"2018 Will Be a Joint Cultural Year"
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published October 26, 2017
"Austrian National Day as we celebrate it today dates back to the aftermath of WWII. On October 26, 1955, our Parliament passed the constitutional law on permanent neutrality- shortly after the allied troops had left the country. So this day also represents the regaining of full sovereignty," Austria's Ambassador to Albania Johann Sattler said in an exclusive interview for Albanian Daily News. Mr. Sattler revealed how Austrians celebrate that remarkable day in their country, but also abroad, and incidentally the Austrian Embassy is organizing a reception on Thursday in Tirana to mark jointly with Albanians and expats that remarkable day of Austria's history.
Referring to the bilateral relations, the Ambassador said Austria had been a close friend and ally of Albania over the centuries and he revealed that the first Austrian Consulates on Albanian territory dated back to 1754 (Durrės) and Shkodra (1801).
Speaking of the current level of the bilateral relations, he said Austria and Albania are standing side by side to work on opening Albania's EU accession negotiations, Austrian companies have established themselves especially in the financial, insurance and hydropower sectors, where they maintain a strong position, there is a real increase of Austrian tourists coming to Albania, having reached 25,000 last year.
In addition he broke out the news that 2018 will be a joint cultural year between Austria and Albania. "It is going to bring a plethora of activities, ranging from concerts and exhibitions to lectures and conferences. Highlights include a musical salute (Vienna salutes Tirana) and a Viennese ball, a film festival on Skanderbeg square, a production from the Vienna State Opera (Fledermaus), but also lectures, historical conferences (100 years after WWI) and art exhibitions (Marubi, Zeta, Kalo and others)," explained Mr. Sattler.
Speaking of his impressions on Albania, the Ambassador said this country is so much more than its thriving capital Tirana and its center. "Getting to know Albania in its entirety with all its diversity is only possible by travelling to the different regions, North and South, East and West, mountains and coast, cities and villages. Apart from that, I am firm believer that diplomats also need to get out of their offices and venture out and seek the contact with 'local life'," said the Austrian Ambassador in the following interview:
- Mr. Ambassador, first of all, allow me to congratulate you on your country's National Day, and this joyful atmosphere prompts me to ask you kindly to tell something more on the significance of this historical date? How the Austrian people reflect on this event and which are the traditional festivities on this day across the country?
- The Austrian National Day as we celebrate it today dates back to the aftermath of WWII. On October 26, 1955, our Parliament passed the constitutional law on permanent neutrality- shortly after the allied troops had left the country. So this day also represents the regaining of full sovereignty.
What happens nowadays in Austria on October 26: various state institutions (including the Federal Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry) and many museums open their doors to the public. Austrian Embassies around the world celebrate the Austrian National Day by hosting different events for Austrian citizens and friends.
- In the meantime relations between Albania and Austria date back to old times at the beginning of the last century. Historians have found traces of them at earlier times. Officially we have entered the 7th decade of the reestablishment of the diplomatic relations. In your view, Your Excellency, what has made them so solid, friendly and even complimentary?
- Austria has been a close friend and ally of Albania over the centuries. In the course of history both of our countries have undergone vast changes throughout the last century. However, through all this time of transition of political realities, there have always been friendly relations. Austria-Hungary and later on Austria, was present in Albanian territories long before an independent state was established and we all know the well documented facts of 1912/13. The first Austrian Consulates on Albanian territory date back to 1754 (Durrės) and Shkodra (1801).
But you cannot only reflect on history: in order to keep a relationship vibrant you need to invest in it, and that's what we have been doing over the last two and a half decades, ever since Albania's liberation from its totalitarian regime.
- Mr. Sattler, official Vienna has as a motto of its foreign policy the unwavering support to Albania's EU accession, of course encouraging it to fulfill the five priorities set by Brussels. Firstly, why does this happen, and secondly, how does Austria help Albania in its EU drive?
- I am personally convinced that the best contribution to stability and prosperity in this region is the gradual integration into the European Union. We need to close the 'Balkans gap'. It is very inspiring to see the longing of the Albanian people to become part of the European project. I hope that the country's politicians seize the chance and continue this journey with determination and courage. The year to come, as a matter of fact, is going to be very crucial for Albania, offering enormous chances but also various pitfalls.
Austria and Albania are standing side by side to work on opening Albania's EU accession negotiations. As a concrete example let me mention the "Friends of Albania meetings" in Brussels initiated by the Austrian and Italian Foreign Ministers. The idea is to give Albania a platform in Brussels to make its case for EU integration. But the best way for Albania to make progress on its way to Brussels is to deliver concrete results, be it on justice reform/vetting or in the fight against organized crime.
- Besides the remarks on the excellent political relations, what can you say more to ADN's readers on the economic, trade, education, cultural cooperation between the two countries? Are you satisfied with the current progress?
- Austrian companies have established themselves especially in the financial, insurance and hydropower sectors, where they maintain a strong position. Other important sectors with high potential of growth are agriculture and especially tourism. We also see a real increase of Austrian tourists coming to Albania, having reached 25,000 last year. I am convinced that this upward trend is going to continue, also because vacationers are interested in a safe and stable environment.
