Why the development of the Balkan region is such an important issue today? How do you see the future of the Balkans?
 
Over the centuries, the Balkans have passed through a process of historical development that taught them that peace and prosperity in this region, which is usually restless, are only possible through mutual respect and cooperation in all areas. In the past two decades, the region was characterized by conflicts. Nowadays, the region is involved in the process of cooperation and integration and is ready to resolve the bilateral conflict through a good neighborhood relationship. However, due to the recent events, we have to realize that not everything can be accepted with such prejudice, that the process shouldn’t be considered as irreversible.
 
Despite all problems and challenges, which the EU is facing, the prospect of membership is the reason that pushes us forward and brings us together. We are facing the same challenges in our part of Europe, and so our actions must be coordinated. Threats like terrorism and extremism have no borders so there cannot be any borders for our actions against them. Of course, the process of regional development wouldn’t be complete and can’t be considered without cooperation with other countries and influential players. One of them is the Russian Federation. Albania does not consider the role of the third countries as a threat, rather it thinks that they complement the actions of US and the EU, provided that the European project and the transatlantic alliance remain as the orientation of the region. 
 
In the context of the Western Balkans, I would like to highlight one important initiative, the so-called Berlin Process, launched in 2014. During the process, our countries have passed through stages of stability, communications and energy infrastructure, where they cooperate and compete simultaneously for more projects and financing. In this process Albania has become a pioneer not only because of the approval and financing for infrastructure projects, but also due to the two recent regional initiatives, which will have their own headquarters in Tirana. These will be the Western Balkans Foundation and the Regional Bureau of Youth Cooperation. It will be an official opportunity for cooperation between all young people of our countries, and these contacts can help them to know each other better.
 
In conclusion, I would like to say that the EU is considered as an attractive force to those European countries which are under the accession process. For us the EU is an incentive for economic development, social transformation, modernization of our institutions and social life.
 
How do you estimate current relations between Albania and Russia in the political area?
 
I would like to stress that Albania wants to develop normal relations with the Russian Federation. Today it is hard to call our current politic relations active. Nevertheless, the contacts between ministries of foreign affairs have become active through the diplomatic consultations which were held in 2015, and now we are working on arranging such consultations this year. We consider them to be important as they give us an opportunity to discuss various aspects of bilateral and regional cooperation. Though they may not coincide, nevertheless, they help to fully clarify positions of the two countries on certain issues. 
 
I would say that there were several positive moments over the past year, including a number of important visits to the Russian Federation, such as the visit of Mr. Damian Gjiknuri, the Minister of Energy of Albania, when he participated in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the visit of Ms. Mirela Kumbaro, during which she signed the Programme of Cultural Cooperation, and the visit of Mr. Erion Veliaj, the Mayor of Tirana.
 
We hope that the meeting of the co-chairmen of the bilateral intergovernmental and economic commissions in Tirana on April 4 will spur the revival of bilateral cooperation. We hope there will be another meeting of the commission at the end of this year.
 
How do you assess cooperation between our countries in the area of education?
 
I would say that it is one of the most fruitful lines of bilateral cooperation. I think that we should look at the history of previous relations between our countries.
 
In the 1950s, a large number of Albanian students studied in the former USSR and then contributed to various sectors of the country's economy. And such tradition still continues nowadays. I refer to the scholarships that the Russian Federation annually offers to Albanian students, we are very grateful for that. Currently, there are a significant number of Albanian students who complete bachelors and postgraduate courses in universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh and other cities. They study in various fields: economics, science, medicine, law, international relations, and art.
 
Studying the Albanian language in Russia is also a very important aspect of the educational sphere. I take this opportunity to congratulate the academic staff of the Albanian language at the Department of Balkan Studies at the University of St. Petersburg for their tireless efforts in teaching the Albanian language and culture and for training specialists in this field. The Albanian language department will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year and the Embassy of the Republic of Albania is going to organize an event to celebrate this date in St. Petersburg. It is also worth to mention the commendable work on the studying of the Albanian language at Moscow State Institute of International Relations. And we know that many Russian diplomats who work in your mission in Tirana and the Foreign Ministry, know the language, and it helps them a lot. Albania offers in return annual courses of the Albanian language in Tirana and it helps Russian students and researchers to strengthen their knowledge in authentic and Albanian-speaking environment.
 
