The Balkans is in danger of slipping under Russian influence if the Trump administration ignores the region, Albania’s prime minister has warned in an interview with The Telegraph.
Questions are also being asked over whether the European Union is doing enough to ensure stability and block Moscow’s alleged plots.
In a wide-ranging interview, Albania’s charismatic prime minister, Edi Rama, said without US support “the Balkans would not be a place where there is peace and cooperation”.
“For the US this area is very important strategically and the US is very important for us,” he added.
Given Russia’s apparent role in the prime minister’s assassination plot in neighbouring Montenegro, disclosed by The Telegraph this week, there are worries Washington’s disinterest will embolden Moscow.
“Russia has been interested in spreading its influence and there’s a lot of it in this region,” Mr Rama, 52, said.
His worries are echoed by Albanian foreign minister, Ditmir Bushati. “There’s a lack of focus from our main partners, the US and EU on the Balkans,” he told The Telegraph.
After intense conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, Balkan states were only now “transferring from enemies into neighbours”.
“If there is a retreat by the US and EU we might go back to basics and we know what basics means here in the Balkans.”
He added: “Russian influence is stronger than before, a presence in political circles, especially Serbia and Montenegro. It’s not an attractive thing for this society. Russian policies to do not correspondent with Balkan ambitions to join the EU.”
For so long Albania has been backwater in Europe, with its unhinged communist dictator Enver Hoxha isolating it from both West and East during his 40 year rule. Since the fall of communism Albania has struggled to get back on its feet but after introducing wide-ranging reforms Mr Rama is now leading accession talks for EU membership.
But the Socialist Party leader faces a battle reforming a rampantly corrupt judicial system. As a condition to EU membership, each of Albania’s 800 judges and prosecutors has to be vetted to explain any unusual wealth assets or past judgements.
Already 22 judges have resigned but the vetting process faces being scuppered by the opposition Democratic Party, which has close ties to the judiciary.
“This has been big concern of the opposition as they have been in power for many years and have their own reasons to fear a clean and well-performing justice system,” Mr Rama said.
When communism fell many East European artists and writers entered politics but few have survived for long.
It might be his imposing physically presence, standing at 6ft 5in (1.95m) in size 13 shoes. It might also be skills developed in the national basketball team. But what seems to wrong-foot opponents is a growing international reputation as a painter. Edi Rama artwork is currently exhibited at the prestigious Marian Goodman gallery in New York, Florence and soon in Shoreditch, east London.
It explains the large bowl of coloured pens on his desk and constant doodling during ministerial meetings that he argues, gives him greater concentration.
Three years into office, Mr Rama’s popularity remains high with a 56 per cent approval rating. That will be useful come elections in June and is testament to his reforms which has seen the police go from the least to most trusted profession in Albania.
The economy is also thriving, with 3.4 per cent growth this year and a similar forecast for next year.
With Albania gradually losing its grim communist reputation, tourists are discovering a delightfully unspoilt country – no fast food chains or advertising hoardings are obvious in the capital Tirana. Its Adriatic coastline is said to be both dramatic and beautiful. Tourism has increased by 25 per cent in the last year.
“It’s the beautiful Italy of a generation before, not yet messed up by wild developments,” Mr Rama says.
While the country has a legacy of blood feuds and endemic criminality, especially in the drugs trade, it is not the norm, he argues.
“People are influenced by this stereotype of Albania as a gloomy country where all dark things happen but it’s a totally different.”
Potentially Albania could join the EU just as Britain leaves. Mr Rama accepts the “sovereign decision of the British people” but gently adds: “This is the first generation in Europe that has not known war and they forget that the EU is first and foremost a project of peace and security and then a free market.”
Source: The Telegraph /