US Ambassadors: Local Powerbrokers in the Balkans

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Former U.S. President George W. Bush was not very popular at home when he visited Albania in June 2007. In fact, everywhere he traveled in Europe at the time, he faced protests, some of them violent. Protestors taunted him from the Czech Republic to Germany to Italy. The dramatic confrontations in Rome paralyzed parts of the city.

However, when Air Force One landed in Tirana’s Mother Teresa Airport, Bush was hailed by a 21-gun salute, while cheering locals swarmed the heavily cordoned streets, branding slogans, such as “proud to be partners.”

In the small town of Fushe Kruja, where Bush stopped briefly to discuss a U.S.-funded microloan programme with a baker, a barber, a tailor, and a shepherd, he received a rock-star welcome. Today a 2.85-meter statue of the 43rd U.S. president adorns the town’s main square.In similar fashion, when Bill Clinton visited Kosovo one year later to unveil a golden statue of himself, thousands braved low temperatures and a cold wind to get a glimpse.

Many in Pristina regard Clinton as a hero for launching the bombing campaign against the forces of former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, which put an end to the ethnic cleansing of the ethnic Albanians and paved the way for Kosovo’s independence.

Just like American presidents, U.S. ambassadors in the region enjoy an unparalleled clout of influence, unlike anything experienced by other diplomats. Often treated like celebrities. The local media follows their every move; journalists line up for months to have them on their TV shows, while their statements are often deconstructed word-by-word.

Some local commentators believe that a mix of poor democratic standards in the region and the lack of legitimacy of the local political elites have created a singular institution – although the diplomats are not elected, they could wield more power than the government.

A famous anecdote in Albania in the 1990s underscored that paradox: “If the American ambassador did not exist, we certainly would have invented one.”

Their influence over public affairs in the region is so widely professed that Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek, once famously suggested that all citizens of the Balkans should have the right to vote for their own American ambassador.

The pro-America fervor in Albania dates back to World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson staved off efforts to split Albania among its neighbors. Ironically, Albania was a country created by ambassadors, in the namesake London conference of 1913, where the representatives of the six European powers of the time, re-drew the borders in region after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan wars.

For their part, Clinton and Bush first helped to liberate Kosovo from Serbian rule and later embarked the country on a path of supervised independence.

Nearly a century later, diplomats still play an important role in the local political life, even when they are not keen to become protagonists.

Due to the fervent pro-Americanism in the Albanosphere – a term increasingly used to refer to ethnic Albanian populated areas in the Balkans – U.S. ambassadors have more influence than anyone of their peers in the diplomatic core.

“They are so important that sometimes [it] looks like local politics flows from the interpretation of their words,” said Andi Kananaj, a Tirana based human rights lawyer and activist. He added, “They have become the sort of characters that were appointed by empires of a bygone era to dictate governments.”

Albanian political commentator Mustafa Nano agrees, arguing that the U.S. ambassador in Tirana, Alexander Arvizu, has even more power than the country’s premier. “With all certainty the U.S. ambassador is the most important institution of this country, although not constitutional,” Nano said.
To illustrate the role that foreign diplomats play in Albania, Nano has even coined the term “Ambasadoro-kracia,” which according to him sprang from his revolt as a citizen that feels his core desire to be sovereign is violated.

“The power that ambassadors have annoys me like nothing else in this country, however without them even I would be finished and running for the woods,” Nano admitted, referring to the positive role foreign envoys have to safeguard civil rights and media freedom.

“Countries like Albania not only justify the role the ambassadors play but also encourage it.”

According to Nano, this powerbroker role has become a necessity due to the lack of legitimacy that the local political elites have before their citizens.

Albania has suffered a long and tumultuous transition to democracy since it emerged from the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha in 1991. No elections held since the collapse of the regime have met international standards and allegations of fraud and disputed results have been widespread.

The local elite’s struggle for power has several times turned violent, requiring the intervention of foreign diplomats and envoys to restore calm.

