Monday, December 4, 2017

Albania PM in Brussels to push for accession negotiations

Martin Banks | December 4, 2017 Link

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama (pictured) was due in Brussels on Monday (4 December) in a fresh bid to press for the formal initiation of accession negotiations with the EU, writes Martin Banks.

But, even before Rama left Tirana, there were claims that the Albanian opposition leader’s negative campaigning against the government could complicate Rama’s talks with top EU officials this week.

Since early this year, center-right Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha has been claiming that Rama and his party are under the thumb of Albanian drug dealers. As recently as two weeks ago, when the Albanian premier wrote personal letters to all 28 EU government leaders pleading for their assistance in catching Albania’s crime bosses, Basha was repeating his claims in a Newsweek interview. Though he has thus far disclosed no evidence for his allegations, they appear to be part of a long-term campaign theme developed in March when he visited Washington to sign contracts with a group of US lobbyists.

Following a series of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) disclosures, Albania’s General Prosecutor last Thursday (30 November) said the Tirana District Prosecutors had formally opened an investigation into the Democratic Party’s accounts about how much it had spent on US lobbying companies. According to the BIRN reports, the lobbyists, all affiliated with the American Republican party, were offered contracts worth close to $1 million, most of it funnelled through offshore entities and not registered as party expenses under Albania’s election law.

Basha has responded that his party has acted in full compliance with the law, and claimed that Socialist Party accusations of “money laundering” were “a deception to avoid the truth” about Prime Minister Rama, former Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri, and other ruling Socialist officials accused repeatedly by the opposition of having criminal ties.

There are fears, however, that domestic infighting could adversely impact Rama’s big diplomatic push in Brussels this week where he will say the country is making good progress in the reforms required by the EU for Albania to formally start accession talks.

On Monday, Rama is due to meet European council president Donald Tusk followed on Tuesday with a meeting with Tusk’s European parliament counterpart, Antonio Tajani. Rama is also expected to have discussions with commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

The meetings come after the European Commission, in March, recommended that EU member states consider opening accession negotiations with Albania although EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn cautioned that obstacles still needed to be overcome, including a shadow economy linked to the drugs trade, lack of transparency and persistent allegations of corruption.

Earlier this year, Rama emerged victorious from national elections, a result that gave him a mandate to push through the required measures for Albania to join the EU.

In March, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini  praised Rama and Albania “for the very hard work they have done over this year” adding that both had her “full confidence and support”. She shared his hope to “bring this country inside the European Union”.

Rama has said he hopes Albania will get a green light for formal EU talks to start at the end of 2017.

Albania’s prosecutor office last week confirmed it is investigating possible fraud or falsification in the opposition party’s financial statements. The head of the Tirana District Prosecution, Petrit Fusha, told BIRN that they were collecting documents about the party’s lobbying contracts in Washington. Requests for information had been sent to the party and to the Central Election Commission.

Prosecutors were alerted after BIRN found that during the campaign for the 25 June parliamentary elections, the Democratic Party signed two contracts with the US lobbyists Stonington Strategies to secure meetings with senior figures in President Donald Trump’s administration.

The company said it received two payments from the DP totalling 525,000 US dollars plus a third payment of 150,000 US dollars from Biniatta Trade LP – a company registered in Scotland under the ownership of two Belize-based companies.

Just before the elections, Basha published a photo with US President Donald Trump but it is now reported that funds for his photo opportunity with Trump came from a controversial Turkish businessman named Kamil Ekim Alptekin, reportedly a Basha friend.

In 2016, Kemal had a lobbying contract implicating President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in the proposed abduction from the US of self-exiled religious leader Fethullah Gülen, accused by the Turkish government of being behind a failed coup attempt.

Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr, met with Turkish government officials in December 2016 – after Michael Flynn was already elected as a national security advisor – and it is said that they have been discussing Gulen’s transport opportunity in one private plane in Turkish prison, on the island of Imrali.

Albania – along with other Western Balkans countries – was recognized as a potential candidate country for EU accession  in 2003 and officially submitted a membership application in April 2009. In October 2012, the Commission recommended that Albania be granted EU candidate status, subject to completion of key measures in the areas of judicial and public administration reform and revision of the parliamentary rules of procedures.

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