The Ambassador of Sweden in Tirana, Mrs. Elsa Hastad: Albania is a gem in Europe!

Exclusive interview of Ambassador of Sweden Mrs.Elsa Hastad with Argumentum.al

“Albania is a gem in Europe! You have the sea, you have mountains, you have cultural diversity, you have history, archeology, so it is a very rich place”, said in an exclusive interview for Argumentum.al  the Ambassador of Sweden in Tirana, Mrs. Elsa Hastad.

“Albanians are open and hospitable. It is extremely easy to work here, it is fantastic. In fact, if you are open to cooperate, it means that you are open to expect new ideas “, from the impressions of Mrs. Hastad after two years as ambassador in Albania.

Regarding the political and economic cooperation between Albania and Sweden, the ambassador says:

“Sweden is a very big donor for Albania. We are like number two after Germany. Sweden is extremely supportive of Albania on its path to integration. We will support and prepare Albania for the opening of negotiations. “I think we need to start the intergovernmental conference now, and a lot of countries think that.”

Although we do not have that  business relationship between Albania and Sweden, Ambassador Elsa Hastad said that one of her objectives is to promote Albanian business to Swedish investors, despite the fact that this takes a lot of time.

Meanwhile, Sweden operates in Albania through various programs, starting from programs in rural areas, then at the municipal level to the central government. There are hundreds of projects supporting the economic empowerment of rural women, women’s organizations working against domestic violence, programs to support youth, labor rights, trade unions…as well as environmental organizations.

At the same time, Sweden as a country of freedoms is a support for the media and journalists.

“If people do not trust the media, you are dead. So that’s one thing. High quality on the part of the media. “But of course I also think that the government should be open, inclusive towards the media,” said the Swedish ambassador.

While focusing again on the potential that Albania has with all natural, cultural and historical assets and has a message:

“You have so many things that I hope many can appreciate that are visible to us. We come here and see all this. Start looking for the good things because you have many good things here “, is the message of the Swedish Ambassador to all Albanians.

 By Marjana Doda

– At the outset permit me Mrs. Ambassador to thank You for accepting to give this exclusive interview for Argumentum.al. There are more than two years that you are in Albania. What has impressed you most during this period? Did you have knowledge on Albania and the Balkans before coming as Sweden’s top diplomat to Tirana?

-Thank you for talking to me!

Two questions and two answers. Yes, I had knowledge about Western Balkan and yes, I had knowledge about Albania. I had never lived in Western Balkan but I worked for many, many years in Stockholm with development corporations supporting reforms in Western Balkan, including Albania. So, I had followed the developments from, let’s say, a political reform perspective from Stockholm. It’s not the same when you live, but that is one experience. And then when I was a teenager, my mother was a journalist, a correspondent in Western Balkan also covering the war in Yugoslavia. So she was travelling and sometimes I was travelling with her. When I was sixteen, seventeen we would travel to Kosovo, Pristina, Belgrade, all around in a car. She would do interviews and I would be with her on my holidays when I had holidays from school. But we did not go to Albania. She went of course, she was working, but I did not go with her. So, I have these two experiences; my teenage and then as a professional grown up from Stockholm. But this is the first time I live in the Western Balkan and it’s the first time I live in Albania.

Yes, you’re right, it’s been two years now and my impressions…I have a lot of impressions but maybe I can share a few. One is that it is a very open country, it’s easily accessible. You are not difficult to approach, you are open and you are much more yes-saying and it’s easy to work here. It’s easy to propose things, it’s easy to do things, it’s a lot of ‘yes’ let’s do this and the openness it’s a good sign because it means that you’re actually open to cooperate, to have new ideas. In short there is a lot of openness. In some countries where I have worked, you might find suspicious or “no, or we know best, we don’t need you” or over bureaucratization of processes like “no, it’s not possible”, but in Albania it’s like “po patjeter’, no problem, we do democracy again, yeah, no problem”. We come and meet rural women who are very poor, “yes, no problem”. We go to Elbasan and we talk about our embassy, pop-up embassy, like we did on Monday, “yeah no problem”. Mayor comes, everyone is happy. It is extremely easy to work here. It’s fantastic. It’s unbelievable.

You are always very active regarding the communication through social networks, and now after the opening of the country you have paid visits and met people in different cities of Albania. Is this a way to get to know more closely and directly the Albanian people? What are Your impressions of Albania and Albanians so far?

