The American ambassador in Tirana Yuri Kim gave an interview for VOA highlighting that vetting remains the foundation for justice reform in Albania and there are still a lot of judges and prosecutors that still need to be vetted.
VOA: Ambassador Kim, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity. In recent days, developments in the DP have been at the center of attention after Mr. Basha’s decision to leave former PM Sali Berisha out of the parliamentary group. It’s a decision you applauded. However, Mr. Basha has said that he was forced to undertake such a step, indicating a non-negotiable request by Americans. However, there was no shortage of voices that don’t view it as normal that a political party is forced to keep this or that representative. What would happen if Mr. Basha did not undertake such an act?
Ambassador Kim: Look, I think this is a free country. It’s a NATO ally. And leaders have to take responsibility for their decisions. As far as the United States is concerned, our position has been very clear right from the start with regard to designees. And, I have nothing further to say on that issue.
VOA: Mr. Berisha has always insisted on the fact that there is no evidence for him, that the decision was taken based on information from NGOs sponsored by SOROS, and that, in his view, even Mr. Basha asked for evidence. Did you give Mr. Basha information, aside from the public statement by Secretary Blinken?
Ambassador Kim: I would say that these conspiracy theories are inappropriate for a NATO ally and an EU aspirant. The days of conspiracies have to belong to the past. Now, it’s about facts. And I will tell you that the process for designating individuals, especially important individuals, is a very long and thorough process. And, by the time a decision comes before the Secretary of State, for the Secretary of State to sign, it’s been through many many layers of review. I think it is fair to say that in most cases, in all cases, I’m not talking about just Albania, I’m talking about around the world, by the time someone is designated by the Secretary of State for significant corruption, it’s usually quite obvious. And I think that those who say they are surprised are probably not being very sincere.
VOA: Did Mr. Basha ask for information?
Ambassador Kim: He has asked publicly. We have heard him. We have seen the statements by others as well. There’s a process for these designations when it comes to the U.S. Government.
VOA: Why was the decision on Mr. Berisha taken now given that he has not been in power for 8 years?
Ambassador Kim: It takes a long time for these processes to be completed. Again, I just want to clarify that this is not part of some crazy conspiracy aimed at domestic politics here. That’s not what Washington is concerned about.
VOA: USG sanctions toward senior officials or past officials have been chosen as an instrument for fighting corruption in a given country. However, is the efficiency of such a measure undermined if domestic law authorities do not follow up or accompany it with investigations?
Ambassador Kim: So whether it’s in Albania or around the world, as I said earlier, by the time these decisions are certified by the Secretary of State and announced by the Secretary of State, they’re quite obvious and it would be appropriate for national authorities to take a look at measures.
VOA: Let’s look at the other camp. The composition of the new cabinet is now public. What do you expect from the new Albanian government although we have the same PM and only a few different names?
Ambassador Kim: I think the fact that Prime Minister Rama has won an unprecedented third term puts a tremendous responsibility on him and his team to earn, to demonstrate that they have earned the confidence of the Albanian people. I think business as usual, performing at an average standard is not sufficient. I think there are historic opportunities that are in front of Mr. Rama and the rest of the cabinet, whether it’s justice reform and consolidating the institutions of democracy; whether it is increasing and deepening relations on the defense front with the United States; and whether it is cleaning up the courts and clarifying property rights so that investment can start to ramp up here in Albania in way that is much more normal.
VOA: One of the three priorities of your mission in Albania is business, the creation of a favorable climate for American investment. As two major companies are getting ready to enter the energy market, the confidence of those doing business in Albania has been declining. The latest survey of AmCham indicates a drop to the level of 2012. They talk about problems with taxes, monopolies, a presence of what is known as oligarchy. So, referring to the feeling of entrepreneurs of the American Chamber, the situation seems worse. What is your comment?
Ambassador Kim: I think that you have to take a look at actual data on investment rates, but the sentiments that are being expressed by the American Chamber of Commerce and other investors is worth listening to. I think it’s a good thing that the Prime Minister has established a forum where the various chambers of commerce, not just American, but Italian, German, I think a number of others are coming together to share their ideas and, in fact, in some cases present their requests. This is a good thing to happen, but more broadly, I think what these reports are reflecting is the evidence that corruption kills investment. It kills hope. So, you have to fix corruption. It’s not a moral issue. It’s not just a moral issue. It’s a business issue. It’s a prosperity issue. It’s a security issue. So, courts have to be clean. Prosecutors and judges have to be vetted. Rules have to be clear and processes have to be timely and they have to be effective and, at the end of the day, I think the onus is on the government to demonstrate and to actually take steps that clear up corruption, that ensure that justice reform is being implemented quickly, that they make clear what the rules and procedures are, and again, as I said at the beginning, property rights goes to the core of this. So, that’s the big area where the new government, which is the old government, can make a huge historic difference.
VOA: Ms. Kim, how do you respond to criticism that you’re closer to the government?
