1. What is the outcome of the Meeting of the Co-Chairs of the Russian-Albanian Intergovernmental Commission? What is the status of relations between Russia and Albania?
The meeting held in Tirana on April 4 this year was critical to move forward our bilateral relations which have reached a record low, as it seems sometimes. As many as four years passed since the last meeting of the co-chairs and the last full-scale commission session was held even earlier, in 2009.
In my opinion, the negotiations in the Albanian capital were successful.
However, we need to be realistic. We realize there is still a lot to be done to kick-start our bilateral interaction. This was a kind of preparation for dialogue. The sides exchanged proposals on ways to cooperate in various areas including education, tourism, investment, trade and energy. Most importantly, these proposals now need to be translated into joint initiatives and projects. I am sure that Russia is ready for this: Sergey Gerasimov, First Deputy Minister of Justice of the Russian Federation and the Co-Chairman of the Intergovernmental Commission, is very thorough and efficient in his work.
I am not so certain of the political will and commitment of our Albanian colleagues, though. Anyway, we remain optimistic: after all, our countries have a real chance to bring bilateral dialogue to a new level of pragmatic and mutually beneficial cooperation.
2. In March you held a meeting with the Chairman of the Tirana Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Vice President of the Union of Albanian Producers. What opportunities for bilateral economic relations do you see as the result of the meeting?
As I said, unfortunately, our trade and economic relations with Albania remain at a low level. According to the early 2016 customs data, our trade turnover amounted to about 70 million dollars, or about 0.01 percent of the total Russian turnover. According to local trade statistics, the share of Russia is higher, at 1.3 percent. On the whole, these indicators are not significant.
However, I am certain that there are broad prospects for economic cooperation. And the meetings with the business community, including the negotiations at the Tirana Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and with the representatives of Albanian ministries and agencies serve as testimony to it. There are a number of areas where collaboration would be profitable for both sides: energy, transport, tourism, urban development and others. For example, our ties in the hydropower sector date back to the times of the Soviet-Albanian friendship. At that time the Soviet Union took part in the construction of hydropower plants here and they are still the largest in the country. Certainly, most contacts were lost during the break up, but we and our Albanian colleagues hope that experienced Russian companies could step in to help in the restoration and upgrade of the Soviet design hydropower plants. An upgrade would help to utilize them more efficiently.
The meeting of the Co-Chairs is an important step in unlocking potential of our bilateral relations. We expect the next session of the Commission as well as the Russian-Albanian business forum on its sidelines will push forward our trade and economic exchanges.
3. Tell us about the prospects in agricultural cooperation.
Without doubt, agriculture is where we can really build our cooperation with Albania. However, its potential remains untapped, first of all because of mutual restrictive measures. Albania, as is known, joined the European Union’s sanctions against Russia, and as result Russia has slapped a reciprocal embargo against Albania. Albanian agricultural goods are no longer exported to Russia which resulted in a lower turnover. Many Albanian businessmen I have met with are opposed to Tirana’s decision to support sanctions and they hope to renew foreign trade ties with Russia.
4. Why is Albania not very popular among Russian tourists? Would a direct flight encourage more tourists to visit this country?
In my opinion, a certain negative image of this country among our compatriots is one of the main reasons for Albania’s low popularity. There is not so much unbiased information about Albania today. Unfortunately, most Russians do not know anything about this beautiful country, except for a small group of people. Why? Because we do not have common investment projects, because of the low level of trade and economic ties and cultural exchanges between our countries.
There is an opinion that Albania is unpopular among Russians because of the weak infrastructure for tourists which yet have to achieve the levels of Turkey, Egypt and neighboring Greece. Partly it’s true; however, there are many people in Russia who are keen on ecotourism, exploring wild places.
Albania is a unique state in terms of its tourist appeal. Apart from the beautiful beaches of the two seas, the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea, there are plenty of rivers, two large lakes, mountains and a great variety of ancient archeological sites and architectural monuments.
Certainly, direct flights are critical in stimulating the tourist flow. I know that this year Russian and Albanian tour companies, together with a Russian airline, did a lot to arrange direct charter flights between Moscow and Tirana. Unfortunately, it is not there yet. Most of the Russian tourists that do come to Albania usually take short trips here during their stay in either Montenegro or Greece.
5. On 13 April, 2017 you met with Ms. Artyukova, the representative of the WHO Regional Office for Europe. How do you estimate the results of the meeting?
We had a friendly and constructive conversation, discussed relevant problems in healthcare in the country and the region and stressed Russia’s key role in the World Health Organization. We reached an agreement that we will coordinate our Embassy’s efforts with those by the representatives of the WHO in Albania as well as to maintain further cooperation in healthcare and develop joint programs.
6. What do Albanians think about Russia? There are courses of the Russian language in Tirana and Vlora provided by the Embassy.
Traditionally, Albanians are quite fond of Russia, its people and culture.
This is not surprising, especially if we take into consideration the fact that our countries had formed close contacts after World War II. The Soviet Union provided Albania with impressive logistical, personnel and other support in the post-war reconstruction effort, and Albanians are still deeply grateful to Russia for that. Though in 1961 our relations broke up, Albanians still managed to get an understanding of our culture. They had a deep affection for it. You can see it nowadays: any events organized by the Embassy are welcomed by the locals. Moreover, Albanian youth still shows a high interest in getting education in Russia. Every year, about 40 Albanian graduates get scholarships for studies at Russian universities.
