The Western Balkans has been the epicentre of instability in recent years. Global geopolitical changes have shaken this restless region which still hasn’t recovered from recent wars that raged through it.
The region is strongly affected by confrontations between the superpowers and the main regional actors. The whole Western Balkans functions according to the "linked vessels" principle, which means that any instability –as well as stability – is very quickly transferred to other parts of the region.
The situation is most serious in Kosovo and Albania. Both countries are governed by long-standing regimes: in Kosovo led by its President Hashim Thaçi (PDK) and in Albania under its Prime Minister Edi Rama (PS).
The events in Kosovo and Albania cannot be viewed separately, since they are actually triggered by two closely-related regimes that regularly generate crises.
Why is Kosovo 2019 early election so important?
Kosovo will hold early parliamentary election on 6 October 2019. It is expected that the incumbent regime will lose the election, which will accelerate the fall of Edi Rama's regime in Albania.
Prime Minister Rama was therefore actively involved in the attempts to persuade the Kosovo opposition political parties to avoid early election and form a new government, but his attempts eventually failed. Rama is aware that Thaçi's election defeat will also bring his regime to an end.
With the fall of Thaçi regime, Rama's criminal and corruption octopus spreading its tentacles to Kosovo will start to unveil. Both Thaçi and Rama have an almost identical modus operandi based on plundering public resources, intimidating citizens and political opponents, election frauds and vote-buying, deceiving the international community, constantly producing crises and disputes with the opposition in order to create a controlled chaos in which they can maintain their power with the enormous amounts of dirty money. In this situation, crime and corruption have determined not only the way they rule the country but also the way they live. The forthcoming early parliamentary election will unveil Thaçi's network of mercenaries. It will also reveal which of the high international envoys and state officials working for Thaçi's regime will visit Kosovo in September 2019. This will point to those who are a part of the political and diplomatic corruption that keeps Thaçi in power.
Analysts have pointed to very strong connections between politics, business (tycoons) and crime, which was evident during the formation of coalitions for the forthcoming early election. Namely, the political-criminal circles prevented the formation of the pre-election coalition of the Self-Determination Movement (Lëvizja Vetëvendosje – LVV) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Within LDK those political-criminal circles are symbolised by Lutfi Haziri and Agim Veliu who cooperate tightly with the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and its leader Hashim Thaçi. Therefore the votes given to LDK at the forthcoming election will actually be votes for PDK and Thaçi. Unfortunately, Germany has also interfered in the situation in Kosovo through its Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The aim of all those activities is to prevent the Self-Determination Movement (LVV) from taking over the government and to eliminate Albin Kurti as the convincing favourite for the new Prime Minister position.
Analysts have noted that Kosovo's political parties perceive elections as a chance to gain power for undisturbed plundering of public resources rather than as an opportunity to act responsibly for the interests and welfare of their country and its citizens. Kosovo's foreign policy has experienced a complete fiasco, not being able to provide the visa-free regime to its citizens nor participation in Interpol to its police forces. In the meanwhile, more than ten states have withdrawn their international recognition of Kosovo, which Serbia presents as its great success.
Imposition of customs tariffs on imports from Serbia and BiH and the beginning of Serbian opposition protests – just a coincidence?
The fact is that crime and corruption have no borders. This is especially evident in the Western Balkans, where crises and even armed clashes have been constantly produced for the past 30 years.
Kosovo is led by military and political-criminal structures, which maintain their power by producing crises and through crime and corruption. They have even involved some high officials from other states and some top European Union (EU) officials.
Analysts believe that those political-criminal structures and regimes do not want to build strong state institutions as this would not be in their interest. With strong institutions there would be much less manoeuvring space for political-criminal structures.
On 21 November 2018 the Kosovo Government illegally imposed 100% customs tariffs on imports from Bosnia and Herzegovina and from Serbia, which represented a blatant violation of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA). The EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina had been at a standstill for a few months by then. Thaçi's regime justified the severe violation of the CEFTA Agreement with the demand for Serbia to recognise Kosovo's independence, while in fact it used it as a cover-up for other intentions. On the other hand, the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue still hasn't led to signing a legally binding deal. The question is whether it is only a coincidence that the Kosovo Government imposed customs tariffs on imports from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia on 21 November 2018 while on 30 November 2018 the Serbian opposition launched their first protests. Why was the public not informed of the meetings held between Thaçi's regime and the Serbian opposition representatives?
