Editorial: The Western Balkans in the times of Donald Trump: brace for impact

Editorial: The Western Balkans in the times of Donald Trump: brace for impact

Today the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America shall usher in a new era not only for the US itself, which voted and has been bracing for dramatic changes, but also for the rest of

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The Franco-German partnership and lessons for the Western Balkans

The Franco-German partnership and lessons for the Western Balkans

Interview by the Tirana Times with the German and French Ambassadors to Albania, H. E Susanne Schütz and H. E Bernard Fitoussi 1 – This interview is taking place on the anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, a treaty of friendship

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Journalist turned Socialist MP faces ‘wealth squad’ over millionaire status

Journalist turned Socialist MP faces ‘wealth squad’ over millionaire status

TIRANA, Jan. 16 – Albania’s High Inspectorate of Declaration and Audit of Assets has launched a probe on the wealth of Socialist Party MP and former journalist Alfred Peza after the news of his US$1 million in assets made headlines

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$1.2 million paid to Jan. 21, 2011 victims

$1.2 million paid to Jan. 21, 2011 victims

TIRANA, Jan. 18 – Government of Albania has approved a 1.2 million USD fund for the compensation of the families of four protesters killed in the anti-government protest that took place on Jan. 21, 2011. The Cabinet of Ministers approved

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Tirana and Moscow look for fresh start

Tirana and Moscow look for fresh start

TIRANA, Jan. 19 – Albania and Russia are looking for a fresh start in relations, as preparations to establish an intergovernmental commission for commerce, economic and scientific cooperation take shape as a first step. Work on the commission was made

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Albania to resuscitate relations with Iran

Albania to resuscitate relations with Iran

TIRANA, Jan. 19 – Albania and Iran are trying to resuscitate relations after years of minimal contacts. Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati held this week a two-day visit in Iran, where he met with President Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister

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Kosovo, Serbia on the brink of collision over provocative train

Kosovo, Serbia on the brink of collision over provocative train

By Ledion Krisafi TIRANA, Jan. 19 – Kosovo and Serbia faced one of the most tense situations since the end of the war in 1999 this week, when a train from Belgrade to Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, painted with Serb

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Editorial: The risky war games in the Balkans

Editorial: The risky war games in the Balkans

More than fifteen years ago while taking about Europe and the Balkans the former EU Commissioner, Chris Patten gave one of the most eloquent philosophical depictions of the dynamics of change in the region: he said that in the Balkans,

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Experts unveil economic risks associated with upcoming June elections

Experts unveil economic risks associated with upcoming June elections

TIRANA, Jan. 19 – Economy experts says the Albanian economy faces increased challenges for 2017 when the upcoming general elections will be a chance to either continue the tradition of putting at risk fiscal consolidation or put an end to

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Albania, Kosovo to establish joint Durres customs point

Albania, Kosovo to establish joint Durres customs point

TIRANA, Jan. 19 – Albania and Kosovo are working to set up a joint customs point at Durres Port to further ease trade exchanges between the two countries after the upward trend came to an end in 2016 with a

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                    [post_content] => Today the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America shall usher in a new era not only for the US itself, which voted and has been bracing for dramatic changes, but also for the rest of the world.  The Western Balkans and in a relevant way Albania as well has been for all the transition years recipients of considerable influence, assistance, guidance and sway of American foreign policy. Therefore it is safe to assume that decision makers, opinion makers and a variety of other stakeholders in public life in the region are observing carefully and trying to imagine what the impact of a Trump presidency and administration shall be on their countries.

The most obvious statement to make here is that Donald Trump has been a formidable challenge to all prediction makers. His rhetoric, tone and statement about the expected policies depict a picture of many expected changes. Should the promises, plans and statements about the future materialize we can expect to see an arriving administration with a clear and strong isolationist policy, much less interested in intervention, potentially cutting funding for development assistance, skeptical of NATO’s efficiency and ultimately a President that is publicly not a fan of the European Union.

Donald Trump has been vocal in questioning US’s role in NATO especially criticizing the relative inequality of funding from defense expenditure of member states.  In addition to putting Baltic States and other eastern European countries on edge, this negative consideration of NATO has been of concern to many states in the Balkans for which NATO has been a game changer and later on an important guarantee of regional peace and stability.

Trump and his partners have also cast doubts on preserving the amount of financial assistance that countries all over the world receive through mainly USAID and other related programs. Some campaign proposals have favored cuts in order to afford focusing on home priorities. Curtailing these funds would mean less investment in the region in strategic areas such as infrastructure, local economic empowerment, capacity building of key state institutions, etc.

Finally the latest statement from the President that shall be sworn in today in his latest interview is that “Brexit will be a great thing for the UK.” Trump is on clear controversial terms if not a collision course with key European leaders such as Merkel, the latter being depicted as the last standing fortress of liberalism in the west. The lack of American support and encouragement for the European enlargement and for the integration process of aspiring countries in the Balkans compounds the already difficult existing climate in the Union. The very ascent of Trump has inspired the populist and right wing euro-skeptic movements across Europe and might have a pertinent impact on upcoming elections in key member states hence presenting even more challenges in this regard.

Most of what is mentioned above do not spell optimism for the majority of the Western Balkan states. It has become a recurrent theme after the American elections that a candidate and a president act very differently as the office changes the person and makes him more responsible about the long standing commitments hence softening very revolutionary proposal. It stands as a fact that the real impact for which we can try to brace now can only be evaluated after the new administration is well established and has had time to propose and enact new plans and strategies.

A new era is starting where there are no set guarantees.  It is important to keep hoping for the best while carefully preparing for potential impact.
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                    [post_content] => Interview by the Tirana Times with the German and French Ambassadors to Albania, H. E Susanne Schütz and H. E Bernard Fitoussi 

1 - This interview is taking place on the anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, a treaty of friendship between France and Germany signed by President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in Paris on 22 January 1963, less than two decades after the end of the Second World War. Franco-German partnership has been the bedrock of stability and prosperity in Western Europe ever since. What did this agreement do for Europe in the sense of cementing peace, reconciliation and reconstruction?

