A growing number of Kosovars are seeking ‘honorary’ Albanian citizenship, some for prestige, others as a route to visa-free travel in Europe or to visit the dozens of countries which refuse to recognise Kosovo’s statehood . But are these always granted on merit?
By Fatjona Mejdini
For the best part of two decades, long lines outside European embassies were a morning fixture of capitals up and down the Balkans as citizens of the states spawned by Yugoslavia’s demise and post-communist Albania queued for visas and the opportunity to travel to the West.
Only in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, do they remain today, a symbol of the young country’s enduring isolation almost a decade since its neighbours in Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia were granted the right to visa-free travel across the European Union.
Not all Kosovars need to queue, however.
Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj does not, unsurprisingly. Nor does his wife; two children of his predecessor, Isa Mustafa; the son of President Hashim Thaci; many former and current Kosovo MPs; and more than a dozen relatives of Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli.
They all have one thing in common – honorary citizenship of neighbouring Albania, which was granted an EU visa waiver in 2010.
The practice of granting passports to people deemed of ‘special interest’ is common around the world, often as a way to honour famous foreigners, reward a major investment or beef up a national sports team.
The system in Albania has morphed for a growing number of frustrated Kosovars – the vast majority of whom are ethnic Albanian – into a backdoor to visa-free travel in Europe or as a means to visit countries which do not recognise Kosovo statehood, of which there are approximately 80 out of 193 UN countries, an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, shows.
Many of those granted passports arguably meet the ‘special interest’ criteria – artists, sports people, NGO activists and others who have made a significant contribution to the Albanian state.
But then there are others whose contribution is more difficult to discern, beneficiaries of an opaque process where in some cases who you know appears to matter more than what you know. For a privileged few, who already have EU papers, the Albanian passport is simply a souvenir, a symbol of their belonging to one Albanian nation.
Jumping the queue
Eleven years after declaring independence from Serbia with the backing of the West, Kosovars are still waiting for the right to travel freely in the EU’s borderless Schengen zone, while trips to countries which do not recognize Kosovo’s statehood, and passports, also pose problems.
In July 2018, the European Commission announced that Kosovo had met all the conditions set for visa liberalisation, the most important of which was demarcation of its border with Montenegro and an enhanced fight against organised crime and corruption.
The final decision now rests with the EU’s 28 member states. It has been a long time coming, held up for years by a reluctance among some EU states to open the door to a potential influx of Kosovars and by years of failure to get to grips with endemic graft and organised crime.
But while ordinary Kosovars have paid the price, some, including family members of those politicians arguably responsible for the slow pace of progress, have found a way to sidestep the problem.
Working with a team of coders, BIRN used a script to pluck from the Albanian Official Gazette the name of every individual who has been granted citizenship since 2000 under Article 9, paragraph 7 of Albania’s 1998 law on citizenship – cases where Tirana discerns “a scientific, economic, cultural or national interest”.
The list of names BIRN compiled does not include original citizenship, but ethnic Albanian names make up the vast majority of the 733 cases up to the end of 2018
Within the Balkans, ethnic Albanians account for some 90 percent of Kosovo’s 1.8 million people and are minorities in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.
Since 2009 citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro have all enjoyed the right to visa-free travel in the EU.
Albania and Bosnia received the same right in late 2010. And in 2013, Albania declared all ethnic Albanians would have the right to seek Albanian citizenship on the basis of ethnicity, but excluded Kosovo so as not to upset the new state’s visa liberalisation process with the EU.
The exact proportion of ethnic Albanians on the list from Kosovo is unknown, but of those BIRN was able to cross-check against public or social media profiles, the vast majority were from Europe’s youngest state.
Tellingly, since the EU extended the so-called White Schengen regime to Albania, there has been a huge spike in the number of ‘honorary Albanians’. Of the 733 since 2000, 564 came after Albania was granted visa-free travel. In 2008, there were only three cases, while in 2012 there were 72 and in 2018 a record 119.
The list reads like a roll-call of prominent Kosovar businesspeople, journalists, civil society activists, artists, sportsmen and sportswomen – many of whom owe a debt of gratitude to Albania for providing them with the means to travel and further their careers.
