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From England, Local Perceptions of the Balkans and the Brexit Vote editor’s note: while the migration crisis has focused European public discourse on the threat or perceived threat of migrants from Muslim countries, the perception of migrants from non-Muslim countries has been largely overlooked. However, in at least one important referendum on public opinion – the June 23, 2016 Brexit vote – antipathy to ‘Eastern Europe’ made an appearance that came as a surprise to many outsiders. Some interesting opinions on the issue are found in the following brief local assessment from Leicester.

By Antonio Scancariello

Eastern European citizens living in the United Kingdom are facing an uncertain future after June’s referendum, with which Britain decided to leave the EU. The decision, also known as ‘Brexit,’ triggered debates over the rights EU citizens will have to live in the UK and is a source of worries for Romanians and Bulgarians, too.

In an informal survey designed to take the pulse of the locals in Leicester, England, asked British citizens what their views on the issue of immigration are, and where they stand when it comes to EU enlargement policies.

A barman working in one of Leicester’s pubs said: “The whole thing was quite bad, really. There will be no major changes soon, but maybe in two years time there will be more work for them to get their visas. It’s a big loss for the free movement of people, I intended to travel Europe myself.”

Commenting on having immigrants working in the UK, he said: “I don’t have any issues, we have employed Europeans here. I think the Brits who voted ‘Leave’ were the ones too lazy to get a job.”

Another respondent, a PhD student voiced this concern and said, “many people will question if they want to [come in the UK] because after the vote they feel they are not wanted. They may because they have no choice and feel like they cannot survive at home. A solution for them could be to go somewhere closer, like Germany or France.

It will take time to find a solution that can please everyone. I am not opposed to EU enlargement but it needs some reforms and needs stricter criteria,” noted this respondent.”

After the ‘Leave’ victory in the referendum held on June 23, a spate of hate speeches affected British society, which in the most serious cases resulted in the spreading of leaflets asking Polish people to go back to their countries, and act of vandalism to European shops, as the BBC reported in an article titled “Anti-Polish cards in Huntingdon after EU referendum.”

Nevertheless, since then “the hate speech that followed the referendum has died out, it was a campaign of fear,” a sales assistant said. “I can’t see sudden changes, and now it’s up to the new Tory government. As long as our economy is a strong one, we need people who can work, and there are lots of low-paid jobs to be filled.”

When he was asked what ‘Brexit’ could mean for people from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, this respondent said, “when it comes to finally leave the EU in two years time it will be hard for people to come here. But I don’t think there will be problems for the ones who are here now.”

Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK

There are 170,000 Romanians and 65,000 Bulgarians living in the UK, according to 2015 data quoted by Balkan Insight in March. Also, the UK is the fifth-largest destination for Romanian exports, accounting for slightly more than 4 percent of overall exports, evaluated at some 2.3 billion euros per year, according to the article. It notes that “social benefits are not the main drive luring Eastern Europeans to the UK, but jobs and higher wages, however.”

This motivation differs from the one frequently stated regarding MENA migrants, who have often been portrayed in European media as specifically seeking social benefits in generous countries like Sweden and Germany.

The future of both EU and non-EU citizens living in Britain is yet to be determined. Theresa May, who became prime minister after David Cameron’s resignation on June 24, put forward a new policy which would require non-EU citizens to match a £35,000 salary threshold to live in the UK, reported the Independent.

However, these are still early days and general proposals are not a substitute for final policies. Britain may have voted for Brexit, but it does not seem to be in a hurry to make the final divorce final. Nevertheless, persons who could be affected – even from EU countries like Bulgaria and Romania – will be watching events carefully in the upcoming period.


Chinese Investment Developments in the Balkans 2016: Focus on Montenegro

By Bilsana Bibic

On 7 July 2006, Montenegro (then a newly independent state) established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. China had recognized Montenegro’s sovereignty less than a month before. Since then, China’s relationship with Montenegro and other ex-Yugoslav countries has progressively evolved.

According to Loïc Poulain’s article China’s New Balkan Strategy (2011), China invests in Southeastern Europe in order to “circumvent the EU’s anti-dumping regulations and export products directly to a market of some 800 million people”. According to the same article, the Balkans, with their free-trade agreements and strategic positioning, are crucial for the resurrection and extension of the ancient Silk Road which would reduce the time needed for Chinese products to reach Europe.

Even though China’s grand Balkan scheme is somewhat doubtful, the intensification of Chinese investment in the region speaks to an increasingly growing interest. The best manifestation of this is the “16+1” initiative which started in 2012 and which seeks to improve economic relations between China and 16 European countries, including Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. At the last summit of the “16+1” platform in December 2014 in Belgrade, China promised a $3bn investment fund for Central and Eastern Europe.

Montenegro: Fleet Renewal and Highway Investments

Despite all of this, China is not a top investor in Montenegro at present. As a recent article concerning the Central Bank of Montenegro report on FDI notes, top investors are Norway, Italy, Hungary and Russia (in that exact, surprising order). However, the China Exim Bank loans for the construction of the Podgorica-Kolasin motorway section (total cost 809.6 million euros) and for the renewal of the Montenegrin ship fleet (total cost circa €100 million) are in no way negligible.

In fact, Prime Minister Djukanovic had already in 2013 deemed the motorway project “the most important infrastructure project for the future economic development of Montenegro”. The financing agreement for the motorway project entitling China Road and Bridge Corp (CRBC) to build 41 kilometers of the 169.2 kilometers Bar-Boljare motorway was signed on 30 October, 2014. The conditions are favorable. The €689 million loan is given for 20 years, with a 6-year grace period and a 2% fixed interest rate. The project is exempted from taxes and custom fees under the Law on Major Highway and requires that at least 30% of the work be assigned to local companies.


However, the project has been a fairly controversial topic in Montenegro itself. In March 2014, the World Bank withdrew its budget support loan while the IMF warned of dangers to fiscal stability. The EBRD 2015-2016 Transition Report deemed economic growth of Montenegro in 2014 “disappointing”. Moreover, public debt has been gradually increasing (70.56% GDP in 2016 and growing) while the repayment of debt is requiring greater funds each year.

MP Mladen Bojanic spoke of the other risks involved in the motorway project in an interview in November 2014, noting the currency risk (the loan is denominated in US dollars), the risk of construction quality, the risk of failure to fulfill the deadline (set for 2019) and so on.

There is also a risk that most of the work will be done by Chinese personnel, at the expense of the local Montenegrin workforce, and the fact that many investors are government-owned companies which could “raise eyebrows… in Brussels”, according to a Forbes article from June 2016.

Budget and Exemption Issues

The controversy surrounding the construction of the motorway Bar-Boljare partially stems from the way in which the Parliament of Montenegro approved the project in the first place. Namely, a new law on fiscal responsibility was passed in 2014 as a way to improve public finance management. However, the motorway was termed a project of national interest which allowed for higher deficit and debt in its case, despite the newly adapted law. In order to accommodate obligations related to the motorway project, the Montenegrin government introduced measures of fiscal tightening – a 2% VAT increase, a 4% income tax for above-average earnings and more.

Debt and Developments

These measures, however, are not entirely negative. Their timing and extent, according to the EBRD 2015-2016 Transition Report indicate that they are a sign of “progress in consolidating public finances in Montenegro”. For example, the 7 cents tax on gasoline and taxes to be introduced on coffee, alcohol, carbonated drinks, tobacco etc. are very unpopular but are also a way to prepare for the repayment of the motorway project loan.

In the same vein, the steadily increasing public debt is concerning. However, the motorway project – the main reason for its increase – is “an investment which will positively affect Montenegrin economy”, according to the Central Bank of Montenegro governor Milojica Dakic. The first beneficiaries of the motorway project are the owners of domestic construction companies – the contract stipulates that these companies are supposed to do 30% of the work. According to Ivan Brajovic, the Minister of Transport and Maritime Affairs, 25.16% of the work has been subcontracted so far, while 684 workers have been engaged in the construction.

Some worries, however, remain. The official start of the motorway project was supposed to have been on May 11, 2015. However, the first leveling of the concrete for the Moracica bridge, marking the real beginning of the works took place very recently, on June 3, 2016. The delays bring into question the possibility of finishing the project within the agreed deadline and budget. However, as Brajovic noted, the state has protected itself from delays caused by the contractor. According to him, “the value of agreed penalties reaches 5% of the total project value.”

Other Chinese Projects in Montenegro

Aside from the motorway project, China has one more significant investment in Montenegro, and two more potential investments. They are summarized well in a recent article by Central European Initiative and consist of:

Renewal of the ship fleet

Energy projects (potential)

Blue Corridor Motorway project (potential)

The renewal of the ship fleet began with a loan from China’s Exim Bank worth €56 million. Montenegro used this money to buy two ships, made by Chinese Poly Group. The first two ships were delivered in 2012 for the Montenegrin maritime company, thanks to a 3% fixed interest loan with a 5-year grace period and 15-year maturity. The second two ships were ordered the same year but under slightly different arrangements – 20-year maturity and 2% interest rate for a loan worth around 41 million euros.

According to the above-mentioned article by Central European Initiative, the potential investments in the energy projects in Montenegro consist of the construction of hydropower plants on the Moraca and Komarnica (5 in total) with combined costs of €664 million, and a new unit of a thermal power plant in Pljevlja, worth €326 million. The Chinese Companies Consortium delivered an offer for the power plan unit in March 2013. However, the project was not followed through.

Finally, there is the possibility of Chinese investment in the Blue Corridor motorway project, stretching along the eastern shore of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. The Memorandum of Understanding between Montenegro, Albania and China’s Pacific Construction Group Corporation Limited was signed in November 2015. However, there have been no other concrete developments on this project so far.


As a strong economy with favorable loan conditions and an alternative to the European Union’s more rigid investment funds stipulations, China is an increasingly important partner for the Balkan countries. Its growing interest in the Balkans and Montenegro can be seen from the above examples. China’s interest in the Balkans might as well be, as Poulain’s China’s New Balkan Strategy suggested five years ago, primarily a way to expand the Chinese exports. However, its investments in Montenegro suggest that both sides benefit. The concerns surrounding the motorway project and other Chinese investments, however, should not be ignored. With the ongoing works and continued partnership, the extent of the benefits Montenegro will reap in the long run remains to be seen.

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.

Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 3: Misadventures in Macedonia

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

This, the third installment in our present series, provides exclusive on-the-record official comments, allowing us to add pieces to the still incomplete historical record of Macedonia’s political crisis. The story concerns both the perceived activity of Italian diplomacy and intelligence in the crisis, and Italian intelligence’s research regarding the migrant crisis. Here is where the present series converges with The Great Unraveling, our ongoing investigation of how the crisis caused network destruction and a string of tactical failures.

Bellelli-Popovski-Star of Italy Medal MFA

An offer you can’t refuse: Ambassador Bellelli hangs a medal around the neck of Foreign Minister Popovski (MFA photo)

An Uneasy Peace

Although Italy’s diplomatic and intelligence services have suffered the occasional scandal in different countries, Macedonia is the only place where they are now so completely compromised. However, the casual observer would never know it, and officials from both sides seem confident that with the passage of time all will be well again. After all, nothing seems to have ever been wrong, as cooperation continues as usual- on the surface.

The Macedonians have always been known for their passivity, so the lack of public anti-Italian protests or diplomatic expulsions is not surprising. But Macedonians do have long memories. The now widespread perception that Italy provided clandestine support for SDSM leader Zoran Zaev’s failed coup will linger long after his alleged co-conspirator, Ambassador Ernesto Massimino Bellelli, enjoys his last farewell garden party and leaves Skopje next month. (Bellelli denies any wrongdoing, as our exclusive interview with him below reveals).

While the whole affair has not seriously affected bilateral relations, the mistrust generated will have an uncertain effect for Italian intelligence, which will be forced to take new measures and find new assets. As The Great Unraveling series reveals, a feature of the crisis has been network compromises, and AISE is among the foreign services that have fared worst in this respect.

“Even Little Children on the Street Know”: Public Perception and Timeline of Correspondence

As said above, the present article is meant to contribute to the historical record. A timeline of events that indicates Italian non-cooperation is thus relevant to the overall history of events.

In summer 2015, when the political crisis was peaking, we recall how locals would joke that “even little children on the street know that [Italian Ambassador] Bellelli and Zaev worked together during the coup attempt!” Whether or not it is true, this perception is now deeply embedded in the national psyche. Nevertheless, this story has received very little coverage in local media (and none at all in the foreign press). It is also unclear whether the Italian MFA and EU are aware of Macedonian public perception regarding Italian diplomacy.

As was the case with our investigation of the EU’s Macedonia activities, and the Skopje Delegation’s incredible disappearing envoy, Aivo Orav, the Italian Embassy was very cautious about helping us help them to clarify their role. As was the case with our reporting regarding EU activities, this reticence from the Italian side considerably delayed production of the present analysis.

For example, we contacted the AISE representative in Skopje, Deputy Head of Mission Filippo Candela, on 2 September 2015 to request a friendly conversation. There was no reply to either that request, or to a follow-up one on 17 November 2015. (However, Candela did make time for a pre-Christmas feature with Anadolu Agency in Macedonia in December 2015). We tried again on 9 April 2016, emphasizing that it would be advantageous for him to discuss in person, but the response that came was vague.

Thus we were left with the last (and least preferred) option of sending official questions regarding Italian diplomatic and intelligence activity in Macedonia, on 20 April. (As we would learn later, that was an exciting day for the Italians, though it is a story for another time). In a 2 May response, Candela did not answer the questions, but did express curiosity about how we knew that he will be promoted to the AISE station in Argentina.

Trying to arrange a meeting with Ambassador Bellelli was a combustible experience (and will make for an interesting story in itself, someday). To his credit, the ambassador was finally persuaded to grant us an audience, on 27 June 2016. Thus, as with the EU, we experienced a nine-month delay in confirming any information. In both cases, this has directly and adversely affected our ability to verify key aspects of the crisis.


In happier times: Bellelli speaks, AISE’s Candela listens from audience at diplomatic event ( photo)

The Status Quo Today- Everyone’s Happy

For now, everyone seems to be enjoying the status quo. Ambassadors Bellelli and Orav, the EU’s invisible man, will rotate out in August, to be replaced by other diplomats. Anyway, it was never in the interests of either Zaev’s SDSM or the ruling VMRO-DPMNE of Nikola Gruevski to damage such diplomats publicly. The political price from outside would be heavy, and anyway there was sufficient implicit pressure that could be brought to bear – for completely opposite interests – because of information arising from the Coup investigation and wiretaps affair.

This was enough to ensure diplomatic support of SDSM causes and, for Bellelli at least, to help the government, as with investment generation. There were other ways of keeping the government in line, of course, as when Bellelli conferred the Order of the Star of Italy on Macedonian Foreign Minister Popovski, on 2 June 2016. However, the migrant crisis, on the other hand, saw both Orav and Bellelli play a negative role. That case will be examined at another time.

The Effect of the Crisis on Disrupting Traditional Italian Intelligence Activities in Macedonia

Both before and after the 2007 restructuring we discussed here, Italy’s intelligence and law enforcement orientation towards Macedonia has focused on organized crime and radical Islamism, which led them inevitably to cover the Albanian and Muslim populations. Indeed, as reported in January 2007, a DIGOS operation of 2006 targeted Balkan Muslims in the Trieste-Treviso region. It was based partly on intelligence gathered regarding the Struga-area villages, from where some of the suspects originally came. Cooperation with local authorities was good, and Italian intelligence developed strong networks.

This would be severely damaged when, in 2014 and 2015, the publicly perceived involvement of Italian diplomacy and intelligence with Zaev’s attempted coup caused internal paranoia and had a chilling effect on cooperation. Not only did mistrust between Italian and Macedonian services increase, but the complete uprooting of networks involved with the coup attempt were massive setbacks for Italy and some of its partner services.

This was especially unfortunate for Italy, as the migrant crisis was coincidentally then unfolding. Work needed to be done on that front, while also maintaining regular operations and assessing damage control. But the biggest result of getting sucked in to the politics of the crisis was a relative neglect of the more important core issues – terrorism and organized crime – that had always characterized Italy’s traditional intelligence focus in Macedonia.

Western Entrapment and Data on the Black Market

Fortunately for Italy, several other Western countries were entrapped by Zaev in early 2015, when he reportedly told them that their own officials had been wiretapped by the Gruevski government. We will return to this claim later, as Bellelli has confirmed Zaev’s general statement in our interview.

It is important to state that, while plenty of wiretapped conversations involving locals have been leaked, not one involving foreign diplomats have ever appeared. Their existence is of course known both to the SDSM (which collected, transcribed and released wiretapped recordings) and the government (which investigated them) as well as to European investigators (the Priebe Team, which confirmed in its official report that foreign diplomats had been tapped).

There was thus room for tacit blackmail (not to mention black-market sales) regarding such prized possessions; this remains an unknown aspect of the pressure dynamics of the crisis. From all available information, however, it appears that black-market resale of wiretapped conversations involving foreigners have fetched a categorically higher price than those involving ‘just’ locals, in the murky world of criminals, intelligence services and politicians trading in data.

The fact that illicit transactions of wiretapped data directly derived from Zaev’s treasure-trove became public knowledge after the 24 December 2015 arrest of an ethnic Albanian SDSM member, Zakir Bekiri (nicknamed ‘Chaush’) At the time, Deputy Public Prosecutor Jovan Cvetanovski stated that, among many forged documents, “tens of thousands” of wiretapped conversations were seized, according to Dnevnik. The number was so large, Cvetanovski stated, that it would take at least two months to investigate their contents. But, as later events would show vividly, conversations sold from the Chaush archive would cause internal crisis among the Albanian parties, and tactical intelligence power shifts around the Balkans and Western Europe.