[caption id="attachment_130801" align="alignright" width="300"]French Ambassador to Tirana Bernard Fitoussi  French Ambassador to Tirana Bernard Fitoussi[/caption]

French Ambassador Fitoussi:

Less than 20 years after France and Germany had lost millions of people in the most dreadful catastrophe of their history, two heroes drew up an incredible plan, namely to make Franco-German friendship the cement of reconciliation between our two nations and the engine of European hope. The Elysée Treaty stands for a cement of peace and an engine of prosperity.

One of the fruits of this treaty is the Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO). In concrete terms, more than eight million young Germans and young French people have crossed the Rhine since 1963 to live in the neighbouring country for a few weeks. My own children experienced this adventure. This is undoubtedly the only case in history where a treaty has genuinely and profoundly changed the mentalities of entire generations. The Western Balkans have now decided to carry out a similar experiment by creating the Regional Youth Cooperation Office of the Western Balkans (RYCO). This is a historical opportunity.

For more than 50 years, the Elysée Treaty has withstood all tensions and changes. During each period, a French President and a German Chancellor worked side by side. Franco-German friendship was thus able to face the greatest challenges after the fall of the Berlin Wall. German reunification and the reconstruction of Europe were gradually made possible thanks to the power of this friendship.

German Ambassador Schütz: 

[caption id="attachment_130800" align="alignright" width="300"]German Ambassador to Tirana Susanne Schütz German Ambassador to Tirana Susanne Schütz[/caption]

I would like to add that in my view it is a very good tradition to commemorate the anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, as this provides us with an occasion to reflect on what has been possible and which great achievements have been accomplished in the past decades. Since the signing of the Treaty, the partnership between our two countries has become one of the cornerstones of European stability. The secret of the strength of the Franco-German engine within the European Union is that our governments work very closely together to establish common positions, which then very often serve as a basis for EU positions shared by all EU member states. The fact that France and Germany, as long-standing “sworn enemies”, were able to develop such a close friendship and partnership shows that nearly everything is possible through diplomacy and the will to overcome obstacles and prejudices.

 

2 - In essence, the same Franco-German partnership remains the engine that keeps the European Union going today. What does this partnership look like today?

German Ambassador: 

Our partnership is strong, dynamic and vibrant. And this is also necessary because we are facing many challenges in the world today. The Elysée Treaty became a foundation for intensive bilateral cooperation in politics, the economy, culture and society. Our cooperation is multifaceted and very concrete, with our governments meeting regularly in the Franco-German Ministerial Council and taking joint decisions on crucial issues for our countries. 

To give you just a few examples: since 2014 we have been working closely together in the framework of the Normandy format to tackle the Ukraine crisis. Other joint initiatives by our governments include a joint visit by our Foreign Ministers to Mali and the Niger in the framework of the EU Migration Partnership to address the root causes of migration. And the first Franco-German Embassy in the world, which will serve as a joint workplace for German and French diplomats, is currently being built in Bangladesh. 

In the face of the terrorist attacks that have hit both our countries, we are liaising closely to counteract the threat of terrorism. Of course, our economies are also closely interconnected and our Ministries of Labour are currently working on an action plan aimed at further enhancing labour mobility in our two countries. Our nations are also intertwined when it comes to culture, where we enjoy exchange on all levels. Since 1963, more than eight million young people have participated in exchanges organised by the FGYO. There are around 4,300 Franco-German school partnerships; some 2,200 towns are twinned; and of course French and German universities work closely together. In 2003, our governments also set up a bilateral cultural fund, which supports dozens of Franco-German cultural projects in various countries each year. And let’s not forget ARTE, the Franco-German television channel that was founded in 1991! All these activities show that our bilateral cooperation has a very special and wide-ranging quality of its own.

French Ambassador: 

As Susanne has just described in concrete terms, this Franco-German engine works every day. When an event occurs in the world, a French diplomat’s automatic response is to ask “What does Berlin think?” This means that French and German diplomats think simultaneously about the interests of their country and of the Franco-German relationship.

We confront major events, such as those that occur in daily diplomatic life, in constant exchange with each other.


3 - What does the future of the Franco-German partnership look like? Brexit shook the EU, but anti-EU forces have also gained ground politically in both France and Germany. Some fear that one of these forces could come to power, i.e. the French National Front, or play a role in future governments, i.e. Alternative for Germany. Is there a chance this scenario could lead to the collapse of the European Union, and what can be done to make sure that the European project not only survives but also thrives in the face of massive challenges?


French Ambassador:

Franco-German friendship is a major intrinsic fact that lies at the heart of the fundamental values ​​of our two nations. This friendship is not contingent on circumstances. It does not depend on majorities or a particular situation. Any French or German person who intends to participate in the government of their country knows that they will have to live not with, but in the Elysée Treaty.

For French people, Europe is not a diplomatic period like any other – it has become an integral part of our national project. It is true that some aspects, institutions and ways of functioning of the European project can be criticised or reformed, but not its essential spirit. Geography brought us together to make the continent a model of peace, prosperity and respect for human values.

German Ambassador: Without a doubt, the European Union is facing many challenges at the moment. But at the same time, all these challenges prove that the European Union is needed more than ever. Talking about security, migration, economic growth or climate change – to name just some of the pressing issues – it becomes obvious that these issues can only be solved if we work together. The EU is working to promote peace and stability in Europe and around the world through its Common Foreign and Security Policy. The fact that the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 is a recognition that also entails an obligation. By working together, our efforts to help shape tomorrow’s world can have a greater impact than if member states, even large ones such as Germany or France, go it alone.

4 - Let’s move on to some questions focusing specifically on the Balkans. What kind of lessons can be learned from Franco-German history on the benefits of moving from antagonism to friendship, especially keeping in mind that we live in the Balkans, where there was armed conflict just two decades ago? There have been efforts to apply lessons from Franco-German partnership to the region, such as in initiatives like the RYCO. Why are you supporting these initiatives and what is the end goal?

