THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: All right. Good morning and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center for this virtual briefing. I would like to start with the ground rules. This media briefing is on background. My name is [Moderator], and I will be the moderator for this briefing.
For your awareness and not for reporting, the briefers today are [Senior State Department Official], [Senior Treasury Official], and [State Department Subject Matter Expert].
For purposes of attribution, [Senior State Department Official] is to be referred to as a senior State Department official, and [Senior Treasury Official], and [State Department Subject Matter Expert] are to be referred to as subject matter experts from the Departments of Treasury and State, respectively.
With that introduction, I am pleased to welcome you again to this Washington Foreign Press Center background briefing. Our distinguished briefers today will discuss U.S. policy in the Western Balkans, specifically new U.S. sanctions. Our first two briefers will provide opening statements. After those statements, I will open the floor up for questions. If you have a question, please click the raised hand icon or place your question in the chat box. If I call on you, please unmute yourself and begin speaking. This briefing will end at 11:00. This briefing will be recorded. The FPC will post a transcript on our website at fpc.state.gov.
And with that, I am going to turn this briefing over to the senior State Department official. Over to you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Thank you, [Moderator]. I know you have all gotten some information in advance. So it is embargoed, is that correct? Okay. Okay, it’s over now – okay.
Well, today’s actions by the Department of State and the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control – OFAC – are aimed at actors that threaten the stability of the region through corruption, criminal activity, and other destabilizing behavior. The United States has made clear that we will use the legal measures available to us, including economic sanctions and visa restrictions, to promote accountability in the Western Balkans region. The United States stands for the people of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and North Macedonia in their goals to advance transparency and good governance. We are committed to helping the Western Balkans countries realize their full economic and democratic potential by tackling endemic corruption.
Public designations under authorities such as these will allow the United States to promote accountability for those who engage in corruption or perpetrate human rights violations and abuses, and to support efforts to disrupt and deter future abuses.
Today’s announcements follow the ones announced on January 5th, 2022. The United States is committed to holding accountable those involved in corruption and will continue to use all tools available to combat corruption and promote regional stability in the Western Balkans. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Senior State Department Official. I would also now like to correct what I said earlier; the official I said that should be referred to as – should be referred to as a senior Treasury official. So now, Senior Treasury Official, over to you.
SENIOR TREASURY OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator]. Thank you all for coming and participating today. As you’re aware, Treasury’s OFAC today designated seven individuals and one entity under our Western Balkans sanctions authority. I think it’s important to highlight that the individuals designated today are of different nationalities, ethnicities, and political affiliations, which highlights the problem of endemic corruption that [Senior State Department Official] emphasized in his opening remarks.
These individuals have used their positions of power to extract personal gain at the expense of the citizens of their respective countries. They have connections to organized crime, they have facilitated bribes, extorted and blackmailed citizens of their own country – countries – and have sought to pull the levers of justice in their own favor. These acts that are highlighted in our release have not only furthered corruption but have threatened the stability throughout the Western Balkans. The U.S. Treasury Department is committed to the continued stability and prosperity of the region and will hold those who threaten that stability accountable.
Many of these individuals have been charged and brought to court in the countries where they committed these crimes, but some – due to their wealth and power – have managed to flee before they could be brought to justice. While these individuals may have managed to evade justice in their own countries, no longer will they be free to do business with the United States or with the international financial system. As a result of today’s actions, all individuals designated will be blocked from dealing with U.S. individuals and businesses, and any existing funds located in the U.S. or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC.
As the U.S. Treasury said when we issued our Western Balkans designations in January, we will continue to hold corrupt and destabilizing actors in the region accountable for their behavior. The Western Balkans has experienced pronounced economic growth, but endemic corruption threatens individual countries as well as the stability of the entire region. Corruption allows bad actors to abuse their authority and extract gains at the expense of others. Corruption erodes trust in democratic institutions and stifles growth.
President Biden has been clear that fighting corruption around the world is a top priority of the United States. This action is not targeted at any specific political or ethnic group, and we will continue to hold corrupt actors accountable regardless of where they are and regardless of what ethnicity or nationality they may be.
