Transcript of Interview of U.S. Ambassador Alexander A. Arvizu With Sonila Meço of ABC News (October 16, 2012)
Sonila Meço: Good evening honorable ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this exclusive meeting, which, as we’ve announced throughout the day, is with U.S. Ambassador to Tirana Alexander Arvizu. Good evening, Mr. Arvizu. It is a pleasure to have you in my studio again.
Ambassador Arvizu: Hi Sonila, it is great to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Sonila Meço: As in the previous interview we did together at the beginning of the year, it was an important political time for Albania. This one also comes at an intense time for Albania, filled with ambiguous emotions and ambiguous interpretations about what Albania has achieved. In fact, from a general standpoint, how would you characterize this moment?
Ambassador Arvizu: It seems almost trivial to say that any moment is delicate or critical, because they all seem that way. But, I think that the current situation certainly fits into that definition. First of all, I think it was a very positive development that Albania was granted this candidate status. I don’t know exactly how you phrase it, conditional or whatever, but the important thing is that it does mark an important step forward. It does create an opportunity. There are still some obstacles to overcome, some work to be done, but if the momentum can continue, there is no reason why this won’t be truly a memorable year in Albania's history.
Sonila Meço: However, some events appear to have overlapped. Aside from the positive news about the candidate status, the hunger strike of the formerly persecuted marks today its 25th day; their health condition is worsening and there are now only 7 persons from the 20 that began it. The weather conditions appear to have worsened as well. Have you been in contact with them, including today?
Ambassador Arvizu: For the last three weeks and a few days, a lot of people in the country, including us at the Embassy, have been really gripped by this drama. You’re right, it is very serious, very unfortunate. Doctors are saying that they are getting into the period when the body can deteriorate quickly. As far as contact today, I don’t believe so. We have been in fairly steady contact with them during this ordeal. I believe some officers from my embassy might have been in contact with some of the NGOs who know them, who have been a bit of a liaison, but as far as I know, we have not been in direct contact today.
Sonila Meço: Mr. Ambassador, you walked into the strike tent and talked with the formerly persecuted. In fact, you even sent embassy vehicles to accompany representatives of the strikers to the president’s office premises. Why did you engage in this? Were you appealing to the society to support the strike? Were you addressing politics with regard to the way it is handling it? Or was this strike also a kind of reaction after your appeal to ACT Now!, and you felt some kind of responsibility to be near them?
Ambassador Arvizu: There were a couple of questions in there and I’ll try to answer them, maybe not necessarily in that order. I’ve been told by some people, including by some of the protesters themselves, some of the hunger-strikers themselves, that part of the inspiration to present their case was from ACT Now! So there is a part of me that appreciates that, saying that it has inspired some citizens to voice their concerns. However, I would prefer that it would not be in the form of hunger strikes or certainly not self-immolations. There are other ways to express your views. As far as the decision to visit – the first visit was to listen, to go in without any preconceived notions. Obviously, I tried to do a little bit of homework, to understand to the extent I could some of the background about the persecuted individuals, former political prisoners, but it was basically to hear what they had to say. I had read in some of the news reports appeals to the international community, to the U.S. Embassy, to me specifically. I’m a busy person, but I have time for this kind of thing. I wanted to go and listen. Then, the second visit followed the attempted self-immolation by Mr. Gjergj Ndreca. I don’t know if you recall that image. It was captured on camera and the images were transmitted to the United States. As he was trying to set himself on fire, he was wearing a head banner that had the American flag on it. Some people have said to me that some of the people in the tent have American flags, because for them, the Stars and Stripes represent a symbol of freedom, liberty, democracy. There are some people who are going to say: look, that was political theater, or a show. I don’t know that. I was not there to judge, but here I am, the American Ambassador and I see that image. How could I not go? And so I went back to the tent that day and I said: I fully support your right to be heard, but hurting yourself, hurting other people is not the way to go. And I made that very clear. That was the first thing that I said. Then we went straight from there to the Mother Teresa hospital, spoke briefly with the doctor who was taking care of Mr. Ndreca, and then we went into where he was in the intensive care unit. I said: Gjergj, can you hear me? He indicated that he could. The first thing I said was: I really really wish you hadn’t done this to yourself, and then we had a conversation after that. It was an effort on my part to convey a sense of concern, to say: look, we’re not in a position to do much here, but if it is listening, that is something that we can do.
