US sanctions high-profile Western Balkan politicians

US sanctions high-profile Western Balkan politicians
By bne IntelliNews April 11, 2022

The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions on seven current and former officials from the Western Balkans on April 11, including a former president and a former prime minister. 

OFAC said those targeted “threaten the stability of the region through corruption, criminal activity, and other destabilising behaviour”, which “undermines the rule of law and economic growth”. 

The sanctioned individuals are from four countries in the region: Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia. 

“The people designated today constitute a serious threat to regional stability, institutional trust, and the aspirations of those seeking democratic and judicious governance in the Western Balkans,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson, according to a Treasury statement. 

“Combatting corruption around the world is a major priority of the Biden-Harris administration, and Treasury will not hesitate to use all tools at our disposal to hold corrupt and destabilising actors accountable,” Nelson added. 

North Macedonia’s ex-PM Gruevski blacklisted

The US State Department announced on April 11 that North Macedonia’s former prime minister Nikola Gruevski and ex-secret police chief Saso Mijalkov were put on its blacklist due to the former officials’ involvement in significant corruption.

Both former officials came from the now opposition conservative VMRO-DPMNE party. Gruevski fled North Macedonia in 2018 to avoid serving a prison sentence and got asylum in Budapest. Mijalkov is currently under house arrest and is facing several corruption trials.

“Their actions undermined the rule of law, democratic institutions, and public processes in both countries and eroded the public’s faith in their governments,” the US State Department said.

"In his official capacity as prime minister, Gruevski was involved in corrupt acts that included using his political influence and official power for personal benefit. Specifically, there is credible information that Gruevski abused the power of his office to solicit and accept bribes in return for government contracts, misappropriated public funds, and interfered in electoral processes to benefit himself and his party politically," it said.

According to the explanation for Mijalkov, the ex-secret police chief was involved in corrupt acts that included using his political influence and official power for personal benefit. 

"Specifically, there is credible information that Mijalkov abused the power of his office to solicit bribes in return for government contracts and interfered in electoral processes to benefit himself and his party politically," according to the statement.

In addition to Gruevski and Mijalkov, the Department of State is also designating their immediate family members as ineligible for entry into the US.

All property and interests in property of those sanctioned in the US will be blocked.

The State Department said that designations reaffirm the US commitment to supporting the rule of law and strengthening democratic institutions in North Macedonia. 

Montenegro’s fugitive former president Marovic sanctioned 

OFAC also sanctioned Montenegro’s former president Svetozar Marovic, who was sentenced by a local court in 2016 to 46 months in jail for his participation in the so-called Budva affair. 

The former president was arrested in December 2015 after being under investigation for four years for suspected involvement in large-scale corruption cases relating to construction projects in the municipality of Budva. He was accused of using his influence as a senior official in the then ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) to approve a series of property purchases and construction deals that reaped large gains for several companies but caused significant losses for the local government.

In 2016, Marovic admitted his guilt on all charges. He was sentenced to prison and ordered by the court to return over $1mn to the state. 

However, he is not serving his sentence as he has escaped to Serbia and Belgrade is refusing to hand him over to Podgorica.

Marovic was president of the state of Serbia and Montenegro between 2003 and 2006 and also was a deputy leader of the DPS led by President Milo Djukanovic.

“Marovic was designated pursuant to E.O. 14033 for being responsible for, or complicit in, or having directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption related to the Western Balkans, including corruption by, on behalf of, or otherwise related to a government in the Western Balkans, or a current or former government official at any level of government in the Western Balkans, such as the misappropriation of public assets, expropriation of private assets for personal gain or political purposes, or bribery,” the Treasury department said in the statement.

Bosnian officials added to blacklist 

In Bosnia, OFAC designated both MP Asim Sarajlic and former chief prosecutor Gordana Tadic. 

Sarajlic, as outlined by the OFAC statement, is the subject of the so-called Asim affair, in which Sarajlic was caught promising to secure a job for the wife of a party delegate in exchange for a requested vote on a political party position. He has also been indicted for abuse of office and influence peddling, and was found to have accepted payments in exchange for jobs at state-owned BH Telecom. 

Tadic was sacked as chief prosecutor in 2021 after failing to use the automated case distribution system to assign cases to prosecutors, and is reported to have used her position to “promote her own personal and familial interests”.

The two were sanctioned several months after the US Treasury designated the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, and the Banja Luka television station Alternative Television (ATV) that he controls 

Also on April 11, the UK government said it had sanctioned Dodik and fellow Bosnian Serb politicians Zeljka Cvijanovic, in the first sanctions issued under the UK’s Bosnia sanctions regime. 

“These two politicians are deliberately undermining the hard won peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Encouraged by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, their reckless behaviour threatens stability and security across the Western Balkans,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. 

“With these tough sanctions we are showing that the enemies of peace will be held to account,” she added. 

Organised crime in Albania 

In Albania, the US Treasury warned that organised crime remains a “significant threat”. “[C]riminal actors remain influential in Albanian politics, using money and violence to funnel support to preferred candidates,” the statement said. 

It has sanctioned former MP Aqif Rakipi over his “damaging and destabilising influence” on political processes in Albania. 

“Multiple organised crime groups (OCGs) in Albania have offered money, gifts, or promises for jobs or concessions in return for votes for their preferred political party. Rakipi has long been involved in organised crime and is closely associated with one OCG, within which he exerted political influence, including through corruption,” the statement said. 

Also sanctioned is media owner Ylli Ndroqi, whose assets were seized by the Albanian government in 2020 and 2021 for previous criminal activity. “Ndroqi has utilised media outlets formerly under his control to extort and blackmail Albanian citizens through demands for money and advertising purchases in exchange for withholding publication of negative media stories. Additionally, Ndroqi has facilitated bribes on behalf of an entity seeking to do business in Albania,” said the statement. 

Such sanctions can have a wide-reaching effect on domestic politics, though in some instances they have backfired. Previously the US sanctioned former Albanian prime minister and ex leader of the Democratic Party Sali Berisha for “significant corruption” in 2021. This prompted the Democrats’ leader Lulzim Basha to expel Berisha from the party parliamentary group, after which Beisha launched a campaign to remove Basha from the party leadership. Basha has recently stepped down, and Berisha is seeking to regain control over the party.