A key Republican on Capitol Hill grilled Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday for an explanation of why the State Department has not produced evidence to back up its corruption allegations against former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, a one-time high-profile ally of U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Balkans.
“For many, this seemingly came out of nowhere,” Rep. Lee Zeldin said about Mr. Blinken‘s announcement last month that Mr. Berisha, his wife and their two adult children have been barred from entering the U.S. because of the former prime minister’s “involvement in significant corruption.”
At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Mr. Blinken defended the action, but stopped short of offering evidence to back up the allegation against Mr. Berisha, who has made international headlines by claiming the secretary of state’s move against him was based on “misinformation” from outfits backed by billionaire liberal activist George Soros.
Mr. Zeldin sought to get to the bottom of that claim. “Have you or anyone on your behalf had any communication with Mr. Soros or anyone on his behalf,” the New York Republican asked Mr. Blinken. “Just trying to clarify what’s true and what’s not true.”
“I have not,” the secretary of state responded. “I can’t speak to the entire State Department. But I have not.”
The back and forth came roughly a week after Mr. Berisha, a longtime center-right stalwart of Albania’s post-communist political scene, told The Washington Times in an interview that he believes the State Department has “zero evidence” to back up its allegation against him.
“It is my deep conviction that this declaration against me has been based entirely on misinformation that Mr. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has gotten from a corrupted lobby process involving [current Albanian Prime Minister] Edi Rama and George Soros, who are close friends,” Mr. Berisha told The Times in late May. “They have no evidence. None at all. If they announced one bit, I would be most thankful. But they have no concrete proof based on fact, not manipulation or slander.”
The claims added an eye-opening twist to the sudden clash between the Biden administration and a former Balkan leader who was known to be close with former Republican U.S. administrations.
During Monday’s hearing, which was otherwise focused on the State Department‘s 2022 budget request, Mr. Zeldin suggested that the department has a responsibility to be transparent with evidence whenever it levels corruption allegations against a former head of state.
“I tried to do some research as to what type of new information involving [Mr. Berisha‘s] corruption and I couldn’t find anything,” said Mr. Zeldin. “So where should anybody go? A member of the media, let’s say, wants to find information because there’s some back and forth going on right now between the State Department, your decisions on the sanctions against him and his family as well as Mr. Berisha’s defense. Where would a member of the media go to get information on what corruption you’re referring to?”
Mr. Blinken testified that the corruption allegation had followed normal State Department protocols, including a review by counsel. “I don’t have anything [beyond that] to share right now,” he said. “But I’d be happy to come and make sure that we share that with you and anyone else who’s interested.”
One former high-ranking U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pushed back against the secretary of state’s testimony.
“The manner in which he said this came isn’t clear,” said the official, who asked not to be named in this article because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
“This allegation against Mr. Berisha that Mr. Blinken put out surprised everybody in the European bureau,” the official said about the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
“If the process Mr. Blinken described had actually occurred, others from up and down the U.S. diplomatic chain of command would have been involved in vetting an allegation like this before it was made public,” the official said. “But these allegations came from the top down, not from the bottom up.”
Mr. Blinken, meanwhile, referred Mr. Zeldin to the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, and members of the media to the Office of the Spokesperson.
“I think that certainly, anyone from the media can ask the question, for example, in the briefings that we do every single day at the State Department, and get whatever information that’s publicly available,” he said.
However, the State Department declined to provide details to support the allegation against Mr. Berisha when asked by The Times before the May 28 publication of the newspaper’s article based on the interview with the former Albanian prime minister.
A department spokesperson said on condition of anonymity that Mr. Blinken is required to identify any official and his or her immediate family members if the department obtains credible information alleging corruption or violations of human rights.
Mr. Berisha has for years been vocal in his opposition to Mr. Soros and alleges he is the victim of a political campaign brought by a network of non-governmental organizations throughout Albania and other Balkan nations backed by Mr. Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
Balkan Insight, a well-respected regional investigative journalism website, has noted that the Hungarian-American Mr. Soros is “often the target of conspiracy theories.”
Among those who have blamed the U.S. billionaire is Adriatik Llalla, a former Albanian prosecutor general whom the Trump administration declared persona non grata and accused of “significant corruption” in 2018.
Mr. Soros’ representatives did not respond to a request for comment by The Times before the publication of The Times’ article on May 28.