TIRANA, Albania — On June 2, 1994, while on assignment in the Balkans, I managed to snare a one-hour interview with Sali Berisha, the first democratically elected leader in Albania’s history.
Back then, the future looked bright for this former cardiologist, who two years earlier had taken over the presidency of his isolated, impoverished Maryland-sized nation from communist hardliner Ramiz Alia, by then under house arrest.
Under Berisha’s leadership, Albania had slashed its runaway inflation rate from triple to single digits, achieved a 1992 economic growth rate of 9% and significantly reduced public debt. During his first three years in office (initially as president and later on as prime minister, a newly created position), Berisha saw 75% of Albania’s GDP generated from the private sector.
Internationally, Berisha enjoyed close personal friendships with President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III—as evidenced during a June 1992 meeting in the Oval Office—and was widely respected for his success in turning around the fortunes of what had long been the poorest country in Europe.
How times have changed.
Last month, Dr. Berisha and I met again, this time at his office in the Tirana headquarters of the conservative Partia Demokratike e Shqipërisë (Democratic Party of Albania, or PD). But 28 years later, the former head of state now leads the opposition—locked in bitter feuding even with some of his fellow PD members—and is prohibited from setting foot in the United States.
In May 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the highly unusual step of declaring the 78-year-old Berisha persona non grata “due to his significant involvement in corruption.”
Berisha denies allegations, blames Soros for spreading lies
As prime minister of Albania from 2005 to 2013, Blinken said in an official statement, “Berisha was involved in corrupt acts such as misappropriation of public funds and interfering with public processes, including using his power for his own benefit and to enrich his political allies and his family members at the expense of the Albanian public’s confidence in their government institutions and public officials.
“Furthermore, his own rhetoric demonstrates he is willing to protect himself, his family members, and his political allies at the expense of independent investigations, anti-corruption efforts and accountability measures,” the secretary of state added.
As if that’s not enough, the US travel ban also includes the veteran politician’s wife, Liri Berisha; his son, Shkelzen Berisha, and his daughter, Argita Berisha Malltezi.
“As you probably have heard, I am blacklisted by Anthony Blinken,” Berisha said with a smile, welcoming me to take a seat. He then proceeded to vigorously deny all the accusations against him and blamed left-leaning global financier George Soros for his current problems.
“This happened eight years after I no longer had any political leadership role, nor any kind of executive power. I was just a member of parliament,” he said. “And during my time in power, I had very good relations with the United States. I never spared efforts to take decisions with the interests of the US in mind.”
He added: “For the last 16 years, my wife works as a volunteer for autistic children at a center that was set up with very strong support from Autism Speaks. She’s been sanctioned—and my children also—because of me. Under Trump, this would never have happened.”
UK blacklists Berisha as GOP lawmaker defends him
Nearby church bells rang loudly during our Sept. 12 meeting, which by coincidence took place on the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Azem Hajdari, an early student leader who helped overthrow Albania’s communist regime. Hajdari was shot to death only a few steps from the entrance to party headquarters where our meeting was taking place.
Berisha, now the country’s main opposition leader, is the political nemesis of current Prime Minister Edi Rama, who’s been in office since 2013 and has chaired Albania’s Socialist Party since 2005.
Despite his problems, Berisha has powerful friends on Capitol Hill.
Late last year, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York), in an interview with the ultraconservative Washington Free Beacon, accused the Biden administration of “unacceptable and suspicious behavior” for punishing Berisha’s loyalty to the GOP and fierce opposition to Soros, a billionaire and generous donor to Democratic and liberal causes.
“For months on end, the Biden State Department has refused time and again to provide real, detailed answers about the allegations of ‘significant corruption’ used to sanction” Berisha, Zeldin told the website. “Despite multiple requests for a meeting and additional information from my office, the State Department has only provided sporadic, cagey responses that dance around the questions and do not address Mr. Berisha’s specific actions that qualify as ‘corruption’ or the decision-making process the administration used to determine that sanctions were appropriate.”
Yet it’s not only Washington who’s blacklisting Berisha. In July, Berisha confirmed through a post on his Facebook page that he had been denied entry to the UK as well.
“This week, we took disruptive action against several Albanian individuals with well-publicized and documented ties to criminality and corruption,” Stuart Peach, Britain’s special envoy to the Western Balkans, said in a statement. “This is the first wave of a set of actions intended to encourage accountability and end impunity.”
