Swedish Ambassador: “Albanians’ drive is an asset towards EU accession”

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times January 31, 2020 11:56

Swedish Ambassador: “Albanians’ drive is an asset towards EU accession”

Story Highlights

  • Swedish Ambassador to Tirana Elsa Hastad discusses the history of Albania-Sweden relations, progress in key development areas, support toward the country’s EU accession and the best way to move forward in that direction.

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By Sidonja Manushi 

Located at Tirana’s Student City, the Swedish Embassy would stand inconspicuous amid the area’s similar two or three storey vilas if it wasn’t for the blue and yellow flag hanging at its entrance. 

Officially established in 2010, Sweden’s diplomatic representation in Albania lacks the usual, sometimes seemingly redundant, security measures one has to go through in other, bigger, embassies in Tirana, although it offers the country’s European Union integration perspective some of the most substantial help it receives momentarily. 

Just like the embassy’s exterior, Ambassador Elsa Hastad’s office is simple, minimal in its decoration and warm both in temperature and feeling. She is only the second Swedish Ambassador to Albania, residing in Tirana since September 2019, yet looks entirely at home with the country – even some of its more peculiar aspects, such as the drum-banging and music playing Roma-community children, who go around singing along in the embassy’s neighborhood in broad daylight. 

“Ah, this is nice,” she comments, smiling as they pass underneath the office where Hostad begins to recall the history between Albania and Sweden, which in 2019 marked fifty years of diplomatic ties. 

“When I was going back to our archive and looking at the beginning of our relationship and the reason why we restarted our relationship fifty years ago, it was because of an increased tourism from Sweden to Albania. But I think in the beginning it was also a lot of political exchange, and political relations…Swedish people were interested in Albania’s communism, because we had a lot of organizations and politically active people, so I think our relations fifty years ago was built on political interest, maybe more than everything else. But then, after dictatorship fell and Albania became a democratic country, after the war in Yugoslavia, we also started our development cooperation, and our relationship very quickly turned into a partnership, a desire to help Albania become a democratic country…the country Albania wanted to become,” she says.

In this process, Ambassador Hastad explains how Sweden did – and is doing – everything in its power to assist the long and sometimes difficult process. That includes institution building, democracy, economic development and environment, which even at this day are quoted as some of the embassy’s priority areas in the country. 

“In the later years we have stepped up and increased our cooperation and we are still doing that. The later period was very much about establishing an embassy, having an ambassador and intensifying our relations. We have tourists coming…last year, we had thirteen percent increase of Swedish tourists, showing how Swedish people are getting interested in Albania, and overall moving from a quite closed tie to a development cooperation and now opening up for everyone,” she says, recounting the arch of half a century of give-and-takes between our seemingly distant countries. 

According to Hastad, work is still to be done, especially in the area of business promotion and cultural development partnerships, which means Albanian citizens have more to look forward to and benefit. And yet, in the midst of all that Sweden has done for Albania in the last fifty years, Hastad does not overlook some beneficial lessons received in return, such a shared lesson of the characteristics – and downfalls – of communism. 

“I think that in Sweden we had groups of people who deeply believed in communism and I think that when these people had an exchange with dictatorships they actually saw the bad sides of communism and that was also perhaps a learning process. Some of them, today maybe called a bit naive, were impressed by the communist system, they were traveling in other communist countries, so I think it worked both ways – for some to see, firsthand, and then to understand that it was not all-that-good,” she tells. 

But more than the sixties and seventies’ communist sympathizers, Hastad says, had to learn  the Swedish society and all civil society organizations, grass-roots movements, civil servants and experts of statistics working for almost 19 years – the entire transition period – in Albania,  who liked it because of the sincere people wanting to change. 

“That was a learning experience for Swedish people, to see a society in transition and to stop and reflect on their own country…so it still is a learning process, and this is why the development cooperation is so important – because you have this meeting between civil society, institutions, experts and in that meeting, you understand things.”

The Swedish contribution to Albania, which always comes with the clear intention in mind to eventually reach European Union accession, a goal which Sweden has and continues to support, is approximately 15 million euros a year – second in line after Germany. Over half of that, 64 up to 70 percent, goes to democracy, human rights and institutions. However, Sweden’s really strong assets regarding its presence  in Albania, is gender equality and civil society. Not surprisingly, as Sweden’s one work with gender equality is phenomenal – the country has a feminist approach towards everything, starting from its foreign policy, to its feminist government and overall approach. In Albania, as the ambassador tells, this has more to do with including men than anything else, because it might be even more about them, in societies like Albania’s, to achieve equality than about the women themselves. 

No matter what the area is – be it human rights or local democracy – the Swedish way always remains the same: deliver services to the people. 