The Chaush affair was, unsurprisingly, largely ignored by international media. It was a huge embarrassment for both SDSM and the Special Prosecutor’s Office, which had been created by the July 2015 Przino Agreement. The SPO was supposed to have had full possession of all wiretapped material, after Zaev had publicly handed it over to the kangaroo institution. But it failed to make an initial official inventory, despite requests from the Public Prosecutor. As the Chaush case revealed, the SPO did not in fact have exclusive possession of wiretapped material. This fatally undermined its credibility, and that of Western countries that heavily backed it- including Italy. Of course, this fact was deliberately ignored by foreign media charged with upholding the SPO’s professionalism and general righteousness.

Further, the Chaush arrest also revealed new intelligence about the Kosovo-based terrorist cell that was liquidated in May 2015 in Kumanovo. Intelligence sources have revealed that there is a Tirana connection, and cooperation occurred between ex-Albanian intelligence personnel and the Kosovo underworld, which were known to but not blocked by Western services. A constant theme of The Great Unraveling series is constant tactical failure; this was neither the first nor the last time that it would happen during the crisis.

Bellelli-Zaev Oct 2015 Yeni Balkan

Friendly relations: Bellelli and SDSM boss Zoran Zaev (Yeni Balkan photo)

But these are stories for another time. The main point is, as we have noted before, that foreign interests and not local ones are those most damaged by the ongoing crisis, as scandals compound upon each other, and as the powers-that-be continue to lose control of the ‘narrative’ while failing to accurately assess future events. This helps explain both the reluctance of foreign missions to cooperate with journalistic requests, and their determination to end the crisis soonest, as their decision to support people with no credibility among the majority of Macedonians continues to fuel public anger. This policy could have long-term consequences for Western diplomacy in Macedonia.

Diplomatic Unity: the Key Early Factor

It is not clear to what extent Zaev’s initial claims before the ambassadors were actually true, and there is no point in asking him as he has displayed a tendency to contradict himself (sometimes, in the same sentence). But the tactic did have the desired effect: creating a united and indignant Western front that would then get the EU involved, and demand punitive measures against the government.

This led directly to the involvement of EU Commissioners Hahn and Mogherini, and the catastrophic Priebe Report, which we dissected in detail here. This report became the basis for the July 15 Przino Agreement which (predictably enough) failed to end the crisis. Now, the new 20 July 2016 agreement between political parties, which anticipates elections possibly in December, also reasserts support for the Priebe ‘reforms’ and the SPO. Predictably enough, Macedonian politicians have accommodated themselves to the foreign plan, no matter how flawed it is, expecting to gain some advantage in future.

Yet this still does not answer the question of why Italy was perceived as playing such a key role.

Context: the Attempted Coup through Wiretapping Releases (the Putsch Case)

Italy might have never been implicated, had it not been for one key fact, and one key player. First, under the general ‘umbrella’ of Western diplomacy in Macedonia, Italy has traditionally been assigned with ‘covering’ SDSM specifically. As for the key player, this was SDSM-era UBK (counter-intelligence agency) chief Zoran Verusevski, who had worked at the Macedonian Embassy in Rome between 2007-2010.

Verusevski, who was arrested on 23 January 2015, would be accused by the State Prosecutor in late March of having used inside men in the UBK’s SIGINT department to continuously wiretap whoever he wanted between 2010 and 2014, allegedly in cooperation with foreign intelligence services. According to numerous local media reports and our sources, he was activated in August 2014 and sold the tapes to Zaev. According to our sources, these two had not met with each other for years until that point. It is also unclear whether Verusevski sold the tapes exclusively to Zaev, or kept some in reserve.

Having recently worked at the Macedonian Embassy in Rome, Verusevski possibly developed a taste for life there. For researchers, his activities while stationed in Rome are largely unknown. But our sources believe that it was Verusevski’s pre-existing networks made in Macedonia during the 1990s (as opposed to some new contacts in Italy) that were most important to the creation of the wiretapping program. Verusevski had already been publicly blamed as the mastermind of the 2000 ‘Big Ear’ wiretapping scandal, also directed against a VMRO-DPMNE government. While in Italy he would surely have been aware of the specific Telecom Italy wiretap scandal which we discussed in Part 2 of this series, and which partially led to the 2007 reform of Italy’s intelligence services.

In that case (as well as the earlier Greek Vodafone scandal also mentioned therein), hostile actors were able to insert software to enter networks undetected and tap lines. In the Macedonian case, it is not clear how the SIGINT system was accessed, whether this could have been accomplished at different times and from multiple locations and so on. Only the State Prosecutor and a few others know these details.

The reason the general public does not know is because of EU failure: while a technical mission such as the Priebe Team could have conceivably clarified this, such tasks were removed from its mandate, because Commissioner Hahn chose to emphasize covering ‘rule of law’ in the report. That the ‘scandal’ should be treated as a rule of law issue rather than an intelligence one was determined when Zaev began touring the embassies in February 2015 to discuss the wiretaps in his possession.

The case that the Macedonian State Prosecutor’s Office originally brought against Verusevski is called Putsch (Coup). It claims that the ex-spymaster, his colleagues and SDSM leaders conspired to blackmail the Gruevski government by threatening to release incriminating wiretapped data- which Zaev began to do on 9 February 2015, getting plenty of foreign media attention. However, that same media avoided coverage of Verusevski and the alleged plot, instead concentrating on the content of wiretaps. It was the same unfortunate decision of content-over-provenance made by the Hahn Commission and Priebe Team.

The Alleged Coup Master Threatens Macedonia, and SPO Politics

On 27 June 2016, Alfa TV reported a chilling message sent by the alleged leader of the foreign-backed coup. Speaking through his lawyer, Zoran Verusevski boasted that “my influence in the intelligence service today has never been bigger, since the first September day in 1981 when I started with intelligence work.”

Alfa noted that “for many people, this is a direct message to the judges who are handling his case, and also a message to the employees in the security and intelligence sector, that he is powerful and protected.”

Whether or not his boast reflects reality, Verusevski’s threat was not censured by any of the Western diplomats who are supposedly so concerned about the rule of law and non-intimidation of the judiciary. When Alfa asked Special Prosecutor Janeva whether she sanctioned such threats, she would not speak about “comments from other people.” It had been Janeva who supported the release of Verusevski and alleged UBK co-conspirator Gjorgi Lazarevski from jail, on 25 December 2015. The decision caused ‘euphoria’ among SDSM and the pro-opposition civil society funded by Soros (the future ‘Colorful Revolution’ crowd), reported Kurir at the time.

Through the SPO, Western powers sought to put the Putsch case ‘safely’ into the hands of its puppet prosecutors, to ensure that foreign elements are never held responsible for potential involvement in the failed coup. Only a very few people know how damaging the results of the investigation would be for Western diplomatic and intelligence interests, but we estimate they would be spectacular. This helps explain why the Macedonian Constitutional Court has come under such heavy pressure from Western diplomats to guarantee the SPO’s constitutional legitimacy, though it has none.

Today, to the great consternation of the incompetent diplomats who have managed it, the SPO has lost all credibility among the public, and any constructive role it might have served has been fatally undermined. On 3 February 2016, SDSM leader Zaev stated that he expected “results” from an SPO that he had fought to create, and that these results would influence the upcoming election, by punishing “those criminals who are running the country.”

Such rhetoric gave VMRO leader Gruevski the opportunity to accuse the SPO of seeking pro-SDSM ‘selective’ justice. In poll after poll, large majorities of the Macedonian public have shown disapproval for the SPO and confirmed their belief that it is a political instrument of Western powers designed to benefit the hugely unpopular SDSM.

Foreign attempts to rehabilitate the image of Janeva and her team have included sympathetic foreign media coverage and events. The Italians have been involved in this, too. The prime example was the invitation from the Francesa Movrillo Falcone Foundation, for Janeva and her two assistant prosecutors to visit a high-level memorial for the late Italian judge, Giovanni Falcone. Yet their appearance there on 23 May 2016 did nothing to change public opinion in Macedonia.

Allegations of Italy’s Role in the Verusevski Extraction Plot and Crisis Management in Early 2015

Since early 2015, Italy has been singled out merely for a supporting role in the overall coup plot. Our exclusive interview with Ambassador Bellelli, which will be discussed below, reaffirms this conclusion. It also reaffirms our original suspicion that the Italian Embassy did not seek to get involved, but was tricked into participation and could not extricate itself once sucked in.

The question that remains, and which will also be discussed below, is whether the Italian Foreign Ministry – whether under Mogherini or after – was even aware of this situation, and whether Mogherini as EU Commissioner is aware of it. Again, some diplomatic testimony might suggest that they were not fully cognizant of the damage suffered by the embassy in Skopje.

In this 1 December 2015 interview, Macedonian journalist Boban Nonkovic mentioned some aspects of the alleged scandal that had been rumored about for months by then throughout the country. Nonkovic, who has represented the Macedonian Information Agency in Brussels for years, is one of the most objective and well-informed Macedonian journalists, so it is worth taking his comments seriously.

“Ambassador Bellelli – as will be shown by the Putsch case, if it ever gets judicially finished – was meeting with the Strumica major [Zaev] in unsightly [неугледни] and dark places, after midnight, to make deals about the strategies [that should be followed by SDSM], in the period of the publishing the so-called ‘bombs,’” contended Nonkovic. “That means that one EU member state is giving protection to the SDSM leader, and this is why Brussels cannot stay on the sidelines, especially since the people in power in Italy, who were working on getting a work visa for Verusevski, actually also gave us the present high commissioner for foreign affairs and security, Federica Mogherini. All of them are Social Democrats.”

Senior sources from different countries surveyed by since January 2015 have confirmed all or part of such local media coverage. The composite picture that emerges is that Verusevski was activated by his foreign handlers in August 2014, and sold Zaev the wiretapped material that the latter had already been alluding to for months, when threatening to have a ‘bomb’ that would topple the government. (At the time, most people did not take him seriously, assuming it was just Zaev being Zaev).

After September 2014, two things allegedly happened: one, Verusevski sought to guarantee an escape route by asking Zaev to get him an Italian work permit from Bellelli; according to several sources, Verusevski expected to become a professor or work in a think-tank, in a country where he had worked a few years earlier, and thus deftly escape from whatever chaos was caused by the impending coup. Whether or not the visa was ever granted, the wily ex-spymaster would have known that even a request would entrap Bellelli and thus win his cooperation.

The second thing that happened was Zaev unwisely went to Gruevski and directly threatened him, claiming that a non-regional foreign intelligence service gave him wiretapped data. According to Kanal 5, Zaev visited the prime minister’s office four times (28 September, 9 October, 31 October and 17 November 2014). Later, Gruevski claimed that he had obtained legal permission to clandestinely film one of these meetings, given the serious nature of the threat. When the video of Zaev making precisely this threat was later leaked on Youtube, Macedonians were outraged with Zaev’s reckless and treasonous behavior.

Our sources confirm another aspect that reinforces the theme of tactical failure studied in The Great Unraveling series. The release of the wiretapped ‘bombs’ had been originally scheduled for spring, but by blatantly threatening Gruevski in fall 2014, Zaev triggered a secret investigation that brought the whole coup plot crashing down, when Verusevski and his cohorts were arrested in late January 2015.

The unexpected arrest of Verusevski and roll-up of his UBK network in January thus forced SDSM to speed up its ‘bombs’ campaign before it was ready. VMRO-DPMNE was not ready to defend itself either and, fearing international criticism, did not arrest Zaev. It thus allowed the farce to become a world media spectacle. In Macedonia, experience has shown that if you do not kill an infection immediately, it will rapidly metastasize. With typically Macedonian thinking, PM Gruevski had naïvely assumed that the facts would speak for themselves, and that justice would be served. But while he had the support of the people, he did not count on the concerted and overwhelming power, influence and money of Western structures opposed to him.

So Was Bellelli Guilty? Some Caveats

Ernesto Massimino Bellelli is a typical old-school Italian diplomat: from an aristocratic family, impeccably dressed, favoring a good espresso. His father was among Italy’s first diplomats in Socialist Yugoslavia (Bellelli himself was born in Zagreb, in 1955). His sister is Italian consul in Miami. He has worked in ‘serious’ countries such as India, Brazil and, most recently, Iraq. We understand that he will soon return to Rome for a relaxed pre-retirement post dealing with regional cooperation. When he arrived in Skopje on 2 December 2013, getting involved in a Balkan conspiracy was certainly the last thing on his mind.

So, could Ambassador Bellelli have masterminded a coup, one which involved political party leaders, SIGINT experts and international intelligence figures? Or, if not, what was his role in the Macedonian crisis? Unfortunately, only a confused but somehow revealing picture emerges from our interviews with the ambassador, senior Italian foreign ministry officials, and other informed persons.

Bellelli’s appointment in 2013 was not considered auspicious. One American diplomat who is on good terms with him told that he suspected it was a “pre-retirement posting.” A senior Italian MFA official goes even further, noting that Italy generally does not put a high priority on Macedonia: “unlike Belgrade, where senior diplomats serve, or even Kosovo or Montenegro where younger diplomats might be appointed, we tend to send older diplomats to Skopje.”

Further, when asked whether Bellelli could have been involved with steering the coup plot, the Italian diplomat – who knows the Bellelli family well – said “He is not that smart. I do not think he has the knowledge or capability to handle such a serious operation.”

Unsurprisingly, Bellelli denied all specific contentions in our 27 June interview. Whereas the intelligence and media reports (such as the above-cited Nonkovic interview) indicate that Bellelli met Zaev several times clandestinely in SDSM safe houses in the Aerodrom neighborhood of Skopje, in underground car parks, and in Zaev’s home city of Strumica to discuss strategy and the possibility of getting Verusevski a visa, the ambassador vigorously denied this. “I have met Zaev mostly in the SDSM headquarters, or here in the embassy,” he said, “and not in Aerodrom.” Bellelli added that he has met Zaev at the annual winter carnival in Strumica.

Regarding Verusevski, Bellelli told us that “the only factual aspect of this is that we were asked about how to obtain a residence visa” for the SDSM insider. According to Bellelli, the ex-spymaster even showed up in person at the consular section of the Italian Embassy in Skopje. “We informed him [about the process] as we normally do, for anyone who asks. But the visa was never applied for, so it was never granted,” attested Bellelli. And, because there was no application, there is no record of Verusevski having appeared at the embassy at all, he said.

There is something strange about all this. Firstly, Bellelli did not remember when Verusevski came to the embassy. Nor did he seem cognizant of the person he was discussing. It is common knowledge that Verusevski is one of the most feared and controversial persons in Macedonia. In fact, on the very day of our interview, Verusevski’s latest threat about having strong influence in the secret services was being reported.

It therefore beggars belief that an Italian ambassador, serving in country for three years during an extensive crisis situation, could claim that his embassy knew of Verusevski simply as “a university professor,” which is how described him to us. It also seems implausible that, under any circumstance, Verusevski – a person with previous experience in Italy, and high-level connections – would have ever needed to come in person to the embassy for visa information. If so, it would have certainly been a cover, and it would have had to have occurred previous to his arrest in January 2015. But when? Bellelli did not remember, and claims there is no written record of the visit, as no application was made. Something just does not add up.

Testimony: When Zaev Informed Bellelli of the Wiretaps

In the interview, Bellelli also could not remember precisely when Zoran Zaev first told him that his phone had been tapped. “Zaev mentioned that I was one of the ambassadors tapped,” Bellelli stated. “I expressed my strong surprise as this is against the Vienna Convention.”

While the Priebe Report specifies that foreign diplomats were tapped, none of them have been identified, officially. However, Bellelli specified for us that Zaev told him six ambassadors had been tapped. Zaev has always lied that the government was guilty of tapping everyone, as opposed to Verusevski’s people. That lie was central to the SDSM campaign that started the crisis, and was bought into wholesale by gullible (and not so gullible) foreign officials, media and other entities.

Soon after beginning its ‘bombs’ campaign, SDSM developed a tactic of presenting targeted persons from whom it sought to win support with folders of their own taped data. This included diplomats and, on 27 February, opposition journalists too.

When asked whether Zaev had presented him with a similar folder, Bellelli told us that the SDSM leader “did not offer, and I did not ask for [transcripts of] my communications.” The reason for not requesting this information, Bellelli said, was because “I did not want to be in possession of illegal information. Asking for something illegally produced was not in line with the way the Italian embassy works.”

Fair enough. This would seem to give the ambassador some degree of plausible deniability. However, he did not elaborate on any specific communications topics that Zaev might have told him about- topics that, real or imagined, would have caused Bellelli (and the other Western ambassadors) to make a unified and hostile front against the government.

Yet rather strangely, considering that we did not ask, Bellelli chose to add a specific detail about the folder of conversations that he allegedly did not receive. “I presume they were [transcribed] in English or Italian.” Taken together with the phrasing of many of Bellelli’s other responses, it added to the overall sense that something is wrong with the picture he tried to present.

Therefore, from his overall testimony, Bellelli paints himself as an ambassador who was uninformed about one of the most famously controversial people in Macedonia (Verusevski), as disinterested in knowing anything about private data concerning himself from Zaev, and also keen to avoid exploring the greatest mystery of all- the provenance of the wiretapped material.

When asked whether he had ever questioned the plausibility of Zaev’s basic claim, Bellelli demurred. Here we had a case in which a government somehow carried out a vast wiretapping operation in which it just so happened to make thousands of recordings incriminating itself. Of course the whole premise was ridiculous. Yet despite the absurdity of this scenario, Bellelli has been one of the strongest Western ambassadors in pressuring the government to toe the EU line. In general, most Italian analysts and think-tank experts surveyed by also seem to have believed the propaganda spun by SDSM and its backers unquestioningly.

Yet despite his strong convictions, Bellelli was curiously disinterested in discovering the truth of what actually happened in Macedonia. When we asked whether he had any suspicions about Zaev’s allegations, he gave the lame response that “I don’t know, but certainly the [SIGINT] equipment was in the government [facilities] and was state equipment.  Maybe it was not the government [at fault], but the government is responsible if something happens.” This is precisely the argument given in the Priebe report, which as we have reported, deliberately avoided investigating the provenance of the recordings.

