Hand: Scandalous of how Albanian politicians escape from punishment

Hand: Scandalous of how Albanian politicians escape from punishment

 An early connoisseur of developments in Albania emphasizes that the opening of negotiations with the EU will enable the European Union to seek more persistently to carry out reforms in the country. Robert Hand, political advisor to the Helsinki Commission, in an interview to Voice of America, said that if he were an Albanian citizen, it would be scandalized how the country's top officials are being rescued from the arrest. In an interview with Keida Kostreci, Mr. Hand also said that Albania's political leaders lobby in the US for their own interests and not for the good of the country and that all countries in the region should take seriously the risk of foreign influences such as those of Russia and Turkey.

Voice of America: The European Commission recommended the opening of negotiations for Albania's membership. The recommendation triggered a debate over whether Albania is ready or not for the road to membership. How do you think, it's ready?

Robert Hand: I think there is a degree of arbitrariness and subjectivity on the part of Brussels regarding the decision on when negotiations begin, so apart from the fact whether Albania is ready or not, Brussels may have wanted to send a signal to the Balkans that the enlargement is now back on the table and that Brussels wants to work with the countries of the region and give them a European direction. So I think this is more the reason why they are doing it now, not because Albania has achieved the same level of progress as other countries had when the negotiations opened. However, it is clear I think there is no consensus on this decision in Europe. I know from the visit of Prime Minister Edi Rama to Germany that there was no promise to support the European Commission's recommendation, there was some hesitation, questioning whether Albania is ready or not. In my opinion, the European Commission's recommendation is something positive and I hope to start negotiations for different chapters, but I hope that by doing so, the European Union will increase its impact on Albania to persistently seek the reforms implementation. It seemed as if the EU was losing influence and I think it could increase the influence on Tirana to push for the reform agenda and I hope to keep Tirana responsible for all the conditions that need to be met to close the chapters. This will be the foremost.

Voice of America: So you see this process with two parallels: on the one hand the giving a chance from the Brussels perhaps for its pragmatic reasons, some of which may have to do with the Balkans and some with the new reality in Europe and in turn the exert of pressure?

Robert Hand: That's exactly what I mean. And from the time the European Commission made this recommendation by June when member states have to decide instead of trying to sell this to their country in Albania by saying "we will open the negotiations" and cause disappointment if this is not realized, I think both the government and the opposition should strive to work together to take steps that will make it possible for the member states to meet when the Council agrees to open the negotiations. I am a little worried when I hear Prime Minister Rama say that if the (EU) does not do it now, there will be Islamic radicalism or Russian influence. These are not arguments for negotiating. He must be concerned about these problems by himself and work with the opposition, and I hope that the opposition will work with the position. And Rama must say "these are threats to Albania, let's work to make sure that when the June comes, the European Council says yes, let's open the negotiations." So I would like to see this kind of pressure exerted on the political leaders of Albania at this moment in order to push forward a stronger reform program.

Voice of America: There seems to be a discrepancy between the Commission's assessment that the "positive trend of recent years continues" in the fight against corruption and the two recent reports by the State Department for Human Rights stating that "corruption was spread across all branches of government" and that of the Freedom House. How would you analyze these reports?

