From: Ornella Darova
Comment: The USA’s Diplomatic Disaster in Albania

Yuri Kim was nominated US Ambassador in Albania in late 2019 and started her diplomatic mission in January 2020. In less than two years, she has become a controversial and well-known figure, constantly appearing on the front page of newspapers and portals and even on talk shows in the country.

She has been a strong endorser of the Judicial Reform promoted by the USA and the EU as a condition for accession, which has at its heart the fight against corruption through 1) the vetting process of prosecutors and judges and 2) the creation of an independent judicial body called SPAK (Special Anti-Corruption Structure) which is focused on investigating major corruption cases alongside special courts.

The vetting has been made possible by multiple transitory provisions in the Albanian Constitution that were supposed to expire in 2021. Still, an extension is needed because the initiative failed to end in the designated timeline.

Nevertheless, the vetting has dismissed around half of the processed judges, including the almost entirety of the Constitutional Court and the High Court, which became dysfunctional for three years. 

This was a period exploited by the government to approve anti-constitutional laws severely impacting freedom of press and civil rights and destroying the country’s cultural heritage.

The nomination of new members of the Constitutional Court was made when the opposition had resigned from the Parliament as a sign of protest against the blatantly unconstitutional appointment of a new so-called “temporary” prosecutor, Arta Marku. This decision could not be challenged as there was no Constitutional Court.

This string of coincidences tarnished the reputation of the newly erected institutions even before their genesis. Therefore, there are concerns around the impartiality of the newly designated members of the Constitutional Court nominated by the mono-party Parliament. This is aggravated because now that it is functional, its decisions are dubious and seem to be deliberately avoiding upsetting the ruling party.

Similar allegations have been directed to SPAK operations. Ambassador Yuri Kim insists the Reform is a success, but there is no transparency regarding the criteria used to make these statements. We know that the public trust in the Justice Reform has been dropping every year from the moment it was started, particularly in its implementation aspects.

Corruption indicators are deteriorating instead of improving, while state capture worsens substantially. The Venice Commission has criticized the Justice Reform, and it is reported that EU officials have discouraged Kosovo and North Macedonia from undergoing a similar process.

This has led countries in the Balkans to refuse to undergo similar reforms after observing Albania’s results. American investors did not seem to appreciate the path Albania is on either: the business confidence in Albania has dropped to an all-time low according to the American Chamber of Commerce’s Business Index, with 71% of investors perceiving the business climate as unfavourable.

In April 2021, national elections were held. The Socialist Party won a third mandate amidst accusations of vote-buying, misuse of state funds, mass monitoring and privacy violations, pressure on the public administration, and abuse of COVID restrictions to prevent the diaspora from voting.

To add to the string of coincidences a few days after the elections, the founding and former leader of the opposition party, Sali Berisha, was declared “persona non grata” by the Department of State Secretary Antony Blinken, with accusations of involvement in significant corruption.

This was viewed by the electorate of the opposition party mainly as a targeted attack rather than a push towards justice, as Berisha had been away from positions of power for more than eight years.

Berisha filed a lawsuit against Antony Blinken for defamation and challenged him to offer any proof or piece of evidence. There was no official answer to the challenge.

In July, Ambassador Kim pressured the current leader of the opposition party to exclude  Berisha from the Parliamentary Group. These pressures appear to have been significant enough for him to accept.

This request from the USA ignited a deep crisis in the opposition party, as many members opposed the exclusion of the historical leader, a decision taken with no transparency. The opposition, already at the third loss against the ruling party, is at an all-time low. Reacting to several accusations of significantly backing the ruling party with her actions, the US Ambassador, before elections, specified that “the US Embassy does not support any party or candidate”.

It should be noted that the US Ambassador’s and Secretary of State’s pressures to exclude Berisha from the political scene have resulted in the exact opposite. Despite numerous controversies, Berisha remains the historical leader who guided the country through the post-communist transition and a long-time friend of the US, representing the inaugurator of a new era of democracy and freedom for many Albanians.

Therefore, it is not surprising that many Albanians who have been supporting Berisha for decades do not trust the US appointees as they used to, and they do not trust the party’s current leader.

Seventy-seven-year-old Sali Berisha has political momentum he has not had for 10 years. But those who do not support Berisha also have good reasons to be unhappy about the American diplomacy actions that brought him back to the political front row.

The acme was reached at the beginning of November 2021, when the US Ambassador publicly declared that Washington would stop any dialogue with the opposition party if  Berisha returned to be its leader.

This is a problematic statement: first of all, as the party has a statute and a democratic manner is prescribed to appoint the party’s leader, the Ambassador’s threat easily translates into a lack of respect for the Albanian electorate and democracy.

Secondly, as Berisha is gaining significant support through an extensive rally in most of the Albanian territory, there is a chance that he may indeed become the new leader: it is not clear, therefore, if the US Embassy is planning on supporting explicitly only the ruling party, violating any principle of nonpartisan diplomacy and alienating a large part of a country who has been historically very pro-American.