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10th Jul 2020

MEP criticises US ambassador in Kosovo SMS affair

  • Pushkar's iPhone. Dell's letter said that Koha Ditore's reporting was 'unprofessional, unethical, and potentially illegal' (Photo: Koha Ditore)

A prominent MEP has said the US ambassador to Kosovo looks guilty of improper conduct in last month's presidential vote. But EU diplomats are keen to forget the affair and to concentrate on Kosovo-Serbia talks.

Austrian Green deputy Ulrike Lunacek, the EU parliament's rapporteur on Kosovo, told EUobserver on Thursday (4 March) that photos of SMS-es flying around during the recent presidential vote by Kosovo MPs make the US diplomat, Christopher Dell, look bad.

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"All of us were sending SMS-es to various people. I was sitting not so far from Dell," she said, recalling the nervous atmosphere in the plenary chamber on 22 February.

"Looking at what came out in the press, the president seems to have asked him what to do and the ambassador gave him some suggestions," she added. "It seems that the US ambassador has been trying to influence the vote in the parliament and I think this kind of behaviour should not take place in a democratic assembly."

Her remarks come after Kosovo daily Koha Ditore published pictures of texts sent by President Behgjet Pacolli and his advisor Esad Pushkar on their iPhones during a break between the second and third round of votes.

Mr Pacolli's SMS said: "Ask CD [Christopher Dell] what to do for 3 time." Mr Pushkar's reply said: "Dell: Fatmir and Jakup were afraid of threat at the end. Thinks it will be close, but OK..."

Jakup Krasniqi and Fatmir Limaj are MPs from the party of Pacolli ally and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. The MPs had voted against Mr Pacolli in the first two rounds. The president is disliked for his ties to the Russian elite and his weak Albanian language skills. Mr Krasniqi later confirmed to media that he had been "threatened" by Mr Thaci.

For his part, Mr Dell the day after the vote hit out with an open letter to Kosovo's Independent Media Commission.

He denied any wrongdoing, saying: "I am not disturbed by the content of these communications, which reflect nothing more than routine efforts to gather information in a confused environment and purported comments relayed by third parties." He also accused Koha Ditore of breaking a law on wiretapping, an offence that could put its journalist in jail for a year.

His letter outraged the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders. "The ambassador's comments constitute unacceptable harassment of the Kosovar media," it stated. It also upset local civil society and reinforced the popular notion that US and EU diplomats play God in Kosovo and think they are untouchable.

"I think he went too far when he attacked the newspaper," Engjellushe Morina, the director of the Pristina-based NGO, the Kosovo Stability Initiative, said.

If Mr Pacolli had failed to get elected in the third round it would have prompted a new general election, delaying US-and-EU-sponsored plans for a new "dialogue" between Kosovo and Serbia.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton's right-hand-man on Kosovo, Robert Cooper, has spent the past week in Belgrade and Pristina fixing up the first meeting in the new dialogue to take place in Brussels on 8 and 9 March.

Officially, the 8 March talks are to tackle issues such as energy, cross-border mobility and missing persons. But the most urgent topic is the future status of the ethnic-Serb-dominated north of Kosovo and the ethnic-Albanian-dominated southeast of Serbia, with ethnic tensions here threatening to infect Macedonia.

See no evil

EU officials declined to comment on the Dell affair, saying only that they support an enquiry into separate complaints by opposition MPs that the Pacolli vote violated technical rules on quorums.

Ms Ashton's spokeswoman, Maja Kocjancic, said: "We have full confidence that Kosovo institutions will deal with it [the technical complaint] in line with relevant rules and competences. Beyond that I have no further comment." Andy McGuffie, the spokesman for Peter Feith, the international and EU special representative in Kosovo, said: "Media reporting about the sending of SMS messages by individuals in the parliament is not a matter for this office."

He added, however: "Democracy is of course a learning process and there is certainly more work for all in Kosovo to do to promote inclusive, substantive democratic debate and to build an open society."

The reputation of the Thaci government was earlier harmed by allegations of vote-rigging in the general election in December. Mr Thaci's personal reputation was also damaged by a recent Council of Europe report accusing him of running an organ-trafficking mafia in the 1990s.

Kosovo analysts believe his "threat" against Mr Krasniqi was that he would take away his well-paid job as parliament speaker.

But in an indication of the ex-guerrilla leader's menacing persona, the Council of Europe's secretary general, Thorbjorn Jagland, last week told EUobserver that he has serious fears for the safety of people who gave evidence to the organ-mafia report.

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