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Chinese Economic Cooperation in the Balkans: Challenges and Future Expectations editor’s note: this new analysis covers China’s current economic focus in the Western Balkan countries, and includes links to our other coverage of similar topics in the last few years. For additional (and earlier) coverage of China in Greece, see our 2014 report here.

By Antonela Dhimolea*

Relations between China and the Balkan countries have been developing swiftly in recent years, with the establishment of the new platforms such as “The Initiative of Cooperation between China and 16 Central and Eastern European Countries”, “One Belt, One Road”, as well as annual summits, further specialized forums and seminars, and perspective for an upsurge in investment and trade cooperation.

The Initiative of Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries was established first with the Warsaw Forum on April 26, 2012. The initiative for this had come from the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. The goal of this Chinese initiative is to use the CEE countries as “the gateway” to enter the European market.

Similarities and Differences: China’s Developing European Partners

For this reason, China is trying to revive its political dialogue with 16 member countries, as well as to promote the extension and intensification of economic, trade, agricultural, energy, infrastructure, cultural, education, and human cooperation with them. It is an interesting fact that 11 of the member states of the platform 16+1 are EU member states, while four of them (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia) are EU candidate countries.

In order to implement her ambition, China has chosen CEE countries. considering them as not only a community having a common history and values, but an easy way to penetrate the European market.

In reality, the differences between the EU countries, which are member of the platform 16+1 and Balkan countries (including Croatia and Slovenia) are significant in many respects. These include level of development, size, historical experience, culture and religion. The only shared characteristic among the latter countries would be the degree of socialist government before 1989; still, these forms differed quite significantly. Similarly, all these countries have experienced the transformation of their economic, social, and political systems, although again with different strategies and degrees of success.

Background on the Chinese 16+1  Initiative of Cooperation: a ‘Work in Progress’

The new Chinese platform was launched during the global financial crisis, which mostly affected EU countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain and France. The initiative  was highly appreciated by CEE countries, which were eager to cooperate with China. In the framework of the Initiative of Cooperation 16+1, five Summits have been held, including economic, cultural and transport forums, as well as several meetings of National Coordinators.

The First Leader’s Summit, held in 2012 in Warsaw, approved the final document of the Initiative of Cooperation composed of 12 points on the mutual benefits and concrete collaboration on economy, tourism, infrastructure, renewable energy, culture, education and so on.

The Initiative of Cooperation included also the establishment of Secretariat China – CEE Countries which coordinates the overall cooperation. Apart from the Secretariat, some centers covering different fields such as agriculture, tourism, business, transport etc are being established in CEE countries, including Balkan countries.

The main pillars of the platform are: economy and trade; infrastructure and transport (aiming to improve the road and marine interconnections between China and European countries); the green economy (supporting projects on hydro, solar, wind and nuclear energy with high technology); financial cooperation and local government cooperation (twinning projects); cultural cooperation (organizing forums on culture and education, encouraging interaction among young politicians, expert groups, media and so on).

The other potential field of cooperation is agriculture. The Chinese market’s need for meat, dairy and high quality wine products would increase trade exchanges between China and CEE countries. The agriculture products of Balkan countries are highly appreciated in China.

Recently, the Chinese project has also started to focus on cooperation in industry, manufacturing, connectivity, telecommunication and infrastructure. In the field of transport, the focus is on railway connection (containers shipping, industrial parks and distribution centers), and also on roads, marine and air infrastructure in the framework of regional networks. In this way, the Initiative of Cooperation is serving the larger project “One Belt, One Road” which will connect Asia with Europe.

However, the quality and efficiency of this cooperation should be improved. The further success of the platform will depend on the commitment and dedication of each member country and their choice of cooperation fields.

In order to succeed, CEE countries must try to better understand Chinese intentions and expectations, while China has to be clearer in introducing the two projects “the Platform 16+1” and “One Belt, One Road.”

Furthermore, CEE countries highlight that the platform 16+1 has to follow EU rules and will be conducted under the EU-China framework cooperation. They also are approaching this platform as a useful channel for their bilateral relations with China.

Chinese Investment Activity with Balkan Countries: Serbia as the Key Player

China’s most important regional relations are with Serbia. The two countries are working to raise their strategic partnership to a new level. In the framework of the Initiative of Cooperation 16+1, among the Balkan countries, Serbia was chosen as the host country for the Summit of Leaders in 2014. During the Summit, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang also paid an official visit to Serbia. He was the first Chinese Premier to visit the country in 28 years.

Apart from this, the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping attracted significant public attention. After his official visit to the Czech Republic, in June 2016, he visited Poland and Serbia. These visits aimed to boost Chinese economic and trading relations with both countries and to increase China’s presence in the Balkans and Europe.

This, the first visit by a Chinese head of state in more than 30 years was justly deemed “historic.” During this visit, President Xi visited the Chinese-owned steel plant at Smederevo, and signed 22 cooperation agreements. Most of them were focused on the economy, investment, infrastructure, energy and cultural exchanges. These results were considered of great importance in Serbia, where economic difficulties and high unemployment have been concerns. Serbia is also hoping to attract Chinese investments for the privatization of state enterprises. A closer relationship with China will also bring more cash into Serbia’s economy, and help to improve the country’s infrastructure.

Serbia has signed the trilateral agreement on the construction of its part of the Hungary-Serbia rapid railway (€800 mn in Serbia out of the total €1.5 bn). The contract for the construction of a the E763 highway in Western Serbia (total cost €900 mn) has also been signed, as has the contract for the construction of the bridge over the Danube in Belgrade (€170 mn).

Formerly, the Mihajlo Pupin Bridge (China’s first major infrastructure construction project on the European continent), became the second bridge over the Danube River in Belgrade when it was completed in July 2014. Additionally, Phase II of the motorway E763 has been completed.

In the field of energy, Chinese companies are involved on the revitalization of the Kostolac power plant (total cost €700 mn) and the reconstruction of the Kolubara A power plant. China also intends to participate in the construction of the Kolubara B power plant. In July 2016, Belgrade’s Smederevo steel plant, which was founded in 1913, was officially taken over by the Chinese firm Hesteel, for a total of 46 million euros ($51.2 mn).

More recently, in January 2017 the Bank of China opened its first Balkan branch, in Serbia.

China and Bosnia-Herzegovina

Here, areas of interest for cooperation with China are infrastructure, construction materials, energy, culture and education. Bosnia has signed the contract for the construction of a Banja Luka-Split motorway (total cost €600mn). In the field of energy, China and Bosnia have signed the contracts for the construction of MW unit at Tuzla thermal power plant (total cost €786mn), 350 MW Banovici thermal power plant (total cost €400mn) and 300 MW Stanari thermal power plant (total cost €350mn), which was opened in September 2016.

China and Croatia

The year 2015 marked the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Strategic Partnership between Croatia and China. China intends to expand bilateral relations in the construction of the railway network, higher education and scientific research, renovation of ports and construction of industrial parks.

Croatia has introduced several projects to the Chinese in the maritime field (such as port renewal), infrastructure and nuclear energy. In October 2014, Croatia signed a contract with CMBM Chinese Company for the modernization of a terminal port in the south of the country.

China and Montenegro

In the framework of the platform 16+1, Montenegro has benefited from loans from China’s Exim Bank, signing contracts for the construction of the Podgorica-Kolasin highway (total cost €809.6 mn), the renewal of the ship fleet of Montenegro (total cost about  €100 mn) and the construction of the Bar-Boljare highway (total cost €689 mn).

Investors in various energy projects potentially also include China’s Poly Group Corporation and Norinco. Both have been interested in developing major energy projects in Montenegro, such as the construction of hydropower plants on the rivers Moraca and Komarnica. Chinese companies were also interested in the new unit at Pljevlja thermal power plant. China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) was one of two companies that submitted offers in a recent tender, however unsuccessfully.

For more on China’s economic activity in Montenegro, see this August 2016 report from Podgorica.

China and Macedonia

Macedonia has benefited from the Exim Bank loans for the construction of the Kicevo-Ohrid highway (€580mn) and the Miladinovci-Stip highway ($306mn). The interest rate will be 2 percent annually and will be paid over the next 20 years.

China intends to build some hydropower plants on the Vardar River, which is on the key Corridor 10 that is anticipated to comprise the main Silk Road route from the Aegean Sea to Central Europe.

China and Albania

Albania has not yet benefited from an Exim Bank loan. Last year, however, two big Chinese companies entered Alban,ia: the Everbright Company purchased the Tirana International Airport, while Geo-Jade Petroleum Company purchased Banker’s Petroleum, one of the biggest  foreign investors in Albania. (See this 2012 analysis for further context on Banker’s and offshore energy projects in Albania at the time).

Some Chinese companies are also operating in the mineral sector in Albania. For more information on general Chinese activity in Albania, see this article from June 2016.

The Blue Corridor Motorway: A Potential Project for Albania and Montenegro

Albania and Montenegro have also signed an MoU with the Chinese company Pacific Construction Group, which opens the way for the construction of the Blue Corridor motorway project. The Blue Corridor, or the Adriatic-Ionian motorway, is a project that will stretch along the entire eastern shore of Adriatic and Ionian seas, from Trieste in Italy to Greece via Croatia, Montenegro and Albania. The route is seen as a matter of national importance for both Albania and Montenegro.

The Future of China in the Balkan Region

China’s economic expansion in the Balkans is inevitable. China is using all diplomatic strategies available to achieve her European ambitions. First, China introduced the platform 16+1 and through the Exim Bank, and then worked hard to seduce the Balkan and CEE countries with $10 billion of loans for projects in different sectors. China succeeded in the Balkans because the countries (except Albania and Croatia) benefited from the loans, and signed several contracts in the fields of infrastructure and energy.

After unveiling the 16+1 initiative, China introduced its main project, the “One Belt, one Road.” This ambitious trade corridor also involves China’s infrastructural investments in Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Central and Western Europe. The project “One Belt, One Road” is an important instrument for China’s global strategy geo-politically as well.

The rationale of the project is global connectivity. “One Belt, One Road” will deepen China’s infrastructural, economic, institutional and cultural connectivity with key parts of the globe. Projected investments are estimated to benefit 4.4 billion people in 65 countries. In financial terms, according to some estimates, the project could be more than 12 times bigger than the Marshall Plan created by the US to aid Western Europe after WWII.

Besides infrastructural investments in ports, high-speed rail, power generation and other utilities, China is offering some private-sector investment opportunities in real estate, telecoms, e-commerce, finance, tourism, education, the creative industries and green technologies. According to the Chinese approach, “One Belt, One Road” is not a one-way street of China’s outbound investments but also represents a huge export potential for Western products, technologies and services to enter China.

The EU has expressed constant concerns about the Chinese entrance into Europe through the 16+1 Initiative of Cooperation, and the “One Belt, one Road” project. The EU presumes China as a new economic threat in Balkan. While China considers the 16+1 platform as a part of larger China-EU relations, the EU does not agree with this perception. Brussels is conscious that the Chinese projects have found support in Balkan countries, because their economies are fragile and the unemployment figures are high. In order to prevent the Chinese expansion in the0 Balkans, the EU is trying to observe the relations between China and Balkan countries as well as with other CEE countries.

In any case, China cannot replace the EU’s overall influence in Balkan countries, because these countries seek to join the bloc. Therefore they cannot challenge the EU’s political approach and regulations. Recently, China has been exploiting all diplomatic channels to gain the support of Balkan countries for the South East China Sea issue, but these countries unanimously approve the EU stand on this issue. This indicates that politically, the perspective of Balkan states remains geared towards EU integration. At the same time, however, they remain keen to explore the economic potential of being China’s “gateway” to European markets.


*Antonela Dhimolea is an expert in Asian and Balkan issues, and has worked for many years as an Albanian diplomat. She holds a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy from the University of Malta’s Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, and has attended training courses in international relations and diplomacy, at La Sapienza University in Rome, the Diplomatic Academy of Croatia, the Diplomatic Academy of Poland, as well as the Diplomatic Institutes of India, Montenegro and Egypt.

This analysis represents the author’s personal assessment, and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Iranian MEK in Albania: Implications and Possible Future Sectarian Divisions editor’s note: in 2013, the Obama Administration convinced Albanian authorities to take in the MEK, a former Marxist terrorist group that had been in open combat with the Islamic Republic for years. In 2016, under cover of the migration crisis and with help from the UNHCR, several hundred more of these Iranian dissidents were brought into Albania from Iraq. What could possibly go wrong? In this exclusive new analysis of a little-discussed security subject, Albanian counter-terrorism expert Ebi Spahiu analyzes the potential for future sectarian divisions and domestic and international orientations towards Albania’s newest population.

By Ebi Spahiu

In 2013, the Obama Administration struck a deal with the government of Albania to offer asylum to about 250 members of Mohajedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian “dissident group” exiled from Iran to Iraq during the early years of Khomeini’s regime. The group was once labeled a terrorist organization by the international community due to its track record of orchestrating bombing campaigns in Iran – often targeting American offices, businesses and citizens – as well as other military operations in an attempt to oust the newly established Iranian Islamic regime in the 1970s.

Since 2013, the Obama Administration and Albanian government have extended the agreement, consequently increasing the number of asylum seekers to somewhere in the range of 500-2,000 MEK members. During the summer of 2016, Tirana received the largest contingent of about 1,900 people- an operation managed by the UNHCR.

Although most local media portray the operation and Albania’s willingness to offer assistance to the dissident group as a humanitarian mission, little discussion has been made regarding the potential implications that MEK’s presence may have for Albania in the long run, and for religious balances that have already been thrown off by Wahabbi and Salafi presence among moderate Muslim communities in recent years.

Sectarian Identities and Divides in the Context of Wahhabi Activism and Syria

Sunni-based Islamist supporters and organizations have a history of operating in Albania and throughout the Western Balkans via funding that often streams from Gulf countries which have exported Wahabbi and Salafi Islamic values and traditions, ones that were previously foreign to Albania’s majority Muslim population which still follows the Hanafi-based teachings inherited by the Ottoman Empire.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis on Albania’s Muslim population, this religious composition is reflective of centuries of religious influences, including Sufi and Shi’a traditions, attested in practices and rituals to this day. It is mainly from this long history that six in ten Muslims do not distinguish their religious affiliation in a sectarian form, such as Shi’a or Sunni, rather simply identify as “just Muslim,” according to findings by Pew.

Despite these historical legacies that have strengthened relations between religious communities, the presence of Wahhabi and Salafi groups over the years has implanted a sectarian identity regarding which most Albanian Muslim practitioners were oblivious in the past. Since the outset of the conflict in Syria, about 150 Albanian citizens and over 500 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia have joined terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq, alongside then-Jabhat Al-Nusra and later IS.

Even though the number of foreign fighters has drastically decreased since 2015, threats persist from non-violent agitations and divisive narratives that continue to dominate some religious landscapes, including negative portrayal of local Bektashi communities and sectarian rifts which are becoming more pronounced among popular religious leaders.

The MEK in Albania and Sectarian Divides

Since its inception in the 1960s, the MEK has embraced Marxist ideologies and Shiite-centric Islamic values; this has distinguished the group from other Islamist terrorist organizations which have remained more focused on their sectarian identity.

Most people in Albania know little about the MEK, nor the list of other names the group has used to identify itself as a resistance group against Khomeini’s theocratic rule, not to mention their activities following the Iranian revolution and their exile to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein offered his support in exchange for their capacities to threaten the Iranian regime.

Over the years, the MEK has renounced all violence and developed closer relationships with officials from the American government, which later removed the group from its official list of terrorist organizations. Despite their engagement with the West, however, the group’s history of violence remains an important question often raised by Iran observers and policy-makers, who cast doubt on the group’s pledge to have renounced all forms of violence while achieving political objectives.

In 2013 this was apparent when many countries that were approached by the US government to host MEK members refused to do so, out of concern for security implications. Romania is believed to have been the US’ preferred host for the MEK, but the Romanian authorities immediately refused. Albania was therefore not the first choice for MEK relocation, but accepted due to its close relations with the US.

The type of security implications their presence may bring is yet to be assessed by Albanian policy-makers, with some speculating that the MEK will establish a base in the country’s capital, similar to that of Camp Liberty and Ashraf in Iraq, where they can access weapons and restart their political activities to bring down Iran’s regime.

Even though most MEK asylum-seekers seem to lead a quiet life in their new homes, recent events and discussion regarding the potential death of the exiled MEK leader, Massoud Rajavi, suggest that the MEK seeks to regain its political standing in opposition to Iran, and sees its members’ relocation to Albania as an opportunity to reengage as a resistance movement against Khameini’s regime, but this time away from the direct threat that Iranian proxy groups posed for them in Iraq.

The Paris Event, Albania and Possible Foreign Interests in the New Arrangement

Since their arrival in Albania, the group appears to have ramped up support in the midst of Albania’s political elite, which was highly celebrated during a congress organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, held in Paris this past July.

Pandeli Majko, a current Socialist MP and former Prime Minister of Albania during the war in Kosovo, accompanied by over 20 political representatives from Albania, gave an impassioned speech at the Free Iran gathering in Paris where he pledged his support for the refugees currently staying in Albania, as well as the group’s struggle to succeed in changing the regime in Iran. This has certainly angered Iranian officials who insist that the MEK seeks to exploit Albania’s geographical position in order to form a new camp there.

While Iran’s traditional rivalry with Israel might seem to indicate further activity in Albania involving the MEK, available information does not suggest any significant Israeli activity. However, a potential greater concern involves another traditional Iranian adversary – Saudi Arabia – which has been reported as giving help to the MEK. During the event in Paris, several important international figures attended and (as was reported in some anti-Western media) a Saudi government representative made a speech that pledged commitment to help out the movement in bringing down Iran’s regime.

Possible Repercussions for Albania: Sectarian Divides and Local Controversy More Likely than Larger Threats

These developments may have serious repercussions for Albania and Albanian policy-makers who may not foresee the long-term consequences of being involved in the issue, and in expanding their role on foreign policy issues beyond the small Balkan nation’s traditional reach.