Analysts believe that it is not a coincidence that the imposition of import tariffs for Serbia and BiH and the beginning of Serbian opposition protests both took place in November last year. Why was the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue discontinued if the two parties had committed to conclude the dialogue by signing a legally binding agreement? Are the meetings of Kosovo and Albanian politicians with the Serbian opposition in any connection with the attempts to weaken the power of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) and eventually to overthrow him? Why did Thaçi's regime sacrifice the visa-free regime for Kosovo citizens? Probably the most interesting question is whether Thaçi's regime is involved in financing the opposition protests in Serbia. The Serb List will be under greatest fire during the election campaign, since it is the absolute favourite among Serbian voters and enjoys the support of Serbian President Vučić. Anyhow, the election campaign in Kosovo will be marked by tensions and warmongering rhetoric.
Past experiences in the Balkans have shown that political-criminal structures permanently produce crises not only in their own states but also in other, especially the neighbouring countries, in order to realise certain interests or achieve certain influence.
The question is who benefits from creating further crises in the region, bearing in mind that the issue of North Macedonia has been resolved and the country has now an open door to join NATO, so it is now the turn to resolve the Kosovo issue and then to stabilise and resolve the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Attacks on North Macedonia resemble attacks on Montenegro before it gained NATO membership
The Republic of North Macedonia signed the accession protocol with NATO on 6 February 2019. The protocol is now being ratified by NATO member states. So far 19 states have ratified it. North Macedonia's full membership is expected to be confirmed at NATO summit in London in December this year.
However, North Macedonia will continue to be under attacks and attempts to discredit its leaders and institutions. Experience has shown that Montenegro underwent similar attacks until it became full member of NATO. The international intelligence operation known as "racket" was skilfully designed outside North Macedonia with carefully selected actors and their roles. North Macedonia did not have the appropriate counterintelligence service to protect its Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (SDSM) and other political leaders. The country therefore needs an urgent reform of security-intelligence and defence sectors which are still dominated by the staff employed by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (VMRO-DPMNE) and former head of Macedonian secret service Sašo Mijalkov (VMRO-DPMNE). The vetting proces that has started within the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of North Macedonia is the first step to professionalization of the country's security structures. The "racket" blackmail affair involved intelligence agents, politicians, officials from state institutions, journalists, celebrities, professors and the media as well as certain individuals who were (un)knowingly pulled into this international intelligence operation against the Republic of North Macedonia and its leaders with the aim to discredit, criminalise, eliminate and eventually overthrow Zoran Zaev and his government by creating chaos and taking over the power with or without prior election.
Analysts believe that current events in North Macedonia are the result of a wide, precisely planned, coordinated and skilfully prepared intelligence action performed by external and internal actors with the aim to prevent the country's Euro-Atlantic integration. Fortunately, with their timely reaction and efforts the security-intelligence services of North Macedonia managed to stop the dissolution of the country. According to estimates Gruevski's regime illegally took more than five billion euros out of the country and provided 50 million euros for the operation against the incumbent government.
It is therefore of vital importance to accelerate the Euro-Atlantic integration of North Macedonia and help it to get full NATO membership as well as a date to start EU accession negotiations in October 2019. Based on experience from Montenegro, attacks on North Macedonia, especially against its Prime Minister Zaev and the key state institutions (especially the judiciary) will continue with even more intensity, using the shock doctrine to create chaos, destabilise the country, prevent its membership in NATO and illegitimately take over power. Macedonian government should therefore spare no effort to achieve agreement between key political actors on passing the law on the Special Prosecutor's Office, thus confirming their determination to fight crime and corruption and establish the rule of law.
Analysts have pointed to the importance of developing strong state institutions in North Macedonia, thus preventing individuals acting on behalf of institutions based on "I am the state" slogan, as was the case in recent past. The EU has also stressed the importance of establishing the rule of law in North Macedonia, so that there would be no more untouchable individuals and legal entities. North Macedonia will therefore have to carry out a police operation similar to the Sabre operation that was carried out in Serbia in 2003 and finally deal with crime and corruption. Any other partial solution will further complicate the situation in North Macedonia, which has turned from a country of despair into one of hope in the past two years.
Where have disappeared two billion euros of European money?
The EU has fundamentally neglected the Western Balkans while other countries and centres of power have spread their capillary presence through this region. Two billion euros of EU taxpayers' money have disappeared or been inappropriately wasted in Kosovo. The new European Parliament (EP) is expected to launch an investigation and establish the responsibility for the spending of those funds.
The EU should also audit the work of its delegations in the countries of Western Balkan region, while the EU Member States should audit their diplomatic missions in those states. It is worrying that EU delegations in the region have become a sink of crime and a kind of alienated centres of power in those countries.
Analysts warn that the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) should initiate investigations due to reasonable suspicion that the EU taxpayers' money was wasted.
Decriminalisation of Albanians
Albania's Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama came to power in 2013 with the help of "strong-handed men – from the underground" including a few regional crime bosses who provided "muscles and money" for elections. Many of them were put on the Socialist Party (PS) electoral lists and became Members of the Albanian Parliament. Rama is the politician with the longest political career in Albania and has performed various functions for 20 years: two years as Minister (1998-2000), eleven years as Mayor of Tirana (2000-2011) and seven years as Prime Minister (2013-2019). Interestingly, the political career of the incumbent Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi has lasted almost the same as that of Edi Rama.