One key question the Priebe Team could not answer in our previous answer, because they did not research the matter, was whether all local telecom networks had been tapped. This is potentially extremely important, because a source generally aware of the case told that all of the recordings appear to have been made on the T-Mobile network, not others. If this is the case, then the possibility emerges that not only government SIGINT equipment was used, and that a software intrusion method similar to the Telecom Italia case could have been used additionally to penetration of MOI equipment. If this turns out to be true, the whole case would take on entirely new dimensions.

Yet instead of asking serious questions, the Italians followed (and helped shape) the trajectory of EU intervention in Macedonia. Because “the bomb campaign was going on,” Bellelli told us, “the response for this, our idea was to respect what we thought was a concern.” This was done by the common pressure applied by the Western diplomats leading to Priebe and Przino.

Regarding the Priebe team, Bellelli stated that the Enlargement Commission “did not consult with us during planning,” noting that the EU mission was independent of member state influence. “I met only briefly with Priebe,” he stated. This is an extremely interesting revelation, considering that in our previous report, a senior team official specified only that they had met US Ambassador Jess Baily at a dinner, and that the team was aware of “underground interest” from the various embassies in Skopje. But no mention of a specific Bellelli-Priebe meeting was made. Clearly, there is more to this story.

Another question also left unanswered from our interview with Bellelli was how one Italian member of the Priebe team, Inspector Maurizio Varanese, went on to advise the Special Prosecutor’s Office after Przino. We strongly suspect that the decision had to do, on a larger level, with helping to lead the SPO in the ‘right direction’ in regards to what its duties would be. By November, Varanese was helping the Macedonian government to change its law on interception of communication.

Mogherini’s First Appearance

But the already strange case hardly ends here. Bellelli’s activities during the crisis are particularly important because the period intersected with the promotion of his MFA boss, Federica Mogherini, to EU foreign affairs commissioner- in precisely the period when the coup plan was secretly moving forward. And that was also the same period when Italy was holding the EU’s rotating presidency (July through December) 2014, which came right after the EU presidency of close ally Greece.

Italy capitalized on its position by sending then-Foreign Minister Mogherini around the Balkans for a few days near the end of July 2014. In Macedonia, she met state and party leaders. One important meeting occurred on July 25, when she met Bellelli, together with SDSM deputy chief Radmila Sekerinska and fellow SDSM man Damjan Mancevski. A senior member of the Priebe team confessed to us earlier that he knew what everyone in Macedonia already knows: that the cunning Sekerinska (a protégé of founding SDSM boss Branko Crvenkovski) has always been the real leader of the party. The less intelligent Zaev was sent up to make the public addresses, a president just in name, a rural mayor who could easily be sacrificed.

According to our sources, Mancevski would be assigned by SDSM with the task of selecting which particular wiretapped conversations would be used from among Verusevski’s massive, four-year trawl. Those conversations were then either transcribed (as discussed above) or broadcast on TV and internet as ‘bombs.’ From 9 February 2015, when the bombs campaign began, the government would claim that some of the conversations released had been altered in a cut-and-paste montage that created the impression of guilt. From August, when Verusevski was reportedly activated, until December 2014, these tasks were accomplished internally by SDSM leaders.

How Much Did Mogherini Know- and When?

So how much did Mogherini know about unfolding events? Her 25 July 2014 meeting with the two SDSM luminaries came at a time when SDSM was protesting and boycotting the elections they had just lost on 27 April. The purpose of Western diplomacy then was to convince SDSM to return to parliament, though the party had no intention of doing so; the plan for the bombs campaign had been agreed in January.

In our interview, Bellelli confirmed that he was at the 25 July meeting. But he did not remember whether the SDSM officials had briefed Mogherini on the upcoming bombs campaign, or anything that would insinuate instability ahead. Rather than just deny this, he continued with his pattern of evasiveness, compounding the uncertainty by claiming that “there was a second, closed-door meeting which I did not attend, so I do not know what was discussed.”

Given any ambassador’s responsibilities, it is inconceivable that his own foreign minister would create a situation whereby he was not privy to all the information involving events he was supposed to be monitoring. He could simply have told us that no, plans for a coup were not discussed at the meeting. But going on to say – again, unasked – that a second, private meeting took place is baffling. It reinforces the suspicion that with Bellelli, as they say, the cover-up is worse than the crime.

Whatever was discussed or not discussed in July 2014, two facts are clear. One, on 21 August 2014, Zaev announced that SDSM had “begun to realize its strategy” for the future. No one knew what this meant, but it is clear in retrospect that the party was already hard at work on transcribing and cutting-and-pasting from its trove of data.

The second fact is that on 2 September 2014, Mogherini (who had won appointment as a new EU Commissioner) warned in the EU Parliament that things could go in “an undesirable way” in Macedonia if the name issue with Greece was not solved. One of the major goals of the SDSM campaign has been (under Western guidance) to create the conditions for changing the name – which Gruevski has said could be decided only by public referendum – Mogherini’s view reflected official Italian policy and, of course, EU policy, due to the heavy influence of Greece there.

Therefore, something happened between July and September 2014 that hardened Italy’s stance, and created a concern that destabilization could occur. Was it directly stated to Mogherini, or to Bellelli, or to someone else? We will probably never know. But it is plausible that Mogherini accepted the policy of an SDSM that was on the verge of plotting its grand coup.

In this case, Bellelli has a most unexpected defense. For while still Italian MFA chief, Mogherini apparently did not know all that much about the Macedonian situation, says a senior Italian diplomat with close knowledge of the state of affairs.

“Mogherini learned a lot about Macedonia only after she went to Brussels,” this official told “When the crisis started, she learned many things about Macedonia for the first time. This was because Bellelli was previously not sending enough regular information back to the MFA. For example, he would send perhaps three cables per month, whereas from Serbia or other regional countries, other ambassadors might send up to 30 per month.”

This contention particularly stung Bellelli. In our interview, he strongly disputed this statement as being “completely unfounded. I cannot comment you the number of cables,” he said, but claimed that he has been sufficiently informing Rome.

While such a contention is obviously embarrassing for Bellelli, it might provide his best defense. Perhaps, he was just not working very hard. Or perhaps he was trying to avoid reporting home on events that would affect ‘the narrative.’ We have already reported in the past about the tendency for diplomats from the main Western embassies to coordinate their reporting so that when higher-ups might cross-check them for consistency, the evaluation would hold up. This is how the echo chamber perpetuates itself.

Mogherini’s Brussels Influencers During the Crisis

So, if Mogherini had been uninformed about Macedonia while Italian foreign minister, who did inform her after moving to Brussels? The enormous EU bureaucracy has dozens of ‘Balkan experts.’ Due to its many years in opposition, SDSM has won the sympathy of most of them. VMRO has historically failed to develop an external public relations program, meaning that its support in Euro-land comes only from conservative think-tanks or MEPs from aligned parties.

Within the EU foreign-affairs cabinet, however, Mogherini has had two experts whose input would surely have helped steer her policies. The first was Alain Le Roy, a French former EU special representative to Macedonia. When he was appointed as EEAS chief on 7 January 2015 – weeks before the crisis started – Mogherini described Le Roy’s experience as “instrumental to steer the EEAS and contribute to build an effective and solid European external policy.” However, due to the transition time, he was not fully in place until 1 March, which might help explain the EU’s rushed and incompetent reaction to the Macedonian crisis. Nevertheless, Le Roy was in charge of the EEAS when it was choosing its Priebe Team experts.

Le Roy had notably served in Macedonia from 2001-2002, the period of the war and resulting four-party talks leading to the Ohrid Agreement. This experience of conflict resolution undoubtedly influenced Mogherini’s range of options. But the uncanny similarities between foreign interference in the events of 2001 and of 2015 made an already cynical Macedonian public even more disaffected.

On 22 May 2015, reported that the EEAS was considering sending a ‘special mediator’ to help the parties solve the crisis, and that this person should be neither a Christian Democrat nor a Social Democrat. The disastrous final choice was the Belgian cat-meme expert, Peter Vanhoutte, who failed to take a balanced or serious approach. This decision again reflected the 2001 decision to send a special envoy, who had been the American James Pardew. The sense of history repeating itself made an already disenchanted Macedonian public both more alienated and angry. Le Roy would later resign for “personal reasons” on 15 June 2016, and was replaced by Helga Schmid.

The Italian-Greek Shadow Cooperation around Mogherini’s Cabinet

The second person of influence, from within Mogherini’s cabinet, is also quite interesting because of her Italian connection. Anna Vezyroglou, a longtime EU official, was a protégé of the very influential Italian liberal diplomat Stefano Sannino. With wide-ranging experience including having been OSCE representative in Belgrade, Sannino served as Deputy Director for Enlargement and then, Italian Permanent Representative to the EU from July 2013 until March 2016. On 21 March, Sannino was announced as being Italy’s next ambassador to Spain. This means that Sannino was another prominent left-wing Italian in Brussels during the Macedonian crisis.

Sannino is in fact one of the main players in Italian diplomacy. In 2002, he became very close to the then-EC President, Romano Prodi, acting as his diplomatic advisor; when Prodi became Italy’s premier, from 2006 to 2008, Sannino also became his permanent advisor. After Prodi’s left-wing government fell in 2008, Sannino returned to Brussels. Sannino had often represented Prodi in international meetings. After winning elections, the Renzi government said it would return Italy’s foreign policy orientation to that of the former Prodi government. Sannino was nominated as Italy’s representative to the EU by Mogherini, when she was Italy’s foreign minister.

For her part, Vezyroglou is listed in the Mogherini cabinet as covering the Western Balkans, Turkey and other subjects. This appointment gave the Greek side a high-ranking influence-maker inside Mogherini’s Commission, which became very helpful in promoting Greek national interests during the crisis in Macedonia.

Vezyroglou has been involved with enlargement negotiations, having previously served at a high position in DG Enlargement. She seems to have come to Mogherini specifically due to her previous work there under Sannino, who became deputy director in 2010. According to diplomatic sources, in that time she briefed him personally for all meetings with Macedonian delegations.

When he became the ambassador of Italy to the EU, Sannino left Vezyroglou to his replacement, Kristijan Danielson. However, while Danielson kept her in the position as Sannino had requested, Danielson reportedly diminished her influence. Part of the reason for this, apparently, was that sources in Brussels reported that Vezyroglou would boast to colleagues that she was responsible for blocking any focus of the EEAS for Macedonia, thereby promoting Greek national interests.

But despite the setback, there would be a reprieve: diplomatic sources tell us that influential people in Italy asked Sannino in 2014 to help Mogherini fill her cabinet with persons already inside European institutions, and that he specifically recommended Vezyroglou for the job. Sources indicate that while she had been somewhat constricted under Danielsson, the endorsement from Sannino and complex situation of the Macedonian crisis allowed Vezyroglou to have an outsized influence during the target period.

Vezyroglou is also reported to be close to Juncker’s spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, who is one of the longest-serving Greek EU officials, having worked at the Commission since 1990. He was also a Nea Dimokratia MEP, from 2007-2009. While people tend to forget, Juncker owes his current job – which came after he was forced to resign as lifetime leader of Luxembourg following a wiretap scandal – to the support of former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. The latter was still in power in 2014 when the Commission decisions were made. This in turn helps to explain the disproportionate influence of Greeks across the EU bureaucracy today.

However, given the seismic shift that has occurred with the aftermath of Turkey’s failed military coup, it is likely that covering that country will take up most of the Commission’s time and, because of her Turkey expertise, keep Anna Vezyroglou busy in particular.

Impressioni di Macedonia: title page of the 1904 classic for which Italy’s 2015 internal intelligence report on migration was named.

Impressioni di Macedonia: title page of the 1904 classic for which Italy’s 2015 internal intelligence report on migration was named.

Italian Intelligence Activities and Migration: the Impressioni di Macedonia

While the foregoing does not clarify Ambassador Bellelli’s role in the crisis, it does provide some comments for the historical record. It also indicates the possibility that, as with Zaev, who was sacrificed by his party to suffer public ridicule through getting to be the hero onstage, his diplomatic counterparts in Skopje all suffered a similar fate, due to their stature and natural relationships with political authorities. This group does not exclude Bellelli and if, as our sources say, he was neither oriented towards nor capable of abetting a coup, it would help explain why the coup failed.

Italian intelligence (as opposed to the MFA) would actually benefit from having Bellelli exposed to public criticism. This would allow more savvy operators to work in the shadows. AISE representative Filippo Candela, who previously was stationed in Montenegro, had the right regional experience and contacts to be effective. But for obvious reasons, he is not talking. Unlike Bellelli, who has actually worsened his situation with his odd interview replies, Candela has largely kept quiet. Indeed, public appearances (like this one at Tetovo’s SEE University, in February 2014 soon after arriving) are more the exception than the norm. Candela, officially deputy head of mission, is not listed on the Italian MFA’s personnel list that we discussed in the previous article of this series.

While Candela’s exact intelligence role in the crisis remains unknown, it is most likely that AISE took better steps to avoid visibility, and let Bellelli take all the criticism. The one aspect where Candela did have a role was in the much more important topic of illegal migration. This is an unexpected and very interesting topic in itself, revealing Italy’s renewed awareness of its former role in the region.

In 1904, an Italian politician, diplomat and later foreign minister, Francesco Guicciardini, wrote a short book called Impressioni di Macedonia. This travel diary was written after the author’s long visit to Serbia and Macedonia, as he was on his way to Istanbul.

The diary captures the local situation around the time of the 2 August 1903 Ilinden Uprising, framing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the context of the rise of the VMRO rebels, and the activities of the Great Powers in the region. Two themes are particularly interesting in Guicciardini’s memoirs. His description of the struggle between Russia, England and the Ottomans in the competition for religious supremacy in the area is one. At the time, Russia was backing the Bulgarian Exarchate, while the English were supporting the Serbian Patriarchate. Also noted is the unclear behavior of the Western Powers, whose interest in defending the Ottoman presence was aimed only at impeding Russian expansion in Macedonia, and the “Bulgarization” of the population. covered this period in 2006, in a 10-part series on the Mürzsteg Reform Program of 1903-1909. Intended to defuse a crisis in war-torn Ottoman Macedonia, the reform program gave each Great Power a zone of territorial control in the geographical Macedonia. They were supposed to monitor reforms demanded of the Sultan, but instead the whole mission predictably devolved into power and interest struggles. One of the key alliances was between Britain and Italy, to counteract some of the Continental powers and Russia. In 1911, two years after the reform program failed, the Italy-Libyan War erupted. Considering what is currently happening in the region and the world, the similarities are uncanny.

Fast-forward to 2015, when Macedonia was again the subject of geopolitical intrigue and suffering a historic migration crisis from Turkey and Greece. The explosion of the migrant crisis instigated a special Italian intelligence report on the potential security risks to Italy of migrants traveling the ‘Balkan Route.’ This has never been reported by any media, until now.

Whether the authors of the new report were being nostalgic or ironic, they chose to name this working paper after the 1904 classic, Impressioni di Macedonia. This decision to name the study after a very obscure and short political travelogue indicates that it was organized by someone who has a sense for Italy’s historic role in Macedonia.

Different sources approached by have offered different views on the 2015 text, which remains an internal state document. But most recently, a senior Italian diplomat confirmed for that “the paper does indeed exist. It was created by a combination of MFA, interior ministry and intelligence services. It was commissioned because of the fact that we did not have sufficient information coming from our embassy in Skopje.”

As mentioned above, Ambassador Bellelli vigorously denies any charges that he had been keeping the MFA under-informed. However, when asked about the new Impressioni di Macedonia, he stated that he was not aware of this specific document, saying only vaguely that “we have research going on all the time.”

Considering that a study of migration patterns is not controversial, there would be no reason for Bellelli to deny the document’s existence, had he known about it. Thus his attested lack of awareness indicates that he probably never knew about it, which would not be surprising considering that he was burdened exclusively with the political crisis.

Therefore, the Impressioni would have been researched with the help of an AISE specialist like Candela. But neither he nor the official AISE spokesman in Rome would comment for us on any aspect of the text.

“The argument of the paper was that the Balkan route was very important for our state interests,” says the Italian diplomat familiar with the text. “And one of the main actors in handling the migration crisis was the Skopje government. The MFA realized [from the report] that until then, we didn’t know what was going on.” The Impressioni text was finished in late 2015 and, according to other intelligence sources, was delivered to Renzi’s office in February 2016.

According to the senior official, the paper was also commissioned out of a desire “to limit potential threats to national interests. It was sent when finished to the MFA by the office of the prime minister, but was never discussed at high levels. It offered no suggestions for new approaches to the migration problem, but some recommendations were provided for how to use EU leverage, to bring up the Balkan countries’ EU perspective to mitigate risks. Some options were also stated, regarding how to use aid money. In all meetings with Macedonia, migration was always top of the agenda.”


As the foregoing account of Italy’s recent diplomatic and intelligence engagement has shown, the general picture remains very murky. But it can be said that the eruption of a political crisis at the same time Italy was assuming a larger role in national and then EU foreign affairs put great pressure on the country’s local role in Macedonia. At the same time, the explosion of the migration crisis also forced Italy – burdened already by heavy traffic on the Mediterranean migrant route – to pay attention to ongoing events.

It is unclear to what extent the urgent need to address the Balkan Route migration crisis affected Italian or EU diplomacy towards Macedonia (or, Italian diplomacy within the EU) during the political crisis. It is also unclear whether, in the absence of an open and transparent investigation of the coup attempt, the public perception of Italian complicity will ever be proved or disproved.

However, while we have assessed that diplomatic relations will continue as normal, the now deeply-ingrained perception in Macedonia about Italian scheming will continue to affect security and intelligence cooperation. Whatever its real role was during the crisis, Italy has lost considerable trust locally. As stated above, the general network destruction caused by the failed coup has forced Italian (and other) intelligence services to create new networks, partnerships and goals. We estimate that it will take them two to three years to regain their former position.


Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 2: Intelligence Structures and Capacities

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

In this, the second part of’s series on Italian security challenges in the MENA and Balkan theaters, we outline the structure and capacities of Italian intelligence and its orientation toward the MENA and Balkans. This structural analysis notes both relevant current events and history.

