Sweden, Albania’s friend without looking for anything in return

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 14, 2020 09:55

Sweden, Albania’s friend without looking for anything in return

By Elsa Hastad*

What is a relation?

How does it start?

How do we get our first impressions from a country?

I asked my friend in Tirana, he is my age and his family worked in the chrome mines. His father worked there, his uncle worked there, and he worked there himself. They had drilling machines from Sandviken, from Atlas Copco and the loader was from Volvo. His father told him that this was the best drilling equipment in the world. And it came from Sweden. That was his first meeting with my country. That is how it starts. The relation. For him Sweden will always be about solid and good quality. Later in life he decides to work for Sweden, in our Embassy. But I think it all started with the drilling equipment in the chrome mine.

My name is Elsa Håstad and I am the Swedish Ambassador in Albania since august. My personal background is Eastern Europe, Soviet Union, Vietnam and Latin America. 25 years of diplomatic and development work. Mostly human rights and democracy.

I am very happy to be here today to get the chance to talk to you about diplomatic relations – but more importantly, to get the chance to talk about friendship.

Because this year Sweden and Albania celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties.

The very first diplomatic relations between Sweden and Albania were established already in the 20s and 30s. In 1922 after the recognition of Albania and in 1923 we had the first Albanian diplomatic presence in Sweden.

This made me curious and I started to dig around and look for the story behind – why restart 50 years ago?

I found the reason in an old document from 25 June 1969 where our Ministry of Foreign Affairs assign to the Swedish Ambassador in Paris to contact the Albanian ambassador in Paris to start the process of opening the Embassy.

The main argument was that Sweden had noted an increase of Swedish tourist going to Albania.

But what was it that made the Swedes discover Albania in the 1960s? In the beginning, it was a lot about political exchange and political tourism.  Swedes were interested in communism. Not everyone – but some.

In Albania, Hoxha had come into power a few years earlier.

But Sweden was also a very different country from the Sweden we know today. Special wages for women were abolished and Sweden got its first female priests. At the same time, a girl who held and boy in the hand at school could get lowered grades.

Sweden was also characterized by protests among youth and left-wing activists and it became a symbolic century for these protests. Many workers went on strikes about work environment and human value. Sweden had a lot of organizations and politically active people. Many became interested in the communism regime.

Some of them traveled to Albania under restricted forms. They were intellectuals, writers, journalists, even ordinary people, who were socialists themselves; they were interested in other countries of the world where they had communism or socialism. They were travelling to the Soviet Union, Cambodia, other communist countries – but also to Albania.

So I dig further in the old documents and I also found the ambassadors report from the big ceremony of handing over the letter of credentials.  The Ambassador writes that after the ceremony that took place on 20 September in the beautiful Palace of Brigades where he noted a rich Italian library, he and his colleague from Austria where offered sweet wine, coffee, cookies and chocolate.

After the ceremony our Swedish ambassador invited the Head of the Protocol to share some cognac with him and they drank cognac by the brand Skanderbeg and spoke French all night long.

Then The world changed – and we wanted to be engaged in a new way!

But then after the 1990s when the communist dictatorship was changed into the strive for democracy – Sweden reinforced our relation. And our relationship was very much driven by solidarity and the wish to be a part of the democratization in Albania but also in the world.  Many things happened in the ‘90s: The Soviet Union fell apart, the war in former Yugoslavia, and communism disappeared in the whole eastern bloc – in South Africa apartheid was defeated and we all believed in freedom and democracy!

Sweden was very much engaged in this, and we wanted to support the democratic forces and the new countries which were many. I mean former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Western Balkans, and Sweden was really engaged in Solidarnost movement in Poland, the democratic movement in Albania.

The driving force for engagement – where does it come from?

 Let me go back to my Albanian friend. I asked him – what do you think about Sweden? He said – it’s the country we can never become. Sweden is also a country helping Albania without asking anything back. And I think he is right. Solidarity, a better world and to keep our promise about EU-accession is very much the driving force behind Sweden’s relation with Albania. When the Dayton peace agreement was signed after the war in former Yugoslavia – with our former minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt very closely engaged – we and the western world made a promise that western Balkans will become an EU-member if the countries would do the necessary reforms. This promise is still the basis for our firm commitment. This is the reason why Sweden has one of the largest development cooperation programmes in Albania No2 after Germany with approx. 15 million euro per year.

Let me talk a little about our development cooperation since it is such corner stone of our relation.

After dictatorship fell and Albania became a democratic country, we also started our development cooperation. Our relationship very quickly turned into a partnership, a desire to help Albania become a democratic country – the country Albania wanted to become. This was the beginning of our institutional relations. We have agencies relation going back soon 20 years – Statistic for example, or civil society movement Olof Palme international center. I say we have thousands of human relations, twinning cooperation, peer to peer cooperation. In forestry, in cadaster, in gender equality, in environment – you name it! This is our richest relation today.

But also, between our politicians. When I meet leaders of Albania, the President, the Prime minister they all talk with nostalgia about their youth and meeting with Swedish social democrats. This of course also had an impact on our relation.

At the beginning of our relationship it was humanitarian assistance and building up a new country. We moved very fast to the reform cooperation. During these years we had the embassy in Belgrade, but we transferred it to Rome.

In later years, the Western Balkans and Albania have become more and more important to Sweden. In 2010 we opened our first embassy in Tirana and 2016 we had our first Swedish ambassador to Albania. I am the second ambassador – the first women.

