An Interview with Alexander Arvizu, U.S. Ambassador to Albania

Alexander Arvizu became the U.S. Ambassador to Albania in 2010. Prior to assuming this role, Arvizu served overseas in Cambodia, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. He also served in Washington, D.C. as the Director of Entry-Level Assignments in the Bureau of Human Resources; the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Japan, Korea, and Regional Security; the Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council; the Deputy Director of the Office of Japanese Affairs; and a staff officer for the Department of State’s Executive Secretariat. Born on a U.S. Army base in Japan to a Mexican father and Japanese mother, Arvizu and his family moved to Colorado Springs during his childhood. He received his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, and he is married with a young daughter.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

That’s actually a very easy question. My father is career military — he’s 94 years old and retired in Colorado Springs right now. My mother, who’s been deceased for about five years now, is from Japan. So I grew up the child of immigrants. I wanted to learn more about the world, and the people, but I also wanted to represent my country, and I wanted to get paid while doing it. Win-win-win.  

The Politic: You already mentioned that you’re multicultural. I know you were born on a U.S. Army base in Japan, and moreover, you’ve served abroad in many Asian countries, like Cambodia, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand. How is working in Albania different from working in those areas?

In Asia, there is tremendous diversity. When I think of Asia, that’s frankly where I spent 90 percent of my career, whether it was overseas or in Washington, the one word that comes to mind is the dynamism of the region. You’ve got great disparities from Japan to Cambodia, to give you two examples of places where I have served. Even in a country like South Korea — I served there twice and I left in 1988 — and believe me, it was a very different country when I left in 1988 compared to now. With Asia, what always strikes me is the dynamism and the great opportunities but also the great challenges.

Here in Europe, in general, you’re talking about a smaller landmass. You’re talking about more common traditions, even though there are some disparities or obvious differences among regions. But one noticeable difference from that, of course, is the Balkans, and that’s where Albania finds itself. Albania is a fascinating country because it was the only country in the western Balkans that was not part of the former Yugoslavia.

[Regarding] the Helsinki conference and the whole Helsinki Accords process, did you know, in 1975, with the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, all of the NATO and the so-called pro-West gap were signatories — the Warsaw countries, Yugoslavia, Switzerland — everyone. The sole exception was Albania, because the country was so isolated… I think Andorra for whatever [historical reason] was absent. But Albania was the only real country that declined to participate in the signing of the Helsinki Final Act. And I think that underscored the degree to which its leadership at the time chose to wall off the country from the rest of the world and its neighbors. And as a consequence of that, Albania suffered probably more than just about any country in the world in the period from 1945 until 1991. North Korea comes to mind as perhaps the only country that was more isolated, and then of course in Cambodia, you had the unspeakable genocidal period of the Khmer Rouge. But in terms of a prolonged period of isolation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a country that suffered more than Albania.

The Politic: Even though Albania has been so isolated in the past, it’s becoming more integrated nowadays, most recently with the military cooperation agreement that it signed with Kosovo. Do you believe that the claim is true that this deal is really the first step in a process toward forming a ‘Greater Albania,’ as some experts have claimed? Or do you think there are other motivations behind it, and if so, what are they?

I think there are actually two questions that you made that were very different. First of all, on the question of Kosovo, the best friends and champions for Kosovar independence and democracy in any international fora are simply two: the United States and Albania. The United States, of course, has a very proud history with Kosovo, as it does with Albania. Because of natural and historical ties — you know, the population of Kosovo is estimated to be about 90 percent ethnic Albanian — it’s natural that Albania, which is already in NATO, would be kind of a mentor for Kosovo. Just as we certainly hope Albania will acquire EU candidacy status at some point, it’s natural to look to Albania as a natural mentor for Kosovo. So that is a very positive thing, and United States and Albania work hand in glove to try to advance the prospects and the cause of Kosovo in international fora as well as regionally.

