Together with the US and our allies to deal with global security challenges

Speech of Prime Minister Edi Rama at Atlantic Council:

I’m very delighted to be here, and I want to thank the Atlantic Council and its knowledgeable staff for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts about one of the most complex and pressing challenges of our time.

A few weeks ago we marked the 25th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Albania and the United States, and by the way I’m very happy to see here among the audience some people that have played a key role in making of these diplomatic relations a very, very strong tie between the United States and Albania. I was very happy to meet with the previous ambassador Marisa Lino, not yet with the previous ambassador Alex Arvizu, whom I want to greet and thank very much for the presence, as I want to thank very much also the actual ambassador Donald Lu for being here. It’s a mystery how he succeeds to be here and there in the same time, because before coming here I saw him in the news in Albania. Just before, one hour ago.

Indeed, 20 years of outstanding relations and during which the assistance of the United States has been pivotal not only for Albania, but I might say for the entire region as well. If the countries of Adriatic Europe are nowadays at peace, working together to cope with big challenges of the time and with the refugee crisis as well, supporting each other on the EU integration path, transforming their political and economic landscape, it is in no small measure, to say the least, thanks to the engagement of the United States, and it is a big success story of the US foreign policy.

When, once upon a time, before attacking the dictatorship in Belgrade Bill Clinton jointly with Tony Blair said that we are going to do so because we want Albanians and Serbs live together, live in peace and build a prosperous future, I might say it sounded a very utopic statement. But here we are, it started there and today it’s seems like it was centuries ago, not just less than two decades ago.      

Last year we signed a joint Declaration of Strategic Partnership with the United States, focusing on regional security, energy, the rule of law and good governance, with particular focus on the economy. And the reason for my visit here in DC this week is not only to follow up on the joint commitments we have taken last year, but also to discuss the progress that Albania has made in recent months related to our path towards the European Union, and to exchange views on the interest that the United States and Albania share as NATO allies in a challenging European security environment. And I would like to focus on Europe’s security environment and how that impacts the transatlantic partnership as a whole, but also provides opportunities for a deeper and stronger cooperation.

As you all know, the increasingly fragmented climate among member states over Europe’s capacity to successfully overcome its current challenges has triggered some concern in the Balkans that other strategic issues, such as the European Union enlargement have now become secondary issues for the foreseeable future. In this context there is a risk that the spill over effect of Europe’s mix of economic and migration security crisis could feel further in stability in the Western Balkans and bring more uncertainty to the South and East.

Right now migration is a number one issue in Europe, both in terms of security and values. The response has been slow and confused, and I might say that if one tried to imagine that Angela Merkel did not exist, then the panorama would be much gloomier and the European answer to this big challenge would be far less dignified. Even as we speak the phenomenon remains extremely disruptive for the region, not to mention the security concerns we all have.

Another key concern in Europe is violent extremism. It represents one of the biggest threats, peace and worldwide security have ever faced. The fight against violent extremism has triggered the most comprehensive action to defeat terrorism, not only by force, but also by eradicating its roots, and Albania is proudly fully part of this effort, with concrete engagement at the global level, in the region and at home as a committed member of the counter ISIL coalition. Beyond our early and significant support to the coalition, we have taken additional measures to counter terrorist financing and to stop the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. And we are satisfied to say that last year, 2015, we had no one foreign fighter joining ISLF in the ground.

Last November, after consultations with allies and partners, we adopted a National Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism. It brings together the government, civil society and religious communities to employ education and soft measures on preventing radicalization. The problem of extremism is not limited to one ideology or religion, just as radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism based on religion are not a new phenomenon, but today we are confronted with ideas wrapped into a political project with a distorted interpretation of Islam. The only offer of the so called believers of DAESH is suffering and death. The message terrorists have conveyed by perpetrating terrorist actions all over the Word is that they can hit anywhere, anytime. Their philosophy aims to threaten our way of life; to endanger our achievements and defy conventional state borders. The way we will work to counter their ideas, their philosophy and their political project, will shape in many ways our lives and our common future. So let me say that it’s more and more clear that this is the long-term fight that needs to be fought for sure where ISIL is and where ISIL acts, but also it needs to be fought in the hearts and minds of people, first and foremost in the hearts and minds of young people, of our young generations to give them the tools to not be trapped when they have to be confronted with extreme sources of propaganda, being them sources from East or sources from West, because what we are facing today is also political radicalization in our societies that aim to play with the very notions of being Muslims, of being immigrants and of being different.

