Mission Report

Balkans Mission Report

May 7-14, 2023

In May 2023, a delegation of ten members of the Council of American Ambassadors (CAA), accompanied by several spouses, guests and staff, traveled on a mission to the western Balkans, specifically Albania, Kosova[1] and North Macedonia. The delegation’s goal was to assess the progress, problems and issues confronting these fledgling democracies almost a quarter century after NATO’s intervention in the 1998-1999 Kosova War halted Serbia’s “ethnic cleansing” of Kosova and forced Serbia’s withdrawal from this overwhelmingly majority Albanian region, almost sixteen years after President George W. Bush declared Kosova should be independent, and three years after North Macedonia was admitted to NATO after overcoming Greek objections by compromising on the republic’s name.

The Council of Albanian Ambassadors, which is patterned after our own Council, invited the delegation, and without the Albanian council’s contacts and assistance, the mission would not have been possible. The Council of American Ambassadors is profoundly grateful to the Council of Albanian Ambassadors[2] and to its many members and counterparts in Kosova and North Macedonia who contributed to the success of the mission.


  • All three of these Balkan nations are tremendously well-disposed toward the United States, which is not surprising when considering that the United States did much to secure their freedom and independence.
  • Each of these nations has made impressive strides toward prosperous, functioning, more diversified economies with vibrant private sectors that dilute the decades of total state dominance of economic activity under totalitarian Communism.
  • All three nations enjoy functioning democracies that provide free and fair elections and a separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, but the health and equilibrium of these nations’ democratic systems are subject to strains from domestic problems and frictions with neighbors over pockets of ethnic minorities within their borders.
  • All three countries are eager for membership in the European Union (EU) as the economic counterpart to the security anchor that NATO membership provides for Albania and North Macedonia — and which Kosova still desires.
  • However, various factions of existing EU members have qualms about these western Balkan countries’ domestic democratic practices and/or frictions with their neighbors, and these qualms generate reasons — or excuses — to prolong the processes of application, consideration and eventual admission for these relatively small and economically fragile states. 
  • The possibility that cross-border ethnic frictions with neighboring countries could erupt into cross-border fighting gives clearly skeptical or cautious EU members even more excuses to delay EU membership for these Balkan states.
  • There also is a fear among these smaller Balkan democracies that Serbia, their comparatively big (and frequently antagonistic) neighbor, might be viewed by some EU members as a more desirable or higher-priority candidate for EU admission, though Serbia is often suspected of being a cat’s paw for its historic friend and ally, Russia. Serbia’s admission could indefinitely frustrate, “raise the price of admission of,” or simply preclude these three Balkan states’ eventual EU membership.
  • In an attempt to demonstrate their worthiness of NATO and EU membership, these western Balkan republics have been as forthcoming as their limited size and capabilities permit in support of Ukraine and of European/NATO solidarity in opposing Russia’s invasion.
  • U.S. policymakers and NATO leaders must be alert to Russian meddling in the western Balkan region. Russia might manipulate or exploit its historically close relationships with Serbia or Bulgaria to penalize NATO and the EU for thwarting Russia’s planned conquest of Ukraine.


Then-Ambassador Yuri Kim and her country team received the Council’s delegation in Tirana for an informative orientation. Newly-elected President Bajram Begaj; Mimi Kodelhi, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Lower House of Parliament; various leaders of Albanian opposition parties[3]; and Albanian political leaders from nearby Montenegro also briefed the Council’s delegation. Prime Minister Edi Rama and his Cabinet members did not provide briefings. It is difficult to determine whether this was for lack of time or to sidestep and discredit anything critical that might emerge from our mission, but Prime Minister Rama remained a constant topic of conversation in nearly all our meetings.

Albania emerged from more than four decades of brutal Stalinist rule under Communist Party leader Enver Hoxha in 1985. The country was stunted in its economic and political development but eager and working assiduously to modernize. Those Hoxha years of privation and hardship, fear and repression are physically manifested in Tirana’s conspicuous lack of modern construction from that period apart from central Skanderbeg square. Tirana’s new mini-skyscrapers, boulevards and traffic point toward the modern society Albanians aspire to build.