Since the MEK has renounced all violence, the group does not represent an immediate threat to national security in Albania. However, it does remain an existential threat to the Iranian regime, which over the years has supported significant raids via Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq to destroy the organization and kill key MEK leaders. It should be remembered that the MEK was brought to Albania under agreement with the Obama Administration directly from Iraq, not from any third country.

Considering these factors, more involvement should be expected from Albanian authorities, even though there are no clear signs that Iran’s presence is increasing. It would be significantly harder for Iran to hit MEK in Albania than in its neighboring country of Iraq, though it is still possible.

Of more concern is that the MEK presence poses a risk of inflaming sectarian divides in smaller communities, a phenomenon still in its latent state among Albanian Muslims.

Several online sermons from Sunni-based religious leaders warn their followers of a Shiite presence under NGO programs that aim at recruiting young men and women to follow Quranic teachings and study programs in Iran, but there is never a mention of MEK’s presence in Albania and the role they may play.

While a serious sectarian war is farfetched at this point, there is a sectarian narrative to the issue which could be a matter of concern for the future, depending on how strong existing Islamist factions become. These include not just ISIS supporters, but also Turkish and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

One test will be how well the government manages the MEK, their needs and political objectives. Many Albanians are worried about whether the MEK poses any immediate risk, but nobody is actually talking about Iran’s historic and cross-borders feud with the MEK, and how threatened Iran still feels by the group.

Whether Albania is prepared enough to inherit a long-standing struggle between a major regional Middle Eastern power and a cult-like former terrorist organization is yet to be seen, but given Albania’s continued struggles with endemic corruption and organized crime, and the slow emergence of religious radicalization as a regional security threat, sectarian rifts may add to the list of challenges facing Albania’s political standing. One point of controversy that has already occurred domestically is that the agreement itself is very vague; there has thus been plenty of criticism domestically over a perceived lack of transparency on the terms agreed between Albania and the US.


Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 4: Albania and Kosovo

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

This, the fourth installment in our present series, concentrates on the most crucial country in Italy’s Adriatic near-abroad, Albania. It also covers Italian security and intelligence in Kosovo- a country with a much less significant historical relationship with Italy, but nonetheless an increasingly important one since the 1999 NATO intervention.

This analysis will reveal not only the working operations of Italian diplomacy and security in these neighboring countries, but also address how security events in the recent past and near future are affecting the trans-Adriatic relationship- and increasing Italy’s opportunities in the process.

Albania: a Diplomatic and Intelligence Priority for Italy

Italy’s historic relationship with Albania is apparent from its diplomatic relations there. Italy maintains by far the most robust diplomatic and intelligence presence of any outside power in the country.

In addition to the embassy in Tirana, Italy runs a trade agency, development agency and a consulate in Vlora. The total Italian diplomatic presence amounts to 44 persons, with a rather large number of unspecified “attachés.” As we have noted, this gives good opportunity for AISE operatives to lurk under diplomatic cover, while military, police and anti-mafia liaisons are present as well. As we discussed in Part 2 of this series, Tirana is the base for AISE’s crucial station for Albanian-speaking officers, with some coverage of these populations in neighboring countries.

By comparison to Italy’s 44 accredited diplomats in Albania, the only other foreign diplomatic presences that even come close are those of the European Union, with 32 persons (of whom, however, almost one-third are Italian), and Greece, which has 30 diplomats. This discrepancy is particularly remarkable considering that for Greece, Albania is a neighboring state, with a land border (unlike the case with Italy), and has an ethnic Greek minority to go with many common interests, both negative and positive.

Indeed, the United States – the world superpower, and widely considered to be Albania’s ‘best friend’ – has only 26 accredited diplomats. Turkey, which also has major interests in the country, has only 17 representatives, while Russia has just 13 and the UK, merely 10 diplomats.

This is another reason why the massive Italian presence in Albania is so valuable to its key Western allies, from the intelligence perspective. These allies are able to delegate tasks to AISE and related agencies, as they have superior skills and connections locally. The Italian intelligence capacities in Albanian lands indicate to a large extent why Italy is considered by many insiders to have the best HUMINT capacities of any Western power in the Balkans.

The Catholic Church’s Complimentary Role

As with Croatia, Italian power is complimented by Vatican-related entities and individuals, which provide additional benefit in a complex web of Italian interests. The Catholic Church (and especially the Jesuits) played a key role in preparing the ground for Albanian independence in 1912 (as covered in our book, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans). Most recently, Pope Francis visited Albania in summer 2014, reaffirming the Church’s interests in a country made up of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim populations.

Covert Intelligence Controversies and Internal Albanian Politics

In addition to HUMINT, SIGINT represents one of the most important intelligence methods useful for Italian services abroad, as repeatedly testified during this series. Thanks to its experience, Italy provides technical devices and trainings for many partner services in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans as well.

Italy also has private sector ELINT producers of note, which have been involved in various scandals. The first installment of this series, for example, discussed Milan-based Hacking Team, and its possible role in the diplomatic clash with Egypt over a mysterious murder in Cairo earlier this year.

Today, intrusive cyber and wiretapping instruments are gaining a primary role in intelligence activities, and also make a very profitable business and an asset for diplomatic leverage.

But this kind of commerce always brings some side-scandal with it. One of the most significant in the last months took place in Albania, a country in which the eavesdropping of political enemies had previously hit the headlines of newspapers and newscasts.

It all started in October 2015, when President Bujar Nishani declared on public television that the Rama government had been spying on him and his family. In November 2015, he claimed to have found a bug in his office and officially requested an investigation to be led by the prosecutor general’s office.

More recently, a news report of 17 May 2016 noted President Nishani’s continuing dissatisfaction with the government and prosecutor for allegedly “blocking” an investigation into the case. According to Nishani, the government has been trying to deceive the public about “the cooperation agreement with the Italian authorities and the “excellent cooperation” between the two countries in the fight against organized crime.

Nishani, who also claimed the case of the mysterious listening device was proof of malfeasance within the interior ministry, was himself reacting to a charge made then by Rama’s interior minister, Saimir Tahiri. The latter had accused the president himself of having brought the device in from Italy in 2007.

Nishani, elected in 2012, had been interior minister under Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party government and was nominated by that party. Thus the recent intrigue and war of words with the Social Democrat government of Edi Rama was obviously not simply a ‘technical’ matter.

Later on, as the surveillance scandal was widening in scope, the prosecutor general’s office announced that the Chief of Albanian National Police, Haki Cako, would be suspended from his duties on 7 June 2016. It was announced that he was being investigated for illegally using wiretapping equipment, in an investigation which also involves possible wiretapping of foreign embassies and diplomats, still to be confirmed.

The Catcher Scandal

In all this drama, the role played by Italy remains quite murky. On 11 March 2016, a car with Italian diplomatic plates disembarked at the port of Durres, carrying in its trunk a black suitcase containing an IMSI Catcher, model Vortex Aircube, an electronic short-range wiretapping device. The Catcher is produced in Israel, imported into Europe by French company Ercom, and marketed in Italy by Italarms.

This device was discovered by the Albanian police and was about to be seized by the authorities, when Cako stopped the requisition saying that “any items that leave an embassy or are destined for a diplomatic post have diplomatic immunity, and cannot be inspected.”

This decision led to an inquiry from the Chief Prosecutor in Tirana for abuse of power, since such equipment had never received any proper authorization from the Attorney General’s Office, as is regulated by Albanian law.

As stated by Adriatik Llalla, Albanian Attorney General after three months of investigations in order to find the origins of the black suitcase, the sentence was issued since “this device was illegally introduced into Albania.”

As was reported, the alert was given by the Albanian Intelligence Service (SHISH). The investigation also involved two other top officials from the Albanian Police: Artion Duka, a former director of the Operational Unit, and his deputy, Ention Hhelilaj, allegedly the man who had driven the car with the device out of Durres port to the Italian Embassy.

Embarrassment in Italy

This internal political crisis brought some embarrassment to Italian Police and MOI officials as well. Not by chance, a few weeks after the scandal broke, the (outgoing) Italian Police Chief, Giampaolo Pansa, sent a letter to the Albanian Prosecutor explaining the situation.

The letter explained the features of the device and underlined that it was to be used for “on the job training” in the framework of inter-force actions between Italian and Albanian police: “this device was configured in such a way as to be disabled for eavesdropping activity, both vocal communication and text messages.”

Moreover, according to Panza, the equipment had always remained “under the responsibility of Italian operators and was kept, while not being used for training and formative activities, at the Italian Liaison office in Albania, in the Italian Embassy of Tirana.” That is the reason why Cako avoided the requisition: being a diplomatic item, it should enjoy diplomatic immunity. “The Italian operators’ tasks were directed to formation and assistance for the correct usage of the instruments”, continued the letter.

As explained in this article by Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, a question arises. If the device was intended to help train local forces within the framework of police cooperation, why were the Albanian authorities not informed of it?

The answer could lie in the conflict between Albanian political forces, with the opposition Democratic Party contesting the usage of wiretapping instruments by the police to spy on politicians and common people. The former prime minister and DP leader, Sali Berisha, published on the party’s Facebook page the names of 375 people who were allegedly spied on by Albanian forces.

At the time the scandal emerged, other DP figures were speaking out. In comments for on 19 May 2016 (and published now for the first time) DP politician and Security Affairs advisor Avenir Peka stated that “the affair is currently being investigated by prosecution office and many details are shady at best, but a few elements are public: the affair started with a tipping off by the Intelligence Service to the Prosecutor General that an interception device has entered the country illegally and that it was being used by the police. When the scandal became public, and parliament started a hearing on the matter, it became known that the device had really entered the country, not declared at customs service, the prosecutor general was not informed of its existence, and that the police had no authority to use it.”

Peka, who is a lawyer, former deputy interior minister and national security advisor to Berisha, stated that the device “was not bought by the police, but as they claim borrowed from Italian police mission in Albania, Interforce. The police have turned down the prosecutor’s request to have access to the device, with the argument that it was being used merely for training purposes.”

Continuing on with the opposition’s argument, Peka stated that “the police have so far failed to produce any documents proving a legal transfer of such a device. Furthermore, the police’s argument that it was being used only for training purposes is false, because i) police was being trained for a device that it does not possess and use; ii) police is not authorized to conduct interceptions by law; the judicial police officers that are in charge of carrying out interceptions were not actually trained; anything dealing with interceptions has to get approval and be over seen by the prosecutor general (which did not happen).”

In May, at the time of the parliamentary hearings, Minister of Interior Samir Tahiri rejected every accusation. As we have seen, the government claimed that the device’s interception capacities had been disabled, though the opposition has clearly stated otherwise. It remains unknown what actually happened in this curious case, with three exceptions: that it was politicized, damaged Italian interests, and was used as a political catalyst for action.

Reactions to the Scandal- and How It Differs from the Macedonia Case

At first glance, resemblances with the ‘wiretapping scandal’ accusations of Macedonia’s SDSM (which were discussed in Part 3 of this series) seem striking. Yet while it might seem that the latest Balkan ‘wiretap scandal’ was a simple cut-and-paste version of the Macedonian case, this is not exactly true.

One clear indicator of a difference has been media coverage. Whereas the mainstream media jumped immediately on the Macedonia story, and kept it going while the Western powers intervened, the establishment press took only a glancing notice of the Albania scandal. This owes partly to the differences in scale between the two cases, and partly due to political distinctions.

“Rama is pro-Soros, unlike Gruevski in Macedonia,” said one European intelligence official with knowledge of the cases for “In Albania, unlike Macedonia, no one is seeking to overthrow the government- only to use this rumored scandal as a point of pressure, so that they will pass constitutional changes. Albania needs to do this by the end of 2016 to keep the EU momentum. This is the reason for finding advance pressure mechanisms.”

While this claim cannot be proven, it does seem that both the opposition DP and SHISH have been making the same criticisms, that would lend support to the idea that politicization and outside influence is behind the wiretap case’s potential use as a pressure mechanism. Aside from President Nishani’s earlier comments, as Avenir Peka noted, SHISH head Visho Ajazo stated before a parliamentary committee in May that “this device could be a risk for national security if it has the capacity to intercept communications. Then all the heads of the state could be vulnerable to wiretapping.”

“The Constitutional amendments are part of a wider package which aims at a total reform of the judicial system, in efforts to root out corruption in the judiciary and political class,” stated Avenir Peka in further comments for on 19 May 2016. “If and when the reform really materializes, it will constitute the biggest judicial reform in Albania since the fall of communism. International factors in Tirana are strongly behind this reform.”

The judicial reform chapter is key for Albania’s EU membership bid, and it was interesting indeed to hear an opposition politician’s views on the reforms in context of the wiretap device affair. What else emerged is that – unlike in politically divided Macedonia – there was some broad agreement between the Albanian sides, but that the perception that one side would win or lose has slowed passage of a common-interest reform.

“What should have been a consensual reform started off as an initiative of the government, which with very good reason was seen by the opposition as an effort of the government to control the Prosecution and the court system,” stated Peka. “The non-consensual draft was then sent to the Venice Commission for expert opinion twice, and it came back with 100+ amendments and suggestions, which in general satisfied the opposition’s concerns and objections.

Apart from the rhetoric, a few elements are worthy of note: the government having its draft turned down, is not as eager about passing it in the current form; on the other side, having failed to produce better governance, economy, finances, public order, etc, it is likely that the government will use the passing of this reform in next year’s election campaign. On the other side, the opposition in principle supports this reform on the condition that it satisfies judicial and prosecutorial independence and keeps the government from interference.”

From this testimony and other sources, we can thus conclude that the case of the “mysterious device” in Albania will probably remain a mystery- but that its appearance in political discourse has been instrumentalized. However, it still remains unclear (in comparison to the Macedonian case) whether the local parties alone, or some foreign factor, are responsible for stirring up controversy.

For the purposes of the current article, it is more important to assess the extent of potential damage that the affair has caused for Italy, in the larger context of its bilateral interactions with the country.

Rumors, and Results of the Albania Wiretap Scandal for Italian Intelligence

But firstly, it is important to note that this is not the only case in which Italy has subcontracted the selling of wiretapping-capable devices abroad. Since 2013, the Italian Ministry of Interior has issued many public tenders to assign the management and the selling of such items to private companies (as in this case to Italarms srl).

In the background of the Albanian political struggle, the central focus of the investigation is the above-mentioned Interforce Mission between Italian and Albanian police forces. Interforce involves, from the Italian side, the Polizia di Stato, Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza.

The current Chief of Mission is Michele Grillo. On 10 June 2016 Albanian news site wrote about the possible involvement of Grillo’s wife in the selling of the Aircube Vortex device to the Albanian Interior Ministry. This was also reported as a rumor by Il Fatto Quotidiano, in an article by Lorenzo Bagnoli on 26 June. The same sources from Tirana also claimed that Michele Grillo was recalled back to Rome by the Italian government, but this claim was not confirmed by any Italian official or journalistic source.

One interesting historical feature, however, is that before Grillo the role of Head of Mission in Tirana was held by Anna Poggi. An inspector at the Polizia di Stato, Poggi had been amongst those condemned for alleged police violence against demonstrators in Genoa, during the G8 in 2001. Italian media later reported that Poggi was sent to Albania after that, as a promotion to a ‘quieter place.’

Her departure from the office in 2015 (to Slovenia) coincided with another major spy-story between Italy and Albania. Last year, a policeman from Vlore, Dritan Zagani, applied for political asylum in Switzerland, where he arrived clandestinely. In his words, Zagani was fleeing from possible attempts on his life.

However, after spending his career as Chief Officer at Vlore border control, he had been accused by Albanian officials of corruption involving mobster and traffickers, marketing drugs and selling information to Italian Guardia di Finanza.

Zagani’s version of events was completely different. He claimed that he discovered a new drug trafficking route between Albania and Italy by plane, which was managed by an Albanian cartel. The problem was, in his words, that this organization involved also some of the Albanian Interior Minister’s cousins and was allowed to use state vehicles to hide the shipments. In October 2015, Zagani told Italian newspaper il Secolo XIX, that Italian police had also confirmed the allegation against him, through a letter sent to Albanian inquirers that raised doubts on Zagani’s activities.

The story was disclosed by journalist Basir Collaku and had some consequences also in Italy, even though the Italian Interior Ministry quickly underlined that Anna Poggi’s transfer to Slovenia was “routine”, and that her substitution with Michele Grillo had been decided months before.

But whatever the case, both the stories need answers from Italian officials: on the Albanian officials’ side, why should the Italian Guardia di Finanza have bought undercover information from Zagani? Is there mistrust between them and their Albanian counterparts? On the other side, if Zagani is right, why should Anna Poggi have been removed, if he was just lying about Rome’s involvement?

Military and Police Cooperation between Italy and Albania

Despite such occasional affairs, Italy maintains good cooperation with Albania both in the defense and in the police sector. Since 1997 – the year in which Albania fell temporarily into anarchy – Italy has led “Italian Delegations of Experts” (DIE) whose goal has been to assist the Albanian Armed Forces in achieving NATO standards. The Italian delegation, composed of 27 officials and non-commissioned officials, conducts peacekeeping trainings for Albanian Army units deployed a

In the last few years, the improvement of Albanian operative capacities has allowed a steady and progressive decrease of the Italian military presence. For example, in February 2009, the Italian 28th Naval Group, based in Vlora, was recalled and replaced by local forces in fighting smuggling across the Adriatic.

As reported in the 2015 Italian financial law, the total economic involvement of Italy in these mission amounts to almost 25.6mn euros.

Bilateral police cooperation has a long history as well. Most recently, soon after President Nishani’s initial complaints of his office being bugged, Italian police officials paid a visit to Tirana. In December 2015, Minister of Justice Andrea Orlando and National Anti-mafia and Anti-terrorism Prosecutor Franco Roberti visited the Albanian capital to participate in a meeting with Albanian government and security officials.

The purpose of this meeting was to reinforce judicial cooperation between Italy and Albania. The fact that two top representatives of Italian institutions took the trip to Albania shows quite well the strategic importance Italy recognizes in Albania. Italy’s historic role in Albanian affairs would also help explain why their officials are taking the lead on justice reforms- which, as we have discussed above, remain crucial to Albania’s EU hopes and may have some relation with this year’s ‘’mysterious device” scandal.