Is the potential of economic cooperation between our countries used fully nowadays?
 
Certainly, there is a discrepancy between the existing potential and the current level of bilateral economic exchanges. Now these exchanges bring a small turnover. They mainly consist of goods imported from Russia to our countries, such as grain, oil and petroleum products, fertilizers, and leather while our country exports to Russia, basically, medicinal plants and canned goods.
 
We hope that this situation will change for the better after the meeting of the co-chairmen of the bilateral intergovernmental commission. As I said, the sides have already identified areas of mutual interest, such as energy, agriculture, mining, infrastructure, transport, and tourism. It is important to start and gradually we will see how this cooperation will move forward.
 
What is common and what is the difference between your work in the rank of Ambassador and work at representative offices of Albania in the EU and NATO?
 
Thank you for the question, because there is something interesting that I would like to tell you. My previous work and the work in the rank of Ambassador are common in their importance, each according to their specific nature. Our foreign policy clearly defines the priority direction of relations with both organizations where I worked, NATO and the EU, which form the basis of our European and Euro-Atlantic orientation. Now Albania is a member of NATO with its relevant contribution. The work in the Albanian mission and later as Albania’s representative in NATO was a special experience for me, as I witnessed both periods when my country was first a partner and later, in 2009, an equal member. 
 
As for the EU, Albania has always been a candidate country and is currently waiting to start negotiations on membership as soon as possible. In this regard, the diplomatic activity by the Albanian mission in the EU is especially important to us. 
As to my current work, I think that it’s a highly important position.
 
It is a great honor to represent my country in Russia. Russia is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council exerting its influence on the global decision-making process. It enjoys a vast territory, endless resources and potential. 
 
In this regard, my work as an Ambassador represents an undeniable responsibility, which I try to execute with all seriousness. On the other hand, it was an invaluable help for me as an expert in your language and culture to fulfill my duties at the highest level.
As to the differences between my previous and current work, these are missions of a different scale. My previous work covers multilateral diplomacy, which is certainly more dynamic, involving daily contacts, while my current work is focused on bilateral relations with this country. It should be added that the rank of Ambassador requires higher level and degree of responsibility.
 
The Russian language helps you a lot. Who is your favorite Russian writer? Do you attend cultural events in the capital?
 
First-hand connections and opportunities are very important. And I think that it’s really a big support for diplomats. I would say that the Russian language is difficult but very beautiful. I like the language of Pushkin, Chekhov, Lermontov and Dostoevsky. For example, Dostoevsky is one of my favorite authors, I like his psychoanalysis. Of course, there are great authors like Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy. I wouldn’t be honest if I did not mention his work and his contribution not only to the literature of your country, but generally to the culture of Russia and the world culture. Moscow is rich in artistic life. There is always something new, always something very beautiful. Recently, I have watched the play Metamorphosis by the famous director. It was something like an experimental theatre, but I really liked this performance and the acting. So if you have enough time, you can watch performances and events in Moscow as many times as you like.
 
In December 2016, the Ministries of Culture of Russia and Albania have signed the Program of Cooperation for 2017-2019. Please tell us about this program.
 
I can say that culture is something universal and arguably the most effective tool, a kind of a bridge that can better than anything else unite countries and nations, huge and small countries alike, countries that are geographically distant from each other.
 
Indeed, we signed a bilateral program of cultural cooperation between the two countries in St. Petersburg at the end of last year. This event was welcomed by both sides, as it was first official document signed in a long period of time. Its significance is in the support given to bilateral cultural ties as one of the most important elements of relations between our countries. Its range is very broad, the program provides for cultural, artistic, literary exchanges, cooperation in culture weeks, participation of artistic groups in cultural events organized in both countries, etc. 
 
This is one of the areas which has a lot of potential in bilateral cooperation, because, indeed, both countries have something to show to each other.
 
Albania is known as a secular state. How do the representatives of various religions cooperate with each other?
 
It’s a relevant and important theme for both a small country like Albania and a huge country like the Russian Federation, because both countries have a population that preaches various religions. 
 
