The interview of Defence Minister Olta Xhaçka for Report TV




I would like to start with the proposals you made to Secretary Mattis: What were these proposals?

In fact, I wanted to start with a preamble to say that Albania, as a NATO member country, is a very trustworthy ally for the Alliance, and also for its strategic US partner. It is a trusted partner because of the readiness of its efforts to increase the operational efficiency of the Armed Forces, and also to all commitments to the Alliance and EU missions; it is a reliable ally because it plays an important role in the overall stability, and an important role in the stability of the region. Albania is a promoter of NATO's open door policy and assistance to all countries in the Western Balkans aspiring to become part of the Euro Atlantic Family and for us this destination is very important and we have been a really powerful promoter of this politics and of this philosophy. For this reason, Albania has demonstrated through its operational engagement and missions, through being on the right side, being part of the Alliance, but also through its commitments to modernize the army, increasing the Defense budget by up to 2% by 2024, just as the prime minister's commitments were, also of other countries at the Welsh summit, and at the same time a constant demand of partners.

How much is this budget at the present?

Currently, the budget is 1.2% and we have had a trend on the increase that will continue to be so until 2024. For all these reasons, Albania is today, I would say the most reliable Ally in the region. And since NATO has not developed its capacities in the Western Balkans, so in our region, since the security situation in the Western Balkans has changed and in my view this requires a greater NATO or US attention, my proposal has been be it the bilateral format in the US or in the NATO format, if there were any capacity development in the region, Albania would naturally be a contact point, an ally worthy of having a footprint, or, as I have often heard in the media, a military base. Not necessarily a military base, it could be a military base, it could be a training center, but it would certainly be a trace of the Alliance or our US strategic partner in Albania, which would be representative of the entire region.

Do we have the right infrastructure; I refer to land and navy. As far as I know the airspace is still controlled today by NATO countries, like Italy?

There are a lot of opportunities. We have made available our land, air and sea capabilities. There are opportunities to develop the capacity in fuel supply, opportunities to develop our marine bases, opportunities to develop our training centers in function of the Alliance or US exercises. There are plenty of opportunities. What I did was a proposal to consider these opportunities.

What was the answer of the Secretary of Defense?

He really showed his support for a country like Albania, and I would also say gratitude for a country like Albania, which regardless of its geographic size or its possibilities or inability, has been a great contributor to the Alliance. It is worth saying that our operational engagements, missions in operations compared to our population or the number of Armed Forces remain among the highest in the Alliance. Certainly, this was one of the elements that Secretary Mattis, but also other Alliance leaders, have constantly evidenced and have always commended with great gratitude.

Is there a near US or NATO plan to establish a base in Albania?

No, there is no close plan for either the US or NATO to establish a base in Albania. It was only a topic of discussion that we had, it was a proposal made by myself, whether to show the importance of expanding our strategic cooperation, our strategic partnership, but also to make available to the Alliance as well as to the US, our land, navy and air force capacity. This does not mean that there is a close plan, absolutely no, but a NATO or US base would be absolutely very favorable to Albania. Not only would strengthen this strategic partnership with the United States and the Alliance, but it could indicate that Albania is a reliable ally and a point of contact for the Alliance in the Western Balkans region, and at the same time would bring investment near the area.

So we would have economic benefits you say ...

No doubt, in the place where the project would develop.

In fact, I would like to ask you about the visits of our Defense Ministers which have been a bit frequent, before you there was Mrs. Kodheli in the US. What was the purpose of this visit? Was there any concern from the Pentagon in relation to security in the region, or was it a normal bilateral visit?

There is a normal bilateral visit; such visits are not frequent to the Pentagon.

That is why I asked noticing that within two years there have been two Defence Ministers.

During this visit, a bilateral negotiation was conducted to explore all possibilities for expanding our cooperation and the support that the US has consistently provided to the Armed Forces, training, education and modernization. The progress of these negotiations, the development of these talks is within this support that America has given us continually and continues to deliver us steadily and constantly.

When we talk about cooperation obviously the question arises naturally, does the government have plans to buy weapons from the US?

It is not a matter of plan. The modernization of AFs is a daily challenge. The US has just donated us many armored vehicles that are really a tremendous aid to the achievement of the capacity objectives, the commitments we have declared to the Alliance, to make the Armed Forces and more precisely the entire infantry component much more interoperable with the forces of the Alliance and of course much more well-equipped and modernized to face the challenges in Alliance missions and operations. This has been a tremendous help. The US has given us continuous assistance in training and educating our own practitioners, as all modernization or all of these opportunities would be useless if we did not invest in human capital.

We have a figure today, what is the number of these vehicles (we have also seen in the streets), do we have an exact number of vehicles that will be given to Albania as a gift?

