The Japan News Facing the Adriatic and Ionian seas, Albania — though small in size — has been an important witness to dynamic Mediterranean civilizations and conflicts in history. After turbulent times in the 20th century, such as Italian and German occupation and totalitarian communist rule, the Balkan nation has been steadily moving toward a liberal democracy by accelerating its bid to get European Union membership. With an educational background in Japan, Albanian Ambassador Gjergji Teneqexhiu talked about the role of Japan in Albania’s transformation in a recent interview.
Q: How did your ties with Japan begin?
Teneqexhiu: As a child, I grew up listening to Italian music on the Italian radio. [By listening to the radio,] I became familiar with what was happening in the world around Albania, including music, sports, news and politics.
You may ask what this has to do with Japan. All the information that I was listening to at the time was transmitted through a Japanese transistor radio — a Panasonic that my father bought for me.
At university, I had two opportunities to deepen my studies. One was in Europe, in Vienna. The other one was in Japan. Without any doubts, I chose Japan. My family, friends and superiors shared the same opinion. It was autumn in 1992.
Reading Takeshi Kaiko’s books
Q: Was Japan close to you even under the former communist government?
A: Yes. Akira Kurosawa movies, robot anime cartoons, manga and haiku were all well-known among Albanians of my generation. Even during my high school years, there were Japanese students studying the Albanian language in Tirana University.
I remember [novelist] Takeshi Kaiko. I bought [his books] in Albania during the communist regime. I have them at home.
Q: How and what did you study in Japan?
A: In 1992, Albania was undergoing big market reforms toward a market economy. In 1991, Albania moved from a centralized economy to a market economy. It was necessary to increase [administrative] capacity in Albania. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the European Commission were offering scholarships to our students and officials. Japan was one of the most generous ones.
I’m an economist by background. I chose to study macroeconomics and financial policy under the supervision of Prof. Keisuke Osumi at Kyushu University. When I returned to Albania in 1994, I was armed with new knowledge and new concepts that I shared with my colleagues in the Ministry of Finance.
During my 35 years of experience in administration, especially after Japan, I had a great career, partly thanks to Kyushu University. My start in Japan [gave me] working experience, absolutely. [For] my mission as a diplomat in Japan, I’ve felt more comfortable, better oriented in a known environment. This is a big advantage.
Q: Under the former communist system, how was economics taught at university, and how did the economy function?
A: It was based on [Karl] Marx’s and [Friedrich] Engels’ philosophies.
I worked in a state-owned enterprise after I finished university. You financed the fiscal year and prepared the next year’s [budget]. You had to prepare your objectives, but you didn’t have room to determine your objective for the next year. Everything came from above. It was from the [relevant] ministry. I guess the ministry was instructed by another institution close to the prime minister’s office, and the prime minister’s office was taking orders from a certain committee of the [ruling] party.
The difference between high salaries and low salaries was very low. This is populism. But people are not equal. Physically and mentally, we are different. The people were paid the same whether they worked harder or not. There were no incentives.
Hoxha couldn’t stop people
Q: How is the former regime taught about at school now, including the then leader Enver Hoxha?
A: I don’t think he’s mentioned at school. I spent a large amount of time under the Hoxha regime, but since the collapse of communism I don’t think about him or the past regime. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes that have been done by the regime.
Albanians are very open-minded. We were a very closed country, but [the government] couldn’t stop us from watching Italian TV. I put an antenna on my roof and I could watch Italian TV, especially during summer vacation. Italy’s only 100 kilometers from Albania, and you cannot stop the radio, either.
That’s why Albanians are very good at foreign languages. We were very good at Italian, English and so on. I remember listening to the BBC. English was obligatory at elementary school at that time. I took English classes from elementary school until university. We were advised to follow up on a second language.
The good thing about the regime was that Hoxha was very independent. We were not [part of the] Soviet Union group. [In the early 1960s,] we cut our relationship with the Soviet Union. We were not dependent on the Soviet bloc economy. We stopped [keeping ties] with China in the 1970s. Albania was isolated, but you could not stop the people from taking news and everything else from outside. We were not free to move abroad from Albania. You either had to have a scholarship or be on a sports team. We did not have passports.
Sometimes newspapers write about Enver Hoxha, but that’s just memories and history.
Q: In light of its dramatic transformation from the communist system, what further economic and political benefits does Albania expect to enjoy by becoming a member of the EU?
A: Albania is one of the oldest countries in Europe. That’s why around 90 percent of the Albanian people are absolutely in favor of EU integration. It means a lot to us — it’s more or less a dream come true. We have dreamed about it even during the communist regime. The EU is our natural and integral base, or ally.
For Albania not only European membership is important, but also the incentive for the transformation of our society, the development of our economy, and the modernization of our institutions and the way public life develops. The EU is Albania’s largest trade partner. Integration with Europe for us is not mere diplomacy. It’s an aspiration for the Albanian people to be capable of democracy, rule of law, prosperity and economic development.