Albania’s Role in the Future of Balkan Counter-terrorism

Two subjects were on the table in the December visit: counter-terrorism and the fight against illegal trafficking. Here we must remember that a notable number of Albanians have fought in the Syria conflict in recent years while, by December, European leaders were already trying to make plans for possible deterioration along the ‘Balkan Route’ that had begun operating six months earlier.

The two Italian officials met with Prime Minister Edi Rama and some members of his government, such as Minister of Justice Ylli Manjani and Minister of Interior Saimir Tahiri. They noted the central role Albania should play in counter-radicalization in the Balkans: a cooperation that will not only involve the exchange of information and investigative experiences, but also the activities of prevention of the radicalism in prisons, which is frequently the place where jihadists enter into contact with potential recruits.

“The radicalization phenomenon”, said the Italian Minister of Justice in a press conference at the end of the talks, “is more and more connected with jails: that is the reason why we decided to work on the prevention of similar events that could happen in Italian and Albanian institutions. The Web itself, also an important place of radicalization, will be monitored. […]. We need to face this eventuality as if we were a single state,” declared Orlando.

He added that “these are shared enemies and our ability to react must also be shared. In order to make our connections faster and more effective, we decided to nominate a liaison magistrate with experience in similar inquiries, to support the cooperation on the ground. […] Moreover, we offered to Albanian authorities our willingness to help the formation of magistrates and detectives on the matter, and to provide technologies for the databases.”

Specific attention was also given to the theme of human trafficking and to the prevention of the phenomenon from reaching the Albanian coast. As has frequently reported in the past, Italian national security depends on the ability to divert the migrant flow from Greece, Albania and other Adriatic ports, seeing that it already has more than enough to deal with in terms of the North Africa migration patterns.

From all of this, we can conclude that Italy is proving ‘useful’ again to its trans-Atlantic partners in its own Adriatic near-abroad. As has reported, Albania was chosen by the Obama Administration for hosting a regional center against countering extremism. Part of this is due to the fact that, numerically speaking, most of the ISIS and Al Nusra fighters from the Balkans are ethnically Albanian. But there is also a political element.

Essentially, for ideological and other interests, Edi Rama was selected as ‘the chosen one’ among Balkan leaders, even getting to meet Obama and Biden together in the White House, in April 2016. Two months earlier, John Kerry had visited Tirana to press for – you guessed it – judicial reforms. Few other Balkan leaders could get such a lavish reception as Rama did.

However, the latter’s claim from Washington that the counter-radicalization center plan was only a few months old is untrue. has known since 2014 that Albania would be given this honor over other interested regional countries, as part of the general US strategy of using Albania as its bulwark and base of power projection in the Balkans. This attention naturally benefits Italy and will enhance the Italian role in all security matters in Albania in coming years.

Still, while Washington favors and uses the Rama government, the “mystery device” scandal erupted into a full parliamentary and media issue barely a month after he returned from Washington. We would bet on the possibility that the US and EU have seen in the affair a way of keeping the Albanian leader on a short leash, and push through the reforms before the end of 2016 and subsequent elections.

Kosovo: a New Diplomatic and Intelligence Area of Interest for Italy

In comparison to Italy’s centuries-old relationship with Albania, its more recent one with Albanian-dominated Kosovo has quite different characteristics. The legal status of the province-turned-country and the multi-national institutional aspect of governance there since 1999 have influenced the operations of Italy in Kosovo.

For example, whereas Italy has a massive diplomatic presence in Tirana, diplomatic sources note that the Italians had “to build the embassy from the ground up” in Pristina. The relative lack of personnel and the uncertainty of overlapping competencies with UN, EU and NATO missions there has meant the Italian state has had to rely, more so than in other regional countries, on members in these bodies as well as NGOs and international cooperation bodies.

Further, as in Albania, the Catholic Church is playing a major role, though there are relatively fewer Catholics. But the Church is presently gearing up for major celebrations in barely over a month’s time, with the canonization of Mother Theresa to occur on 4 September at the Vatican. Catholic leaders have announced that this will be followed by weeks of events in Kosovo and, while it is likely that they will pass peacefully, certainly Vatican and Italian security officials are keeping watch for any Islamic terrorists or others who might try and damage the national events. There is already a religiously-inspired debate going on over Mother Theresa’s rightful place in history and national consciousness among Albanians, as we will discuss at a future time.

Italy’s Diplomatic Role in EULEX and Other Multinational Institutions

In Kosovo, Italian efforts are also relevant in the EU mission. With almost 36 units, Italy participates to the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which began on 16 February 2008 and was confirmed until the end of 2016.

Following the long-running UNMIK, EULEX is the most important civilian mission between those inserted in the European Security Policy and Common Defense agenda; it underwent a strategic revision in Spring 2014, and is now divided in three different sectors: Police, Justice and Customs.

Since 15 October 2014 and until the end of June 2016, the Commander of the mission was Italian Diplomat Gabriele Meucci. He has since been replaced as acting Head of Mission by German Police Brigadier General Bernd Thran. Meucci is an expert in the area: he was Italian Consul to Croatia from 1995-1999, legation counselor in Albania from 2001-2003 and later, the first Italian Ambassador to Montenegro in the period 2006-2009.

When Meucci was appointed, many commentators saw in him an expert diplomat chosen to “liquidate” the mission. The perception was confirmed a few days later, when EULEX was involved in a corruption scandal. Even if it resulted in nothing, the scandal undermined the credibility of the entire mission for a while. For the details, one can read this brilliant article from the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso. The case involved another Italian official of the Mission, Francesco Florit, who has been the President of EULEX Judges Assembly.

Meucci steered the mission out of troubled waters, and managed, just a few days before leaving, to convince the EU Commission that it should be extended for the period June 2016-June 2018. As he told Prishtina Insight, “until last summer, in 2015, we were all working for a definitive handover, final conclusion of the mission and a handover of all cases to Kosovo’s judicial system, […] Then, in the summer and autumn of 2015, there were many incidents. All these came alight and the member states started to rethink if it’s premature [to leave].”

Meucci referred to five incidents. One involved three people in prison serving a definitive sentence for many years for war crimes, who were set free for humanitarian reasons by the Ministry of Justice. Amongst them was Sabit Geci, put on home arrests by EULEX and then granted a three-month release for medical treatment abroad.

The second incident regarded the mayor of Skenderaj, Sami Lushtaku, who had been jailed for war crimes and was temporarily released for health reasons also, before being arrested by EULEX in an alleged attempt to flee. The third involved two former KLA fighters, Rrustem Mustafa and Latif Gashi, who were serving in parliament, despite their jail sentences for war crimes.

Interestingly enough, KLA-related power players like Geci and Lushtaku had long been on the international authorities’ radar, though in the early days of UN administration, there was considerable disagreement over whether to arrest them or not (see’s January 2006 interview with the first UNMIK Serious Crimes Unit chief, Canadian detective Stu Kellock for much enlightening details on these cases).

Then there were Lutfi and Arban Dervishi, who had been sentenced to eight years each for organized crime and people trafficking. Yet they fled Kosovo by passing the border with their passports the day after the sentencing, and remain at large.

These cases were highlighted to emphasize that rule of law in Kosovo is far from matching the EULEX goals. Thus was its mandate renewed.

Aside from Meucci and Florit, another Italian Judge, Silvio Bonfigli, has served as head of the Justice sector of EULEX. Italy had since the beginning been very active in UNMIK, which was led between 2008-2011 by a career Italian diplomat, Lamberto Zannier. The latter’s unanimous election in 2011 to his present post – OSCE Secretary General – can also be considered a victory for Italian diplomacy, with a Balkan connection.

Military and Police Aspects of the Italian Role in Kosovo

The strong military presence of Italy in the region includes being a major contributor to the EULEX and EUFOR missions in Kosovo and Bosnia. That participation began during the NATO 1999 intervention, when Aviano Air Force Base was the crucial base used for bombing runs, and continued in the immediate aftermath of the war, when Italy was given its own chunk of Western Kosovo to overlook as part of the general KFOR division of powers.

Although the international missions have dramatically scaled down since then, Italy retains a position. As reported on the Italian Defense Ministry website, Italy has a forward military role in Kosovo. In 2014 (the last year with official data), Italy was the third-largest contributor country to KFOR, with almost 600 operative units. Since September 2013, Italy has also held the position of Mission Commander (COMKFOR). The current commander, appointed in September 2014, is Lieutenant General Francesco Paolo Figliulo.

The presence of KFOR entailed a progressive diminution of violent episodes and its work is officially recognized by both Pristina and Belgrade. The Brussels Agreement, signed after trilateral talks between the EU, Serbia and Kosovo in Spring 2013, identifies KFOR as a crucial guarantor of security in the country and a deterrent against possible violence.

According to Italian security expert and Il Caffè Geopolitico columnist Marco Gulio Barone, Italian military intelligence has been tasked in 2016 with new duties by the government. “A few months ago, the Italian parliament issued a request for a SITREP from the military in the Balkans,” Barone stated for “Our units went and provided the reports. KFOR and EUFOR are reshaping, and some of our mission capability is going to be more about supporting local governments in countering radicalism.”

This reconfiguration is occurring as the threat matrix changes and Kosovo is less at risk of inter-ethnic conflict, and more at risk of religious violence. With their dedicated presence, the Italians have a better view than most countries of the situation on the ground, from the military intelligence perspective. As we have reported in past, the US has long since outsourced some of its capacities to allies like Romania, and only 600-800 soldiers are believed to remain at Camp Bondsteel.

It is thus likely that Italy – with its strong foothold on the Eastern Adriatic shores – will play a larger role in assessing security risks in future. But, we must always remember that Kosovo is a place where German interests remain strong. Indeed, it is not surprising that despite the plethora of Italian Catholic charities in Kosovo, the German Jesuits have made a strong competition with schools and NGOs here.

This is resulting in a complex division-of-labor between the Quint countries, based in Kosovo, by which the Germans believe they are trading up at the expense of the British, who intelligence sources confirm are moving their focus towards Sofia and the key Istanbul station. The German perception is likely to heighten the opportunities for Italy’s AISE to compete in Kosovo.

As with the changing tenor of bilateral military relations that experts like Barone point out in Kosovo, law enforcement too is moving away from traditional threats and towards unconventional ones, like identifying terrorist networks. The existing police cooperation between Kosovo, Albania and Italy is also attested by the results of Italian investigations of jihadist networks in the country. has covered such operations in November 2015 and again in December 2015.


Italy’s diplomatic, security and intelligence relations with Albania and Kosovo are crucial for the country’s perspective on all Balkan affairs. Rome and Tirana share many commercial and security concerns, and we are at a fortuitous time in which the stars seem to have aligned for a stronger Italian role in Albania.

At the same time, the perceived failings in the judiciaries of both Albania and Kosovo seem to be key issues for EU membership. So, we can expect Italy to share its experience, sending many more experts over the next few years to bring these countries closer to the EU orbit.

Finally, the risk of violence from Kosovo (and to a lesser extent, Albania) has been attested in the recent past and will remain a concern for Italian intelligence, as some of the threats (such as jihadist ones) are proved to have roots among the Albanian diaspora in Italy. Since much of the underlying reasons for radicalism seem to involve poor economies and low educational standards, Italy will also likely complement its ‘soft power’ role through bringing investment, training and cooperation assistance to these countries. This will involve international cooperation with the existing frameworks, as well as synergies with the Catholic Church.

With the Paris Summit, the EU’s Balkan Connectivity Agenda Takes Shape

By Blerina Mecule

The Western Balkans Summit 2016, which occurred on 4 July in Paris, saw several historic decisions. Given that in 2014 then-incoming EU Commissioner Juncker stated that there would be no EU enlargement until at least 2020, the Paris event was the latest in a series (following the Berlin and Vienna summits) meant to keep up regional EU momentum, in the absence of actual enlargement. The next such event will occur in Rome in 2017.

In Paris, the leaders of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia all met and agreed several initiatives that will lead towards greater regional integration. These included the creation of a Western Balkans Union, and a single market within the framework of future Euro-Atlantic integration.

The Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO)- a New EU-Backed Initiative Based in Albania

At the Paris event, regional leaders agreed to establish a new Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). Leaders consider this an important step to healing past wounds, and hope it will match the success of the Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO), which brought French and German youth together after WWII. The framework for the new Balkan version of this initiative had already been created during the summit in Vienna, as part of the Berlin Process.

According to Balkan Insight, the new Regional Youth Cooperation Office is the first case in which all regional governments have jointly cooperated in one institution that they also jointly fund. In fact, the Western Balkan countries will contribute 58% of the budget.

The office’s annual budget will be 2 million euros (from the five countries, as well as from external donors). RYCO will be based in Tirana, as leaders and the EU consider Albania a country which has played a moderate and constructive role in regional cooperation initiatives.

After the Paris signing ceremony, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić told media that “we agreed that the office will be located in Tirana.” Meanwhile, Serbian youth minister Vanja Udovičić told Tanjug that “this office will be one of the key pillars of the stability in the region and this is just the start. Through dialogue, youth will overcome the problems we are now facing.”

Also, a few days before the recent Paris Summit, Albanian Minister of Youth and Social Welfare Blendi Klosi declared from Brussels that along with the bilateral energy and economy cooperation, youth connectivity and regional cooperation is a key process for mutual reconciliation.

The memorandum of cooperation between Albania and Serbia was thus converted into a common agenda of different activities for Albanian and Serbian youth, to be extended to all Western Balkan youth as well.

Hence the establishment of the RYCO in Tirana is of regional strategic importance, as it will focus on projects that foster cooperation, enhance mobility, support reconciliation, building peace and stability, and ensuring prosperity for young people from across the Balkans.

How It Started: the Berlin Process

The road to Paris 2016 started in Berlin, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel. She has strongly promoted and continually supported the EU prospect of all Western Balkan states, and searched for ways to bring a new dynamism to regional cooperation, by promoting the spirit of collaboration and reconciliation among regional countries.

More tangibly, Merkel and EU leaders see improving, building and connecting transport and energy infrastructure within the Western Balkans and with the European Union as drivers for growth and jobs. They envision that such developments will bring clear benefits for the region’s economies and citizens.

The Berlin Process owes its name to the place where it began: the German Federal Foreign Office Guest House, Villa Borsig in Berlin. Situated on the banks of Lake Tegel, the Villa was host to meetings where the process began on 28 August 2014.  This was symbolic timing, as it was the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of WWI.

On that day, the heads of government, foreign ministers and economics ministers of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, as well as European Commission representatives, met for the first time. It was officially known as the Western Balkans Conference in Berlin: Commitment to the European perspective.

United in the aim of enhancing regional economic cooperation and laying the foundations for sustainable growth, they agreed to provide a framework for 2014-2018: it was meant to include real progress in reforms, in resolving outstanding bilateral and internal issues, and in achieving reconciliation within and between the societies in the region.

The prevailing ideology of the EU’s approach to common initiatives in the Balkan reflects previous statements, like that of ex-Commissioner José Manuel Barroso. When accepting the EU’s collective Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, he stated that “the genius of the founding fathers was precisely in understanding that to guarantee peace in the 20th century, nations needed to think beyond the nation-state.” The recent initiatives in the Balkans (not to mention some approaches to the migration crisis) reflect this view.

Energy, Infrastructure and Serbia-Albania Relations

Indeed, projects that tend towards fostering common regional economic initiatives, regional business development and energy routes, connecting transport and energy infrastructures have proven fundamental for the Western Balkans Euro-Atlantic path- and their attractiveness to foreign investments, by functioning as a unified market.

For example, strategic infrastructure projects connecting Southeastern Europe with the European Union (within The European Energy Security Strategy) created opportunities for developing Serbian-Albanian bilateral relations development and dialogue. Together, both countries constitute a strategic corridor in transport and energy infrastructure, connecting a part of the Western Balkans to the European Union.

Security: NATO, The Paris Summit, Albania and the New Centre on Foreign Fighters

Regarding security challenges, Paris participants expressed their concern regarding terrorism and radicalization, especially among young people, recalling the importance of closer cooperation between EU member states and the Western Balkans. In order to better address the threat of terrorism and radicalization, they also agreed to reinforce the role of the Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre in the fight against these phenomena, including through strengthening the cooperation with Europol.

The Final Declaration of the Paris Summit underlines that the European continent is exposed to unprecedented security challenges, such as large-scale terrorist attacks. The Western Balkans is encouraged to strengthen regional cooperation, which remains a key element for the stability of the region and Europe.

Albania is also a member of NATO and together with Croatia has long backed NATO expansion in the Balkans, to secure a sustainable peace in the region. Albania will also host the NATO Centre on Foreign Fighters, which is the first NATO center of its kind, and will study the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters. It is expected be activated this year. had predicted this outcome since last year, as a recommendation of the Obama Administration in the US. Albania was chosen to host the center due to its geostrategic importance to the US and NATO.

According to the President of the NATO Assembly, Michael Turner, the Alliance and the EU have brought security and stability to the Balkans, and have helped it to overcome the conflicts brought about by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. According to him, further improving regional security depends on continued Euro-Atlantic integration.

Therefore, NATO supporters believe it is possible to harmonize the unique nation-state identities of different Balkan countries within a neighborhood umbrella of a common Balkan identity. This in turn is considered part of a European identity, within Euro-Atlantic structures (the European Union and NATO).

The Paris Summit and Future EU Membership for Serbia and Albania

During the Berlin Process meeting in 2014, Barroso also highlighted the importance of a clear EU perspective for Western Balkan countries: “our common goal is clear,” said the former commissioner.We want to see the Western Balkan countries ultimately join the European Union. This is in our joint political, economic and geo-strategic interest. This is the right way to defend the long-term prosperity of all the citizens in our European family and also to defend the European stability.”

That was the spirit of Berlin, but Paris 2016 was quite different, happening as it did in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. There was great concern that the historic Brexit event, combined with the internal problems and enlargement fatigue gripping Europe, would dominate the Paris Summit.

However, the event turned out to be a platform for relaunching the EU initiative. In fact, Federica Mogherini, while underlining the importance of the Paris Summit, stated that the EU clearly reiterated its enlargement policy for the Balkan countries: “the message is loud and clear: we are going to continue.”

