By Dr. Elez Bibera- Director Eurasia Division Voice of America/
Keynote address at the Conference on the 30th Anniversary of the Reestablishment of U.S.-Albania Relations The Albanian Institute for International Studies/
March 31, 2021/
Thank you very much.
Thank you for the invitation and for that very generous introduction.
I am honored to be with you on this extraordinary occasion – the 30th anniversary of the restoration of U.S.-Albania ties.
On a personal note, I had the honor and great privilege to attend the signing ceremony at the Department of State on March 15, 1991, in the company of senior American officials, members of Congress, prominent members of the Albanian-American community, Albania’s delegation led by Foreign Minister Muhamet Kapllani, and the leaders of the Democratic Party, Sali Berisha and Gramoz Pashko. I must say that March 15th was one of best days in my professional life.
I am pleased to share with you some thoughts on U.S.-Albanian relations and America’s consistent and critical role in supporting and advancing Albania’s democratic reforms and integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
While we today mark the 30th anniversary of the reestablishment of ties, the friendship between Albanians and Americans is much deeper.
Thousands of Albanians emigrated to the United States in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. They were inspired by America’s democratic ideals. From here, they fought for the independence of their country, enlisting in the process the support of prominent American dignitaries.
President Woodrow Wilson’s principled stand at the peace conference was critical in avoiding Albania’s dismemberment.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the United States contributed to the consolidation of the Albanian state. Washington forcefully denounced Italy’s invasion of Albania, and on several occasions during and after the war reiterated support for Albania’s independence and territorial integrity.
The communist takeover of Albania ushered in a period of troubled relations. From 1946, when the U.S. withdrew its diplomatic representation in Tirana, until 1990, the two countries had no diplomatic contacts. Throughout this period, the two countries maintained diametrically opposed views on most important issues, and Albanians were subjected to daily anti-American diatribes. Tirana rebuffed Washington’s repeated overtures to normalize relations and continued to view the United States as its main enemy, jointly with the Soviet Union.
During the long period of Albania’s self-imposed isolation and absence of diplomatic ties with the United States, the Voice of America was essentially the only contact between the two peoples and the two countries. Through its broadcasts, VOA emphasized the traditional friendship between Albanians and Americans, gave Albanians hope that they had not been forgotten, and expressed America’s commitment to one day see Albania join the ranks of free and democratic nations.
The demise of communism in Eastern Europe and developments in Albania in 1990 ushered in dramatic changes in U.S.-Albania relations, which would transform the two countries’ relationship from erstwhile enemies to strategic partners. After a long absence of contacts and having fallen from America’s radar screen, Albania suddenly became the focus of high-level American attention. Washington seized the opportunity and assumed a more direct and prominent role in efforts to encourage Albania’s reformist forces and promote democratic change. While agreeing to engage Ramiz Alia’s government, the United States introduced conditionality in its policy toward Tirana. In public testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 1990, Secretary of State James Baker predicating the restoration of ties with Albania’s willingness to implement fundamental political and economic reforms. The same message was conveyed personally to Alia in August 1990 by Senator Dennis DeConcini, who led a U.S. Helsinki Commission delegation to Tirana.
The United States effectively used its leverage to promote much needed changes in Albania, expressing open support for the student demonstrations in December 1990 and the emerging democratic opposition.
In the wake of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in March 1991, the United States was now able to provide forthright and effective support for the cause of freedom and democracy in Albania.
During his historic visit to Tirana, in June 1991, Secretary Baker made clear U.S. objectives in Albania and set the stage for what has become a strong and enduring relationship. Baker’s message was very clear. He urged Albanians to put the vestiges of communism behind them. He emphasized the imperative of the peaceful settlement of disputes, adding that in the “new Albania” there was no place for violence, intimidation, and the use of force.
Secretary Baker said that Albania’s emerging political order had to reflect full respect for human rights, democratization of every level of government and society, a fair and open judicial process based on the best traditions of law and justice, a free and pluralist media, and the holding of fully free and fair elections at both the national and local levels. Baker pledged that as long as Albanians remained true to these principles, America will stand with them.
