Tirana Top Secret

Tirana, the capital city of Albania, hides an exciting hidden, secret life at the diplomatic level that this article intends to open up. The World's diplomatic capitals usually gather countries' diplomatic missions and its corresponding dwelling elites. When a country does not or cannot have a diplomatic mission established in for instance Tirana, it may very well delegate some of an Ambassador's duties in a figure known as Honorary Consul. During the present week I will be meeting the Ambassadors of Germany and Switzerland, and the Honorary Consuls of Japan and Latvia.

In the afternoon of Tuesday 13-October-2015 I head off towards the German Embassy in Tirana. The German Embassy is located on Embassy Street, along with other missions such as the United Nations, the French and the Greek Embassies. The easiest way to reach Embassy Street is to walk west on Rruga e Kavajës departing from the Central Bank for about fifteen minutes. Once I reach the Embassy I am escorted to the office of the Ambassador where I am welcomed by Ambassador Hellmut Hoffmann.

Ambassador Hoffmann was born in 1951. He graduated from the University of Heidelberg, one of Germany's best, he also visited King's College London and Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. (United States). It was during this period that he discovered his interest in arms control, to which he would devote a relevant chunk of his career as diplomat. He tells me he belongs to the May 1968 protest generation, which was engaged to reform state and society. In the late 1960 and early 1970s he admires Willy Brandt for his rapprochement politics towards Eastern European countries during the Cold War years. He gives credit to Mikhail Gorbachev for the peaceful manner in which the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent liberation of Eastern Central Europe took place. He stresses the importance of the agreement reached on the Iranian nuclear program and he applauds the important role played by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in this. He is delighted to celebrate 25 years of reunification of Germany as a key factor in the reunification of Europe.

Ambassador Hoffmann arrived in Albania in 2013 after heading one of Germany's two missions in Geneva (Switzerland) as Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament. Albania will be his last post since he will be obliged to retire in 2016 when he turns 65. In the past he was also posted in Windhoek (Namibia). He plans to return with his wife to Berlin, where his daughter and granddaughter live. He regrets he will not be able to extend his stay in Albania due to regulatory retirement provisions. I think that he feels very comfortable in Albania. "I observe to my own surprise that I am fairly very well known around here", he adds a bit perplexed. "What a modest Ambassador", I think to myself.

When I raise the scandal about fake software in Volkswagen diesel engines Ambassador Hoffmann rejects conspiracy theories. He says the matter is very damaging for a broader reason because such behavior jeopardizes the well known German code of honor behind the reliability of "made in Germany" manufactured products. Ambassador Hoffmann fails to understand how Volkswagen executives did not foresee that such a blatant fraud would eventually be made public. He suggests the only sensible course for Volkswagen which fortunately was being pursued already was an acknowledgement of the fiasco and immediate corrective measures.

Ambassador Hoffmann has a spacious office in the two story embassy. Ambassador Hoffman reminds me that Albania is the country which receives the highest per-capita allocation of development funds from Germany, also with a view to assist Albania in its EU membership ambitions. He is also keen to stress that his work is much facilitated by the fact that Albanians have a very positive attitude towards Germany. Before I leave the Embassy we are taken on a picture together, in the background with a framed picture of German President Joachim Gauck.

Leaving the premises I notice a board in the Embassy's lobby. A magnet indicates whether the employees are in or out. I have left Ambassador Hoffmann in his office. His name on the board "Botschafter" indicates he is still in.

In the morning of 16-October-2015 I walk along Tirana's boulevard Bajram Curri from east to west and make it left on Rruga Ibrahim Rugova. At 11H00 o'clock I arrive in the Swiss Embassy. It is the first time that an Ambassador from Switzerland has welcomed me in a Mission. There is always a first time.

Ambassador Graf briefly describes the Embassy from his recently reformed and modern second floor office that overlooks the green backyard. 23 employees work for the Embassy, only four of whom are expatriates including himself. The Embassy allocates 20 million Euro yearly in cooperation projects along four priority areas, including local governance, economic development, infrastructure & energy, and health. The slim Ambassador from Switzerland is in shape and looks younger than he actually is. He reminds of Spanish Football Player Emilio Butragueño and British Premier Tony Blair. He arrived in Tirana only last year, leaving his grown up children aged 22 and 24 in Switzerland. He misses them no more than before because technology, he says, keeps them in his everyday life.

Contrary to a majority of career diplomats, Ambassador Graf holds a doctorate in geography and public economy which he completed at the University of Zurich in 1989. During his university studies he developed an interest in international cooperation which led him to elaborate his dissertation in the area of "small scale enterprise development and creation of employment", part of which he wrote during a 16 month stay in Colombia. Ambassador Graf "habla perfectamente castellano" so we understand each other in the language of Cervantes during a two minute break that we improvise. He actually worked four years in Nicaragua, between 1996 and 2000. At the time and in the aftermath of sandinismo, he recalls a more active involvement of women in civil society and a reduction of the analphabetism levels. Not much has changed ever since with the perpetuation of President Daniel Ortega in power since 2007.

He was born in the canton of Solothurn, one of Switzerland's 26 cantons which lies between Zurich and Bern. The German-speaking canton of Solothurn used to be of catholic majority. Being born in a catholic environment grew the Ambassador's sensitivity towards issues such as social justice, which later on would prove fundamental when embracing the field of international cooperation as a professional métier. Solothurn was coincidentally city of Ambassadors during part of the Napoleon Bonaparte's reign, perhaps a premonition for the future career of the Swiss Solothurn-born diplomat.

Switzerland's approach to foreign relations pays special attention to international cooperation. It is not rare, as a result, to find a doctoral holder in lieu of a career diplomat as a country's Ambassador. Ambassador Graf enjoys traveling to different parts of the country to visit the work done by Swiss-funded cooperation programs. When he travels to rural areas he is impressed to see how many peasants still do much if not all of the artisan work manually. He admits he learns very much when speaking with cities' Mayors in his regular field trips outside Tirana. Albania is on the move, in transition, he reckons. He feels Tirana is very European, he and his wife feel very comfortable.

I ask Ambassador Graf if Switzerland has recognized Kosovo. He immediately agrees and explains to me that 10% of the Kosovar population resides in Switzerland or approximately 200 000. I am surprised. He adds that 10 players of Albania's Football Team have Swiss citizenship or reside in Switzerland. I am amazed. There are stronger ties between Albanians and Swiss that I ever thought possible. To hear it is to believe it.

Jointly published on Albanian Daily News