Sonila Meço: Since you mentioned images, Mr. Arvizu, extreme acts of self-immolation, which part of the media tried to liken to similar images elsewhere when the intent has been to internationalize or make public a denunciation. Often they’ve assumed fundamentalist overtones in terms of how the public tackles them. Does this act help their cause or does it harm it?
Ambassador Arvizu: I think no matter what the cause, how just, how noble, or how strongly people believe in it, that kind of act, where you basically express a willingness to take your own life, has to be seen as an extreme one. I don’t think there are many circumstances or situations where that makes things better. It just seems like such an extreme act and I would like to think, even though I’m still trying to understand the background of this particular issue, and it is admittedly an extremely complex one, that there has to be better way than resorting to violence against yourself to express your grievances, whether they are legitimate or not.
Sonila Meço: The strike is considered economic by its protagonists. However, there have been also political, and even nominative, appeals and accusations. The majority considers the strike political, maintaining that it has fulfilled as much as possible its economic-financial promises for this category. With over three weeks gone by, do you have a definition for this strike?
Ambassador Arvizu: In answering that, can I just give a little background?
Sonila Meço: Of course.
Ambassador Arvizu: Thank you. I brought one piece of reference material with me. Some people said you should have lots of statistics, background information, papers. When you kindly extended the invitation to me today, I thought of only one piece of paper that I needed. Let me explain. I think some of your viewers know that I served in Cambodia previously; in fact, it was about ten years ago that I was the number two at our Embassy in Cambodia. During the time I served there, one of the big issues was the trials of the former Khmer Rouge leaders. I read a lot of books about Cambodia, as I’ve tried to read some books about Albania to better understand. Shortly after the hunger strike here began and after the first self-immolation, I went to one of the bookshelves in my house and I pulled a book from it. I started rereading it. I had read it many years ago and wanted to reread it. I just wanted to show it to you, and if I could point it to a camera. This book is called Voices from S-21. It has been written by one of the foremost American scholars of the Cambodian genocide and is called, Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison. When I read this book, ten years ago, it made me cry many times. When I reread it a few days ago, I cried again. I just ask people to look at the photo of this young Cambodian girl. She’s dead. If she were alive, she would be, as far I can estimate, probably 55 or 60 years old – my age. She’s not a statistic. In some respects she is, but, this is a person who was murdered. In Albania, in Albania's very sad and tragic history, in the murderous Enver Hoxha regime, there were thousands murdered and many more imprisoned. So, for me, it was important to reconnect with something that I understand well, I think, so that I wouldn’t think of these 14 people, or the 3,000 people, or 12,000. We hear lots of numbers. I understand, there is a place for that, but for me, personally, for the United States as a country, these are not statistics. These are people, and I’m not in a position to judge the validity of this claim or the counterclaim or the claim to the counterclaim. I’m trying to look at it from the standpoint of humanity. It just seems to me that some of the people that we’re talking about, for whatever reason, are particularly vulnerable. They are among the more vulnerable people in Albanian society, and so I felt it was important to try to approach it from the right perspective. If the perspective is right, then you have a chance to analyze it properly, maybe giving advice, maybe giving recommendations that can help to resolve what is obviously a humanitarian problem.
Sonila Meço: How do you see the way politics is handling this strike as a function of resolving the situation? I mean the majority, opposition, or even other political forces outside current coalitions. Do you think they’ve approached it to resolve it, or do you think, as the media have reported, there is a perception that there is a political use of a topic in which people should be facing people?