Robert Hand: First of all, the reasons I mentioned why in my opinion this was taken by the Commission, are not necessarily the reasons they may formally say, so it may have been to some extent a chance for Albania to prove itself . But I also think there is a tendency on the part of the Europeans that simply adopting laws or agreements on the strategy to fight corruption should be seen as a breakthrough. In the American view - and this I think is visible in the Human Rights report - the way we treat things is not the same: It is not enough to adopt a law, there must be concrete implementation, concrete steps. For example, it is a positive thing that recently there was a vetting for judges, but that does not mean that over the night the corruption in the Albanian justice system is disappeared and I think that the State Department report reflects this. Even if there were approvals, concrete implementation, field change, has not been realized and therefore it seems that this report is much more critical. I see this contrast. The way in which Europeans consider human rights, corruption issues, state law has always been somewhat different from that of the United States. It is the difference between adopting measures and concrete implementation. Then we have the Freedom House report that looks at things from another perspective. First and foremost is a non-governmental organization and non-governmental organizations as well as civil society always look for more, encourage more and in particular Freedom House, compares Albania with other countries, and analyzes for a longer period of time and when you do so, you do not see what happened from 2016 in 2017 or 2017 to 2018, but also where is this place compared to our expectations of where it should be and from this point of view Albania is far behind and in this respect I agree with Freedom House. I can admit that perhaps there has been little progress here and there, but a quarter of a century after the collapse of the one-party communist state, Albania should be far ahead of what it is now. It is really ridiculous that it has not been able to make more progress with regard to the fight against corruption. So I would agree with Freedom House that I think has the most critical rating.

I would also like to say, reading the European Commission's report, that there is always some progress in saying that at least in English is the same as minimal progress, does not mean significant progress or great progress. So although the European Commission report is a bit more positive, it is far from being a strong support for what is being done in Albania to fight corruption. I hope that Brussels understands this - and surely understands it because it is its own report - and tell Tirana that should be much more serious in these efforts to fight corruption.

Voice of America: What catches the eyes in this report is that the situation in Albania dominates the culture of impunity and the fact that the vetting has begun but people at high levels of politics continue to be untouchable and you have set up this concern even earlier ...

Robert Hand: It is not something that happens only in Albania, we see it in other countries since is exercised the pressured to fight corruption, they do it with lighter subjects, people at lower levels and not organizers and undoubtedly from what I see there is a lack of punishment for those who are in high levels, that they do not take responsibility and hope that it will change. This is partly my reason for the most critical assessment and if I was an Albanian citizen I would be scandalized of how the political leaders have been saved and continue to escape the punishment for what they have done.

Voice of America: How would you respond to those who say, "If we were so bad, how we won the elections with such a majority?"

Robert Hand: It's a matter of alternatives. Considering how rampant corruption is and is not just in the Socialist Party, you see it in all political parties, people have no realistic alternative to what is essentially a corrupt political elite. It would be nice to see new faces in Albanian politics to present these alternatives, but by the way things are structured, it would be difficult for young people to move forward. I know that in some political parties there have been attempts to divert attention from the current leadership, but so far, it seems that everyone is stuck in stationary positions and this is really a problem.

Voice of America: Are you talking about the changes that gave power to party leaders?

Robert Hand: Yes, the political parties themselves are not very democratic and I know that some of the ordinary members of the party structures are disappointed by this situation but their ability to change is quite limited.

Voice of America: How would you rate government work since when won the election last year?

Robert Hand: It's a bit hard to give grades for these things, but I think the European Commission report, State Department report and Freedom House, as well as others, speak for themselves. I think the government understands that it should take steps but I do not think the pressure is enough to take these steps and hope to do more because I would not be happy if I was an Albanian citizen. Of course some of the pressure may come from outside but it would be nice to see more pressure internally: pressure for change from the younger generation, civil society, etc.

Voice of America: As we talk about the pressure from the outside, you have always supported the efforts of US Ambassador Donald Lu. Do you think have helped?

Robert Hand: Yes, too. I think he has done a great job there and I hope that as long as he continues to be there, will continue to do so.

Voice of America: One of the most serious problems in Albanian politics is the lack of transparency and the lack of legal framework on financial resources for parties, and all major parties in Albania have spent money on lobbying in the United States. How justifiable is the spending of such sums that it is most likely for photographs of political figures in the United States and gaining points with public opinion in a country like Albania with high poverty and other problems? And one argument may be that lobbying is legitimate, but the context matters ...