As such, this analysis provides context for the rest of the series, which assesses Italian intelligence activities in individual countries.

Italian Intelligence: Organizational Structure

The External Intelligence and Security Agency (Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna, AISE) runs Italian HUMINT networks abroad. An August 2007 law created it out of the former Military Intelligence and Security Service (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare, SISMI), which had operated since 1977.

The 2007 law also established two other new entities. The coordinative Department of Information Security (Dipartimento delle Informazioni per la Sicurezza, DIS), replaced the Executive Committee for Intelligence and Security Services (Comitato Esecutivo per i Servizi di Informazione e Sicurezza, CESIS).

This committee had been mandated to oversee the military SISMI and its domestic-focused, civilian counterintelligence counterpart, the Intelligence and Democratic Security Service (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Democratica, SISDE). The replacement of SISDE with the Internal Information and Security Agency (Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Interna, AISI) preserved the civilian and domestic mandate of the agency.

The Reasons for Restructurings: A Succession of Scandals

Italian intelligence has been restructured often since WWII. Restructurings have generally been due to scandals that forced a political and then legislative intervention. In several cases, these scandals have been caused by an overzealous desire to be ‘helpful’ to the Americans, and thus win greater prestige and leverage for Italy.

For example, the 1977 law that created the CESIS/SISMI/SISDE structure came as a reaction to the 1974 arrest of then-military intelligence chief Vito Miceli, for alleged involvement in the failed right-wing Golpe Borghese coup of 1970. Miceli was cleared in 1978, while the reformed structure that followed his arrest would live on for three decades. The public suspicions that the US was involved both in the failed coup in Italy (and the near-contemporaneous, successful right-wing coup in nearby Greece) would feed decades of left-wing anti-Americanism in both countries. This would also affect political decisions over intelligence structures.

Indeed, history repeated itself when perceived heavy-handed American involvement once again caused intelligence-related scandals, leading to the 2007 restructuring. In March 2003, CIA agents kidnapped Imam Abu Omar in Milan, and sent him via the Aviano NATO base to Egypt, where he was questioned and tortured before being released in 2004. Known as the Imam Rapito case, it caused considerable public outcry in Italy and charges of breached sovereignty.

Further scandal arose from this case after SISMI chief Nicolò Pollari resigned in November 2006 and was indicted. Investigators found evidence of a secret SISMI operation targeting Romano Prodi, further fueling historic leftist suspicions. They also discovered a domestic surveillance program that had operated since 1996, run by Marco Mancini, a former SISMI deputy chief. He had reportedly cooperated with Giuliano Tavaroli, former security chief at Italian Telecom, along with a private detective.

A detail of this affair that may be relevant to Balkan investigations is the mysterious death of Tavaroli’s predecessor Adamo Bove, who ‘fell’ from a Naples highway bridge on 21 July 2006. Apparently, Bove had discovered a Telecom system flaw that allowed intruders to enter and plant wiretaps undetected.

Ad even this case appeared to be related to the CIA extraordinary rendition. “Bove was a master at detecting hidden phone networks,” noted Alternet in 2006, adding that he had “used mobile phone records” to help prosecutors in Milan uncover the SISMI-CIA kidnapping.

The media drew parallels between Bove’s ‘suicide’ and that of Greek software engineer Costas Tsalikidis in 2005. Tsakalidis, who had shown no signs of an impending suicide, worked for Vodafone and “had just discovered a highly sophisticated bug embedded in the company’s mobile network. The spyware eavesdropped on the prime minister’s and other top officials’ cell phone calls; it even monitored the car phone of Greece’s secret service chief.” The Vodafone case, which caused great uproar in Greece at the time, was also believed to be associated with the Americans.

However, neither of these scandals really affected American interests, though they do exhibit certain symmetries with Balkan cases that bear looking into. But the final SISMI scandal that did lead to the 2007 reform – and again, related to ‘helping’ the Americans – would have disastrous long-term consequences for the latter. That was SISMI personnel’s role in providing US intelligence with forged documents, which claimed Saddam Hussein was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger, as part of his purported ‘weapons of mass destruction’ program.

The scheming behind this whole episode is extremely opaque, and well beyond the scope of the current article; essentially, though, it resulted in tremendous controversies and differences within the CIA, State Department and Bush administration. For whatever reason, therefore, Italy had a central role in building the case for war in Iraq (not to mention internal feeding internal divisions in the US administration) and this case was another reason given for the 2007 reforms.

Implications of the Restructuring: Civilian and Military, Domestic and International Roles

For many Italians, these scandalous episodes indicated a lack of governmental oversight and control over senior SISMI officials and agents. SISMI was disbanded, and replaced by the new AISE and AISI agencies, which would report no longer to ministries, but to the prime minister himself. DIS, meanwhile, was given stronger oversight powers.

This restructuring has had both positive and negative results, and has indicated clear trends in the Italian intelligence business. The major change the restructuring brought was a division of domestic counterintelligence and foreign intelligence, as is common in many countries, and the reduction of the military presence in foreign intelligence activities. One result of this has been AISE’s increased use of diplomats, economic attachés and other non-military personnel in their operations.

The 2007 restructuring has also led to an inevitable increase in political appointments (with the bodies now being under the prime minister).

AISE Leadership Structure

With the 2007 law, the president of the Council of Ministers appoints and oversees the AISE director- the current director, General Alberto Manenti, was appointed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in 2014.

While AISE deputy directors may be appointed and dismissed by the President of the Council of Ministers, the AISE director may freely appoint other personnel. DIS is a department of the Prime Minister’s office and, as said, overviews the work of AISE and AISI, representing the final link between the services and the acting cabinet.

Criticisms of Intelligence Sector Reforms

The investigative website Invisible Dog, which covers Italian intelligence matters, has been highly critical of the practices and hiring systems of the ‘reformed’ AISE (and general services), however. A recent analysis concluded that “the current cadres hired in the Agency are all unskilled for the roles and tasks they have to fill. There are still, especially among the old guard, several highly skilled individuals in the Agency. But numerically they are not enough. Some young newly employed agents will probably have the chance in the future, but not today, to become true professionals.”

This quote highlights the inevitable downside of a reform conceived to bring the services strictly back in the hands of the government and of the Prime Minister, who can delegate the control over the agencies to a deputy or an undersecretary (position currently held in the government by Marco Minniti, a former deputy interior minister under Prodi). The new structure of appointments increases the potential for high-level intelligence officials being able to make decisions with the approval of only the prime minister, rather than the Parliament and opposition as well.

In 2007, when the Prodi government appointed the first directors of the agencies, Bruno Branciforte for AISI and Franco Gabrielli for AISE, it did so after a consultation with the opposition, then led by Silvio Berlusconi. But this consultation, though recommended, is not mandatory. One implication could be that intelligence bosses will be changed with each new government, which in turn could impede the proper development and continuation of intelligence activities.

Government Recognition of Potential for Politicization in Intelligence Leadership

Recently, Claudio Scajola – Italy’s ex-interior minister – revealed his concerns about the secret services, managed as they are “at the service of the government, instead of the State.” In this framework, the choices of the officials and the personnel of these agencies create competitive tendencies in which, a senior Italian diplomat told, “trust and loyalty to the government could be very valuable assets to have for [winning] the position.”

In this regard, Italian newspapers covered the expected appointment of Marco Carrai – Renzi’s close friend and one of his fiercest supporters – as consultant for DIS on cyber-security in April. The nomination was however later stopped by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella.

The president pointed out the elephant in the room (i.e., Carrai’s position as president of a cyber-security company). But the nomination was also allegedly blocked by pressures from the CIA, over Carrai’s reported links with Israel security groups. Numerous media noted that this relationship led some to question Carrai’s relations with the Mossad.

Events like this demonstrate the degree to which the capabilities and the goals of Italian secret services may be ancillary to the acting government. After the nomination of the new head at DIS (Alessandro Pansa, a former police chief) and at AISI (Mario Parente, former Chief of Carabinieri’s ROS), Prime Minister Renzi seemed to confirm this point of view: “we decided to make these appointments valid only for two years since we are serious people and we know that in 2018 we will vote to elect a new government,” he said in the press conference after the nominations, on 29 April 2016.

“When we talk about appointments on security we want to value institutional figures,” the premier underlined. “Usually, in Italy, governments changed and so did the heads of the services, but we want to operate in complete transparency. The new government will decide to confirm or not our appointment once it will be elected in 2018 elections.”

Several sources in Italian diplomatic circles emphasize for that the future of the Italian services will rely greatly on the competence of the governments that will rule Italy in the next few years. This is especially so given that Italy is a country with a long history of interference from foreign services and cumbersome friendships. But in any case, the ship seems to have sailed.

After a request for comment from regarding the possible outcome of political-governmental interference with the secret services, the staff of Undersecretary Minniti did not provide any new information, but instead directed us to his 2014 article in the magazine Italiani Europei (founded by veteran politician Massimo d’Alema).

The interesting article he wrote argues that “our information services move in a normative framework that allows them to use operative tools subordinate to authorization and internal controls, parliamentary and judiciary which guarantee the respect of everyone’s rights, without compromising efficiency. This system makes Italy one of the best models in the world […]. Intelligence, to fulfill its role of presiding over the boundaries of a democracy, must be strictly integrated with democracy itself. For this very reason, unconventional methods which are typical of information agencies must be regulated by the law.”

Such comments reflect a change of attitude, and a policy of blocking any possible “deviation” inside the services. This is clearly reflected in nominations which are more political than military, unlike the period before 2007.

An Apparent Success: Intelligence Outreach with the Assad Government in Syria

Despite Italian intelligence’s unfortunate role in ginning up a disastrous war in Iraq back in 2002, there are signs that the traditional ‘Diplomacy of Friendship’ between Italy and the MENA, which we discussed in the first part of this series is making a comeback, under the watch of AISE chief Alberto Manenti.

On 14 July, Gulf News reported that Manenti had just visited Damascus, following a visit to Rome slightly earlier by his Syrian counterpart, Deeb Zeitoun, who reportedly stayed at a private villa provided by the secret services.

Manenti’s visit was described as the first high-level visit to Syria by a Western official since 2011. The migrant crisis and increased terrorism threat in Europe seem to have now given the Syrian government considerable leverage; the Assad regime “is willing to provide all lists” of ISIS fighters known to them, the report stated, “if the Europeans took an initiative aimed at normalising relations with Damascus. Full counter-intelligence would only happen, they added, once diplomatic relations were restored.”

The selection of an Italian intelligence chief to lead the Western initiative at a time of huge security risks is quite logical. Aside from its historic friendships with MENA countries and the increasingly warn relations between Renzi and Assad’s main international supporter, Vladimir Putin, Italy had never held the hard-line anti-Assad opinions often voiced by the US and UK. Making first approaches with Syria would have been politically impossible for those countries.

Italy also has the advantage of leading EU foreign policy through its commissioner, Federica Mogherini, and can count on her leverage to appease the Assad government, gaining some much-needed concessions. According to sources in Damascus, Gulf Times reported that the AISE chief and his colleagues have “promised to trigger an initiative” by Mogherini, which would begin “within weeks” to lift economic sanctions on Syria, “if the Syrians agreed to share intelligence on Daesh and start a serious political transition.” The political process would then have to be executed “within six months” or, by December 2016, “thereby scrapping an earlier date that had previously been agreed upon by UNSCR 2254, which called for the start of a transition government in Damascus by August 1.” This looks very much like a victory for Assad.

It would quite obviously also constitute a diplomatic and intelligence coup for Italy, if it is in fact able to both restart the process towards peace in Syria, and gather significant data on ISIS fighters for Western interests. But, as we again analyzed in the first part of this series, Italy has wider ambitions in the MENA, particularly due to the migrant crisis, even if they are not managed directly by AISE.

Other Developments Regarding Italian Intelligence in the MENA

Elsewhere in the region, Italy has seen a changing dynamic. The restructuring of the intelligence services roughly coincided with political changes and then instability in Libya.

As we reported in the first part of this series, the Italy-Egypt relation has suffered since the murder of an Italian researcher in Cairo earlier this year. Now, with the huge uncertainty that the Turkish coup attempt has caused as well, we are likely to see a new focus of Italy and its partners with strong operational bases on the Cairo-Amman-Istanbul axis (particularly, run by the British). Another MENA country of interest is Libya, where accurately predicted the future rise of ISIS, 16 months ago.

As we reported in the first article of the current series, the Berlusconi-Gaddafi deal helped Libya protect its coast effectively from any illegal migrant flows. And, while the deal brought Italian assistance (in the form of financial and regular police, ships, equipment and training for Libyan forces), the 2011 NATO intervention and overthrow of Gaddafi ended this program, helping to fuel lawlessness and the increasing migrant flows that have dominated Italy’s MENA concerns in the last few years.

What, then, was the role of Italy’s newly-restructured foreign intelligence service during this turmoil? “AISE always had a marginal role,” attested researcher from Invisible Dog for This situation apparently stemmed from a dispute between two ministers of the then-Berlusconi government: Minister of Interior Roberto Maroni (now, Governor of the Lombardy Region) and the Minister of Defense, Ignazio la Russa. The two men disagreed over which ministry should lead the operation for controlling illegal migrant routes. The dispute was finally resolved when migration was defined as a police, not military matter.

“This implied the marginalization of AISE itself, which was at that time led by Admiral Branciforte, a ‘man of the state’ put there as a guarantee of transparent behavior, but without direct expertise in migration issues,” noted the Italian investigative journalists. “What happened in Libya created a precedent, which influenced AISE’s role in following counter-trafficking actions. The MOI oversees the management of migration through police delegations, as secondments to those countries where this phenomenon is more visible.”

AISE may thus support the police by tracking transnational organized crime, and its presence is thus higher “in those countries where there are reported activities that can harm Italian national security, such as organized crime and terrorist groups.” In the past five years, practically the entire MENA has come under this category.

Italian Diplomacy and the Balkans: an Overview

Due to its geographic placement, and its commercial, religious and cultural issues, Italy has always looked eastward across the Adriatic to project its influence. Today, this influence is primarily executed by the presence of Italian companies, large deployment of diplomatic and intelligence officials. Inevitably, events on the Eastern Adriatic and Balkans have a direct influence on the Italian situation, both in terms of internal security and external relations.

Italian policy aims to push these countries into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Italy uses its diplomatic role as a mediator of Mediterranean and Balkan issues. This was recently reaffirmed by the Italian brokering of the Adriatic-Ionian initiative, and the ongoing participation to the Central European Initiative.

In the short term, the official goals of Italy in the Eastern Adriatic are regional stabilization, economic development, democratic consolidation and the fight against organized crime and terrorism. In this regard, many steps have been taken in recent years: the signing of an inter-government agreement on strategic collaboration with Montenegro, the establishment of Coordination Ministers Committees with Croatia and Slovenia, the reinforcement of strategic bilateral partnerships with Serbia and Albania, and the signing of a memorandum on exchange of classified information with Macedonia.

The importance of the region for Italian foreign politics was also underlined by its inclusion in the official priorities of the Italian Presidency of the European Union (June-December 2014), Then-Italian Foreign Minister Mogherini visited the six Western Balkans countries between 25 and 28 July 2014 to illustrate this interest.

Italy actively support the consolidation of security and stability in the region also through a deep cooperation with international counterparts, both at EU level and with the informal group of contemporary ‘great powers,’ the QUINT, which unites Italye the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany. Concerning the Balkans, representatives of these powers meet under this umbrella regularly, in Kosovo.

Regarding Italian and international security cooperation in the Balkans, we find a superimposition of activities by Italian agencies. There is ongoing Italian police cooperating with local polices, through bilateral agreements or in international forces (i.e. EUROPOL) in fighting human, drug and weapon trafficking. For its part, AISE oversees information gathering and analysis of the wider networks which exploit these smuggling routes.

Italian Intelligence in the Balkans in Context

After WWII, Italy was selected by the new NATO alliance, largely because of its historic and colonial relationships, to ‘cover’ Yugoslavia and Albania, creating excellent intelligence networks there. The occupation during the Fascist Regime and the conflict, as well as the forced return to Italy of the Italians residing in these territories, caused some tensions (and nearly provoked a war in 1953), mostly regarding the destiny of Trieste and Istria. (The dispute would be resolved only in 1975, through the Osimo Agreement). That was the primary reason why Cold War Italian governments kept a watchful gaze on the other side of the Adriatic, from which a potential military and ideological threat might come.

Italy’s historic relationships and intelligence focus on the Balkans also help explain why it was keener than other Western countries to prevent war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The wars had a negative impact for Italy, which until that point, had seen political and economic relations with Yugoslavia improve.

Indeed, as a top Italian diplomacy professor stated for, “Italy and Yugoslavia were examples of the peaceful resolution of regional conflict during the Cold War. It was a mutual benefit: for Rome, Belgrade represented a way to depict Italy as an international mediator, while for Belgrade, Rome became more and more the primary partner for loans and request of international credit.” During the 1980s, thanks to the improving relations, Italy was the main commercial partner of Yugoslavia, along with Germany.

While Italy played a key role in early diplomacy to quell tensions, in the meantime the Italian political class was being crushed by a huge corruption scandal that peaked in 1992, diverting most attention to internal issues and excluding Italy from the main negotiations in Yugoslavia.

A senior Italian diplomat recalls for the reaction of the Dini government’s foreign minister, Susanna Agnelli in 1995, when she read an article by Italian journalist Adriano Sofri from Sarajevo. It denounced the complete disappearance of Italian diplomacy in the talks about ending the siege of the Bosnian capital, saying that “nobody understood anything about what is happening here.” As this diplomat told us, “that was the moment in which an Italian government decided it was time to restart our eastern diplomacy.”

These historic linkages and experiences also help explain why, despite its relative insignificance compared with countries like the US, China or Russia, experts today believe that Italy possesses the best HUMINT network capacities in the Eastern Adriatic. This umbrella includes not only AISE and Italian military and law enforcement bodies, but also the often overlooked reach of the Catholic Church in the region.