Q: Judiciary reforms have been mentioned by the EU as one of the conditions for Albania to fulfill to start accession talks. How will this strengthening of democratic institutions be beneficial for the economy?
A: The judiciary system in Albania, to be honest, has become a barrier for developing the economy. That’s why judicial reform is widely supported in Albania. The introduction of this reform — screening judges and prosecutors — has removed many prosecutors and judges from the judiciary system, and that has happened after the reform was approved in the Albanian Parliament. Domestic and foreign businesses operating in Albania are very sensitive on the role and quality of Albanian institutions.
Q: With its past experience with a totalitarian system, what is Albania’s policy toward denuclearization of North Korea?
A: I’ve faced many times [a situation where] North Korea being compared to Albania’s past regime. But let me clarify this, because I consider it very important. There is a big difference between Albania as a communist, isolated country and North Korea nowadays.
Albania, even under the communist regime, has never been a threat to any neighbor or any other country. It never developed nuclear weapons or offensive weapons. In Albania’s ancient history, you cannot find a single case of Albania being a threat, or aggressive to neighbors.
We stand side by side with the Japanese people and government. We fully support the official position of Japan. Albania is totally against any kind of militarization or nuclearization of weapons. We strongly condemn any attempt to destabilize peace in the region by exercising military force.
On the other hand, we are very positive and encourage any talks that promote peace, cooperation and coexistence. We applaud any form of dialogue that has a foundation of peace and cooperation.
But we must be very careful and vigilant about how seriously North Korea has taken action and provided clear evidence that their demilitarization and denuclearization is going on, always under the strict monitoring of international organizations.
Regional integration needs help
Q: As part of its Belt and Road mega economic zone initiative, China is actively seeking closer ties with Eastern European countries. What roles do you expect China to play in the region?
A: It’s not China only, there are many factors. Although positive developments have been made, we are aware that countries like Albania have small markets. It’s difficult to compete alone in regional and global markets.
The business climate in Albania is attractive to foreign investors. Even so, as part of the process in which other countries from the western Balkans are brought together, called the Berlin Process [that Germany launched in 2014], we have agreed on a map connecting the entire region.
We welcome all investors and continue to enhance the positive attitude toward any foreign investor in our country. China is a big economy. But we consider Japanese investment as very qualitative, well-designed, serious and long-lived. This can create quite a big advantage for investment in the region.
Sharing values with Japan
Q: What has been your goal as ambassador to Japan?
A: When I took the position as ambassador, I organized a simple survey with my staff. It came out that 90 percent of Japanese do not know where Albania is located. Even [for] those who knew Albania’s location, I have to admit, their image of Albania was a little inadequate and mainly related to the past regime. So, my main priority is to promote Albania in Japan and to present the economic and social transformation that Albanians have been going through since the collapse of communism.
The number of Japanese people that have visited Albania has increased quite dramatically. We hope to see more than 7,000 citizens visit Albania next year. Currently there are 3,500 or 4,000, a very small number.
My other goal is to increase the volume of trade between Albania and Japan, and increase investments from the Japanese private sector in Albania. Albania has everything that is needed for a successful and fruitful investment environment: security, friendly legislation, favorable macroeconomic developments and the location. It’s very close to the European market. We have a very well-educated young generation. The labor cost is very low compared to other countries. Albania is a NATO member. That’s why I invite investors from Japan to come to Albania and guarantee they will never regret investing in Albania.
We are majority Muslim, but very moderate Muslims. We also have Catholics and Orthodox. We are open-minded. If there is one country in the world that does not have obstacles to religion, it’s Albania. You can see mosques and churches very close to each other. I am Orthodox by religion, but I’m happy to celebrate Muslim festivities. I have friends and cousins who are Muslims. There is no division.
Q: What strategic importance does Albania attach to Japan?
A: Japan is a very important ally of the European Union, NATO, the United States and Western countries. We have very good political and diplomatic relations with Japan. We share the same values on rule of law, democracy, human rights and the free-market economy. Japan has played a key role in Albania’s transition from a centralized economy to a market economy.
I think Japan can play a crucial role in promoting economic growth as well as cooperation among Balkan countries. We really appreciate the new initiative by Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe, the Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative.
The level of trade or economic ties does not correspond to the high level of political and diplomatic relationship between Japan and Albania. I think there used to be some prejudices toward Albania, maybe because of the past. Recently it seems that we have overcome the hurdles, because we are getting good signals from important Japanese companies. These companies are seriously considering investing in Albania in infrastructure, automobiles, industry, energy, manufacturing and so on.
We expect that with this framework [of the Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative], Japanese investment will be more present in Albania. Albania is a natural partner of Japan.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa.
Ambassador Gjergji Teneqexhiu entered Albania’s Finance Ministry in 1991 and studied macroeconomic and financial policy at Kyushu University from 1992-94. In the ministry, he has assumed such positions as director of the state budget department and secretary general. Teneqexhiu took up his current position in 2016. Speech