I can say quite convincingly that my country is proud to be a role model for many other countries. It’s a reality which is recognized by everyone.
 
The existence of several religions in our country, such as Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, has never been a ground for conflicts and divisions within our society.
 
Instead of that, tolerance, harmony, mutual understanding and respect of each other are accepted as a value that we are determined to preserve and develop. That’s why representatives of different religions in the country have made and still make a valuable contribution with their messages, cooperation and activities. It’s very important to stress that amid a growing number of instances when religious teachings are abused, such values acquire special significance.
 
Saranda has turned into a top resort of European level. Does Albania plan to develop tourism?
 
Getting acquainted with your site, which is very interesting and informative in my opinion, I was pleased to note that you had published a special tourist profile on Albania in the Russian language. I would like to thank you for that initiative, because I consider it as support to our daily work on tourism promotion in your country. 
 
As you rightly mentioned, Saranda has become an attractive resort and it has been strongly developing tourism in recent times. The development of tourism and tourism infrastructure are a priority for the government. Due to its climate and geography, Albania offers a variety of tourist opportunities, a combination of sea and mountains, historical and cultural tourism. And it’s been confirmed by a large number of tourists from all over the world, and that flow keeps increasing every year. 
 
And I’m glad to mention that an increasing number of Russian tourists also confirms it. They appreciate not only the features which I’ve mentioned before, but also well-known Albanian hospitality. I want to stress that for several years Albania has applied a visa-free regime for Russians during the tourist season in order to attract them. I am sure that the same regime will be applied this year, because it plays a very positive role in attracting tourists. And we would be grateful if the Russian side could make the same regime for our citizens because they have a great desire to visit your country. I think that private human contacts improve mutual understanding and help avoid any mutual biases that may exist.
 
What barriers prevent the development of tourism between our countries?
 
The issue of direct flights is important because their absence causes various difficulties for people, especially when there is a change somewhere in Istanbul, Belgrade, Rome. But as I said, it’s a commercial issue, because the companies which are involved in such flights must be sure sometimes that they can earn enough to compensate for their expenses. Certainly, we think that they can do it.
 
Sometimes it’s necessary to take risks in business. I think that it can help to reach your goals. 
 
Do you have support on this issue from the Ministry of Economic Development?
 
As far as I know, these issues are currently being discussed within the Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism in Albania, but we also have to find a common language with the Russian side, because it would be much harder to attract Russian tourists in the numbers we need without direct flights.
 
Background
 
Arben Gazioni
 
EXTRAORDINARY AND PLENIPOTENTIARY AMBASSADOR OF THE REPUBLIC OF ALBANIA TO THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
REPUBLIC OF BELARUS, REPUBLIC OF KAZAKHSTAN 
AND REPUBLIC OF UZBEKISTAN
(residence in Moscow) 
 
Birth day:                   18.03.1962
 
Birth place:                 Kavajë, Albania
 
Studies and qualifications:
 
1986                              Graduated at Tirana University, Faculty of History-Philology (Branch of Russian Language and Literature)     
1992-1994                    Post-graduate studies in the field of international relations at Diplomatic Academy MFA of  Russia
 
September 2000          Senior Executive Course at the Marshall Centre   (Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany)
 
Work experience:
 
1987-1992                    Employed as researcher at the Albanian Science Academy, Tirana
 
1992-1994                    Joined the MFA and started the post-graduate studies in the field of international relations in Moscow
 
1994-1997                    Expert at Directorate for Cultural Cooperation, MFA
 
1997-2000                    First Secretary, Albanian Embassy, Budapest
 
2000-2003                     Expert at General Department for Euro-Atlantic Integration, NATO sector
 
2004                               Member of Cabinet of Minister of Foreign Affairs     
 
2005-2010                     Counsellor at the Albanian Mission to NATO, Brussels
 
2011-March 2012          Director for Russia and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), MFA
 
March 2012                    Minister Counsellor, Albanian Mission to the EU
 
July-October 2014         Charge d'Affairs at the Albanian Mission to the EU
                               
Languages:                      English, Russian, Italian
 
Status                              Married. He has one daughter