This is the reason why, since the end of the war in Bosnia, Italian officials have taken a central part in the talks about Kosovo’s status in 1999, the Kumanovo Agreement, the issues of Montenegro and Kosovo independence and, more recently, about European inclusion of the Balkans countries.

To give an example, as an Italian top diplomatic official told us in a recent interview, Italian diplomats helped craft the official EU response to Kosovo’s declaration of independence on 18 February 2008. Thus it was the Italian delegation that suggested the wording, “the European Union takes note of” the decision, as a way to solve the problem of how to accept the independence as a given fact without actually saying it.

Russian and Italian Intelligence in the Balkans and Domestic Challenges

Indeed, Italian capacities have not gone unnoticed by outside parties, and the belief that the British frequently outsource intelligence work to AISE helps explain some trends. A senior European security official stated for that “the Russians based in Rome go out and hunt down Italian HUMINT networks in the Balkans,” adding that Russia sends some of its top SVR lieutenants to Italy.

This is an intriguing game, especially at a time when Matteo Renzi has become increasingly close with Putin and when the two countries are working on joint commercial ventures. One regional example is in Montenegro, where in February 2016 the government awarded a 30-year oil and gas concession to ENI and Russian energy giant Novatek.

The mutual intelligence interest, again, is historic. The Soviet Union once maintained strong support inside the Italian Communist Party, among its many other activities on the peninsula. And, as we have explained in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans, the Soviets assigned Hungarian intelligence to cover the Vatican.

Of course, the Soviets were also aware of Italy’s Balkan interests, and considered their own presence in Italy as crucial during the transformations in the 1990s. The historical presence of Eastern agents in Italy became public after the disclosure of the Mitrokhin Archive. Named after KGB officer Vasilij Nikitič Mitrokhin, it was given to the SISMI by British counterintelligence in 1995. (For this reason, some critics have suggested that the Archive is nothing more than an elaborate forgery created by the British). One of the most famous alleged operatives in Italy was codename “VERME” (Worm)- an alleged KGB informer who worked in the Italian foreign office from the 1980s before disappearing, unnamed, during the 1990s.

The Mitrokhin Archive contains the names of politicians, diplomats, administrative officials and journalists who were allegedly working as KGB contacts in Italy, with different purposes: gathering information, backing specific laws in parliament, requesting parliamentary debates about NATO and US military actions and so on.

Whether or not the Archive was real or a deceptive hoax, it did trigger real-world responses in Italy. Ironically, in a 2002 move that remarkably resembled the lustration committees of Eastern European countries, Berlusconi’s Casa delle Libertà coalition created a parliamentary commission to investigate allegations raised by the Archive. The committee was essentially created to search for KGB links to Italian opposition politicians (an approach many Eastern lustration committees have taken). By 2006, however, the commission closed without having developed any new concrete evidence beyond the original information given in the Mitrokhin Archive.

Today, the pervasive Russian activity in Italy itself is presenting some interesting new challenges for AISI. The recent case of a Portuguese diplomat arrested in Rome, who was reportedly playing both sides with Portugal and Russia and selling classified information to Moscow, shows that the intelligence competition with Russia occasionally unfolds within Italy itself.

On 21 May 2016 the veteran agent, Frederico Carvalho Gil, was arrested in a Rome café while exchanging an envelope with Russian agent Sergey Nicolaevic Pozdnyakov. Gil was a senior officer in the Servico de Informacao da Republica Portuguesa (Sis), the Portuguese secret service, and was tracked down after a police search in his Lisbon home found restricted documents and a large amount of money.

Gil was jailed under the allegation of passing classified information about Europe and NATO to the Russian secret service, while his contact was arrested for corruption (his detention was confirmed on 6 June by the IV Section of Judges in Rome’s Court of Appeals).

New statistics regarding more general counterintelligence and law enforcement challenges in Italy were recently disclosed by Interior Minister Angelino Alfano. According to an 18 July ANSA report, the year 2016 has so far recorded over 300 possible terrorist threats, with security services having investigated over 800 suspects; according to the interior minister, 500 people with possible terrorist links have been arrested. Also, among the 100 individuals deported this year were seven radical imams. In what could become a wider trend in Europe, Alfano recommended that off-duty policemen carry guns in the wake of the Nice terrorist attack last week.

Italian HUMINT Network Structure Division in the Eastern Adriatic/Balkans

Given these examples (and not even counting existing organized crime and migrant trafficking threats) it is clear why Italian intelligence retains a domestic focus. But the Balkans is another place where lots of interests intermingle, while some appear to be on the decline. Despite recurrent concerns, Russia “is no longer a contender there,” a veteran American diplomat in Italy told Putin is now more concerned with areas in which Russian ethnic presence is bigger and can be used as leverage, like former Soviet countries and the Caucasus, the American official believes. “Russia would not oppose the entrance of other countries into NATO, Macedonia for instance, as they did not oppose it for Montenegro.”

Due to its historic linkages and local realities, AISE regional HUMINT hubs are divided on ethnic/linguistic bases. The first is for agents who are “Slavonic-speakers.” It is located in Zagreb, Croatia. From there, AISE additionally covers Slovenia and Bosnia. The fact that Belgrade was the capital of Yugoslavia meant that Serbia had the largest Italian diplomatic presence, which is still relevant for AISE work in the most powerful Balkan country.

The second and perhaps most important hub, Tirana, is geared towards Albanian speakers, and thus covers Kosovo, where Italy has a military presence as well in KFOR. The interesting mixture of Slavic and Albanian speakers in Montenegro and Macedonia make these of special interest to AISE. The linguistic overlap may mean that in some cases, agents are selected for special purposes based on specific current or anticipated events. It is also not clear whether agents in these countries report to one of the hubs, or directly to Rome. This seemingly technical issue could quite easily have ramifications for analysis of specific operations.

Italian operatives typically work out of embassies and consulates, but also include businessmen, professors, consultants and other ‘unsuspicious’ persons. The historic relationships with Croatia and Albania, and disproportionately large diplomatic representations there, also help explain why Zagreb and Tirana are key Balkan bases. That said, it appears that Croatia’s membership in NATO and the EU are slowly making it of less importance than Serbia, where the migration crisis, relations with Russia and China, and other unique issues make it an important country for intelligence work.

A Note on the Counterintelligence Value of Italy-Based Foreign Missions to Balkan Countries

Although we will generally discuss the scale of Italian diplomatic missions (and thus, the scope of intelligence activities) to specific Balkan countries individually in the rest of this series, a note should be made of one very subtle, unquantifiable factor in the bigger intelligence game.

This is one that gives Italy another advantage in the Eastern Adriatic theater. Many countries (including some EU members) run their entire diplomatic, economic and intelligence operations to Balkan states out of Rome. This means that both AISI (domestically) and AISE (externally, though they have internal networks too) can gather intelligence about such countries’ relationships and activities within the Balkan region.

To give some idea of the scale of this diplomatic infrastructure, consider the example of one Balkan state especially important to Italy- Albania. It is known that some 32 countries run their whole operations to Albania, not from Tirana but out of Rome (including major countries like Canada, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Australia and Pakistan). Some 15 other nations run their Albania diplomacy out of Athens, which gives the Greeks a similar advantage.

However, at the same time, some 18 countries actually run their diplomatic missions to Greece itself out of Italy. These numbers indicate the considerable advantage Italy enjoys. In addition to Italy, Austria also has an advantage as a number of countries run their diplomatic operations to the Balkans out of Vienna.

A Note on Systematic Agent Detection Limitations

A final note can be made regarding the convergence of diplomatic and intelligence structural relations. One of the ways foreign intelligence services and amateur sleuths try to identify Italian (and other) HUMINT assets is to cross-reference databases and public information sources, such as diplomatic lists. One common method would be to search for the absence on the official list of individuals known to be working in Italian diplomatic installations overseas.

However, while in a few notable cases in the Balkans this can be an accurate verification tool, it has its limitations: most of the documents published by the Foreign Ministry include only the MFA’s high-level officers, that is, the career diplomats (level A). In the Italian structure, the name of this list is the Stati di Servizio del Personale appartenente alla Carriera Diplomatica.

However, as with any other country, there are also MFA officers who belong to the administrative and commercial services (level B and C). Most of them are reported in a different document that is called Stati di servizio del Personale appartenente alle Categorie Funzionali del Ministero degli Affari Esteri, which is available only to administration staff. However, these individuals are usually accredited in the diplomatic lists of host countries, as commercial or consular attachés.

There is also a third group of people which may be part of a diplomatic mission which are not included in both the “Stati di Servizio del Personale MAE” documents: it may feature AISE agents as well as officials of the Foreign Trade Agency (formerly known as ICE), since they are not employed by the ministry. If they are performing an official role, they should also be accredited in the diplomatic list of the host country as political, commercial or security attachés.

For instance, the European External Actions Service started this January to deploy security and counter-terrorism experts in embassies in sensitive countries like Egypt and Turkey, that are accredited as security attachès even if they enjoy “greater access to the military of the country” than a normal diplomat would have”, one of the security attachés told POLITICO, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Thus the job description of personnel in the diplomatic lists of the host country may also cover a larger role in that country’s internal and diplomatic dynamics, as this article series is going to confirm. But it is additionally to be noted that protocol practices vary by host countries, as some for example will identify only high-level officials, while others list all affiliated officials and their spouses and dates of arrival. It is an imperfect science, though an educational one.

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.








Economic and Security Challenges, Plus Foreign Financial Interests, To Cause Early Greek Elections

By Ioannis Michaletos

Early elections will be held in Greece by October 2016, can predict. This is due to factors such as the sustained economic downturn, multiple private sector defaults, rising security issues, political tensions and some high-profile recent meetings between powerful foreign financial interests and domestic politicians.

The Greek general elections should be normally held in September 2019, but credible sources analyzing the present trends in Athens support our view that Syriza leader and prime minister Alexis Tsipras will call early elections, to prevent a further worsening of his party’s dropping approval ratings, and to defer difficult decisions for others.

Controversial Moves from the Tsipras Administration Hit Citizens Hard

The Greek government needs money and assets, and its increasingly aggressive means of achieving these goals is striking a heavy blow against ordinary citizens- not to mention contradicting the social- and economic-justice platform that the ruling government’s voters support.

Between January and June 2016, more than 600,000 persons saw the tax service confiscate bank savings – depending on amounts owed to the state plus monthly penalty interest rates – with an additional number of citizens expected to be affected by the end of 2016.

Concurrently, some 10,000 real estate plots were confiscated by the tax service, with an additional 30,000 expected to be taken over. This has happened while 60,000 housing units and businesses saw their electricity connection cut off, with possibly more than 300,000 people affected.

At the same time, however, the public sector has seen pay rises for particular categories of civil servants- even though the inefficiency that has chronically characterized most of the ministerial apparatus has only been growing. As a result, we are seeing an increase in mainstream Greek public disaffection and anger against a perceived “conspiracy” of Syriza to keep all state sector benefits and to turn against the private sector.

Potential Defaults, Debt Accumulation and a Politically Crippling Bail-in Recapitalization

Furthermore, large Greek private companies are defaulting or are about to default, informed sources attest.

The Marinopoulos chain is the largest supermarket chain in the country, with 13,000 employees and 40,000 suppliers’ jobs at stake. New information indicates that the company is on the verge of total collapse. If this happens, it will cost Greek banks 750 million euros in outstanding loans, and around 1 billion euros in suppliers’ debts. It should be noted that since Syriza came to power, the prices of average grocery items have also been rising in general, despite the poor economy.

Similarly, the energy-sector major, Mamidakis Jet Oil, is bursting at the seams, with 350 million euro loans and 100 million euro debts to the Greek ELPE refinery group.

Other companies in imminent danger include Chalyvourgiki (once Greece’s largest steel producer), the Elfsina shipyard, ELVO (Hellenic Vehicles Industry), and the EuroMedical private clinics chain. In total, due to potential company defaults, there are seven billion euros in bank loans that could blow up in the coming 10 weeks; the defaults and company crashes would mean additional 100,000 jobs lost.

As a result, a new recapitalization of the Greek banking system would be needed. That will only be accomplished by a bail-in of citizen’s deposits. No government would be able to withstand the public outcry that this would cause.

In addition, the lenders have obliged the Greek government to accept not only a de facto control of the banking system but also a de jure one, culminating with the consequent appointment of foreign board members in all Greek systemic banks. As the Financial Times recently reported this is part of the 2015 agreement with Greece’s lenders, a fact that nullifies Greek state control over the economy, and ensured the failure of Syriza to enact a “Socialist” implementation of its rhetoric.

Criminality on the Rise amidst Economic Torpor

Crime rates are steadily increasing too. In June 2016, a network of 150 Georgian thieves was rolled up; this group had conducted “raids” on private houses, using highly sophisticated burglary methods. In this way, they stole hundreds of thousands of euros per month.

At the same time, the Attika anti-drug directorate (which covers Athens and its periphery) currently arrests more than 10 people daily on narcotics charges, while pick-pocketing is becoming a major headache for police- not only in major urban centers, but even in the countryside.

At the same time the approximately 60,000 “trapped” refugees inside Greece will only tend to increase once Erdogan decides to open the flow once again, as has predicted. The degree of organized crime based on the illegal migration trade includes long-established local networks, as has reported in the past.

On top of the above, urban extremism is on the rise. The Greek postal service has decided to close down its Exarcheia outlet, due to “vandalism” in the traditionally anarchist-friendly neighborhood. Meanwhile, anarchist groups have even made trips from the city to Athens International Airport, just to blockade the Israeli El Al company’s check-in counters as a form of political protest.

At the same time, other attacks, including arson, are being observed on public transport. Security services are also anxiously focused on new far-left terrorist groups emerging, as they have seen a considerable increase in recruitment of radicalized urban youth recently. Again, the continuing poor state of the economy and high unemployment seems to be feeding this trend.

Volatility, Leaks and Bets on Early Elections

Analysts on the Athens stock market, as well as foreign diplomatic representations in Greece, are already drafting memos predicting a 70% chance for early elections in September-October 2016.

The former premier, Kostas Karamanlis of the conservative NeaDimokratia (now in opposition) is said to have expressed the same view in early July 2016. His thoughts were carefully “leaked” to the local press.

In the same period, the notorious Yannis Varoufakis, the Syriza government’s flamboyant original finance minister, was once again implicated in a plot by the Greek press. Varoufakis has been accused of seeking, back in mid-2015, to stage a sort of “coup d’etat” that would have invoked martial law. This plot was meant to ensure the swift entrance of a national currency (the drachma), once negotiations with the creditors collapsed.

This plot was mentioned by an American academic, James K. Galbraith, in his recent book Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice. Greek judicial sources now comment that these revelations, along with similar ones made by Yannis Stournaras in 2015 concerning the background of Varoufakis’s negotiations then may eventually lead to court proceedings against many people allegedly involved. It remains to be seen.

It is worth noting, in this context, that since early 2015 (the time when Syriza first came to power) there have been constant crises and claimed coups across the Balkans, with most of them being associated with billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros. Many consider Varoufakis one of Soros’ financial protégés, though the Greek public was not really considering Varoufakis’ background until after he suddenly left the government last summer.

Brexit and the Concerns of Greece’s Creditors

The still-uncertain Brexit outcome coincides with developments in Greece, and is making Greece’s creditors even more conservative. Obviously, the Brexit vote will have a huge impact on all of Europe’s economic policies and activities, but considering that bailed-out Greece is considered a ‘special case,’ we can expect to feel the first aftershocks of the vote here,

Therefore, due to one shock (the actual Brexit vote itself), the EU is concerned to avoid any more surprises. So, whether or not it will ever prove successful, the policy of austerity towards the Tsipras government will continue. The bottom line is that creditors fear a total loss of control over Greece’s line-of-credit program. Thus Athens can expect no leniency in the coming months. Italy’s brewing banking crisis is an added negative factor for Athens in this regard.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Meet the Bilderbergers

The main opposition party leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was recently invited to the 9-12 June 2016 Bilderberg group’s meeting in Dresden. The annual meetings of this secretive informal body of Western power-brokers inevitably inspire protests and conspiracy theories. The Greek media and public were thus highly interested to know more about why the elite group had invited the opposition politician this year. (The two other Greek participants at Bilderberg this year were George Logothetis, CEO of Libra Group, and Dimitri Papalexopoulos, CEO of Titan Cement).

In any case, it is surely not accidental that soon after the event the new ND president participated in high-level meetings with London market-makers (PIMCO, Blackrock, KKR, Blackstone, Paulson & Co, Soros Capital). Mitsotakis had already met German Chancellor Merkel weeks before, as well as ECB strongman Mario Draghi in Frankfurt.

It is more than obvious that in meeting Mitsotakis, the creditors’ representatives and those having a stake in the Greek debt crisis chose someone they assume will be leading the country in the near term. expects a meeting between the IMF head and Mitsotakis to be announced, followed by rapid political developments in Athens. This will likely lead to new elections as the Tsipras government continues to lose popularity.

Dynastic Rule To Return in 2016

Last but not least, Mitsotakis is not only a prime minister in-waiting, but also the heir of perhaps the most important Greek political family in modern history. His sister, Dora Bakoyannis is an MP, former minister of foreign affairs, and former mayor of Athens. Kyriakos’ father was the premier of Greece between 1990-1993, and an MP from 1946-2000; further back, his grandfather was the leading political figure from Crete, even before the island’s unification with Greece.

Further, Mitsotakis is also related with another Cretan family, the Venizelos dynasty spawned by Eleftherios Venizelos, the most important figure in recent Greek history. The Nea Dimokratis leader is related as well to dozens of others influential political and business families, mostly descended from Crete.

It is worth mentioning that all of the globally well-known Greek political dynasties (Mitsotakis, Papandreou, Samaras/Benakis) are offshoots either literally or politically of the Venizelos family and parties that have ruled Greece since the early 20th century.