In the education sector we are supporting- via the Austrian Development Agency ADA- projects which aim at increasing the human capital in the country, such as developing a modern VET-sector, tailored to the needs of businesses and the job market. The Austrian high school in Shkodra has educated hundreds of IT specialists in the past 10 years.
All culture and art lovers should look forward to 2018, when a joint cultural year between Austria and Albania is going to bring a plethora of activities, ranging from concerts and exhibitions to lectures and conferences. Highlights include a musical salute (Vienna salutes Tirana) and a Viennese ball, a film festival on Skanderbeg square, a production from the Vienna State Opera (Fledermaus), but also lectures, historical conferences (100 years after WWI) and art exhibitions (Marubi, Zeta, Kalo and others).
I hope we can welcome many ADN readers to these upcoming events.
- Mr. Ambassador, Vienna was in 2015 the second venue of the Berlin Process involving Western Balkan countries. The Trieste Summit last July and the Durres informal Summit in August this year 'sealed' a comprehensive document of regional cooperation having the support of EU. How do you assess the progress of this initiative and how much can it be helpful in the ambitions of WB countries to promote regional cooperation and their drive to join the EU?
- The Berlin Process is a much-needed boost to prepare Western Balkan countries for EU accession by focusing on key areas like connectivity, bilateral issues and the rule of law. The common economic area, as agreed at the Trieste Summit, is another important step in regional cooperation. Why? Because it increases economic interaction, makes the region more competitive and- very importantly- is a concrete contribution to peace and stability in a still fragile region.
The beauty of the Berlin Process is that it has basically taken on the principles behind the founding idea of the European project: By intensifying cooperation and creating mutual dependence you decrease the incentives for conflict.
- Mr. Ambassador, how do you evaluate the current situation in the Balkans against the background of talk whereby Russia's ambitions aim at increasing its influence in this region? In addition, some recent developments show an escalation of a regional 'arms race' involving Serbia and Russia. Do these and other related events affect the process of stability and peace in the region, concretely the Berlin Process?
- For various reasons, including their strategic location, the Balkans have been in the center of attention of different powers for centuries, a tendency continuing to this day. But I am convinced that the EU will remain the main interlocutor for this region. Why? Because the toolbox it has to offer is the most complete, from a Union of democracies based on common values to the biggest and most developed single market in the world.
However, we must not be complacent, but continue to pay attention to this region in order to retain this strong position, as other actors, not always benign, continue offering their own models.
- Changing the subject, Mr. Sattler, turning back to your people's joyful atmosphere: you are celebrating the National Day among Albanians and your expats in Tirana. By the way, which are your impressions on Albanians, their history, culture, traditions and their feelings towards Austria?
- Albanians are great hosts! Here the word "hospitality" is not and just empty phrase, but it is filled with life, holding in store many surprises.
I have to admit that Albanians have also made me more conscious of my own country. Albanians have a high consideration for Austria, on the one hand due to the historic bonds between our countries, and on the other hand due to the current advocacy of my country for Albania.
- Mr. Ambassador, Tirana is not the entire Albania. Have you had opportunities to travel across it, and if yes, what do you find different in those areas from Capital's life?
- Albania is so much more than its thriving capital Tirana and its center. Getting to know Albania in its entirety with all its diversity is only possible by travelling to the different regions, North and South, East and West, mountains and coast, cities and villages. Apart from that, I am firm believer that diplomats also need to get out of their offices and venture out and seek the contact with 'local life'.
Some of the most memorable encounters I have had were with a shepherd in the Valbona mountains and a Burrneshe in Vermosh. Out there, the saying 'bukė e kripė dhe zemėr' ('bread and salt and heart') comes to life.
- The international media present a dim picture of Albania from time to time: high crime rate, drug and prostitution trafficking and a 'paradise' of cannabis, corruption at high level, disparities between rich and poor. Does this influence on harming Albania's and its people's image abroad, affecting the attraction of foreign investments and tourism?
- To be frank, there is an image issue. It partially stems from the wild 90ies and the first 'Albanian export' the West saw in those years. It is also supported by the fact that Albania is still terra incognita for most Europeans and what has stuck in people's minds are those old stories. Now you can spend a lot of money on image campaigns, which I would not advise. For me the best way to put Albania on the map are success stories, be it successful foreign investments in Albania or Albanians being successful abroad. But the most far-reaching success in this respect will come from tourism, with thousands of foreigners visiting the country and enjoying its beauty.
Having talked to many Austrians who came here for vacation, I still have to find somebody who was not amazed by the nature and hospitality here. So this means changing the country's image one tourist at a time.
- In conclusion, Your Excellency, the Spanish Ambassador, Montero has recently said at the reception on his country's National Day that it is claimed that foreign diplomats cry twice: firstly, when they come to Albania and then at the time they leave it at the end of their mandate. 'Breaking' the diplomatic protocol, would you, Mr. Ambassador, be frank on this issue: how did you feel when you were appointed as Austria's Ambassador to Albania?
- Concerning the acceptance of the assignment I had no hesitations at all, since Albania was my desired destination. So I felt honored and happy.
Having worked in Albania for the first time in 1997 and being the head of the department for South-Eastern European Affairs in Austria's Foreign Ministry for several years, I was well prepared for my duties as Ambassador. Of course, the reality always keeps many surprises in store and every day I learn something new about Albania.