On the other hand, according to europeanwesternbalkans, Chancellor Merkel – the initiator of the Berlin Process – stated that she perceives Balkan states’ accession as happening at “different speeds.”

During the Paris summit, The European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, announced that Serbia had been given the green light to start accession talks, and that Croatia would no longer block the opening of Serbia’s chapters 23 and 24, which deal with the rule of law, the judiciary and human rights.

Serbia and Albania are expected to join the EU in 2020, depending on their reform pace. Albania was expected to open accession talks late this year, but it looks like the perceived lack of internal political dialogue on judiciary reforms will delay this.

Focus on Regional Interconnectivity: Energy Goals and EU Funding

The process of globalization has shifted national priorities towards internationally interconnected economic and trade interests, which in the case of the Western Balkans provides a valid alternative to ethnic and national divisions, which have historically had both positive and negative consequences, even leading to wars at various times. One example recently examined by was Chinese investment potential.

Sustainable economic growth constitutes the basis of a prosperous future for the region. In order to achieve this goal, the Paris summit focused its efforts on increasing connectivity and opportunities for mutually beneficial trade in the region.

The Paris Package’s Connectivity Agenda, the co-financing of Investment Projects in the Western Balkans 2016, constitutes a wide-ranging effort to modernize and integrate the region’s economic and transportation infrastructure.

According to statements made by Commission Hahn, connectivity is not merely about expensive infrastructure projects. New highways only make sense if existing networks are properly maintained, and there is little point in investing in expensive energy inter-connectors without a willingness to pursue energy trade within the region.

The EU has set aside up to €1bn for connectivity investment projects and technical assistance for 2014-2020. The EU provided the first €200mn at the Western Balkans Summit in Vienna in August 2015, for 10 priority projects.

As regards connectivity, the Paris summit was an opportunity for the participants to agree upon a list of three new railway projects, which will receive EU co-financing of almost €100mn in addition to financing, from international financial institutions and the national budgets of the Western Balkan participants.

The parties welcomed the launch of an initiative to ramp up investment in energy efficiency in residential buildings and sustainable development through additional EU funding of €50mn. The latter includes a program to examine the best ways to develop the region’s hydropower potential.

In addition, the EU has commissioned a regional hydropower master plan for the Western Balkans, which will help define how to develop the region’s hydropower potential in a way that balances energy generation with environmental concerns.

On energy, participants agreed on a road map for a regional market for electricity in the Western Balkans in order to facilitate the exchange of resources, to ensure better use of existing power systems, integrating renewable energy production and, eventually, connecting the regional market to that of the EU.

The European Commission will also follow up on this initiative, with support from the Energy Community secretariat. Progress on the implementation of the road-map will be reflected in future EU funding decisions.

Connectivity: Specific Infrastructure by Country and EU Participation

This “connectivity agenda” includes an investment and co-financing package to improve the links within the Western Balkans and with the EU in the strategic infrastructure areas such as the Trans-European Transport network (TEN-T).

This includes core network, core network corridors and pre-identified priority projects for infrastructure investment and has been defined. Extending the TEN-T core network corridors to the Western Balkans ensures closer integration with the EU as well as the basis for leveraging investment in infrastructure.

The Regional Core Transport Network – 2016 Investment Projects co-financed through Instrument for Pre-accession (IPA) funds assistance is outlined below.

These projects are being planned through the Western Balkans Investment Framework. The following statistical data and descriptions are based on official information.


Orient/East-Med Corridor: Serbia-Bulgaria CXc Rail Interconnection (official EU page)

Partners: Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, Serbia/JSC Serbian Railways Infrastructure (Železnice Srbije Akcionarsko Društvo)

Estimated cost: €84.4 million

EU contribution: €40.7 million (works and supplies) €2.9 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EIB loan: €36.7 million

Expected Results: 80km of CXc railway track will be upgraded to TEN-T standards, including preparatory works for electrification and signaling and telecommunication systems.

Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 30 km/h to 120 km/h, as well as in freight capacity to 22.9 tonnes axle load, throughout the CXc Sicevo to Dimitrovgrad section.

Benefits: Approximately 550 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Direct access to modern means of transport for more than 340,000 people living along the rail route proposed for rehabilitation. Decrease in current pollution levels caused by diesel operations. Reduced operational and maintenance costs for railway operators. Better opportunities for socio- economic growth for one of the poorest regions in Serbia. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Serbia.

Estimated start date: Mid-2017

Estimated end date: End of 2019

Estimated loan repayment period: 15 years



Orient/East-Med Corridor: The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia-Kosovo-Serbia R10 Rail Interconnection (official EU page)

Partners: Kosovo Railways JSC (InfraKos Sh. A.) / Ministry of Finance, Kosovo

Estimated cost: €42.3 million

EU contribution: €17.2 million (works and supplies)

  • €1.0 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EBRD contribution: €8.6 million loan/ €0.5 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EIB loan: €9.2 million

Beneficiary contribution: €5.8 million

Expected Results: 35 km of railway tracks and 5 railway stations upgraded to modern, TEN-T standards, on the Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje to Mitrovicë/Mitrovica R10 route. Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 20 km/h to 100 km/h as well as freight axle load to 22.5 tonnes

Benefits: Secure and efficient rail transport for approximately 50% of the population of Kosovo. More than 160 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Passenger and cargo rail capacity improved by more than 1.2 million people and 1.2 million tones, respectively. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Kosovo.

Estimated Start Date: Mid-2017

Estimated End Date: End of 2019

Estimated Loan Repayment Period: 20 years



Mediterranean Corridor: Montenegro-Albania-Greece Rail Interconnection

Partners: Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, Albania/Albanian Railways S.A. (Hekurudha Shqiptare/HSH)

Estimated cost: €81.5 million

EU contribution: €32.9 million (works and supplies) / €2.5 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EBRD loan: €32.9 million

Beneficiary contribution: €13.2 million

Expected Results: 34.5 km of railway track, from Tirana to Durrës, partly rehabilitated to modern, TEN-T standards, including signaling and telecommunication (but excluding electrification). Involves 7.4 km of new railway track built between Tirana and Rinas international airport. Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 60 km/h to 120 km/h, as well as in freight axle load to 22.9 tonnes, throughout the Tirana-Durrës section.

Benefits: More than 1,375 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Direct access to modern means of transport for more than 1 million people living along the Tirana-Durrës rail route. Reduced operational and maintenance costs for railway operators active in Albania, estimated at more than €60 million. Savings in cost of travel time, estimated at more than €55 million. Improved environmental conditions by reducing freight and passenger transport by road. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Albania.

Estimated Start Date: Mid-2017

Estimated End Date: End of 2019

Estimated Loan Repayment Period: 15 years

Additional Chinese Investment- Albania and the New Silk Road

On April 26, 2016, China Everbright and Friedmann Pacific Asset Management announced the acquisition of Tirana International Airport SHPK, which operates the Albanian capital’s major airport. The group will take over the airport until 2025, with a two-year extension to 2027 after approval from the Albanian government.

More recently, on June 6, the government announced that it was ready to work with China State Construction (CSC) on the 16-mile Arber Road project leading east to Macedonia. The project value is 200 million euros).

Further, as we have already reported on, China has a growing interest in investing in energy projects and infrastructure in the Balkans, as it is working to connect Europe and Asia through the New Silk Road project. This has significant ramifications, economic and political, for the whole Balkan region.

China and Greece

While the Paris summit gathered heads of states and ministers from the Western Balkan countries and from the EU, Beijing reserved an impressive reception for Alexis Tsipras. A few hours before the Greek prime minister started his first official visit to China, with a large delegation made up of officials and businessmen, Greek lawmakers ratified with an overwhelming majority the landmark concession agreement with China’s COSCO Shipping for the acquisition of a majority stake in Piraeus Port Authority (PPA or OLP in Greek).

During his visit, Tsipras met with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. According to, the issues they talked and agreed about were the six Greek investment proposals relating to China’s participation in the competitions for Thriassio Field and Kastelli airport, Chinese shipbuilding activity in Greece, Chinese investments in the Greek banking sector, expansion of agricultural exports and food from Greece to China, the creation of a Research and Development center in Greece, investments in tourist properties, and the increase of Chinese tourism with direct flights from Beijing to Athens, as well as cooperation in the cultural and education sectors. The two delegations signed nine agreements in the respective sectors.

“Our relationship with China is like a bicycle. One wheel is economic cooperation and the other cooperation in culture and education…we are the cyclists who will develop our two countries,” stated Tsipras.

Balkan Connectivity- Ancient and Modern

From the Paris summit to the recent Greek-Chinese discussions, it is clear that the investment package of trans-European strategic corridors, which include rail, road, air and sea transport networks and energy infrastructures is a key driver, not just for further integration between EU member states and their peoples, and also for increasing economic competitiveness.

One might note too that the connectivity agenda of trans-national transport and energy corridors is based on the ancient achievements in this part of Europe. In the 2nd century BC, the Balkans was an intersection of the commercial routes and exchanges between West and East; the Roman Empire decided to invest money in building the Via Egnatia. It was designed and built by Roman engineers.

This strategic road (a follow-up of the Via Apia) connected parts of today’s Italy, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, right up to the Bosporus. Thus, the Appia-Egnatia corridor also represented a kind of European ‘soft diplomacy.’ The ancient Connectivity Agenda created communication and dialogue between the main empires of the day. Hence, similar connectivity in the 21st century can generate and further strengthen dialogue and communication between Europe and Asia.

Based on further extension and development of the integrated energy and transport infrastructures at a European level, the EU Connectivity Agenda can further strengthen neighborhood relations and further develop the cohesion between different European macro-regions, within the EU and between the EU and its neighboring countries.

Therefore, if it turns out to match its backers’ expectations, the 21st century connectivity project will be a smart, sustainable and inclusive bridge connecting East and West. After the Paris summit, the next similar event will be held in Rome in 2017. Until then, it is expected that substantial progress will be made by regional countries regarding the agreed investments packages of connectivity.








Chinese Investment Developments in the Balkans 2016: Focus on Albania editor’s note: this analysis, by Albanian expert Blerina Mecule, constitutes the first part of our occasional series on Chinese investment in the Balkans in 2016.

By Blerina Mecule

Huntington was right when he predicted that economic regionalism was going to increase in the 21st century. Culture and religion also form the basis of economic cooperation. The most significant dividing line goes through the Balkans, and coincides with the historic boundary between the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires.

Therefore, the process of international business development and expansion has to be considered also in this framework.

The Balkans: New Signs of Chinese Engagement

In May 2016, Sarajevo hosted the Regional Business Forum, during which the Balkan governments urged to boost business cooperation in order to increase foreign investments. Promoting the benefits of a united regional economy was one of the main goals of the forum, which involved participants from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. The forum attracted more than 1,500 international delegates including Qatar, Kuwait and China.

In recent years, China has showed a growing interest in investing in energy projects and infrastructure in the Balkans. China is working to connect Europe and Asia through the New Silk Road project- which has significant ramifications, economic and political, for the whole Balkan region.

In the first day of the forum, representatives of Elektroprivreda Bosnia and Herzegovina and China’s Gezhouba Group signed an agreement for the construction of part of a lignite power plant in the Bosnian town of Tuzla, a deal which has a total value of over 700 million euros.

“This agreement represents one of the biggest post-war energy investments in Bosnia after the war,” said Saimi Zeidan, a journalist from Al Jazeera and conference moderator, reported Balkan Insight. It added that China “created the 16+1 group in 2012, an initiative aiming to improve trading and economic ties between Beijing and countries from Central and Eastern Europe.”

The mutually-perceived importance of Chinese investment in the Balkans was also highlighted by Chinese leader Li Xinping’s state visit to Serbia. According to XinhuaNet, the lavish visit – accompanied by Serbian fighter jets – was the first such visit in 32 years and came seven years after Serbia became the first regional country to sign a strategic partnership deal with Beijing. In April, Serbia’s sole steel mill (in Smederevo) was bought by China’s HeSteel Group (HBIS) for 46 million euros.

The Chinese master plan in which the Balkan and Central European countries play a role is officially called the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. According to XinhuaNet, it “is aimed at building a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient trade routes.”

Focus on Albania: Chinese Investment in 2016

While Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary are directly on the line of this proposed path, other Balkan countries are trying to reap the benefits of Chinese investment.

Regarding Albania, it is well-know that the country’s political orientation makes it one of the most pro-Euro-Atlantic countries in the Western Balkans. In the author’s September 2015 interview with Arian Spasse, director of the Albanian ministry of foreign affair’s special department for relations with the European Union, it was noted that even though nearby countries like Italy and Greece are natural partners, the recent economic crisis in both countries have forced Albanian companies to adapt and look for new markets.

Indeed, during the first four months of 2016, business ties between Albania and China rose notably as Chinese companies acquired players in strategic sectors of the Albanian economy. In addition, China emerged as the second-largest trading partner for Albania during March 2016, accounting for 7.7 per cent of the country’s total international trade.

Energy Sector Developments

The latest moves seem to show a growing Chinese ambition to control strategic sectors of Southeast Europe’s economy. In March 2016, Canada’s Banker’s Petroleum announced the sale of oil exploration and production rights to affiliates of China’s Geo-Jade Petroleum for a price of 384.6 million euros. It is an interesting development, as in 2012 had discussed Banker’s Petroleum activities at the time, in the context of a detailed study of the Albanian energy sector. Now the Chinese will hold those drilling rights.

Infrastructure News: an Airport Acquisition and Road and Port Development

On April 26, 2016, China Everbright and Friedmann Pacific Asset Management announced the acquisition of Tirana International Airport SHPK, which operates the Albanian capital’s major airport. The group will take over the airport until 2025, with a two-year extension to 2027 after approval from the Albanian government.

More recently on June 6, the government said announced it was ready to work with China State Construction (CSC) on the 16-mile Arber Road project leading east to Macedonia. The project value is 200 million euros.

Most recently, on June 11, Albania’s Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure signed an agreement for a yacht section of the port in Shengjin. This $7 million investment will come after an agreement was signed between the Transport Ministry and the “Adriatic” company, which won the tender. This northern Albanian port has been developed by the Chinese for several years.

Albanian Transport and Infrastructure Minister Edmond Haxhinasto said that this port will have a capacity of 200 yachts, brining tourism and employment. “The minister said that the port is designed with the most modern technology of cruise ships anchoring and it should be operational within one year,” reported

The Eastern Adriatic has seen renewed interest in ports for yachts and super-yachts, the most famous case being Porto Montenegro, developed by international investors and recently purchased by a UAE interest, Investment Corporation of Dubai.

Some Concerns

However, according to Zef Preci, director of the Albanian Center for Economic Research, Chinese investment will not lead to more prosperity for the Albanian economy. “The possible geostrategic implications are not taken into consideration by the Albanian government at all,” reported Balkan Insight in early May.

Preci believes the Albanian government is simply enjoying the fact that investments are coming, regardless of the source. “I don’t think that the Euro-Atlantic spirit proclaimed in the country in the last 25 years is going to be saved with a continuous growth of Chinese companies’ presence,” he says.

A recent article in Forbes also expressed some reservations. “There is concern among some leading Albanian politicians that when China invests, it does so to export its own labor into the foreign market. This is particularly worrisome in the case of Albania that has a 17.1% unemployment rate, and where jobs are badly needed.” But at the same time, the article concedes, this month “China’s government cranked up the volume on its soft power by giving Albanian farmers a 1.3 million euro grant to buy new equipment.”


As is becoming increasingly clear, the Balkans is at the crossroad between East and West. The process of globalization has shifted national priorities into the internationally interconnected economic and trade interests, which in the case of the Western Balkans provides a valid counter-alternative on issues related to ethnicity and national identity, which have historically had both positive and negative consequences, even leading to wars at various times.

Hence, common regional economic initiatives, within the common path towards Euro-Atlantic structures, have proven fundamental for the Western Balkans to obtain the Western (Euro-Atlantic) “identity card” they have sought for over two decades. Their inability to do so has often been caused by factors outside of their control; now, the historic Brexit vote will have yet-to-seen implications for Balkan countries, and the EU itself.

Thus, with internal problems and enlargement fatigue gripping Europe, and the steady rise of China, the big question for the future will be if the Western Balkans in future develops on its proclaimed Euro-Atlantic path, or takes a more Euro-Asiatic one. Because of its historic relationships and positive views of the West, however, Albania is not likely to change its political orientation- even if it seeks to develop its economy with assistance from the East.

Challenges and Opportunities for Albania and the Balkans: Interview with Edith Harxhi

In this exclusive interview, Research Coordinator in Greece Ioannis Michaletos gets the insights of Edith Harxhi on the challenges and opportunities facing Albania and its role in the region, as well as her broader views on current issues like the migrant crisis, terrorism and the pace of EU reforms.

Ms Harxhi is the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Albania, and currently is the Executive Director of Albanian Policy Center (APC) in Tirana. Founded in December 2013 in Tirana, the APC is a think-tank whose focus and mission is to formulate and promote right-wing policies that are based on individual freedom, rule of law, free entrepreneurship, a “laissez fair” free market economy, low taxes, reforms and transparency, small government, national security and securing the Albanian national interest.

Edith Harxhi- Interview with Balkanalysis

According to Edith Harxhi, the refugee crisis “has shown the fragility of the European Union’s crisis response” capacities.

Ms. Harxhi also previously worked as a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Albania before assisting the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (Civil Administration) in UNMIK in several positions. In this capacity, she covered topics like police, justice, minorities and social welfare. In additions, she established the Office for Public Safety and prepared the strategy for the transfer of competencies in the security sector on behalf of the Kosovo Government. On behalf of the Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, she also supervised the Office of Gender Affairs at the DSRSG’s Office and drafted the Gender Equality Law.

Geopolitical and Security Challenges for the Region

Ioannis Michaletos: The Southeast Europe region and in particular its Western part face a set of challenges, some perennial ones and others of a more recent nature. What do you think constitute the main threats and challenges that local governments should be aware of, and what are the most urgent priorities they have to set their eyes on?

Edith Harxhi: The Western Balkans since the end of the last conflict in the region in 1999 still faces quite a lot of challenges. These challenges have a geopolitical nature, security nature, economic and social which are local as well as external diffused challenges and local political challenges due to hybrid democracies, malfunctioning of democratic systems, autocracies, and political oligarchies.