Ambassador Arvizu: Let me answer that in two parts. I know that amid the accusations and counter-accusations there have been charges of manipulation. It is probably, aside from the political prisoner – the word you hear most today is political manipulation – that these people are being manipulated by this group or that group. People have often asked me, don’t you think they’re manipulated, and my response is, I’m not trying to be difficult or obnoxious, but I really don’t think about it that much. For me it’s not that relevant a question. If I were the Prime Minister, if I were the President, if I were the opposition leader, it might be more relevant. But for me, that is not really something that concerns me. To me it is basically an irrelevant question, and I say that with a degree of caution, and I say that with a lot of respect for people’s feelings. As I’ve tried to learn more about this particular issue, I have come to understand that it is an extremely sensitive point for lots and lots of Albanians. It is almost like a raw nerve – you touch it and it evokes a very strong reaction, especially among people who either were political prisoners or whose families can be counted among the so-called persecuted families. So, again, my position and that of the United States is to not take a position on the merits of this argument versus that argument. I’ve been in Albania almost two years now, and I’ve come to learn and regrettably kind of accept that things do get politicized easily here. Sometimes, we speak out against it, but in the end it is going to be that way, and we see that with this particular issue. But, what I’m trying to do in a very small way is to inject ourselves in a way that, as you indicated, maybe can help resolve some of the grievances through dialogue, through discussion. We do not seek to be a mediator or referee; we have zero interest in that. We don’t have the expertise. We don’t have the desire. That is something for Albanians to work out. But, since my arrival here almost two years ago, I do know that sometimes, for better or for worse, the international community, the United States in particular, can play the role of, say, a bridge to facilitate communication. That is what we’re trying to do; not mediate, but try to facilitate some kind of communication. And, in a more direct response to your question – and again, this is not to prejudice anyone’s position, not to be critical of one side or the other – I do think the government could do a better job of communicating with the people who have this grievance, in particular. I watched Minister Halimi on Blendi’s show last night and I got a summary of what he said. I think he performed very well. He made a very effective case.
Sonila Meço: He was also today in the Committee of Laws in response to the opposition’s request to speak about the implementation of the law since 2007, and the way compensation has worked out.
Ambassador Arvizu: Again, first of all, Minister Halimi is a friend. We work very closely, so I’m inclined to have a favorable view. But I thought he did a good job of making the case for what he sought to do. Some days ago there was a gentleman from the Ministry of Finance, I don’t remember his name, but I think it was the Secretary General…
Sonila Meço: Mr. Teliti…
Ambassador Arvizu: who similarly explained what the government has done. That is fine. But, I think what will do more than anything is for someone in the government at this point to have this much in the way of reference, i.e. nothing, in the way of paper. Just go and listen. I don’t mean in the sense of capitulate or beg on your knees. I don’t mean that, but in a show of confidence. Sometimes people just want to be heard and listened to. And, the final thing I would say with respect to that is, as this has dragged on – you said it has been 25 days or so – obviously, people are exhausted. First and foremost, the strikers, but I think a lot of people are exhausted: the government, which is wrestling with this; the president; the ombudsman; the poor reporters covering the story. So people are getting tired, nerves are getting more and more frayed and we’re seeing some unhelpful rhetoric from the hunger strikers themselves. They’re frustrated; they say it’s about their economic conditions, their plight – it’s not about politics. But when you’re calling the PM and others names, that’s not particularly helpful; you’re politicizing it. But when senior officials in the government, in turn, have to make a political point, calling people names, saying they’re manipulated – again, whether that’s true or not, that’s not really addressing the heart of the issue too. So, right now, we’re still trying to find ways, to encourage people to stop the name-calling, to lower the temperature, to just deal with the situation, for what it is. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. If a man – it could be a woman, but let’s say it’s a man – from the government, a deputy minister, chief of cabinet from a relevant ministry, were to go to the tent tomorrow…
Sonila Meço: Why do you think that would be enough, Mr. Ambassador? The demands have been clear and some are non-negotiable by the strikers. The Government thinks it has done much more than the SP when it was in power, as it has itself admitted, doing little or nothing for this group. In fact, it has compensated the persecutors, the former Blok members, instead of the persecuted. Why do you think only this act of facing one another, looking eye to eye, would be enough?