Ambassador Kim: This is an accusation that is faced by American diplomats around the world and diplomats in general. I hope people understand that as diplomats, you know, I’m sent here by the American President to represent our interests to the Albanian Government. So, there’s a reason that when an ambassador comes, he or she goes to the head of state and presents these credentials. So, my first job, my first priority is to ensure that our governments have a good working relationship. But beyond that, diplomacy is about more than just government to government, it also involves people to people, and it involves businesses as well. And so that’s why you see me and other diplomats traveling around the country, because we have business here in Tirana with government officials, but we have much more business – and when I say business, I’m talking about relationships – with the rest of Albania. That’s why I meet so frequently with members of the opposition, whether it’s Mr. Basha or any number of people. And I intend to continue to travel around Albania because I want to meet real people. I want to know what they’re thinking about. I want to be able to explain the U.S. position to them in person. And if they don’t agree with something that I’m saying, I want to hear what their question is, and I want the opportunity to respond directly to that. So far, I’ve had some very insightful and enlightening conversations. You know, I was just in Dibra some weeks ago when I was climbing Mount Korabi and while I was there, I met with a lot of people in the main boulevard. I like to kind of walk around and have real conversations because I’m also very aware that when I’m here in Tirana, I have a very full schedule and everybody that I talk to is probably somebody that we have had conversations with, and they know how to do these conversations. They’re very I don’t want to say staged, but there’s a pattern to them. I love going outside Tirana because there are cases where somebody has never met an American diplomat before and they have thoughts, they have a life experience, so when I walk around Tirana, I know that this is not all of Albania, that there’s so much more that’s out there. I love going to the mountains. And I’ve said to people before, you know my family in Korea is from the deepest, coldest mountains in the Korean Peninsula and, I don’t know if it’s because of that, but I feel at home here, in the mountains. The same time, I grew up in a tropical island so when I go down south, in Himara or Saranda, I feel very comfortable there as well. But these conversations are truly inspiring and they’re highly informative because they’re not using talking points. And when I’m talking to them, I’m not using talking points either, so I really appreciate that opportunity and I hope to continue it.
VOA: Justice reform has been the leading word of your activity in Albania. In the middle of next year, the mandate of the international monitoring operation will expire. It is a mechanism that has served to give confidence to the vetting process and has led to overturning a considerable number of IQC decisions. The mandate of that mission is a transitory provision in the Albanian Constitution. Would you be in favor of extending that mandate, considering that about half of judges and prosecutors have not yet been subjected to vetting?
Ambassador Kim: Vetting remains the foundation for justice reform in Albania and earlier this week, after a few meetings in virtual format, I finally had the opportunity to visit with the IQC in person and we agreed that the work of the IQC is important, that they’ve improved their performance over time, that they were successful in setting some very ambitious goals for numbers in these last few months and they’ve met these targets. There are still a lot of judges and prosecutors that still need to be vetted and so we are taking a look at all the various options, including the one that you mentioned, but I don’t have anything to announce.
VOA: Last week, you met with the SPAK chief and said that you had underscored the U.S. expectations that SPAK will prosecute corruption and organized crime – no matter how powerful or rich, no matter from which party. Are your expectations even higher now that the NBI is up and running alongside SPAK?
Ambassador Kim: I don’t think it’s my expectations that count. U.S. investment counts, of course, and the fact that we continue to invest in SPAK and NBI is an indication of what we hope to get back. But the expectations that really matter are those of the Albanian people. If we think about where we were a year ago, people used to make fun of SPAK, you know, I saw all the jokes and cartoons about SKAP. Now, a year later, as SPAK has shown results, people’s perceptions have changed and everyone is now saying, if something is wrong, I’m going to report you to SPAK, which to me indicates that they believe that SPAK is effective. And in fact, the data shows that they are. I was astounded when I asked for some information and I learned, for example, that since SPAK was established in 2019, until the last day of August 2021, they have confiscated over 70 million euro in assets from people who have been convicted, and the courts have confirmed that, and those assets have been transferred over to the state, as they should be. 70 million euro in a year and a half. Compare that, guess, guess how much was confiscated for the period 2011 to 2019 – 20 million euro. I think that tells you a lot. I’ll also tell you that in the year that SPAK has been operational, they have looked at 7-800 cases and they’ve processed those cases; there have been about 250 individuals convicted, and when you look at the rate of conviction, it’s pretty impressive: 90% of the cases that SPAK pursues result in conviction, that’s pretty good. And my expectation is that with the NBI now having hired half of the 60 investigators that they were looking for, that SPAK’s capabilities will increase further. And, I always say about justice reform – it’s not easy, quick, or perfect, but we are definitely seeing results and I think normal people are seeing results. I think there is more to come.
VOA: What concrete assistance is the NBI getting from the U.S.?
Ambassador Kim: So far, we have contributed more than 4 million dollars in training and equipment. The biggest support of course is expertise and there are at least 2 or 3 former FBI agents, real experts who have practical experience and expertise, who are here and affiliated with the Embassy and are assisting the new NBI investigators, so that they can develop the same skills, so they can be aggressive, and that they are able to perform their function.
VOA: Ambassador Kim, thank you very much for this interview.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you very much for the opportunity, Armand