated opportunity for people to criticize the government. This is for society as a whole. And I do think that Albania, as a modern democratic country can look at that with some level of self-reflection and find ways to improve the situation here.

Grida Duma: Albanians are focused on everything that comes as a signal from the United States. That’s for sure. Albanians are, in our opinion, one of the most pro-American people in Europe and probably in the region.

DAS Escobar: And Americans are the most pro-Albanian country in the world.

Grida Duma: We are grateful for that. Meanwhile, American investors are not at that standard or level that we would want to see as signs of economic prosperity and signs of a secure Albania with ongoing political stability. Is it because American investors do not see interest, high interest in Albania? Or is it because the Albanian government hasn’t done the right, let’s say, assurances and standards to welcome, to invite, and to motivate American investments in Albania?

DAS Escobar: Quite the opposite. I think that trade between the United States and Albania is booming. It is increasing dramatically every year. I think that Albanian exports to the United States have tripled in the last year. Tripled. And American investment in the region, particularly in the energy sector, is significantly up. We support the Open Balkans initiative, we support your efforts to integrate closer to your neighbors and into the European Union. We see very positive things. Now, there are still things that you could do that would help improve the investment climate, particularly with regard to commercial courts and judicial independence. But for now, the relationship, the commercial relationship is really on track and we see great things happening between the United States and Albania.

Grida Duma: Happy to have this message from you because this is a fact thing, not a perception.

DAS Escobar: That’s right.

Grida Duma: Local elections. Yesterday, your messages, all of your visits and meetings that came out in the media were: be careful with candidates with criminal records in the list of political parties. If we still have some of these candidates that do not respect this, will there be a different, strong reaction from the United States this time?

DAS Escobar: Well, look, I think all the political parties have an obligation to the people to make sure that the candidates are not corrupt, that they have the interests of the people at heart. We’re not in the position to choose candidates or choose members of political parties. Our relationship with Albania is with the people of Albania, not with one party and not with one person. So, in that regard, when you ask whether there will be a reaction from the United States if the parties are not clean, if the candidates don’t meet the highest standards of anti-corruption, and all of the other democratic standards, the reaction should come from the people, not from the United States. That’s a job for the people of Albania to tackle, not for the United States.

Grida Duma: I see. Local elections – there has been a two year battle in public opinion and the political, let’s say, protagonists are discussing it as dividing politics. Think of the opposition – the Democratic Party. Many say that this came because of the non-grata status of Sali Berisha. Now, Sali Berisha is continuing to head a part of the opposition and is considering himself as the leader of it. Is it a possibility, as many are trying to, let’s say, give food to themselves? Is there any possibility that because of his standing up as part of the opposition, there will be a revised position on the non-grata status of Sali Berisha ever from the United States?

DAS Escobar: Well, first of all, I think our position on this particular individual is very clear. But I would say that I don’t know of any person who, through an election has managed to change the State Department’s designation of their position under our legislation. But that said, I do think that Albania has a really, really tremendous future and should focus on the future. And there are many people who would like to drag it back to the past and I don’t think that that’s a place where Albania wants to go.

Grida Duma: So that’s the past?

DAS Escobar: If you ask me, absolutely, the past.

Grida Duma: Okay. Will American non-governmental organizations be more and more present during the May 14 elections?

DAS Escobar: Well, look, every country that’s a member of the OSCE has an obligation to allow election monitoring. I think it’s healthy for societies and it’s healthy to ensure free and fair elections. And Albania definitely has an obligation to allow people to come and monitor it. We will have a part in that. But the important thing is it won’t happen if we don’t have a commitment from all of the parties and all of the candidates that the elections should be free and fair and without interference. We hope that will happen, and I’m confident that it will.

Grida Duma: Let’s hope so. As for the non-grata indictment, the indictment of many people from the European side, we have asked the European Union, what is this, let’s say, non-grata title for you, how the European Union conceives it?  It’s been a while and we are waiting for more names from the high ranks of politics. Is there any chance that we will have some more names in Albania in order to see the continuance of the strong hand of the United States? As for anti-corruption and going forward…

DAS Escobar: Well, there are three parts to this. I mean, first of all, we don’t preview our sanctions actions, so I can’t really speak to that. The second thing is we are very committed to using every tool that we have, including sanctions, to fight corruption in the world. And in this part of the the world, especially in the Western Balkans, corruption is the one issue that permeates all of the countries in the region. But third, you know, our relationship with Albania is not about sanctions. Our relationship is a mature partnership between two equal partners in an alliance and in a bilateral strategic partnership. So is it really up to the United States to make these designations?  It’s up to the institutions of Albania to investigate corruption and prosecute it wherever they can. And that’s why the judicial reform is so important, because it’s not up to us to do this work on behalf of the Albanian people. They have the capacity to do it themselves. And these governments and every government, whether it’s this one or any succeeding one, has an obligation to the people to make sure that that happens.

Grida Duma: The McGonigal case. It’s still ongoing and there are many question marks in public opinion in Albania. Did it damage the relations after the accusations of that file with Prime Minister Rama – between Prime Minister Rama and the United States?

DAS Escobar: Well, I’ll say two things. One, I really can’t talk about an ongoing criminal case. The second thing is I mentioned before, the relationship between the United States and Albania is with the people of Albania, the institutions, not with one party and not with one individual. That said, I would say that our relationship with Albania is the best it’s ever been.

