The interview of Defense Minister Olta Xhaçka at Abc News

Defense Minister Olta Xhaçka was on Abc News Channel in the "ABC Evening", where she held a conversation with journalist Mirela Milori.

I am in the studio with the Minister of Defense, Mrs. Olta Xhaçka. Welcome Mrs. Minister!

My pleasure, thank you for the invitation!

It's a pleasure to have you here. Last weekend we again had a flood situation. How is the situation? Have you got any preliminary valuation report? And how much did you intervene to prevent this situation?

In fact, of course, we make a valuations all the time, especially now that the Civil Emergencies is a responsibility of the Ministry of Defense. Our responsibility and obligation is much greater than only to react to the moment of natural disasters, floods or bad weather. Having as primary mission to preserve and save human lives first and foremost, then all the damages that come later, but also an added responsibility to keep up the pressure, to put some pressure on all those actors who have a role in preventing civil emergencies. From the moment of taking office I have experienced two civil emergencies, the one in December and the one happened already. We can say that despite the fact that the situation has been similar; the damage caused is much smaller than that of December. It is worth to say that we have had a very good coordination among all stakeholders, among all the state institutions responsible for responding to civil emergencies, especially with the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Infrastructure, the Ministry of Agriculture, but also with all other entities and all agencies that have a responsibility in emergency management. The role of prefectures and municipalities is also worth mentioning in this very good coordination that, I believe, was a success story for successfully coping with a situation that has been very problematic for all of us, especially for those people, who have suffered damage in their homes, in their crops, on their agricultural land.

I understand ... How is the co-operation with local government? I'm curious to know this because whenever there is a flood we face almost the same problem. So, there are landslides. We'll see a little later a video of a building in Gjirokastra, which has become an issue now. It is a building that was built 10 years ago; apparently the land had sliding problems just from the beginning. I do not know, we journalists do not know. The cause was taken by the prosecution and the court now. But we see desperate people who have long alarmed that this building is not stable, the land is sliding etc. It rains, the situation aggravates. What should be done to prevent this from happening? How is your co-operation between the central authority and the local authority?

It is currently very important to have preliminary information on all the predictions we have for a bad weather that can lead to river flooding causing damage to the population. And this is a very important and key moment, let's say, to take some preventive measures. And then for the reaction the coordination should be step by step. Well, it's about preventing and taking all the measures to alleviate the damage that can be caused by civil emergencies, which we do not always have in control, such as we cannot change the weather conditions. And yet, local government has an extraordinarily special role and responsibility in this process. I can not say that it did, at least today that I look at the optics of an institution that is responsible for Civil Emergencies, I can not say that has acted with its maximum responsibility. In the current Law on Civil Emergencies, municipalities, i.e. local governments, should design up to 3% of their budget to Civil Emergencies; which means funds for taking measures to prevent situations that are already known or repeated, to maintain roads, and possibly for the maintenance of the situation as we have seen in Gjirokastra. But not only so! Also coordinate with all actors when this option does not exist. And to have as much scientific data as the law foresees, then more than what it can allocate and what it can do. Unfortunately, we can not say that this is respected by all actors and by all municipalities. So we had a municipality where the situation is repeated because of illegal constructions, and because of the various problems that come from the chaotic development of these past 27 years. We are saying many residents who have found the land and have built by the river where it can not be built and unfortunately already suffer the consequences of a repeated flood. But it is very important to say that today we are seeing all the responsibilities of all actors through some legal changes, which we may consider a reform in the Civil Emergencies; to identify what the responsibilities are and to share these responsibilities a little better.

Will you intervene to have a regulator in the current law, in the current legislation, in your relationship between you and the local government?

Exactly! It can not be the military, or rather the police, that is, let's say the first reactor. It must be the municipality through a very good planning for the maintenance of its area of responsibility, taking preventive measures in those areas where floods or emergencies are repeated and then of course we can interfere with the police, with the army or with anyone else facing an emergency, which is where it is no longer managed. It is worth mentioning that local government has a very special responsibility both as a first responder and as a preventative of a process that would minimize the damage in case of an emergency.