Ambassador Arvizu: That is a very fair question and an immediate analogy that comes to mind. And I apologize, because it may not seem relevant to such a serious discussion, but think about boys and girls when they’re in high school. Since I was a boy, you see a girl and she’s smart, popular, beautiful, and you want to ask her out. But you look at me, not real tall, among other things…. It is easy to say: don’t make a fool of yourselves, but people say, you’ll never know if you don’t try. To stick for one more second to the dating analogy, in my life, I was surprised. There were plenty of girls who said – go away, I don’t ever want to see you again. But there were some who said, of course, I’d love to go to this movie or something. So, if you don’t try, how would you ever know? So, the point that you make, given the demands, what they’ve said, it’s kind of a hostile environment. It would give me pause too, but, what do you have to lose? Your face? You’re tough?
Sonila Meço: Maybe, Mr. Ambassador, there is another aspect, respect for the law, the democratic means available to the parties. In this case, the strikers who have their demands, the government that considers it is implementing the law. There’s a word called precedent. If every Albanian social group with severe problems, maybe not as acute as those of the persecuted, chose this form of hunger strikes and extreme actions and burning images. I’ll take a concrete example. Albania has the candidate status to get, there needs to be fulfilled a condition, that of the High Court. Let’s say a group of people enter a hunger strike and demand Mr. Rama to vote for the bill. There is no equivalence between the two, of course, but I’m using it to point to actions that are a vicious circle toward any force that may be in power.
Ambassador Arvizu: When you think about the differences between a government, the ruling party and the opposition, there are a thousand, maybe a million differences. Who wants to be in opposition? I think about the U.S., where the second presidential debate is to take place in a matter of hours. It looks like it will be a very close election. I look forward to discussing more about the election on this very show. But the simple point I would make is, in a democratic society, where there is a democratically elected government, as is the case here in Albania, it is the obligation of the government to be the government for the entire country, not for the part of the population that votes for you. So, and I understand that when the campaign gets underway, some people say it is already underway, obviously, you have to do certain things to appeal to your base. Hopefully, you expand or capitalize on the undecided, but, if you’re the government, you’re not the government for the blue part of the country. Mr. Mziu and the people in Kamza may be one of the most reliable bases of support, and you certainly look to the blue boulevard there for support next summer, but you’re also the government representing the citizens who are in the heart of socialist country, or any other party, for that matter. I don’t mean to be saying something that is so simplistic, that it almost comes across as trivial, but I’m totally serious here. That is what I mean about an attitudinal change. I think it is fair to say that the United States – and I’m confident it’s shared by many of the European capitals that are, at this very moment, contemplating Albania's EU candidacy status, the next steps. They are looking at the style of governance here, the quality of the dialogue. There are going to be some people in the ruling party who will say: you’re being a little too hard on us. And my response to that is, if you look at the record of what I’ve said in various interviews, I never let the opposition off the hook. I’m not letting the opposition off the hook here either. No. Anyone who spends 24 hours in Albania knows that the opposition can be part of the solution, but they can also be part of the problem.
Sonila Meço: Is the opposition part of the solution in how it is approaching this? You appealed to the government to find a solution. Is the opposition offering a solution?
Ambassador Arvizu: On this particular question?
Sonila Meço: Yes.
Ambassador Arvizu: To be honest, compared to other issues, I haven’t seen the opposition engage as much as one might think. So, they haven’t made things noticeably worse, as far as I can tell. I think that has to do primarily – I could be wrong – with the almost unique situation that is presented by the issue of the formerly persecuted people. I think every Albanian watching understands better than I do or better than I can explain what I mean about this. In a nutshell, a lot of the formerly persecuted people had this strong antipathy towards communism, and I think it is safe to say that a very large percentage of them are probably supporters of the Democratic Party. I sense that one reason why this particular issue is triggering an almost emotional response on the part of some people in the government, people close to the government, supporters of the ruling coalition, is, the term I’ve heard is: betrayal! How could they do this? They say, we, the DP, early and now -- we’ve done more for you than anyone else. I’ve seen people in tears, almost shaking. Again, I’m not here to judge. I’m being real careful not to cross the line, but I’m saying, I get that. I understand that. If I were in your shoes, who knows, maybe I’d feel the same way. I’m saying that in a democratic society, one of the obligations, one of burdens is, you have to govern, you have to make the difficult decisions, to make a dialogue, with somebody you just want to strangle, but it’s your obligation; you were elected. If it’s so uncomfortable, then abdicate your position, then leave, then let somebody else do it.
