At “Symi Symposium” on regional cooperation

*Prime Minister Edi Rama attends 23rd edition of the international annual “Symi Symposium” held under the auspices of the former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, bringing together top politicians and leading world economic players, international thinkers and policymakers and academics to discuss the post-pandemic challenges and projects:


George Papandreou: We have with us today a good friend, Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania. Congratulations Edi on your recent victory. For the first time, Edi attended our second symposium right after Kosovo war, while the today’s event brings all together representatives from Kosovo, Serbia, North Macedonia to discuss together the difficulties in our region.

I would like to have a short conversation with Edi. I would also like to thank him for coming, as well as wish him a happy birthday he celebrated last week.

I first met with Edi when Albanians were through a very difficult and polarized situation. I remember that I visited Tirana in my capacity as the then Minister of Greece for Europe and Greece also held the Chairmanship of the Council of Europe. Together with the Polish Foreign Minister, who headed the OSCE Chairmanship back then, we travelled to Albania in a first bid to help resolve the internal crisis in the country. I remember I was invited by the then Prime Minister to meet with the cabinet members and the walls were covered with bullet holes. We held talks with someone, the Minister of Culture Edi Rama, who spoke in a determined way about what he was and what he wanted to change. This was sufficient information for me to figure out who he is.

I later witnessed Edi Rama’s efforts upon taking office as Tirana’s Mayor, who totally transformed Tirana making it a much more beautiful city. Now Edi Rama is serving his third term in office. So, three consecutive terms, Edi. This clearly shows you have succeeded in convincing Albanian people through democratic procedures that you are the future, or that they future lies with you and your Socialist Party. Edi, a question for you. How have you been represented, or how did you manage to gain the Albanian public support for the next four years?

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Thank you very much! It is a pleasure to be back here after so many years although it is not quite easy to realize we are now older, still I am very happy to be granted the opportunity to come and share with you some very nice moments.

We won the third term and most importantly, I believe, we also succeeded, because being all the time struggling to be a party never identified with the power, but remain in the citizens’ eyes as the party identified with the change and to this end we have been fighting all the time to change our own party. We have sought to bring people from different walks of life and to always maintain a synergy in the public eyes between what and whom is identified as just the party and those who are seen as direct representatives of the people. I think this was the first.

The other reason has to do with what we have done and apparently, it is finally clear to our citizens this is the way to progress and that the work needs to be done and many things are much better now than they used to be, still there are a lot of other things that need to improve.

We have somehow always tried to be pretty open and sincere with people, telling them that if we are to compare what we have already done with what we should actually do, we still have a long way to go and claim “yes, we succeeded.” But, again, if we are to draw a comparison between what we inherited and what we have accomplished, it is quite a reason not to be happy, but somehow satisfied, as well as feel confident this is the path and that we need to resist and keep moving forward.

I think results are tangible for everyone create an overall opinion that work is progressing on the right direction. We have actually had a pretty stable perception about this right direction thing, which has always been our path. Indeed, it has been quite a strange campaign and a very strange fight in general, also because of COVID-19 pandemic, also for the fact that we were seeking reelection for a third consecutive term in office, which is not an easy endeavor, yet we succeeded.

I am now very optimistic, as plan to embark on a series of major projects on tourism, energy, infrastructure. In the meantime, we have also laid very good foundations for our culture, as well as the information technology. We have succeeded in delivering a very fast change in terms of the e-government, e-public services and it was actually this kind of digital drive saving us during the COVID-19 pandemic, since a huge number of public services were delivered and provided online, and it also allowed us to interact with people. We are now pressing ahead with the final phase of fully providing public services via online platform, so that service offices are no longer needed. This way, we are seeking to move to another stage of public service delivery by shutting down all these service offices. There will be no more service offices in the country, as every public service is now available in your pocket, via your smartphone, the personal computer and this is really crucial to the efforts to eradicate small but really worrisome corruption practices in the country, as well as, I believe, in the whole region, as direct contact with public servants will be eliminated.