First, the geopolitical challenges relate mostly to the interests and influences of big powers in the region, the convergence of the political axes and the re-emergence of old history and old alliances which date back historically. The Russian influence in the region has increased dramatically since the Kosovo War, and the aftermath of the accession of Albania and Croatia to NATO as well as now during the Ukrainian crisis and the possible NATO accession of Montenegro to NATO. Russia’s old alliances with certain countries in the region, economic and trade influence in Montenegro and Serbia, military influence in Serbia and its political tendency to increase its influence in other countries of the region through political or economic or energy routes and agreements demonstrates once again the geopolitical situation in the region.

Secondly, security challenges are mostly related to the accession of Albania and Croatia to NATO but also nowadays the invitation of Montenegro to NATO and the aspiration for NATO and EU accession of other countries in the region. There is no doubt that Russia has not seen these developments in a positive angle and has geared up to increase its role in the region either through strengthening the military cooperation with Serbia but also through investing in different sectors such as arms production, energy routes etc… Another security challenge is also the asymmetrical threats, or threats that all Europe is faced with, such as terrorism and violent extremism.

Thirdly, economic and social challenges have to do mostly with the current economic situation that the region is facing after the European and Greek economic and financial crisis, which has badly hit the entire region. The six western Balkans countries have inherited poor economies and are currently lacking reforms and brave privatisation processes, lack incentives for [attracting] foreign direct investments, and there is lack of trust in the judiciary.

Fourth, local political challenges are more related to the political systems in the countries per se, as well as deficient democracies and ruling political oligarchies in almost all the countries in the Western Balkans region. Widespread corruption, politically and financially captured judiciaries, captured and politically dependent media, and eccentric and autocratic political classes, as well as leaders who use any means to stay in power “by hook or by crook” and accept reform as yet another word in the political vocabulary without delivering anything- leaders who are not from the people and belonging to the people!

These are all priorities where governments and societies in the region should urgently turn their eyes toward and act, since malfunctioning democracies could also easily endanger now the stability of the region and can infuse further tension within countries as well.

The Migrant Crisis and EU Policy Failures

IM: Concerning the migration/refugee crisis, how do you view the situation unfolding both in terms of the likely opening up of by-routes from Greece to Albania for example, and in terms of the wider policy of the EU regarding this topic? Is the situation critical and out of control?

EH: It is a common understanding by now that unfortunately the EU has failed in dealing with the current refugee crisis.

We should first inquire as to the reason for the refugee crisis and the explosion of the refugee waves, which has turned into the most difficult problem for Europe since the end of WWII. I believe the EU could not produce a proper foreign policy and strategic plan in dealing with neither the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor with the Arab Spring, nor with the Syrian crisis. The situation in Syria needed real strategic planning by the EU and United States on how to deal with Assad and the many groups in action on the ground.

The EU does not seem to also have a coherent strategy regarding ISIS which now unfortunately rules over half of the territory of Syria and a good part of northern Iraq, and also controls big and important parts of oil and gas production in that region.

Thus one can easily believe that the refugee crisis was not [caused by] only neglect at the beginning, but also took Europe by surprise. In such a situation we have countries such as Greece, which is lingering with its financial crisis and Macedonia, which already has a political stalemate and very little financial and political support to deal with the big amount of daily refugees from Greece, as well as Albania, which is on the brink of a refugee wave too. They have very little to do to uphold such a situation on their own, when European countries are not willing to take any more refugees and have introduced Schengen as a measure to curtail the unwanted refugee influx.

Unfortunately the refugee crisis has shown the fragility of the European Union’s crisis response and the weaknesses of this great project of the 1950s, which has not been able to unify these countries’ foreign and internal policies.

The EU should directly deal with the cause of the crisis, as well as try to find alternative solutions such as working closely with Turkey in order to hold up the refugee wave to Europe, help Balkan countries financially and politically in overcoming this difficult situation in their borders. At the end of the day the borders of the Western Balkans are European borders too.

IM: There has been a lot of talk regarding terrorism in Europe and the role of the Balkans, as a staging ground or as a logistics base for the preparation of attacks. Are local governments ready to deal with this situation and how can international partners (i.e. NATO, EU, OECD) assist? Do you assess the possibility of new terrorist attacks either in the region or beyond?

Following the current terrorist attacks in Brussels, one believes that no place in Europe is safe right now. However saying this one cannot exclude terrorist attacks in the region too but the probability is much lower not because we have any security set up as such as to face the attacks, but because any such attack will not mean much for this type of conventional terrorism whereby the attackers would like to break the taboo of European security just in the heart of Europe and the EU rather than produce numbers of innocent victims.

A terrorist attack in our region would be much easier to accomplish than in many European capitals as the region lacks security, cannot control well the borders among the Southeastern European countries and also borders that our countries share with the EU. The [regional countries] have very little exchange of intelligence, nor well trained authorities to prevent any possible attacks, and there is a lack of trust among the countries within the region.

Unfortunately on the other side, the region has produced elements and subjects that have joined terrorist groups in the world and this has come due to many reasons starting from poverty, unemployment, an insecure future and unstable present. These subjects are an increasing problem in the region and although they do represent neither a majority nor an average number of people in the region, they have been in the public eye and international media attention during the last five years. They have unfortunately portrayed a bad image of the region and Islam in our countries.

Security Risks of the Migrant Crisis

One cannot say that we are completely immune to terrorist attacks, for as long as we are part of Europe and the European Union’s neighbourhood, and for as long as there are still people from our region joining terrorist groups around the world. Although I do not believe that the Balkans are a logistic place for terrorists and terrorist attacks, one should also be aware of the easy ground we offer to terrorist groups around the world with all the trafficking in narcotics, human beings and arms that our region is famous for. Thus we go back to the issue of security in the region and how much have we invested in this type of security set up during the last 17 years since the end of the last conflict in the region.

Albania’s EU Path and Reforms Shortcomings to Address

 IM: Albania is in the process of being accepted in the EU in the foreseeable future. What are the main obstacles for that path and what needs to be done to overcome them? Do you think that the most important problem is of economic or of a political nature?

EH: After many years of transition from the communist regime, Albania became a NATO member country in April 2009. Almost two years ago in June 2014 Albania signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the country hoped that, like the others in the region, with signing of the SSA, the Commission would also give the recommendation for the opening of negotiations for membership.

Unfortunately Albania has failed to deliver many reforms that would enable the country to move towards opening of the negotiations. During the last three years the country has stagnated, and so have the reforms that had already started. Not only we have been unable to deliver on the five criteria put forth by the European Commission, but also the much-needed reforms in the country such as justice reform, education and health have either failed or stalled.

The economy has seen some of the worst days and figures since the fall of communism, with consumer trust going down in value less than in the year 2000 and staggering unemployment rates, with the real signs of a deflation and plummeting of FDI, together with the closing of some of the most significant production plants owned by large international companies.

Also, a fluctuating progressive tax, with no stable policy on tax collection and no oversight, massive corruption in customs and other areas in administration have increased the crime rate and trafficking of narcotics. The emergence of a political oligarchy, as well as a lack of accountability from government and politicians, are some of the main reasons for Albania’s drastic economic decline in the pas three years.

Also, MPs with a criminal past who were elected to parliament three years ago have been subject of the new law that was proposed by the opposition and passed two months ago, named the Law on Decriminalisation. Certain acts of the law and other by laws need to pass in order for the decriminalisation procedure to start in the parliament and administration. However, a lack of political will and probably the captured state of law and politics have made possible the withholding of the implementation process of the decriminalisation law.

Justice Reform Issues and the EU Membership Goal

The justice reform system has been one of the main conditions set by the EU for Albania’s progress in opening negotiations, however as with the other reforms parties have failed to reach a consensus. After months of discussions by expert groups and three different draft prepared by the three main parties in the parliament, the reform with its three drafts was submitted to the Venice Commission for further advice and suggestions. Though since its final argument it has been published, still consensus is difficult.

Justice reform, as the most important political reform in Albania during the last 25 years, should be apolitical, impartial, independent, transparent and credible. The decriminalisation process, justice reform and the law on the National Bureau of Investigation (a body that will investigate corruption and crime among politicians, administration and judiciary) are the Achilles heel for Albania’s opening of negotiations with the EU.

Remaining last in the region only before Bosnia Hercegovina which already has ethnic and identity issues, as well as Kosovo, a newly founded state in the region, puts Albania in a vulnerable position and the Albanians in an unstable and uncertain situation at home. This also explains the Albanian exodus of 2014 and 2015 where more than 75,000 Albanians from Albania fled the country in search of a better life in Germany and other European Union countries. According to data from the German government, throughout 2015 citizens of Albania were the second-largest asylum seeking group in Germany after Syrians.

Under the current situation Albania will not be recommended for opening of negotiations even this year. This sets a negative trend among countries that have signed the SSA without producing enough reforms for the European vote.

Although many European sceptics blame enlargement fatigue as well as the current European turmoil with the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks, one cannot but show the real cause of this situation- the current Albanian current establishment’s non-delivery as well as lack of political consensus among the political class, raising doubts on Albania’s democratic deficiencies too.

(Realistic) Prospects for Regional Cooperation

 IM: Lastly, I would like to ask your opinion regarding regional cooperation, both on a political and an economic level. What are the strong points and the weak ones when talking about cooperation between Balkan countries? Can the region overcome its longstanding differences, as other parts of Europe have managed in the past?

EH: Regional cooperation has been an issue since the establishment of the Stability Pact and the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999. The end of this deadly conflict opened the way to a new security infrastructure in the region and a different level of partnership and cooperation among neighbours and countries in the region.

Although not perfect, one might say that the regional cooperation policy has progressed well mostly in producing some good and safe political rhetoric and sometimes trust. Probably the soundest initiative during the last 15 years has been the Berlin Process and the Vienna Forum afterwards, with some concrete results and cooperation in some main areas of economic development for the entire region.

Due to increased political competition among states in the region, the economic cooperation, transportation lines, visa and passport regimes as well as border cooperation have seen improvement but not at the level one would expect 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and 17 years after the last war.

There are still countries in the region that do not recognise each other as political, administrative entities, as states or geographical units, as there are also countries that cannot find compromise and use veto on the name issue or still have bad records on treatment of national minorities. Well, these remain issues of concern as they stop and do not allow much fruitful cooperation beyond political rhetoric and show-off scenes of so-called unity in some main European capitals.

Unfortunately, we have failed to understand that the region can be attractive to global investment and energy routes only as a unified market, which would certainly produce security and good opportunities for everyone in Southeastern Europe.

With Closure of Balkan Route, Italy Focuses on Potential for a Renewed Adriatic Migrant Route

By Elisa Sguaitamatti editor’s note: the closure of the Balkan route to migrants, and Greece’s ensuing placement of large numbers along its northern borders, indicate a likely increase of illegal border crossings towards the Adriatic Route- overland into Albania and across the sea into Italy, as we predicted in The Adriatic Chessboard back on February 22.

The Adriatic Route: Italian Public and Official Perception

The ongoing refugee and migrant crisis is currently receiving much media coverage in Italy. The country fears that the old smugglers’ routes from Albania to Southern Apulia are going to be reactivated in the near future, especially after the closure of the Balkan route used by migrants to reach Northern Europe via Macedonia and Serbia.

This Adriatic route, which goes from the Albanian mountains all across the Adriatic Sea to Italy is very well known to the Italian authorities and general public. They still have a vivid memory of the millions of Albanians who left their home country via boat and reached the Apulian shores in the 1990s.

“There is the danger of a route from Albania,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently said, indicating that Italian officials are constantly monitoring the situation. Other officials have echoed this comment but express cautious assessments, like Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.

“We are used to making provisions as well as observing reality,” Alfano said. “So far we have no evidence of any huge flow from the Balkans. It doesn’t seem appropriate to create alarmism on this since it’s not a fact today.”

Although it may not be a reality yet, nonetheless the Italian government is already starting to consider the eventuality of this event in the short term. Hence, it is working to identify all the necessary measures that need to be taken to cope with potential major influxes of migrants, such as the creation of hot spots, reception and identification facilities.

The Mediterranean and Balkan Route

Italy received more than 10,000 migrants coming from North Africa via the Mediterranean route between 1 January and 10 March of this year. Overall, Italy and Greece together had to deal with more than 150,000 asylum-seekers over the same period, according to official data released by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The Mediterranean route appears to have been the preferred choice made by Sub-Saharan and North African migrants so far, mainly leaving Libya or Egypt to get to the little island of Lampedusa or Sicily.

On the other hand, the Balkan route, which became popular last summer and autumn for millions of Syrians and Iraqis, is no longer an option. As Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia announced border closures, more and more arrivals are likely to happen thanks to improving weather conditions. At present, 12,000 migrants are living in makeshift houses and shelters near Idomeni still wait to cross the frontier between EU Member State Greece and Macedonia, though a recent violent attempt supported by international activists failed (around 2,000 participants were returned to Greece unharmed by the Macedonian Army, though three migrants died while trying to cross a river).

The President of the European Council Donald Tusk officially confirmed this closure of frontiers recently in a statement: “irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkan route have come to an end,” he said. Now, after the shutdown of a major migrant route, new alternatives to get to the heart of Europe are emerging. It is likely that migrants will be forced towards Albania and then to Italy. Not only is this route more convenient, but a Macedonian initiative for joint border cooperation was accepted by Bulgarian officials, who are also fortifying their border with Greece. Macedonian military and police are continually repairing stretches of fence with Greece that migrants continually attempt to break, despite the presence of Greek police and Frontex officials.

Over the past six months, the Italian authorities have been holding talks with their Tirana and Montenegro counterparts to work in a joint effort to prevent the re-emerging of people smugglers’ routes.

The EU Response: the Deal with Turkey and Possible Route Diversification towards the Adriatic

The EU’s controversial agreement with Turkey is designed to stop the flow of migrants to Greece, and to return those trying to enter via boat. But it remains to be seen whether a deal with Turkey’s will make a difference. Despite claims that police have been having more success, arrivals to the Greek islands continue with a daily average of some 2,000. And the long and complex sea border between the two countries will make it difficult for the coast guard, Frontex and eventual NATO ships to stop all the smugglers.

However, the perception that the Balkan Route (through Macedonia) is now sealed will spread among the migrant communities, and not only Italian officials are concerned about what this will mean for Albania and Italy. The spokesperson of Frontex recently underlined that “old routes could get reactivated.” This means that refugees are increasingly going to use the routes from Greece to Italy and from Turkey to Italy.

Mogherini’s Visit to Tirana

As for the European institutions, last month Federica Mogherini, the EU Foreign Policy Commissioner, traveled to Tirana to meet the Albanian authorities and discuss in detail all the problems related to the migration crisis.

Further, Italian Interior Minister Alfano raised the issue at several international summits constantly making clear that “this is not only an Italian problem, but a European one.” In the past six months, Europe has struggled to come up with effective solutions regarding the refugee crisis, mainly due to a lack of consensus among Members States on the equal distribution of quotas of migrants.

Italy’s Handling of the Crisis: Downplaying the Risks while Making Rapid Intervention Plans with Albania and Montenegro

Italy has seen many more migrant arrivals this winter compared to both 2014 and 2015, and therefore is trying to downplay the risks accompanying this influx.

Indeed, when asked about refugee flows from the Balkans, Mario Morcone, the head of the Migration Department at the Italian Interior Ministry, commented that “there is no sign yet to say that it’s happening.”

However, according to Frontex, there are rising concerns for Southern Italy. Irregular migrants picked up in Apulia are most often now travelers who had first entered Greece, whereas those detected in Calabria normally come from Egypt or Turkey. Most such people are Syrians, Pakistanis and Afghans.

Moreover, at the end of February at the regional security and public order meeting in Bari in the Apulia region, the Italian Interior Minister made some important remarks on current developments: “the work we are doing is very hard and serious. The same holds true for our liaison officers in the Balkan region. Here I’m referring to the intervention planning with Montenegro and Albania in collaboration with Frontex. We are working to prevent this route from reopening. However, should it ever happen, we are ready to tackle the flows of migrants.”

Minister Alfano also added that Albania represents a strategic partner for Europe to face “the Balkan question,” and that Italian officials are doing everything within their power to keep Greece from being left alone in addressing the emergency and humanitarian crisis.

The January Meeting in Amsterdam, Official and Unofficial Talks with Albania, and the Policy of a ‘European Solution’

In addition, during a previous informal meeting of Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs in Amsterdam last January, which was predominantly dedicated to the migration crisis, Italy specifically demanded more cooperation and coordination on this theme.

The country has been involved in both official and unofficial track-two diplomacy talks with the Albanian counterparts, but Minister Alfano remarked once again that “it cannot be only a bilateral relation with Tirana; it must be a European issue too. We are doing our job but it is crucial that each of the European Member States does its own part as well.”

The Italian government is already working to take all necessary measures to address a potential emergency as well as offering humanitarian and relief efforts. In Alfano’s words, “we should not put the cart before the horse. Now what we are doing is putting a lot of effort into adopting a prevention policy at the international level, and at the same time trying to reduce the likelihood of a refugee crisis in the Adriatic Sea.”

Finally, on a visit to a Sicilian reception facility on 14 March government officials reiterated that the solution to tackle the migration crisis can only be European. “Italy’s job is to protect the external southern frontier of Europe, in order to make movements of people within Europe not only free but also safe. The only solution is a European solution” Alfano stated.

The Adriatic Chessboard: Migration Policies and Regional Security

By Matteo Albertini

The threat of another surge in refugees and migrants from North Africa and, peripherally, from the Balkan Route has alarmed Italian security planners. Their assessments, discussed below, provide some indication into how they intend to manage the flow, in the case of route diversification, backlog, or other events (such as terrorism) that would cause a strong anti-migrant reaction among Europeans.

The Two Routes- and the Macedonian Solution that Alarms Greece

Since the death of Muammar Gaddafi – the former guarantor of a mostly migrant-free Mediterranean – Italy began to receive more and more migrants by sea, often landing at its southern island of Lampedusa.