The Venizelos family itself descends from an ancient clan in the Peloponnesian region of Laconia (Mystras), which fled to Western Crete in the 18th century.  Thus it is safe to conclude (along with lots of other research of a similar nature) that the so-called Greek political elite was formed even before the establishment of the modern Greek state. Furthermore the vast majority of that elite descend from the Southern Peloponnese and Western Crete. These two regions experienced frequent exchanges of populations between them for centuries, and in geography and temperament always proved the most formidable challenge to the Turks. A safe prediction is that this dynastic control will continue for the foreseeable future, to the relief of foreigners with a financial stake in the country.

Political Parties and their Likely Positions

The smaller parties are also taking their seats for the show. To Potami, which emerged as a centrist ‘third way’ in time for 2014 European Parliament elections, is gradually losing hope of re-entering the Greek parliament, and the majority of its members are opting for collaboration with the long-established ND.

Meanwhile, the similarly established PASOK, which had been left for dead following the rise of Syriza, is actually faring better, and will definitely seek an autonomous role. We predict that it is 99% certain that in case ND needs a coalition partner , PASOK will gladly accept the role of the junior partner.

Additionally, Enosi Kentroon (Union of Centrists) has already expressed its desire for a coalition government. While the party had not cracked the 3 percent threshold for participation in parliament in the January 2015 elections, it gained nine seats in the September 2015 election, its biggest recent success. This result was a symptom of public frustration both with the establishment parties and perceived Syriza incompetence.

The leftist parties such as the Communists, plus the Syriza splinter ones, LAE and Plefsi are in serious opposition with Tsipras himself viewing him as a traitor to the “cause.” And, despite his controversial qualities, Varoufakis still has an X factor among some disenchanted voters, and he will definitely play a role in some form, most probably as a commentator who will provide “revelations.”

In such a case, Syriza cannot expect support from these previously vital allies. ANEL, the conservative junior partner in Syriza’s current government, is unlikely to surpass the 3% threshold again, as it only narrowly managed to do so back in September 2015.

The remaining party to be surely represented in the next parliament, the fascist-leaning Golden Dawn, remains an outcast, following a lonely “anti-system “path. Thus it is not a real part of the equation.

Conclusion: Fall 2016 Elections Are Probable

We expect the Syriza administration will opt for the best solution, regarding its own political survival. The solution which leaders perceive is to have elections early enough to guarantee that even if it loses, it will still have a strong presence in the parliament, and will oblige its successor (i.e., ND) to implement all of the harsh laws that it itself is now delaying. Thus it will continue to ensure that others pay the price.

Otherwise, if elections are deferred past fall, the winter 2016-2017 will see a complete collapse of Syriza’s remaining popularity. In that case, a later election would result in a total victory for ND, and turn the tables in the established political game. This would probably lead to the disintegration of Syriza, which in any case is just a combination of various diverse leftist factions. We thus predict that there is a 75% chance of early elections before November 2016- and that those with a financial stake in Greece are betting on Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his establishment Nea Dimokratia to win them.



Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 1: Military and Energy Aspects

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

In this, the first part of’s series on Italian security challenges in the MENA and Balkan theaters, we examine Italy’s key role within the NATO alliance, and its cooperation within the EU on migration-related, maritime security affairs. This analysis will show that Italian capacities and orientations are marked both by a historic inclination and by its geographic location- stretching as it does from the Alps to the Adriatic and Central Mediterranean.

It will also reveal how Italian security and intelligence affairs are intricately linked with larger politics, illegal migration and the influence of Italian business on directing political change in Libya.

“We Are Overstretched:” Engagement Restrictions and Need for Forward Planning

The current state of affairs is presenting many challenges for Italy. According to Marco Giulio Barone, an Italian security and defense expert with Il Caffé Geopolitico, the country’s far-flung obligations are having their effect.

“We are overstretched,” said Barone, in a recent interview for “We have a lot of countries where we are taking part in missions, from Afghanistan and the Middle East to North Africa and the Balkans. We need to plan in advance for the needs of our military forces.”

A lack of proper planning, the analyst adds, explains why Italy is now “in deep crisis on security issues. This is due in part, he attests, to misplaced priorities: “when the intelligence community was warning in advance about the possible effects of the Arab Spring, the EU was so busy with the economic crisis that they didn’t pay attention.”

The results of a lack of preparation, Barone adds, appeared when all pressing security concerns erupted at the same time. The Arab Spring was followed by the conflicts in Syria and Libya, spawning unchecked illegal migration and radicalization. These trends “all came together, when we were unprepared,” Barone attests. “The government did not recognize change, and the need to act in advance. We had to establish what our defense would have to provide in future, and take policy steps in advance… [the security forces] were well aware that without a wide range of efforts in advance, these problems would be knocking at our door.”

Historical Context: the Postwar ‘Policy of Friendship’

For how long have security challenges been knocking at Italy’s door, and what policies have been taken to address them? One might say since the glorious days of the ancient empire, when the Mediterranean was known as a ‘Roman lake.’ But in the more modern context, Italian state security and defense is a byproduct of the post-WWII Euro-Atlantic order.

Modern Italy took a double approach, diplomatically and militarily. Firstly, leaders sought to reinforce the links with the war-devastated trans-Mediterranean states, presenting the newborn Italian Republic as a peace-broker willing to help promote Arab self-determination. Italy thus developed enduring diplomatic and economic relations with most MENA countries bordering the Mediterranean.

This policy, known as the ‘diplomacy of friendship,’ was developed during the 1960s and 1970s (during the center-left governments guided by Amintore Fanfani and Aldo Moro, who was also Italian foreign minister in some governments). This policy was meant to be a model for common living based on bilateral and multilateral relations between Mediterranean countries. In some ways, it balanced the contemporaneous pro-European effort in CECA and then the EEC.  The policy was generally shared across the whole spectrum of Italian politics.

In more recent times, this policy manifested in 2006, when the Prodi government decided to activate and send, under UN command, a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon, on the eve of civil war. Similarly, but with more long-term implications, was the Friendship Treaty with Libya. Signed in Benghazi on 30 August 2008 by the Berlusconi government and the late Moammar Gaddafi, it reaffirmed both countries’ economic and energy-sector interests and inaugurated new technical and cultural cooperation programs.

Gaddafi had already been the guarantor of Mediterranean stability for Italy, guaranteeing that illegal migration from his territory would largely be blocked. But the Libyan leader’s murder in 2011 would result in anarchy and the development of terrorism and mass migration- causing a new headache for Italy.

Historical Context: New Identity as a Pillar of NATO

The post-WWII security role of Italy was defined from early on. When the Marshall Plan evolved into a military alliance, Italy became a cornerstone in the project of common defense between NATO members. Thus, successive Italian governments officially supported the diplomacy of friendship with the MENA, while the military aspect was mostly managed through NATO, especially during the Cold War. The perceived ‘Communist threat’ to Europe also gave Italy a leading role in observing any hostile developments from the Eastern Adriatic (Yugoslavia and Albania) as well as from North Africa, where Yugoslavia and the USSR both had cooperation going on too. This historic role has to a large extent been inherited today.

The most infamous historical episode in this cooperation was Operation Gladio (‘short sword,’ in ancient Italian) was the name given to the Italian branch of NATO’s secret anti-communist networks, which operated from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War. Its existence was first revealed in 1990, after an inquiry led by Italian magistrate Felice Casson.

The prime minister, Giulio Andreotti gave Judge Cassone permission to search the archives of the Italian military secret service, Servizio informazioni sicurezza Militare (SISMI)- an organization that would be disbanded and reorganized in 2007. On 3 August 1990, Andreotti confirmed the existence of Gladio to the parliament, but claimed that it had ceased operating in 1972. This was however proven false by the press. Andreotti then admitted the existence of the Gladio networks and their NATO connection (as reported in the conclusion of the parliamentary commission report about Gladio).

After the Cold War, Italy supported the 1991 Gulf War, and took part in NATO’s first Mediterranean engagement: 1992’s Maritime Monitor, created to impose an arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia. Italy also joined NATO’s first offensive engagement with 54 aircraft in 1994, when Operation Deny Flight hit sensitive targets in Bosnia. Finally, during the 1999 NATO Kosovo bombing, Italy provided airplanes and ships, and granted Allies access to 19 airports on its territory.

An interesting MENA development occurred in 1995, when NATO created the Mediterranean Dialogue Agreement with six MENA countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. To these states, Algeria was added in 2000. The goals of this agreement were the creation of good relations between members, the maintenance of reciprocal comprehension and the promotion of regional security and stability. Officials of the member countries were invited to classes, at Obermmergau in Germany and at the NATO Defense College in Rome. Most of these states still provide good cooperation with NATO countries, despite – and perhaps because of – the turmoil of recent years.

A New Security Doctrine and Italy-based NATO Bases and Facilities

However, real-world events would restrict Italy’s ‘diplomacy of friendship’ tradition. Italian participation in the 2011 bombing of Libya signaled the importance of maintaining a central role in NATO operations across the Mediterranean. (Of  course, other factors certainly played a role in Italy’s participation, such as commercial concerns for preserving ENI’s presence on the energy scene there, as we will see below).

The year 2015 saw the release of a major new defense doctrine publication- the Italian Defense Ministry’s White Book. According to the new doctrine, Italy has two main targets in the Mediterranean: the defense of Italian borders and national interests, and the parallel defense of the Euro-Mediterranean and Euro-Atlantic spaces. The White Book also isolates the major threat of terrorist attacks, which tend to go beyond the traditional distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare.

The southern Italian city of Naples has hosted various incarnations of major NATO commands since the alliance’s inception. The Allied Maritime Command Naples was disbanded on 27 March 2013, during a program to streamline general command structure. (Allied Maritime Command, at Northwood in Britain, took over the role). But Naples still hosts the Allied Joint Force Command, in Lago Patria (the other JFC is in Brunssum, Netherlands). Both have to be prepared to plan, conduct and support NATO operations of different sizes and scope, combining land, sea and air forces. The Joint Force command in Naples is officially kept on a stand-by status, with 2,000 men ready to engage at any time.

Another important Italian base is the Combined Air Operations Center, subordinate to Allied Air Command, that conducts the day-to-day running of the Alliance’s air activities, including air policing and exercises. NATO has two CAOCs, and a Deployable Air Command and Control Centre (DACCC) in Poggio Renatico, in the northern province of Ferrara. The second Combined Air Operation Centre is located in Torrejon, Spain. NATO describes the DACCC as a “hybrid entity,” which comprises the Deployable Air Control Centre, Recognized Air Picture Production Centre/Sensor Fusion Post (DARS), the Deployable Sensor Section (DSS) and the Deployable Air Operations Centre personnel.

The airports of Trapani-Birgi and Aviano are also important pieces in NATO’s Italian defense structure. In total, the Italian/NATO security architecture includes approximately 30 facilities spanning the country. They include everything from ammunition depots and experimental research facilities to telecommunications and radar stations.

Maritime Security and Terrorism: Operation Active Endeavour

Under NATO command, three multinational integrated naval groups currently operate in the Mediterranean Sea. These are the two Permanent Naval Groups and the Standing Naval Mine Countermeasures Group. These all operate under the Maritime Command in Northwood in the United Kingdom.

NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour started in 2002, with the goal of maintaining an active counter-terrorism force in the Mediterranean. It is essentially a network-based operation designed to support maritime situational awareness and rapid-intervention forces, which includes protecting commercial shipping. The Italian navy has participated in Active Endeavour with submarines, helicopters and frigates in NATO Standing Naval Forces. Active Endeavour also involves forces from non-NATO states, including some Mediterranean Dialogue countries.

According to NATO, “the experience accrued through Active Endeavour has given NATO unparalleled expertise in deterring maritime terrorist activity in the Mediterranean, especially with regard to the proliferation and smuggling of weapons of mass destruction and cooperation with non-NATO countries and civilian agencies.”

Italy’s Role in the anti-Migrant Smuggling and Humanitarian Maritime Operations: from Mare Nostrum to Operation SOPHIA

Fighting terrorism and protecting shipping lanes have been overtaken now by migration concerns. In the last three years the European Union’s attitude towards its southern maritime border has changed deeply: if in 2013 it was considered solely an Italian, Greek or Spanish problem, the consequences of the Arab Spring, the rekindled migrant crisis and the appointment of an Italian, Federica Mogherini, as EU Commissioner managed to make the issue a higher common priority.

The massive increase in illegal migration from Libya after the 2011 NATO’s intervention there has influenced the other major maritime operations. The deterioration of the situation is attested by official statistics. Around 170,000 migrants arrived in 2014, mostly in the summer, and 7,882 in the first two months of 2015 – before the epic migration crisis of 2015 began – while in the whole of 2013, the total number of migrants smuggled by sea was around 34,000 people. In the same period, the migrants (and the asylum seekers) hosted in Italian temporary shelters was around 66,000, meaning that almost 110,000 migrants used Italy only as their first step, seeking asylum or simply disappearing further on in Europe.

The strain from this influx resulted in new maritime military operations, first national in character and later under EU control. The recent history of this operational trend indicates an Italian military that is capable and equipped to carry out missions. However, the increasing scale of the migration problem has meant political recalibrations that have also made these Mediterranean missions much more multinational in scope.

Italy first understood the problem as a national one. Thus following the tragic sinking of a migrant ship coming from Misrata, Libya near Lampedusa on 3 October s 2013, the Italian government authorized a special maritime humanitarian operation, dubbed Mare Nostrum. Coincidentally, it should be remembered that Pope Francis, who has a certain moral authority and thus political influence, had already criticized the world for ‘humanitarian’ failings earlier that year, while visiting migrants in Lampedusa.

The operation, meant to patrol the Sicilian Channel, took place from 18 October 2013 to 31 October 2014 and was operated solely by the Italian Navy and Air Force, with a contribution from Slovenia, which lent the battleship Triglav.

According to the Italian Navy, the deployed naval units included ships, helicopters, aircrafts and UAVs, a coastal radar network and Italian Navy AIS (Automatic Identification System) shore stations. Both Italian Naval servicemen and Carabinieri were involved, for purposes of humanitarian assistance and criminal investigation of traffickers. Operation Mare Nostrum covered a wide area in the Straits of Sicily (about 70,000 sq. km).

However, as the great expense of Mare Nostrum started to affect the government’s cohesion, a new and broader solution was needed. The mission was costing Italian taxpayers 9.5 million euros per month, and – as with all similar humanitarian missions – it only seemed to be increasing, not decreasing the number of migrants, as people realized they had a better chance of being rescued at sea.

Thus, from 1 November 2014, Mare Nostrum was substituted by a Frontex operation, codenamed Triton or Frontex Plus. Operating under the European Union, the mission had a third of the budget and more limited ambitions. Indeed, even from the outset, no one was expecting miracles. As Corriere della Sera wrote, Triton would “last only sixty days… the new operation does not push, however, beyond the Italian border (Mare Nostrum pushed near the border with Libya), and the intercepted ships will be brought to Italy, as required by European legislation, given that Italy is the host country of the operation.”

Although an EU mission, overall command was granted to Italy. (In the Mediterranean, Frontex had already led the Nautilus I, II and III missions between 2006 and 2008). Participant countries included Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Malta.

Despite this larger participation, Triton was a failure. Operating with a fraction of the budget, and in restricted waters, it both encouraged more migrants to come and was not working far enough out on the high seas to save them in time. Thus, the number of people drowned at sea constantly grew.

The massive increase in illegal migration in early 2015 proved that Triton/Frontex Plus needed to be enhanced. Citing IOM data, the New York Times reported that “as of April 20, there have been about 18 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year.” Also in April 2015 a massive sinking caused more than 700 deaths. The many critics included Amnesty International.

Thus, EU foreign and defense ministers agreed on 18 May 2015 to create a more offensive-oriented maritime mission. Triton was replaced by the most sophisticated EU military maritime engagement to date, Operation SOPHIA. It would be led by the Italian Navy, and complimented by a new Italian mission, Mare Sicuro, which itself operated five ships carrying helicopters, and two submarines. Of course, the role of EU Commissioner Federica Mogherini was crucial in highlighting the urgency of the problem, and making these things happen.

The activities of Operation SOPHIA – officially named European Union Naval Force Mediterranean and recognized as EUNAVFOR Med – were partially revealed earlier this year in a document published by Wikileaks. The document (an internal review of actions taken from May 2015 to January 2016) also cited a secret plan to enforce a stable government in Libya- one that would then ‘invite’ the EU to start a military operation against traffickers in its territorial waters.

The operation’s main task is to neutralize the maritime migrant smuggling routes, according to official documentation. Mogherini herself emphasized the humanitarian aspect as well, when she said that “fighting the smuggler and the criminal networks is a way of protecting human life.”

However, Mare Sicuro has a more defensive and commercial role: to protect Italy’s southern coasts from threats coming from North Africa, and the surveillance and protection of ENI’s petrol platform. As we will see later in this analysis, the Italian energy giant actually has had an influential role in shaping the political – and thus, security – approaches of the EU and UN towards restoring order in Libya.

Italian Trends towards Mission Integration, but a Territorial Extension for Operation SOPHIA Unlikely

As stated on the Italian Defence Ministry website, Operation SOPHIA was extended, on 23 May 2016, for another year. The nascent Libyan Coastal Guard is also to be trained. In the near future, the operation may however also involve an actual armed intervention in Libyan national waters.

Collaboration also continues between SOPHIA officials and the Italian National Judiciary Authority against Organized Crime (Direzione Nazionale Antimafia e Antiterrorismo, or DNAA). The DNAA has issued very useful guidelines, clarifying the Italian legal framework applicable to the operation on the apprehension and collection of evidence against traffickers, and the criteria to be met in order to exercise Italian jurisdiction.

Like Greece, Italy has tried to call for European ‘solidarity’ in the migrant crisis, and does not wish to be left alone to deal with the migrant deluge. The evolution of maritime operations since 2002 shows that Italy seeks to integrate its military cooperation within both NATO and EU structures. This may be due both to the exigencies of the migrant crisis, as well as to the centralization trend in the Central Mediterranean indicated by Operation Active Endeavour, Trition/Frontex Plus and Operation SOPHIA.