It worth to say a few words about еру free courses of the Russian language provided by the Embassy with the assistance of the Organization of Russian Compatriots in Albania and the financial support of the Russian World Foundation.
The courses were launched in Tirana in September 2015. It was a pilot project but the demand was impressive: about 80 people signed up in the first two weeks.
This year we have 300 students. Study groups were also formed in such cities as Vlora and Fier, where courses are attended by high school students intending to go to study in Russia after graduation. In my opinion, such avid interest in the Russian language is a sign of a positive Albanian attitude towards our country.
7. In March the Russian Embassy to Albania organized a screening of Russian films. How was this event organized? What impression did the audience get? Do you plan to do it again, bringing new Russian films?
Russian film festivals organized by the Embassy have always been successful. In March the Albanian audience got a chance to catch up on some of the great films they hadn’t seen due to the break in relations between the Soviet Union and Albania in the 1960-1980s.We had five films with Albanian subtitles: The Twelve Chairs; Kidnapping, Caucasian Style; Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession; Operation “Y” and Shurik’s Other Adventures; and The Pokrovsky Gate.
The Embassy got rave reviews from the locals expressing their willingness to learn more about Russian cinema. We plan to hold such events and also present modern Russian films. In particular, there will be a screening of The Nuremberg Trials based on a work of the famous Russian author Alexander Zvyagintsev “The Main Trial of Humanity. Report From the Past. Addressing the Future”.
8. There were also celebrations dedicated to Maslenitsa, or Pancake Week, in Tirana this year. How do Albanians feel about such events? What did they remember most of all? Do you plan to hold such traditional Russian events going forward?
I can say for sure that Albanians love these events: we always receive words of appreciation from them. It was also true of the Pancake Week event organized by our Embassy for students of the Russian language courses. First they got acquainted with the background and traditions of this event, then put on traditional national costumes and danced to Russian music with great delight.
Most of all, Albanians liked the tea party with pancakes and bagels. And it is not surprising.
These educational efforts have proven extremely popular that is why we will certainly continue to stage events like this as often as possible.
9. Thanks to Albanian translator, historian and publicist Nikolla Sudar and his love for Russian culture, Albanian readers were able to get acquainted with numerous works of Russian writers and, first of all, of Solzhenitsyn. What is he working on now?
I am pleased to note that here we have a group of outstanding translators besides Nikolla Sudar providing Albanian readers with both classics of Russian literature and modern authors. Among them are Agron Toufa, Jamila Zukay, Muzeyen Shaplo, Yorgi Doksani, Socrates Gerasi and many others. In 2015 with the assistance of the Embassy in Tirana we held a presentation of Dostoevsky works in 12 volumes translated into the Albanian language. This compilation is in great demand. Five additional editions were published over these two years.
Modern Russian poet Masalov is also in great demand here. His poems were recently presented to Albanian readers. Soon the compilation of Albanian poet Prech Zogaj will be published in Russian.
Last year Nikolla Sudar was awarded with a medal of the Russian Union of Writers. He is very busy. In May he published a translation of Matryona's Place, a story by Solzhenitsyn.
10. Why is Albania arguably the only remaining state that enjoys peace and accord in relations between different religious groups?
Without doubt, religious tolerance is part of the DNA of any Albanian. This is what provides for the cohesion of the Albanian society. It is not a coincidence that at the end of the 19th century Pashko Vasa, one of the brightest figures of the Albanian national revival era, said that "the religion of Albanians is Albanianism”. This means that throughout centuries ethnic identity took first place, and religion came only second. According to historians, thanks to this principle the Albanians have preserved themselves as a single nation despite 500 years of Turkish occupation and numerous military conflicts in the Balkans.
Surely, Albania is not the only country, but definitely it is one of the few countries that can be proud of exemplary peace and accord between people of different religions: Sunni Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and the Bektashi Order. Interfaith marriages are widespread; the secular nature of the state has been carefully preserved.
The greatest blow to religious life of the Albanian people was Enver Hoxha’s ban on any religious activity in 1967. As a result, the state was officially declared as atheistic. Such a measure was followed by massive destruction of religious buildings, including ancient Orthodox churches and repressions against the clergy. Only at the beginning of 1990s did religious life in the country recovered. Today Albanians cherish those things that they were deprived of during the communist times. Their faithfulness to the values of their ancestors and indifference (in the good sense of this word) to religious affiliation of their copartners are only strengthening.
11. It’s not your first experience as an Ambassador of the Russian Federation. Which difficulties have you had to face most often in your work?
It’s my second mission as Ambassador of Russia. The first one was to the Republic of Cape Verde. I have good memories about this period. There is an opinion that diplomat’s work is like a pleasant mission associated with travels and interesting meetings. It’s partly true. But on the other hand, as a rule it’s also a hard day-to-day work full of duties and instructions from the ministry.
As to the difficulties, they certainly exist as in any other work. But I don’t want to cite any.
No matter how high-flown it may sound, the Ambassador’s mission is to maintain and develop bilateral relations, protect Russian interests and its citizens in the host country despite all the difficulties.
You are also responsible for a team of diplomats, you need to provide normal conditions so that they can work and live, provide security for the staff and members of their families, develop professional skills and so on. I would like to mention that here in our Embassy in Tirana we have a friendly team of diplomats, most of them are young but they are very capable, they have a lot of initiatives, with good knowledge of the difficult Albanian language. All that allows us to fulfill all duties of the Embassy, though not all our plans come true – unfortunately this depends not only on us.