VOA: Senator Shaheen, this is your second visit to the Balkans in six months. What is the point?
Senator Shaheen: So this is my first trip to Albania and I have to come back to see this beautiful country. I’m really here to make sure people in Albania and here in the Western Balkans know that in the United States Senate we are paying attention to what’s going on here. We are grateful for Albania’s partnership and for the work done by the United States and Albania over the years. It’s the 100th anniversary of our relationship. And we very much appreciate Albania’s support for the war in Ukraine. And the help the United States has given to resettle Afghan refugees. So, I’m really here just to help remind everyone how important this partnership is and see how we can be of service to the United States.
VOA: In August, you and Republican Senator Roger Wicker introduced the Western Balkans Democracy Promotion Bill to counter Russia’s destabilizing activities in that region. In a recent report, the American intelligence community mentioned that some political parties in the Western Balkans, in Albania, Bosnia and Montenegro, had received money from Russia. Do you have more information you can share with us about this and how worried are you?
Senator Shaheen: I don’t have precise information on the amount of money they received. I am very worried about this. When we look at Putin’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine, we know that one of his areas of interest has been the Western Balkans, disinformation campaigns, we just saw a report that shows how much money, like you say, was spent trying to destabilize elections in Europe and the United States. We also see it – lying to people about what’s really going on – and if people don’t have the correct information, they can’t make good choices. And so we want, we want to do everything we can and the purpose of this legislation is to try to promote democracy in the Western Balkans to see how we can combat Russian disinformation, to see how we can support the reform efforts that are happening here in Albania and throughout the region.
VOA: One of the goals of the bill is to fight corruption and codify the US Executive Order on Sanctions Against Individuals Who Threaten Peace and Stability and Engage in Corrupt Behavior. In Albania we have the case of the former Prime Minister President Sali Berisha who after the sanctions became more active in politics, and in fact he leads the main opposition party in this regard, how, what is the Effectiveness of Sanctions?
Senator Shaheen: Sanctions are just one of the tools we have in foreign policy to try to influence outcomes and try to move towards democracy. And we also need to look at the economic support that can be given. We need to look at our existing diplomatic tools. We have here a very active ambassador and a very committed embassy with the Albanian government. And we need to help voters understand what the choices are. You know, in the United States we have had politicians who have been convicted of crimes and elected by voters. But usually voters find out in the next election that the politician is corrupt and not acting in the interest of the voters. But unless people have the information, unless they know what the choices are and that’s why the opposition is very important to explain what those choices are, so that voters know when they go to the polls .
VOA: What is the status of your bill now?
Senator Shaheen: Well, it has bipartisan support, so we’re pretty optimistic. We expect a hearing sometime in November after our midterm elections, and we hope it will pass before the end of the year.
VOA: A question regarding Serbia. It is the only Balkan country that has not joined the sanctions against Russia. Last week, the Serbian foreign minister signed an agreement with Lavrov in New York on foreign policy. The United States said Serbia had to make up their mind as they could not sit on two chairs at the same time. What is your opinion on the behavior of Serbia?
Senator Shaheen: Well, I think it’s unfortunate and I think it’s against the long-term interests of the people of Serbia. The fact is that the aspirations of the people of Serbia are to continue to look to the West, to look towards joining Europe. They have applied to the EU and they are working on it. And they should be very concerned about Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine. It is an unprovoked war of aggression. Every night on the news in the United States and around the world, we see the horrific effects of this war on the Ukrainian people, mass graves that have been uncovered, torture chambers. We see the destruction of the country’s cities and the effort to wipe out the culture of Ukraine. Now, if Serbia aren’t careful, they can be next. This is one of the concerns about Russia’s intentions in the Western Balkans. We know Vladimir Putin is not talking about quitting if he succeeds in Ukraine. He talks about recreating a Russian empire. That could be pretty much what the Soviet Empire was like. So, I think it is important for Serbia, for all of Europe, to take all the measures that we can point out that Vladimir Putin is an outlier, that he is not acting in the interests of world international order, and we must do everything we can to stop it.
VOA: Senator, let’s talk about your visit to Tirana. What were your messages for Albanian politicians?
Senator Shaheen: Well, as I said, it was to highlight the partnership and the alliances that Albania and the United States have had in the areas where we work together; the 100th anniversary of our relationship, the importance of Albania’s support to join us in the war in Ukraine to support the Ukrainian people; the importance of Albania taking in Afghan refugees at a time when the United States was pulling out, and we were trying to support people who needed help, and Albania stepped in and said we were going do what is right and try to help people who needed help. So that was very important. And obviously we will continue to work together on economic issues, the fact that Albania has just signed two agreements to help diversify its energy economy is very important. The hydroelectricity agreement, then the LNG agreement with two American companies. We appreciate that very much and hope it will be good for the United States and Albania.
VOA: As you know, Albania is home to almost two or 3000 members of the Iranian opposition MEK and this may be the reason why Iran retaliated by attacking its vital infrastructure. Albania reacted by cutting ties with Iran, but Albania alone is not able to withstand similar attacks in the future, especially when we are dealing with a rogue state like Iran . Does this concern you and is Albania receiving the necessary assistance from the United States?
Senator Shaheen: I am concerned. Again, I think Albania stepped in to welcome Iranians from the MEK at a time when people were being killed before when they were in Iraq. And Albania, said we’re going to help people and that’s an important model to show to the rest of the world. And when they are attacked as a result of this, it’s important for us to step in and help them and we’ve brought in teams, the FBI and other officials to come in and help respond to this cyberattack. But we must do more. We must help Albania to ensure that it has a secure cyberstructure for the future, so that it is not subject to attacks from Iran, Russia or any other country.
VOA: Another question. After the latest cyberattacks, it seems that the parties are not happy with the Iranian opposition, using Albania to engage in political activities. The Albanian Prime Minister said recently that the authorities were discussing with the Iranian opposition to clearly define the conditions for the members of this group to be welcomed in Albania in order to guarantee their life and their well-being and not so that they engage in political activities. What do you think about it?
Senator Shaheen: Albania will have to make this decision on its own. But, I think it is important to point out that when Albania expelled Iranian diplomats, the United States also sanctioned Iranians, and we worked to try to combat Iran’s illegal terrorist activities in the Middle East and throughout Europe. And we will continue to do so.
VOA: Senator, thank you very much for this interview.
Senator Shaheen: Thanks.