“Sweden has a long tradition of strong communities, where your basic service is delivered in the commune, and we’ve been trying to work with Albania too on that, because that’s how you get your basic needs. Education, healthcare, they are so important and we are working a lot with that. Everything we do for the last seven years has had a very clear goal of EU accession and not one projec goes by without this idea – all the things you have to do to become a member. Environment regulations, civil society, free media, economic environment…and we work in many of these areas,” Hastad says. 

Currently, among other projects, the Swedish Embassy is working with the Ministry of Environment to teach it how to apply a correct system of environmental regulations. Hastad calls it “bureaucratic, hard work, but also the only way to do it to become EU members.” 

“It’s all about regulations, rules, to be sustainable in what you do, well organized….it’s about that. It’s not just about gathering plastic bags; you can do that, but it’s not enough. You have to have your system in place, your regulation in place, and this is hard work. You have to make sure your waste is taken care of, have a system for that. In Sweden, we recycle 99 percent of our waste while Albania recycles maybe 4 percent …what do you do with the rest?” she asks earnestly, one of the most difficult questions. 

For Hastad, what makes Sweden’s development cooperation good is precisely preaching the approach that Albania will need for a successful EU future – and that is mixing a good system with deliverable results for the end users. 

“We have EU accession on the one side, but also people’s needs, and we try to bring them together, because you cannot forget about the people. If you talk about water management, that is about the system, but it’s also about people getting clean water, so we have to have these two things in mind at the same time – and we are good at that,” she says.

Facts support these claims – Sweden globally is one of the biggest donors, with one percent of its GDP per year going towards development programs around the world. It is actually one of the very few countries in the world who do that, as most countries give from 0.3 to 0.7 percent of their GDP, with the latter being the UN goal. Sweden has surpassed that, managing to give one percent for many years. 

“We take from our tax payers money and we count our GDP and then we commit and decide that every year we take one percent and give to development cooperation around the world, and that includes many fields. It started in the 70s, when the UN told the rich countries to give as much as 0.7 percent of their GDP to poorer countries. Many said yes, but not many managed to do it. For Sweden, however, this is an extremely important question and every year we give 1 percent by parliamentary consensus. We also keep measuring people’s perceptions, as its their money we give away, and a high percentage is happy with the way their money is being used,” she explains, speaking for a country that does not just remember what being an EU aspirant state is, but also shows solidarity with those still trying. 

As for the ambassador, she believes Albania’s efforts in joining the EU have not gone unnoticed, despite the EU member states’ decision in October 2019 to once again postpone negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. 

“I think you have to see the message of how many countries were for opening negotiations – approximately 25 out of 28. It’s an enormous amount of countries in the EU which want to see Albania open accession negotiations, it’s a majority, and I think that sends a strong message that Albania also needs to take into consideration. The other thing is, I think Albania took it well. You continued to work, continued with the justice reform, which is such an important part of the negotiation process, and overall decided that ‘okay, we didn’t get the answer we want, but let’s continue to do the work.’ And I think that’s the only way to do it, because all the countries are watching Albania and even the countries which didn’t give a green light, they want Albania in,” she says. 

Furthermore, Hastad doesn’t believe the latest decision – or, ‘indecision’ as she calls it – has even managed to alter the country’s, or region’s for that matter – relations with the EU, as citizens questioned in polls are readier than ever to join the big EU family. 

“You have such a high percentage of people who want to join the EU – even after the latest decision, the percentage has increased, which means you have a strong driving sense, and that is good. In addition, you don’t have divided political factors about this. On the contrary, you are in agreement, and that was not the case in Sweden 25 years ago,” she recalls. 

Elsa Hastad has me leaving her office with a fresh air of optimism and hope, as someone who does not only believe the EU is doing its job right and not forgetting other areas that are important for the lives of Albanians but not paid as much attention to, but also as someone who recognized the good happening in the country at the moment – something most people don’t.

“Albanians, as I see them, are occupied with finding problems…looking for them and talking about them, and that’s human…but when you come as I do, with fresh eyes, it’s easy to see how much you have achieved that other countries dream about. Renewable energy through hydropower, religious tolerance, visa liberalization, you can evoke tourism through your beautiful nature. And I know that people are leaving and a big part of that is blamed on the country’s high unemployment rate, which is not the worst in the region. Overall, I believe the country is not that bad, it’s actually going good, but this is the story that has been told since the early 2000s, and which needs a shift in thinking,” she says. 

This is not just talks, asHastad seems to be applying this thinking in her life as a new ambassador and Tirana citizen as well. She describes her life in Albania as easy going and interesting as could be, with some taboos being easier to break than in other countries where she has lived and served and people more willing to talk and argue about them – “arguing” she says, is the basis of moving forward in democracy. 

“With a big group of bright people with a lot of ideas, everything is possible,” she says, ending the conversation on a higher note and spirits than what the grey January Tirana weather and political climate might suggest. 

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times January 31, 2020 11:56