As I said the bigger part of the embassy’s work here in Tirana is focused on our development cooperation. All our support is aimed at helping Albania become an EU member. Sweden is the second largest donor after Germany, with approximately 15 million euros a year.

Joining the EU is not an easy process. Twenty-five years ago, Swedes went to the polling stations throughout the country in a referendum on EU membership. Before that referendum, Sweden was alive with debate. Sweden had managed to stay out of the wars that had plagued the rest of Europe. Perhaps we saw ourselves more as Stockholmers or Swedes, than as continental Europeans. We had three main reason for our hesitation. Our neutrality, our national self-identity, and our decision-making that we wanted to keep in Stockholm. At the same time, the EU was a unique peace project that made countries stronger through exchange and trade.

Now it is Albania who is on the EU path – and Sweden is a sturdy supporter.

However, we have EU accession on the one side, but also people’s needs, and we try to bring them together. That is why there are so many fantastic stories about how the Swedish development cooperation has helped ordinary people in Albania.

Let me for example tell you the story about Soraldo, a fisherman from Saranda who the embassy supported through our start-up fund. Soraldo had an idea to transform his mussel collection business into a mussel tour service, offering tourists a true taste of how it is to be a fisherman during a day. This proved to be an excellent idea as his tours were booked throughout the summer and his business flourished. This is just one example of how Sweden support Albanian innovations of today.

You probably also know that Sweden has a feminist approach towards everything we do, we have a feminist foreign policy- starting with our feminist government including the foreign policy and overall approach. We are the largest bilateral donor for gender equality in Albania. One great example of this cooperation is that we helped bring about the adoption in 2015 of gender quotas of candidate lists for local elections (50 per cent women) in Albania.

But as I mentioned in the beginning, bilateral relations are not only about government-to-government relations. It’s also about exchange between the Albanian and the Swedish people. It’s about friendship.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of relations, the embassy made interviews with people who love both Albania and Sweden – who have a special relation to both countries. We have asked them to describe this relationship and their stories are about Sweden and Albania.

One example is the EU parliamentarian who is Albanian-Swedish Arba Kokalari. She talks about her two countries and she is elected by Swedish voters to sit in the European Parliament. So she is an Albanian-Swedish sitting in the European Parliament.

Then we have the Minister of Finance who used to live in Sweden. She talks about her relations with Albania and Sweden. We have other people like a poet Entela Tabaku, an entrepreneur, who grew up in Sweden but he is Albanian. All these people talk about their relationship with both Albania and Sweden.

I think there is more cultural exchange between Albania and Sweden than we believe – for example, I know that many Albanians listened to the Swedish band Roxette during the 90s or who grew up reading the famous Pippi Longstocking. I have also met many Albanians who love Ingmar Bergman movies and I have Swedish friends who read Ismail Kadare.

My ambition as a new ambassador is to do even more together within culture. It sounds like the references are many – but to be honest with you here today. We can do much more!

When I meet with young people but also people my age – their knowledge and relations to Sweden is basic. Its like an Albanian friend said. You are nice people, nice country – but we don’t know much about you.

We have big plans for the coming years. I want to introduce more music, more literature, more Swedish sustainable design and business – because that is the future!

So, the coming year we will participate in the Jazz Festival, arrange a Swedish Film Festival and travel around Albania in ‘Sweden on tour’ to promote Swedish culture. We will support Swedish artist visiting Albania and publish Swedish books in Albanian – and this is only the beginning.

I also have an ambition to focus more on economic cooperation and trade relations. We have a few companies here like Volvo, a bed company family-owned Duxiana, a green bicycle company, tourism – but this is not enough. Two very good recent news are that  1, Ericsson has been selected by Telekom Albania as the sole supplier to modernize the service provider’s radio and core networks in a break-in deal spanning five years. That will bring Swedish knowledge and investment. 2, Swedish investors have decided to invest in Albanian dialysis clinics all over Albania. . Diaverum is pleased to announce its expansion into Albania, a company operating five dialysis clinics located in cities across Albania. The acquisition is in line with Diaverum’s strategy to continue to grow through M&A into new markets where Diaverum sees significant growth opportunities – they see Albania as a great opportunity!

I am happy to see the growing interest and trust in Albania.

Then we have the fashion industry. We have started to promote a cooperation in sustainable fashion. WE have a lot to offer. But also, a lot to do in terms of environment and innovation.  I see an opportunity in the fact that Albania have textile factories, while Sweden have designers who need production. Albania’s proximity to other European countries make it an attractive location for production.  You do not need to travel to China or India or Vietnam. Also, it is good from the environmental point of view. Swedish business is sustainable, pay attention to environment and sustainable jobs – I think this is more and more important for Albania.

In addition, it is important for Albania to become aware of sustainable business because when you become a member of EU this would be a comparative advantage.

Finally – some personal impressions. Albania is a great country, to visit or to live in. I have noticed that Swedish tourists love Albania. Last year, we had thirteen percent increase of Swedish tourists, showing how Swedish people are getting interested in Albania. I am sure that the numbers will continue to rise.

I got a question from an Albanian politician asking me about good things in Albania – he was and is very critical of many things and he wanted to hear my opinion.

  1.       You are more liberal than you think you are – in terms of values, ideology.
  2.       You are much better than you think you are. Environment. Tolerance. Knowledge, language.
  3.       Your people are a much bigger asset than you think. Committed, educated, open-minded.

 

*Elsa Hastad is the Swedish Ambassador to Albania. This speech was held during an event to commemorate 50 years of diplomatic relations at the Albanian Institute for International Studies 

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 14, 2020 09:55