Unfortunately, like the rest of Europe and of the World, the Balkans have been affected by the phenomenon of Foreign Fighters. So, the anti-ISIL coalition countries have adopted different approaches, dealing with the foreign fighters returning back home. Dealing with DAESH requires force, but also a lot of intelligence. So as I said, we must defeat them militarily, we must destroy their financial machine, but above all, to win this war on terror we must fight the roots of extremism, the poverty, social injustice, the exclusion and discrimination all around the places.

Albania is and will continue to stand to the side of the United States and our European partners in this struggle. Inside our borders, we have tackled the extremist danger in different ways. Confronted with the surprise reality of individuals joining the fight, we have first toughened legislation, strengthened the work of law enforcement agencies, and last but not least, we have benefited from the extraordinary support of religious leaders of all main faiths in our country. In May last year we organized a regional Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.  Last November we adopted a National Strategy which we are now implementing.

At the Leader’s Summit against Violent Extremism hosted by President Obama last September in New York, it was highlighted very clearly that while security measures deliver quick results, soft measures need patience, continuous work and attention. One of these priority areas of importance is for sure education.

Those who are familiar with our reality know that we do have this incredible national asset, our tradition of respect, understanding and tolerance between faiths, which was the base also of our very proud history of saving the Jews during World War 2, and of making Albania the only country in Europe where there were more Jews after the War than before the War, and most of them were saved by Muslim families.

So, we are proud to be a shining example of tolerance and religious coexistence. It has been so over centuries and by all times and circumstances, and it has nurtured a society where people respect each other as equals, regardless of faith and cultural background. But we should not take it for granted. We should not see it as something that will be there whatever we do or not do. It’s time to act and it’s time to help our young generation to understand in depth how precious this example of Albania’s is, how valuable this community of tolerance and religious coexistence is, and what this takes vis-à-vis the threats coming from all over the place to this very important national asset. So, we think that age appropriate information and an open discussion in the class will help provide our children and our youth with the proper knowledge to better resist hate based on religion, to refuse discrimination and by this way, reinforce our well-known social cohesion.

We are setting up a dedicated Centre to build community resilience and diminish the breeding ground for radicalization and violent extremism through tailored multidisciplinary programs. This is a concrete effort to protect our society, to preserve our social cohesion but also to clearly differentiate between radicalization and extremism, which has nothing to do with religion. The nation is a struggle, but the fullness of the nation, as defined by Garibaldi from his humanistic convictions, is peace. Not victory, peace. Permanent and irrevocable.

The multiple crisis Europe is now facing have highlighted the reinforced interaction, I would say even interdependence between the European Union and the Western Balkan countries. Europe must transform the recent crisis into an enhanced cooperation with the Western Balkans. In the security environment there is no questioning about the importance, even for a small country like Albania, to live up to its commitments.

At the NATO Summit in Wales, Albania has undertaken steps to halt the decline in defence spending and to reverse the trend. Our defence budget for 2016 represents a 20% increase compared to last year. The defence budget allocated for investments is also up, from 11% to 20%, so as to ensure our ability to implement long-term plans and multi-year contracts. But we are equally aware that some things cannot be taken for granted.

Indeed, the progress of a country in the Western Balkans is very much related to stability and security in the region. Therefore, Albania remains a strong supporter of NATO’s enlargement in the Western Balkans, where NATO should re-institutionalize its relations with Kosovo, in a near future. Albania will continue to support NATO’s open door policy and, as Secretary Kerry has said, be a mentor to Balkan countries aspiring to NATO membership.

Partnership with the United States has been an essential factor towards democratic consolidation and economic prosperity of Albania, Kosovo and the entire region. Thanks to the United States support, Albania has played a dynamic and constructive role in the Western Balkans, and thanks to the United States, we are now anchored in regional processes that hopefully will allow enemies to become neighbours.

Indeed, we are not yet a region either in economic, political, or security terms. That is why we need today the United States more than ever. Just as we need the European Union today more than ever, because let me simply say a simple truth: we are today in the best political moment in our history as a region; we are today in the best place by developing cooperation, by normally talking to each other.