Sonila Meço: The majority says the law is functioning. Mr. Halimi made public the large number of files that have been handled, who have received the first installment, and those over 65 years old, the second. That is the law, these are the financial capabilities of a developing Albania that is trying to tackle an issue that is not 20-years old, of the incapability of politics to resolve it, but an inherited problem. And it has to do with Albanians’ rapport with the past.
Ambassador Arvizu: I’m not arguing with anything you’ve said. Personally, I have no reason to object or ask whether this or that is true. No, a lot of people I talk to have said – even some who are clearly pro-opposition – well, that is basically correct or totally correct. That is not the point. As I said earlier, I think it is important for someone like the Minister of Justice, like he did last night – in that case it was okay to have a lot of statistics, a lot of data. It was okay for the gentleman from the Ministry of Finance to go forward. I understand the PM wanting to make clear where he stood, how he felt about the issue, but, the point I keep returning to is, what I would say is, a fundamental weakness of the Albanian political class; here it’s the opposition as well as the government. Some people will say that’s great and others will say, you did it again, Mr. Arvizu. Of all the places I’ve served and visited and traveled to, I find official Albanians, people in government, politicians, to be the worst, worst communicators. Just terrible communicators. There’s just a single way, and it is the way we saw with Mr. Halimi. That’s fine to do that, but in addition to that, send a man, tomorrow, to the tent and make the same points. The cameras are there. If you’d like to have it in private, talk to the police. You might want to ask about our role in facilitating some contact between some of the hunger-strikers and the President’s office. When I devised that plan, and I gave my staff very clear instructions of precisely what I wanted them to do, and we were in contact with the President’s office. We were in contact with police, who I think have done a good job, as usual; they’ve been very professional. I said: we’re going to go, roughly this time window, and we’re going to talk to them about a sensitive issue. I said I know there are some TV cameras there; I have no problem with cameras filming an embassy vehicle, having them film a couple of embassy staff. There was also a staff member from the European Union, the human rights officer there. I said no problem with that. But I said, please tell the police to keep the reporters, keep them at a safe distance. They don’t need to hear the conversation. So, it seems to me that if the government wanted to have a very private and candid conversation, they could if they wanted to. If they wanted to do it with the ten cameras, they could do that if they wanted to.
Sonila Meço: …And make use of communication through the media to make known what the government has done for this category of people. To make it a bit broader, this category, together with punishment of communist crimes and the lustration law, are seen as important parts for reconciling the collective conscience and memory. They are very delicate issues in terms of their impact on the present and future of the society. But do you think there should be greater political consensus, understanding, given that the issues are so delicate? And, how dangerous is the political use of these topics…?
Ambassador Arvizu: Heading into the election season, based on my experience with the local elections, people – whether in the opposition or in the ruling party or smaller parties – don’t need extra issues to get worked up over. They have plenty already on the table. I think one reason why this particular issue is so delicate, and you mentioned the lustration law. I remember when I was preparing for my Senate confirmation hearings, when my predecessor Ambassador Withers was still here, that there was a key moment about the lustration law. To this day, I still don’t understand it 100%, but I tried to study it, research it; I always try to look at things from more than one angle, sort of tri-dimensional. But one thing I sense about the lustration law is that is also a very emotional issue. I think it’s emotional, Sonila, because it gets to individual Albanians’ identity, themselves, where they fit into the society. Albanians are great when it comes to religious differences. Really, I think it is a model of religious tolerance; regional differences. Once in a while you hear people make fun of the northern dialect or the Tirana dialect. But these are fairly minor and insignificant, and inconsequential. But when you go into the past, dig into the past, what did your family do? What was the nature of this uncle’s contact with the Sigurimi? My family used to own that piece of property where your house is right now. I can only imagine how emotional people feel – again, it’s a raw nerve; it sort of cuts to the bone; it’s a raw wound; it happened 21 years ago – but that’s like the blink of an eye, right? It’s almost like yesterday. The property restitution, resolution of disputed lands – it’s still an enormously complex issue. So anything connected with the past is like a wound. There’s a scab over it, and unfortunately, with this particular issue, it’s like someone is peeling off the scab. It hurts, it is very painful. It is painful for me to watch this unfold. That is why we are trying hard to try to encourage people to take an approach that can at least address some of the most outstanding grievances, even if they agree to disagree, so that they can move on.