Baker’s message resonates today as much as it did 30 years ago. The bilateral relationship has experienced dramatic transformations, but the U.S.-Albania dialogue continues to be focused essentially on the same issues: the need for genuine democratization and strong democratic institutions, the rule of law, good governance, and clean elections.
Successive American administrations have pursued a consistent policy toward Albania. America’s vision of Albania has been one of a stable, prosperous, and democratic country with full respect for democratic norms and processes. Albania has been treated as an important part of Washington’s concept of building a Europe whole and free. American policymakers have made it clear that it is in the U.S. national interest to see Albania firmly anchored in the Euro-Atlantic community.
During the last three decades, the United States has been the most important and impactful promoter of Albania’s democratization, providing substantial diplomatic, political, economic, and military support. As Albania faced the danger of military confrontation with Serbia in the 1990s, Washington forged strong military ties with Tirana. Albania became a key American partner in the Western Balkans and played an important role in the U.S. strategy of containing the armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia and promoting regional peace, stability, and prosperity.
Washington was the driving force behind Kosova’s liberation and independence from Serbia and Albania’s accession to NATO. President George W. Bush choose Tirana, in 2007, to announce U.S. support for Kosova’s independence. After Kosova’s declaration of independence, the United States undertook a major diplomatic offensive to encourage other countries to recognize the new state. The U.S. also played a key role in the resolution of the ethnic conflict in North Macedonia, which has led to a significant improvement of the status of Albanians in that country.
In the wake of these momentous events and for the first time in its history, Albania no longer faced a real, external threat to its independence and territorial integrity. Kosova’s independence, Albania’s membership in NATO, and the increasing empowerment of Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro, gave Albanians throughout the region a new sense of confidence and unprecedented security. Long known as the underdogs in the Balkans, the Albanians had never been in a more favorable geopolitical position. With the emerging new political landscape in the Balkans, the Albanians were poised to play a key role.
Albania has become a staunch American ally. Tirana’s foreign policy interests have largely aligned with those of the United States in the Western Balkans: regional political and economic cooperation, the consolidation of Kosova’s statehood, integration of the countries of the region in Euro-Atlantic institutions, and full respect for minority rights. Albania has been widely praised for its significant contribution to regional stability. Albania has also been very supportive of the U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and joined the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. The two countries also share the objective of countering Russia’s malice influence and growing destabilizing efforts in the region as well as China’s use of it growing economic power to gain political influence.
During the last three decades, Albania, as well as Albanians in Kosova, Macedonia, and Serbia, has been the focus of considerable attention by Washington. This has been reflected in regular delegation exchanges, close coordination, and cooperation on various issues of mutual interest, and high-level visits to Tirana. Albanian representatives have had relatively easy access to American policymakers. They have enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. The most prominent Senators and Congressmen have been supportive of Albanian causes. And President Joe Biden has had numerous personal contacts with Albanian leaders and is intimately familiar with Albanian issues, particularly Kosova.
The strategic partnership between the United States and Albania has transcended changes in each country’s governments. Albania has enjoyed bipartisan American support. Albania’s major political forces were and are strong proponents of deepening the relationship with the United States. Albania is one of the most pro-American countries in the world.
While providing support aimed at bolstering Albania’s stability and prosperity, the U.S. has not hesitated to openly call out failures to abide by democratic norms, efforts by the executive to influence or control independent institutions, attacks on the media, election irregularities, and failure to tackle pervasive corruption. American policymakers and representatives have often been frustrated with the inability or unwillingness of Albanian politicians to find common ground on truly important issues, live up to their commitments and back their statements with concrete actions. There is a huge gap between rhetorical declarations of support for much needed fundamental reforms and actual commitment to reforms. While providing frank criticism of backsliding, the United States has been engaged in a sustained manner in helping Albania confront those challenges.
The United States and Albania have developed a strong and vibrant relationship.
