Good Friends in Hard (and Good) Times
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published November 16, 2017
"We share a saying in Austria and Albania: "Good friends in hard times". We have both experienced this friendship in those hard times of history. 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 past," has said Secretary General and Deputy Minister at the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs of Austria, Dr. Michael Linhart.
Mr. Linhart made that comment in exclusive interview with Albanian Daily News at the end of his two- day official visit to Albania on Wednesday.
He pointed out that Austrian companies had established themselves especially in the financial, insurance and hydropower sectors, maintaining a strong position in the Albanian market, and, according to him, the number of Austrian tourists had significantly increased, having reached 25,000 only in the first 9 months of 2017. "So there is a great interest from our companies and citizens for your wonderful country," Mr. Linhart said.
Asked what the message brought to Albanian political class was, the number two of Austrian diplomacy underlined that even if politicians have totally different political views, it's important to stay in communication with each other. "My message is to do exactly this, to pull in the same direction, notably when it comes to the EU accession process," he said.
Minister Linhart unveiled that the next year will be 'the Cultural Year Austria-Albania 2018' and the Austrian Embassy in Tirana had put together a colourful program with operas, concerts, exhibitions, films, lectures and other events - more than 50 events had been planned in Albania, one per week. "One special highlight will be also a Viennese ball in Tirana," he said.
The senior Austrian diplomat considered the Berlin Process as preparation for the Western Balkan countries for the EU accession. "The beauty of the Berlin Process is that it basically copies the principles behind the founding idea of the European project: by intensifying cooperation and creating mutual dependence you decrease the incentives for conflict," he said.
Speaking as diplomatic representative of Austria, which has the Chairmanship of OSCE for 2017, Mr. Linhart appreciated highly the role of the OSCE Presence in Albania. "The OSCE presence in Albania - celebrating this year its 20th birthday - plays a significant role in the process of strengthening the democracy, good governance and rule of law," said Secretary General and Deputy Minister at Austria's Ministry for European and International Affairs, Dr. Michael Linhart in the interview which follows:
- Austria has always been so enthusiastic about the relations with Albania in every field sparing no efforts to promote them. How would you assess the current level of the bilateral relations between them, and what has made your country have so many great expectations and be positive to go ahead following such a trend?
- What connects us is, first of all, our strategic goal for stability and prosperity in Albania and in the Balkan Peninsula. Beyond the strategic reasons of our both countries, we have become very good economic and trade partners.
Austrian companies have established themselves especially in the financial, insurance and hydropower sectors, where they maintain a strong position in the Albanian market. The number of Austrian tourists has significantly increased, having reached 25,000 only in the first 9 months of 2017. So there is a great interest from our companies and citizens for your wonderful country.
This interest will grow even more by becoming an even more stable and predictable country, that is why we support Albania in other different key sectors for Albania, like the justice reform, anti-corruption reform, education, VET-sector, tourism etc. We need a strong partner in the region that contributes for stability and prosperity in the Balkan Peninsula.
- 2017 was an important year for the excellent relations between Albania and Austria as it marked the 94th anniversary of the establishment of the first diplomatic relations between our countries, as well as the 60th anniversary of their re-establishment, which was marked in Tirana in April last year. Turning back in time, in your view, what has been special in the traditional friendly ties between the Albanian and Austrian people?
- We share a saying in Austria and Albania: "Good friends in hard times". We have both experienced this friendship in those hard times of history. 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 past.
- The agenda of your visit included meetings with the highest officials of Albania, including President Ilir Meta, but also the leader of the opposition, Lulzim Basha. Which is the message that you brought to Tirana and particularly to its political class, given also Austria's Chairmanship of the OSCE during 2017?
- One of the main goals of our OSCE chairmanship was the re-establishment of trust among the different partners. Trust is something which is also very relevant within countries and societies. And it is very relevant also in Albania, where we have a very polarised political climate.
So even if we have totally different political views, the important thing is to stay in communication with each other and to give the other side - as least sometimes - the benefit of the doubt and to work together especially on issues of national interest.
My message is to do exactly this, to pull in the same direction, notably when it comes to the EU accession process.
- Mr. Minister, which are some of the fields that you think more efforts should be done to broaden the political and economic cooperation between Albania and Austria?
- Cooperation between the two countries has been intense on a whole array of issues. Austria is currently fourth in terms of foreign direct investment in Albania. Austrian companies are very active in the banking/insurance and in the hydropower sector. Other sectors where we see a high potential of growth are especially tourism and agriculture. In these fields more can be done.
We also are supporting the education sector through Austrian Development Agency ADA - projects, which are focused on increasing of the human capital in the country, such as developing a modern VET-sector, tailored to the needs of businesses and the job market.
Last but not least, we believe that culture is the best communication bridge between peoples and countries. In relation to these, Albania is in the focus of Austrian cultural foreign policy as we go into the cultural year Austria-Albania 2018. Our Embassy in Tirana has put together a colourful program with operas, concerts, exhibitions, films, lectures and other events - more than 50 events are planned in Albania, one per week. One special highlight will be also a Viennese ball in Tirana.
- Given your long diplomatic career, which includes past senior posts in some Balkan countries like Croatia and Greece, how do you evaluate the situation in this region now which used to be labeled as Europe's 'powder keg'?
- I think it's time to say good-bye to such cliches. The Balkans is a region in a geo-strategically important part of Europe and as such, it should also be understood. Citizens here share the same values, the same concerns, and we are all part of a whole called Europe. Of course, each country deals with its own regional and international affairs, there are also problems or disputes between particular countries in this region, but they all have a common goal and that is accession to the EU. Every country strives to reach this goal in its own way.
The recent intensification of Balkans diplomacy, including the Berlin process, has shown that the Balkan countries are prepared to set aside their conflicts in the interest of a larger project.
- Austria has been particularly keen on the Berlin process, and Vienna was the second 'leg' of that 'journey' of the six Western Balkans countries in 2015 launched in Berlin in 2014. What do you think of the so far progress of that project, which achieved concrete results in the Trieste Summit last July, being reconfirmed in the informal forum held in the western port city of Durres, Albania, on August 26, 2017?
- The Berlin Process is a much-needed boost to prepare Western Balkan countries for EU accession by focusing on key areas like connectivity, open bilateral issues and 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 basically copies the principles behind the founding idea of the European project: by intensifying cooperation and creating mutual dependence you decrease the incentives for conflict.
-In this frame, how do you see the EU- sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina?
- When assessing the dialogue and its results, one needs to recall and compare it to the situation in 2011/2012 when the Dialogue started. The most important goals of this dialogue where to improve relations between Serbia and Kosovo, dismantle parallel structures and integrate those into the Kosovo system, reduce tensions and fears, and speed up European processes.
A big step towards a good neighborhood and political affairs is also the implementation of the Justice Agreement in October 2017. According to this agreement judges, prosecutors and judicial staff will be integrated into the Kosovo Judiciary. The integration of the judicial personnel will allow for justice to be delivered across Kosovo and, in particular, in the Mitrovica region.
- In conclusion, Mr. Minister, how would you evaluate the role of the OSCE Presence in Albania to strengthen rule of law, reform in judiciary, but particularly its assistance to the electoral reform in this Balkan county?
- The OSCE presence in Albania - celebrating this year its 20th birthday - plays a significant role in the process of strengthening the democracy, good governance and rule of law. An important contribution of OSCE to Albania this year was also the support during the parliamentary elections in June.
Through its assistance, through the observers' mission, the elections guidelines, and the post-election-evaluations OSCE contributed to raising the democratic standards.