-Yes. Firstly, of course it is my way of getting to know the people and the country, because I work in the whole Albania, not only in Tirana. So that is my way of getting to know the country. But, secondly, it’s also my way of talking about Sweden because my work is also to promote Sweden and promote public diplomacy and as you say I communicate with a lot of social media because I want people to know about Sweden and Sweden is not so well known in Albania; it’s not like Italy or the US. No, Sweden is a little bit unknown. So for me it’s a way also to talk about Sweden and to meet with partners because Sweden is a very big donor to Albania. We are like number two after Germany. Germany is super big in money and Sweden supports a lot of projects. So it’s not money like this, it is cooperation. We found cooperation, even society, environment, a lot of things, and for me it’s important to go out and meet with all, we work together, so it’s a lot of reasons for me to go out. And then you asked about my impressions;

I mean, it’s obvious that it’s a country which is very rich in small businesses. When you go out, you see agriculture, you see farmers, you see small businesses. And this is very typical for Albania so this is what I see. It’s not a heavily industrialized country. Small business, family business, agriculture and that is also the future of Albania I think, because you link tourism to that. And I see some people who are poor, I also see poverty, I do, and I also see people who still manage to have a good life. And I think it’s because you have agriculture and that gives you food, even if it’s not in a very high level of richness but still I think that you have support from families living outside. I also see an extremely beautiful country. I mean, you have the mountains in the north, they’re extremely beautiful. You have the sea, you have also mountains in the south, you have diversity, you have history, Illyrians, Roman, it’s a very rich country. So, it’s quite fantastic actually, it’s a gem in Europe, I think.

-How do you assess the relations between Albania and Sweden on the political and economic aspects? 

It’s a very good relationship. It’s not a complicated relationship. Sweden is extremely supportive of Albania in your integration path. We have become even closer through the OSCE where Albania was chairing. Now Sweden is chairing, so we have become very close in political relations. I think we feel the trust and we support Albania in integration and we have for 20 years. We have Albanians living in Sweden. It’s not a huge community but we have some and that is very good. We don’t have so much business relation which I would like really to have more of and I say this often and I try to promote, to be very active in promoting Albanian business for Swedish investors but I know it takes long time. I hope that if I can start something little, maybe it will happen after I have left. But this is something we need to focus on.

Do Swedish companies have interest in investing in Albania? 

They don’t know about Albania, they don’t know anything I would say. They have maybe some vague idea, maybe becoming a touristic country, maybe beautiful but how it is, how about crime or there is not…It’s like little bit of low knowledge, a little bit of hesitation, but it’s coming. We have the journalists here from a Swedish business magazine, the biggest in Sweden. And he said it’s the first time we do an article about Albania and the first time I don’t know in 10, 20, 30 years like ever and it was writing about Albania’s economy. Of course, there is a lot of potential. But I think that will be my job and I am now trying to get Swedish investors to have a meeting with me and some Albanian business just to tell the story about Albania and everyone who comes here they fall in love saying… “Wow, wow, it’s fantastic “. I also think that Albania has an advantage that you use enough the energy which comes from hydro power stations, mostly not 100 %, but mostly it’s renewable energy, which is fantastic. A lot of businesses want to work with the renewable energy, I mean, you have a production, you want to use the renewable energy and they don’t know that Albania has this. I think you need to promote yourself much more, we are a green and environmentally friendly country. So, there’s great potential. I’ve tried to promote Albania for Swedish investors, so we will see what happens.

– I am aware that Sweden has been present directly through different social programs in Albania for many years. Currently, which are some of the programs being financed by Sweden in Tirana?   

We have a lot of projects. I can mention a few. I can start with a lot of society organizations working with human rights, with the rural women like CNBP, supporting economic empowerment of rural women, the poorest who gather aromatic plants. Albania is one of the richest countries for salvia, lavender and you are no.1 in exporting sage. We support that and that’s a link to the European Union also because export goes to France… So it’s to support women, but also import, export. We also support women organizations that are working against domestic violence, to support young people, labor rights, union…Of course we’ll work with environmental organizations.  Now we have a new program where will support municipalities and cybersociety organizations working on a level with environment and that is not enough. We also work with the government, we have to prepare government for European Union, it’s hard work, I love that we have so many Swedish agencies here like for example: tax agency, Sweden is very good in paying taxes and collecting taxes, we collect almost 100 % of taxes. Here in Albania, it’s a low-level collection of taxes, it’s a problem because how you can give service if you don’t have money and how you can create trust if you don’t get anything. Taxes civil-servants they work with Albanian taxes and is colleague to colleague and I like that it’s equal and we have a lot of this. We have police cooperation, police to police, how to work against organized crime and against domestic violence,we have court to court, we have environment organization, chemical inspection organization. I think we have 8 Swedish agencies sharing knowledge with Albanian colleagues and it’s also sharing knowledge about transparency, integration, everything, and then we also have the program to support the Albanians innovations. We support 43 Albanian innovations and it means if you are a woman, if you are a rural outside Tirana you get more points. To support feminine innovation. But it’s everything. It can be if you make donkey milk in a new way. Innovation is like if you do something that no one else has done before, so we have a lot of this.