Sonila Meço: Mr. Ambassador, I’ll quote Fatos Lubonja, a former political prisoner, who wrote in an editorial yesterday: “The phenomenon of politicians that move from a record of indifference toward that of conflict, without dealing with the real political terrain, solving citizens’ problems, appears to make political pluralism unnecessary, precisely where the political adversary exists solely to justify your failure? To discharge your own responsibility?” In one way or another, he’s pointed a finger at the political class; how can it use every issue politically, from the most acute to the simplest? Do you share that view?
Ambassador Arvizu: I’ve had several conversations with Mr. Lubonja. I have his book; in English it’s called Second Sentence. That will be the next book I read. I respect him very much as an opinion shaper. He’s kind of a cantankerous individual; he’s got very strong views. I agree with him on a lot of things. We sometimes disagree, but last night, I asked my staff: I want to know what Mr. Halimi said, and I’m very interested in what Mr. Lubonja said. So the quote you read is one I heard and read before, and I agree with him 110%. 200%. He’s absolutely right.
Sonila Meço: Your staff is reminding me of the time. I have only one last question of the planned three on the candidate status, the conditions on Albania to get the status in December, and the start of negotiations. What message does Washington have regarding the weeks remaining until November 20 of this year, and the need to vote on the three bills in the parliament consensually in order to get the status?
Ambassador Arvizu: Since the U.S. is not an EU member state, I’m not privy to internal discussions…
Sonila Meço: But you support it…
Ambassador Arvizu: Very much so. The U.S. policy is to support fully the integration of the entire Western Balkans, certainly including Albania, into the Euro-Atlantic community. I think – and I hope Ambassador Sequi will be okay with me saying this – but I think a two-track approach is what is needed. One is as you pointed out: there are three specific pieces of legislation related to the civil service administration, the High Court law, and the parliamentary rules of procedure. There are some differences of opinion. I’m particularly concerned with the High Court law, because it is tied in with the controversy in Fier, which is a subject for another day. But we earnestly hope that the two sides can engage seriously. I don’t think the differences are that great. Again, if there’s a will, they can overcome it. Fier is a little bit tricky. I think there’s a bit more of a hard divide than with the other issues, but again, if the will is there, they can fix it. But, the second track is the attitudinal one. I don’t think the 27 capitals are looking necessarily at: check, check, check. That’s an important component, but they’re saying: will the Albanian political class and their supporters seize this opportunity, even at the beginning of an election campaign, to try a little bit different track? And I would say this particular issue about the political prisoners – I’m not saying it’s a Litmus test – but I think if this is an issue that the political class can handle, in a way that reflects well on democratic governance here. I think that will only help Albania's candidate status when a decision is made in late November and early December.
Sonila Meço: Mr. Arvizu. It was a pleasure to have you here. Since your country will hold elections on November 6, there’s a second debate tonight between Obama and Romney, and I don’t know what questions one might ask in the town hall meeting tonight. But I’m reserving the right to have you here for an interview before the election, about the vote that is important for the entire globe, in my studio.
Ambassador Arvizu: It would be a pleasure and an honor, and I thank you again for this opportunity.
Sonila Meço: Thank you, Mr. Arvizu.