That led Yuri Kim, US envoy to Albania, to post this comment to Twitter on July 21: “We welcome this important action. Those who have abused the public’s trust to enrich themselves and pervert the rule of law—in other words, those who have engaged in significant corruption and undermined democracy—must face justice. No one is above the law.”
Albania’s longtime ambassador to the United States, Floreta Luli-Faber, who was appointed to her post by the Rama government eight years ago, declined to comment for this article.
Shifting loyalties in the post-communist era
Berisha’s office is decorated with mementos of his time in power, including a bronze medallion bearing the likeness of Ibrahim Rugova given to him by the Democratic League of Kosovo.
On a nearby conference table sits a wood-carved emblem of NATO—commemorating Albania’s 2009 accession to the alliance—that’s engraved with the autographs of every NATO member head of state including Britain’s Tony Blair, France’s Jacques Chirac, Czech President Vaclav Havel, Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and US President Bill Clinton.
Hundreds of books also line the shelves of Berisha’s office. These range from L’Italia Che Ho in Mente by Silvio Berlusconi and The Deep State of Europe by Basil A. Coronakus to annual reports by Amnesty International and Freedom House. At the time of our interview, Berisha—an avid historian—was reading Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East by US career diplomat Philip H. Gordon.
Berisha’s admiration for the United States is not unusual for this still relatively isolated Balkan country of 2.9 million.
In 1946, following Italian and then Nazi German occupation during World War II, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha broke relations with Washington. Hoxha, an isolationist who despised the United States, ruled his nation with extreme brutality until his death in 1985, and only with the collapse of communism in 1991 were bilateral ties re-established.
In the three decades since then, Albania has gone from a fanatically Marxist, North Korea-style international hermit state to one of the most pro-American countries on Earth.
Berisha says it’s ironic that, at the time of communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, he appreciated Soros deeply.
“Back then, civil society didn’t exist. George Soros provided financial support and I was very grateful for it,” he said of the Hungarian-born Jewish Holocaust survivor. “But years later, I saw that his model was a monistic one.”
This is why Berisha opposed efforts by the financier’s Open Society Foundations—an NGO calling itself “the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance and human rights”—to reform Albania’s troubled judicial system.
“They hired a group of experts, almost all of them members of OSF and all leftists, including Luan Omari, the drafter of the worst constitution the world has ever seen, which in 1974 proclaimed Albania an atheistic state,” he said. “It also declared Albania a proletarian dictatorship and said that was the purest form of democracy. I was there.”
Former leader dreams of returning to power
In the meantime, according to Berisha, Soros and his OSF started getting heavily involved in the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo, a predominantly Albanian-speaking autonomous entity that eventually declared independence in 2008 and has since won recognition by over 100 countries—but not by Serbia itself (see our Aug. 30 interview with Kosovo’s new ambassador in Washington, Ilir Dugolli).
“After both countries signed a general agreement in 2014 in Brussels, they started to talk about border changes. This was presented as a project of OSF Belgrade,” he said. “I opposed it because I was for keeping current borders. If you on a Pandora’s box in this region, you don’t know where it will end.”
Before wrapping up our chat, I asked Dr. Berisha if he’d like his old job back—despite his age and the fact that two of the world’s biggest democracies have now banned him from entering.
“Definitely,” he replied without hesitation, adding that he’d do a far better job than Rama, who currently runs Albania. From 2006 to 2013, during his rule, he said, Albania enjoyed the highest average wage growth in the Balkans; now it’s the lowest.
Furthermore, between 2014 and 2021, about 744,000 Albanians left the country for EU member states, he said, citing Eurostat figures. That represents 26% of Albania’s population, and it doesn’t include those who emigrated to the United States, Canada or other non-EU jurisdictions.
“Our average salary is only €380 a month. Even Kosovo is 20% ahead of us,” he complained. “Unemployment here is solved only by leaving the country.”
Meanwhile, Berisha has written a letter to Blinken urging the State Department to make public any evidence it may have against him.
“But I also told him that in a hundred years he’d never find any,” Berisha said. “I told him, ‘I will sue you in Paris for defamation, not so you will change your decision who should enter the US or not, but because you have wounded my dignity and my honor.’”