What are the most problematic municipalities? You said that there is a 3% fund, which every municipality has to do in cases of civil emergencies. What are those municipalities that you have found in violation of this 3% or in the absence of vigilance for such a situation?

I can not currently do a general overview of this situation. I can tell that a large part of them are in violation of this obligation, despite the fact that the law is not completely tax-free, because municipalities can allocate 0-3%. However, we have an agreement with the prefectures not to approve the municipal budgets if they do not foresee the prevention of civil emergencies, and yet this is a discussion that we have at the moment. We are going to do a very transparent discussion process to find a better way to share the responsibility of local and central government for coping, but mostly for the prevention of emergencies. However, from the requests I have at MM for rock masses which endanger dwellings and communities, for bridges, which do not exist and are very important to connect isolated communities to the main roads of the streets, health centers, schools for children, I see that all these are requests, which could have been taken into account in the municipalities' budgeting for their communities, because even bridges that are built by the army are temporary, are not a permanent solution. Bailey bridges are a temporary solution until the municipalities invest in infrastructure to connect communities with centers and with schools. Thus to facilitate their daily lives, of children, of the elderly, of those in need of medical care, but one thing I see today in this task, which is very neglected and is intended to be fulfilled by the army, which has very limited capacity to address a request that is extremely large.

I know it is not your authority, but the Hoshtova bridge has collapsed, Orgocke Bridge has been damaged, the latter being at least 300 years old. It does not matter if it is under the custody of the Ministry of Culture, or not, what is worth mentioning here is that there are being damaged monuments of national heritage and it is known that the flow of rivers when there is flooding will ruin everything in its path. The question is: are you thinking about an agreement that when there is another flood, let's not say “This monumental bridge collapsed too!”, to go out to people who are again flooded, except for the blame they have. Hereupon, to maximize the cooperation between the state and the local government and then for the people who want to buy land without collector or do not work on their irrigation channels we make another appeal. There is room to believe in this reconciliation which I just mentioned before, at least for these monuments which are ours, are cultural, no matter under who or whose.

Monumental bridges unfortunately can be broken due to bad weather and flooding, and this, unfortunately, is not something we can prevent. Their maintenance in cases where there is a cultural monument, it is also the responsibility of the central government, but the municipality has the main responsibility for maintenance of the bridges, which in this case is led by the Ministry of Defense. We have had some media reports that some bridges that have been built and inaugurated by me as the Minister of Defense have also broken down, and it is worth pointing out here that even here, when we build a bridge, we create the opportunity to residents to get out of isolation and through the bridge they connect to the main road, or health centers and schools. The more qualitative the work of the municipality in the construction of the foot of these bridges, the more sustainable these bridges will be in case of an emergency or in the case of flooding of rivers or streams where these bridges are. And not only so, but also the maintenance of the bridges that we build is again the responsibility of the municipality, and the reinforcement of the feet is again the responsibility of the municipality, and the laying of stones to reverse the river ...

There will be people responsible when they do not perform their tasks and monumental bridges break. We are not just talking about bridges that are very important to connect two communities. We are talking about cultural monuments that are protected by the state. So here are many laws violated, above all our cultural heritage is violated, will there be people responsible who maybe do not do their job well, after your inspections?

Again, in the case of monumental bridges, I do not think it is a matter of responsibility. You know that anything that has been declared a cultural monument can not be disturbed, reinforced, and fixed up or restored except by experts. Maintenance and history is a matter of local government. I do not believe that in the case of the monumental bridge this is a matter of responsibility, but yes, I think that where all the actors have the responsibility and they have ceded to their responsibilities, justice has to act, so justice reform, I believe, will solve much for many things.

Let's see the big fishes once, and when we get to the bridge, who knows how much it will be cleansed. We talk about Albania's commitment to NATO. I consider here our commitment to peacekeeping missions. How good is our cooperation with NATO?

