Washington designates corrupt former Albanian officials

On May 19, the US Department of State announced the designation of former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his family members for involvement in significant corruption.  Such designations pursuant to US law prohibit the individuals so named from entering the United States.  

The explanation provided by the State Department had relatively little detail about the information and procedures used to make the designation, but the explanation from the Department was clear enough to send a simple message to Albania’s political elite and the electorate.  In the press release announcing Berisha’s designation, State noted “In his official capacity as Prime Minister of Albania in particular, Berisha was involved in corrupt acts, such as misappropriation of public funds and interfering with public processes, including using his power for his own benefit and to enrich his political allies and his family members at the expense of the Albanian public’s confidence in their government institutions and public officials.  Furthermore, his own rhetoric demonstrates he is willing to protect himself, his family members, and his political allies at the expense of independent investigations, anti-corruption efforts, and accountability measures.”

As the leader of the Democratic Party of Albania, Berisha served as Albania’s first President after the fall of Communism from 1992-1997, then as the Head of the Opposition from 1997-2005, and finally as Prime Minister in the period between 2005-2013 after which he remained active as an MP. 

During his time as Prime Minister, then-President George W. Bush made the historic first visit to Albania by a US President. In 2013, Berisha lost the parliamentary elections to Edi Rama, who is still serving as the country’s current PM. 

Washington’s mandate is relatively weak

Under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, the US Congress provides that officials of foreign governments and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States when the Secretary of State has credible information that a foreign official has been involved, directly or indirectly, with significant corruption and/or a gross violation of human rights.

Variations of Section 7031 (c) have been included in annual State and Foreign Operations Appropriations legislation since Fiscal Year 2008. Section 7031(c) requires the Secretary of State to publicly or privately designate those persons found ineligible for entry into the United States and to report those designations to Congress quarterly. For those individuals publicly designated, as in Berisha’s case, the Department had the option to issue a public statement naming the designees found ineligible for entry into the United States under Section 7031(c).

In its public statement, the State Department further explained “This designation reaffirms the U.S. commitment to supporting political reforms key to Albania’s democratic institutions.  The United States continues to stand with the people of Albania.  The Department will continue to use authorities like this to promote accountability for corrupt actors in this region and globally.”

Impact on EU Enlargement?

The timing of a State Department designation/announcement always raises questions and can have a major impact on the local politics of the country involved.  Washington’s decision to move now to keep the issue of corruption in Albania front and center will not be ignored in Brussels.  The designation clearly reinforces those who would hope to go as slow as possible in initiating accession negotiations with Albania through a so-called Intergovernmental Conference, the formal procedure the EU uses to launch accession negotiations.  This becomes doubly interesting as pressure is building within the Commission to move forward with these conferences for Albania and North Macedonia, so that both countries may take the first accession steps in tandem.

North Macedonia’s accession path is, however, frozen until a dispute with Bulgaria can be resolved, and some voices have argued that the countries should be “decoupled” and Albania’s accession talks — facing no external impediments — could be launched in the coming months. Intentional or not, Washington’s designation of Berisha at this time serves to reinforce those around the EU who already argue that Albania is simply not ready to be moved to the head of the queue. 

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