Washington

Ex-Albanian leader rejects U.S. charges of corruption


Albania’s former Prime Minister Sali Berisha insists there is “zero evidence” behind corruption allegations Secretary of State Antony Blinken leveled against him recently, asserting the decision to bar him from entering the U.S. was based on “misinformation” from outfits backed by billionaire philanthropist and investor George Soros.

In a fresh twist to an already eye-opening clash between the Biden administration and a former high-profile ally of U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Balkans, Mr. Berisha vowed in an interview with The Washington Times to fight the allegations, saying his lawyers are preparing a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Blinken in a European court.

A center-right stalwart of Albania’s post-communist political scene, Mr. Berisha has openly challenged the Biden administration to show proof of the claims being made against him and asserted that American officials would do better to focus on his political rivals, including current Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who heads the nation’s ruling Socialist Party.

“It is my deep conviction that this declaration against me has been based entirely on misinformation that Mr. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has gotten from a corrupted lobby process involving Edi Rama and George Soros, who are close friends,” Mr. Berisha said. “They have no evidence. None at all. If they announced one bit, I will be most thankful. But they have no concrete proof based on fact, not manipulation or slander.”

Mr. Berisha, who has declared his innocence in a letter to Mr. Blinken, spoke with The Times roughly a week after the secretary of state declared the 76-year-old Albanian politician — one of the Balkan nation’s first post-communist presidents during the early 1990s and later its prime minister from 2005 to 2013 — persona non grata.

In a statement on May 19, Mr. Blinken said Mr. Berisha, his wife and their two adult children have been barred from entering the U.S. due to Mr. Berisha’s “involvement in significant corruption.” The statement said that during Mr. Berisha’s time as prime minister, he 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.”

“Furthermore, his own rhetoric demonstrates he is willing to protect himself, his family members and his political allies at the expense of independent investigations, anticorruption efforts and accountability measures,” the secretary of state said.

The State Department declined to provide details to support Mr. Blinken’s corruption allegation against Mr. Berisha. It also declined to comment when pressed by The Times for a response to Mr. Berisha’s assertion that the decision to bar him from entering the U.S. was based on “misinformation” from outfits backed by Mr. Soros.

A department spokesperson told The Times on condition of anonymity that “when the secretary of state obtains credible information that an official has been involved, directly or indirectly, in significant corruption or a gross violation of human rights, the secretary is required [under U.S. federal law] to designate or identify that official and his or her immediate family members.”

Mr. Berisha is Albania’s fourth official to be barred from entering the U.S. because of suspected corruption, according to The Associated Press. He is by far the highest ranking.

Currently an opposition member of Albanian parliament representing the country’s conservative Democratic Party, the former prime minister held a press conference on May 20 to reject the allegations. His successor as leader of the Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, also called for “proof” and described Mr. Berisha as the Albanian leader who made “the most distinguished contribution to the country’s development and strengthening of democracy.”

Mr. Berisha was the party’s first leader, heading it after the 1990 democratic uprising that ousted Albania’s communist regime. He emerged over the subsequent decades as Albania’s dominant political figure, albeit with a debatable track record in a country notorious for its political corruption in the post Cold War-era.

Successive U.S. administration’s worked closely with Mr. Berisha, sometimes even praising him for anti-corruption initiatives and crediting him with ushering the country into NATO in 2009 and moving toward potential European Union membership as well.

But allegations of impropriety have also surfaced over the years. Mr. Berisha’s political opponents have repeatedly accused him of authoritarian tactics, and of turning a blind eye to corruption and organized criminal activity. Anarchy nearly enveloped the country during his early-1990s presidency when many Albanians lost their life savings to a massive pyramid financial scheme.

Mr. Berisha acknowledged during his interview with The Times that corruption exists in Albania, but claimed to have fought it as prime minister. He also vehemently rejected ever making a dime from graft, asserting that after a 30-year career in high-level politics, he and his wife live in a modest apartment in the Albanian capital of Tirana with only 100,000 euros — roughly $120,000 — in retirement savings.

“We have nothing else on the earth,” he said. “This is the truth.”

He also vowed that his grown children have never benefited from corrupt activities. “Despite huge accusations,” he said, “they never have had, or it was never proved they have had, a penny from the public sector and they never worked with private companies that worked with the public sector.”

He added that he has hired a French lawyer to filed a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Blinken in a Paris court.

Blaming Soros

Mr. Berisha claims to be the victim of a political smear campaign engineered by a network of non-government organizations (NGOs) operating in Albania and other Balkan nations with backing from Mr. Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

“I have been an outspoken critic of George Soros and his close friend Edi Rama and because of this, the State Department has made this allegation against me and blocked me,” he told The Times. “There is no other reason. There could be no other reason.”

