Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said on March 9 that the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) Lulzim Basha must face prosecutors after a scandal erupted over alleged Russian lobbying for Albania’s Democrats in the US.
Rama’s comment came after US publication Mother Jones reported on March 6 that Albania’s Democratic Party indirectly received secret funds from Russian sources in the US during last year’s parliamentary election. It also said that Russian-related companies were secretly active in the US to meddle in the election.
“The truth about this issue will be definitely unveiled,” Rama said in a Facebook post on March 9.
According to EU-oriented Rama, this is a question that has to do with Albania’s interests and the road of the country toward EU accession.
Albania's Democrats, which suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of Rama’s Socialists in the June 2017 election, rejected such allegations. In a March 11 statement, Democratic claimed Rama was using the scandal to distract from suspected links between former interior minister Saimir Tahiri and accused the prime minister's brother Olsi Rama of being involved in drug smuggling.
Cash for access accusations
Mother Jones wrote that in 2017, prior to the June general election in Albania, a Scottish firm named Biniatta Trade, set up by two Belize-based shell companies connected to firms controlled by Russians, paid Republican lobbyist Nick Muzin, a former campaign aide of US President Donald Trump, to lobby for Albania’s Democratic Party in the US.
Despite this, the Socialists, which had been warning of the rise of Russian influence in the Balkans as they try to steer Albania into the EU, won a second mandate with an overwhelming majority.
At the time Basha pushed his message that Albania’s democracy was threatened by the left-wing Rama and that international financier George Soros was the power behind Rama.
Muzin reported to the US authorities that he had been paid $675,000 for his three months of work for the Albania's Democratic Party. This included a $25,000 payment on March 27 and a $500,000 payment on June 9, just days before he arranged for Basha to have an important photo op with Trump in Milwaukee.
Muzin said he received another payment of $150,000 from Biniatta Trade for activities undertaken on behalf of the Democratic Party.
According to the article, in late March 2017, Muzin arranged a visit to Washington for Basha that included meetings with three GOP congressmen. Basha also attended the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual dinner, which featured Trump as the big-draw speaker.
Meanwhile, Albanian Daily News reported that the Democratic Party's secretary general Arben Ristani has been summoned by prosecutors for questioning about alleged Russian lobbying for the party in the US.
Ristani said that the questioning was requested by the Socialist Party, but denied the allegations against his own party.
Recently, there have been increasing reports about Russian meddling in the Balkans to prevent Nato and EU influence in the region.
During the crucial election in Macedonia in December 2016, Russia also openly supported the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, which made no progress towards EU accession during its 10 years in power. VMRO-DPMNE but failed to win the majority it needed to stay on in power, which opened the way for the pro-EU Social Democrats to take over power in May 2017.
Russia is also accused of being behind a coup attempt in Montenegro — which is Nato’s newest member and an aspiring EU entrant — on the eve of the October 2016 election.
Officials from the UK and the US have also warned recently of the need to counter Russian influence in the region. A report prepared for the US Senate’s foreign relations committee claimed that East European countries including Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia remain very vulnerable to Russia’s “malign influence”, while a separate report published by the British House of Lords said that the destabilising influences of outside powers in the region, notably Russia, must be “firmly and persistently countered”.
Meanwhile, the influential Atlantic Council think tank, which is funded by Nato, said in February that a stronger military presence was needed in the Balkans to counter what it called "breathtaking" Russian interference.
In February, the European Commission adopted a new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans, setting 2025 as the target for Serbia and Montenegro to become members and promising opening accession talks for Albania and Macedonia if they meet conditions.
The strategy, which comes after years of neglecting the region that in turn raised fears of instability, is expected to counter the growing influence of Russia, but also of China in the Balkans.