On the military side, I think it’s important not to get ahead of oneself. Albania is in NATO; Kosovo is not. We certainly hope that things progress in Kosovo and there will come a time when it will be part of the Alliance. In the meantime, there are certain things that Albania, the United States, and other NATO members can do to help increase the professionalism not just of the Kosovar Armed Forces but of the other institutional structures in Kosovo — whether it be the judiciary, the police, taxation, you name it. I think it’s natural that there would be a partnership formed and synergies looked at. But I don’t think that the factor of this understanding — you mention it in NATO context — I don’t think that this necessarily foreshadows a movement toward Greater Albania. I think that’s a separate issue altogether.

The Politic: [Via a follow-up email] How do you think the new cooperation agreement between the armed forces of Albania and Kosovo will affect Albania’s relations with its neighboring countries?

The Status of Forces Agreement between Albania and Kosovo should not affect Albania’s relations with its neighboring countries. The agreement is in large part based on similar agreements that the United States already has with the two countries, which regulate the entry and exit procedures of military equipment and personnel, as well as the temporary deployment and status of civilian personnel. The fact that Albania was the first country in the region to form such an agreement with Kosovo should be no surprise, given the close cultural ties between the two countries.

The Politic: You mentioned Albania’s move to get EU candidacy status. The Commission had recently stated that Albania deserves it, and the EU should move to make it an official candidate. How would you personally assess its progress toward achieving the twelve criteria for candidacy and membership? Do you think it will be at least given candidacy status soon, if not made a full-fledged member?

First of all, the U.S. policy is for all of the countries of the western Balkans to integrate further and deeper into so-called Euro-Atlantic structures — the European Union, NATO, what have you. The frustrating thing about Albania is that Albania, together with Croatia, are the newest members of NATO. They both joined in 2009, going through a fairly complex membership action plan. Albania also enjoys visa-free travel status within the Schengen area of Europe. So the country has shown it is capable of meeting rather stringent criteria for membership in NATO and the Schengen area. The accession process is very complex, and Croatia had to go through some very serious obstacles, and they achieved it. On July 1 of this year, Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union. Albania, meanwhile, has not yet achieved candidate status, and there are many and complex reasons for that.

The EU Enlargement Commission has established these 12 criteria, which you mentioned. Rather than go through the 12 criteria, I think the biggest obstacle has been the inability of the political leadership in Albania to overcome their internal differences and work together in a common way, to register progress in the fight against corruption, organized crime, good governance, etc. That has been the single biggest hang-up; there really is no other reason.

June 23 marked the historic election. There are still some loose ends to be tied. The final calculation is not yet complete, but it is very clear that the former opposition won a resounding majority. They went from about, depending on how you count, roughly 71 to 69 in favor of the previous government to 84 to 56 in favor of the Socialist party-led coalition. That is a resounding victory and a very strong mandate. Now, this new government doesn’t take office until early September. A challenge for them is — and they based their campaign on a pro-European agenda — the challenge is that the EU Enlargement Commission — as I understand it — needs to make a recommendation by mid to late October about whether Albania should be considered for candidacy status. And that decision is made by all of the EU governments, working in concert but represented by the Foreign Ministers in September. That is a very short window, from early September to mid October. It’s basically six weeks for Albania to show it is making progress at addressing these twelve criteria.

You’d have to ask some of the EU Member States what their take is, but the sense that we get is that if the new government is off to a good start and they appoint good people and [make] sound policies that address these areas of political cooperation, fighting corruption, sound economic growth policies, judicial reform — it’s a long laundry list. But if it looks like they’re serious about addressing these areas, then hopefully the E.U. Enlargement Commission will take a favorable look at this record and make a recommendation accordingly to the Member States.

The Politic: Is there one experience, event, or person that has influenced one or more of your policies in your host country, and how so?

