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'Washington Examiner': How USAID's Anti-Corruption Program Helps Corrupt Dictators

'Washington Examiner': How USAID's Anti-Corruption Program Helps

From the Washington Examiner

President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken agree. "Corruption harms economic growth, impedes development, destabilizes governments, undermines democracy and fuels global instability," said their press release announcing the US strategy to fight corruption. Sadly, like many affected by bureaucracy, the best-intentioned plans end up backfiring.

Here, the problem is both the US Agency for International Development and the culture of US embassies. USAID Administrator Samantha Power is adept with press releases and self-promotion, but less so with grassroots management. It maintains metrics that evaluate USAID programs by money spent rather than goals achieved.

Meanwhile, many US ambassadors and country teams prioritize good working relationships with presidents and prime ministers in the countries where they are stationed rather than risk local scorn over criticism.

Here the case of Albania is instructive. According to David Wisner, the charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in Tirana, the United States has invested over 27.5 million dollars in law enforcement and justice reform programs in Albania. Anti-corruption programs alone represent millions of dollars, yet Albania becomes more and more corrupt as Prime Minister Edi Rama seeks to turn Albania from the European club of democracy into a Turkish-style autocracy.

Indeed, Freedom House now ranks Albania as less free than Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. While wishful thinking sometimes causes Freedom House to delay downsizing—here, the organization's long-standing refusal to fully appreciate Turkey's turnaround is a case in point—Albania's departure from democracy is now undeniable.

Consider the case of former deputy prime minister Arben Ahmetaj, a University of Kentucky-educated democracy activist who rose steadily through the Albanian political ranks as voters embraced his pro-Western leanings, technocratic credentials, and general competence.

In July 2023, as Ahmetaj's rise and popularity began to threaten the Albanian prime minister, Rama-appointed prosecutors ordered the Special Structure Against Corruption and Organized Crime to revoke the MP's immunity and arrest Ahmetaj. Ahmetaj was on vacation abroad and out of fear for his life and family, he simply did not return. While the Albanian Constitution prohibits arbitrary detention, 52% of Albania's prison population under Rama's leadership consists of those in custody.

Former US attorneys who inspected the allegations concluded they were a farce, unsupported by any evidence. Rama accused Ahmetaj of corruption in a tender for a waste incinerator in 2015, but Ahmetaj had no role in that case – Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj, a Rama loyalist, is said to own the incinerator. Accusations that Ahmetaj accepted trips abroad were dismissed when the deputy prime minister was able to present invoices and bank statements proving that he had paid at that time.

Nor was Ahmetaj the only victim of false accusations of corruption. Rama jailed Fredi Beleri, an ethnic Greek Albanian, to sidestep his campaign to become mayor of Himara, a town on the Albanian Riviera. The charge? Buying four votes. Rama's real motivation appears to have been to knock out any politician who stood in the way of his multi-billion dollar real estate development plans.

Sadly, with both Ahmetaj and Beler, the US has unwittingly aided Rama's corruption and ambition. The US has invested millions of dollars in the Special Structure Against Corruption and Organized Crime. While the court began as a legitimate means of prosecuting corruption, US funding continued even as Rama bribed and armed it.

Like a series of US ambassadors to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan beginning in mid-2005, Yuri Kim, then ambassador to Albania, rubber-stamped Rama's positions and played down his concerns to ensure smooth relations. The parallel with Turkey continues as Erdogan used supposedly independent bodies to impose multibillion-dollar fines against or seize assets from opposition figures and those who donated to their campaigns.

Albania is not alone either. As US ambassadors and USAID look the other way and China offers aid, would-be dictators have hijacked US-funded anti-corruption programs in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Solomon Islands and Peru.

It may be too late for some countries - but not for Albania. Albanians deserve democracy, not dictatorship. If Biden is serious about fighting corruption, Rama should be in the dock, not his Democratic opponents.

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