US urges Western Balkans strengthen their democracies

AP News
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Posted: Jul 10, 2016 2:14 PM
US urges Western Balkans strengthen their democracies

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The United States has urged Western Balkan countries to intensify efforts to consolidate their democracies.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland on Sunday started a Balkan tour in Kosovo and will follow with visits to Albania, Macedonia and Serbia.

She urged Kosovo to further its dialogue with Serbia and also approve a border demarcation with Montenegro, a key step to convince European Union countries to let its citizens enjoy visa-free travel, according to a statement from President Hashim Thaci's press office. The European Commission announced in May that it had proposed adding Kosovo to the list of countries granted visa-free travel in the 26-nation Schengen area. That is subject to approval by leaders of EU member states and the European Parliament.

Nuland called on Kosovo leaders to strengthen the rule of law, the justice system and the fight against corruption and organized crime as "fundamental for Kosovo's advance."

In Tirana Nuland is the latest to pressure the country's opposition Democratic Party to accept a draft of the judicial package, considered fundamental to ensuring that the EU will launch membership negotiations with Albania. The Democrats want to give political parties the power to make judicial appointments, while the ruling Socialists want no party appointees.

U.S. and EU experts have been directly involved in drafting the legislation, and the process has also been reviewed by the Venice Commission, a body of legal experts with the Council of Europe, a human rights group.

U.S. and EU ambassadors have held numerous meetings with political leaders and lawmakers.

Nuland stressed that the judicial reform "remains a high priority in the U.S.-Albania ties and for Albania's advance toward the EU," according to a statement from the Albanian foreign ministry after Nuland met with Minister Ditmir Bushati.

There was no change with the Democrats' stand on the reform package.

"This reform will be approved only by political consensus. There is no other healthy root than the political consensus. There is no other way," Democrats' leader Lulzim Basha told reporters after meeting with Nuland.

The U.S. before has blamed Basha for not compromising as Prime Minister Edi Rama has done.

After meeting Rama, too, Nuland told reporters she had "put forward a new proposal which endevaors to bridge the gap."

"This is a hybrid proposal which takes elements from government's ideas and opposition's ideas and is in fully compliant with the draft," she said, adding it had Washington's full support, without giving details but saying negotiators need "a little space to review."

Rama's Socialists need support from at least some opposition members in the 140-seat parliament to endorse the reforms.

A vote on the package has been planned for July 21, in time to allow the European Commission to decide whether full membership negotiations may be launched this year.

Albania, a NATO member country since 2009, was granted candidate status in 2014.

If the judicial reform package isn't passed on July 21, it may sink the government, delay the matter from further consideration for a year, or even trigger a new election. Ultimately, failure would result in no EU membership talks this year as hoped.

"Time is short," said Nuland, when asked what if the new proposal failed to convince Albanian leaders.

"I am American. I'm optimist by nature, of course," Nuland said. "As you know, I work for the 'Yes, we can' president. Again we say to all Albanian patriots and their leaders that you serve the people, so let them get the 'Yes, we can' answer."