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Sanctions for individuals from Western Balkans – proof that the US remains committed to the fight against corruption?

US Department of Treasury; Photo: Wikidata

Political actors from the Western Balkans were again on the agenda of the American administration in mid-April. The United States has decided to expand the list of individuals to whom it will impose sanctions due to corruption, which has a destabilizing effect on the democratic development of the region.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on the occasion that the State Department and the Ministry of Finance had taken action to sanction actors in the Western Balkans for destabilizing and corrupt activities.

“The United States and partners, such as the United Kingdom, hold accountable those who threaten the region’s stability, progress, and European integration,” Blinken wrote.

The latest sanctions build on the previously announced commitment of President Biden’s administration to sanction all those who, among other things, undermine the stability of the Western Balkans region through corruption.

The US Sanctions Ordinance has been in force since 2001, and US President Joe Biden expanded the range of criteria for imposing US sanctions on individuals and companies from the Western Balkans in June last year. At the time, US authorities said corruption was undermining economic growth, facilitating organized crime and undermining confidence in democratic processes.

“This opens the door for our strategic opponents to undermine democracy, stop progress towards efficient and responsible governance and prevent the Western Balkans region from achieving full integration into transatlantic institutions. They enable individuals to take advantage of the weak rule of law and profit from systemic corruption to the detriment of ordinary citizens,” reads a statement issued last year.

After the expanded package of sanctions, a message came from the United States that sanctions are not the primary means of engaging the United States in the Western Balkans region, but that they have an effect.

“This administration is committed to the fight against corruption, and one of the means in that fight is these sanctions.” And I can say that there will be more, but that will not be the primary means of our engagement”, Special Envoy for the region Gabriel Escobar told the Voice of America, emphasizing that sanctions are not aimed at countries and certain peoples, but at individuals deeply involved in corruption.

The United States is imposing sanctions on individuals and companies under the Magnitsky Act for violating human rights and banning any business with companies that have illegally acquired capital.

The introduction of US Treasury sanctions means in practice that all the property of people who have been sanctioned, and who are in the US, is blocked. All companies that are in their direct or indirect ownership are also blocked.

Former Serbian ambassador to Washington, Ivan Vujacic, explained in a statement for BBC Serbia that the introduction of sanctions draws the attention of countries where these individuals are to the fact that they should be a little more careful about what is happening in their countries.

“Sanctions are the initial signal that something is wrong, that some people are involved in corrupt and illegal activities, and that states should take it seriously, make sure to investigate and investigate what it is about and stand in the way of such activities”, Vujačić explains.

To whom and why were the sanctions imposed?

The list of the US Treasury Department for sanctions includes well-known people from the region who have previously been linked to corruption cases by domestic actors. The best example is the case of the former Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, and the former head of the Macedonian Security and Counterintelligence Administration (UBK), Sašo Mijalkov.

The former Macedonian prime minister was convicted “for violence against political opponents”, for several cases of corruption and the illegal purchase of a luxury Mercedes. Gruevski has been in Hungary since 2018, where he received political asylum.

Sašo Mijalkov was sentenced in February 2021 to 12 years in prison in the “Target-Fortress” case, which refers to the mass illegal wiretapping of over 20,000 citizens of North Macedonia.

A former high-ranking official of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and the last president of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marović, are also on the list of US sanctions. He was convicted in Podgorica in 2016 for multimillion-dollar embezzlement in the Montenegrin city of Budva.

After being released from custody after pleading guilty, Marovic fled to Serbia and has not been extradited to Montenegrin authorities to date, despite a warrant issued.

“Political leaders must promote the public good, not personal interests, while those who support them must not allow them to abuse their positions by not being punished,” the US embassy said on Twitter after the sanctions were imposed.

The list also includes two individuals from Albania, Aqif Rakipi and Ylli Ndroqi, who are believed to have a destabilizing effect on democratization processes in Albania.

This time, the Vice President of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Asim Sarajlić, and the former Chief Prosecutor of the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH, Gordana Tadić, came under sanctions from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The US Embassy in BiH said in a statement on sanctions that Sarajlic “was involved in high-level corruption, which includes trading in influence, abuse of office, and accepting bribes in exchange for influencing employment decisions in state-owned companies such as BH Telecom.”

Gordana Tadić, Chief Prosecutor of the State Prosecutor’s Office from 2019 to 2021, when she was removed from office by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of BiH, used her position to promote personal and family interests and protect her political patrons from prosecution. US Embassy in Sarajevo added that this is a very serious abuse of position.

US sanctions from before

On December 5, 2021, the United States passed an expanded list of sanctions for acts of corruption, which included Milorad Dodik, otherwise the leader of the ruling party in RS, the Party of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD). Zeljka Cvijanovic is his closest associate and a member of the party’s closest leadership.

Sanctions were then imposed on the Alternative Television from Banja Luka due to its connection with Milorad Dodik.

The US State Department also announced that former President of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milan Tegeltija, and today Milorad Dodik’s legal advisor, has been added to the list of those sanctioned.

Due to criminal and illegal activities, brothers Zvonko and Žarko Veselinović, Milan Radoičić, and persons and companies connected with them were on the black list. Veselinović and Radoičić are close to the Serb List, which has won the most Serb votes in Kosovo over the years and has the direct support of Belgrade authorities.

This article was published as part of the project “Civil society for good governance and anti-corruption in southeast Europe: Capacity building for monitoring, advocacy and awareness-raising (SELDI)” funded by the European Union.

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