Two years ago I visited Belgrade, 68 years after the last visit of an Albanian Prime Minister to Belgrade. We risked the third Balkan war because of a wrong football game, but we survived this. Then, the Serbian Prime Minister came to visit Albania for the first time ever, and today, we can meet with no journalists around and we can shake hands with no pictures and headlines in newspapers in both countries. Which is normality, which is a big achievement and on which we need to build upon.

So, it is very crucial to understand that all this has come because of everyone being focused on the European integration perspective. And when it comes to the Western Balkans it’s, not about enlargement, it’s about completion. And if 5 years ago we needed Europe more than Europe needed us, today it is fair to say that Europe needs the Balkans at least as much as the Balkans need Europe. And it is for the same purpose that anti-European forces are trying to tell why this completion should not happen, for a safer and a more secure European Union.

In 1952, American intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr famously said that the Transatlantic Community is not a unified culture, but rather a shared common way of making diversity tolerable under conditions of freedom.

Indeed NATO is composed of nations who have discovered the way to community despite diversity. History itself entrusted the transatlantic community with joint tasks. 25 years ago, these tasks embodied the need to join shields against tyranny and ensure the welfare of our people on this side and across the Atlantic. To this day, the transatlantic community still shares the same needs, although the face of tyranny may have changed and welfare has taken a broader meaning than the economic one.

NATO membership has turned Albania into a pillar of stability in Adriatic Europe, a country that invests in security and prosperity in our region, taking on, as Secretary Kerry stated, the role of mentor for the countries aspiring to Euro-Atlantic integration.

We are grateful to the United States of America, our strategic partner and other allies, without whose support our country would not have come this far. I know I've said it before and not only once, but it’s never enough to repeat this very basic truth, and I believe that Albania has demonstrated that it has the right approach and sensitivity vis-à-vis the challenges currently facing Europe’s security architecture, as well as the effects that the situation in East and South Europe can have on our region.

In the current geostrategic context, and as we brace for the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw, Albania is committed to be part of the Alliance’s efforts for a fair distribution of the burden and long-standing shared obligations. This process is crucial for the liability of the Alliance and sustainability of our collective defence instruments.

So, before saying thank you, I would like to end where my friend ended with the colourful description of my person. So after this speech, you understand why I am not so colourful anymore.

Thank you!


Questions & Answers:

- You spoke about the multiple crisis Europe is facing. There is the challenge from the east, there is the challenge from the south, there are political and economic challenges, and there is the British vote and referendum. From the Albanian perspective, where do you see the focus needs to be as one faces what you call the multiple crisis of Europe?

Prime Minister Rama: Being small is not always a bad thing because, for example, you don’t need to lead. You simply need to identify the path and the leader to follow. So, we have identified it, and are firmly following the path of the United States leadership and also of EU leadership if such a thing exists, which is not always clear by the way. So, for example, if we take the EU in front of the refugee crisis, we have a very shining leadership in Chancellor Merkel, with a self-disposal to deal with the crisis without forgetting, but on the contrary underlining the European values and principles, but cannot say the same for the European Union as a whole.

We are seeing things that are unbelievable in terms of how some EU countries deal with this matter, in terms of how some EU countries are even able to come out and say "yes, we welcome refugees, but they must be Catholic."

Some other EU countries simply dismiss every possibility to be part of a common project. So, if I were to answer your question briefly, I would say the most disturbing part of the whole thing in this such complex situation it is the lack of a common strategy of the European Union.


- The lack of a strategic Europe strategy. Let’s talk about a strategic NATO. What role do you see Albania play as a force for security in the region, and specifically what will be your priorities for the NATO summit in Warsaw?

Prime Minister Rama: Again, our challenge in that aspect is not very big, as long as we have identified the path, and as long as we are committed to this path. We are proud members of NATO, and we are always ready to join in every decision and initiative with our modest forces, but at the same time, we have always done and will always do it with all our hearts and minds, because we strongly believe that NATO is a big force for the good. At the same time, we are very, very satisfied with the opening-up of the invitation to Montenegro. It's a big thing which will make the region stronger and more secure, because we must not forget that for the first time in the last years, in the region we have to face also third actors that were not there five years ago. Namely, ISIL and radical Islam on the one side, and Russia on the side. Third actors, very interested and, let me say, very strategic in both cases.