However, having this said, I think that the more we do and everything we do internally in our own countries, it still has its limitations. If we really want to move into another phase of our history, regional cooperation is a must. We need to increasingly share our vision and find common solutions on regional basis to boost capacity of our external markets, provide investors the opportunity to have more spaces, with us also having ample opportunities. We are making efforts to promote movement in this direction and I very much hope this will soon become the region’s natural path to increasingly realize that the governments in the region should work in tandem, nationally and regionally to see more and more synergies among them when it comes to the strategic sectors.

Prior to this meeting, we were talking about energy. It is a huge opportunity for us to develop a common energy policy so that we can jointly move forward towards a shared vision and joint energy management so that we become capable of trading and exporting electricity in a completely different way instead of remaining in those small spaces and then then suffer from the inability to be flexible and be unable to meet our domestic demand on time or generate more electricity than we need. So I think this is very possible.

I would like to say something else. Several years ago I happened to come across a very simple tourist guidebook, when tourism was really modest, but the guidebook provided visitors with a map of the potential paths outside our country’s borders, telling them if you enter this area, you will have the opportunity to move further south to Greece, or head to other countries in order to visit more interesting destinations. So, providing visitors to our region with such a guidebook could become really a strong asset for us.

George Papandreou: Yes, when it comes to the regional cooperation, I would like to go back to what you were already saying about the e-public services. It sounds merely like a technical matter making things easier, but we have been through this here in Greece and the e-government was actually a tool we implemented to establish transparency and deal a blow to a considerable part of the corruption practices. This is really a very problematic area in our region and this is in part because the government structures come from dictatorial, authoritarian and hierarchical regimes, where transparency was never the prevailing idea, but quite the opposite. So, you have been fighting for transparency.

Before we move to the regional issues, about which I will make several questions, you mentioned energy, tourism as your main priorities in the four coming years. Are they your top priorities?

PM Edi Rama: As far as power sector is concerned, we have very solid basis and incredibly high potential for the future, because I have to point out that Albania’s domestic generation is almost entirely dependent on renewable and hydropower. We are now seeking and making efforts to diversify the energy sources through the solar and wind power. We have two major sites for the solar power, which will definitely become the largest solar energy parks in the Western Balkans. We are in the meantime implementing a series of wind power projects. Work on construction one of them has advanced significantly we very much hope to see the facility become operational by end of this year or at beginning of the next year. In the meantime, we are also pressing ahead as planned with the final part of the most important electricity generation in the country’s north-east, namely the hydropower. Practically, the project will complete this cycle as it will balance all the hydropower plants over the river cascade in the area, meaning it will help to avoid water discharges and floods in case of higher water inflows. What is happening now anytime the country is swept by torrential rain, triggering higher water inflows than we can use to generate electricity, we are forced to open the hydropower plant gates, or the dams, triggering floods. This is something that worries us and it is really costly, because thousands of hectares of agricultural land are flooded, causing huge damages that should be compensated. On the other hand, when we face prolonged drought seasons and therefore water inflows become scarce, we are forced to purchase electricity at a very high price. This sort of leakage, so to say, this part is what causes the entire leakage across entire system. Construction of this dam will ultimately address this problem and develop the water storage capacities and sell them when the prices go high. We practically have the potential that with this and additional investments Albania becomes a net electricity exporter in the region and therefore save a lot of money currently earmarked for the electricity purchase.

We see huge potential in tourism. Of course, you know better than me that this is associated with many risks of destroying as you seek to build and develop this industry. We are trying to learn from the others’ mistakes or draw lessons from our own mistakes during the previous years of the long transition, causing damages to a significant part of our coastline. However, a lot remains to be protected and therefore we are trying to keep development under control by encouraging sustainable solutions to develop a sort of elitist tourism rather than mass tourism. Of course, it is easier said than done, but this is what we are trying to do.

In the meantime, we are currently in the process of building four important tourist ports. The country currently lacks any tourist port and therefore we are starting with construction of a tourist port in Saranda on the site of a former military base on the other side of the town. We are doing the same in Vlora by relocating the existing commercial port and transforming it into a tourist port, while building also another commercial port in the city. We are doing the same in Durrës. It is a group from the Emirates involved in construction of a waterfront promenade, also the construction of the Port of Durres outside the city. Fourth tourist port will be built in the country’s north, namely in a small coastal town called Shengjin, which is the most popular holiday destination for visitors, mainly from Kosovo.