And with that, we are of course happy to take your questions. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Senior Treasury Official. And now I’d like to move to questions. And I see we have a question from Telma TV. Please – Tamara Grncharoska, my apologies —
QUESTION: Good afternoon; it’s afternoon —
MODERATOR: Please unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: I already unmute; do you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Good afternoon, because it’s afternoon in Macedonia, in North Macedonia. I have a few questions. I read what you send us 30 minutes ago, and I have a few questions. Why you are doing this now? Because the conviction against Gruevski and Mijalkov are old for a few years, and why now you decide to do this? Do you have any kind of information if they have property or bank account in U.S.? And the third question is: Can you be more specific about what you mean about stability of the region? Because the – you said that this is connected not just with the corruption, but with the stability within the region. Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right – I’ll – Senior Treasury Official, Senior State Department Official?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, well, I’ll start with the first and the third. The first is that these actions are directed at corruption. And as soon as we have – meet the legal requirements to be able to submit the packages, we do. And it is not a political signal. It’s not intended to create political actions or support any political alternative in any of the countries where we’re doing this. So it really is truly about corruption and it is about corruption when we can prove it, when we can see it.
And second, we will continue to do this. We’ll continue to work with the governments in the region to make sure that they also look for opportunities to fight corruption domestically, because that’s where the fight should be. And also on the stability of the region, the other – almost all of the destabilizing political actions that we see in the region are somehow connected to corruption. And that is political leaders using public resources and making decisions in positions of public trust to further their own corrupt goals, and that is fundamentally destabilizing.
MODERATOR: Senior Treasury Official, did you have a comment?
SENIOR TREASURY OFFICIAL: I would just echo what [Senior State Department Official] said. We take these actions after consideration. There’s a process of building the packages and the evidentiary underpinnings of a particular designation action, and we take action when legally appropriate. And on top of that, I mean, I think as [Senior State Department Official] said, corruption inherently undermines the rule of law and economic growth in the various countries that are at issue here today. That is inherently destabilizing. Political actors who operate with impunity, steal the resources of their citizens, that again is inherently destabilizing. So I think corruption and stability are linked in that fashion.
MODERATOR: Again, if you would like —
QUESTION: Could you – could you answer my second question about property in U.S.? Do you have information these individuals have property in U.S.?
SENIOR TREASURY OFFICIAL: I can’t comment on any properties individuals may have in the United States. What I do want to emphasize, though, is that it is going to be incredibly difficult for any of these individuals to transact within the international financial system. It’s not just a matter of the U.S. connections directly, but financial institutions, when they do their due diligence, they take account of our sanctions. It’s hard to think of any international financial transaction that doesn’t somehow touch the United States. And so it’s going to be incredibly difficult for these individuals to operate in the international financial system.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. So the next question is for Ivan Mircevski of Kanal 5 TV Macedonia. Mr. Mircevski, please unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Let me correct your pronunciation of my name. It’s not Ivan, it’s Ivan. If you say Ivan in Turkish, that means something which is not polite for me. Okay?
MODERATOR: My apologies.
QUESTION: Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry. I have a few questions connected to all those things that I just heard here. I am wondering, does all those measures are connected to decree signed by Mr. Biden, President, POTUS of United States of America, connected to 8 of June, 2021? There were seven points, if I remember well, connected to everyone who are going to do any – everything against the law in the domestic country, especially regarding the Macedonia-based speaker. Now, regarding the Macedonia, regarding the agreement of Ohrid, Ohrid Agreement, and the Prespa Agreement as well. This is my first question, if it’s the sole – is there any connection between that decree signed by POTUS Mr. Biden?
And the second question is regarding the – is there any signs or any implication that it will be spread around a wider region, and not only Western Balkans. If you say Western Balkans, that means [North] Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, et cetera. It will be extended to Bulgaria as well, because that decree of Mr. Biden from 2021 applies to Bulgaria as well. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’ll start first. The answer is yes, that these are – that these are related to the administration’s announcement of increased Western Balkans authorities. But it’s also related to the commitment of this administration to fight corruption wherever we can and however we can.
With regard to countries outside of the Western Balkans, while we don’t preview our sanctions actions, I can say that it is limited to the countries of the Western Balkans.
QUESTION: Nice. Okay, thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question will be from Jovana Djurisic from Pobjeda in Montenegro. Please unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Hope you can hear me.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Yes. You noted that people covered by the sanctions today posed a serious threat to regional stability, but Svetozar Marovic is a free citizen in Serbia, so can you comment on that? And do you have any diplomatic mechanism to help Montenegro to extradite Marovic to our justice authority? And do you have such similar expectations from your government to resolve this issue? Thank you, and sorry for baby crying.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sorry, I didn’t hear the second part of the question, Jovana. Can you repeat it?