It is natural that on occasions such as this one, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the reestablishment of ties, the focus is on the positive aspects of the relationship. But it is also important to point out some key issues that, if not addressed by the Albanians, may test the relationship.
As is the case with any bilateral relationship, this one, too, needs to be constantly nurtured. It should not be taken for granted or viewed as static or permanent. After all, America’s support is not an Albanian birthright. Shared democratic values and Albania’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and good governance are at the foundation of the relationship. Building a viable democracy in Albania remains an important American foreign policy objective. Actions that undermine democratic practices may not only undermine the relationship, but may even cause a shift in U.S. attitudes and, in a severe case, a fundamental reappraisal of ties.
In recent years, Albania has experienced significant democratic backsliding and growing authoritarianism, making it one of the most dysfunctional and corrupt countries in Europe. Albania’s political system is essentially broken, and the country has been transformed into a one-party, authoritarian state, with the ruling Socialist Party controlling power at all levels.
Political polarization, pervasive corruption in the ranks of public officials and high officeholders, organized crime, and the culture of impunity have had a huge cost and continue to present an existential threat to Albania’s democracy. The very institutions that are critical to fight corruption – government officials, members of the parliament, politicians, courts, judges, prosecutors, and the police – are the ones that are undermining the campaign against corruption.
Powerful politicians and businessmen have captured the state and, as a result, wealth and access to power have been concentrated in the hands of a small group. The corrosive nature of Albania’s kleptocratic model of governance cannot be overstated.
The breakdown in cooperation between the government and opposition and failure to find common ground on fundamentally important issues is frankly unacceptable for a full-fledged member of NATO and an aspiring member of the EU.
President Joe Biden has stated that promotion of democracy will be a top priority for his new administration. Albanian government and opposition policies and actions are likely to come under increased U.S. scrutiny. The U.S. is not likely to remain oblivious to policies and actions that undermine democratic norms, values, and institutions.
In 2016, major Albanian political forces acknowledged that the justice system was broken and agreed to the most substantial justice overhaul of any former communist country. But they never took ownership of the reforms. They made concerted efforts to undermine, manipulate and prolong the changes as long as possible. Albania is entering the fifth year of these reforms. While the top echelons of the judicial system have been removed as a result of the vetting process, the implementation of reforms has been slow and selective, practically leading to an institutional collapse and threatening the fundamental tenet of the legal system – access to justice. The justice surgery may have been successful, but the patient remains in a coma.
Albania needs closure. The cost of failing to fully implement these fundamental reforms is simply too great for the Albanian society. The United States has devoted enormous resources to these reform efforts and expects Albania to deliver.
The April 2021 elections are a test for Albania’s democratic maturity and for U.S.-Albania relations. This is a historic moment, and the stakes are high.
While hard rhetoric has marked the opening of the campaign, Albanians have an opportunity to get their country back on a clear democratic track. Credible elections, whose results are accepted by the major players, will open new opportunities, and unleash the great potential that the Albanians have. Conversely, another flawed and fraudulent electoral process is likely to hamper the country’s political stability, signal a further deterioration in democratic practices, and complicate relations with the United States and the European Union. The inability to hold clean elections will reinforce doubts about the Albanian elites’ democratic credentials and commitments.
But elections alone, even if they are held in full accordance with the highest international standards, are not a salve for Albania’s daunting challenges. The post-election period must be followed by a patriotic consensus, a cross-party agreement, of concrete and sustained actions to address Albania’s democratic deficit, bridge the current political divide, and map out a clear way ahead.
The United States has been forthright in its support of Albania’s democracy as well as in its criticism of democratic failings. Given the special relationship between the two countries and the highly favorable opinion that Albanians have of America, there is no other country that is in a better position than the United States to help Albania on its democratic path. The U.S. has the leverage, credibility, and ability to exert positive influence and help Albanians shape a future that fosters an inclusive political process, the rule of law, and effective and accountable governance.
While American support will remain critical, the impetus for real change must come from within. Ultimately it is up to Albanian leaders to take responsibility and develop a clear strategy to build a viable democracy that the Albanian nation has so long aspired to achieve.