German Ambassador: I think everything my French colleague and I have said so far shows that there are lessons to be learned from Franco-German history and that these lessons might serve as an example for the Balkans. We firmly believe that the European Union remains the largest and most successful peace project since the Second World War – also with a view to the Western Balkans. This is also why our two countries are very active in the region, for example through the Berlin process launched by Germany, France, Austria and Italy in 2014. One of the initiatives within this process was the foundation of the RYCO, which we strongly support. In our view, this provides a unique opportunity to bring the young generation in the region closer together and to overcome prejudices and distrust. The last two years have already shown the benefits of such an initiative, with young people from the six participating countries of the Western Balkans working closely together in a working group to establish the terms and objectives for future cooperation. In the near future, an elected Secretary General will start working in the recently opened office in Tirana, and the first exchange projects will be carried out. The whole process has been monitored and supported by experts from the FGYO and I am happy to see that the experiences of French-German youth exchange and reconciliation work served to inspire the process in the Western Balkans. As Bernard already mentioned, one of the driving forces to achieve this special friendship has been the FGYO, ever since its foundations were laid by the signing of the Elysée Treaty by President de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer. Today’s Franco-German friendship is a friendship not only on the political level, but also a real friendship between nations and people in the sense that many Germans have very close personal ties with people in France and vice versa. This makes friendship between countries tangible and solid. 

French Ambassador:

As my German colleague expresses very well, we believe that the Franco-German example can serve as a role model for our friends in the Western Balkans. In every sense of the word, we ask that you do not follow the bad example of the relations between France and Germany, which were torn apart for centuries, leaving only full cemeteries behind them! Instead, please take the good example of the civilising invention that is the construction of Franco-German friendship, as no one has anything to gain from hatred or rivalry.

Following the summits in Berlin and Vienna, the Paris Summit between the EU and the Western Balkans held last July has led to concrete results: roads, railways and energy networks are being built at this very moment thanks to the Berlin process, which is rooted in a process initiated in Brdo-Brioni.

5 - Since we are speaking about the region’s EU membership bid, there is growing concern that the region is moving backwards rather than forwards and that an EU in crisis will mean membership will take another decade or two, if it takes place at all. From the German or French position this timetable might be fine, but it will be of great cost to progressive pro-EU forces in the region. Are the EU, and its key members, which you represent, applying more stringent criteria for the Western Balkans than they did for Bulgaria and Romania, as some believe? If so, is that fair?

French Ambassador:

Since at least 2003 and the Summit of Thessaloniki, France and Germany have made a firm commitment to integrating the countries of the Western Balkans into the European Union. There has not been a year since then without a politician, whether German or French, reiterating this commitment. Procedures, experts and significant amounts of money have been put in place to help these countries make their way towards EU membership.

Both France and Germany recognise the remarkable efforts made by Albania, for example regarding progress on the implementation of the rule of law. I know that, seen from Tirana, the road may seem long, but the dictatorship was abolished only 26 years ago. From one of the poorest countries in the world, Albania is now an emerging economy.

I understand Albania’s impatience as a sign of great interest in the EU, which is perhaps a little lacking in old Europe at times. But I say to our Albanian friends that I do not believe in the possibility of a reversal. What counts is not the date of arrival, which no one knows, but rather the fact that the country is continuing to advance, with its German and French friends at its side.

German Ambassador: 
Our countries are sticking to their firm commitment to the prospect of EU membership for all the Western Balkan countries if they so desire and if they meet the prerequisites. And we can see very clearly in Albania that the prospect of EU membership has so far been an important incentive for the implementation of tough but necessary reforms, e.g. in the justice sector. Much progress has been made in the past years. Albania was awarded candidate status in 2014 and is now striving to launch accession talks. But for all of these steps, clearly defined criteria must be met. And we can assure you that the German Government stands ready to support Albania and the other countries in the region in taking the necessary steps to move closer to EU membership. This is also in our own interest, as the Western Balkans are an integral part of Europe.

6 - Franco-German partnership during the Cold War had the financial and security backing of the transatlantic partnership, while the Balkans now face a growing Russian influence that does not necessarily want Albanian and Serbs to follow the same model. The recent presidential elections in the US bring a lot of uncertainty. Are Germany and France willing to continue taking a leading role in the region as they have done in recent years?

German Ambassador: The European Union is more important than ever and Chancellor Merkel has just said that it is Europe’s responsibility to shape its own future. The Franco-German partnership will remain a strong foundation for the European Union – a project of peace and common values. The past years have shown that our commitment to the region is constantly growing. The Berlin process launched in 2014 reaffirms this commitment. This series of five summits planned until 2018 will bring together the Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Ministers for Economic Affairs of all Western Balkans countries, as well as all relevant stakeholders from the European Union and international institutions. The objectives of the Berlin process are to highlight the substantial progress achieved in the region, to reconfirm and reinforce the prospects of all countries in the region joining the EU, and to accelerate reforms, enhance economic opportunities and encourage cooperation in the region. But apart from the Berlin process, our countries remain active in the region through a broad variety of activities, ranging from substantial development cooperation to support and assistance in the ongoing transformation of the political systems, economies and societies in the region. Peaceful, stable, and democratic Western Balkan countries are in the strategic interest of the European Union.

French Ambassador:

In a world that is changing so fast, there never are many certainties, so those that remain must be preserved. Franco-German friendship, the European project and our support for the European integration process of the Western Balkans are among these few certainties.

That is why we are convinced that the civilising model of the Elysée Treaty is also the best example for our friends in the Western Balkans. It is the only one that rejects internal archaic temptations and useless external pressures. It is the right path to peace, prosperity and the defence of human values.
                    [post_title] => The Franco-German partnership and lessons for the Western Balkans
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 16 – Albania’s High Inspectorate of Declaration and Audit of Assets has launched a probe on the wealth of Socialist Party MP and former journalist Alfred Peza after the news of his US$1 million in assets made headlines this week.

Peza, who is also the deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Media Committee, said that he and his wife, Mirela Ndini, who is a specialist at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “saved money through the years” and bought US$1 million in shares from a second tier bank.

In a press release, HIDAA said that its auditors will investigate Peza’s assets as well as their origins, with particular focus on the conflict of interest.

“The collection of data and information, verification and the administrative investigation will also extend to the family members, his wife, children and related persons,” HIDAA said in a press release.