In the meantime, we have also built the second international airport in the country’s northeast and we are looking forward to starting construction of a third international airport in Vlora. The fourth one is set to be built in Saranda, which is really necessary, but the way we have designed it, the new airport there could create a synergy with the Corfu airport and people are demanding it as the Corfu airport is really overcrowded. Therefore, having a new airport on the other side and working together could turn out to be a very good thing.

This was about tourism.

Another thing is the sustainable agriculture. We have seen the agricultural exports significantly grow, yet we aim for more. The country’s agricultural exports were modest when we took office, but they are now valued at over 400 million euros and we are seeking to increase them to over one billion euros, which would be really great for the rural economy.

As far as infrastructure is concerned, we should build the country’s backbone, namely the Blue Corridor project, which is a priority investment and in the process with the European Union, but the project has taken really a very long time. This is the missing link along the entire European Union’s corridor between Croatia, Montenegro and Albania. So, people coming from north can travel to south and further Greece along this Corridor, which will meet the EU standards, but it has yet to be constructed. This is a project we plan to kick off soon. We have launched the first call for public tender, yet it was not successful and therefore we will launch another tender again.

Me poshet vijon pjesa e dyte e fjales se KM Rama ne Symi Symposium ne Athine:

Fifth area is the information technology, namely promotion of the e-public services, as well as efforts to make progress also in coding in a bid to grow as much as possible number of these environments to help children and youth access into this whole new world.

We have decided to introduce English as a subject in first grade of the primary education starting this year.

I will conclude by telling an anecdote. It was not this time, but sometimes ago I was visiting a remote mountainous area, which is practically totally isolated due to the lack of road infrastructure and local residents are somehow struggling to survive. I was visiting the area and they all demanded that a school kindergarten, the road and a bridge be built. And it was an old man who took the floor saying:

“It is great you are here, since you are the first Prime Minister to ever visit our village. This is definitely great and it is of course normal for us to make any demand, but let’s have no illusions. You won’t deliver on none of the things we are asking you to deliver, because our village is located in a very remote area to attract the government’s attention. In other words, forget the bridge, forget the new school, forget everything. I would ask from you one thing only,” he said.

I was wondering what he would be asking me for. He was 90 years old.

“Hire an English teacher for our children here,”- he said.

Everyone there went silent. I asked him why he was demanding that an English teacher be hired? Schoolchildren were there too.

“Do you see this mountain?” – he asked me. “The city is situated on the other side of the mountain. It’s a long way to go there, but if we teach them English, they can fly.”

It was really interesting. And I was later told that residents in remote areas are constantly demanding that English teachers are hired to teach children English.

George Papandreou: It is very interesting. So, this village was totally isolated, just like the Western Balkans sometimes feel totally isolated and separated from the rest of the world too. We have been talking about this in recent days. You broadly commented on the regional cooperation, which has two aspects; first aspect is how we can further develop regional cooperation. We have always been driven by this sort of psychology because of wars and dependence. Albania depended on China during the Cold War, the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria with their differences, of course depended on the former Soviet Union. We too, though deeply divided, have been always seeking to establish contacts with Brussels and Washington, instead of working together and create this spirit of cooperation among ourselves. Such a spirit can be further promoted and incited by the European perspective. Of course, although the European Union accession is very difficult, and the EU accession process coupling of Albania and North Macedonia was also troublesome. You said that Albania’s case was somehow a sort of a collateral damage due to the issue between Bulgaria and North Macedonia regarding the EU accession process. What is your opinion about this issue?

We actually talked this morning about the idea of mutual cooperation and the energy sector. The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans should also be part of the debate on the European perspective. How do you see this perspective? How is Albania reacting to these difficulties?

PM Edi Rama: First of all, I have to say and acknowledge that Bulgaria’s position is actually a result of what Bulgaria has learned from the EU big members while being part of the EU. Bulgaria learned you can take advantage of the local politics to block others. We in the Balkans – I did not want to mention this but you are not the only one – when we in the Balkans copy, we go way further than the original.

