Former Albanian president warns Biden that Russia seeks to undermine European values and foundations in the region

Former Albanian President Ilir Meta has a clear message for President Biden: “Don’t forget about Albania and the Western Balkans.” Meta, who was president of Albania from 2017 to 2022 and now leads the Party of Freedom, is worried that the United States is forgetting one of its most important European and NATO allies. In an exclusive interview with Fox News Digital, the former president said the Balkans is “suffering from the status quo” and that outside actors such as Russia have tried to hinder the region’s EU integration and NATO membership.”They look to create a vacuum to be filled for them in order to undermine European values and foundations,” Meta said.

The small Balkan nation of Albania, one of Europe’s poorest, has made significant contributions to U.S. foreign policy goals over the years. Albania, an authoritarian Marxist country with bitter relations with the U.S. during the Cold War, is now one of the most pro-U.S. countries in Europe and has a large diaspora community in the United States. But the amount of attention Albania receives from President Biden and Western policymakers is little for a country struggling to consolidate its democracy.

While the U.S. is prioritizing its support of Ukraine while at the same time backing Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza, many in the Balkans worry the region isn’t receiving the attention it needs. The former president’s fears of U.S. absence come after the news that Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia’s former head of intelligence who has close ties to Russia and is sanctioned by the U.S., will join Serbia’s new government. Vulin was accused of being involved in transnational organized crime, illegal narcotics operations, and misuse of public office.

The announcement is seen by many in the U.S. and across Europe as an indication that Serbia is not abandoning its pro-Russian sentiments even while it seeks EU membership. “We are disappointed to see two sanctioned individuals in positions in the new government,” a State Department spokesperson told Fox News Digital. “The United States’ top priority in the Western Balkans is supporting the countries in the region to realize their full economic and democratic potential through Euro-Atlantic integration and regional cooperation. This path includes full alignment with the European Union on foreign and security policy,” the spokesperson added.

Former President Meta warned about the dangers of the “Open Balkans” initiative, a proposal that would facilitate a freer flow of people and goods across the Balkans, which on the surface seems like it would benefit the region. But Meta called the initiative an “alternative against European integration,” and fears it will strengthen hybrid regimes like Serbia that will undermine free and fair elections, eliminate political pluralism, and target the media and freedom of speech.

Serbia’s new minister of foreign affairs, Marko Djuric, took issue with Meta’s framing of the Open Balkans Initiative.”Serbia is proud of its democratic efforts, including the Open Balkans initiative. We encourage economic cooperation and connectivity in the region to foster stability and create prosperity for all nations involved. Serbia is proud of its democratic efforts, including the Open Balkans initiative. We regret that such efforts are misinterpreted as undermining democracy when, in fact, they do the opposite by enhancing cooperation and mutual understanding,” Djuric told Fox News Digital in a statement.

Djuric said Serbia seeks to contribute to and uphold the region’s stability, security and prosperity and remains committed to the European Union integration process, a point that many in the West are skeptical about.”Serbia’s engagement in the Balkans is guided by principles of democracy, respect for sovereignty, and regional cooperation. We are committed to our EU path while also pursuing partnerships that contribute to peace and development in the region.”

Agim Nesho, former Albanian ambassador to the U.S. and the United Nations, told Fox News Digital that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Albanian Prime Minister Rama “are the most undemocratic, corrupt, and destabilizing leaders the region has seen in 30 years” and are not advancing U.S. or European interests. Nesho and other observers of the region say the idea that placating Serbia will keep it closer to Europe than is wishful thinking and has given ultranationalist Serbs and President Vucic a strong hand to play with the West. The Open Balkans initiative is basically a forum for coordinating their policies with Moscow to advance both Serbian and Russian interests in the Balkans, Nesho claimed. that U.S. appeasement of Serbia’s disruptive policies allows Vucic to leverage both the Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina to create instability, and to keep the northern Kosovo region as a frozen conflict, highlighting a clear lack of strategy from the U.S.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister Djuric rejected such criticism and told Fox News Digital that he recently met with the U.S. ambassador to Serbia and he “emphasized that strengthening cooperation with the United States is among the top foreign policy priorities of the Serbian government. Our political, economic and cultural relations have undergone a positive and beneficial transformation in recent years, and we are committed to further enhancing this partnership for the mutual benefit of our nations.”

He concluded, “Serbian President Vucic has been very public about all of this. As the president said recently: ‘We believe we belong in Europe and we will stay on the European path. That is our strategic, permanent position that we will not change.’”

Russia, through its regional allies, exerts significant cultural and political sway in the Balkans, and has been accused of inciting violence and instability. Serbia acts as the player in the Kremlin’s bid for prominence in the Balkans.”Putin is leveraging crises in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina to divert attention from Ukraine and to position Russia as the sole mediator of the crisis,” Ivana Stradner, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Fox News Digital.”This plan aims to strengthen Moscow’s regional influence and give Putin leverage over Western powers who do not want the violence to escalate,” Stradner added.

Meta concluded by saying that the people of the Balkans love the United States because they see it as a symbol of democracy and the country, in Meta’s eyes, must never forget this.”The United States must never forget that, and how important the Balkans are for Europe and, that Albania can be a long-term partner in helping face many global challenges,” Meta said. Digital requests for comment to the spokesperson for Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama were not returned by time of publication.