Some suspect that the city’s high-rise growth is a product of criminal money-laundering, especially as organized crime, specifically drug trafficking rings, and corruption have become hallmarks of post-Communist Albania. These endemic problems are taking a toll on Albania’s electoral democracy. 

Prime Minister Rama and his Socialist Party of Albania now enjoy virtual monopolies of the national government and of local and regional elected offices. The once-ruling Democratic Party made a series of gravely mistaken calculations and abandoned Parliamentary seats in favor of joining street protests in 2017 and thereafter boycotted 2019 provincial and local elections it claimed were rigged. We visited shortly before nationwide municipal elections, and the Democratic Party was fighting to win back seats but was badly hampered by internal divisions that Rama’s party is credited by some with helping to foment and finance.

In May 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the advice of the U.S. Embassy and designated former Albanian President (1992-1997) and Prime Minister (2005-2013) Sali Berisha — who led Albania’s first post-Communist government and set the country on a democratic path — as permanently excluded from eligibility to enter the United States. Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2021 gave Secretary Blinken and future Secretaries of State the power to designate an individual and his/her family on the basis of evidence of criminality or corruption presented and considered in camera, without any opportunity for challenge. The United Kingdom followed suit, and Berisha acknowledged in mid-2022 that he was no longer eligible to visit the UK. Based on this, Lulzim Basha, Chairman of the Democratic Party in Albania, expelled Berisha from the party, leading to a split in the main opposition party in advance of the municipal elections.

Several members of our delegation questioned Ambassador Kim and her country team members closely about the decision to ban Berisha from the United States and the timing of the decision seeking:

  • hints of what evidence might justify such sweeping and final action against a politician formerly close to the United States;
  • information about whether such accused persons ever had access to mechanisms for contesting accusations or evidence;
  • whether the appearance of electoral interference and favoritism had been thoroughly weighed in advising Secretary Blinken;
  • precedents for the application of this policy in similar cases.

Ambassador Kim and her staff assured us the evidence supporting the determination was substantial, but firmly communicated that they could not share any of it. They also acknowledged that the process was an entirely in camera determination exempt from adversarial contest and without appeal. This is highly unusual, if not unique, in U.S. jurisprudence. Berisha sympathizers complained to us that his designation was akin to a Star Chamber proceeding, the antithesis of the American due process tradition. Ambassador Kim did, however, intimate that the fight against corruption was of such fundamental importance to U.S. policy and of such high priority that Biden administration officials considered it important to make an example of someone — to underscore that no one is above the law or immune when it comes to crimes of corruption. We are mindful that Berisha is 79 years old and might be considered to be approaching the end of his political life, a dispensable political figure to some, but it is not the American way of justice to target someone else as an object lesson for an actual culprit. This would be more akin to the Chinese adage about “killing the chickens to scare the monkeys.” Berisha has filed suit in France against the U.S. Secretary of State, and he is represented pro bono by a prominent Washington lobbyist.[4]

After decades of rigid and cruel Stalinist rule, Albania is a nation with a strong affinity for the United States. This regard traces to President Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, at which he is credited with having stood up for an independent Albania when other powers sought to carve up this piece, and others, of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. 

Albania’s constitution charges the Albanian government to be aware of and act to promote the well-being of Albanians even outside the country’s borders – the largest and nearest concentration being the Albanians in neighboring Kosova. Albania’s affinity for the United States was strengthened further by President George W. Bush’s 2007 declaration — on a first-ever trip to Albania by an American president — that Kosova should be independent. Since then, Albanians have cheered Kosova’s significant, if still incomplete, progress toward international recognition of its sovereignty and independence.

Albania’s various opposition parties presented during our meetings a litany of complaints against the government of Edi Rama. Opponents said his party monopolizes power; buys off opponents; uses governmental power to stifle opposition and to punish opponents economically; is using judicial reform to politicize the courts and impair judicial independence[5]; and has links to international organized crime and profits from it. Opposition is the job of the opposition, so few of these claims were surprising, but they reminded us how the EU’s misgivings about the robustness of Albania’s democracy and the intertwined problems of crime and corruption are impeding progress toward one of the country’s foremost goals: EU membership.


Our travel to Kosova’s capital of Pristina included a stop in the historic city of Prizren for a luncheon with Mayor Shaqir Totaj and other local dignitaries and a visit to the seat of the city’s government.  Delegation members had a strong favorable impression of Kosova officials after this first encounter. Mayor Totaj is relatively young, energetic, imaginative, dedicated, and resourceful, and he possesses a clear and positive vision for the community he serves.