The news was welcomed by the country’s opposition parties, which claim that Peza’s assets are only “the tip of the iceberg of corruption.”

A spokesperson of Democratic Party said Monday that Peza’s wealth accumulated in such a short time is a signal that shows how politics make people wealthy.

“This scandal reveals the extent of corruption amidst the ruling majority. Peza’s billions are a visible part of the billions that MPs, ministers and people close to Edi Rama have benefited since they came into power.” DP’s spokeswoman, Ina Zhupa said in a press conference.

“If Alfred Peza got rich in few years, you can only imagine how rich Ilir Beqaj, Damian Gjiknuri, Saimir Tahiri, Arben Ahmetaj, the mayor of Tirana Erjon Veliaj and Prime Minister Edi Rama truly are,” she added.

Prime Minister Rama also commented the news of Peza’s wealth saying that “Peza’s revenues were not increased after he entered politics” and that accusations against him “are politically biased.”

The former journalist and Socialist Party MP did not deny the purchases of shares of Credins Bank. He claimed that authorities have audited his wealth and assets and assured that neither him or his wife have abused public funds.

Peza said that he was ready to collaborate with HIDAA and encouraged authorities to investigate in a similar fashion all MPs, mayors and officials that might have benefited from public funds.

A survey published last year by South-East European Partnership for Media Development shows that in Albania there are three levels of salaries for journalists, depending on their position, media, and location. Data shows that the best paid journalists have an average salary of 550-600 USD, the second level reaches 450-500 USD, while the lowest level media pay their journalists an average of 300 USD per month. Another survey confirms this situation: 65% of journalists have a monthly salary of 400-700 USD.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 18 – Government of Albania has approved a 1.2 million USD fund for the compensation of the families of four protesters killed in the anti-government protest that took place on Jan. 21, 2011.

The Cabinet of Ministers approved the fund based on a request made by the Minister of Interior Saimir Tahiri in the sixth anniversary of the 2011 protestwhen Guard of Republic officers shot and killed four protesters at the rally.

Minister Tahiri argued that the Guard of the Republic is obliged to provide financial compensation to victims’ families.

The four men were shot dead during the anti-government rally on January 21, 2011 organized by the Socialist Party and its allies. The protest according to former Prime Minister Sali Berisha was an 'opposition attempt to foment an Arab Spring-style uprising.'

Six years on, none of six guards initially investigated for the murder is in jail and the Supreme Court close the case causing anger among relatives of the victims.

They said that they were not going to abandon their efforts to find justice and would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The head of the Republican Guard at the time, General Ndrea Prendi, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 1 year in prison. The former chief of staff of a special unit of the Guard Agim Llupo, was sentenced to three years in jail.

However the two men were immediately released after spending the same amount of time in detention.

The prosecutor’s office asked a sentence of 23 years in prison for Prendi and 25 years for Llupo and appealed the ruling. The high court took more than two years to reach a decision and in April 2016, decided to reject the appeal and close the case.

 
                    [post_title] => $1.2 million paid to Jan. 21, 2011 victims
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 19 – Albania and Russia are looking for a fresh start in relations, as preparations to establish an intergovernmental commission for commerce, economic and scientific cooperation take shape as a first step. 

Work on the commission was made public by the Russian embassy in Tirana.
Russian Ambassador Aleksander Karpushin met with the Albanian deputy minister for economic development, commerce and enterprise, Adela Karapici, in order to discuss about the coming session of the Intergovernmental Commission, the first time since 2009 that such process takes time between the two countries. 

The meeting focused on the need for resuscitating the economic relations between the two countries, by elevating them in a different level. This would benefit the well-being of the citizens of both Russia and Albania, according a statement by the Russian embassy. 
Last year the Russian ambassador to Tirana also expressed high hopes for the Russia – Albania intergovernmental commission, which was scheduled to be held in 2016, but nothing came of it.

Recently, the Albanian Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro made a visit to St. Petersburg during the 5th International Cultural Forum. During her visit, she signed a program for the Albanian-Russian cultural cooperation in the next two years, 2017-2019.
Kumbaro’s visit and the meeting for the intergovernmental commission have passed in silence from the Albanian Government. On contrary, the Russian authorities have given ample space to these two events.

In the past months, the Russian ambassador has expressed Moscow’s willingness to organize a visit of Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama to Moscow.
All of this activity comes in the moments when political analysts and European politicians say that Russia’s influence in the Balkans is steadily growing. Rama has repeatedly emphasized this fact by demanding from the European Union to step up the integration process for the Western Balkans, before it is too late. 
The meeting in St. Petersburg and the intergovernmental commission shows that Albania is not shy of further developing the relations with Russia, according to experts with the Albanian Institute for International Studies. 

AIIS experts add that Albania should have a 360-degree foreign policy and work together with Russia in areas of common interest, just like EU countries like France and Germany do, keeping in mind not to compromise strategic imperatives in its Transatlantic partnerships.

Albania has supported the sanctions that the European Union has imposed against Russia because of the intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. The relations between the two countries have been controversial in the last 25 years, with a lot of ups and downs. Albania has shown a reluctance to develop further relations with Russia.
The two countries have a past history of very close relations in the decades after the Second World War. The Soviet Union had an enormous influence in the economic development of Albania in the 1950s and 1960s of the past century. 


The Russian language was regularly taught in the Albanian schools at that period and a lot of young Albanians went to study in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
                    [post_title] => Tirana and Moscow look for fresh start
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 19 - Albania and Iran are trying to resuscitate relations after years of minimal contacts.

Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati held this week a two-day visit in Iran, where he met with President Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

The meetings focused on the importance of establishing close contacts between the two countries, especially in the economic sphere, according to official statements and information in the local media.

President Rouhani said that the period after the signing of the nuclear treaty with the United States and the lifting of international sanctions, is a very good time to expand and deepen Tehran-Tirana relations.

"Tehran welcomes boosting ties with Tirana; both countries have excellent grounds to cooperate in trade and economic fields,” President Rouhani said.

The Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs also asked Iran to recognize the state of Kosovo.