There will be many, and will certainly be deployed at some moments. There are a few hundred.

Regarding the armaments, are they also provided to the Naval and Air Force?

Modernization is a continuous process, it is a challenge, because it is a process closely linked to the budget available to the Defense and, of course, for a country that has urgent needs for infrastructure, schools, hospitals, roads, for more quality services, economic aid, etc., it is difficult to have, let's say a very strong argument to increase the defense budget, in the conditions when there is no enemy behind the door or an eminent danger presented to the country. However, despite the fact that there is none, the Alliance as a whole faces today many challenges that are different from what they were yesterday, asymmetrical, hybrid and that are of a nature that undoubtedly want to address together a collective way just as we are doing. Under these conditions the modernization of the army is a challenge, and at the same time a necessity. We are trying to find a very good balance with the engagement of the Prime Minister and with the engagement of the Minister of Finance, but fortunately because of the good management of public finances we have achieved that at least during the last two years, the budget for Defence has seen the increase anticipated, to meet the parameters that by 2024 the percentage of Gross Domestic Product for the defense budget would be 2%. Of course 2% will solve many of the issues we have. However, as I said, modernization is a daily challenge. Today we can say that we are in the conditions where we have replaced or are replacing all the old Chinese or Russian armaments and are equipped with the most modern weaponry with NATO standards. We are arming the Armed Forces with our best armor meeting the standards; the Military Police with the best standard armor, automatic, mortars, troop armor, which are very necessary to be interoperable with our allies in a theater of war or in a joint operation are undeniably the daily achievements of our AF, but also the challenges for the future.

Still, can we afford to buy a fighter aircraft or is it soon to talk about it?

No, it's too soon. We have an Air Force that is helicopter-oriented and our needs are such.

Why is this not part of the strategies, as we used to have when we were an isolated country, an airline fleet? Is it considered unnecessary nowadays, and still we see that our neighboring countries are well armored in this regard.

There is also logic in the AAF development and modernization. It would be nice to have more ships, more jets, and more guns to a certain caliber.

But a modest fleet would not have been bad.

There is also logic about how an army of a country like ours is a member of NATO. In cooperation with our allies we have stated some called capacity objectives, what are our short, medium and long term objectives to modernize our AF and to make it interoperable and this is a step-by-step process that is reconciled with our partners. They, together with us, identify what are our immediate needs and then invest jointly to achieve these objectives in the function of the collective goals of Collective Defense.

Mrs. Minister, returning to your visit with Mattis again, is there an American concern about what is going on in the region, about Russian influence or other actors, and did that concern appear in the meeting you had?

Undoubtedly there is an American concern and concern of the Alliance. Today, the alliance, as i mentioned, faces a security environment quite different from what it was yesterday, the influence, is the alliance's slim jargon, the influence coming from the East or the South.
I noticed that in the media my rhetoric or that of the Alliance, the threats coming from the south was misinterpreted. Someone interpreted it as we were referring to Greece. It is not about Greece. It is about Russia, which is the East of the Alliance, and it is about the Middle East and North Africa that is the South of the Alliance. And both of these poles, let's say, are very important for what is happening today and the main attention is to them. Of course I made an argument that I am not alone in this logic that the Western Balkans today also needs greater attention of the Alliance due to the asymmetric and hybrid threats that come from the East, that is to say, from Russia, whether through a greater influence on it; whether from the South that is terrorism, illegal immigration, which may also affect our affairs.

There has been a few days ago a ceremony about new recruits joining the AAF. Is there a willingness on the increase of young people to join the military? There has been a lack of volunteering to join the AF, as a profession, which is an important branch of our country. How has this changed? What conditions does the army provide for a youngster who wants or has ambition to be part of the army?

I thank you very much for asking me this question because I believe it is an extremely important question and it is a very special concern that I have. And I'm going to be very honest to say that that we see some interest, and there is no interest. Today, the treatment of our soldiers is not what it should be; it is not the one we would want it to be for them. However, a career in the military and a military profession, despite being subjected to many sacrifices and restrictions, is one of the most honorable professions that gives pride to anyone who exercises it and also to his children, serving with devotion and patriotism more than any other to his country. It is a profession that offers many opportunities. Perhaps it is difficult for a young man who does not know the army because it is generally one of those institutions whose work is not famous, so it is not very visible, and it is also difficult to really show how it is the work of a soldier and which his conditions to advance in career are. We should look at other countries, allied countries, how a military career advances, coming at the highest ranks, and what benefits it has from the education system or the extraordinary training not only taken in our country, but in our allied countries. There are opportunities for scholarships and master classes in the most important military centers in the world, in the world's most prestigious military schools, with tremendous opportunities to advance not only as a man, as an intellect, but also as a very good professional are countless for someone who has the will and the desire to advance in his career as a military.

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