Mr. Berisha’s Democratic Party has a history of accusing Mr. Soros of funding a shady corrupt clique of people who have taken control of government institutions in Albania. The Tirana Echo, an English-language news outlet covering Albania, outlined in a 2017 article how the party and several analysts blamed the “Soros Network” for financing and influencing the drafting of the justice reform in Albania, in cooperation with the U.S. and EU embassies in Tirana.

Balkan Insight, a well-respected regional investigative journalism website, has noted that the Hungarian-American Mr. Soros is “often the target of conspiracy theories.” Among those who’ve blamed the U.S. billionaire are Adriatik Llalla, a former Albanian prosecutor general whom the Trump administration declared persona non grata and accused of “significant corruption” in 2018.

Mr. Llalla was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison in Albania late last month for not declaring his real wealth in asset declarations. A Balkan Insight report noted how Mr. Llalla had claimed back in 2017 that former U.S. Ambassador to Albania Donald Lu was exerting “typical Sorosian pressure” on him by branding at the time as an “enemy of reform.”

Mr. Berisha’s claims about Mr. Soros are even more nuanced, with ties to regional geopolitics.

He claimed in his interview with The Times that Mr. Soros and Soros-backed NGOs in the region have had a vendetta against him since 2017, when he publicly rejected proposals for changes to the Serbia-Kosovo border.

While the Trump administration backed Serbian leaders pushing for territorial swaps between Serbia and Kosovo, the initiative was and remains divisive in wider Europe, drawing criticism from Germany and others.

Mr. Berisha claimed the initiative was promoted by Soros-funded NGOs and that he rejected it because he believed it would lead to ethnic violence. “Changing borders meant cleansing and shifting of populations,” he said. “It means a larger Serbia.”

He also claimed U.S. support for the initiative, particularly from former National Security Advisor John Bolton, was engineered by Soros-backed NGOs working with current Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

Mr. Berisha says he not only “publicly and fiercely opposed” the territorial swaps idea, he began calling in 2017 for the U.S. government and the European Union to investigate the NGOs for engaging in their own corruption aimed at controlling the region’s political landscape.

Mr. Soros’ Open Society Foundations did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did a spokesman for Mr. Soros listed on the organization’s website.

The website says it has been working in Albania since 1992 with “a similar mission to its sister foundations across the former communist world — to help them to become open, democratic societies.”

Mr. Bolton, meanwhile, cast doubt on Mr. Berisha’s claims, telling The Times via email: “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”

A source close to the developments who spoke on condition of anonymity said there is no question that Soros-backed organizations “are sympathetic” to Mr. Rama’s ruling Socialist Party in Albania. “[But] this story is not about George Soros and it’s a mistake for [Mr. Berisha] to focus on Soros,” the source said. “This story is about high-level corruption, which is pervasive in Albania, and the U.S. government’s effort to maintain equanimity and ties to both the opposition and the ruling party.”

In the letter Mr. Berisha wrote to Mr. Blinken, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, the former prime minister mentioned his history of publicly denouncing Mr. Soros, but steered clear of accusing the secretary of state of basing the decision to bar Mr. Berisha on anything tied to Mr. Soros or Soros-backed NGOs.

A question of timing

Some analysts have questioned the Biden administration’s decision to act against Mr. Berisha eight years after he left high office.

“The timing is not good,” Janusz Bugajski of the Jamestown Foundation told Voice of America (VOA). “I don’t understand why a former political leader who’s no longer in office is being singled out. I mean, this should be something that needs to be done domestically at home. If there’s hard evidence, they should push for some sort of trial for some sort of investigations and so on and so forth.”

A report by VOA last week also cited U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Palmer as downplaying the relevance of the timing of Mr. Blinken’s allegations, saying the focus should be on “the seriousness with which the United States takes the issue of public corruption.”

Mr. Berisha told The Times he was blindsided by the Blinken statement on May 19 and first learned of it via media reports.

He said he recalls being “very highly praised by the U.S. government” back in 2005, when his government oversaw the amendment of Albania’s constitution to drop immunity protections for corrupt officials, a move that helped draw desperately needed foreign investment to the country.

“The result was direct foreign investment in Albanian increased by four times,” Mr. Berisha said, adding that major international firms, including Royal Dutch Shell, Bechtel and others “came to Albania because of our fight against corruption.”

He also claimed his anti-corruption efforts were even privately praised by Mr. Blinken himself when Mr. Blinken was serving as chief of staff to Vice President Biden during the Obama administration. “I had a very good meeting with him in 2009,” Mr. Berisha said.

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