When we embarked on this European integration process, we were told this is the magical remedy against nationalism, so that we become more open and democratic countries. However, taking notice of what is going on now, we are increasingly remaining hostage to the EU nationalisms. The Western Balkans’ EU integration process is increasingly becoming dependent on the EU nationalisms. By the EU nationalisms I mean the nationalism approaches adopted by the main EU member states, which keep their leaders hostage and the non-nationalist leaders fall prey to these silly game playing and use of the European Council to squeeze the Balkan countries and, on the other hand, flex muscles to their people. The European Councils isn’t really the forum where cohesive decisions are made on the geostrategic vision. The EU Council is now the place where the EU nationalisms are played by the non-nationalist leaders. So, Bulgaria is a sort of collateral damage in this respect.

On the other hand, I think we shouldn’t fall prey to despair and disappointment, as we are now used to the motto “take us, because if you fail to do so then some bad guys will take us,” or “marry us, because if you don’t marry us then some bitches will show up and they will take us,” or that third-party actors will fill the void. However, it doesn’t work this way. We in Albania, I personally have seen ourselves, I have seen myself prepared for the great weeding with all decorations, the best orchestra, because the European Commission told us “you are ready to start the accession talks.” And in my view, this is for sure when it is said by the European Commission as the right and most competent body to say it. A whole team of people work full time in Athens, Paris, Berlin or The Hague to collect and assess facts and data. When the European Commission says it, it means you are ready to start the accession talks.

The first weeding party was held, yet the bride failed to show up. Second weeding was held too, but the bride didn’t show up again. But no preparations will be made for a third weeding. The hell with it. So we cannot go on with expectations, because it is a whole year with expectations. There are also the strange conditions. They keep telling us to wait for “the next spring” and when spring comes, it is postponed for autumn and the bride doesn’t show up again and the whole country remains as if betrayed, I don’t know by who. Eventually we had to say we should continue, because this process is not important at all just because a superpower asks us to do so, but it is important for our children. We have no other process; we have no other tool. The integration process is based on the know-how to build the state, institutions and justice, and without this knowledge, we cannot make our countries functioning states where the rule of law prevails. That is why we must move forward. We shouldn’t lose any sleep over whether this is recognized or not by Brussels. This is up to them.

I believe the EU needs Balkans as much as the Balkans need the EU. It is not that we don’t need them and they don’t need us. The most vivid example featured the refugees, illegal migrants who had to arrive in Greece first and then cross the border to North Macedonia so that they head further to Serbia. So, they left the Balkans to enter again the EU territory, because the Western Balkans are surrounded by the EU borders. The thing is that the region is actually a hole right at the heart of the European Union. I don’t know whether someone can put the kidneys in a pocket. You should have your kidneys in your body, because it could be the case that someone steals the kidneys from your pocked and our system then… There are definitely third—party actors. The Chinese, with whom we once had a very happy marriage and a very bitty divorce, used to say: “We have Albania and therefore we have whole Europe. We need no other country.” This is all due to our country’s strategic location. Therefore, with this open area and with people being disappointed, the Chinese could offer us what they term as “easy money”, which is not easy after all if you consider the case of Montenegro and North Macedonia that should now explore ways how to escape from the crazy debts because of the Chinese money. Russia too. Turkey somehow too, but Turkey, in my view, is a completely different story. I don’t see Turkey as third-party actor.

It is pretty clear to me. We need to do as much as we can to foster regional cooperation. By the way, I still expect Greece to return to the region. It is obvious why Greece has turned its back on the region, namely the financial crisis and the irrational things that have happened here, but I think Greece should return to the region. Greece is a EU member, a Balkan country and it can play a very important role in the region, just like you tried to do, George, when it came to opening our region’s paths toward Turkey. We need to push and move forward about what we can do on our own, without being blocked by others. What we can do is deliver on more reforms in our countries and commit to the regional cooperation. If we succeed in implementing the 4 freedoms of Europe in our region, namely the movement of people, capital, services and goods, we have done enough, because it will create fresh horizons for our economies. Ultimately, it will support peace, dialogue, final reconciliation. This is the way I see it. We need the EU to understand.

George Papandreou: Given that we are discussing this issue, which we actually also focused in the past few days, there are people within the EU saying: “Look at the Western Balkans that face so many problems. Do you want these problems imported in our bloc”? Quite the contrary is true. Accepting the Western Balkans means solution to these problems. I think your message was really important and your message is that we need to work all together in the region, despite the slowness or concerns or anything else on the part of the European Union, if we see that this is our perspective.

