Friday, December 8, 2023

Amateur hour for US diplomacy in Albania

US Ambassador to Albania Yuri Kim.

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On December 11, Sali Berisha, a two-term Prime Minister and President of Albania, was addressing some ten thousand jubilant Democratic Party congress participants in the Tirana main soccer stadium. The political event was a novelty in many ways: one of them was the direct call by Mr. Berisha on Madame Yuri Kim, the US Ambassador, not to be bossy like her Soviet counterpart in the late 1950s when Albania was part of the Warsaw Pact. Berisha was quick to add that he always believed that the Moscow-led bloc was an evil empire while the United States has been a steady beacon of liberty for the world.

Many would be surprised to hear this from a leader who boasted he was the first among his Eastern European peers to formally ask for NATO membership in the early 1990s and to achieve it as prime minister in 2009. Indeed, he was received as Albania’s President in the White House by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and he also officially hosted President George W. Bush in Tirana in 2007.

Berisha always professed loudly his “Atlanticism” and stood on the US side in the wars in former Yugoslavia, in Iraq and Afghanistan by contributing troops; he also received at the behest of the US government refugees no one else would accept like Uyghur extremists from the Guantanamo Bay camp and Iranian resistance fighters chased by the despotic regime of the ayatollahs. 

His successor, Edi Rama, from the opposing Socialist Party, who was appointed Prime Minister after winning the 2013 general elections also did favors for the US by tripling the number of Iranian asylum-seekers and recently accepting Afghans who worked for American entities. Still, he somehow managed to do something unprecedented: he managed to silence the US Ambassador on his many and serious transgressions involving democracy and the rule of law. He also had them sometimes covering up these transgressions. Rama’s Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri 2013-2017 is facing charges of corruption and narcotics trafficking and has appealed his standing convictions on these charges. He oversaw a huge and unprecedented illegal cannabis cultivation in 2016.

The then-US Ambassador Donald Lu, contrary to State and other international reports, kept praising his wars on drugs. Tahiri was even included in the Rama-led delegation visiting the White House in April 2016 sitting across from President Barack Obama. When prosecutors finally went after Tahiri in the fall of 2017 Lu publicly defended him comparing the judicial case with a Communist-era kangaroo court. 

His successor Yuri Kim has not fared much better. Kim has repeatedly stated her priorities would be to promote democracy in Albania and improve defense ties with the US. 

An investigative media report, partly covered by US Embassy media development funding, showed how significant assets of certain Albanian navy bases were given to property developers close to the government. This has seriously hampered the naval capacity of Albania, a NATO member. The journalist found serious breaches in the asset transfer procedures and alleged official corruption as a motivation.

The affair has been brought to public attention since a naval officer who resisted government orders and was consequently fired has publicly denounced the ploy and referred the matter to the Prosecutor’s Office and, by his own admission to the US Embassy. The US Ambassador, unperturbed, has excessively shown herself in public, exchanging congratulations with the politicians who are the prime suspects in the report. 

On the democracy issue, Ambassador Kim, together with her European colleagues, mediated a deal in 2020 on electoral reform between the government and opposition. No easy matter given the very polarized politics in the country and no small feat given the serious shortcomings of past elections. The government however did not wait for the ink to dry on the agreement to unilaterally change the election seat distribution formula to its advantage. With the opposition and European officials crying foul, Ambassador Kim was the only one arguing that the government changes did not actually breach the internationally mediated agreement. 

Such biased stances paired with what was seen as “celebrity-like” attention-seeking behavior had already spurred criticism of the US Ambassador. 

But more was still to come. On May 19 this year US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken approved the public designation of Mr. Berisha as ineligible to enter America on grounds of corruption. The move, under the State Department’s so-called Section 7031 (c) authority, was widely questioned by many, including members of the US Congress, since Berisha has been eight years out of power; further, his criticism of the Rama government often tracked closely with various State Department reports.

Ambassador Kim unsuccessfully asked the election authority to cancel Berisha’s parliamentary mandate. Then she put pressure on the Democratic Party chairman Lulzim Basha to expel him from the party’s parliamentary group; she even and went public about this matter using offensive quotes from Enver Hoxha, the longtime Communist leader. 

Former Albanian President Sali Berisha.

When eventually Basha complied with Kim’s request Berisha protested and launched a series of party grassroots meetings. With Basha unable to score a single election win during his years of chairmanship, Washington’s questionable designation that many perceived as politically motivated and convenient to the very corrupt Socialist government along with Kim’s arrogance bordering on insolence, it is no surprise the Berisha movement expanded exponentially.

Criticism of Kim for asking editors of the main media not to cover these
meetings spiced feelings up. The December DP congress called by a majority of its members removed Basha by an overwhelming majority and appointed a Provisional Committee including Berisha to run the party. This was a welcome relief for the party faithful and was also interpreted as serious political blowback for the US Embassy.

While it may have been unethical for the US to support their various “sons of bitches” at crucial times in recent history, it certainly served a core diplomatic and strategic purpose at the height of the Cold War, but it is rationally inexplicable why American diplomats would behave like this in what has been up to now the most pro-American country in Europe.

While the Albanians have historical reasons to be thankful to the United States, current opinion polls show diminishing support figures. This is in my view certainly a direct consequence of hubristic and inept diplomats who are solely responsible for turning at least half of the body politic and of the general public against them. And unfortunately for many of us, also against the country and symbols of liberty and democracy that they happen to represent. 

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