This visit comes after years of almost frozen relations between Iran and Albania when the official contacts between the two countries have been minimal.

Officials in Tirana have shown a reluctance to develop strong relations with Teheran. Albania doesn’t have an embassy in Tehran, as Iran does in Tirana. During Bushati’s visit in Tehran, he said that Albania plans to open an embassy there.

Bushati’s visit in Tehran with an invitation from the Iranian authorities is not by chance. It coincides with a new international position of Iran, after the lifting of sanctions.

The present conditions are ripe for deepening ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Bushati said.

Accompanied by a trade delegation, the Albanian foreign minister's visit is the latest European delegation searching for better economic cooperation and trade opportunities with the Islamic Republic of Iran after the nuclear treaty.

Compared with big EU member states that have strong trade relations with Iran already, Albania has been shy in developing relations with Iran mostly because of the international sanctions that were imposed upon the Islamic Republic and fear of being perceived as not enough of a strong supporter of the West, according to experts from the Albanian Institute for International Studies.

Some argue this has damaged Albania’s interests regarding Iran compared with the other European countries as Albania has left itself to fall behind.

Researchers at the Albanian Institute for International Studies say Albania should conduct a 360-degree foreign policy.

Albania is a small country which should look to further its interests in relation with other countries regardless of ideology. It is in the reciprocal interests of Albania to establish good relations with Iran, especially concerning economy and energy. Iran is one of the biggest producers of oil and gas in the world. The lifting of the international sanctions is expected to strengthen Iran’s position in the world energy scene,” AIIS notes in a policy brief made available to Tirana Times.

Bushati’s visit in Tehran appears to be a first step in this direction. The Albanian foreign minister said Albania is determined to remove all the obstacles which hinder the cooperation between the two countries, especially in the economic sphere. Also, Albania is prepared to hold joint meetings and trade fairs with Iran.

One of the main obstacles in the Albania-Iran relationship is the presence of about 3,000 members of the People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMI) organization in Albania. The resistance movement is considered a terrorist group by the Iranian government. But Albania took them in as a humanitarian gesture at the request of the United States, because the now demilitarized group was stuck in Iraq in dire conditions.

The Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not mention this topic on its official statements regarding Bushati's Teheran visit.

Albania was the only country to accept the PMI members, part of a 2013 agreement made with the United States. The move jeopardized Albania’s relations with Iran and it created tension and nervousness in Tehran, aggravating the already minimal relations between the two countries.

For Albania, it was an unequivocal decision to accept the Iranian mujahedeen, keeping in line with Albania’s foreign policy orientation towards the United States.

The Iranian resistance and political group People's Mujahedin of Iran was classified until some years ago as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it has conducted hundreds of terrorist acts in Iran, according to that country’s government.

Researchers at the Albanian Institute for International Studies say that for Albania it is very important to maintain its close relations with the United States, but this should be done in meaningful areas. Albania should find other ways to further and strengthen its relations with the United States, according to AIIS, not just take risks by taking responsibilities when there is no other country to bear the weight just to make a good impression in Washington.

During Bushati’s visit in Tehran, the war against terrorism was also discussed with the Iranian authorities. But while Albania has been firmly established in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the countries have different positions concerning Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Iran is his greatest ally and supporter, while Albania has followed the United States in its stance against Assad.
                    [post_title] => Albania to resuscitate relations with Iran
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                    [post_content] => By Ledion Krisafi

TIRANA, Jan. 19 - Kosovo and Serbia faced one of the most tense situations since the end of the war in 1999 this week, when a train from Belgrade to Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, painted with Serb colors and the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia,” was prevented by Kosovo’s police from passing the border between the two countries.

Serbia has never accepted Kosovo's independence, declared in 2008 and recognized by more than half of UN state, including most of the EU and NATO, and the train incident was the last act in a drama that has seen several days of tension between the two countries, following the arrest of former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in France on a Serb warrant and the construction of a wall that divides North Mitrovica from the rest of Kosovo.

The train incident was followed by some of the harshest verbal exchanges in recent years from officials of the two countries. Serb President Tomislav Nikolic threatened that Serbia was ready to sent the army into Kosovo if Serbs there are killed, while the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic accused the Albanians of Kosovo of playing “war games.”

Vucic said he decided to halt the train because his secret services had informed him that Prishtina would try to blow the track and arrest those on the train. He also expressed his disappointment with the reaction from the European Union.

Kosovo’s decision to send Special Forces to halt the train covered with the inscriptions “Kosovo is Serbia,” according to the Serb president "showed they want war." Any similar attempt from Kosovo, according to Nikolic, will have another reaction from Serbia. He said that in accordance to the international law, Kosovo is a part of Serbia.

Kosovo media reported the order to stop the train was given by Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi, a move that ultimately forced the Serbian authorities to halt the train in Rashka, a city on Serbia close to the border with Kosovo.

Kosovo authorities described the train painted in the colors of the Serbian flag and decorated inside with icons from the Serbian monasteries as a clear provocation from Serbia and a missuse of religious symbols.

Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa said that these provocations can have unforeseeable consequences and characterized Serbia’s actions as “dangerous games.”

The United States clearly stated that Kosovo has been recognized as a state since February 2008 and that it respects Kosovo’s right to control what and who passes through its frontiers.

On the other hand, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said that the Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo foresees that the free movement of people should not be restricted. He also added that Kosovo police forces should not be present in North Kosovo, and he hoped that everyone will realize the need to avoid armed conflicts.

The European Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn demanded from the two countries to not jeopardize what has been achieved until now and to look forward.

The reaction from the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, was more relaxed. In a message in the social network Facebook Rama said that the Kosovo issue is finished, it is already an independent state and the only thing that connects it with Serbia is the creation of good friendship between the two countries.

Serbs from Belgrade,” Rama wrote, “will visit Kosovo as tourists, not anymore as Masters of the country.”

Foreign media also described the train as nationalist and as a provocation from Serbia.

The events of the past few days may endanger the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations that have been going on in Brussels for several years and which have resulted in moderately normalizing the relations between the two countries, even though much of the Brussels agreement of 2013 between them has not been implemented yet.