QUESTION: Yeah. So do you have – do you have expectations from new Montenegrin Government to resolve this issue? Because it’s a big issue for our country. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, the – whenever we roll out sanctions actions, we always ask bilaterally for the countries involved to take advantage of those opportunities to pursue their own anti-corruption actions as well. And we also – it’s our expectation that whenever appropriate, that countries also enforce the sanctions actions. So I do expect that all of the countries in the region show a commitment to fighting corruption, including bringing those who have been wanted for corruption to justice.
[Moderator], are you still on? Hello? Hello?
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
STAFF: Hi. I think we are having some issues with the moderator. So I’m going to go ahead and we’re going to go to the next –
MODERATOR: No. Go ahead. I’m back on. Sorry, that was on me.
STAFF: Okay. Sorry, [Moderator]. Turn it back over to you.
MODERATOR: So Mr. Papa, can you please unmute yourself and ask your question? Okay. Mr. Papa, if you’re not able to unmute yourself –
QUESTION: Here I am. I am here.
MODERATOR: Okay. Please, pose your question.
QUESTION: Are you still supporting Open Balkans? To [Senior State Department Official].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I would like to say, first of all, we – I really want to make this about today’s actions, and this doesn’t relate in any way to Open Balkans. I will say that as a policy, the United States supports any efforts that bring the countries – that bring the countries of the Western Balkans closer together, closer to Europe, and is inclusive to all of them, and includes protections against corruption and other nefarious activities.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
MODERATOR: Okay. Now, our next question is from Goran Mihajlovski. And he is from SDK, North Macedonia. Mr. Mihajovski, please unmute yourself and pose your – I’m sorry – and pose your question.
QUESTION: Hello. Good morning or good afternoon.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Speaking about stability of the Balkans, I have a question to [Senior State Department Official]. Do you consider that Bulgaria is endangering the stability of the Western Balkans because of this firm veto on North Macedonia’s accession to EU? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The discussion between North Macedonia and Bulgaria is really one for the countries to resolve on a bilateral basis through good-faith negotiations and dialogue, which I believe they’re doing. But in terms of an enlargement of the European Union, it’s also a question for the European Union to decide. From our perspective, it’s our hope that every country of the Western Balkans, all six of them, will eventually become members of the European Union.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And I’d now like to ask Keida Kostreci of Voice of America to unmute himself, herself, and pose the question.
QUESTION: Yes. Hello. I wanted to ask the senior State Department official two questions. From the sanctions announced today and in the past, it is seen that very high-profile officials or former officials are targeted. And although in some of the countries, including Albania, there have been designations for some senior leaders, there is a perception that at the highest level of government, these sanctions are not targeting. So it looks like the responsibility rests with, so to speak, smaller fish. How do you respond to that?
And if I may, a question regarding the new reality in the Western Balkans. Given the situation with war in Ukraine, how worried the United States are? And what are they doing actively to improve chances for the countries to be integrated in Euro-Atlantic institutions so that the Russian threat is dampened or lessened in this area?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’ll start with the first one. I’m not sure what you mean about smaller fish because if you look at our recent sanctions actions, they include two former prime ministers and one of the members of the tri-presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I don’t think you can go much higher than that in some of those countries.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, just – I meant like actual current high-level officials.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, like I said, we target all – anyone who is found credibly to be engaged in corruption. So there is a process to that as well, and that’s why some people are questioning why we do it after people are out of office, because sometimes it takes us that long. So I would not say – and sometimes while they’re in office, like Milorad Dodik. So I wouldn’t say that we’re only going for small fish, and we’re not only going against people who are not currently engaged or currently in power. We – it’s our commitment and it’s this administration’s commitment to address corruption wherever we find it.
With regard to the situation of the crisis in Ukraine affecting the Western Balkans, I’m happy to say that I’m in very close contact with all of the leaders of the Western Balkans countries, and they have all given me a commitment that they will not use the current crisis to create a crisis in the Western Balkans. To date, not only have they not created a crisis in the Western Balkans, or at least I can say a crisis that wasn’t already there, but I can say that all of the countries have voted in line with the European Union, in line in the international community. All of them have helped in some way to address the humanitarian situation, and our NATO Allies have also contributed to NATO efforts to strengthen European defense.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Sokol Balla of Top Channel TV, Albania. Please unmute yourself and pose your question.
