RFE/RL: Mr. Prime Minister, organized crime and corruption are problems Albania has been facing for some time. You have promised a fight against these phenomena. How much has been done in this regard?
Sali Berisha: In fact these two have been the key issues of the electoral program of the Democratic Party and its coalition; these two remain the key issues of government’s program. At the same time, I have the pleasure to confirm that after eight or nine months in power, a significant turn has been given to these major problems. So far, the criminal organizations of Lushnja, Durres, and Tirana -- and several other smuggling and criminal groups -- have been destroyed and their bosses handed over to justice. The policy of zero tolerance against organized crime and corruption is and will remain the motto of our government. Therefore, there exists a consistent fight against traffickers of drugs and women. I can say there is a clear change in the fight against organized crime.
This is true also for corruption. New ethical standards have been established in the Albanian administration, which block the use of public funds for private purposes. The operating expenses of the Albanian administration have been cut down [considerably], and it has been relieved of conflicts of interest. Its procedures have been simplified and have become more transparent. There is a determination to adapt transparent procedures in public procurements and to set up an ombudsmen from civil society that will control these procurements.
The results are more than evident. There has been a dramatic fall in the perception of government’s corruption, which has fallen from about 77-80 percent to 22-23 percent. There has been an increase in income from taxes and duties, which testifies that fiscal evasion and smuggling have received a significant blow. The rise is about 20 percent. But above all there is a free climate for business, which doesn't suffer anymore the constraint of unjust fines and intermediaries. I think the government has managed to reach some results that should be deepened and consolidated in a consistent way.
RFE/RL: You mentioned that Albania will continue to take part in the [stabilization] operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. What it the general position of Albanian government regarding the war against international terrorism?
Berisha: The position of the Albanian government on the war against international terrorism is clear and decisive: we will be where the United States, the country leading the fight against terrorism, is. The Albanian nation supports the government on this issue and all the political parties, including the opposition, are united in this stance. We believe the war against terrorism -- the main enemy of freedom and peace -- and the collapse of theocratic and other kinds of dictatorships are the main conditions for a lasting stability and peace in Europe and in the world.
RFE/RL: Mr. Prime Minister, recently there have been unfavorable signals from Brussels regarding the possible EU membership of the Balkan states. How would you respond to these skeptical voices, if despite the promises, Brussels doesn't open its doors to the Balkan states?
Berisha: There exists a debate within the EU regarding enlargement, a debate that is more closely linked with the issue of constitutional referendum and its arrangements in two places regarding the budget problems. What I would like to stress is that the worries of European countries about Balkan problems are right and serious, and I can’t deny that these problems don’t exist.
On the other hand, I would like to stress that, the transformations the peninsula has undergone in recent years are spectacular and undeniable. What I think countries need to keep in mind are the ongoing and serious efforts to meet EU standards. I remain of the conviction that the laid-out standards for our countries should be respected, even if they become more strict over time.
On the other hand, there can be no other alternative to EU membership. The Association Stabilization Agreement for Albania, the Accession Agreement for Croatia -- and soon for Macedonia -- are the roadmaps for our countries toward Brussels. There can be no other valid project apart from this one. In the end, we shouldn’t forget that this region is a significant part of the European identity, a cradle of civilization and Western culture. In this context, I fully agree with [Austrian] Canceller Wolfgang Schuessel, who speaks of a return of the Balkan countries to their family.
RFE/RL: Mr. Prime Minister, 16 years after the fall of communism Albania isn’t yet a NATO member. What factors have prevented membership, and what is being done so that Albania’s NATO membership becomes a reality?
Berisha: Your question is correct. There are two points I would like to mention. First, the Albanian opposition was the first opposition in the former communist countries to ask for NATO membership. Second, in these 16 years, Albania has had the most loyal and close cooperation with NATO in all its operations in the region and elsewhere, wherever they have taken place. Nevertheless, Albania isn’t yet a member of the alliance, and I think that a major obstacle in this regard has been the political developments in Albania and, to a certain degree, the speed of military reforms.
What is important today is the determination of the current government to fulfill all the requests of the Membership Action Plan, which in itself is an action plan and is included in the government’s integration and development strategy as a roadmap of Albania’s integration into NATO. We are closely cooperating with the alliance in our full reform of military units and their adaptation of NATO standards. We are increasing the budget share for military reforms to 2 percent, and we are very optimistic that in the nextenlargement summit, which seems to be the Washington summit of 2008, Albania will earn an invitation for full membership in the alliance.
RFE/RL: Mr. Prime Minister, the Kosovo issue is one of the unresolved problems in the Balkans. How does Tirana see the solution of the Kosovo issue and that of the position of minorities in the province?
Berisha: Albania, as it has been its longstanding policy, supports the position of the international community and the European Union for no change in internationally recognized borders and no return to the situation before 1999. And it’s against the idea of Kosovo joining any neighboring countries. Albania has insisted and insists on guarantees for and respect of the freedoms and rights of minorities and notices with pleasure the full commitment of the Kosovar leadership in this regard.
Albania has insisted and continues to insist on a real decentralization platform and its implementation. I am sure that platform presented by the political leadership of Kosova in the Vienna’s talks is a splendid platform that embodies wholly the principles of the European Charter for Local and Regional Autonomy and those of the European Convention for the Rights of Minorities. Albania supports the return of Serbs and other displaced persons to Kosovo and also dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade.
Albania is as convinced that the only solution that will bring peace and stability to the region is respect for the will of the people of Kosovo for self-determination, the independence of Kosovo. In this context, being at a radio station that has done so much for the freedom of nations, I would like to use this opportunity to appeal to all of Kosovo’s citizens who have sacrificed so much during the last century for their freedom to engage and to make an additional contribution to the process of Kosova’s independence. This contribution consists in the overall support of the population for a Kosovo of free and equal citizens in front of the law, for the creation of a friendly environment for all minorities where Serbs, Roma, and other minorities would feel free. This is an extremely important moment, so that those who hesitate or are against independence receive a concrete answer in the form of the responsible stance of Kosovar citizens, who are showing themselves more each day as free citizens.
The behavior of free citizens signifies the respect for the freedoms and rights of others. I have strong faith that there would not be any differentiation between the clear political will of the Kosovar leadership and the stance of Kosovo’s citizens toward freedom and its values, which implies without doubt respect for the basic rights and freedoms of Serbs, Roma, and other members of Kosovar society. This is a key question, and it lies in the hands of Kosova’s citizens. I have faith they will know how to value this issue and will put their signature to a process they truly deserve.