- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2017

Tucked away in the southeast corner of Europe, the Balkans are 4,500 miles from the East Coast. So your average American would be forgiven for wondering, “What does this region have to do with me?”

But stability and security in the Balkans is important to the U.S. for many reasons.

Historically, the region has been a flash point for wars in Europe — some of which have dragged U.S. troops into combat. That’s one reason the U.S. has invested billions in aid there since the end of the Cold War. Certain parts of the region have also been hotbeds of Islamist extremism, and collectively the Balkans have sent hundreds of fighters to join Islamic State in Syria. All the while, Russia is active in the region, trying to undermine U.S. interests there.

Now there are political threats, which threaten to undo America’s efforts to bring security and prosperity to the region — in part with U.S. taxpayers’ money.

According to a recent letter signed by six senators and congressmen, organizations like George Soros’ Open Society Foundation are bolstering left-wing political movements in the region at odds with American interests — and using funds provided by USAID to do it. State actors like Russia are taking advantage of the ensuing political destabilization to promote an anti-West agenda.

The stability and security enjoyed in the region since the late 1990s could be on the verge of a great unraveling, as democracy and good governance are being tested. Just look at what’s happening in Macedonia. Malign outside influence in the country has led to a political paralysis that is shaking its democratic foundation. This should be a wake-up call for U.S. policymakers.

Meanwhile, a perfect storm is brewing in nearby Albania, where national elections are slated for June. As a NATO member, the stakes are even higher in Albania, and the threat of destabilizing the region even greater. If things go badly, Russia will be there to pick up the pieces. There are three factors to watch.

First, the upcoming elections must be transparent, free and open. The opposition Democratic Party has lost faith in the electoral process, and the ruling government has done nothing to alleviate the fear of fraud. Even the European Union has expressed concerns about the potential for electoral irregularities.

Secondly, there is widespread corruption in Albania. At the heart of this corruption is the region’s burgeoning drug trade. Albania seems well on its way to becoming the European epicenter of the illegal drugs trade. Senior officials of the ruling Socialist Party have been tied to major drug-trafficking organizations, and Prime Minister Edi Rama has been repeatedly accused of failing to crack down on their operations.

Finally, just as in neighboring Macedonia, there is serious concern about outside groups like the Open Society Foundation. Mr. Soros’ meddling in Albania via the State Department is nothing new. It is now known from John Podesta’s hacked emails that when Hillary Clinton headed the State Department, Mr. Soros was communicating directly with her and her staff. Rex W. Tillerson should end this practice immediately.

At this point, it is difficult to see how much influence the U.S can exert in Albania. Mr. Rama recently described President Trump as the “shame of our civilization.” Not a good base for a healthy U.S.-Albanian relationship!

But at the very least, we can stop enabling those who don’t have America’s interests at heart. U.S. policymakers were caught flat-footed by the ongoing political drama in Macedonia. We can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes in Albania.

Washington needs to pay far more attention to what’s going on in the Balkans. Otherwise our massive post-Cold War investment there may well be squandered.

Luke Coffey is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy.

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