Indeed, during a meeting of European Defense Ministers in Brussels on 15 June 2016, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti pressed for more concrete coordination between NATO and the European Union: “with the operation Active Endeavour being reconfigured as a sea security operation, the cooperation in the Aegean Sea fruitfully continuing and EU operation SOPHIA, we have the possibility to create a strategic coordination for the security of the Mediterranean.”

The recent entry of Egypt into the migrant-smuggling game has caused alarm in the EU. However, not all agree over a possible extension of SOPHIA in geographic terms, as some would like, to an area extending east of Crete. Greece is especially concerned, as all previous maritime missions have merely encouraged more migrants to come. The precarious position of Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza-led government would be even more at risk in the case of an expanded mission.

The Cretans, who voted heavily for Syriza, are an independent-minded and well-armed bunch. Their island is also relatively wealthy, a major tourism hub and a key agricultural producer. With several Eastern Aegean islands since last year harmed by migration from Turkey, Cretans would not appreciate new migrant waves that would disrupt their tourism and way of life. Cretan politicians and tycoons have influence in media and other major political parties as well.

Nevertheless, some in the European Union see places like Crete as mere dots on the map of a wider possible engagement, as they are ambitious about projecting EU power across the Mediterranean to the Middle East. Thus, during the May meeting of European Foreign Ministers in Brussels, there was also a focus on the Middle East, and the coming talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials. On 6 June, Federica Mogherini asked the United Nations to approve the resolution adopted by the FMs council.

However, as a senior Carabinieri official told recently, “it is unlikely that future operations – even rescue missions – in the Eastern Mediterranean would be left to the European Union, a civilian institution, instead of NATO, especially with the current crises in Syria and Iraq and new measures to fight ISIS.” NATO also enjoys more effective logistic and strategic support through member countries like Greece and Turkey, which also has the ground headquarters in Izmir on the Eastern Aegean coast.

NATO is already operating in the Aegean Sea, following a request by Greek, German and Turkish authorities, through the Standing Maritime Group 2. The current lack of cooperation between European and NATO officials, denounced also by Italian Defense Minister Pinotti, could also impede any hopes for extending EUNAVFOR MED areas of action.

So, whether or not there will ever be a ground operation in Syria or Libya, the odds are that EUNAVFOR operations will not be extended into the waters between Egypt, Israel and Syria.

Intelligence Sharing, Migration and Terrorism: More Challenges

As has been seen in terrorist attacks over the past year in Europe, ISIS fighters have used the refugee streams to their benefit. The fact that some have applied for asylum in the EU also raises concerns over the system itself. Akhmed Chataev, the Chechen suspected mastermind of the Istanbul airport bombing, had been granted asylum by Austria and chronically protected from extradition to Russia, despite known terrorist affiliations. “The question is whether Russia will agree to help Turkey find the Russian-speaking ISIS operatives,” Haaretz recently reported. “This will be an important test of the value of last week’s reconciliation agreement between them.” The fact that Chataev exploited Austria’s asylum system is likely to also benefit Austrian Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer in a mandated electoral re-run.

The entirely preventable Chataev case indicates the grave danger to European security posed by intelligence failures and internal conflicts that prevent intelligence sharing. When it comes to Italy, identifying potential terrorists among MENA migrants on Italian soil will be a top priority.

Some experts, like Marco Giulio Barone, believe that Italy has a relatively easier job of identifying and arresting Islamic terrorists entering via migrant streams, compared to some of its European partners. “Italy has been quite proficient in arresting people,” he stated for “On the one hand, this means we are doing a good job, on the other is the fact that [Muslim migrants] tend to follow the same routes and stay within the same communities.”

While taking care to say that the task is not “easy,” Barone adds that it is feasible: “if you compare the problem with countries like France of Belgium, where the size of the communities is much larger, then you need a narrow set of indicators. In Italy, the community is rather small. Another issue is how they could gather weapons. This is rather difficult in Italy unless you have ties with criminal organizations. On the Balkan route, they have more opportunities to get weapons than in Italy. So, cooperation with Balkans wll be fundamental.”

Italian intelligence operations in the MENA, and international cooperation, have been noted critically recently.  On 8 June, a man claimed to be Eritrean national Medhanie Yehdego Mered was extradited from Khartoum to Rome, accused being the mastermind of a vast migrant-smuggling ring operating from North Africa. The New York Times reported that the man’s 24 May arrest had “followed an investigation that involved the Sudanese, Italian and British authorities, [and] was a rare instance in which a person has faced direct criminal charges for the human trafficking that has made the Mediterranean one of the world’s deadliest migration routes.”

While the authorities were originally ecstatic, even making the rare disclosure that Britain’s SIGINT agency, GCHQ, had played a key role, the mood soon soured when family members of the arrested Eritrean claimed that police had got the wrong man. His Italian lawyer, Michele Calantropo said that the arrested man was actually an Eritrean refugee named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. “He is another man, stated Calantropo on 10 June. “[He] doesn’t understand the meaning of this arrest.”

Currently, the case is going to a Palermo court, and former smuggling victims of the real Mered are coming to testify that the identity is indeed mistaken. Their revelations have forced the Italians and British to double down on their original claims. According to The Guardian on 3 July, “if the judge accepts their testimony, the case will be a considerable embarrassment for Italian investigators, Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) and the British embassy in Sudan, who all claimed to have played a crucial role in the arrest and extradition of the man from Khartoum last month.”

From the cases of the real terrorist mastermind who escaped in the European system and the potentially mistaken migrant trafficker captured in Sudan, it is clear that there is a greater need than ever for proper intelligence sharing where migration, crime and terrorism converge. But this is hampered by traditional factors, and also because the unconventional nature of the migrant crisis means new methods have to be used and new relationships have to be formed. Working with a murky regime like Sudan, for example, is rather a step into uncharted waters for European countries that increasingly are seeking a North Africa foothold. Mistakes can easily be made.

According to Barone, intelligence agencies in Europe do not cooperate enough: “they are worried to cooperate. Each service at a national level has requests and restraints. The kind and quality that individual countries can provide depends on these issues. The framework is so complicated, whether a specific service is allowed or not allowed to share information with another can be determined on a case-by-case basis.”

A License Revoked…

Frontex recently released an estimate identifying Egypt as a new springboard for illegal migration to Italy. intelligence accurately predicted this scenario, first in February and again in May of 2016. In the latter article, reported that “since Italy has stepped up criticisms of Egyptian democracy and secret services, Egypt has started allowing use of five ports to hit 23 Italian destinations with long-haul migrant ships.”

We can now explain why this low-intensity war began. First, Egypt carefully observed the concessions that Turkey won from the EU, by simply being a migrant-exporter ; secondly, and more specifically, was a mysterious murder that involved secret services, cutting-edge technology, and diplomatic reprisals.

On 31 March 2016, the Italian Ministry for Economic Development (MISE) revoked the global authorization export license of the Milanese tech company Hacking Team. Now, the company needs specific authorization to deal with non-EU countries, and the Italian government may veto any HT negotiations in specific deals.

As we will see later in this series, the company is no stranger to controversies, including in the Balkans. But the 31 March decision was made regarding Italian-Egyptian relations. The document issued by MISE explicitly mentions “mutated political conditions” as a reason for its license revocation.

Hacking Team specializes in producing sophisticated spyware and malware for governmental use. According to the International Business Times, the company had “lobbied hard” for the global authorization license from the Italian government, in order “to collaborate with Boeing on putting Hacking Team’s Galileo spyware onto drones, effectively developing a method by which to infect public Wi-Fi networks with its spyware.”

In April 2016, the Italian newspaper Il fatto quotidiano claimed clear evidence exists to prove that Hacking Team sold its Galileo technology to Egypt, even if the government originally dismissed the possibility. The document related to this sale was reportedly received by MISE on 30 December 2015. (According to the report, the software was sold on 26 June 2015, under contract 20140812.070-10.ES)

…and a Mysterious Murder in Cairo

All might have been well and good, had it not been for a mysterious murder in early 2016. The body of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni was found alongside a highway on the outskirts of Cairo on 3 February. Regeni had been a Cambridge PhD student, and was in Egypt allegedly to research trade unions. An investigation was immediately begun, including separate autopsies by Egyptian and Italian forensics experts.

Western media fingered Egyptian intelligence in the death of Regeni, whose corpse showed signs of torture. On 17 February, The Economist wrote that “suspicions are growing that Egypt’s security services had a role in the death of Mr Regeni, whose research on labour movements in Egypt and occasional writing for Il Manifesto, a left-wing Italian newspaper, may have put him in contact with groups considered enemies of the state, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.” The magazine added that Regeni had disappeared on 25 January- the fifth anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow, and thus a date with obvious connotations.

Although the case remains unresolved, Egyptian intelligence may have thought – rightly or wrongly – that Regeni was working for MI6 or Italy’s External Intelligence and Security Agency (Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna, or AISE). In response to frenzied media speculation, on 16 February the Regeni family stated that it “categorically and unequivocally” denied any possibility that the murdered researcher could have been “an agent or collaborator of any secret service, Italian or foreign.”

The truth of this claim is not as important as the perception: for surely it would be the mother of all ironies if the Egyptian government had used Italian-made spy software to track the movements of an Italian citizen who they suspected of being an Italian spy. This is the real reason why Hacking Team was targeted with the non-EU sales restrictions.

Indeed, two parliamentary points of order presented on 4 March asked whether Hacking Team’s RCS Galileo software, allegedly able to search even the deep web for secret information, could also have been used to spy on Giulio Regeni.

Both MISE and the MFA were asked the following by parliamentarians: whether “the selling of the software to the Egyptian services had been authorized by MISE; which controls were operated before granting this authorization; whether the MISE had discovered to which Egyptian governmental organization it was destined, and whether there were sufficient elements to exclude that the software was used, by any means, against Regeni.”

Moreover, parliamentarians asked “which research and which elements of evaluations of the respect of human rights were taken into account before granting the authorization of dual-use spy technologies from the MISE itself.”

The cumulative implication of this internal interest was that the relevant government bodies were also guilty in some way, since they had approved Hacking Team’s equipment sales. This has effectively widened greatly the number of people who have to protect their images in the Italian public eye.

Thus, as reported, the government has denied that the revocation of Hacking Team’s global authorization had anything to do with the Regeni case. A senior official at an Italian regional cooperation organization, with long experience in Egypt, told that “it could be that it was important to cover up anything [that might have happened] in the hope nobody would wish to stir up dust. But in this story, a young life was taken.”

More recent governmental decisions are unclear. For example, MISE announced on 28 June that the ministry has reassigned companies’ general right to sell spy software to Egypt, but not cancelled it altogether. Instead of Hacking Team, another Italian company will be allowed to do business: Area Spa, a cyber-security company headquartered in Vizzolo Ticino in Varese. Area Spa specializes in less aggressive, but still intrusive signals interception systems. In a November 2011 interview, the company CEO revealed that they had almost started to work in 2008 with Syria – another ‘friendly’ country at the time – but that the SIGINT system was never used.

It does not seem from the MISE decision that Italy is trying to punish the Egyptian state over the murder, but rather to keep Hacking Team’s former client state open to working with Italy- after all, there are many competitors in this lucrative, high-end market.

However, other official decisions have been made that appear to take a more punitive approach. On 29 June, an Italian parliamentary decree stopped an existing support program servicing Egyptian F-16 aircraft, after a fierce discussion at the Italian Senate. expects that in the coming months certain political and media sides will try to galvanize public opinion against the rights allocation to Area Spa too, again over the Regeni murder and Egyptian human rights failings.

Egypt vs. Italy: Revenge through Migration?

The Regeni murder caused predictable diplomatic problems. Italy recalled its ambassador amidst bilateral complaints, while the Regeni family brought the issue to Brussels, speaking with Mogherini herself. But the pressure has failed to damage the world position of Egypt, which ironically recently won a place on the UN Human Rights Commission for 2017-2021. Egypt forms the cornerstone of whatever MENA security remains, safeguards the Suez Canal, and maintains good ties with Israel and Greece. Italian public opinion of a terrible murder cannot compete with these factors.

As has predicted, Egypt can exact its revenge on Italy for cancelled security deals and human-rights accusations simply by allowing the migrant flow to increase. This would pose obvious problems for Italian and general EU military strategies and even political cohesion in an already tense environment.

Italian newspapers seem less aware of this scenario. They did not cover the 22 June blocked attempt of 70 migrants – mostly from Sudan, Djibouti and Sub-Saharan Africa – trying to get to Italy from Alexandria. The smuggler was an Egyptian from the Kaft El Sheikh province in the Nile Delta, who took 30,000 Egyptian lira (almost 3,000 euros) for each migrant, as reported by SwissInfo.

The Italian military, however, is keenly aware of the situation. In the Operation SOPHIA report published by Wikileaks this February, Italian Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino reported that “with a significant increase over the past three months, Egyptian smuggling has returned on the central Mediterranean Route. Generally, this makes use of mother ships starting from Egypt, picking up additional migrants along the way past western Egypt and eastern Libya, before crossing the Mediterranean towards Europe and Italy. Sometimes the mother ship, most often an old fishing vessel, is used to complete the journey. Other times migrants are transshipped to smaller vessels for the final part.”

Further, Credendino correctly noted that, while used throughout 2014, this route was gradually abandoned in 2015. But in the following months the number started to grow again, and some sinkings have occurred due to the difficulty of the journey: the trip from the western areas of Egypt takes 7 to 9 days, and the constant stops and further boardings of new migrants in the staging ports expose the ships to overloading and poor hygienic conditions.

Most people following this route are coming from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. In 2014 and 2015, smugglers had two viable paths to bring them to Europe: the eastern way, longer and less used, from Egypt to conflict-torn Syria and then through Turkey, and the famous Balkan route; and the western way, through anarchic Libya, with two governments and thousands conflicting groups, IS fighters included. Here the waters were guarded by Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue mission and to a lesser extent, Frontex’s Triton, which as discussed has been replaced by Operation SOPHIA.

But the presence of that operation and recent legitimization of the Al-Sarraj government have complicated travel to ports of departure west of Tobruk. Thus, signs of success in Libya may be helping the Egyptian traffickers.

An Ethiopian activist in Sweden, Meron Estifanos, claimed on Twitter that fellow Ethiopians, together with Eritrean and Sudanese migrants, currently prefer the route towards Egypt; this route is being recommended by word-of-mouth. Also, a young Sudanese refugee interviewed by the journalist Stefano Liberti for Internazionale, stated that “many are leaving my country to embark from Egypt. Libya is too dangerous.” As reported by the Italian magazine “he claims to have paid 2,500 dollars to cross the Mediterranean.”

The increasing Egyptian role as a migrant exporter worries the European Union too. As reported by Reuters on 29 February, “the European Union fears Mediterranean migrant smuggling gangs are reviving a route from Egypt… ‘It’s an increasing issue’, an EU official said of increased activity after a quiet year among smugglers around Alexandria that has raised particular concerns in Europe about Islamist militants from Sinai using the route to reach Greece or Italy.… Brussels, engaged in delicate bargaining with Turkey to try and stem the flow of migrants from there, is concerned that the Egyptian authorities are not stopping smugglers. But it is reluctant to use aid and trade ties to pressure Cairo to do more when Egypt remains an ally in an increasingly troubled region.”

The Energy Factor and Italian Diplomacy in Libya

One final factor contributing to the security and diplomatic role of Italy in the MENA now is the geostrategic power of energy diplomacy.

The Italian oil company ENI began operations in Libya in 1959, and is one of the only foreign corporations to have continued work through the recent chaos. The company’s oil exports back to Italy have always been an important factor for Italian energy security, which has given the company some influence in foreign policy.

At the time of Gaddafi’s fall, ENI was extracting 10% of all Libyan internal oil production, and enjoyed a near-monopoly on its natural gas. After the 2008 friendship treaty between Berlusconi and Gaddafi, Italy had been reassured of economic and security stability. This is largely why it took a cautious attitude at the outset of the NATO bombing three years later; there was widespread speculation that Italy only joined the military adventure because France’s Total might threaten to dislodge ENI in a post-Gaddafi Libya

Even though this danger was avoided, the instability in Libya has affected Italian energy and economic security. Investments in Libyan sovereign funds came back to Italy through the participation of major Italian companies like FIAT, Unicredit and Mediobanca. And in 2010, some 22% of Italian oil demand, and 35% of Italian gas needs came from Libya, today, these percentage have fallen to 12% and 6 % respectively.

Even though ENI is the only international company to actively produce in Libya, the instability has damaged its capacities. ENI reports now that oil production in Libya is around 300,000 barrels per day. The Green Stream Pipeline still provides gas supplies from Mellitah to Gela, in Sicily, via the seabed, moving 8 billion sm3 per year.

Thus the current Italian priority is to help the institution of a stable and recognized government, and so to maximize the assets ENI maintained, with some difficulties in recent years.

These needs, and the historic activity of Italian diplomacy and economy in the region explain why the country is so heavily involved in the management of negotiations between Libya’s conflicting sides. And this too has a military aspect: the most delicate part of the talks that created the current al-Sarraj government was given from the UN to the Italian general Paolo Serra.

The Italian Air Force provided the planes that brought the Libyan delegate to the peace conferences. Without any doubt, whatever the future of Libya might be, Italy will have a leading role in both law enforcement and state-building- and in any eventual military intervention.

ENI: Steering Political Transition behind the Scenes?

It is notable that both the Central Libyan Bank and the National Oil Corporation officially backed the new government. NOC started talks with international counterparts well before the government was established- thus leading some observer to indicate in the company itself the real broker of al-Sarraj.

In January, National Oil Company officials met in Istanbul with representatives of the main international players in Libya: the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, ENI, Tatneft Company, Total E & P, Statoil, Deutsche Erdoel AG, British Petroleum, Sipex and Medco International. They were betting on the possibility that a unity government (at that time still to come) would re-establish oil and gas supplies.