Well, I arrived in December 2010, and I was here for about five or six weeks when there was a very serious disturbance that broke out as a consequence of an opposition rally. I won’t give you chapter and verse of how it came into being — like all things, there are complicated reasons and miscalculations and bad mistakes made by all sides. But at the end of the day, four unarmed civilian protesters were shot dead by security forces. Several other protesters were injured — some by gunfire, some by rocks. Some police forces who were just trying to do their job and maintain order did a pretty good job initially. They weren’t the ones who did the shooting, by the way; it was a more elite unit that was inside of the perimeter of the Prime Minister’s office that actually fired the shots that killed the protesters. Some of the police forces who were trying to maintain order were beaten up pretty badly, too. So at the end of January 21, in the evening, in downtown Tirana, the main boulevard was just littered with rubble. People were dead. There were a lot of people terrified.

I was new to the country, and unfortunately, if you’ve spent as much time in the diplomatic service as I have, you’ve seen coups and tsunamis and human carnage. So I felt terrible, but I just thought, “Well, unfortunately this track record of mine has continued. Wherever you go, you’re going to see some very difficult things.”

It was very clear that there was a political chasm between the two sides. They were just dug in very hard, and dialogue was difficult. Washington and Brussels and others were beseeching the leadership of Albania to try to bridge the gulf. In the meantime, a lot of Albanians were very frightened. Several Albanians told me at the time that the last time they had seen this kind of turmoil was in 1997, at the height of the pyramid scandal, when unfortunately the country descended into chaos for a period of time and it took several years for Albania to recover.

So in consultation with Washington, I said, “This is clearly not an acceptable series of events for a country that aspires to EU status.” Although we needed to continue to engage the political leadership and encourage them to bridge their differences as much as possible and find common ground, I decided that we needed to focus a little more on the people. To give you a long history lesson, even though Albania had come a long way from 1991 to 2011, twenty years, there was still quite a bit of lack of confidence on the part of the people in their ability to hold their elected leaders responsible and their ability to affect change.

So we engaged in a campaign here in the Embassy – in tandem with other partners, but it was really an Embassy-led campaign — to try to promote greater civic activism and encourage citizens to take responsibility for the future. And not anti-government movement or protest movement, in any sense of the word; just greater civic activism so that the citizens would hold their elected leadership accountable. There were a lot of skeptics. Even within the Embassy, people said, “This is not going to work; these are Albanians. During the Communist era, people were intimidated easily. They tend to vote for parties or even individuals and ignore platforms.”

But some of us refused to believe that change was impossible, and look at what happened. Even though there was a decisive outcome — I’m not saying it’s good that the former government fell, or it’s good that the former opposition won, because that’s really beside the point and something for the Albanians to decide. But clearly this was an historic and landmark election because the Albanian people decided that they would take ownership of their future. There seems to be a newfound confidence on their part, and I think this was a message that was resoundingly clear, and it’s heard by most sides of the political spectrum.

The Politic: You mentioned how difficult it is to patch up these relations between the government and the people and really get the people to engage. I imagine that’s still a problem, since Transparency International basically said that the people of Albania perceive more corruption in their government than people anywhere else in Europe. You also touched on the fact that Prime Minister [Edi] Rama is going to be moving in the fall. How do you think his administration is going to be dealing with corruption? Are you optimistic?

Undoubtedly optimistic. I have had a lot of conversations with Mr. Rama. He visited Great Britain recently and he met with former Prime Minster Tony Blair. He visited Italy, Greece. He’s part of the Socialist international network; he’s got a lot of contacts around Europe. It seems to me that he’s been trying to consult broadly and widely and take best practices. By the same token, he’s realistic, and I think we all have to be realistic.

Corruption and the culture of impunity — which we refer to often — is something that’s ingrained here. It is not something that’s going to disappear overnight or even with one administration or two. It is going to take years to be successful in combatting it. But there are important steps that can be taken, and these steps are demanded certainly by the European Commission in order for Albania to gain candidacy status.

More and more, Albanian people are starting to say that enough is enough. Albania’s still a poor country. In terms of per capita GDP, I think it ranks second or third from the bottom among most European countries. The unemployment and underemployment are seriously underreported here. The country, to its credit, because I think it has a fairly good macroeconomic policy, has been able to withstand some of the shocks that have affected some of its wealthier neighbors. But all you need to do is walk around the streets of Tirana or more significantly the countryside, and I think you’ll find that people are suffering. A lot of people are out of work; the cost of living is putting the cost of ordinary household items out of reach of some families even with jobs.