The train incident, the arrest of Haradinaj and the wall in Mitrovica may threaten to turn all of it upside down.


A train from the past


The train bound for Mitrovica left Belgrade Saturday. The train was a gift from Russia and it was the first such train from Belgrade to Mitrovica in North Kosovo in the last 18 years. Since the beginning of its journey, Kosovo authorities vowed to not let it pass the frontier between the two countries. In the interior the train was decorated with frescoes from the Serbian monasteries in Kosovo, which are part of the UNESCO World Heritage. Two years Kosovo tried but failed to become part of UNESCO, a move that would had made the Serbian monasteries to be known as Kosovo’s World Heritage and not as part of Serbia, as are currently recognized by Unesco.

The conflict of the weekend over the train reminded everyone of the war of 1999. Especially the language used by Serbian authorities as a reaction for the train reminded the Albanians of Kosovo of Milosevic’s Serbia in the 1990s.

The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called it “the train that leads nowhere.’’

The quarrel shows how fragile is the peace and stability in the Balkans, where a train suffices to bring strong echoes of the past war.


Haradinaj, when Hague isn’t sufficient


In the last days, the case of the Serbian train bounded for North Kosovo was not the only case to flare up tensions between the two countries. Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister and one of the leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the 1999 war with Serbia, was arrested in France at the beginning of this month on behalf of a 2004 international arrest warrant from Serbia.

Serb Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic demanded from France immediate extradition of Haradinaj to Serbia, against whom Vucic said that Serbia had evidence for war crimes. The French court in Colmar decided to release Haradinaj on bail, but confiscated his passport to prevent him for leaving France, pending a decision on Serbia's extradition request.

Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa called the warrant against Haradinaj “political’’ and with no legal basis. Mustafa also warned that Kosovo could take reciprocity actions against Serbia.

The reaction of Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama was as much against Serbia as was against the European Union which has made the aggressors and the victims of the Balkan wars stand on the same trial, according to Rama.

EU’s stance toward Serbia and Kosovo in these cases, according to Rama, could create a psychological wound not only in Kosovo’s Albanian population but on the overall Albanians in the Balkans, who serve as contributors to peace and stability in the region.

This was not Haradinaj’s first visit in France. During the European Championship in the summer of 2016, Haradinaj was in France for several days and nothing happened. This also was not the first time that Haradinaj had been arrested in an EU country because of the warrants from Serbia. Two years ago he was arrested in Slovenia for several days and left free afterward. Haradinaj travels often in the EU countries without problems. Most of the EU countries don’t recognize as valid Serbia’s warrants and they have been deleted from their databases.


A dividing wall in the 21st century Europe


Serbs in North Mitrovica started to build a wall at the end of last year, to ultimately divide the city in two. Previously they had erected barricades over the Ibar river, but the recent wall constitutes an intensification of their attempts to further estrange North Kosovo from the government in Prishtina, which they don’t recognize.

The European Union has been trying to find a solution about the wall by engaging the two parties, while the Kosovo authorities have said that the wall will be destroyed at the beginning of February.

The ultimate aim, Kosovo officials worry, is to partition Kosovo.




                    [post_title] => Kosovo, Serbia on the brink of collision over provocative train
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                    [post_content] => More than fifteen years ago while taking about Europe and the Balkans the former EU Commissioner, Chris Patten gave one of the most eloquent philosophical depictions of the dynamics of change in the region: he said that in the Balkans, just as in the old English folk dance, it is often a case of two steps forward, one step back. The statement fits with the current charged atmosphere with Kosovo and Serbia whose already difficult relation almost deteriorated into a full fledge conflict at the borders.

The voyage of a train that was supposed to connect Serbia to the north of Kosovo caused an immediate crisis: the train was painted red, white, and blue of the Serbian flag with the slogan "Kosovo is Serbia" written in 21 languages on it. Inside the train was decorated with images of icons from medieval Serbian monasteries (many of them located in Kosovo). After publicly declaring that they would not accept the train, the Kosovo authorities deployed forces at the border to halt its passing. The train was ordered to stop before reaching the border by the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic who ominously commented: "If I had not asked the Serbs to stop the train, we would have had war."

The departure of this train was clearly meant to be a severe provocation. The declaration ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ so publicly displayed all over the train was not taken lightly not only by Kosovo but also by many of the countries that recognize it and let’s not forget that means more than 100 of them including all the most powerful countries of the West. Such a move in 2017, when the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo for unresolved issues has been going on for years, spells disrespect for the process as well as lack of concern and responsibility for peace and stability in the region.

What followed were even more worrisome allegations and controversial rhetoric. Vucic claimed that there was information that Kosovo people had planted explosives on the rails, an allegation that was strongly denied by the Kosovo police who checked and inspected the length of the rails close to the border. Even more aggressive in his tone, the Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic declared that: "We don't want war, but if it is necessary to protect Serbs from being killed, we will send an army to Kosovo. We will send soldiers; we'll all go. I'll go, and it won't be the first time that I go [to defend Serbs]."

The silver lining in this discussion was the sober reaction of many citizens in Serbia who criticized this war mongering and refused to participate in it. This includes several serious voices from North Mitrovica itself who refused to be used for political capital in a context of upcoming presidential elections in Serbia. What was worryingly lacking was the strength and precision in a week EU reaction which clearly underestimated the risk that these developments pose to the Agreement that the EU itself has brokered between the 2 sides in 2013.

The incident comes at a vulnerable time when the transition of power in the United States is being celebrated by extreme wings in Serbian politics as a door to a potentially different US policy in the region. This is in sharp contrast with the strong declaration from the US State Department which supported the right of Kosovo as an independent state to control access to its borders. That has not halted conspiracy theory fans though who are quick to mention the fact that the train was a gift from Russia.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov in another display of rising aggressive Russian public declarations did not miss an opportunity to seek from Albanians in Kosovo to stand back from areas where Serbs live. Russia is firm in purporting at home and abroad a line of politics where ethnic lines stand above civic unity which differentiates it from the West.   Therefore the EU should not hesitate to display its strength in such occasions as to avoid unhelpful vacuums.

