Interview with Defense Minister Olta Xhaçka

Minister Xhaçka interview with journalist Thimi Samarxhiu from VIZION PLUS, on Civil Emergencies, NATO summit, defense budget, Macedonia, Kosovo, Russia and other security issues.

We today participated in a demonstration of the of Civil Emergencies Forces; what is the level of readiness of Albania to face a situation like that of a few days ago in Greece?

Xhaçka: Thank you for the opportunity of this interview. This activity was not just a demonstration of the forces as this is a very small part of the capacity we have and do not believe there is a country that is really prepared for any natural disasters in the form of civil emergencies. There has been a very good mobilization of all emergency forces both at the local and central level, and as I have seen in their media, there has been a tremendous commitment in the form of solidarity by all Greek citizens to help families of people affected by this terrible disaster.

I do not believe Greece was prepared and I do not believe that none of us would have been prepared to face an alarming situation like that. We are taking all the measures, of course within the limits Albania has in financial terms to have the best means, and the need to have a law that I have long emphasized, a law that coordinates all actors better. This law should put all actors in charge more accountable and a law where everybody knows their responsibility, not just to cope with civil emergencies but also to take precautionary measures to avoid such situations as these situations could have been prevented in advance.

How is cooperation with local authorities that they are the main responsibilities even though they are in the Ministry of Defense and Civil Emergencies?

Xhaçka: The Civil Emergency Law today provides that the local authority is the main planning authority, not only of the declared civil emergency structures, but also of all resources, whether financial or capacity, to plan, but also for preventing, particularly vulnerable countries, although year after year the various problems have shown, such as the area of Nen-Shkodra, or Theth, due to the snowstorm.
Of course, we have been ready during these months that the Civil Emergencies have been our responsibility, not thanks to the capabilities exposed here today, but thanks to the dedication of the people in uniform, thanks to the education and training they have, to do a job that may be self-sacrificing. We have also seen it in November - December in Fier and Vlora, and during March in the area of Shkodra, in the floods there, that the Armed Forces were engaged day by night in operations that for others seemed very dangerous and all others surrendered and raised their hands. We came out so that we would not have any human casualties but no loss in livestock, and we have preserved everything without damages during these emergencies that were not small at all.

Since the Civil Emergencies have passed to the Ministry of Defense, there have been rumors that this move has been made to raise the budget, that famous 2% . What is the truth about this movement?

Xhaçka: The truth is that it does not increase any budget, because the Civil Emergencies if not having the capabilities that come from the Armed Forces today, or yesterday, by the Public Order Forces, could not do anything except they would be a coordinating office of 10 people for local and central government. The national budget that we have available for Civil Emergencies is several times smaller and quite negligible compared to the budget of a large municipality that, according to the law, should be dedicated to civil emergencies.
The Civil Emergency Law today provides for a 3% allocation of its budget There are many municipalities that do not do this, but if they did, it would be such a huge amount that they would be able to take precautionary measures such as river embankments, drainage drains, slag and salt for road maintenance during the winter, maintenance of drainage channels to prevent their blocking. Secondary roads are subordinate to the municipality; I am not referring to the national roads, but the secondary roads, because not all live in the vicinity of the main axes. The municipality plays a very important role. If the law would stipulate some penalties which it lacks for those municipalities that do not do what they should do in order to fulfill their responsibility, to be the main coordinator and responsible in their territory of civil emergencies, the situation would be otherwise.

Have you asked for this?

Xhaçka: Yes, I have ! We are in the process of reforming all the Civil Emergencies. We are also reviewing the law and by the end of this month we will have a completed draft that will soon undergo a public consultation to see the best opportunities that the law can provide for coordinating all actors in responding to all emergencies, but also in taking measures and preventing them, which is even more important than responding.

In September - October there will be a law that will force municipalities to pay three percent.

Xhaçka: In September - October we will have a public consultation and I hope that the law will come up with some penalties for all those who have the responsibility for managing the Civil Emergencies and fail to fulfill their duties properly.

As we covered the 2%, let us discuss another topic: two weeks ago, the NATO Summit was held, where there was a debate about President Trump's speech and his stance. He is known as an atypical politician. How this was Summit and what new things did it bring to Albania and what did Albania take from this Summit?

Xhaçka: As you have seen in the media in the Summit, there has been a discussion called "burden-sharing," a more equal and fair share of the burden that all NATO member countries have towards the Alliance, joint operations and missions. Albania is not among those countries. I followed the discussion as well as different comments. Albania, even if it allocates 2% of its budget, it would be a drop of water compared to what other countries with much more consolidated finances could make.
But, on the other hand, Albania is a country that is highly congratulated for its spirit of solidarity through participation in joint operations and missions. In Afghanistan, which is the most important Alliance mission, Albania is ranked as the second largest contributor country by all the others. Our contribution there, in percentage of the Armed Forces, is in second place compared with other countries. Albania ranks 13th out of 29 member states for its contribution to all of its NATO joint missions. At this point we have undoubtedly our fair share of burden-sharing. We have a plan already reconciled with the Allies and the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance to reach 2% by 2024 and nevertheless we have never been in the corner or under pressure on the percentage of the budget allocated to the Alliance but we have been congratulated many times so far that I have had the opportunity to witness myself by being personally in these ministerial, or even in this last Summit.

We have been congratulated l for the high quality commitment and contribution we have brought, with very dedicated people, and with very well-trained ones, in the joint missions of the Alliance.