Because I think what we need to do and what we can help with is to create or at least support the trust between people and the government because even if you are Albanian and you don’t really like the government, you need the government because the government needs to provide school, health, roads. I think that is extremely important because if you don’t trust the government, I know it’s a low trust in Albania and that it’s a big problem not only for the government but also for the people. This is something that we support with all this project…the trust.

-Albania finds itself at a crossroads with regard to EU integration. On one hand, it is said that we have fulfilled the conditions but we are hostages of Bulgaria because of the dispute with North Macedonia. On the other hand, the Albanian Prime Minister says this is a problem of Europe itself as it should be reformed. According to your opinion, which is the true reason that there is not a fixed date for the start of the intergovernmental conference?

This is very unfortunate situation and of course I would say that is quite obvious that now we have one member of states being Bulgaria as you pointed out, locking the process of two countries: North Macedonia and Albania. Before Europe was really expecting reforms from Albania and North Macedonia but now is very clear that Albania has fulfilled the criteria, the recommendation is there and all the countries have accepted recommendation for the Albania to start negotiations and that was received last year. I would say that is the answer, now we have this problem and my foreign minister who was here four weeks ago and her words were “it is unacceptable that we have this situation.” Of course it reflects the European Union. It is a big union, a lot of countries that are of course the strength of the union that we are many to discuss. That is also the basic of Democracy. I think that we should start the intergovernmental conference now and many countries think so.

-According to the EC progress report, it is stressed that there is a worsening of media freedom in Albania. As You come from a country where the Law on Media Freedom was adopted by its Parliament 250 years ago, which would be a way to help the media in Albania?  

-Good question. I think that the media needs to nourish, maintain a very high quality, I think that is most important to create credibility for media, for people to trust media. We need to have high quality, being objective, being non corrupted, being neutral because people want good media. We see this in Sweden that people are coming back to quality media. We were a bit afraid like everyone, social media, and it’s quick, it’s about the clicks, the short and the fast media, but we see now that people are coming back to quality media. And I think in Albania this is particularly important because you have a diversity of media. You have many media TV, you have radio, you have online. People can actually get a lot of information so that is not a problem. You can get different from Socialist Party, DP but you can get access to a lot of information. I think the journalist needs to think about how to maintain a very high level of quality and to have to take responsibility for that. The Swedish media constantly works on assuring high quality, like the media is watching themselves. If they don’t behave in a good way, they have counts; so for the media this is about surviving. If the people don’t trust the media, you are dead.  So that is one thing. High quality from the media’s side. But of course I also think that the government needs to be open, inclusive to the media. It is extremely important that the media should feel welcome to press conferences for example…It’s important for both sides to realize what kind of important role the media has.

-Does Sweden have a concrete plan, like the programs mentioned above, to support journalists and media freedom in Albania?

-Yes, we are preparing a public service training program in Albania. Unfortunately, I know that not many people are watching the public service in Albania, which I think is a problem because it should be neutral like BBC, Swedish public service television. It’s where you get high quality and good journalists. We are all starting a program without the Swedish public service but with the Albanian public service. It’s been a training program for many years and perhaps we can invite other journalists to join our program. But it’s starting now. I have high expectations for this. We’ve done that before but I think it’s really important we do this so I am extremely happy and you know we support BIRN . We have been giving courses for many, many years because BIRN has a special role of being investigative so I think the combination of support of BIRN with the investigative and then the public service can be good.            .

-I have been impressed that You promote the characteristic features of Albania and its beautiful places. Which is your message to all Albanians who have left Albania over the last years and those who still live here?  

-I know this is a controversial message. I know this because sometimes I said people get upset with me but Albania is much better than you think and I think it’s a negative story about Albania being told by many but actually Albania has so many fantastic features. I know you love your country but it’s also a bad story walking around and the people are telling this bad story to each other and maybe you should start looking for the good things because you have so many good things here. You have individual safety security, amazing beauty, you have rich culture of being close to each other, which is fantastic, you have so many things. And on the political level, you have sustainable energy, and it’s easy to make business. I also like that there’s gender equality. You have more women in your government than in any other country. So many people fight for this and it’s amazing you have that here.

So, you have so many things that I hope many could value that are obvious for us. We come here and see all this. Maybe this is the reason that if you stay a long time in a country or outside you sort of lose sight of this. But look for the beauty in your country. It’s normal to travel around. Albanians are so spread out in the world. Some come back, and that’s great. For example, go to Sweden, come back with Swedish experience…Look for a good story in Albania. That would be my message because it’s there.

Dear Mrs. Ambassador, once again many thanks for this comprehensive interview, for your friendly feelings and for all your efforts in forging the traditional friendship between our two peoples.

Thank you!

/Argumentum.al