Grida Duma: The best that it’s ever been. As for the law on strategic investments, even the McGonigal file has shown us an illustration that it probably needs a lot of amendments or some amendments in order for Russiancompanies not to be hiding behind some tricky ways to enter into strategic sectors that are now, after the warbetween Ukraine and Russia, in a different position. What do you think about our legal framework on strategic investors?

DAS Escobar: I think that all the countries of the region, in all the countries of Europe, in fact, should have some sort of investment screening. And that has been an open discussion with all of our partners. I think everybody understands the dangers of money laundering, the dangers of Russian malign influence, and I would say that we do have an open dialogue with the government, this government, and all governments of the region on how we need to handle that kind of investment, whether it be Chinese or Russian and how we deal with it collectively.

Grida Duma: Russian funding in political parties is a big issue. It has been proven that there is – in reality –  political parties and some individuals that have received money from Russian companies or individuals. First, do we have a concrete list of names of the politicians from the United States that have Russian money in their pockets or in party budgets now?

DAS Escobar: Well, look, I’m not going to go into specifics. The one thing that is very true is that Russia interferes in democratic elections throughout Europe, not just here, but in Western Europe as well, in the United States as well. And there are people who are willing to accept Russian money on behalf of pressing Russia’s agenda, which is not a positive one for this part of the world. I would just say that we have to continue to discuss this and be very clear with each other about what the expectations are, and share information, when we see it, about what Russia is doing in this part of the world, because it (Russia) does not share the same aims as the United States and Europe do for the Western Balkans. We’re trying to create greater integration. We’re trying to create a path for these countries, including Albania, to become members of transatlantic organizations, including the European Union. Russia is doing exactly the opposite. So, we are very skeptical about anything that Russia does on the political and on the economic sphere.

Grida Duma: Some argue that this Russian money was here before the Ukraine-Russia war started. What is wrong to have some lobbying and some financing from even Russia? Why do we have to consider this a, let’s say, moral crime if those politicians would argue themselves that this has happened before the Ukraine-Russia conflict?

DAS Escobar: Well, first of all, I would say that foreign influence in any election, particularly financing, is almost universally illegal. And it should be in most democratic countries that the election should be a referendum for the people on the leaders, for those people. Russia’s efforts throughout Europe in supporting candidates, specific candidates, with financing has not been to support the goals of those countries, but to support Russia’s malign influence in the region. And so, I would say that every country has to be very, very careful, including our country, about campaign finance, about free and fair media, and about being very clear about what Russia is doing inside of Europe and inside of the United States.

Grida Duma: Back to the opposition parties, a different Democratic Party. The division has left the so-called official part of the DP with eyes on the U.S. Embassy saying that we need more help, we need more guidance. There are some protagonists that are, let’s say, seeing a path to a solution by close collaboration with the American Embassy and representatives of yours here. What is your comment on this? Is this the right way to see the progressing or ongoing development of the DP?

DAS Escobar: Well, look, we don’t choose governments for NATO allies, which means we don’t choose winners and losers. The people do. I will say, that again, our partnership is with the people of Albania and any political party, any political movement, that sees as its strategic goals furthering the Euro-Atlantic integration of Albania, remaining committed to NATO, and remaining committed to the fight against corruption, we see those parties and those movements as allies. So, we are hopeful that all the political spectrum will have that in mind when they engage with us and when they engage with our QUINT partners as well, because that’s what’s best for Albania.

Grida Duma: The mission of the Ambassador of the United States of America in Albania has been at times, in this period of time, especially difficult. It is the first time that a foreign ambassador’s job, in my opinion, has been so difficult, and public opinion has been much more informed on the mission of the United States Ambassador in Albania. Do you have a comment on that? Because to me, it’s something that could not happen and could not be put into question. The integrity, let’s say, the complete mission as a public one and not as a personal one.

DAS Escobar: It never is. I would say that in the region, all of our ambassadors are acting with the full support of the Secretary of State and the President. They’re all acting very much consistent with our values and with our policy. And it’s unfortunate that some of our ambassadors in the region have come under personal attack. First of all, I think it’s unwarranted. But second, I think it’s also undiplomatic, because what our ambassador is doing is exactly what the Secretary wants them to do. It’s not a personal thing. It’s a policy thing. I think everybody should recognize that. And, in fact, if I had to add a personal opinion, we have one of the best ambassadors in the Foreign Service serving in Albania. So, it’s not a personal question. It’s a professional thing.

Grida Duma: Do you know if there is any harm done to the public opinion of Albania because of the dividing of the opposition? Is there a risk on this?

DAS Escobar: Well, I do think that there’s a risk that there are people who are using anti-American sentiment for personal political gain, and that doesn’t help our strategic interest or yours. I would be very, very skeptical about anybody who is moving or promoting anti-American lines, because everything that we’ve done, particularly in the last two years, has been to deepen the strategic relationship between the United States and Albania. And I have to say that right now, Albania occupies a very privileged position in our foreign policy. You have been consulted and been a part of nearly every global event because of your partnership with the United States. So, we have been helped to move our values and our goals in Europe because of our partnership with Albania, not just in NATO or the United Nations Security Council, but bilaterally as well. So, I would say that anyone who preaches any kind of anti-Americanism really doesn’t have the interests of Albania in mind.

Grida Duma: Thank you!