The European Commission announced its new strategy for the Western Balkans, plotting the path towards eventual EU membership for six southeastern European countries. Of those six countries, Serbia and Montenegro are the only two to have begun accession talks, and the Commission says they could “potentially” be ready to join the bloc by 2025. Next in line, currently, are Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with whom the Commission stands ready to open accession talks “on the basis of fulfilled conditions.” Following them are Bosnia and Herzegovina who have applied to join and are waiting for the Commission’s response. Firmly in last place on the list is Kosovo which the Commission says can advance from its current Stabilisation and Association Agreement “once objective circumstances allow”.
The encouraging signals emanating from Brussels come with caveats, however. And at times, these are presented in quite strident terms. In the document titled “A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans” the Commission says: “Joining the EU is far more than a technical process. It is a generational choice, based on fundamental values, which each country must embrace more actively, from their foreign and regional policies right down to what children are taught at school.”
On top of this broad-sweeping social change expected of the aspiring members, the EU also states that the rule of law must be strengthened significantly in these countries, which the Commission says, “show elements of state capture including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests.”
Perhaps the experience of admitting Romania and Bulgaria into the Union in 2007 and the fact that ten years on they still both fall far short of EU standards in the above areas has motivated the EU to adopt more of a tough-love approach with the next crop of intakes. While they have years yet to get their house in order, the progress so far has been halting at best. Just last January, for instance, the Albanian prime minister Edi Rama fired his justice minister Ylli Manjani, for, Manjani says, speaking out about the government’s failure to apprehend one of the country’s biggest cannabis traffickers. While Rama denies this was the reason for firing Manjani, the former justice minister’s comments – alleging that the reason the trafficker in question, Klemend Balili, hasn’t been arrested is because of his close ties to powerful political figures – were acutely embarrassing for Rama’s government.
But it’s not just Manjani making these claims, the authorities in Greece, where Manjani is also wanted, complain that the warrant they’ve served for his arrest is being ignored by the Albanian police. The Greeks too have been quick to point to Balili’s political connections as the reason behind their neighbour’s reluctance to make a serious effort to find him.
The extent of those political connections is probably best illustrated in a photograph shown on Albanian news in which Balili appears alongside Minister for Finance Arben Ahmetaj and the Socialist MP Koco Kokëdhima, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Santa Quaranta luxury hotel built by Balili family in the coastal town of Saranda. Asked about why he lost his job, the former justice minister said, “I was the only official who systematically called for the arrest of Klement Balili. When I called for his arrest, policemen ate and drank at Santa Quaranta.”
Clearly, Albania has a long way to go in terms of meeting the impunity and rule of law requirements expected of an EU member. A country with a shorter journey ahead of it to EU membership, and yet still nowhere near meeting its basic requirements, is Montenegro. Aside from Serbia it is the only country to have an indicative accession date. How achievable this date is and whether it will be pushed back or brought forward depends of course on how sincere Podgorica is in its efforts clean up its act.
And as is the case with Albania, there is considerable cleaning to be done.
Montenegro had its own Balili type figure, only much more dangerous and even better protected by the authorities than Balili is in Albania. Until Darko Saric was finally arrested in 2014 he ran a billion-dollar cocaine smuggling empire, transporting tonnes of the drug across the Atlantic directly from South America. His ill-gotten gains were laundered through First Bank, owned by the Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic, who also gave Saric loans on favourable terms.
But Djukanovic didn’t just provide a safe harbour for one of Europe’s biggest cocaine smugglers. He is accused of being a smuggler himself. Only thanks to his political immunity he would have been prosecuted by Italian authorities in relation to a billion-dollar cigarette smuggling operation involving the Italian mafia. According to Montenegrin officials, the country has turned its back on its former lawless ways. One way to convince Brussels of that claim would be by rejecting Milo Djukanovic’s possible candidacy in April’s elections.