Voice of America: First of all, I want to thank you for this opportunity. Mrs Donfried, in the press release announcing your tour of the region, it was explained that in Albania, among other places, you would emphasize the need to fully implement justice reform and to fight corruption . What specifically did you ask of the Albanian side?
Assistant Secretary Donfried: Well, first of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you. It’s wonderful to be here in Tirana on a beautiful sunny day and it happens to be the year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of US-Albanian relations. So it’s a particular pleasure to be here now. We have worked closely with Albania for decades and I am delighted to see how Albania is progressing towards ever deeper Euro-Atlantic integration. We celebrate Albania’s accession to NATO and strongly support Albania’s move towards European Union membership. As part of this process, Albania has undertaken a series of democratic reforms. Some of them, as you know, have targeted corruption and focused on judicial reform. In my conversations here, I have both applauded the progress Albania has made, but also said, keep going, there is more to do and the United States stands with Albania in supporting greater progress on these reforms.
Voice of America: Ms. Donfried, recently the State Department released the report on Human Rights in the World. According to the report, the main problems are the independence of the judiciary, impunity and widespread corruption in all branches of government. According to the report, Albania has made no progress in recent years, as the same problems keep recurring. What do you do with it? What does this tell you about the state of Albanian democracy? Freedom House called the Albanian system a hybrid in transition just a week ago.
Assistant Secretary Donfried: So I think what’s important about these reports is that they capture in some cases the progress that has been made, but also highlight what remains to be done. And in the case of these reforms in Albania, I would say that you are now starting to see the impact of the legislation that was passed here in Albania, which is now being implemented. And so yes, as I said when answering the last question, I still think that Albania still needs to do more, and we fully support that. But I think now you are starting to see the big impact of the legislation that Albania has in place.
Voice of America: Last year, Secretary Blinken singled out former Prime Minister Berisha for corruption. But nominations and pressure from Washington to keep Berisha out of the caucus have strengthened his position in the Party and today he seems to almost control the Democratic Party and is in competition for the presidency. Are you concerned? What impact would this have on US-Albanian relations?
Assistant Secretary Donfried: Secretary Blinken nominated Mr. Berisha because of corrupt acts in which he participated, and for me, as a US government official, I cannot meet with the nominated persons. I think the American position on this is very clear. I met today with the leaders of the opposition, and I will share with you that I was really struck by the extent to which our conversation focused not on the past but on the future and on what the DP seeks to achieve and looks forward to advancing Albania’s goals.
Voice of America: You said you met today with two MPs from the Democratic Party, Enkelejd Alibeaj and Jorida Tabaku and Mr. Bardhi. In what capacity did you meet them, because Berisha does not recognize them as leaders of the Democratic Party?
Assistant Secretary Donfried: I met them as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and theirs as leaders of the Democratic Party. And very often, when I travel, I meet both members of the government and members of the opposition. And I always find it very inspiring, empowering and helpful to hear views from different viewpoints in government.
Voice of America: Recently, we have seen a lot of criticism and retaliation against the US Ambassador, especially from a large part of the opposition, accusing him of interfering in Albanian politics. What’s your reaction ?
Assistant Secretary Donfried: I can assure you that United States President Joe Biden, United States Secretary Tony Blinken and I have full confidence in Ambassador Yuri Kim. And I’m thrilled that we have people of his caliber and integrity in the US government. And I think this country, Albania, could not be luckier than to see her represent my country and work every day to strengthen what is already an important relationship between the United States and Albania.
Voice of America: Besides Berisha, Washington recently sanctioned a former lawmaker, Aqif Rakipi, with obvious ties to the ruling majority party. What are your expectations vis-à-vis the Albanian authorities?
Assistant Secretary Donfried: I think I was clear about the role designations play, why they are important. As for how it’s done in Albania, I would say that I believe Albanian citizens, like people around the world, want to support candidates with integrity.
Voice of America: The democratic world is challenged today by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What do you think are the consequences for the Balkans, given the Russian influence in some countries in our region?
Assistant Secretary Donfried: First, let me say how heartbreaking it is to see Ukrainians being killed every day. On February 24, Russia embarked on a full-scale, unprovoked and unwarranted invasion of Ukraine. And what we have seen in the past two months is the brutality of this invasion. Whether it’s the relentless bombardment of Mariupol, whether it’s the crimes we saw committed in Bucha, there are so many horrific examples I could cite. So every day is a tragic day for Ukraine. And the United States has taken a very strong position in this conflict and our position is stronger because allies like Albania are standing with us. And if I think of the three components of our strategy, Albania is essential for each of them, that it helps Ukraine, that it imposes costs on Russia, that it rises within the NATO and ensures that our eastern and southeastern flank is defended appropriately, whether in the UN Security Council, where Albania is a co-sponsor with us on Ukraine. I could go on, but this is not only a struggle for Ukraine, it is very important for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. It is also about the landscape of European security. And these are fundamentally the principles that we believe in, that each state has the right to make its own sovereign decisions regarding its formal security policy, many of the underlined principles of European security that Russia has in fact accepted at the OSCE and in other forums. So, I can’t overstate the consequence of this moment. And again, President Biden, Secretary Blinken deeply believe that we are stronger to face this moment thanks to allies like Albania.
Voice of America: Are you concerned about Serbia’s stance not joining EU sanctions against Russia?
Assistant Secretary Donfried: Let me start by saying that Serbia was on the right side of history. In early March during the first vote at the United Nations General Assembly, when 141 countries, including Serbia, voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and demanded that Russia withdraw. Five UN countries voted against this resolution. There was a second UNGA resolution, a humanitarian resolution, Serbia also voted with Albania and with the United States. And then we have the vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, and once again Serbia is with us. I think it is important to recognize that, to recognize that these were difficult decisions and to appreciate the decisions made by Serbia. With regard to sanctions, as I mentioned, the United States believes it is important to impose sanctions on Vladimir Putin, for the actions he is taking, actions that are unwarranted, unprovoked and brutal. And in this, we call on Serbia to align itself, in this case with the EU and the sanctions it has imposed. And I would say here that what the US and the EU are doing on the sanctions front, the coordination that there is there, is in many ways a culmination of our work together. And I want to point out here too that the response package includes sanctions and export controls, and I think those export controls are also important. And I want to emphasize that this coalition that opposes Russia’s brutal actions includes not only our European allies and partners, but also our allies and partners in Asia. And I think the fact that so much of the world is against it is powerful.
Voice of America: Another question. Do you think Serbia’s arms purchases from Russia and more recently China pose a risk to security and stability in the Balkans?
Assistant Secretary Donfried: I will say that there was a difference of opinion between some Europeans and the United States about Russia’s plans as February 24 approached. And I think because some of our European allies and partners didn’t believe that Russia would undertake the assault that it did, in many ways I think February 24 was for a lot of the Europe the equivalent of September 11 for the United States. And it showed us all a side of Russia that we hoped weren’t there. And when a country makes decisions about buying arms, of course when it thinks holistically about the relationship with that country, and it’s very hard to imagine a country having an unchanged relationship with the Russia after February 24. And I would say to refer to the decisions that Serbia took at the UN. China, I believe, made the strategic decision to ally with Russia. And again, I think any decisions a country makes about arms purchases are informed by that holistic view of what that relationship is with Russia or with China in the future. And I think I would leave a comment there.
Voice of America: Mrs. Donfired, thank you very much!
Assistant Secretary Donfried: Much my pleasure. And very nice to meet you. And thank you for your great work at Voice of America.