- You are seeing the US President and Vice President tomorrow. What are your expectations for this partnership? It is one thing to announce a strategic relationship, and then you have to feel it with meaning. What do you want out of the partnership? What is going to be most important in your meetings tomorrow?

Prime Minister Rama: First, it is very important that we have now a common agreed document of strategic partnership on which we work together. At the same time, although I am tall, as you precisely mentioned earlier, I am always aware of the size of the country that I represent, I do not pretend to change or impose anything. But simply, what I think we rightly pretend is a permanent commitment of the US to Albania and the region, because as I said it is a big success story that should not be spoiled. It is a big achievement on which we should build upon. And I am very, very convinced that the fact that the US is a key factor in this historic transformation of the Balkans, it is a really big thing for us. On the other hand, I think that we can do more. We had a fantastic meeting yesterday with the General Administrator of USAID. We can we do more precisely on the challenges of countering violent extremism, but not only violent, but extremism itself, by engaging more in successful models of modernization to fight corruption, and to make the country and our countries a better place. So, there is a lot to get out of this relationship, and first and foremost in terms of knowledge. And last but not least, we are very interested in developing a relationship with the FBI, to strengthen our security forces in terms of capacities, of investigation, and to be better prepared to go after organized crime , corruption and any illegal activity that have harmed Albania's aspirations during these more than two decades.


- You are listing some of the concrete things, FBI, a close cooperation in the field of security, USAID, the fight not only against violent extremism, but extremism in general. Are there other issues that you would define a priority in bilateral relations?

Prime Minister Rama: We have also a very important aspect underlining the energetic partnership that has to do with energy security. And by the way, we are very proudly exposing our success story in the energy sector, which has permitted the country to get beyond the permanent crisis in the energy sector, and to start and look for playing an important role in the region. Now, with the interconnection with Kosovo, and next with Macedonia, we will be able to have a more important role, but at the same time, we know that this is also part of this cooperation with the Government of the United States. As it is very important to work together in creating more opportunities for economic development, foreign direct investment, American investment, etc.


- I would like to make a parallelism with that part of the world that we can consider today as "the Balkans of the world". You made a very important statement in terms of the progress that the Balkans are making, the transformation that you spoke about, but in terms of the Middle East crisis, what are the lessons to be learned from your region? What is the lesson American diplomacy has to learn? You have very positively evaluated the US role in your region. This would be very much helpful for many of us to have our thoughts focused on the Middle East.


Prime Minister Rama: I would like to say that the question was not very generous to me, because it’s really a big and tough question. And I have to frankly admit that I am lucky to be the prime minister of a country that is part of a region where there is a stunning success story of US foreign policy. So, maybe one cannot say the same for your region, and it’s not up to me to say how you can learn from this big US foreign policy success story. As for me, I think it’s up to the people in Washington to never forget how fantastic this story is, and with what a sense of strategy it started and it was completed, from one administration to the other, and so on.

I think that the Western Balkans are the best platform to show the world that, yes, it is possible to have democracy, human rights, the rule of law, to have regional cooperation in an area where there are Muslims, there are Christians, there are complicated people, there are people that hate because they love, love because they hate and so on. At the same time, it is a success story that should not be spoiled. We should not take it for granted, because it all started when the communist regime fell and later, when a big US President took the initiative to really start it. However, it began at a time when our children were too young to remember. So the risk that they take it for granted, the risk that what have looks like something that everybody has, and the vulnerability is there. Because, as I said, we are not better than our ancestors, we are the same people, the same Albanians, the same Serbs, the same Balkan people, but we are lucky to live in a completely different situation, and all together we want to integrate into Europe.

Today it is easier for the leadership of each country to tell to their people that probably our neighbours are not the best that someone could have, but we need to talk to them and work with them, because we have a common goal, and we cannot be a European country, we cannot be a fully integrated country if we do not make peace. Now we have peace, but we need a peace worth living, as another big US president said. To make this a peace worth living it is very important, firstly, to prevent "trumpsim" from expanding in the Balkans, with the purpose of getting rid of the Muslims, getting rid of immigrants, getting rid of neighbours and whoever, and at the same time, to build upon and make sure that the Western Balkans will be part as soon as possible of the European Union project.


(US Ambassador to Albania, Donald Lu) - Americans love basketball, Mr. Prime Minister. Is there something about having been a Basketball player that helps you be a better politician? For all those who do not know, Prime Minister Rama not only installed a basketball court downstairs in the Prime Minister’s Office, but he has put basketball hoop in his office, so you can find something broken everywhere.