In Pristina, our delegation met with:

  • U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier and his embassy country team;
  • Prime Minister Albin Kurti;
  • Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Diaspora Foreign Affairs Donika Gervalla Schwartz;
  • Speaker of the Parliament Glauk Konjufca;
  • Pristina Mayor Perparim Rama;
  • Leaders of all the major opposition parties (PDK, ADK, AAK);
  • Leaders of the Serb minority community; and
  • Leaders of the Albanian minority community in Serbia’s nearby Presheva Valley.

We also visited the U.S. Army forces stationed at Camp Bondsteel, where we witnessed and were briefed on the pride-inspiring work of U.S. servicemen and women who had been housing and supporting the resettlement of Afghan refugees, since Camp Bondsteel serves as one of the European reception centers for these refugees. The care and solicitude shown by the officers and troops for the religious, dietary, health and family needs of these tragically displaced people was truly inspiring. Ignominious as the evacuation of Kabul was — as millions saw on live television — the work of U.S. troops at Camp Bondsteel made us proud to be Americans.

All our discussions in Kosova revolved around two interrelated topics:

  • Kosova’s quest for full international recognition of its sovereignty and independence and, with that, its hoped-for membership in NATO and the EU (i.e., full acceptance into the Euro-Atlantic community); and
  • The challenges and obstacles to those goals posed by Kosova’s roughly five percent Serbian minority that resides in a handful of towns in the north. Serbia manipulates this community and its issues in what seems to be a determined effort to fuel grievances. Though it might claim to be watching over ethnic Serbs in Kosova, Serbia’s aim seems to be to chip away at Kosova’s sovereignty, perhaps in the hope of someday clawing back this former province.

These intertwined topics appear to form the backdrop of Kosova’s domestic politics. Parties argue over the most aggressive approach to dealing with Kosova’s Serbs and neighboring Serbia, overshadowing normal partisan differences over domestic policies on the economy, budgets, public works, education, health, or energy. Being a national politician in Kosova seems to involve navigating between Scylla and Charybdis: a stand too tough and uncompromising with the Serbs risks imperiling full recognition by EU members and eventual EU/NATO membership; a position too compromising and accommodating with the Serbs risks losing domestic support to politicians who hold a harder line. But several EU member states like Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia are unlikely to support full recognition and integration of Kosova into the EU no matter what Kosova does, because of independentist tendencies or latent irredentist aspirations in their own countries. However, Belgium and Hungary, two other nations with similar preoccupations have recognized an independent Kosova. Then, as mentioned earlier, Kosova worries the EU might calculate that Serbia, which also aspires to EU membership, is the bigger and richer prize.

This seems to be the crucible that produced Kosova Prime Minister Kurti, a bright, young and able leader whose hands are now somewhat tied. He was elected on a more nationalist, stand-up-for-Kosova, get-tough-with-the-Serbs policy, which ironically makes him more vulnerable to Serb provocations. This is precisely what happened after our mission, when Serbs protested the results of municipal elections in their northern towns — elections they boycotted — and prevented the ethnic Albanian mayors who were elected from taking office. The resulting fracas required NATO intervention to restore order; prompted Serbian feints to intervene, ostensibly to protect their threatened ethnic nationals next door; and (predictably) compelled Kurti to compromise and re-stage the elections.

This is what it’s all about in Kosova politics. Whoever finds a way out of this box will enjoy a long political future in this nascent nation.

Virtually all the Kosova politicians and leaders with whom we met were serious, well-prepared, young, energetic, and seemingly determined to do good for Kosova’s people. Everyone seemed proud of the protections in Kosova’s constitution for the rights of ethnic minorities, and leaders seem to take these provisions and their imperatives seriously, though there was a detectable undercurrent of chagrin at the prospect that the Serb minority stretched and abused these protections.

Our lunch with Mayor Rama was particularly impressive. A successful Albanian architect who relocated to Kosova to help build up the country, he has a clear vision for improving city services and economic efficiency for the benefit of Pristina’s citizens. 