Between 2014 and 2017 Albania became the main illegal producer of cannabis and the country with highest rates of human trafficking in Europe, which was confirmed by the EU, Europol , the US State Department  and the United Nations  . All this time the opposition accused the socialist government, especially the then Minister of the Interior Saimir Tahiri (PS) of direct involvement in drug trade. Publication of wiretaps on 30 January 2019 revealed that dozens of socialist MPs, socialist mayors and other high officials were linked with organised crime through vote-buying, voter intimidation, document forging and other criminal activities before and during the 2017 general elections. There is clear evidence of collusion at high level between the socialist government and bosses of drug/human trafficking gangs, which enabled the thriving of drug production and trade in Albania.
The illegitimate local election held on 30 June 2019 confirmed the allegations of the criminal nature of Rama's regime. It was soon found that the Mayor of Shkodra Valdrin Pjetri, who was elected at that illegitimate election, had been convicted on drug charges in Italy. The Mayor of Vorë Agim Kajmaku had been arrested in Greece for forgery of money. It was found that he used the fake name Jorgo Toto and counterfeited his identity documents. There are also numerous other cases of criminal activities in Albania. The IFIMES International Institute has mentioned some of them in its previous analyses, such as the activities of Albanian power corporation KESh which represents a nest of crime in the energy sector.
Analysts have noted that Albanians are gradually perceived in Europe as a criminal nation. The most credit for that goes to Edi Rama and Hashim Thaçi as well as other Albanian leaders who are involved in criminal activities. The new governments in Kosovo and Albania will therefore have to invest significant efforts to change that perception and image of Albanians and to show them in a different light.
Although Albania became full member of NATO in 2009, its leaders do not cherish the values that the Alliance rests on. NATO is much more than a military alliance. It signifies a complete system of values that are characteristic of democratic states.
Why are Edi Rama and other Albanian high officials spreading ideas on creating the so called Greater Albania through the unification of Albania and Kosovo when Albania is a full member of the military alliance that protects the territorial integrity of each of its members? Why has the level of crime and corruption in Albania increased enormously since Edi Rama became its Prime Minister? How come NATO has not expressed any reprimand or strong reaction to Rama's destructive behaviour?
Analysts believe that with his inadmissible and destructive behaviour Rama has defeated NATO and its complete value system. The question is who bears the responsibility for that in NATO, bearing in mind that Albania is its full member?
Edi Rama and Hashim Thaçi are generating the crisis in Kosovo, but that crisis generates further crises in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is therefore of crucial importance that the new US special envoy to the Western Balkans Matthew Palmer first stabilises the situation in Albania and Kosovo and deals with the Albanian political leaders, since that is the precondition for achieving any progress in the Balkans.
It is therefore (not) surprising that in their recent statements France, the Netherlands and Denmark opposed EU's enlargement and the opening of accession negotiations with Albania despite the European Commission's recommendation to start the accession process.
What can the US special envoy Matthew Palmer do?
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer as his Special Representative for the Western Balkans. Palmer's appointment comes at the time of very complicated and tense situation in the Western Balkans, which is largely due to long years of the American absence in the region.
The key problem of past activities of the West in the region is that it built partnerships mostly with political-criminal structures. The US will therefore have to employ its agencies for fighting crime and corruption to deal with the Balkan Mafia, just as it did in Italy after World War II when it helped to combat the Italian Mafia. At the beginning it will be important to determine those individuals and politicians that act as the disruptive factor. Thus it is expected that some new names from the region will soon be put on the US Administration's blacklist.
Unless crime and corruption are dealt with in the process of decriminalisation of the Balkan region, it will not be possible to carry out any serious political process to ensure economic development, peace and long-term stability. It is therefore of vital importance that those processes are coordinated with the EU, since it provides most of the funds that often end in the hands of crime and corruption.
Analysts believe that unless the US special envoy to the Western Balkans Matthew Palmer launches those processes in certain Balkan states and at the same time strengthens and empowers the institutions to combat crime and corruption, no serious results may be expected from his assignment in this region. Dismantling the Thaçi-Rama conjoined regimes would be perhaps the best starting point and serve as a good example for Palmer's work as special envoy in the Balkans.
Ljubljana/Tirana, 9 September 2019
 Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA), European Union (Europol), 2018.
 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, US State Department, March 2018.
 World Drug Report, United Nations Drug Office, 2017, 2018.
- Link (ENG): https://www.ifimes.org/en/9694 (Research - Kosovo – Albania – North Macedonia 2019: In anticipation of the collapse of the Thaçi-Rama conjoined regimes?)