His­tory re­peat­ing it­self as Balkan woes threaten U.S. se­cu­rity

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY LUKE COF­FEY ● Luke Cof­fey is the di­rec­tor of The Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s Dou­glas and Sarah Al­li­son Cen­ter for For­eign Pol­icy.

Tucked away in the south­east cor­ner of Europe, the Balkans are 4,500 miles from the East Coast. So your av­er­age Amer­i­can would be for­given for won­der­ing, “What does this re­gion have to do with me?”

But sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity in the Balkans is im­por­tant to the U.S. for many rea­sons.

His­tor­i­cally, the re­gion has been a flash point for wars in Europe — some of which have dragged U.S. troops into com­bat. That’s one rea­son the U.S. has in­vested bil­lions in aid there since the end of the Cold War. Cer­tain parts of the re­gion have also been hot­beds of Is­lamist ex­trem­ism, and col­lec­tively the Balkans have sent hun­dreds of fight­ers to join Is­lamic State in Syria. All the while, Rus­sia is ac­tive in the re­gion, try­ing to un­der­mine U.S. in­ter­ests there.

Now there are po­lit­i­cal threats, which threaten to undo Amer­ica’s ef­forts to bring se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity to the re­gion — in part with U.S. tax­pay­ers’ money.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent letter signed by six sen­a­tors and con­gress­men, or­ga­ni­za­tions like Ge­orge Soros’ Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tion are bol­ster­ing left-wing po­lit­i­cal move­ments in the re­gion at odds with Amer­i­can in­ter­ests — and us­ing funds pro­vided by USAID to do it. State ac­tors like Rus­sia are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the en­su­ing po­lit­i­cal desta­bi­liza­tion to pro­mote an anti-West agenda.

The sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity en­joyed in the re­gion since the late 1990s could be on the verge of a great un­rav­el­ing, as democ­racy and good gov­er­nance are be­ing tested. Just look at what’s hap­pen­ing in Mace­do­nia. Malign out­side in­flu­ence in the coun­try has led to a po­lit­i­cal paral­y­sis that is shak­ing its demo­cratic foun­da­tion. This should be a wake-up call for U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

Mean­while, a per­fect storm is brew­ing in nearby Al­ba­nia, where na­tional elec­tions are slated for June. As a NATO mem­ber, the stakes are even higher in Al­ba­nia, and the threat of desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion even greater. If things go badly, Rus­sia will be there to pick up the pieces. There are three fac­tors to watch.

First, the up­com­ing elec­tions must be trans­par­ent, free and open. The op­po­si­tion Demo­cratic Party has lost faith in the elec­toral process, and the rul­ing gov­ern­ment has done noth­ing to al­le­vi­ate the fear of fraud. Even the Euro­pean Union has ex­pressed con­cerns about the po­ten­tial for elec­toral ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

Sec­ondly, there is wide­spread cor­rup­tion in Al­ba­nia. At the heart of this cor­rup­tion is the re­gion’s bur­geon­ing drug trade. Al­ba­nia seems well on its way to be­com­ing the Euro­pean epi­cen­ter of the il­le­gal drugs trade. Se­nior of­fi­cials of the rul­ing So­cial­ist Party have been tied to ma­jor drug-traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions, and Prime Min­is­ter Edi Rama has been re­peat­edly ac­cused of fail­ing to crack down on their op­er­a­tions.

Fi­nally, just as in neigh­bor­ing Mace­do­nia, there is se­ri­ous con­cern about out­side groups like the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tion. Mr. Soros’ med­dling in Al­ba­nia via the State Depart­ment is noth­ing new. It is now known from John Podesta’s hacked emails that when Hil­lary Clin­ton headed the State Depart­ment, Mr. Soros was com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly with her and her staff. Rex W. Tiller­son should end this prac­tice im­me­di­ately.

At this point, it is dif­fi­cult to see how much in­flu­ence the U.S can ex­ert in Al­ba­nia. Mr. Rama re­cently de­scribed Pres­i­dent Trump as the “shame of our civilization.” Not a good base for a healthy U.S.-Al­ba­nian re­la­tion­ship!

But at the very least, we can stop en­abling those who don’t have Amer­ica’s in­ter­ests at heart. U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers were caught flat-footed by the on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal drama in Mace­do­nia. We can’t af­ford to re­peat the same mis­takes in Al­ba­nia.

Wash­ing­ton needs to pay far more at­ten­tion to what’s go­ing on in the Balkans. Oth­er­wise our mas­sive post-Cold War in­vest­ment there may well be squan­dered.

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