It was being talked about Turkey. A European roadmap was once devised to change Turkey and, at some point, Turkey said this is not Brussels’ program, but Ankara’s, we want to move forward, we want to change. This was many years ago. This European program should be our program, regardless of being member states or not. I think this is an important strategy. If we change mentality and say we need to primarily do things here in our region and if we succeed in doing that, Brussels will then see us differently. I have always stated we need to come together, because if we come together we would take a seat in the table of talks. However, when it comes to populism and nationalism, we see this phenomenon increasingly emerging throughout the world.

Yes, we can probably receive some questions before proceeding. I’m sure you have questions for Edi.

Question: Edi, when you entered politics you were known as an artist, a painter who joined the political scene and you are now starting a third term in office. As George said, the Western Balkans are isolated from the rest of Europe, but the region is also somehow isolated internally. If I have to travel from Podgorica, it will be a six-hour drive, even a nine-hour drive to Tirana for a 300 km distance only. In other words, it is much easier to travel to Vienna or Budapest rather than to Skopje and Tirana. The Western Balkans, the Green Agenda, common market, and the EU investment package in the Western Balkan are all things requiring internal integration. Is this possible? You, alongside President Vucic and Prime Minister Zaev, have launched the Mini-Schengen initiative. It was the first regional initiative. My question is very simple; representatives from half of the Western Balkan countries are here in this room today. Three very sensitive issues were discussed a day ago. Can you all come together and take further steps on energy, for example, so that another step is taken towards establishing a common market, which would then integrate into the EU common market through railways and highways so that the region makes progress and moves forward by integrating internally. So, it is all about very practical things like energy, economy and the green economy.

PM Edi Rama: First of all, I would like to thank you for providing the opportunity to be highlighted for what I really am, the world’s best, so I am the best Prime Minister among painters and the best painter among prime ministers. I am unique in this respect. George Bush tried, but failed the challenge, and therefore nobody is challenging me here because, as you know, we in the Balkans need to say we are the best in the world on something.

Going back to serious issues, it is pretty obvious that that while we are finding difficult to agree with the EU, this is because they love us a lot, yet can’t marry us, while we keep preparing for the wedding, we have to do everything, to make the region resemble to the EU, implement the 4 freedoms of the EU, make the borders completely fluid and make trade exchanges also fluid. I can provide an interesting figure for the economists here. The truck border wait time at the Western Balkan borders, namely to cross through them and travel to Thessaloniki or Durres, is estimated at 1100 years in one year. So, the trucks wait 1100 years at the border just to cross the non-tariff barriers and provide double or even treble documents in phytosanitary aspect, for example. So, finding a solution to this would actually unleash a huge potential and if we manage to do this, the effect on our GDP will be very significant, with this only, without any investment, but by simply removing non-tariff barriers in the region. This is something we have been discussing for a long time now.

Unfortunately, I hate this Mini-Schengen notion, because I don’t actually like the mini things by definition.

I am too tall to like such things. We started the process from the very beginning as a regional Schengen area to define what this initiative was, which means an area where the four EU freedoms are implemented. This is the reason we named it that way. We wasted several years, since Aleksandar Vucic insisted on the free movement of goods and capital, but not free movement of people for a simple reason. This is because if he was to agree on this it would meant that the border between Albania and Kosovo would practically be formal. In the meantime, he took a further step, which is really important, because I told him that if he fully accepts the four freedoms, then we would be doing again what we have been doing throughout our history, become the caricature of the original. No, we can’t do that. If we allow the free movement of goods, services and the capital, the three can’t be accomplished without the free movement of people. We agreed eventually and this opens up an incredible horizon of opportunities. Kosovo and Albin are not here, but I would have wished for him to be here, although, despite the countless rejections. So, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are not willing to join. Why? How come you don’t want something that sets you free? What we have agreed upon together with Aleksandar and Zoran is that– God forbid it because this is not like the EU – there is no reason for us to stipulate the consensus rule that prevails in the EU. We witnessed it recently with Bulgaria, for example, which refused to give its consensus, saying we won’t give our backing, because we have to settle some pending issues dating back to the 1900s.