In fact there are two more developments that augment the risky situation created with the incident of the train. First the presence and further construction plans of the wall in Mitrovica are reminiscent of the Cold War and a tool of further isolation and division. Second and more pertinent the developments with the court process of Ramush Haradinaj in France due to a search warrant that Serbia still upholds from the previous regime. The fact that Serbia produced an extradition request for former PM Haradinaj shows its utter disrespect for the Special Crimes Court established in Kosovo with the approval of the Kosovo institutions which showed clear will and intent to prosecute alleged war crimes.

All these developments have negative implications over the situation between Serbia and Kosovo as well as one the general stability level in the entire region. Things seem to be returning to a much tensioned atmosphere with several setbacks and in the milestones that have been achieved with much difficulty and a lot of international engagement.

The only way forward is the challenging and exhaustingly tough dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo which is, despite all the difficulties, the only solution. In addition all these developments should serve as reasons to deeply reflect on the need to face and address the past. As the well-known French author Dominique Moisi says the people in the Balkans are the only ones who have not apologized to each other and the only ones who seem to be stagnant.
                    [post_title] => Editorial: The risky war games in the Balkans
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 19 – Economy experts says the Albanian economy faces increased challenges for 2017 when the upcoming general elections will be a chance to either continue the tradition of putting at risk fiscal consolidation or put an end to this practice that has proved detrimental in the past 25 years of the country’s transition.

Expert Ardian Civici says past electoral years have shown the country’s economy suffers and many of its parameters are put at risk.

“The elections or electoral years’ experience in Albania is not positive for the economy. There are many studies showing there is strong correlation between electoral years and the level of economic growth in these years. Almost in every case, the economic growth strongly ‘fluctuates’ which identifies the elections' negative effects on the economic performance,” Civici has told Mapo newspaper in an interview.

“The reasons are related to budgetary misuses being made in the pre-election months to ‘launch’ as many investment and new projects that witness the government's success; the many fiscal changes disorienting businesses and consumers, fictitious employment in the public administration with a party and electoral character; extreme debate on economic policies and statements that everything will change after the elections, a phenomenon which considerably shakes the economy, investment and the business climate, putting the state and governance at the disposal of electoral campaigns and the high political conflictuality etc.,“ he adds.

“If in the upcoming elections, many of these phenomena will disappear or minimize, I think their impact will be less negative than previously, otherwise we will have to admit the fatality that electoral years are years which shock economic performance and require one or two extra years to stabilize it,” says Civici, a former member of the central bank’s supervisory board.

According to him, reducing poverty, promoting employment and improving the business environment are the main challenges.

“Reducing poverty for about 40 percent of the population living under conditions of relative poverty, promoting employment by creating quality jobs with average wages comparable to regional countries, bridging territorial and regional gaps within the country, improving the business climate which among others also implies lower fiscal pressure will be the main challenges for 2017,” says Civici.

“I believe that the public-private partnership policies if not clientelistic and electoral, the functioning of some important concessions in energy, infrastructure and services, the launch of some new FDI projects, the increase of domestic private investment can and should play a positive role in the 2017 economic developments,” he says.

Elvin Meka, another economy expert, also describes the upcoming June 18 general elections as a challenge for the Albanian economy, especially about producing inclusive growth which he says cannot be achieved with a GDP growth rate of less than 6 percent annually in Albania’s stage of development.

"2017 will be a specific year for the Albanian economy and this for reasons mainly related to internal and international developments. The focus is on the general elections and slightly less the election of the new president,” he says.

“As in previous years, the challenge for this year is achieving economic growth of above 3 percent, but producing welfare remains a challenge within itself. This has been and remains the most difficult part, not only for this year, but anytime, as this pace of growth below 6 percent is always problematic toward bringing welfare which means we can'have positive economic growth, but not an increase in welfare,” adds Meka.

“Electoral years are always complex and tough years for the Albanian economy and not only, both in achieving the targeted economic growth and putting in practice the government's fiscal program, mainly in achieving tax revenue, attracting foreign direct investment and domestic private investment,” he adds.

“Unavoidably, there could be high expectations on the execution of public investment, but private investment by Albanian businesses themselves remains vital for economic development. Beyond the sluggish economic environment that Albanian businesses have been operating since years, for objective and subjective reasons, they are expected to apply a kind of self-restraint at least during the first half of the year,” says Meka.

“Lack of essential fiscal policy changes means the private sector will continue to hesitate undertaking key investment, failing to produce a visible increase in employment and consumption. This fact is further reinforced by the reality of credit to the economy which continues to only modestly grow and the explanation to this is the lack of strong demand for credit by private enterprises,“ notes Meka.

Growth agenda

The economy experts say Albania has to change its current growth agenda focusing on low-value added services such as the garment and footwear sector, employing about 100,000 people, most of whom are paid at minimum wages.

“Albania has a lot to do both in establishing stable institutions and for the economic growth to be all-inclusive and sustainable, a more harmonized contribution is required by economy sectors in the GDP contribution seen from the point of view of debates on Albania's new ‘economic model’ for the next two decades and growth being supported by stronger industrial production, exports, innovation and new technology compared to the current situation when there are many factors contributing such as imports, low value-added services etc.,” says Civici.

Elvin Meka says political parties will first of all have to agree on a major fact that the country needs a consensual strategy for long-term economic development, beyond party militancy, partisan, ultraliberal and populist convictions.

"If we want to walk faster than the 3 to 4 percent growth rate, we have to become aware of the opportunities Albania has and the resources available, be serious with the establishment and functioning of public and private institutions and have efficient law-enforcement regulators and quit the 'swamp' model of a services economy without services (minimally distributing domestically produced products, but massively imported ones),” he says.
                    [post_title] => Experts unveil economic risks associated with upcoming June elections
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 19 - Albania and Kosovo are working to set up a joint customs point at Durres Port to further ease trade exchanges between the two countries after the upward trend came to an end in 2016 with a 15 percent decline. The one-stop shop means Kosovo enterprises using Albania's Durres Port will no longer have to undergo new inspections at the Albania-Kosovo border crossing points.