Although Kosovo declared independence in 2008, its government is still supervised by a civilian office of the European Union, while NATO troops still guarantee its security.

According to Transparency International, in both sister nations the corruption in the highest levels of the bureaucracy is extremely high.

Because the local politicians are often in dispute, their elections are almost always marred by allegations of fraud and irregularities, and the need for an external arbiter to mediate between parties and institutions arises.

“If you would ask me to find a better arbiter [than the ambassadors] I wouldn’t,” said Nano. “I am more prone to believe them that our own institutions.”

Albania has been around for almost a century and still needs the support of the international community to calm its political crises. Kosovo otherwise is the newest state in Europe. With Serbia staunchly opposed to its existence, it is even more dependent on the role that foreign governments exercise in its political life.

However, as frustration with the unclear political status, poverty, and corruption grows, the active interventions coming from the diplomatic core on the country’s affairs are increasingly creating discontent.

“There are people in Pristina who think that he [U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell] literary writes down the most important decisions of Prime Minister [Hashim] Thaci,” said Avni Zogiani, a Pristina based civil-society activist. “The drama in Kosovo on the micro-management level is stirred by ambassadors.”

Both ambassador Arvizu and Dell declined to be interviewed for this story, however in their dealings with the local media in the past, they have not always taken criticism lightly.

In May 2011, the American embassy in Tirana was enthralled in a row with the daily newspaper Shekulli following publication of a comment deemed derogatory and racist.

The article, which took a critical stance toward Arvizu’s track record as an ambassador, used the term “kinezeri” (Chinese-like) to describe his behaviour. Arvizu, who is of partly Asian decent took it as a racist slant and “severed” the relationship with the newspaper, although it remained unclear what that entailed.

After opposition spin-doctors in Albania published a series of critical opinion pieces that almost looked like a campaign against the U.S. embassy a few months later, Arvizu declared in a TV interview that he had discovered an anti-American cell in Tirana, which was paid to attack him and U.S. policies.

In a country in which the former communist regime purged countless people to the gulag prison system for nearly half a century with the alleged discovery of imaginary anti-government cells, the remark did not go down well with the local press.

In similar fashion in Kosovo, Dell became embroiled in a row with local media outlets in Pristina after they broadcast a number of his text messages sent during the vote for president of controversial Kosovo businessman Behgjet Pacolli.

Dell accused the local outlets of breaching his privacy and called for an investigation, despite his text messages, which appeared to show him instructing Kosovo’s MPs who to vote for, being filmed in Parliament, an area that is considered public space.

Reacting just recently to a cartoon series called “The Pimpsons” by Kosovo graphic artist Fisnik Ismaili depicting his departure from Kosovo, Dell lashed out that the episode “was a sinister slander by a worthy anti-democrat.”

“The Pimpsons” is a digital comic on Facebook that uses “Simpsons” characters an oft-profane, sexually charged satire of Kosovo politics.

Annoyed by its depiction in the comic strip as “His Royal Excellency of Kosovo,” Dell reportedly asked the author for a signed copy of the episode in order to hang them together with a souvenir he received from Robert Mugabe, the dictator of Zimbabwe.

According to Kananaj, such rows with the local media come because when ambassadors are appointed in the region, they often find themselves in a situation that they were unprepared for.

“Suddenly they have to become media friendly, because they are a celebrity,” Kananaj said. “So much power is thrown on their hands that they often feel compounded to have a sort of performance [in the eyes of the public] and end up liking being in the spotlight themselves.”

Besar Likmeta is an editor for, an online magazine that covers the Balkan region. He has also freelanced for publications including the Christian Science Monitor,, and World Politics Review.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s May/June edition and on


For additional reading on this topic please see:
The Western Balkans: Returning Instability
The Democratic Transformation of the Balkans
Faster Euro-Atlantic Integration – A Precondition for Lasting Peace and Stability in the Western Balkans?

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.

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