As reported by Nena News, during these years of great disequilibrium in Libya, ENI has been one of the few companies still active in the Tripoli area, concentrating its activities in the terminal in Mellitah and in the offshore oilfields in Bouri.

Nevertheless, security concerns and the ongoing attacks by the Islamic State in Libya have led the Italian company to pressure the government and the National Oil Company to find a solution. A meeting between ENI and NOC was held on 12 March 2016 in Tripoli- just a few days before Sarraj’s arrive in the capitol. The meeting had been organized to approve the 2016 budget.

What is ENI plotting? It is unknown, but some tantalizing clues have been put out there. In a recent interview for Corriere della Sera, former ENI CEO 1Paolo Scaroni stated that the only viable situation for Libya – considering that a complete unification is utopian – could be the division of influence by areas. In this scenario, exclusive rights would be divided up for extraction of natural resources in different parts of the country.

An administrative division might be formed, according to the former CEO. It would follow the borders of the major regions – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – and the spheres of influence of the foreign oil companies, with Italy and ENI protecting the first one. The reference to a division according to these provinces hearkens back to Italian colonial and previously Ottoman times; Scaroni is hardly the first Westerner in recent years to suggest some sort of division of the country according to historic provincial lines.

If ENI has an inordinate influence in Libya, Italian politicians are bound to welcome that if it suits their diplomatic initiatives. There is no question that the company’s historic position in the country and its overall importance for national energy security have made it a key player, even though this is often overlooked by foreign media.

Indirectly, ENI definitely plays a security role as well, by using its leverage to bring Libyan political and financial interests to the negotiating table. The ability of the Italian government, augmented by its military, intelligence and commercial assets, to de-escalate tensions and fight illegal migration in North Africa will be crucial not only for Italy, but the entire EU as well. Indeed, as the senior Italian cooperation official told, the resolution of the MENA crises “remains a fundamental task for Italy’s diplomatic and energy future, and for the European Union as well.”

Europe’s Macedonian Intervention, Part 5: Transition Phase and Intelligence Assessments

By Chris Deliso

The previous installments of this series on European involvement in Macedonia’s crisis comprise the beginnings of’s comprehensive deep background series, known as The Great Unraveling. It will continue indefinitely, as new and important information keeps flowing in, as people become more frustrated and outspoken about the impasse.

On the Surface Still

So far, our series has basically stayed at the level of surface politics; this is not because deeper connections do not exist, but simply because we must first set the stage for what is to come- and to prove how, even at the level of surface politics, European intervention has failed due to problems with professional capacities, goals, time limitations and institutional self-protection mechanisms that have all contributed to a deep mistrust of the whole venture, and further divisions, in Macedonia. In other words, even in the case that deeper issues had not existed, the problems of the day could not have been resolved by the means officially chosen. Yet had the powers-that-be made different choices, at least the crisis’ continuation would have been avoidable. It was simply handled incorrectly.

Indeed, watching the crisis unfold has been like seeing one of those gruesome botched beheadings in which the victim writhes in agony because the executioner is too incompetent to get a clean cut. This failure is part – but only part – of the reason why German Special Envoy Johannes Haindl and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland are soon returning to Skopje. It is another validation of what we have already isolated: one year on from the supposedly conclusive Przino Agreement, the EU has lost its credibility and leverage in Macedonia.

Recounting the Series

Ten days have now passed since the fourth installment of this series, in which we isolated the flaws of the June 8 2015 Priebe Report in the context of pre-existing EU policy (Part 3) and key factors that occurred in early 2015, like the Hahn Cabinet’s decision to treat the crisis as a “rule of law” issue (Part 2).

Finally, some 17 days have now passed since we discussed the EU’s self-defensive tactics of media patronage and evasiveness, which not incidentally have contributed to the chronically delayed and incomplete reporting of the current series (Part 1). Ironically, only after a sharp social media comment yesterday did we get a partial answer to some of the questions sent over a month ago to Hahn Spokeswoman Maja Kocijančič.  It is unfortunate that it is necessary to criticize an official on Twitter in order to prod them into doing their job.

Current State of Affairs

As of June 30, 2016, the major parties in Macedonia remain deadlocked, with the cancellation of previously agreed June 5 elections earlier this spring indicating again a tendency of parties to not negotiate in good faith, and a continuingly naïve attitude from the Europeans that they actually ever intended to do so.

The EU’s diminished capacities locally have been damaged further by last week’s Brexit vote, which has caused internal instability and shifted the focus northward. This has created further opportunity for individual states (namely, the US and Germany) to take an active role in crisis resolution attempts. The possibility of ‘Brexit contagion’ will be used both by Euro-federalists as a threat that can only be met by political union, and by Eurosceptics as a precedent against such union.

When first elected as EU leader in 2014, Juncker promised no further enlargement until at least 2020. A vacuum was created in which politicians of candidate countries were freed to do as they pleased since there was no incentive to cooperate within any upcoming election cycle. Juncker effectively handed Austria’s nomination for commissioner of enlargement, Johannes Hahn, with a mandate that needed no fulfillment. It should have been a very low-pressure job, but has turned out anything but that.

In fact, the only reason why the EU has paid significant attention to Balkan countries has been the migrant crisis since June 2015. Now, the anticipated second migrant wave that we have long predicted will begin anytime Turkish President Erdoğan chooses. Now that he has made moves to soothe tensions with powers to the north (Russia) and south (Israel) the Turkish leader is in a much stronger position to pressure Brussels over the migration deal which was never more than a desperate attempt to buy time.

Maybe some of its supporters expected it to magically solve the situation, but since then the increasing prominence of Egypt and Libya in the illegal migration game is also causing pressure and a tactical rethink in Europe. This should free up some of the pressure on Macedonia and other Balkan countries, which may also use the renewed migration crisis as a weapon to further punish Brussels for perceived interference. Only Brussels is not aware of this.

A Changing of the Guard

In Macedonia specifically, European diplomacy is going through a phase change. August 2016 will see the end of mandate for two of the most high-profile diplomats mentioned frequently by media throughout the crisis, EU Delegation leader Aivo Orav and Italian Ambassador Ernesto Massimo Bellelli. Also leaving is the Slovenian ambassador, Branko Rankovec (who was not specified by local media for any role in the crisis).

The departure of the first two ambassadors will remove a huge burden from their respective diplomatic apparatuses, as they have been consistently blamed by media, rightly or wrongly, for playing an outsized role in Macedonian internal affairs during the crisis. Yet the alleviation of subterranean pressures on EU and Italian diplomacy in the past two years will have unpredictable effects. For example, the pressure on both men has partially influenced them to do more ‘positive engagement’ (such as fundraising, bringing investments, giving ceremonial awards and so on) than they might otherwise have done. It will be interesting to see whether their replacements, free of these pressures, will continue their predecessors’ initiatives as they themselves will not be similarly burdened.

There is an interesting detail for the historical record. Both Orav and his expected replacement (Samuel Žbogar, current EU envoy to Kosovo) had been appointed at the same time, on 21 December 2011, by the same official. That was the former British Commissioner for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, who was replaced by Italy’s Federica Mogherini in 2014. Ashton’s term coincided with a very important period in international involvement in pre-crisis Macedonia, which will be covered in the author’s upcoming ebook, The Macedonian Mosaic.

As we have already recounted in this series, Aivo Orav was never allowed to speak with by the EU. Only they know why.  Ambassador Bellelli, however, did (after some persuasion) manage to make time for an exclusive interview with, which we will discuss at the appropriate point in our upcoming series on Italian security concerns in the MENA/Balkan region.

It should also be noted that there are several foreign diplomats who will not be cycling out this year, and who have taken a similarly visible role in the crisis. Their activities too will be mentioned in the relevant contexts as we move forward.

Observed Trends

As we have noted, one clear trend throughout the crisis has been a reliance on ‘cunning plans’- political and security stratagems that have never fully succeeded. This is due largely to their tactical rather than strategic nature. The damage that these failures have caused has multiplied the pre-existing problems.

This has been most serious for internationals, because tactical failures cannot worsen the perception of local actors who already have long lost all public credibility. And in any case, Macedonian system society absorbs and internalizes everything, until it passes into folklore. (Perhaps the only good thing about this tendency is the sign of a very patient and tolerant society).

The general result of this is an increased tendency towards promoting violent extremism as more reasonable options become exhausted and actors grow more impatient. There is also an increased reliance on local patronage schemes which, it is perhaps overoptimistically believed, will help contain the damage and ideally, cover up foreign involvement since even before the coup plot began from August 2014. But that is in the murky depths beneath surface politics and as such, a topic for another time.

In this light, the general history of foreign interventionism in Macedonia can be understood as a series of tactical gaffes that have required a resolution through the legitimization of parallel institutions (most notably, the ‘Special Prosecutor’s Office’) to guarantee that everything gets swept under the rug and that the right people are punished for a desired political result.

A Prosecution that Is Special, in Every Sense of the Word

However – and still, at the level of surface politics – the very concept of an SPO was always fatally flawed. This is symptomatic of the rushed and ill-conceived thinking that informed the entire process of foreign interventionism since February 2015.

As with the Priebe Report itself, this is reflected by choice of language. The official Przino Agreement of 15 July 2015 states that “by 15 September 2015, there shall be a new, Special Prosecutor with full autonomy to lead the investigations surrounding and arising from the interception of communications.”

The terminology italicized above was deliberately vague. It essentially entitled this new and unusual entity to do anything it wanted. Without any clear limitations on mandate or methods, and with a massive budget of 4 million euros, it naturally took a maximalist and extremely aggressive approach that has alienated the majority of the public and resulted in one PR disaster after another. Literally everything the SPO does now reinforces the argument of ex-PM Gruevski, that the body was set up to arrest him and his colleagues while rewarding the opposition.

Thus once again an instrument of tactical foreign intervention has backfired. It is not in the interests of Western media to make a substantive investigation of the SPO from Przino times until now; instead, they have tried to emphasize a cult of personality aspect, as with the BBC’s absurd and meaningless recent comparison of the carefully-selected SPO team to ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ This identification (with fictional characters, at least fitting in that regard) was first developed in the German media and has since metastasized like a cancer among Western propagandists for the opposition cause.

Nevertheless, as with the work of the SPO itself, its foreign PR support continues to perpetuate simmering Macedonian public distrust of all Western interests. Again, both action and rhetoric increase the divide between outside perception and local reality.

Tactical Assessments for a Summer of Unconventional Warfare, and a Fall of Planned Change

In early May both MI6 and BND assets visited Macedonia, from north and from south. Another tactical failure had recently occurred, and the emphasis was on field assessment of the future viability of the Colorful Revolution crowd funded by Soros and various other outside interests. can confirm that the cumulative assessment indicated disappointment with the movement’s failure to gain traction and credibility among the general public. The frustration with this lack of a result has recently led to infighting and competition within the revolutionary ranks, which itself also plays into the hands of pro-government supporters.

Western secret services have assessed that a six to nine month period will be required in order for the executioner of their policy instrument (SDSM) to be in a position in which it can even compete in elections. Until then, a low-grade war of attrition – ideally, complemented by some high-level arrests – will continue. However, sources indicate that any election for fall will be delayed until (as has been argued variously) next year, to coincide with scheduled local elections.

Until then, the actions and counter-actions from pro-opposition and pro-government supporters will be conditioned by the following factors: the outcome of US-German overseen negotiations; reactions to the NATO Summit’s expected rejection of Macedonian membership; the potential revived migrant crisis, and the inevitability of summer vacation reducing the number of available protesters.

Colorful revolutionaries have been told in no uncertain terms, however, that the continuation of their funding will depend on continuing to ‘show up’ through the summer, even if this interferes with their vacations. They have even been requested to ‘escalate their activities to the next level,’ as one foreign observer recently told

In the same way that the Hahn Cabinet originally envisioned a ‘two-track’ solution to the crisis (in March 2015), we have now in reality a two-speed unconventional war. There is a long-term, slow-speed plan for supporting and replenishing the opposition through various soft-power tactics, which will probably fail but which will pay enough to keep the depleted movement going.

At the same time, the fast-speed unconventional warfare that will continue throughout the summer will feature offenses and counter-offensives in both i/ops and various more tangible efforts. It is hard to predict exactly what they will be, but we expect at some point the war will take on an international tenor. In other words, physical manifestations of the antagonism between pro-SDSM and pro-VMRO factions will be seen outside of Macedonia.

Depending on the outcome of this war of attrition, the conditions will be ripe for a movement towards not only political, but also structural change in Macedonia. That is the big question in the background. For certain powers, the changing of one politician or another does not suffice to make the long-term changes deemed necessary for local transformation. Although this is beyond the outside media’s interest, the local population is very much aware that the future of the country will depend on the events of the next months- 2016 will be known as the year when the ‘dead period’ of summer was actually rather lively.

Illuminating Conclusions

The intensification of unconventional warfare on all fronts is necessary for another purpose; the distraction of foreign media from the very real international scandals that have not been reported but that are intimately at the heart of the Macedonian crisis. Diplomatic sources indicate that the great powers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the SPO’s incompetence and inability to sweep everything under the rug. That is ultimately, of course, the fault of the people who chose those running that particular sideshow.

Thus, once again the trend of tactical failure will have to manifest in more aggressive rhetoric and even violence. But one of the most interesting and recurring aspects of the Macedonian crisis, from an objective standpoint, is the constant creation of new scandals throughout tactical failures meant to obscure the old ones.

As such, things can only conclude with an obscuring of the cumulative deeds that have darkened the local landscape for the past two years and more, or through a peaceful illumination of the facts of events as they have happened. The latter might not end up being as painful as many fear, for the long-term good of the country and those involved with it.

The Coming Migrant Wave editor’s note: confusion and panic following the Brexit vote, and preparations for the imminent Warsaw NATO Summit have distracted the focus of European leaders northwards to Britain and eastwards towards Russia. Relatively little attention is being paid to a scenario this website has consistently warned of– a renewed migrant surge towards the now-closed Balkan Route. The author, a former US diplomat, discusses the issue in the context of Europe’s current moment of crisis.

By Gerard M. Gallucci*

Significant attention is now focused on what happens after the Brexit vote. It seems everyone in the remaining EU countries are fed up with perfidious Albion, and just want them to leave and get it over with. Everyone, that is, except Merkel; she seems willing to give the English time to reconsider. She understands the particular costs to Germany if it must finally step out of its history to lead the EU alone. (No one else can lead as they are either caught up in their own populist uprising or unable – France – to think with one head).

Yet Brexit and its repercussions – political, economic, financial, etc – may actually not be what breaks Europe. What breaks Europe and the EU may be the coming wave of refugees that will hit the Balkans first.

Brussels policy for dealing with the refugee flow that threatened to overtake its members’ willingness to tolerate open borders has been mostly about getting Turkey to stop them before reaching EU borders.

Currently, some 2.7 million Syrians, Iraqis and others are piled up in Turkey either in camps – a small minority – or at the bottommost rungs of Turkish society and economy. A second element of the EU’s approach has been to allow thousands to die while trying to cross the sea, or pile up in Greece (officially 57,000) and Italy (where 4500 were rescued from the waters in just one day in June) if they succeed. The third piece has been to bottle up in the Balkans the rest that manage to get through.

Focus on Turkey

The key piece is Turkey. The deal the EU struck with Erdoğan requires Turkey to stop those fleeing the Mideast chaos from crossing over into Europe. Turkey has done so, allowing only a comparative trickle to move beyond. But the deal seems to be seen differently on both sides. Erdoğan appears to believe that in turn for stopping the refugee flow, Turks will get visa-free travel and Turkey will be allowed to move forward into the EU.

The EU – meaning Brussels and Berlin – apparently believe that they are already paying for Turkey allowing the refugees to pile up in its territory – and for belated efforts to close its southern border – with the “aid” it is providing to handle those refugees. For the other EU advantages – including visa-free travel – Turkey must meet “benchmarks” (including “anti-terrorism” measures) that it has failed so far to do.

As far as the Germans are concerned, Turkey must meet EU conditions if it can get anywhere near EU membership. In effect, Turkey must “act European” – including on human rights and democracy – before qualifying to enter Europe. That is not part of Erdoğan’s plans for rebuilding his caliphate.

Turkey is just pocketing most of the EU’s “aid” while Erdoğan accuses the bloc of double standards and “Islamophobia.” Both the EU and Turkey agree that there is no final deal and neither side appears to be getting close to one. Erdoğan probably understands that EU membership is far off the table but has political reasons to insist on visa-free travel.

Given the populist/nationalist backlash across the EU – only most noticeable in Hungary, which is allowing a bare trickle through to travel onward to Austria and Germany – and now the Brexit vote, there is no reason to assume Turks will be allowed free travel into the EU any time soon. The current impasse – which so far has prevented a renewed refugee flow – is not stable.

At some point in the next few months, Erdoğan may simply decide to let those millions move on. He may do it all at once and out loud, or slowly and quietly to build pressure on Berlin to surrender to his terms. He has the leverage because the EU has no plan B to handle another crisis.

Implications of a Second Migrant Wave

If the flow across the Aegean begins anew, it will be Greece and the Balkans that get overwhelmed again. Greece is in the EU but has been left to slowly twist on its own petard since its financial crisis. It will have no choice but to allow them to move on, but the strain will still be immense.

Macedonia and Serbia will then face the same problems as last year but with the northern routes into the EU now closed. They, meanwhile, have been left outside the EU staring in.

Merkel is perhaps the most effective and farsighted leader in the entire West. But even she will be challenged to build any effective EU response while her remaining partners face even more backlash from their own various domestic Orbans. Whatever happens with Brexit – perhaps Merkel and certain British leaders will find a way to walk back from the edge – renewed crisis over refugees will break the EU, leave chaos across the Balkans and leave hundreds of thousands of desperate people with nowhere to call home.

The only long-term solution remains, as it has for some time, strenuous EU and US efforts to bring real stability to Syria and Iraq.  This cannot be done at arm’s length.


Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He has a PhD in political science, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Arkansas, George Washington University and Drake University and now works as an independent consultant.

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