"In cooperation with the Kosovo customs, the Albanian customs have undertaken a joint project on the opening of the Kosovo customs operation office at the Durres customs branch. By February 15, technical staff from both the Albanian and Kosovo customs will finalize the technical, procedural and legal issues for the opening of the customs office and we will determine the customs opening during a visit I will pay to Prishtina by February 20," Albanian Finance Minister Arben Ahmetaj told his Kosovo counterpart Avdullah Hoti. The comments came during a visit the Kosovo minister paid to Tirana this week as Albania signed a deal to get expertise from Kosovo on its fiscal cadaster project and plans to apply a new property tax.

Albania and Kosovo have held three joint government meetings in the past three years in a bid to boost cooperation with a focus on the economy, but trade disputes continue hampering the expected boost in trade exchanges, which remain significantly below their potential despite the Highway of Nation having considerably cut the distance between the two countries.

The two countries still don't recognize certificates of origin used by exporting companies.

"I believe that in the Prishtina meeting we will also provide a solution to the issue of mutual recognition of certificates companies use in trading goods across borders," the Kosovo minister said.

Kosovo experts had earlier complained Albania still doesn’t recognize certificates of origin issued by Kosovo authorities which makes the export of Kosovo products to Albania difficult and causes unnecessary long lines and wait-times at the Vermice border crossing point with Albania.

Albania's trade exchanges with Kosovo dropped by 15 percent to 22.4 billion lek (€162 million) in 2016, registering a three-year low.

Kosovo has emerged as Albania's second main destination for exports, dominated by “fuel, electricity, construction material and metals.”

Ongoing trade disputes between Albania and Kosovo over potatoes, cement, milk, flower, wine and pharmaceutical products have considerably curbed trade exchanges between the two neighboring countries in the past few years.

Albania’s trade exchanges with Kosovo increased to a historic high of 26.4 billion lek (€187.6 million) in 2015, up 6.7 percent compared to 2014 but more than double compared to about 10 billion lek (€72 million) in 2009 when Albania completed the Durres-Kukes highway but Kosovo had not built its part of the Highway of Nation yet.

While traditional factors due to the isolation and lack of communication between the two Albanian-speaking countries for almost five decades until the early 1990s and the late 1990s Kosovo war that led to its independence from Serbia in 2008 partly explain the situation, the huge almost 2 billion euro investment in the so-called Highway of Nation on both sides of border sharply cutting travel time does not yet justify a slowly growing annual trade volume of €192 million between the two countries.

The Tirana and Kosovo Chambers of Commerce have also recently established a cooperation office to tackle ‘mistrust in mutual relations and failure to implement the initiatives undertaken by both countries.’

The two chambers have identified several barriers including "a climate of mistrust which risks undermining cooperation and the perspective toward a national economy."

Chamber representatives say practices enabling the quick movement of goods are not working while lack of 24/7 phytosanitary experts for 24 hours makes the timely circulation of food products.

"The considerable decline in exports from Albania to Kosovo and vice versa leaves room for other countries to fill this void. The common energy project is also being held back because of political barriers imposed by Serbia," they say.

In mid-2016, Albania and Kosovo inaugurated a German-funded 400 kV interconnection line that will help the two neighboring countries increase energy security by diversifying electricity resources and set up a joint energy market, but its launch is being held back by Serbia over a transmission grid dispute with Kosovo.
                    [post_title] => Albania, Kosovo to establish joint Durres customs point 
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            [post_date] => 2017-01-20 13:31:21
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            [post_content] => Today the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America shall usher in a new era not only for the US itself, which voted and has been bracing for dramatic changes, but also for the rest of the world.  The Western Balkans and in a relevant way Albania as well has been for all the transition years recipients of considerable influence, assistance, guidance and sway of American foreign policy. Therefore it is safe to assume that decision makers, opinion makers and a variety of other stakeholders in public life in the region are observing carefully and trying to imagine what the impact of a Trump presidency and administration shall be on their countries.

The most obvious statement to make here is that Donald Trump has been a formidable challenge to all prediction makers. His rhetoric, tone and statement about the expected policies depict a picture of many expected changes. Should the promises, plans and statements about the future materialize we can expect to see an arriving administration with a clear and strong isolationist policy, much less interested in intervention, potentially cutting funding for development assistance, skeptical of NATO’s efficiency and ultimately a President that is publicly not a fan of the European Union.

Donald Trump has been vocal in questioning US’s role in NATO especially criticizing the relative inequality of funding from defense expenditure of member states.  In addition to putting Baltic States and other eastern European countries on edge, this negative consideration of NATO has been of concern to many states in the Balkans for which NATO has been a game changer and later on an important guarantee of regional peace and stability.

Trump and his partners have also cast doubts on preserving the amount of financial assistance that countries all over the world receive through mainly USAID and other related programs. Some campaign proposals have favored cuts in order to afford focusing on home priorities. Curtailing these funds would mean less investment in the region in strategic areas such as infrastructure, local economic empowerment, capacity building of key state institutions, etc.

Finally the latest statement from the President that shall be sworn in today in his latest interview is that “Brexit will be a great thing for the UK.” Trump is on clear controversial terms if not a collision course with key European leaders such as Merkel, the latter being depicted as the last standing fortress of liberalism in the west. The lack of American support and encouragement for the European enlargement and for the integration process of aspiring countries in the Balkans compounds the already difficult existing climate in the Union. The very ascent of Trump has inspired the populist and right wing euro-skeptic movements across Europe and might have a pertinent impact on upcoming elections in key member states hence presenting even more challenges in this regard.

Most of what is mentioned above do not spell optimism for the majority of the Western Balkan states. It has become a recurrent theme after the American elections that a candidate and a president act very differently as the office changes the person and makes him more responsible about the long standing commitments hence softening very revolutionary proposal. It stands as a fact that the real impact for which we can try to brace now can only be evaluated after the new administration is well established and has had time to propose and enact new plans and strategies.

A new era is starting where there are no set guarantees.  It is important to keep hoping for the best while carefully preparing for potential impact.
            [post_title] => Editorial: The Western Balkans in the times of Donald Trump: brace for impact 
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