QUESTION: Hello. Hello, sir. Good afternoon to everyone. I have two questions, first for the senior Treasury official concerning the persons that, let’s say, designated with the sanctions. Now, one of these persons is a former deputy of the parliament. He is not there anymore, but his proxies are there. His son-in-law and his son, they are both members of the parliament. Do these sanctions extend to them as well?
And for [Senior State Department Official], I have a question. [Senior State Department Official], nice to talk to you again after our interview in Tirana. My further question is: You have already sanctions – sanctioned last year people with the status of non grata designated by the – President Biden. And my question is: Are these category also being scrutinized to be, let’s say, put under sanctions from the Treasury as well? And I’m sorry I’m asking this question to you, but I find it rather more a political question. Thank you.
SENIOR TREASURY OFFICIAL: Yeah, I can’t necessarily comment on any future targets. As [Senior State Department Official] said, we are committed to going after corruption wherever it may be found. I think it’s safe to say these are not going to be the last actions we take in this area.
When it comes to your particular question about the impact of sanctions, we have designated particular individuals and one entity today. The direct impact of the sanctions affects those individuals. I will say, however, that anybody who provides material support to somebody who is designated under this authority is liable for sanctions and may be subject to sanctions. And I think this sends a strong signal in the international financial system and otherwise that these individuals are not people that you want to be dealing with.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can you repeat your second question for me, Mr. Balla?
QUESTION: Yes. Your question, [Senior State Department Official], is now you – we have now two categories of sanctions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.
QUESTION: We have the financial sanctions that were designated today, and we have the political sanctions that were designated last year.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.
QUESTION: Now my question is: Is it going to be like the intertwined sanctions? So people who have been designated as non grata being scrutinized to be sanctioned also from the Treasury?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. So when we – when – we recommend for the more appropriate one, but that doesn’t mean that they’re mutually exclusive. So yeah, it’s always a possibility that people will be scrutinized for both.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay, our next question, and probably our last question, will be from Dejan Sajinovic, who is from Nezavisne Novine, Bosnia. Please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I hope you hear me. Thank you for this opportunity to ask the question. My question – I just got to read a little bit through this briefing, so I am just – I did not quite understand what’s the – can you give us more details about the Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ms. Tadic? What specifically are you having – what was the specific reason that you put this sanction on, because she is the former main prosecutor? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I can’t give you the specific reasons, but I can tell you that we have credible information that she has engaged in significant acts of corruption during her – during and after her time associated with her position, which is a position of public trust which she misused for personal gain.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay, now we look like we have time for one more question. Vildana Selimbegovic, please. All right, no answer. Then we’ll go to Milan Nesic.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Okay, sir, go ahead. Yes, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: I am Amir Popic. I’m the colleague of Vildana Selimbegovic from Oslobodenje.
A question for Senior State Department Official: Will you go further and continue with sanctions in Bosnia and Herzegovina regarding a vast bout of corruption among political parties? And what do you – what do you make of this corruption among political parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, as I’ve mentioned before, the primary problem in – the primary political problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina is corruption. It is corruption that’s fueling the dysfunction. It is fueling the nationalist rhetoric. I do believe that what’s happening in Bosnia is a corruption problem, not a nationalism problem.
When you look at the reason that you – that Bosnia and Herzegovina has the highest rate of youth emigration, it’s not because the youth don’t want to live in a multiethnic society. It’s because youth cannot find – cannot find fulfilling jobs without corrupt connections. And that corruption is very much linked to the three most powerful parties in the country. So yes, we will continue to look for ways to address and dismantle that corruption.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I’d just like to give senior State Department official and senior Treasury official an opportunity to make any final comments.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I have no more, other than to say that we – this – these actions signal the seriousness with which this administration takes corruption. And corruption, as I said before, is the primary problem in all of the Balkans. It is the most serious one.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And senior Treasury official, any final comment?
SENIOR TREASURY OFFICIAL: No, nothing. Nothing further for me. Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. With that, this concludes our Q&A session. My special thanks to our briefers and to the journalists who participated. Thank you again. This concludes today’s briefing.