Washington gets tough on “destabilizers” in the Western Balkans

On June 8, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order (EO) intended to update US sanctions policy regarding Balkan corruption and political destabilization activities, which expanded authorities already included in two longtime EO’s related to the Western Balkans. The new Order’s title basically explains the purpose of the new directive: “Blocking Property And Suspending Entry Into The United States Of Certain Persons Contributing To The Destabilizing Situation In The Western Balkans.”

The implementation of the EO will largely be carried out by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), working in coordination with the State Department.  OFAC’s authority allows it to block assets in the US connected to specific sanctioned group/individuals, while the State Department has the power to block entry into the United States of these groups/individuals.

Key changes in US policy

The White House summarized the key updates included in the new EO:

The EO expands sanctions designation criteria to include activities, among others, related to threatening the peace, security, stability, or territorial integrity of any area or state in the Western Balkans; undermining democratic processes or institutions in the Western Balkans; engaging in serious human rights abuses, and engaging in corruption related to the Western Balkans.

The new EO underscores Washington’s longstanding commitment to the implementation of the post-war agreements and institutions established following the breakup of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The EO expands Washington’s ability to target actors engaged in a violation of, or an act that has obstructed or threatened the implementation of any regional security, peace, cooperation, or mutual recognition agreement or framework or accountability mechanism related to the Western Balkans beyond previous EOs, to include the Prespes Agreement, the Conclusions of the Peace Implementation Conference, and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, the successor to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The EO also clarifies that the geographic scope of the Western Balkans includes the territory of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Albania.

Laying down the gauntlet

The White House also laid down the gauntlet in explaining the rationale for the new EO.  It declared “Ensuring the security and political stability of the Western Balkans region is consistent with the Biden Administration’s commitment to advancing core U.S. national security interests, including the protection of democratic institutions.  The Administration will continue to address the challenges in the region head-on.”

Questions as to the purpose

Going beyond the simple geographic changes laid out in the EO, two explanations come to mind for the issuance of this EO now.   One is simply to provide a modernized legal framework and appropriate tools for expanded US involvement/engagement in the Western Balkans, as both the countries of the region and the EU have requested.  The focus on anti-corruption in Washington is handled by relatively energetic components of the State and Treasury Departments, making this new EO a simple codification of substantial anti-corruption work already underway and allowing them to take aggressive sanctions action quickly, as we have seen recently in Albania and Bulgaria.

The second explanation relates to the legacy that officials in the State Department’s Europe and Eurasian Affairs Bureau want to leave as they prepare to rotate to new assignments.  Both Acting Assistant Secretary Phillip Reeker and Deputy Assistant Secretary and Special Balkans Envoy Matthew Palmer are career officers that survived the Trump years with their careers largely intact and are expected to be moving on in the near future.

The fact that the EO managed to include a reference to the Prespes Agreement (The White House/State Department use the North Macedonian version “Prespa” Agreement) indicates that Assistant Secretary Reeker, deeply invested in that project since 2017, played a major role in generating the new EO.  Accordingly, Washington now has tools to challenge groups/parties across the Western Balkans that might challenge an agreement Washington intends to defend energetically.

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