The strain from this influx eventually resulted in the most sophisticated EU military engagement in the history of the overall migrant crisis. Operation SOPHIA, which was led by the Italian navy, was recently disclosed in a document published by Wikileaks. The document (an internal review of actions taken in the period May 2015 to January 2016) cited a secret plan to enforce a stable government in Libya- that would then ‘invite’ the EU to start a military operation against traffickers in its territorial waters.

This document and its significance for EU actions elsewhere cannot be discussed in detail here. It will be assessed by in a separate article.

A second unprecedented flow starting last summer brought the so-called Balkan route into the media, and eventually policy spotlight. In 2015, nearly 880,000 people took the route from Turkey to Greece, heading on to Central Europe by traveling through Macedonia and Serbia. Although this massive influx of people received huge attention, it did not result in any EEAS mission similar to Operation SOPHIA, despite Greece (like Italy) being an EU state.

The EU’s failure to slow migration on the Balkan Route has led Balkan countries to seek other solutions. Most importantly, Macedonia (with the backing of Austria and the Visegrad countries) on February 18th won support for a plan it offered to streamline migrant entries. Now, all those wishing to enter at the non-official part of the southern border of Gevgelija must have a special registration card from the Macedonian authorities: anyone who does not have it, further north, will be sent back to Greece.

Greece, which is very alarmed by the EU’s acceptance of this plan, threatened to block a Brexit deal if countries close borders with it. But Macedonia has not closed its legal borders- ironically, it is the protesting Greek farmers who have been blockading their own borders elsewhere along the Macedonian, Bulgarian and Turkish lines. Their motives have nothing to do with the migrant crisis, but are causing serious economic impact, for the neighboring countries as well as their own.

The EU-agreed plan to streamline the migrant flow through Macedonia allows some compromise between rival EU powers. However, our assessment still remains that absent some unexpected pressure, Macedonia will eventually seal its border to all migrants and refugees.

In this case, they will seek other points of entry from Greece, such as Bulgaria and Albania. However, Bulgaria has just dispatched soldiers to the Greek border, and there are indications that Albania is preparing for migrant inflows.

The latter prospect is the most worrying for Italy, considering its history of receiving illegal aliens by the thousands from Albania in the 1990s, in a very lucrative trade run by organized crime and also involving cigarette and drugs trafficking.

Italy’s Concern: Route Diversification and the Trans-Adriatic Corridor

From the Italian point of view, the current situation is extremely serious: the Adriatic Sea represents, after the Greek islands, the longest European border towards the Middle East. The risk that a sudden closure of some Balkan countries’ borders would change the routes covered by migrant smugglers, possibly moving towards the sea and Italy, is the most feared, especially while Italy is already managing a contemporaneous flow coming from Northern Africa through the Sicilian Channel.

This concern was reinforced by the recent declarations of the leaders of Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, each of them underlining that without a bigger effort from the European Union, the closure of borders could become a necessity. Just a few days before the Macedonian solution was accepted, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić called on the EU to come up with a common approach to the refugee crisis, stressing that if Austria and other countries on the Balkan Route shut their borders, Serbia would have to reconsider its policies.

As Dačić said in an interview with Radio Deutsche Welle, “in 2015, we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia and what is cause for us to worry further is the absence of a unified approach from the European Union. And these individual measures and steps that are taken by certain countries are something that puts us in a very difficult situation.”

A ‘Very Peculiar Phenomenon’

Interesting enough, Dačić also added that it was a very peculiar phenomenon that the migrants had never opted to change the route set in the beginning. The Foreign Minister said that “they never opted to go maybe through Kosovo, and one of the reasons was because Serbia was always a helping hand to them.” This was probably a politically-motivated comment, considering the fact that traveling through Serbia and Croatia is faster and easier than to go, for instance, Kosovo or Bosnia.

Concerns about a New ‘Albanian Adriatic Route’: Noted by the EU in October 2015

Returning to Italy, it is important to underline that in the October meeting chaired by EC President Juncker concerns were raised about the possibility of migrant smugglers opening a new route from Albania to Italy, in case of border closures by neighboring countries.

Even if the concerns voiced then about a possible exploitation of this route during the current winter season now seem to have been exaggerated, it is noteworthy that it was even considered at that point. This shows Italian analysis of the ‘Adriatic Chessboard’ was well advanced at a time when Austrians and Germans were still waving their ‘migrants welcome’ signs. With Germany’s interior minister now calling Austrian policy ‘unacceptable,’ the predictable divisions in European migration policy are worsening.

A Return to the Past?

The possibility that the Adriatic route could be used in the future remains. That would be a veritable return to the past, almost twenty years after the biggest exodus across the Adriatic Sea, after the collapse of the pyramid schemes in Albania, in 1997. Albanians used the sea crossing heavily when the country was swept by civil unrest caused by the scandal. In March 1997, 84 people, mostly women and children, drowned after their boat sank in the Straits.

Despite its perils, the route has also been used by drug smugglers and human traffickers. During the 2000s, it was mainly used to transport illegal narcotics to Italy. In 2006, overwhelmed by the large number of speedboats shipping drugs from Albania, the Tirana government decided not to allow any private small boats to sail in the country’s territorial waters for a time.

For this reason, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama – even though his country wasn’t touched by the recent migrant inflows – was also present at the October meeting, and signed a new agreement with the Greek government to enforce land border controls between Greece and Albania.

Italian Actions on Hotspots and Reception Centers, in Light of the ‘Nightmare Scenario’

Since then, Italy has still not completed building all of the mandated hotspots and reception centers on its own territory. Those already established are located in Lampedusa, Pozzallo, Porto Empedocle/Villa Sikania, Trapani, Augusta and Taranto.

However, only the first two are fully operative, while the third is in the final refurbishment phase. All these three active hotspots are located in Sicily (as also is the fourth one in Porto Empedocle). Nevertheless, only the fifth, in Taranto, would deal with hypothetical new migrant flows coming from the Adriatic Sea.

After the decision of six countries (Austria, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway) to ask for a two-year suspension of the Schengen Treaty, and the ensuing statement by the members of the Visegrad Group to opt for the closure of borders, it seems that the agreement of free circulation in European Union is near to an end, fifteen years after its introduction.

For Italy, this means the nightmare scenario could come true: to be bordered by foreign walls and transformed into a dead end for migrant routes. In this, the Italian government has reacted in the same way that Greece is now doing. As Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said for CNN, “the Dublin rules create a risk for Schengen […]. We need to share the migrants’ weight, because if we just continue to criticize Greece and first-arrival countries, the only result would be the final conclusion of the agreement.”

Italy is indeed one of the countries of arrival, receiving more than 150,000 asylum seekers in 2015. Most continued their travel towards France and Northern Europe, but this situation will not last if the Alps resumes its historic role as a natural border that Italy shares, with countries which have suspended Schengen.

This is why Italy is now preparing to create new reception centers in Northern Italy: there were announcements about the choice of Brennero and Tarvisio, located at the borders with Austria, a clear sign of the concern about a possible new exodus from the northern and the eastern neighboring countries.

Unclear Prospects

Much of the future dynamics of the Adriatic region depend on the continuing endurance of the European project and on the future of the Schengen agreement. Italian interior minister Alfano stated two weeks ago that in order to maintain Schengen, “there’s still time until May, for technical and political reasons.” But a three-month deadline is a very brief span of time, especially when the upcoming spring weather will likely bring new waves of refugees to European shores.

There is also the long-term risk that migrants could decide to cross the sea, coming from Croatia, Albania and Greece to Italian shores. As Alfano recalled in the same press conference, it is still early to advance any possible forecast: “there are too many variables at play. To all those who think that the best solution for Italy would be to close Schengen, I say that they don’t realize that we can’t lay barbed wire in the Mediterranean, nor in the Adriatic, and that they are not taking into account the economic backlash of this decision”.

Unfortunately for Minister Alfano, the decision will probably not be in the Italian government’s hands. Thus the primary goal would be to reinforce Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders, to make it able to guarantee a proper answer to the potential arrival of thousands of asylum seekers from the sea.

Moreover, there is another major concern about the consequences of mass migration to Italy. Threatening mass expulsions of migrants who have no right for asylum is something different from effectively expelling them. As underlined by the deputy interior minister Bubbico, “a proper repatriation demands that the starting country has a working embassy, willing to cooperate with our identification request.”

Obviously, this would also assume that said country even wants to take back a citizen who had illegally arrived in Italy. “Otherwise, what should we do [but keep them]?” said the deputy minister. “Should we throw them in the sea?”

No Power for Sovereign Decision-making

Unlike non-EU members in the Balkans that have sovereignty over their own affairs, or like fellow EU members that have stood up strongly for their rights (like the V4 countries), Italy has followed the Greek political behavior of dependency on Brussels: the so-called desire for ‘European solidarity’ on the migrant issue. This means the government has limited its options and (as elsewhere in Europe) opened up political opportunities for its rivals.

While opposition parties thus spread fear of what they call an “invasion by migrants,” the Italian government has little power to influence the German-led EU’s decision-making on big-picture issues that underpin the entire issue: these include the ongoing wars in Libya and Syria, the future of unstable countries like Egypt and Nigeria, and the tenor of EU-Balkan relations. All of these are either states that are sources for new waves of migrants or ones that will affect their movements.

The Impact of Macedonia Border Closure on a new Albania-Adriatic Route

It has become clear that Turkey is both unable and unwilling to stop the flow of refugees passing through it to the Greek islands. As the EU is placing its bets on Macedonia to guard the European borders, Albania (and also Montenegro) are watching the developing events with a worried eye.

If tighter border controls along the Balkan route create problems for Greece, with migrants having a harder time moving north, most will look for alternate routes. Since Bulgaria is beefing up its defenses (and anyway is further east), Albania could then become the main option.

Migrants could either try to cross into Albania to reach Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia, or to use the Adriatic Sea crossing to reach Italy. According to Albanian authorities, the former military base in Bilisht, close to a Greek border point, is already ready to accommodate some 500 refugees. Other abandoned military bases are also being prepared for a possible influx of refugees coming from Greece. But it is still early to conclude if these decisions are part of a long-time plan.

Italy is also concerned that a bottleneck in the Western Balkan migrant routes could also boost the central Mediterranean route, which connects North Africa to southern Italy. Migrant smugglers could opt to open new routes from Egypt and Libya as the expected Western raids against ISIS intensify in the latter country, as predicted almost one year ago.

Terrorism Fears

In the background indeed lies the second main subject of the recent international meeting, which is the fight against international terrorism. As reported by many past reports, migration and terrorism are two issues that frequently intertwine in the Balkans, mostly because both connected with the presence of solid and enduring criminal organization (which not by chance are growing stronger on both shores of the Adriatic Sea).

In this regard, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve recently proposed the creation of a common database of stolen passports from Syria and Iraq, and Europol presented its last conclusions, stating that the ISIS terrorist threat is still high in Europe, especially in France. According to the Italian Interior Minister, at the present time “there are not specific or concrete menaces for Italy.”

In the current scenario, recent police operations in Northern Italy showed at least three different terrorist cells active in the country: one connected with Kurdistan (amongst them, the members of the Rawti Shax network, dismantled last October), one linked to Kosovo and Albania (four people were arrested last December upon the charge of being member of the terrorist group led by the notorious Lavdrim Muhaxheri), and one headed by Bosnian citizen Bilal Bosnić, the informal leader of the Salafi movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

All these groups were located in little towns of the most productive area of the Italian north (Pordenone, Merano, Chiari). This choice should not surprise us, since the persons involved were mostly focused on propaganda and recruitment, and in these towns they enjoyed fast and easy connections throughout Europe, and good technology and facilities. Also, they found there a growing presence of foreign workers, mostly Muslim from Northern Africa, employed in the factories of these regions.

That is why the concerns about possible attacks in Italy are still low: Italy grants a lot of logistical advantages to jihadist networks, which are more interested in using this country as a bridgehead for penetrating further on in European borders.

However, the subtle presence of these jihadist groups, still lacking common goals, guidance and interests, does not guarantee a safe future. The security services will certainly remain on high alert for the foreseeable future, as ISIS has pledged to take its war all the way to the Vatican.

Possible Geopolitical Impact of a Developing Trans-Adriatic Migrant Route

It is also possible that migrants will become used as a tool to exercise political leverage on neighboring countries. Greece is angry with Macedonia over the border deal breakthrough with the EU, and is now making plans for handling the backlog. Athens thus could use Albania to exercise pressure on Macedonia, for closing the border, worsening conditions in a country still weighed down by a chronic political crisis.

This pressure would be exerted obliquely, through challenges to ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia. This is one way of understanding Edi Rama’s recent comments when, in the presence of visiting US Secretary of State Kerry, the Albanian leader said that Macedonia should finish implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. It is well-known that this agreement (which ended the war of 2001) has been implemented long ago, so when the topic is occasionally raised, it is inevitably with an implicit desire to raise ethnic issues.

The second point of possible future geopolitical intrigue is that the migrant crisis is becoming an opportunity for some entities. NATO is heavily involved in both the West’s military operations in North Africa and the Middle East, and in liaising with anti-trafficking measures. The military alliance’s mandate was expanded to the Greek-Turkish maritime border and, even when it is not directly involved, tends to share facilities with EU-run operations (such as Operation SOPHIA)

According to the BBC on February 11, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the Greece-Turkey mission would not be about “stopping or pushing back refugee boats” but to provide “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”

Looking at things in the bigger picture, the migrant crisis has allowed NATO to increase its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Russia is also operating in Syria.

On the Eastern Adriatic coast, only the absence of Montenegro is preventing this sea from becoming a ‘NATO lake.’ Russia of course opposes Montenegro’s invitation (and likely membership) into the alliance this summer.

Perhaps, a sudden and large influx of migrants operating along a new trans-Adriatic corridor could be regarded by pro-NATO activists as another reason for the tiny country to enter the alliance. In that case, NATO will fill in the last ‘missing square’ of this strategic chessboard- something that would have more symbolic than practical value, given the small size of Montenegro’s fighting force.

In whatever case, any NATO deployment up and down the Adriatic coast to counter migration would also be beneficial to the overall Western policy goals for the region we have discussed in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans (available also in Italian here).

Albania’s Emerging Regional Role: Interview with Arian Spasse, Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs editor’s note: as Albania continues its diplomatic and reform efforts towards European Union efforts, it is placing strong emphasis on high-level cooperation. In this exclusive new interview, correspondent Blerina Mecule gets an update on Albania’s EU reform efforts, bilateral agreements, and participation in European initiatives for the region from Arian Spasse, director of the Albanian ministry of foreign affair’s special department for relations with the European Union.

Preparing for Accession Negotiations: the Reform Process

Blerina Mecule: In June 2014, Albania was granted the status of candidate country for EU membership. This was an important achievement for the country. The EU has announced that further enlargement is expected in 2020. What are the signs of progress, in terms of reforms, that Albania is making towards the opening of the accession negotiations expected late this year, focusing particularly in the newly approved National Council for the Integration?

Interview with Arian Spasse- Balkanalysis

According to Spasse, “A tangible and credible EU perspective is an irreplaceable support for domestic reforms and motivation of the administration.”

Arian Spasse: Albania views its EU perspective as closely tied to the domestic reform agenda focused on the consolidation of the rule of law. It welcomes the recent positive evaluations of the European Commission and is aware of the challenges that lie ahead for the fulfilment of the five key priorities for the opening of accession negotiations.

We consider that the opening of accession talks would provide a roadmap for progress in addressing the reform challenges. Accession negotiations are an opportunity to better focus on what is to be done, particularly in relation to the rule of law, through the benchmarks for chapters 23 and 24. A clear illustration of the role of accession talks is the reform of the judiciary: if Albania is to adopt a long-term strategy for the reform of the judiciary that is sustainable in time, it needs the screening and benchmarking for chapter 23 to feed into the strategy.

A tangible and credible EU perspective is an irreplaceable support for domestic reforms and motivation of the administration. There has been an enormous advancement concerning the reforms in five priority areas, which are crucial for the next step – the opening of accession negotiations.

The reform of the judiciary is the most difficult one and is led by the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee on Justice System. The first analytical draft of the Justice Reform has been discussed with the stakeholders and finalised, identifying the needs for intervention (Phase I). The Ad Hoc Committee, on proposal of the Group of High Level Experts, has adopted two very important documents – the Strategy of the Justice System Reform and the Action Plan for the implementation of this strategy (Phase II). The above mentioned documents will serve as a guide for the development of Phase III of the process for reform in the justice system, the drafting of constitutional and legal amendments. The Strategy and Action Plan will remain open for comments and suggestions for improvement. The Group of High Level Experts will organize a process of public consultation and consultation with international experts (the Venice Commission) and will assess and reflect on their involvement in these documents.

Fighting Corruption and Organized Crime

Regarding the fight against corruption, there has been progress made in strengthening cooperation between law enforcement agencies, by removing obstacles to conduct proactive, efficient investigations of inexplicable wealth and corruption-related offences, including via the effective use of financial investigations. A functional network of Anti-Corruption coordinators and contact points has been set up, and an online system for the denouncement of corruption cases has been set up. We are making efforts to increase pro-active investigations substantially towards establishing a solid track record of investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in corruption cases.

The fight against organised crime has shown a positive trend. A series of legal reforms, approved during 2014, aim at improving the organizational and functional aspects of State Police. Drugs trafficking in general, cultivation and trafficking of cannabis in particular have been hit by police operations. These operations, as well as the cooperation with law enforcement agencies in neighbouring countries, confirm the commitment of the Government in tackling this issue.

Positive trends in track records are reported, especially in relation to money laundering and drugs. The anti-trafficking Strategy has been approved and launched in December 2014, showing commitment to step up the fight against trafficking of human beings, money laundering and implement the Anti-Mafia law. The efforts made in this field have been rewarded with the decision of the US State Department to remove Albania in 2014 from the Tier 2 Watch List.

In order to ensure the sustainability and success of the reforms, an all-inclusive approach is necessary. The Albanian government is committed to making every effort to ensure a constructive political dialogue and to build on the existing political consensus on EU integration. The recently established National Council for European Integration (NCEI), chaired by the opposition, serves as a platform that brings together political parties, civil society, academia and other stakeholders. NCEI has a key role in ensuring all-inclusiveness and the necessary political and social support for the implementation of EU related reforms. Civil society representatives participate actively in the meetings of NCEI.

