Interview with Alastair King-Smith, UK's newly appointed Ambassador to Albania
Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Republic of Albania: Alastair King -Smith
Just before he left for Albania, Alastair King-Smith spoke to John Watkins, Editor of the Anglo-Albanian Gazette about some of the challenges facing him as he prepared to take up his new post as Ambassador to the Republic of Albania.
JW: You’ve had a varied diplomatic career with postings in Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Will you be facing a different set of challenges working in Europe?
AK-S: In fact, Albania was one of the first countries I dealt with from the UK end. In 1997, we had the crisis when the pyramid schemes collapsed and the whole of Albanian society went into melt-down. We had all sorts of problems with insecurity around the country, particularly in Tirana and Durrës where people went to the beach to be evacuated. Italians took off Italian nationals and left all the others, and I had to get the Italians to come back and rescue the Brits. So I suppose that was my first insight into Albania and the challenges the country had.
And if you track forward to the global campaigns I’ve been running on media freedom, UN elections and other issues, the Western Balkans have always been at the forefront of engaging with those sorts of international issues and wanting to really play their part. I think of Albania as a global citizen. I’m going there at a time when they are joining UN Security Council and have just finished holding the Presidency of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and are looking ahead to joining the European Union.
I think the other thing I take to Albania is the experience I’ve had in other places, in the Middle East and Africa, of societies in transition. If you don’t get sustainable and equitable development then you get a lot of challenges. So while it’s a very different context in the Balkans, countries are still going along that trajectory of socio-economic and political development. I’m hoping we can continue to build a partnership and bring some of the experience I’ve had to help Albania flourish.
JW: Does that extend beyond Albania to, say, Albanians in North Macedonia? How broad is your remit? Are you dealing with Albania or Albanians?
AK-S: I’m certainly not Ambassador for Albanians located in other countries, but of course Ambassadors have to recognise that we have people in all sorts of different places, and one of the things I definitely want to do is to consider how to work closely with the Albanian diaspora in the UK and anywhere else where there are positive elements, for example the AAA. So while I’m concentrating on Albania and my responsibilities there, something I really enjoy is taking benefit from other people’s interest and enthusiasm for Albania and finding ways to collaborate.
JW: How prepared are you for this? Have you visited Albania? Are you learning the language? Are you familiar with the culture?
AK-S. I was very aware that as I didn’t have the chance to live and work in Albania, it’s a privilege to go to a new country. But you really have to build up your understanding. So over the last year, I’ve learnt the language, having great fun for seven weeks in Albania. This was delayed a bit by Covid, but I was lucky that the situation in Albania stabilised and I was able to go and live there, mainly in Shkodra in the north, because I really wanted to understand the Gheg dialect. But I’ve retained the more standard Albanian in terms of how I speak. It’s not just to get a sense of the culture and the people, but really to make relationships, to understand a bit more about what makes Albanians tick, and to get a sense of how I can play a more productive role.
The other thing I’ve been doing before arriving in Albania has been to go round the top table of British government administrators and senior officials, to bring them more into the role of those in business and the cultural field, so we can really galvanise people to what Britain and Albania can do together.
JW: This is a complicated business, isn’t it? You’re working to build relations between the UK and Albania, but there are also geo-political issues you have to deal with, migration being one of them. Albanians are the third largest group of illegal migrants coming to the UK after Iran and Iraq. Maybe all these things are tied together and an understanding of how Albania operates will help you solve these kinds of issues, or at least address them if not solve them.
AK-S. That’s right, one has to look at the root causes for migration. It’s sad and disappointing that so many young Albanians do feel they need to leave the country. It’s not just Albania, you see the same phenomenon across the Balkans. Some go overseas, build up skills and then come back. I was pleased to hear when I was last in Albania that some youngsters are bucking that trend. It’s probably the majority who want to leave, but some do want to stay and I’m determined to make a success here. I hope we can do more to promote opportunities within Albania and have successful role models. Or we can help through our Chevening Scholarship schemes - have people come out, develop new skills at the world’s top universities and then bring those skills back to Albania.
So I’m keen to look at how we support all that and also look at why is it that in some of the rural areas, people feel that their only route is not just to leave but to do so illegally and to pay huge sums. I’ve been briefed that they pay 20 to £30,000 to come illegally to the UK. That’s devastating and often they have a horrific journey and get injured along the route and once they get here it’s often a very difficult experience too. So let’s look at why is it that people feel they have to leave. Often it seems there’s a lack of economic opportunity for them, and so we can look at what we can do together with the government of Albania and other organisations and international partners to create real opportunities so these people have a choice.
JW: I think we’d both agree it’s unfair, but Albania has a bad image in the west. It’s seen as a centre of organised crime, people trafficking, drug smuggling and all the rest of it. Do you see it as part of your brief to combat that negative view of Albania that exists in the UK?
AK-S: Of course we need to tackle all these issues. I look at it through a broad lens. We have to tackle things not just head-on. We’ve got specific difficulties. We need to look at organised crime and law enforcement but we have to look at the context. I want to look at the mix between democracy and how we support Albania’s future political development and security, and to look at how security can be enhanced in Albania and in the UK. We have to tackle these problems together in a collaborative partnership. We’re not going to be successful unless there’s a justice system that’s flourishing and functioning so that it can really address legal issues. And economic development is the only answer to organised crime. So there’s a whole range of things we need to look at in that bracket around security and democracy.
We also need to look at other areas. I want to look at how we broaden our partnership on prosperity and growth. I think both Albania and the UK share an interest in developing green economies. And with the UK chairing the COP26 climate change talks in November and then holding the Presidency for the year beyond, the UK will be championing how we take action internationally because climate change is the big issue of our times. I’m sure that Albania as a very close and strong partner in the global community will be wanting to do what it can in that space and we will want to look at how we can help.
So I think that will also link into Albania’s other priorities around tourism, energy and infrastructure. More widely, I think there’s a huge opportunity around innovation and technology. Albania has a vibrant digital ecosystem but one where there could be even more benefit if the UK and Albania work closely together and then broadening out from that to education, culture and other areas as well.
JW: You’ve recently been spotted at AAA Zoom meetings; are you likely to continue your connections with the AAA?
AK-S: Absolutely! One of the things the AAA does is bring together those who have real good will towards Albania and some fantastic expertise. I really enjoyed hearing how British archaeologists have been helping in Gjirokastër and how we have experts in Albanian poetry. Just before leaving the UK, I met members of the AAA and was able to see some of Tishy Nugee’s extraordinary collection of books.
2021 is a centenary year, a chance to celebrate a hundred years of UK-Albania relations since the first British diplomat was appointed to Albania in November 1921. The AAA has been a huge pivot and mobiliser of support and over the next year I hope we can use that to celebrate these wonderful connections and link some of that past enthusiasm to the future. For example, Dr Andi Hoxhaj at the University of Warwick was suggesting there’s a real opportunity to boost already strong university links and he’s looking at whether he could help organise an academic conference. I’m really interested in other events we could do.
So one message for all AAA members is that post-Brexit, the UK is looking at its international priorities differently and Albania is higher up that priority list. We have a new government being formed in Albania and which will have a four-year term. How shall we use those next four years to increase the UK’s profile and impact in Albania? And as we were saying earlier, we also need to help improve Albania’s and Albanians’ reputation and image in the UK and more widely. So any ideas or suggestions are welcome! And if I can encourage people to have those discussions and feed ideas to the AAA Chairman Stephen Nash, we can then think about how we might turn that into a programme of events over the coming year and beyond. That would be a huge contribution to any success we’re able to have both in the UK and Albania.