Prime Minister Rama: This is not an issue I have to talk tomorrow to the President, about basketball, basketball courts in the institutions, and about how basketball can help you be better than others.


- You touched upon a little bit on Russia’s influence and sometimes, when it talked about this influence internationally, the Balkans are left aside. I would like to know your opinion about how Russia is trying to influence the region, and what kind of implication does this have. Another question; Albania is very important in the region, but countries in the region, including Albania, have had some lingering issues from the transition in terms of climate policy. How important this is, in your view, in terms of tackling these international issues?

Prime Minister Rama: First, I can simply say that there is a more active approach of Russia in the region. There is a clear attempt to connect and to be influential. I am not saying that goes for all countries the same, but in some countries this is becoming more than obvious. On the other hand, we have to face as countries in the region the challenge that has to do with our past, simply connected with the pace of integration of former communist countries. It’s very interesting, in my view, to see that the pace of integration of former communist countries is determined by their past. Countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, to name a few, that joined Europe sooner, are countries that had an easier time to reconnect with their own past in terms of institutions, academia, religious networks etc. For countries like Romania and Bulgaria, who were the last to be integrated and are treated somehow as the "black sheep" of the integration process, this process was tougher because the reconnection with the past was tougher, because the state, the institutions and the networks that make a country live in an organized community were much weaker. Now, let alone the Western Balkans. So, if for Poland, European integration was somehow going back home, for us going to Europe is going somewhere we have never been, in terms of institutions and in terms of organized networks. And this is also connected with the challenges we face. If we have more obvious challenges such as corruption or unwillingness to obey the law, it has to do with our lack of modernization. Therefore, we must modernize. More modern the countries, lesser space for corruption and more will to implement the law.

In terms of the political climate, we are in Washington and this is not a place where we, or at least I do not feel embarrassed when I think about our political life. I think that if there is nothing to learn in Washington, there is nothing to learn about parties getting together for the good of the country, to be frank. So, this is something we cannot learn in Washington, because neither the Republicans nor the Democrats can tell us how much they love each other and how ready they are to join around important causes. I am not proud of our political life, in terms of how confrontational and personal it gets. But when I need to not feels alone, I just switch to Fox News or CNN, and I feel it a better place.


- I would like to direct a little bit you focus in fighting radicalism internally, and focus a little bit more on the opportunity that Albania has to present a model of coexistence. Can you tell us a little bit more, what Albania is doing in terms of education as an opportunity to help shape the spirits of youth, and fight softly radicalism internally. Because I think that’s very interesting for it to be seen as a model for other nations.

Prime Minister Rama: I thank you for the question, because it helps explain something that can be misunderstood, especially at home, because abroad it is very well understood and very much supported. By the way, we had a very interesting conversation with the General Administrator of USAID, Gayle Smith on how we can work together on this. It's very simple, let me tell you how easy it is. There is a terrorist attack, there are many innocent people butchered in the center of Paris. And then, there are some people saying that they were Muslims, and these same people go on and say this is why we need to close the borders, we must not allow Muslims to become citizens, and so on. Suddenly, polls show that these people have got more support. How can this happen? How come that in a so civilized and shining place as Paris, these people get more support? To say it all, because it is impossible to keep it, how can Donald Trump be someone who can possibly be the nominee of the party that nominated Ronald Reagan? And then we realize that there is a big gap of knowledge, and there is a large space where ignorance, lack of knowledge about simple basic notions on beliefs and on the faith of others, has created a fertile ground for this kind of policy and this kind radicalization. This creates a chain effect, because radicalization from within entitles those who are on the side of the enemies, because afterwards there are more Muslims who feel offended, frustrated, alienated, that although they have never thought to say or to do something against the country where they live, in that moment they start to think about it. So, it's like a chain effect created by ignorance, lack of knowledge. It is simply impossible to fight it with the very generic charming purposes of democratic principles, respect for each other, etc., which sounds like "bla bla bla". It's much more effective to give people the tools to not be fooled when they hear about Muslims, about Christians, the prophets, the holy books. They should have some instruments to say, "Wait a minute, this is not so easy. You don’t get me by telling me that since there are some terrorists came from Muslim countries, I have to hate all Muslims as such."

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