Croatian Diplomat in Albania Speaks about Threats

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Romana Vlahutin, head of EU Delegation in Tirana, has been fighting against corruption in Albania.

Romana Vlahutin, a former adviser to former Croatian President Ivo Josipović and a long-time Croatian diplomat with international experience, has been in the focus of certain media outlets and political circles in Albania who accuse her of political bias. Austrian daily Der Standard published that Vlahutin has even received death threats and now has 24-hour police protection, reports Jutarnji List on February 26, 2017.

Vlahutin, who previously worked as a diplomat at the Croatian Embassy in Serbia, and then held a high office in the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, is now the head of EU Delegation in Tirana. In addition to Hidajet Bišćević, who is the EU Ambassador to Tajikistan, Vlahutin is the most senior Croatian diplomat currently in the service of the European Union.

When she got this job, Brussels believed that it was to her advantage that she came from Croatia, a country which has gone through the accession process which Albania was just about to start. One of the main challenges which Albania currently has on its road to the EU is the fight against corruption and organized crime, which has been in Vlahutin’s focus from the very beginning of her term, with the support of the European Union and the US Ambassador to Albania Donald Lu. After lengthy negotiations, they managed to push through the so-called law on decriminalization that caused an earthquake on the Albanian political scene.

Vlahutin yesterday said that she did not feel threatened and that she actually felt comfortable in Albania, whose citizens, she said, supported the efforts to reform and decriminalize Albanian politics. “I feel very good in Albania. Newspaper headlines about death threats are an exaggeration. However, given the clear intention of certain interest groups to try to scare us, we had to take certain precautions. My colleague, the US Ambassador, has bodyguards from the beginning of his term. We in the EU are much more relaxed, but at the moment we obviously need to be more careful”, she said.

Vlahutin experienced problems while she was a Croatian diplomat serving in Serbia, where she was in charge of Kosovo at the embassy. Once when she went to Kosovo, someone entered her apartment in Belgrade, took the keys of the car and stole it. The car was found a few years later in Macedonia.

Albania is currently a candidate for EU membership, but there is no recommendation for accession negotiations to be opened. The decriminalization is main precondition. Vlahutin believes that some people are feeling threatened by the law. “In the last two years, Albania has implemented reform of the judiciary, which has resulted in a change to a third of the Constitution and 40 laws that were partially or entirely adjusted to the new constitutional framework. The so-called law on decriminalization was adopted prior to the vote on constitutional changes, and it includes the prohibition of employment in the public services and a ban on participation in elections or holding public offices for all those who violated law, meaning all those who have been convicted in criminal cases”, explained Vlahutin, adding that Croatia also assisted Albania with its experience.

“Judicial reform was really a huge job, we have completely changed the extremely corrupt system, and a series of new institutions has been introduced. One of them is the special prosecutor for organized crime and corruption, modelled after Croatia’s USKOK. State Prosecutor Cvitan visited Tirana, and the team that worked on the law included Koraljka Bumči, a judge at the Zagreb County Court. A special feature of the reform is vetting, which is verification of all judges and prosecutors to determine whether some of them are in possession of illegally acquired property, whether they have links with criminal groups and whether they are professionally trained for the job. After the fall of the regime of Enver Hoxha, Albania had completely changed people in the judicial system, so some of the new judges were persons who did not graduate from the Faculty of Law, but just had a six-month judicial course. You can imagine what I am talking about”, she explained.

Vlahutin said that “vetting is a huge threat to interest groups that have controlled large parts of the judiciary, the stakes are high, and therefore their resistance is so fierce”. “We are talking about the judiciary in which, for example, the chief state prosecutor is still a person to whom the United States have denied a visa to enter the country, as well as to his closest circle of collaborators”, she added. Vlahutin explained that citizens of Albania have expressed tremendous support for judicial reform. The latest poll showed 93 percent of support. “The situation with the judiciary was unbearable and Albania had no choice”, said Vlahutin.

Some of the Albanian media in recent days have speculated that Ambassador Vlahutin was involved in fraud about purchasing a residence for the EU delegation in Tirana. She says that this is just one in a series of fake scandals, while EU spokesperson in Brussels called such speculation “fabrications”. “This is just one in a series of fake news which my American colleague and myself are often the subject of. Some Albanian politicians are doing everything they can to draw diplomats and the international community into their internal conflicts and use that as an alibi for their own mistakes. Sometimes I feel that this is one of the consequences of the terrible dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, when people were brainwashed that foreigners were enemies and had some hidden agenda. However, in contrast to the relatively small, but very aggressive group of people who are connected to political and criminal interest groups, people of Albania are extremely hospitable”, said Vlahutin.

She described numerous insults, include the one that she “does not comb her hair”. “So far, US Ambassador and I have been accused of everything, from working for Soros and organized crime, to corruption and bias. I have allegedly been appointed by who knows whom, I do not comb my hair, my husband is working on some railway project with Montenegro… There are incredibly bizarre things that I very quickly learned to ignore”, she said.

“The story about the EU residence has coincided exactly with the establishment of the vetting process and is based solely on someone’s fabrication that it was a suspicious transaction. Anyone who knows anything about how the EU works in public procurement sector knows that, with so many checks and levels which must confirm the proposal before the final decision, it is simply not possible for any person individually to do anything. What is the most bizarre turn in this story is that the ‘journalists’ who published it have not bothered to learn the basic facts, such as the one that, for example, the entire process of identifying the property and negotiations was conducted months before I was even named as the ambassador, that final negotiations were led by a colleague who came from Brussels especially for that very purpose, and that the European Parliament was part of the process”, concluded Vlahutin.


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