A New Investment Council and other Pro-Economic Development Policies

BM: Recently Albania has launched the Investment Council, to strengthen the business climate in the country. Could you tell us more about this initiative, as well as about other concrete steps of the government to create a friendly legal framework, in order to attract more foreign investments in Albania?

AS: The Investment Council is a project that was launched in February 2014 with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Albanian Government and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Representatives of government institutions, donors, international partners and business communities are part of this high-level platform.

The purpose of the Council of Investment is to facilitate a direct dialogue and dynamic interaction between business and government, to address problems related to the business climate and investments, to report cases of unfair and abusive practices to business, to fight corruption, tax evasion and informality, and to suggest legal and procedural mechanisms to prevent, eliminate and resolve such problems.

Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) has been at the focus of the Albanian governments. Three new laws are very important in this respect – the law for strategic investments, the law on public-private partnership, and the law on tourism, as a clear indication of the importance we attach to foreign investments, which bring economic growth, increase competitiveness, and which also offer sustainability and employment.

Albania’s legal framework on FDI has been designed to create a favourable business climate for foreign investors. I would like to emphasize that no prior government authorization is needed and there are no sector restrictions to foreign investments. Also, there is no limitation on the percentage share of foreign participation in companies- 100% foreign ownership is possible. Foreign investments may not be expropriated or nationalized directly or indirectly, except in special cases, in the interest of the public, as defined by law. Foreign investors have the right to expatriate all funds and contributions in kind of their investment. In any case, foreign investments will have a treatment equal to what common international practice allows.

As a result, in the latest “Doing Business” report for 2015, Albania showed a significant improvement in the overall ranking, especially regarding the ease of doing business. In 2015, Albania’s position in “Doing Business” has improved. It ranks in the 68th place compared to 108th in 2014, and 136th in 2008.

Natural Resources and Advantages for Investors

BM: What are the advantages that Albania offers in terms of natural resources combined with its strategic position in South East Europe that might be of interest to foreign investors?

AS: Albania has a very good geographical position along Adriatic and Ionian seas. The coastline has stupendous potential and support for endless opportunities. Albania’s proximity to regional and EU markets, allows low distribution costs and “just-in-time” product delivery.

Albania benefits from extensive Free Trade Agreements and has free access to a market of 26 million customers. The country became a member of the WTO in 2000, and signed the SAA and CEFTA in 2006. In 2009, Albania signed an FTA with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), etc. Currently we have double taxation treaties with 40 countries.

Actually, Albania can offer a cost-competitive and dynamic workforce. 57% of the population is under the age of 35. More than 100,000 students enrol at university. English and Italian are widely spoken. French and German languages are included in the education system. Other regional languages are widely used, as well.

The government has approved a new fiscal package whose main objective is to maintain macroeconomic stability and continuation of structural reforms. It has been designed in close consultation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) and does not distinguish between foreign and domestic investors.

As potential investment sectors for foreign investors I would mention renewable energy (hydro, solar and wind), petroleum and gas energy, manufacturing (textile and footwear industry), agriculture, tourism, transport and logistics, etc.

Albania’s Foreign Investors Today

BM: The idea of the Europeanization of the Western Balkans is becoming even more a reality not only politically, but also in economically. The main foreign investors interested in entering South East Europe are the EU, USA, UAE, Turkey, China and Russia. What is Albania’s orientation in this regard?

AS: According to the Bank of Albania, FDI in 2013 reached €2,854 million. Of these, €785 million were invested in the sector of “Post and Telecommunication,” €780 million in the sector of “Monetary and Financial Intermediation,” and €732 million in “Extraction of energetic minerals”. Greece ranks first with 37.49% of the total. Canada is second with 27.93%, followed by Austria with 13.24%, and then the Netherland with 12.26%. Turkey is next, with 9.78% and then Germany, with 3.75%.

In comparison to 2012, Greek direct investments increased to 39.5%. Many Greek companies operate in Albanian banking, construction, services, industry, etc. Most of them are small and medium size businesses. Canadian direct investments increased by 13.4% in comparison to 2012 and are focused mainly in oil extraction. Austrian investments experienced a decrease of 2.33% in comparison to 2012. Austrian companies are focused on banking, energy and services sectors. During 2013, the Turks increased their investments in Albania by 18.72%. Their companies are active in sectors like banking, telecommunications, the food processing industry, mining, energy, education and healthcare. German companies make up 3.3% of foreign companies in Albania. Their investments increased during 2013 by 16.3%.

Regarding trade, Albania exports mainly textiles, shoes, minerals, cement, metals, foodstuffs, etc., and imports mechanical and electrical machinery, foodstuffs, tobacco and minerals. In exports Italy is the main trade partner with 52% of the total, followed by Kosova at 7.3%, Spain at 6.5%, Malta at 6.2% and Turkey at 3.9%. Italy is also the main partner concerning imports, at 29.8%, followed by Greece at 9.4%, China at 7.3%, Turkey at 7.1% and Germany at 6%.

As one can see, the Albanian market is open to foreign investors without distinction. Countries like Italy and Greece are natural partners, but the recent economic crisis in both countries forced the Albanian companies to adapt and look for new markets.

China’s European Investment Tactics and Infrastructure Projects in Albania

BM: Do you think that China is exploiting the zero custom tariff regime in the Western Balkans, applying the same model as with Iceland to penetrate the European Single Market via those Balkan countries which are on the way towards EU membership, but are still not full EU members?

AS: The relations of China with the countries of the Western Balkans are focused on several areas – economy, culture, humanitarian and social development, etc. To come to the question, yes, Western Balkan countries have a zero custom tariff regime for exporting their products to the EU, which China should see as an opportunity for its producers. It means that Chinese companies, after producing their goods, let say in Albania, sell them to the EU market as “made in Albania.”

So far China has not taken advantage of this convenience with the EU, at least not of Albania’s quotas, as it considers them irrelevant. Instead, China is approaching Central and Eastern Europe through the China – CEE Cooperation Initiative. This initiative, which involves 16 European countries, EU members and candidates, aims at strengthening China’s presence through the investment of $10 billion in several areas like infrastructure, energy, transportation, agriculture, etc.

Currently, Albanian authorities are negotiating with Chinese companies on the construction of a highway that will link Tirana with the Macedonian border. Chinese companies have shown interest also for the development of the Port of Shëngjin and construction of an industrial park near the Port of Durrës. Let me underline that for China, the last two projects offer – along with the Port of Piraeus in Greece – access to European seas only a few miles from the EU waters of Italy.

Regional Energy Cooperation and Views on the ‘Balkan Benelux’ Concept and the ‘Western Balkans 6’ Initiative

BM: In the article “The energy-security nexus in south-east Europe” published on The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania, Mr Ditmir Bushati, writes about the strategic value of the regional cooperation in south-east Europe: “Connecting the energy islands in south-east Europe will help to build a true region in both economic and security terms, a region that can act as a strategic partner for the EU in the broader energy security nexus. Last but not least, such a bold approach will further consolidate the regional cooperation and the EU integration agenda of the Western Balkans, following the successful example of the six founding member states of the European Union.”

Some months ago, the idea of the Balkan Benelux-Model was again circulated. This would be aimed at creating mainly a Balkan Energy Union, (BEU) and a Balkan Area of Free Trade Agreements (BAFTA) between Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro. Who is proposing this model and would it require a change in the state integrity of the countries involved?

AS: The interesting idea of a Balkan Benelux was proposed several years ago by the Action Group for Regional Economic and European Integration (AGREEI), a think tank which aims to support the economic and European integration of Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro. According to AGREEI, the creation of a market of eight million consumers with free movement of goods, services, capitals and people and cross-border cooperation would speed up the EU integration of the four countries.

Instead, another format raised more interest and was accepted by our countries, the EU and other actors – the Western Balkans 6. This informal initiative is a forum of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Like Balkans Benelux, it aims at supporting them on their individual paths towards the EU. It involves the European Commission and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) as observers.

So far, WB6 meetings have focused mainly on connectivity, youth cooperation and mobility, establishment of the Western Balkans Fund (WBF), etc. Tangible results have been achieved. In November in Prague, the WB6 Ministers of Foreign Affairs will sign the Agreement on the Establishment of the WBF. Its seat will be in Tirana.

In Vienna, the WB6 prime ministers signed the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Centre. Earlier, in April, they agreed on the regional projects related to the extension of the EU core network in the Western Balkans. The ministers of Energy, as well, have agreed on regional projects that aim at creating a regional energy market, functioning according to TEN E guidelines, and connecting the energy islands in this part of Europe. Cooperation includes other areas, as well, like security and home affairs, cross-border cooperation, etc.

Regional Free Trade Area Processes and Bilateral Agreements

BM: The Free Trade Area between the EU and the Western Balkans countries has been achieved progressively through the SAA agreements and further on is subject to membership obligations in the Euro-Atlantic structures. The reliability of such a process is to be achieved also by avoiding bilateral competition between the Western Balkan states.

Within the framework of the Regional Cooperation Council of SEE and the common efforts to address the political, economic and energy-security nexus of regional issues in a cooperative way, could you describe for us the bilateral and multilateral relations of Albania with its neighbouring countries, starting with Kosova, mentioning also the number of bilateral agreements undersigned in the latest High Level Meeting held between the two countries in Tirana, Albania, in March 2015?

AS: Good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation are pillars of our foreign policy and form an essential part of Albania’s EU integration process. Albania has continued to actively participate in regional initiatives, including the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), the Central European Initiative (CEI), the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the Energy Community Treaty, the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) and the WB6. In November, the countries of the region will formalize the Western Balkans Fund, followed by the Regional Youth Cooperation Office. According to the Progress Report 2014, “Overall, Albania has continued to act as a constructive partner in the region, further developing bilateral relations with other enlargement countries and neighbouring EU Member States.

Albania’s Bilateral Regional Relations

Concerning bilateral relations with the neighbouring countries, Albania has excellent relation with Kosova. Last year, on 11 January, in Prizren, was signed the Joint Declaration for Cooperation and Strategic Partnership between the two governments. I would like to point out the G to G meeting between Albania and Kosova on 23 March 2015, in Tirana, where 11 agreements of cooperation were signed. These relations are a successful example of cooperation between two countries, sharing one European future.

We welcome the resumption of political dialogue between Kosova and Serbia under the auspices of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Mrs. Federica Mogherini, as a contribution to peace and stability in the region.

At the same time, Albania urges all countries to support Kosova in its bid for membership to regional and other international organizations, like UNESCO. The membership to international organizations means more opportunities for the country to develop, more responsibility and more accountability.

Albania aims at having good-neighbourly relations with the Republic of Serbia and has full readiness to engage in an open political dialogue, in order to create a sustainable climate of confidence and respect. The visit of Prime Minister Rama to Belgrade opened a new chapter in our overall political and economic bilateral relations. Meetings between Prime Ministers Rama and Vučič are not a taboo anymore and the ministers of foreign affairs, Bushati and Dačič meet on regular basis, particularly in the WB6 format. There is a set of pending bilateral agreements which need to be finalized. Albania pays great attention to the well-being of the Albanian minority living in the Presheva Valley and to their treatment according to European standards.

We are willing to maintain good bilateral relations with Macedonia. We consider Macedonia a friendly neighbour and we support its prosperity, sovereignty, integrity and stability. Events in Kumanovo have threatened normality and ethnic relations, which are still fragile, due to the partial implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. Interethnic relations are vital to the existence of the Macedonian state. Albania condemns any act of violence, considering it unacceptable for a democratic society that aspires to Euro-Atlantic integration. We consider that the full implementation of the “Ohrid Framework Agreement,” without any delay, is essential for Macedonia’s security, democratization and its Euro-Atlantic integration processes.

Political dialogue and high level contacts with Montenegro have been further intensified. Cooperation is focused on economic and trade relations, energy, joint cross-border projects, strengthening of the system of communications and telecommunications, further facilitation of the movement of people and goods, strengthening of the joint fight against organized crime and illegal trafficking, etc.

Albania and Greece have good neighbourly relations. As NATO members and as countries sharing vital and mutual interests, relations between the two countries are of strategic importance in the region. Nevertheless, from time to time, some frictions fuelled by certain circles arise. In our opinion, bilateral issues should be addressed in compliance with international law and accepted by both parties. Greece continues to be a very important economic partner for Albania. For years, it has been at the top of Albania’s list of partners in trade and foreign direct investments. The Greek minority in Albania and the community of Albanian immigrants in Greece constitute strong bridges of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

The Berlin Process and Developments after the Recent Vienna Balkan Conference

BM: Let’s discuss the Berlin Process initiated by Chancellor Merkel, created with the aim of fostering the interregional cooperation among the business community and the governments of the Western Balkan countries, to strengthening the interconnection b2b, g2g e g2b and reinforcing the perspectives for EU accession. What is the message Albania is bringing home after the waltz on the beautiful blue Danube in Vienna?

AS: Indeed, the Berlin Process, initiated by Chancellor Merkel, has intensified regional cooperation. It set in motion a process that aspires to generate tangible benefits for our citizens from the process of EU integration. But it is not a substitute for EU accession. It aims at reinforcing the perspectives of EU accession, by building up in the Western Balkans a true region in economic and political terms.

The process has produced practical and political consequences and has shown that the countries of the region can deliver on their promises. The participating countries committed themselves to resolve any open questions through bilateral negotiations or other peaceful means, and not to block the progress of neighbours on their respective EU paths.

Kosova and Serbia signed four agreements while Montenegro signed the border agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The participants jointly identified the projects related to the extension of EU core network corridors through the Western Balkans, as well as the projects related to energy connectivity. They agreed on establishing the Regional Youth Cooperation Centre, an initiative of both PM Rama and PM Vučič.

The Conference of Vienna served also as a platform where our countries voiced their concerns. The resource gap between member states and candidates is significant: in terms of net inflows the difference between membership and accession is a factor of almost six.

In Vienna we emphasized that citizens of all countries in the region need to feel the benefits and the transformative power of the EU accession process. In this context, connectivity is seen as a transformative concept aiming at increasing social cohesion, reducing economic “nomadism” and supporting trust-building mechanisms that are born out of successful regional cooperation processes.

In its second phase, the Berlin Process should lead to the definition of investment priorities that will form a growth package for the Western Balkans in the form of financial guarantees. The EU’s strategy for the region needs to encompass the energy security dimension: more particularly, a better channel of EU funds towards energy infrastructure. One key pre-identified project that deserves collective backing in the months and year ahead is the Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline.

For these connectivity investments to be sustainable, we must continue to invest in the education of our youth. We must implement vocational training in our countries in the fields matching our countries’ respective market demands, among them, IT, tourism, energy, and agriculture. We must also maximise use of the Erasmus+ program, which will allot up to 14.8 billion euros EU-wide by 2020. Additionally, we must mirror the opportunities created by Erasmus+ for students and lecturers in a program solely for the Western Balkans.

This is just one part of the homework we need to focus on doing this year. The others are related to the strengthening of the National Investment Committees’ role in preparing the single sector pipelines, to the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office and youth mobility, to the involvement of civil society in the integration process, etc. As you can see, there is a lot to do before going for a “tango” to Paris.


*Note: the content of this interview does not represent the official position of the Albanian MFA.

Five Ways ISIS Can Destabilize the Balkans

By Chris Deliso

ISIS-linked radicals in the Balkans are currently seeking to pull off one or more terrorist attacks in the region, which marks a strategic shift from past perceptions of the Balkans’ role in regard to the overall European jihad. If successful, this strategy could affect everything from regional stability and inter-ethnic relations to local economies and even the cohesion of the Western deterrence campaign against Russia.


The European Commission is currently mulling over the details of its next multi-year strategy for countering terrorism, radicalization, organized crime and cybercrime. Predictable partisan divisions are slowing the formalization of a policy which, realistically speaking, will prove insufficient to guarantee security for the Union and its citizens – as recent attacks continue to show – not to mention for the neighboring, non-EU countries, which are being largely excluded from consideration.

The following article, based on years of field observation and the latest intelligence on the ground, explores some of the security risks ahead, isolating the main five operational tactics ISIS or its followers will use to destabilize the Balkans, and facilitate its wider strategic goals in Europe.

Sitrep July 2-10

Balkan security services are currently on high alert over fears of one or more terrorist attacks directed by ISIS supporters, some of whom have battle experience in Syria and Iraq. Such attacks would attempt to exploit existing ethnic and religious divides, and possibly target Western interests and public events, with the ultimate goal of creating free zones of training and operation for further attacks in the heart of Europe.

This represents a shift in strategic thinking; whereas the Balkans until relatively recently was considered a rear base of logistics and safe haven by jihadists, the Islamic State’s bold advances in the MENA have created a more militant aspiration among extremists who now see the Balkans as an actual theater of operations. The core ISIS supporters here have experience in close-quarters urban combat, which would be very difficult for local police to handle without significant collateral damage.

While the Macedonian special police’s May 9-10 Kumanovo operation represents the gold standard in this regard, with no civilian casualties, that was against a ‘known’ enemy (ethnic Albanian nationalists), not suicide bombers or other unconventional threats. The operation also benefited from a strong component of situational awareness and intelligence, even if international cooperation was non-existent which had and will have further repercussions for EU influence regarding the country’s security architecture.

The latest intelligence has identified three cells; two are ethnic Albanian in composition, while one is Bosniak. The leadership of each (two to four men) have fought for Al Nusra Front or ISIS in Syria or Iraq; however, while security services are aware of their presence, some of the key individuals returned from the Middle East prior to the passage of the so-called ‘foreign fighters laws’ by various Balkan countries, meaning they can only be monitored for now.

Of course, with the incessant wave of illegal migrants coming across the Turkish and thereafter Greek border into Macedonia, it is impossible to tell how many more ISIS fighters have entered the Balkans since. On that front, the continuing deterioration of Greece means that we can expect many more, stretching the capacities of Macedonian civil services and humanitarian organizations. This will be worsened if Serbia (under Hungarian and Austrian pressure) blocks these migrants at the border, creating a sort of ‘migrant bottleneck’ in Macedonia. In any case, Hungary’s strong anti-migrant stance means that a migrant bottleneck will be created somewhere in the Balkans, becoming most acute at border areas that are traditionally affected by organized crime to begin with.