The highways can’t bring democracy, but democracy without highways is a mess, it becomes a hell of a mess. We said, let the three of us do it, not to exclude others, but to convey the message that whoever wishes to join, they are welcome and only based on a bilateral basis. The whole project is not based on consensus or stuff like this, but it is purely mutual. So, if we want to fully implement it with North Macedonia, we can do so. If Kosovo wishes to implement it with us (Albania), North Macedonia or any other country except Serbia, it can do so. It is obvious that Serbia can’t demand that Kosovo should either implement it with every country or with none of them. Everything is open and it can allow us to go too far.

What being isolated from the EU and being isolated internally means? It is madness, total madness. Of course there are also these conspiracy theories, suggesting the project is on creating new Yugoslavia plus Albania. This is the alternative the Europeans are offering us so that it can take us somewhere.

No, it is not like that, because the process would eventually teach us how to live in an interstate space. And we will be readier when it comes to joining the EU later. In this sense, I see it as a great project.

Of course, energy could be a significant thing and we need to build synergies. We are too small and as such we can’t be competitive, we can’t be attractive to the major companies for them to invest in markets with two, three of five million people. But companies would think totally differently when considering investing in markets with over 20 million people. We need to do this without wasting time and it would be really bad to waste time.

The EU hesitated about this initially and this is actually the most ridiculous part of the whole story. They understand and they want this part of the common market, but it is us the ones who should do it. How come that there are countries like Kosovo, whose citizens cannot travel freely? During dictatorship, Kosovo citizens didn’t enjoy equal rights with the citizens from other countries in the former Yugoslavia, yet they could freely travel to Germany and Switzerland for employment purposes. The Western democracies liberated them, yet Kosovo citizens cannot travel freely. Although the EU has included more than 100 million people, including Georgians and others in a visa-free regime, Kosovo’s two million citizens cannot travel freely. It is the only population in Europe that can’t travel although the country has delivered on all the EU criteria.

The European Union initially agreed to liberalize the visa regime with Kosovo, but the issue of demarcation line with Montenegro emerged. It has been repeatedly stated by EU officials, including Angela Merkel, that issue of demarcation line should be solved first and the visas will be liberalized immediately. They did, but the visa-free regime was not adopted for the Kosovo citizens and they are now being asked to fight crime and corruption. Fighting crime and corruption is a story that goes on endlessly. Guess it. Dutch authorities are asking us to free them from the Albanian citizens, allegedly flooding the Rotterdam port, where the largest drug trafficking operations take place, but actually not by Albanians. We are told not to allow Albanians to ask asylum in the Netherlands and prevent them from doing so by staging disgraceful operation, being more brutal, cruel towards our citizens than the citizens on the French border. Meanwhile, French authorities come to Tirana airport, what for? For 1000 people. It is craziness and that is why I always highlight the European values in my speeches. I don’t think they are European values, I think they are universal values that the EU is fighting and trying to implement. We are trying to implement them on our side, but the EU is not the Vatican and we are not a church in some remote isolated villages in Argentina.

We all face problems we are fighting constantly, but a crazy double standard is applied. I think it is dangerous, because this shouldn’t be allowed to turn into an anti-EU thing. I am stating this as a totally pro-Europeanist, not as an anti-Europeanism. So, what we have is we, everyone in the region, and we also have the EU. The EU is not something we would change our mind. We also have the United States of America … [inaudible]. We were the first ones to go to war and so on and so forth, because we had become soldiers loyal to new empires, just because of the old ones. We were the last to break up with Soviet Union, we were the last one to leave China and we will be the last ones to leave the EU.

There is a joke. What does being euro-optimist and euro-pessimist mean? A euro-optimist would say that Turkey will join the EU when Albania would be holding the EU’s rotating Presidency, whereas a euro-pessimist would say Albania will become EU member state once Turkey will be holding the EU Presidency.

George Papandreou: We should to overcome disputes in our region too, because disputes are not what young people would ask for.

Edi, I know what you are and what you fight for and I am really happy for having such a spirit. Thank you Edi for being with us and good luck!

* Simultaneous interpretation