Too often over the past decade, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations have chosen to look the other way in Albanian-populated areas of the Balkans, willfully giving free rein to corrupt political and military officials in the vain hope of gaining local support for international efforts to strengthen “regional stability.” This “see-no-evil” policy has yielded precious little stability. And it has allowed Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia to linger on the crumbling edge of the “failed state” abyss. These countries – not to mention their Balkan neighbors, Greece included – need to be Europeanized.
They need the rule of law. They need good governance. They need transparency and accountability. They need to wean themselves from the poisonous rhetoric of ethnic nationalism substituting as patriotism. This cultural transformation will require international unity in support of robust efforts to root out the rot and stop narrow-minded local political figures from implementing policies that are dangerous both to their countries and the region.
Over the past few months, the EU’s “rule of law” mission in Kosovo, EULEX, has begun doing what the UN could have and should have done long ago: investigating top local Albanian officials and their involvement in bribery and money laundering, as well as their ties to organized crime. Many of these officials are former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a militia that led an insurrection against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia.
One of these officials, Fatmir Limaj, a former KLA commander, is now Kosovo’s Minister of Transportation and Telecommunication, a portfolio fat with contract money. EULEX is investigating whether Limaj and other ministry personnel accepted bribes in exchange for contracts to build roads. But EULEX should not stop there. It should expand its net to include drug smuggling, human trafficking, and the fate of missing victims from the war and its aftermath.
EULEX’s effort has received vocal support from a Kosovar public that is fed up with corruption, and counting on the investigations to yield arrests of dirty officials. (There is even a Facebook page in support of EULEX’s investigations.) The investigations, however, have received only partial support from the international community.
Political leaders everywhere in the Balkans are adept at exploiting such divisions. The US, which enjoys immense popularity among Albanians for obvious reasons, should immediately and unambiguously throw its muscle behind EULEX and its investigations. It should also stand foursquare behind Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s announced anti-corruption campaign, while monitoring it to ensure that it does not degrade into an effort to destroy his political opponents.
Another round of negotiations between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo over a number of issues will soon begin. The last thing needed in this situation is US-EU get-out-of-jail-free cards for corrupt Kosovo negotiators in exchange for concessions that will benefit Serbia. Things are little better in Albania, whose economy faces meltdown because it is reliant upon debt-ridden Greece and Italy. Indeed, 70% of Albania’s banks are Greek-owned, and more than a million Albanians work in Greece and Italy to earn money to send home.
Smarting from a loss in a tainted election, Albania’s political opposition, obdurate and un-comprising, is boycotting the country’s parliament and holding weekly demonstrations at a time crucial to Albania’s EU-accession bid and its handling of a falling economy. Both the government and the opposition need to grow up and stop putting narrow personal interests above those of the country and its people.
In Macedonia, the conservative Macedonian Slav-run government has for years dragged its feet on implementing the equal-rights provisions of the Ohrid Agreement, reached in 2001 with the leaders of the ethnic Albanian minority to end a violent insurrection by the National Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian militia. Demonstrators have taken to the streets of the capital, Skopje, shouting that the government has opted for a policy of open discrimination on “ethnic and religious grounds.” The NLA has begun to rearm. In May, Macedonian police shot and killed NLA members as they were trying to smuggling weapons across the border from Kosovo.
The three countries are completely reliant upon US and EU political and financial support. They should use their clout to pressure Macedonia’s government to speed up implementation of the promised reforms. Albanian political leaders in Kosovo and Macedonia should be pressured to take effective efforts to preventing the rise of armed movements.
The US and EU aid agencies are rightly supporting rule of law and good governance programs in the region. But, until US and EU regional policies are in sync with their aid programs, the aid will be seen, yet again, as a reward to corrupt officials for playing nice with their neighbors at a heavy cost to their citizens.