If the next ten days or so passes peacefully, the most acute threat will have been averted, but the general high alert level will remain. The present threat includes possible attacks on US installations or personnel during the July 4th holiday, as well as the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Srebrenica killings later in the week, which is creating a supercharged atmosphere that could be exploited for religious and ethnic purposes. This atmosphere has already been unhelpfully affected, and great controversy aroused, because of the wording of British- and Russian-backed drafts and counter-drafts at the UN over the word ‘genocide’ and so on.

It is further expected that Muslim leaders (particularly the Turkish ones) will use Srebrenica to take their rhetorical revenge on those Western leaders, including Pope Francis, who supported the concept of an Armenian Genocide in April’s centennial commemoration of that event. The mood among the different sides will be particularly tense and prone to political manipulation in the days ahead.

This current climate of ethnic and religious discord would thus present a perfect opportunity for supporters of ISIS to strike. However, even if they don’t, the problem runs much deeper, as they involve long-term security and social trends, as well as the developing EU security architecture, which does not incorporate the Balkans in any meaningful way. And, on top of everything, we have Greece’s financial disaster and an unprecedented migration wave; the EU has basically told Balkan countries that they are on their own in handling this phenomenon.

An Unprecedented Range of Simultaneous Threats and Unhelpful Interference

Indeed, while the Commission’s proposal calls for the formation of a European Counterterrorism Center, the document we have seen does not envision anything significant regarding cooperation with candidate (and other) countries in the Balkans. With Greece now in default, illegal migrant numbers surging, and hostilities with Russia growing, Europe is divided as never before.

Thus, while the Continent faces a range of simultaneous security challenges unprecedented since the Second World War, the year 2015 so far is revealing both a lack of political agreement within the Union, and some incredibly irresponsible political and intelligence activities from certain EU countries who either deliberately or out of ignorance have failed to realize how their actions in the Balkans endanger regional and EU domestic security.

In some cases, this naughty behavior also indicates that the political and diplomatic classes are unaware that their own domestic security and intelligence agencies’ reach, even in far corners of the globe, relies on established intelligence cooperation with Balkan states. This makes Western political interference even more irritating for Balkan security services, as it complicates their own work in helping their colleagues do their jobs.

Around the Corner: ISIS

Amidst this perfect storm of competing interests, ambitions and incompetence, the European periphery is dominated by an ever-expanding presence of the Islamic State and its freelance terrorists in the MENA and beyond. The EU’s lack of cooperation with Balkan states, and the latter’s lack of capacity and mutual trust, is leading to a situation ideal for destabilizing activities from ISIS or its independent followers. It is true that a number of arrests in the last few years in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Austria and Italy have damaged the ISIS infrastructure; however, most of these actions targeted recruiters tasked with sending local fighters to the Middle East- not disrupting local plots, which until now have not been taken seriously anyway.

Law enforcement continues to lag behind the operational capacities and ambitions of Islamic terrorists such as ISIS. Regionally, aside from the above-mentioned restrictions, each country has strategic vulnerabilities that would make terrorist attacks easier, and magnify their effects. Unless the EU and regional states manage to create a realistic and coordinated mechanism for preparing for such threats, negative outcomes such as those mentioned below become more likely.

The following five examples are just a few of many possible scenarios that security services should be focusing on. Most of the stated acts of violence could be executed with only a small handful of personnel, and a budget of a few hundred euros or less. On the other hand, creating totally secure conditions against these threats would cost billions, and be socially and politically unacceptable anyway.

Furthermore, the repercussions for regional instability and thus collective European security would be magnified considerably in the case of attacks like some of those discussed below, as such events would increase internal political debate within EU electorates over the feasibility of the Balkan integration process in general.

All that considered, we present now the five most dangerous tactics ISIS could choose to use in the Balkans.

  1. Attack a Major Tourism Destination in Greece

The two ISIS-inspired attacks in Tunisia in 2015, on a museum and beach resort, have done tremendous damage to the country’s vital tourism industry, presenting a huge setback to what one foreign consultant recently called a political ‘success story’ (relative to its neighbors, at least). Since for ISIS attacks on Westerners abroad are just as desirable as attacks on actual locations in the West, soft targets like tourist resorts are ideal.

Everyone knows how vital tourism is to Greece and, with the country in uncharted waters following its IMF default on July 1st, the country really needs a strong summer season to preserve some semblance of normalcy. Unfortunately, the news of mass cancellations from foreign tour operators only a day later is limiting this potential.

Therefore, a well-conducted terrorist attack, especially on a high-end island like Mykonos or Santorini that are less affected by package tourism cancellations, would deal a significant blow to this vital industry. Anyone familiar with this industry and all of its minute details can easily understand the myriad ways a serious terrorist attack could be executed quickly, effectively and with minimal operational budget.

Indeed, due to geographic and other local realities, the situation today remains the same as in 2013, when a former CIA officer and consultant stated for that “the large majority of the sites, be they the historical ones or the hotels, are not secured and cannot be, including the large and expensive resorts.” This remains an accurate assessment and, despite the vigilance of security groups such as the Hellenic Coast Guard, there is no way that the country could protect its industry from a dedicated adversary- especially one prepared to die for the cause, as was the case recently in Tunisia. Really, the only reason such an attack has not yet happened in Greece is because international terrorist outfits have not found it in their strategic interest. That may rapidly change if civil order disintegrates in the country due to the economic uncertainty.

Here it should also be noted that any deterioration of Greece’s economy, whether due to a terrorist attack or simple financial reasons, would have adverse effects on the stability of nearby Albania, which has historically benefited significantly from remittances from Albanians living in Greece, and from Greek investments. In the short term, a terrorist attack would also cause diversions in air, land and sea traffic that would create traveler chaos affecting a wide variety of people.

In one scenario, economic deterioration and/or a terrorist attack would lead to a security vacuum in which urban vigilante squads, perhaps supported by the far-right Golden Dawn, clash with anarchists and possibly criminal gangs that are associated with specific migrant backgrounds. Widespread looting and breakdown of social order that could expedite organized crime and decrease police capacity to deal with migration cannot be excluded in such a case.

  1. Conduct an Attack of Deception to Inflame Religious and Ethnic Tensions

The recent ISIS massacre of over 100 returned residents of Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town that had already been destroyed by the Islamic State, occurred because ISIS gunmen had managed to obtain official-looking Kurdish uniforms, and thus avoided suspicion at checkpoints entering the town. Balkan police and military uniforms are not the most urgent inventory item to protect, and can easily be stolen for similar purposes. Or, accurate counterfeits can simply be created.

An attack by terrorists dressed as police or soldiers against the ‘other’ ethnicity or religion in a Balkan state would become an instant YouTube sensation and ignite street violence, protests and possibly worse destabilization. In an environment of chronic media irresponsibility (not to mention social media), disinformation can only inflame such situations. For anyone who remembers the events of March 2004, when a false media report by Kosovo media led to a 50,000-strong Albanian riot targeting the Serbian minority, this possibility represents a tangible concern with clear precedents.

In general, even without recourse to clever deception leading to an inter-ethnic attack, ISIS supporters can easily cause instability by anything from provocations to acts of violence involving mixed communities.

The latest intelligence we have obtained indicates that Balkan security services are now particularly concerned about the potential for attacks that would cause inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife in the following places: Skopje, Macedonia; Novi Pazar, in the Serbian Sandzak; Mitrovica, Kosovo; and Ulcinj, on Montenegro’s southern coast. Smaller places with more limited damage levels but similar destabilization potential would include ethnic enclaves in Bosnia and Kosovo and smaller towns with ethnically-mixed populations throughout the region.

Another area of interest to terrorists is perhaps southern Albania, where organized crime has long included a paramilitary component and where a mix of Orthodox, Bektashi and Hanafi Muslims live. The Bektashi represent a possible target for two reasons. One, they are numerous, peaceful and despised as apostates by Sunni radicals like ISIS; indeed, as one Salafist in Gostivar, Macedonia memorably told us a few years ago, the Bektashi “will burn in hell” as they are “worse than the Jews.” If that was the rhetoric pre-Islamic State, one can only imagine how the opinion is now, when ISIS has expanded the rules of jihad to include the torture and murder of every differing sectarian and ethnic group it encounters.

A second reason for targeting Bektashi populations in Albania or Macedonia is because they represent the key bridge population in the Obama Administration’s deradicalization program. Over the past couple years, Bektashi leaders have built close connections with the administration, lobbying in Washington for the lead role in the (soft power) war against Albanian radicalization. Of course, such a role would be welcomed by the Albanian political leadership as a mark of prestige in itself.

So, for better or for worse, the US administration chose to throw in its chips with Edi Rama, the socialist prime minister who has presented Albania as a sort of wonderland of multi-religious tolerance in speeches and staged events with luminaries like the pope. Through its embassy in Tirana, the US has since 2014 been running its regional operations, with liaison officials in the Skopje and Sarajevo embassies. However, much of the assistance has been of the legalese variety (in drafting foreign-fighters laws), and there is a lack of political will for the sort of serious anti-terrorism operations the US performed here in the 1990s.

A further problem is that partisan differences between Rama and the conservative-elected president, Bujar Nishani, have resulted in power struggles, manifesting in competition through attempted modifications of the intelligence, military and financial investigations structures. This behind-the-scenes infighting represents a tactical vulnerability in the Albanian state’s intelligence capacities that can be exploited by would-be terrorists or others. Worse for American interests in Albania, new intelligence indicates that Russia’s SVR has embarked on a long-term seeding program through mixed marriages and businesses in the country, which will create new challenges for future US-Albanian security cooperation.

Further compounding the intrigue here is the long-standing interest in Albania of Greece, Italy, the Vatican, Germany, the Arab states and more recently, Israel. In addition to foreign interests, Albania’s indigenous Catholic and Orthodox communities (the other key components in the ‘national harmony’ plan) also represent attractive targets for ISIS, since disrupting this harmony could have serious long-term consequences in a country already plagued by emigration and high levels of organized crime.

  1. Bring Back the Fighters through Increased Migrant Streams

The main question that Western intelligence services have been modeling since the situation in Syria started to go south was what effect returning jihadists would have on their European countries of origin. While the EU and Western governments were slow to act, and particularly to share intelligence with Turkey, the major jihadist route, they have started to work better in identifying returning fighters. However, this only applies to those who are recognized or identified. Many more are unknown and can easily blend in with the general stream of migrants. This is most acute in the Turkey-Greece-Macedonia route and the Libya-Italy route. The latter theater of operations is where many Syria fighters have been sent by sea to join the burgeoning war for ISIS expansion in North Africa.

Two specific vulnerabilities are compounding the difficulty in identifying returning Balkan fighters. One is that, following a new tradition, these fighters began to ritually burn their home passports (sometimes for the cameras, as propaganda elements) as an expression of their determination to follow the caliphate’s cause and to show that their personal sense of identity was no longer with the home country. The second issue owes specifically to a former Bulgarian foreign policy goal of creating ‘new Bulgarians’ by giving passports to locals of countries (everywhere from Moldova to Macedonia to Albania and Montenegro), who were willing to claim Bulgarian heritage.

Of course, Brussels has frowned on this practice, which has been used by Balkan residents eager to find work in the EU by having member state (Bulgarian) papers. But the aspect of it that caused security alarms and kept Bulgaria out of the Schengen Zone is that a number of ISIS or Al Nusra terrorists in the Middle East have been known to travel with Bulgarian passports obtained through the ‘national outreach’ program of recent years.

Identifying persons who may be known by home authorities in their original country is made more complicated because the transliteration process from Latin to Cyrillic letters does not always match up, meaning that ‘one person can become two’ rather easily. And this is not even mentioning the ease of obtaining false Balkan passports from counterfeit shops as far away as Bangladesh.

In general, the ever-increasing migrant flood will continue as Greece looks after its first priorities – its own citizens – and reduces policing on its borders with its northern neighbors. The EU is thus in a novel situation of illegal migrants entering non-EU Balkan states from an EU member state. This ground reality is rather the opposite of everything the EU has based its migration policies on, and it has no answer for the problem it is creating for aspiring candidates Macedonia and Albania.

The hastily-agreed internal EU migrant resettlement program that will not involve Bulgaria (on account of poverty) and Hungary (on account of fierce domestic opposition) does not consider non-member states, or the damage that member states can inflict on them- damage that will eventually continue further north, in the heart of the EU. Countries like Macedonia, Albania and Serbia are thus being left to their own devices, while the risible successes of Frontex on the Greek-Turkish border continue to bring ever more migrants to European shores, instead of dismantling the main trafficking networks.

Similarly, the lack of political will for a North African coastal blockade is already having its inevitable effect; increasing numbers of migrants, and increasing right-wing populism among European parties that play to anti-immigration fears, leaving the EU ever more divided on a policy-making level. All of this will have negative results for the kind of multi-national security cooperation required in order to separate potential terrorists from legitimate asylum seekers and economic migrants.

Since everywhere ISIS goes yet another indigenous population is forced to flee, we can only expect migration to Europe to increase, as the so-called international coalition continues to demonstrate no interest in eradicating ISIS once and for all- though the policy folks are doubtless working hard on crafting ‘counter-narratives to radicalism’ from the safety of their own desks.

  1. Assassinate Diplomats/Politicians and Target Westerners in the Region

Another avenue of destabilization that ISIS could conceivably take would be the path of assassinations or attacks on Western interests in the Balkans. This kind of terrorist act would in fact be so easy to accomplish that it is a mystery why it has not happened so far. Most Western embassies and cultural centers in the region barely have a solid fence, and even fortified compounds (like the ones the US is fond of building) have vulnerabilities.

Beyond the ramparts, there are more than enough moving targets for terrorists. Official diplomatic appearances including seminars at hotels, speeches at rural spots, parties at bars and so on are frequent and well advertised in advance through media and social media. For a committed terrorist, attacks on such events or personnel would be simple. Kosovo media has reported today that security fears are so high, in fact, that the annual July 4th celebrations in the ostensibly most pro-American country on earth may be cancelled.

Yet possibly even more destabilizing than this ‘Sarajevo scenario’ (referring to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914) would be the assassination of local politicians. In modern Balkan history, attempted and successful assassinations have ultimately been linked to organized crime or rogue elements within governments aligned with it. But the relative frequency of official public appearances by Balkan leaders, especially in an already tense atmosphere of internal infighting and mistrust, multiplies the potential damage from any such attack. And ISIS supporters, were they to carry out such a crime, would not even need to take the credit in order to cause massive civic unrest.

At present, Bosnia – still, an international protectorate with a visible foreign presence and well-known radical Islamic communities – would be the most likely place for an assassination attempt or other attack on Western interests. With the tension over Srebrenica and its commemoration feeding latent mistrusts, now would be an ideal moment for terrorists to exploit maximal benefit from such an attack.

Kosovo, another semi-protectorate where international officials have taken a very strong stance about the need for a domestic war crimes tribunal, is another spot where an attack on ‘the internationals’ could be carried out by ISIS, who if necessary would have plausible deniability, since the focus of a war crimes tribunal is on the country’s secular nationalist, not its Islamic figures. It is frankly mystifying why Western leaders are so adamant about alienating their former paramilitary protégés at the exact moment when the Islamic terrorism threat is becoming more acute.

  1. Target US/NATO Facilities on the ‘Eastern Front’

A less likely but similarly possible plot that would have disproportionate geo-political effects would be an attack on a recently enlarged target: US and other NATO troops dispatched to the ‘Eastern Front’ in the Russian near-abroad. This line of deterrence against perceived ‘Russian aggression’ will encompass the entire periphery from the Baltics and Poland down through Romania, Bulgaria and even Georgia. While this is perceived by its planners as a solid line of deterrence, it also represents a new enlarged target for terrorists.

While there have previously been US troops in Romania and Bulgaria, the number will increase significantly. Defense News reported earlier this year that “the addition of Romania and Bulgaria brings the number of soldiers conducting Atlantic Resolve training and exercises to about 1,900, up from about 900 now, officials from U.S. Army Europe said.”

The difference here, compared to long-established bases in countries like Germany or Italy is that construction, expansion and logistics are still ongoing and there are obvious situations wherein hostile actors could infiltrate the supply chain. Similarly, beyond the base, US servicemen out for a drink in friendly and open towns like Sliven or Constanta would be defenseless targets for committed terrorists.

With the focus of NATO’s mission squarely on Russia to the east, not enough attention is being paid to the south and west, where returning jihadists or their local sympathizers could attack the ever-increasing number of so-called ‘Western crusaders’ in the Balkans. An attack from ISIS or its sympathizers against newly-arrived US or other NATO soldiers would also damage the fragile cohesion of a coalition and general cause, the validity of which many European leaders already do not share with the US.

An Islamic terrorist attack on Western soldiers on the ‘Eastern Front’ would thus further increase dissent among politicians and populations who remain dubious about the reality of an actual Russian threat, something that would leave NATO and the EU internally more divided still.


A truly effective anti-terrorism strategy regarding the Balkans (and Europe in general) must accept that the operative conditions on the ground have changed fundamentally in the last year. It must also accept that there was a general failure to predict and prepare preventative measures for a radicalization trend that has been obvious for the last 10 years and more. This is not due to a lack of intelligence; indeed, as a CIA official mentioned to the present author last year, the agency had predicted the eventual radicalization of some Balkan Muslims as far back as 1999.

This indicates, yet again, that the real problem is on the political and policy-making side, which remains fundamentally allergic to the wise old adage that states, “it’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

Along with the problem of egoism, the lack of trust and clear cooperation between countries, and the ambivalent role of international security and political organizations continue to reduce the effectiveness of fighting terrorism. In order to address the vulnerabilities of each country, institution and multilateral relationship in time to defeat potential terrorist attacks, Western actors will have to engage much more substantially with regional countries. This will require the European Union and its national governments to put aside their political differences and undertake a radical rethink of security cooperation with countries beyond the bloc.

2004-2009 Back Archives