The sanctioning of Albania's former leader for "significant corruption" is being cast as part of a drive by the new U.S. administration to fight corruption and promote democracy worldwide. But some analysts are questioning the wisdom of punishing a foreign politician for actions not directly affecting the United States.
In announcing the sanctions on Sali Berisha and members of his family this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Berisha "was involved in corrupt acts" during his term as prime minister of Albania, including "misappropriation of public funds and interfering with public processes."
Blinken added that Berisha had used 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."
Under the sanctions, Berisha, his wife, Liri Berisha, his son, Shkëlzen Berisha, and his daughter, Argita Berisha Malltezi, are barred from travel to the United States.
Berisha, who resigned as leader of his conservative party but remained in Parliament after being defeated as prime minister in 2013, rejected the allegations during a press conference Thursday. "There is no one in Albania or the world that can say that I am implicated in any corrupt affair," he said.
Berisha has been Albania's dominant political figure since the end of more than four decades of Stalinist rule in 1991. He is the historical leader of the right-wing Democratic Party, which emerged from a popular revolt in Albania that brought the era of pluralism to the country.
Berisha served as president from 1992 to 1997, after the fall of communism in Albania, and as prime minister from 2005 to 2013. He was credited with taking Albania into NATO in 2009 and onto the first rung of EU membership.
Berisha's opponents, however, accused him of undermining democracy and allowing graft and organized crime to flourish.
The U.S. designation comes on the heels of the ruling left-wing Socialist Party's third win in parliamentary elections and a time of reckoning for the Democratic Party. Berisha's successor, Lulzim Basha, has been under pressure to resign from within the party, and some have called on him to cut ties with Berisha, who has retreated from leading roles since 2013.
Some American analysts are questioning the decision to act against Berisha eight years after he left high office.
"The timing is not good," said Janusz Bugajski of the Jamestown Foundation, a defense policy research group.
"I don't understand why a former political leader who's no longer in office is being singled out. I mean, this should be something that needs to be done domestically at home. If there's hard evidence, they should push for some sort of trial for some sort of investigations and so on and so forth," he told VOA Albanian.
But Matthew Palmer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, with responsibility for the Western Balkans, said one should not "read too much into the timing of this."
"What I would do is, is underscore the seriousness with which the United States takes the issue of public corruption," he told VOA. "This is a demonstration of our commitment to using those instruments that we have available, including sanctions, as appropriate, in order to reinforce the fight against public corruption and to ensure that there is accountability for those who abuse the public trust."
Thomas Countryman, a former senior State Department official who held Palmer's position in 2010-2011, said the administration has used the authority given it by the U.S. Congress to deny entry visas "in hundreds of cases."
"Certainly not just in southeast Europe, but from Ukraine, from Russia, from Latin America, from Africa," he said.
The United States has barred three other top Albanian officials from entering the United States on the ground of corruption, but Berisha is the highest-profile one.
Countryman sees the move as reflecting new foreign policy priorities for the United States under President Joe Biden.
"I think the Biden administration has made clear that fighting global corruption is going to be a priority and it has already made several designations similar to that affecting Mr. Berisha in other cases," he said.
He said the news did not surprise him.
"I don't think that the audience in Albania is unaware of the degree of public corruption that has affected politicians from multiple parties, so there is a factual basis for the designation," Countryman said.
Bugajski, however, worries that Washington will be seen as taking sides in Albania's domestic politics.
"Is this now going to include other political leaders? I mean, there's been a lot of discussion actually about the current Albanian government, the prime minister, the president. What are their positions going to be? What about neighboring countries?" Bugajski asked.
But Countryman maintains that the action against Berisha "is not a partisan step" by the United States.
"It should be seen as a clear signal that continued corruption by any party in Albania, by any party in other countries, has consequences that go beyond the immediate local consequences that affect the relationship with the United States as well," he said.
A 2020 report on human rights by the U.S. State Department said corruption in Albania is "pervasive in all branches of government." The latest Nations in Transit report issued last month by Freedom House ranks the country as a transitional or hybrid regime and registered declines in its overall democracy score.
Ilir Ikonomi and Milena Durdic contributed to this report.