How did you feel in the corridors of the Summit, where President Trump's presence was felt, and he is an atypical president and has broken many taboos? I remember your post on face book as you gave the news about Albania's proposal. What did President Trump actually say?

Xhaçka: America is the country that holds the Alliance's main burden and dedicates more than 4% of its budget to the Armed Forces and is the main contributor to the design of peace beyond its borders. So I'm in not in the position to comment on the president's statements.
The spirit is a fairly shared burden. It is President Trump who has repeatedly called on allies, mainly those with stronger and more consolidated economies to dedicate more budget to the Defense, to what are today's challenges and those that are supposed to be challenges of the future, for which the Alliance will have to re-dimension its position, but also the commitment of each ally in coordinating this joint alliance.

President Trump underlined the prime minister's word during the dinner with the heads of state, placing great importance on his words. The fact that he selected our prime minister’s words from all the others and borrowed his words to convey the messages or to reinforce the messages, is undeniably very encouraging for a small country like Albania, which is a very important contributor. This is one thing that the US Secretary of Defense Matis has emphasized and re-emphasized whenever we met, Albania is a place whose geography and size do not matter compared to its dedication and its strength to be part of common efforts.

As you mentioned geography, at this Summit, Macedonia received the formal invitation to be part of NATO. It seems that the entire area is surrounded by countries are part of NATO. How is our region affected by the fact that Macedonia will be part of the Alliance?

Xhaçka: I think this was one of the best news of this Summit. It is news that personally in this new duty I enjoyed very much. This news should make us all very happy, in the sense of the Euro-Atlantic perspective of the entire region. Undoubtedly, the invitation for Macedonia to start NATO membership talks is a step forward to this very important perspective of our region.
I think we have always been a stability factor for the region, we have been the promoter of NATO open door policy in the region as an opportunity to push forward this aspiration not only in Albania but throughout the region and I believe this was undoubtedly a great news. Immediately after the Summit, it was my initiative that I invited the American secretary when I was in Washington to visit the region and visit Croatia or Montenegro, where the A5 meeting would take place, as the organizer for the A5 -this was Montenegro together with Croatia.
The secretary came and I made a proposal for A5 to open its doors and expand, where they could invite Kosovo, why not Serbia, if they would accept it always as a precursor to this journey, which Macedonia is doing today, for joining NATO.

How do you consider the creation of the Kosovo army?

Xhaçka: Kosovo has its own army. Its force is a real armed force. They are well-educated and well-trained; I've seen this myself in the frequent exchanges we have had. The issue of Kosovo is just a matter of transforming that force into an armed force, it is a constitutional issue. If they will resolve the constitutional problem with the Serbian minority, which conditions the votes in parliament for this, certainly according to the allies and NATO, I believe that this is a matter to be solved.

So Kosovo has all the means to have an armed force?

Xhaçka: As I said it is only a matter of votes in parliament, it is reconciliation with the allies, because transforming the force into Armed Forces must definitely be in a very good reconciliation with the main allies, but it is not a matter of capacity, or of professionalism of force. I am convinced that the Kosovo Security Force is such with very good capacities with very well trained soldiers, but it is the conditionality that the Serb minority in the Parliament is doing, so the issue of the Constitution should be resolved and I think it will be resolved quickly.

What about Russian influence. How much is this Russian influence?

Xhaçka: I can say that whenever people were talking about it, they became ridiculous because it looked like a scene from a spy movie. I do not want to limit how big this impact is, but it's enough to really bother the Alliance and undoubtedly America, despite all the various discussions and comments we hear today. Let me remind you of Montenegro two years ago, or England shortly before on the Skripal case, which seems like interventions that could have exponential consequences or interventions in the territory of such important allies, which have escalating consequences that bring major problems. It was the case of Skripal, which has made all allies together to make an exemption of Russian officials, embassies, or their different representations. And we were part of this initiative by deporting two representatives, one of them being a military attaché.

To your knowledge, has any attaché been appointed?

Xhaçka: No. We are aligned with the position of the Alliance with the position of NATO and we have been part of joint commitments also in what is called advanced groups that have been established in the Baltic countries to withstand the Russian influence at the border, but also becoming part of all the operations through our contribution, even for those of hybrid influences, that don’t involve soldiers, or people, but that are both cyber and of various forms.

In your speech, you said earlier that you give a message to the mayors that the Armed Forces will always help people in need. Why do Albanians have to trust the Armed Forces?

Xhaçka: I think that should not have asked this question. Should they have more confidence today that the structure of Civil Emergencies is a structure of the Armed Forces or not? I think yes. They need to have more faith today because I do not believe there are more dedicated people who have sworn before the flag that they will serve the homeland at all times and do so with a lot of sacrifice and with many limitations and selflessness. They are a group of people who are not few, there are 10,000 people who have shown through their work, even through various limitations that they are willing to take very difficult and selfless duties and do what it takes or what is required of them. We have also seen the recent emergencies that they were the first and the last to be dismissed even when all the others have given up. They must be trusted more today even where the municipality, police, and other central structures cannot be successful, they will always be our military to withstand the difficulties and do their utmost to secure the lives of citizens, property of the citizens and to save everything that is endangered by natural disasters, from civil emergencies. On the other hand, I want to assure you that we are in full readiness during this month that everyone else is resting, on our side there will be no rest, and for all our emergency structures there will be no holidays, but they will all be in charge of doing their best to cope with everything that may happen during this hot season.



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