Our cooperation with NATO, frankly speaking, is very qualitative. Albania is a small country, and regarding the number of the AF it has an extraordinary engagement and it is now a generator of security beyond the borders of our country. The involvement of our country in the Alliance is a great and strategic achievement to us, which advances our national interest, in the projection of security in the conditions of NATO collective defense. At the moment we participate in a number of missions and NATO operations, and as I said regarding the number of AF, of the small country such as us, and also the budget allocated to defense, our representation is more than quality and we are ranked as one of the countries with the greatest engagement in collective defense and security. At the moment we are in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mali, Latvia, and in Aegean Sea with a patrolling boat, which you might have seen in the news saving many lives of the refugees, who clandestinely go through until the Turkish shores. It is also very important to note that our commitment is growing. For the time being we have 155 soldiers engaged in NATO missions and operations abroad but responding very positively to President Trump's strategy for Afghanistan, we will add our 60% contribution to Afghanistan in 2018, and from 155 soldiers we will go in 215 military for 2018.

The budget, meaning that the US has always insisted for NATO member states to have a 2% of their Defense Budget for the Alliance. In what figures are we?

We are currently at 1,2% of GDP as a defense budget. Of course, it is worth pointing out that budget growth at 2% is not just a challenge for us; it is a challenge for many other NATO allies. Of course, it is a challenge, because for a small country like ours, where the need for better quality in healthcare, better quality in education, better quality in services is very large and it is difficult to justify an ever-growing defense budget, in the conditions when it seems that there is no perceived danger ahead, or enemy in front. However, the defense budget is very important because it helps us move forward in the path of modernizing the army, in the way of increasing the operationality of all our military structures, which undoubtedly come to our aid and fulfill all the capacity objectives that we have as a NATO member country. We have a scheme agreeing with the allies, especially with our US ally, our strategic ally, that the defense budget grows incrementally each year and it should be 2% by 2023. We are going in accordance with this plan and that is very positive, and this is something which I have also had during the NATO Ministerial meeting with Secretary General Stoltenberg, and also in all other bilateral meetings with our counterparts with whom we have extraordinary cooperation, which is congratulated and appreciated.

In fact, there is an increased focus on this interview, and what I see from journalist colleagues, there is a question, apparently when they see government representatives, we have a question regarding the Sea Agreement with Greece. Was your ministry engaged in this agreement and which are the peculiarities, if you know anything about it?

In fact, this is a topic that is worth discussing with the Foreign Ministry. Minister Bushati, I have the impression, has made our position very clear. Certainly it will be a very transparent agreement, in our national interest, but also in terms of good neighborly relations with Greece, which, as you have heard today in Mogherini's statements, is a very important condition for our membership in The European Union, for the opening of negotiations.

It was one of the 6 recommendations in fact of the Enlargement Strategy. Will it be a different deal from Berisha’s? Better than Berisha’s? Will we give those 12 miles to Greece, or is it still negotiable, or are we still...?

This is not for me to say. As I said, it is an agreement that will be very transparent and in any case, in any case, much better than Berisha's and, in any case, in full conformity with our national interest.

Are these 12 miles discussed?

It is not for me to discuss it.

Agreed. How is the situation in the government? Bear in mind justice reform of these days, I will ask you a little later, has started implementing. There have been some stops at certain levels, but how does it feel, what is the government's spirit at the moment?

I think that even being part of the government and following closely the dynamics created in the joint work, I would say that it is a very collegial relationship, it is a very constructive relationship, it is a very cooperative relationship and, because, as we have been through civil emergencies, the part of successfully coping with emergencies is an indication of the fact that there is an extremely good cooperation between all institutions to fulfill what is our main mission to serve the interests of Albanian citizens. And I believe that at least in this situation we have shown the most that has been a recipe of success that has come as a result of the cooperation of all and the finding of the word, the best coordination of all actors.

The Enlargement Strategy today had prospectives, which were seen in different perspectives. There are journalists, analysts or people who have known the dynamics of the progress of the integration process, who say nothing new is said, but in your opinion, do you think it will be your government, which will open negotiations with the European Union?