Until there is some real growth in the economy, and improvements in the educational system so that the degrees of the very intelligent young people in Albania are [from] universities that are geared more towards the job market, so there’s an improvement in health services, you’re going to continue to see corruption. There really has to be growth in the market economy in order for other judicial reform efforts to really take hold. The United States and some other donor countries are working and have been working for a number of years to try to improve the judicial sector, and I think we’ve had some successes. But without corresponding economic growth, Albania’s path to progress is going to be difficult.

The Politic: Has the corruption ever presented any obstacles to your work or to your Embassy’s work? Is there any incidence that comes to mind, or has it not really been an issue for you?

It has been an issue for us. I’ll be honest. Albania is a long ways away from the United States, and the bulk of the foreign investors here are from the region, and more specifically from immediate neighborhood. Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Austria probably constitute a good 70 percent if not more of direct foreign investment here. We have a pretty robust Chamber of Commerce, but by and large, there is not a lot of large-scale U.S. foreign investment here. We’re trying to promote more of it, but frankly, until the rule of law is more firmly established here, Albania’s not going to be a place that American investors are going to flock towards. Which is a shame, because there is a lot of potential here.

Albania has an educated workforce, one that’s very diligent and pro-American, and a pretty stable political situation overall. It’s a country that very much wants to be a part of Europe. If you ever visit Europe or Albania, what has struck me is that with the educated young people, many of them are essentially fluent in three languages: Albanian, English, and Italian. And many of them have studied French or German, and they’re pretty good at that, too. There’s a lot of untapped talent here.  The key is economic growth, coupled with judicial reform and fighting corruption and the culture of impunity.

The Politic: How do you feel America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would like to change?

That’s a good way to conclude. Being here in Albania is a little bit of a surreal experience, because it has been described as the most pro-American country in the world. I have to say, I’ve traveled to a lot of different places, and I certainly have not been any place where people seem to be more pro-U.S. than here in Albania. I think about my colleagues who are serving in difficult circumstances, and some who have even paid with their lives, and I’ve got it pretty good here, and so do my colleagues here at the Embassy.

I would like to see the State Department continue to do what it can to promote the practice of diplomacy. I think that in the last 10 to 12 years we’ve made some great strides. I felt Secretary of State Clinton did a great job, Condoleezza Rice before her, and Colin Powell before Secretary Rice. And I think that tradition has continued with Secretary Kerry. There’s been more of an emphasis on good leadership and good management skills, which I think have been neglected by previous leadership at the State Department. That’s primarily an internal thing.

I think we’ve been more aggressive promoting American diplomacy. Understandably, many of our efforts have been directed at hotpots in the world, and places where American values are questioned and not appreciated as much as they should be. I believe we’re continuing to get good people in the Foreign Service. The selection process for Chiefs of Mission ands Ambassadors, whether they’re political appointees or career Officers, is pretty rigorous. The Department of State is making a much more aggressive effort to diversify the look of the Foreign Service so that it represents America more broadly.

But we are a bureaucracy. I look at the United States military — it may seem like we’re comparing apples and oranges here — but the U.S. military has certain advantages, of course. It’s got more of a built-in constituency. I’d like to see us copy some of their practices more: do more outreach to the U.S. Congress, do more outreach to the American public at large, and try to dispel some of the myths. There are a lot of Americans who believe that 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign assistance, and of course that is completely untrue; it’s a miniscule portion of that. People who would have no problem with budget increases in defense expenditure would balk at very tiny increases or even holding the line in foreign assistance. They really go hand-in-hand — diplomacy and a strong military are really different aspects of American power.

I think we’re on the right track, but I would just encourage you and other young people to try to help us in the Foreign Service and in the State Department be more effective in our outreach efforts, in our attempts to try to explain what it is we do, and to try to convince the American people, convince the mainstream, that what we do is really in the American national interest.

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