Robert Hand: Yes, there is a legal context but this is a very political question. Lobbying is the norm here in Washington and has specific rules, such as registering as a foreign agent, reporting customer names, and how much you've been payed by them. As long as everything is done in accordance with American law, you like it or not, so many things are done in Washington and theoretically some of these public relations firms can provide access to places to some individuals that they could not have otherwise. This is in theory. In reality, when such parties and not the governments representing the country do so, their motivation is not necessarily to do what is good for the country, but what makes them a political party look good and that for me it is problematic because I think that in generally this does not reflect positively in Albania when each political party has its own lobbying groups here in Washington, competing with each other for contacts with this or that person and I particularly dislike because each of them will strive for contacts with Congressional members, for example, that do not necessarily know the details of the political situation in Albania and may present them a good argument and the official will say something that will have a weight and can say so to distort what may seem like a United States response or response to a certain situation in Albania. Then there is the issue you have been handling, the lack of transparency and even where this money comes from. They are big sums and they make me wonder from where they come from time to time. So I see it as a major political concern. Even if everything is lawfully done here in the United States, Albania has to consider whether this is the best way to act. I have worked with the Albanian Embassy here in Washington and have had very good and capable diplomats and ambassadors working to represent the country as a whole, but seeing how much deficiencies they have when they are representing the country here in Washington, I would prefer to add funds to improve the Embassy's ability to secure contacts and make it available to any visitor from Albania regardless of the political force to come and use the resources of the embassy, such as provide meetings and the like. In my opinion this would be the best route, but it is up to Albanians to judge whether they are satisfied with the situation or want another way that would represent the whole country.

Voice of America: But when there is uncertainty as to where the money comes from and how they are reported and used, it is no longer a matter of words unless the public approves it, the rest is that the public fails to understand ...

Robert Hand: Yes, it is the lack of transparency and this is one of the things that must change in Albania, to make public where this money comes from.

Voice of America: Past and present governments or ruling parties have been lobbying in the United States. The United States is a friendly country. Do you think it is necessary to spend all this money when, for example, in general a government, a prime minister or ruling party will have access to officials in America?

Robert Hand: I think answering your question is at the root of all this and comes mainly from political parties. Albania is very pro-American. I think that for the most part the United States knows this and have greatly supported Albania and those who know Albania even more. There may be some people here in the United States who may not know so much about this good relationship. But I think this kind of lobbying is no more objective than we think of the country as a whole. Is the big competition within Albania the reason for a part of this lobbying than the efforts of lobbying on behalf of Albania itself. I think that's the problem here. No, Albania does not need to make much effort to sell itself here in Washington. It's a friend country, ally and we have a good relationship in this regard. But lobbying has been focused more and more on this game, if we favor socialists or democrats or other political forces.

Voice of America: Concerns have also been raised about a possible trend towards authoritarianism, given Prime Minister Rama's control over the party and the vast majority in parliament, but rather thanks to his actions to use this majority for not very convincing reasons . These concerns can not be seen out of the context of the growth of the lack of liberalism in some European countries and elsewhere, as someone who has worked for decades to establish and consolidate democracy in Albania, are you worried?

Robert Hand: Yes, I'm worried and I think maybe because I've been following for such a long time, I do not see it necessarily so closely related to the lack of liberalism across the region. I see it as something that is a constant concern in Albania itself. First of all, I would say that since 1997 we have seen in Albania: Socialists, Democrats, Socialists, Democrats by exchanging power, where each party provides two mandates, or eight years and especially during the second term, you can see as all the problems start to intensify: Ruling parties push their agenda agoniously, corruption grows, so I'm not surprised that we can see the same things now in the second term of the Socialists. This does not mean that they will necessarily lose the upcoming elections, but I have seen this trend even earlier. We have also seen it with the Democratic Party, and this reflects a problem that is more structural in Albania, in the sense that there is no respect for the opposition, to try to secure the co-operation of the opposition and to say open ...
Hand: Scandalous of how Albanian politicians escape from punishment Hand: Scandalous of how Albanian politicians escape from punishment Sunday, May 06, 2018 Rating: 5
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