But through these meetings, we detected hints of doubt among Kosova officials about the United States, though outwardly, everyone and everything affirms our countries’ firm friendship. Indeed, almost all commercial signage is in English, and many streetscapes look more like they belong in the United States than in Europe. However, some Kosova officials betrayed privately the anxiety that the United States might be too preoccupied by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, China’s bellicosity toward Taiwan, and other international crises to aid Kosova should Serbia attack, doubtless on some pretext stemming from that Serbian ethnic minority in the north.

North Macedonia

A short trip from Pristina to Skopje brought us to North Macedonia, where we met with Deputy Prime Minister Bojan Maricak and dined with Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski. The next day, we met:

  • Deputy Chief of Mission Eric Meyer (in place of Ambassador Angela Aggeler, who was away on travel) and the American Embassy country team;
  • President Stevo Pendarovski;
  • Assembly President Talat Xhaferi[6]; and
  • Opposition leaders Hristijan Mickovski and Bilall Kasami.

In Kosova, it was the Serbs; in North Macedonia, it was the Greeks — then the Bulgarians!

North Macedonians are proud of their acceptance into NATO three years ago because of the patience and flexibility to amend their constitution to change the name of their country to accommodate Greek sensitivities over the name “Macedonia.” But now they are hypersensitive about further demands to accommodate ethnic minorities in their country and their neighbor-sponsors. 

Bulgaria, which is already an EU member, has started making noise about requiring explicit constitutional protections for the minuscule Bulgarian ethnic minority in North Macedonia as the beginning price for eventually acceding to North Macedonia’s EU membership. (Further, other EU member states likely are not eager to admit another small member that could require substantial subsidy at this stage in the EU’s trajectory.)

Here, an ethnic minority (this one supposedly numbering only in the hundreds) with a cross-border sponsor has the same distorting effect on domestic politics in North Macedonia that it has in Kosova. Since North Macedonia’s constitution already contains thorough civil rights protections for any ethnic minority, the Bulgarians’ ethnic demands rankle. Some claim that the demands go so far as to deny the authenticity of Macedonians’ national identity, consigning them to an outgrowth of Bulgarian ethnicity.   Since the constitutional amendment changing the country’s name became a politically neuralgic issue, North Macedonian politics have become something of a contest over who can be the most adamant in resisting further ethnically-based demands. As a result, more traditional, materially-significant domestic policy and management issues are obscured.

On another front, it seems many North Macedonian political elites admire Serbian President Vucic, which has allowed an influx of pro-Russian media and increased influence for the Russian Orthodox Church in North Macedonia. President Pendarovski  said North Macedonia supports the conclusion of a final settlement between Kosova and Serbia that, he estimated, would reconcile the region and remove point of entry for Russian influence — in particular, the worrisome interference of Russian intelligence services in North Macedonia’s political and social life through the Orthodox Church and through mass disinformation operations. 

As the capital of a small Balkan republic of only 2.06 million people, Skopje is surprisingly impressive.  Gigantic, monumental statues of heroes from the nation’s both ancient and more modern pasts are everywhere in the central city area against a backdrop of newly-erected neoclassical monumental buildings. The capital is a living lesson in stone, bronze and water on Macedonian national identity and nationalism. These constructions are the handiwork of the predecessor to the current, more socialist-oriented government, which is criticized for having halted construction on several important downtown buildings for economic reasons and is only now slowly getting these projects back on track. This criticism has the VMRO-DPMNE opposition anticipating victory in the next national elections. We’ll see in May 2024, whether this is overoptimism.


The Balkans have been a flashpoint of conflict in Europe since at least the late 15th century. The Ottomans invaded and conquered lands throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, culminating in the 1683 lifting of the siege of Vienna; the First and Second Balkan Wars marked the early 20th century; and the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, precipitated World War I.  The aftermath of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and early 2000s brought renewed — and genocidal — bloodshed to this turbulent region characterized by ethnic intricacies and ancient animosities. But from all this violence, a collection of independent, largely ethno-linguistically and confessionally-based states has emerged. The three visited by the Council of American Ambassadors in May 2023 — Albania, Kosova and North Macedonia — have progressed markedly toward stable, competitive democratic governance and materially more prosperous societies. 

