Yesterday, EU Ambassador Romana Vlahutin held a farewell reception at her official residence in the gated community owned by oligarch Samir Mane, Rolling Hills. With her departure, one of the most incompetent foreign diplomats in recent history will (hopefully) leave Albania.
It is ironic that this one of the first times, if not the first time, that the media published images from her compound. Because Vlahutin’s official residence was at the center of one of the large scandals that haunted her tenure.
After initial reports by newspaper Dita that the EU Delegation spent more than double the regular price per square meter to acquire a villa for the Head of Delegation, Exit investigated the public procurement process, which turned out to be a classic “public” tender in which the winner was known beforehand. Of the five properties that were “pre-selected” based on criteria the EU refused to make public, it turned out that two were not for sale, one was not completed, and one was ridiculously overpriced. This left Rolling Hills villa 34 as the only “reasonable” option, despite its exorbitant price. It also turned out that the villa cost significantly more than the initial €1.6 million mentioned in official documents: the final sum was €2 million, which was only made public after Exit filed a complaint at the EU Ombudsman.
The dubious acquisition led to questions in the European Parliament from the Budget Control Committee, with its chair Ingeborg Gräßle stating that the case had heavily damaged the image of the EU. Vlahutin defended herself by using the Trumpian term “fake news” and suggested “criminal interest groups” were behind the affair.
In fact, in 2015, the Croatian Parliamentary Commission for Conflicts of Interest conducted an administrative investigation of Vlahutin, who was suspected of hiding part of her wealth and falsifying the declaration of her wages and real estate property. The commission concluded that Vlahutin had violated the Croatian law on wealth declaration. However, since she was already for many years no longer paid by the Croatian public sector, the commission decided not to take any punitive action.
During her tenure, the EU Delegation utterly failed to protect the interests of EU taxpayers by failing to exercise proper control over the many EU investments in Albania, including the Vlora Bypass, and the Lungomare beachfront, none of which were completed on time. Another extensive EU-funded project, the renovation of the sewerage and drainage systems in Ksamil, which broke down only a few months after being finished, and Shëngjin, where the contractor basically failed to do much of the work. In both cases, were characterized by the inaction and incompetence of the EU Delegation.
Throughout, Ambassador Vlahutin turned out to be an enthusiastic supporter of the Rama government, willing to make declarations that suited his politics. In late 2016, after the Progress Report of the European Commission became public, the Ambassador failed to publicly confirm the five key conditions for the opening of accession negotiations, stating:
The five priorities will continue to remain with us until the end. […] So there needs to progress, a little bit but apparent. As regards the elections, that has to with democracy. It is not a condition in itself, but we take it for granted, because free and fair elections have to do with the democratic values of a country.
Her speech was copied verbatim by Prime Minister Rama in Parliament to attack the justified concerns of the opposition. Only half a year later, when the realities of the EU accession had dawned on everyone, Vlahutin backtracked. Only recently the extent of her error of judgment became clear, when the European Council not only refused to open negotiations, but also reconfirmed the five key conditions, while adding another one: electoral reform. Albania could have been at a different place today, if she had not chosen to water down any demand from Brussels to please her host and facilitate his rapacious policies.
She also encouraged the Rama government to ignore the political crisis ahead of the 2017 parliamentary elections, suggesting that the Socialist Party might as well take all 140 seats and pass all the laws necessary. In the midst of the cannabis crisis, which saw an enormous increase of cannabis production and trafficking before the 2017 elections, Vlahutin kept her mouth shut.
Furthermore, Vlahutin helped the Rama government to install a Temporary General Prosecutor, Arta Marku, in violation of the Constitution, by ordering EU justice assistance mission EURALIUS to draft a legal opinion that argued for its legality. Marku has in the meantime fully turned over the Prosecution Office to the government, through a number of unconstitutional moves. In spite of requests of the vetting commission, Marku failed to provide any legal argument for her action. She passed the vetting nevertheless, which has essentially cast serious doubt on the fairness on the entire EU-sponsored project.
The EU Ambassador has embodied the worst aspects of foreign diplomacy: ignorance of the political and historical context; a blind belief in her own capabilities; a pathetic desire to please her host; and an inability to see the bigger picture. Her actions have not only damaged the reputation of the EU in Albania, they have also seriously undermined its most important projects: the justice reform and its many investments. Moreover, she has been instrumental in the capture of the Albanian state by organized crime. The effects of this utter fiasco will be lasting and severe.
It is rumored in diplomatic circles that Vlahutin will not return to Brussels and has not been offered any other diplomatic post. This would mean that at least someone at the European External Action Service has understood the deep failure of her tenure. One honestly hopes that she will not stick around, and open some unholy type of “consultancy” business.
So bye, bye, Vlahutin. I hope we never meet again!