I believe that since the opening of negotiations with the European Union, it is not the government who would benefit most, but would benefit all Albanian citizens, who have their primary aspiration to integrate into the European family. And I believe that today we are at a very important crossroad, this crossroad leads only to the Reform in Justice. I also believe that Justice Reform is the key which will open a door that will advance the integration process through the opening of negotiations and I am very hopeful that this will happen. And yet I'm sorry to see this process is happening backwards in the sense that I think it should have been different: it should not have been the government that wants Reform in Justice, the opposition that does not like the Reform in Justice, or the people and the citizens who do not contemplate. It should have been the opposition, the youth or the youth should be looking for it in the name of the future, should be the people or the citizens who should support it, it was supposed to be the opposition and should have been the government that passes it. Therefore, today, all that we are seeing, especially with the opposition, is unwillingness to cooperate to open this door, so to open the negotiations and to push forward the interest of 99% of the aspiring Albanians in the European family. Opposition today is in parliament to represent only 1% of those who are afraid of Justice Reform.

The opposition thinks reform is selective: you elected a chief prosecutor; you will investigate those who will want positions, especially with the ban on some former LSI leaders, both of them and one of the DP, the opposition thinks everything is being done with witch hunting?

Fortunately, the whole process of reform has been such a collegial process and so transparent that I do not believe there is any excuse today that can justify what the opposition is doing. Moreover, it was not a process that was initiated and completed only through the will of the government and its representatives throughout the Justice Reform process. Rather, it was a process that was assisted by our American partners and our European partners. And it is a process done in the best spirit of cooperation and the law on a Reform in Justice that would bring Albania to the parameters of justice as it should have been and I believe that this was the primary interest of all, not only of the government. And there should not be a double standard in how we approach this problem. So I say that today we are at a very important crossroads and Justice Reform and cooperation with the opposition on Justice Reform, to advance this process so crucial to the interest of all Albanians is very, very important. So I think that the hand of cooperation is not only stretched out to us, but it is spreading in the entire Albanian people to push their aspiration forward.

Do you think Justice Reform will penalize even members of the Rama Government or SP deputies?

But this is irrelevant. It is not discussed here who will penalize Justice Reform. We want a state of right that looks right into the eye and gives the right to the one who has it, not the one who is stronger or the one who has the most money. If Justice Reform will seize any left-wing, right-wing MP, either in opposition or in government, there is absolutely no consequence for what we are saying to bring Albania forward, to live Europe here, within the borders of our country and, then, to seek to integrate into Europe. And this is a very important condition for everyone and it has nothing to do with: who will seize Justice Reform or who will not get the Reform in Justice. Reform in Justice will serve to all Albanians whatever they are, politicians or not.

How did you see the opposition, I have in mind the way of making the opposition in parliament, we have seen the general prosecutor's election session, we have seen the last parliamentary session, but the opposition has also made a protest on 27 January and warned a another protest on 20 February.
Is your government afraid that it can collapse from these opposition protests and the way opposition is faced with you?

I was a representative of the SP even when we were in opposition, without question we organized protests. Governments do not collapse...

You've been striking you ...

We also carried out a hunger strike, and we did it very peacefully to pursue the right thing. At that time was the transparency of elections and the opening of boxes. Nothing happened, except for our health, but we strongly believed that it was a peaceful way to reach a goal. At that time we did not succeed, and nevertheless, I do not believe in any case that the governments of a democratic country fall or rise through protests. This has no chance to happen! But, I respect the right of every citizen to peacefully protest all those things they think they are not right. Even to be represented through the voice of the opposition, for the ruling alternative that they think might be the best. Yet history in the end in a democratic country is always decided by votes. There is no government collapsing because of protests! But again I stress, I respect the right of everyone to protest and no harm comes to us from the protests, nothing bad comes from the opposition voices. The best is to be all together when it comes to national interest.

How is opposition to parliament in this session?

Again, I will say what I just said a bit earlier: the denial of all the important development processes of the country. It is very important for the opposition to come to parliament to represent the voice of the opposition, to represent the voice of those who think differently from us, and to advance an agenda that they think is better to improve laws that are discussed there, for the benefit of the citizens and in accordance with their interest. Unfortunately they are not doing it. At this moment no longer is discussed about the laws, no longer discussed on the best governing and programming options, only discussed to prevent, just to destroy and just to block the path of Albania's European integration. And this is not at all constructive and is not at all democratic.

Thank you Mrs. Minister!

Thank you!



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