Challenges remain. In Albania, the current government’s near-monopoly of power cannot be allowed to degenerate into a de facto one-party rule that is a sham of a democracy. Further, organized crime, which might account for a third or more of the national GDP, must not be permitted to engulf the country. Both imperil Albania’s top national aspiration: EU membership.

In Kosova and North Macedonia, the key challenges remain consolidating international recognition, and a sine qua non of fulfilling their aspirations for EU membership. For Kosova, NATO membership is a primary goal as well. Cross-border tensions over ethnic minorities residing in each country risk flaring into conflicts stoked by neighbors with ulterior motives, and these hostilities exert a highly distorting effect on domestic politics. Managing them will require creativity; steadfast, patient and principled diplomacy; and the continued support of the United States and its NATO partners.

In a world of seemingly proliferating crises — the Israel-Hamas war that exploded in October 2023 is but the latest example — the challenge for the United States will be to reserve at least some policy bandwidth for this region, where our investment of combat power and energetic diplomacy has historically halted genocides and brought self-determination and freedom to many peoples of the Balkans. The United States’ continued attention and involvement can:

  • support the positive developments of recent decades;
  • discourage adverse domestic trends such as crime, drug trafficking, corruption and any resulting hollowing of democracy in Albania; and
  • maintain vigilance against Russian exploitation of the region’s ethnic divisions and tensions as it seeks to divert attention from its aggression against Ukraine.

[1] Our report uses the spelling Kosova, which is favored by the majority of inhabitants of the young nation, rather than the Serbian spelling of the name of its former province, Kosovo, as a sign of recognition and respect for Kosova’s independence.

[2] Specifically, Ambassador and former Foreign Minister of Albania Besnik Mustafa, President of the Council of Albanian Ambassadors; Ambassador Genci Mucaj, principal point-person assisting in organizing our mission; Ambassadors Spiro Koci and Flamur Gashi of the Council of Albanian Ambassadors; Ambassador Avni Spahiu in Kosova; and Ambassador Muhamend Halili in North Macedonia.

[3] Leaders from both factions of the split Democratic Party and from the Freedom Party, and, additionally, Albanian political leaders from neighboring Montenegro.

[4] In January 2024, a court ordered Sali Berisha under house arrest in connection with an investigation dating back to alleged corruption during Berisha’s 2005-2009 tenure as prime minister involving privatization of government-owned real estate. The house arrest forbade Berisha from meeting with anyone outside his immediate family and from leaving the country. The house arrest was imposed though the prosecutor had not filed an indictment against Berisha.

[5] Our Embassy briefing included commentary on the judicial reform efforts underway by the socialist government of Prime Minister Rama. The efforts aim to eliminate corrupt judges and prosecutors whose malfeasance forced litigants and citizens to pay to play to access the justice system. The reforms, which are supported by the American Embassy, also hope to satisfy European Union reservations about Albania’s judicial integrity and to clear obstacles to Albania’s eventual membership. Unfortunately, the speed and manner of removing suspect judges and prosecutors has left Albania’s judiciary critically short-staffed, causing indeterminately long wait times for cases to be heard and resolved. We were reminded of a similar briefing by Embassy Warsaw during our 2018 mission to Poland. There the then-ruling  conservative Law & Justice government sought to retire “structurally corrupt” judges entrenched from Poland’s Communist era. Quite in contrast to Embassy Tirana’s apparently enthusiastic support for Albania’s judicial reforms, Embassy Warsaw volubly opposed and criticized the Law & Justice Party’s reform efforts, echoing characterizations by the Polish opposition and Western mainstream media that the Polish efforts were politicizing the judiciary and threatening judicial independence. Embassy Tirana staff lacked the necessary background information to resolve this paradoxical contrast in responses by the U.S. government.

[6] Subsequent to our mission, in February 2024, North Macedonia’s Parliament elected a temporary ‘technical government’, headed by President of the Parliament Talat Xhaferi, for a period of 100 days to prepare for full and open Parliamentary elections to be held in May, 2024. Xhaferi’s election marks the first time an Albanian has headed a government – even a temporary one – in North Macedonia and is taken to be a mark of progress in overcoming historic ethnic prejudices. The May Parliamentary elections will coincide with the election for the President of North Macedonia and, it is hoped, will resolve the turbulence that has roiled North Macedonian politics for well over a decade.

Mission Date(s)

May 7, 2023 - May 14, 2023