“After visa liberalisation, we faced a demand for citizenship mainly from persons from Kosovo,” Ferdinand Xhaferraj, who was Albania’s minister of culture and sports at the time of visa liberalisation, told BIRN in 2018.
Xhaferraj said each candidate had to merit such special treatment and that any recommendation by a ministry and civil society would come with a folder full of argumentation.
“The increase in demand was logical and, to be frank, if the request did not conflict with Albanian law we had an obligation to support our compatriots.”
No independent oversight
The list, however, also includes a host of politically-connected individuals.
Several names stand out – Anita Haradinaj, wife of Kosovo’s PM, who received citizenship by special merit in 2017 at the same time as her husband; Endrit Thaci, the 19-year-old son of President Hashim Thaci, who received honorary citizenship in May 2018; Aferdita and Besnik Mustafa, the daughter and son of former Prime Minister Isa Mustafa, who both received honorary citizenship in January 2018; and 15 members of the Pacolli family.
While it might be argued that some politicians or businessmen meet the requirements for ‘special merit’ citizenship, there is nothing in law to say that family members automatically qualify for the same treatment.
The specific reason why someone might be deserving of honorary citizenship – why Albania sees in them a ‘special interest’ – is confidential.
Anita Haradinaj told BIRN, however, that she received her “special merit” citizenship because of the work of her husband.
“I gained citizenship through a decree from President Nishani, during the time that Ramush Haradinaj was detained in Strasbourg by French authorities,” she wrote in a statement.
“The motivation for this decree was the distinguished contribution of Ramush for the freedom of Albanians, and I am certain that the decree can be found at the decisions or decrees of the President of Albania, Mr Bujar Nishani. Ramush has respected this decree and we continue to have the Albanian citizenship.”
Interviews with some of those who have received honorary citizenship, people who have applied and government insiders speak to a process with few clear guidelines on how to apply or how citizenship is granted and a distinct lack of transparency.
After several Freedom of Information requests submitted to the office of the Albanian president and a number of government ministries, BIRN was informed that such information was considered ‘personal data’ and therefore could not be released. A request to the Commissioner for Information and Data Protection for mediation went unanswered.
“How is it possible that the special merit of somebody could be a private matter?” said Spartak Ngjela, a former justice minister from the ranks of the now-opposition Democratic Party and former chairman of the parliamentary law committee.
“At stake is not just the law on information but the morality of the state.”
Under Albanian law, only the president has the discretion to grant honorary citizenship, usually following a proposal from a specific government ministry – often those of culture and sports or economy.
The president is obliged to make sure only that the candidate does not pose a threat to national security. There appears to be no independent oversight of the procedure.
Ngjela said the lack of guidelines, transparency or oversight meant the law was ripe for abuse.
“How can one not wonder whether this process… has become subject to trading?” he said.
“We have just one article in the law regarding this issue, and the whole process lacks detail. It’s clear that granting this form of citizenship is the right of the president, but other institutions could oversee the process, such as the Academy of Sciences.”
Albania is now consulting on a new law to govern citizenship which could lead to guidelines on how to assess the “scientific, cultural and national interest” in cases of special merit.
One family name in particular jumped out during the BIRN investigation: Pacolli.
Widely reported to be one of the richest Albanians in the world, Pristina-born Behgjet Pacolli controls the Swiss-based construction firm Mabetex and since September 2017 has been Kosovo’s foreign minister.
Of the more than 700 people to have received honorary Albanian citizenship since 2000, at least 15 are related to Pacolli. Starting from 2015, when Bujar Nishani was president of Albania, they include Pacolli’s brother, Selim, and his wife and three children, as well as four cousins and some of their immediate family members.
Asked why he had approved such a high number of honorary citizenships for the Pacolli family, Nishani, a Democrat, told BIRN they had been proposed by ministers in the Socialist government of Prime Minister Edi Rama on the basis of the family being “strategic investors” in Albania.
Asked about his honorary citizenship, Selim Pacolli, who became deputy mayor of Pristina in December 2017, told BIRN he would “need time to list all the contributions of our family to the country of origin.”
He, his wife and children had no issues with freedom of movement in Europe given they are citizens of Switzerland, he said.
“The reason I applied for this passport is to have a national document with an eagle on it,” he told BIRN, referring to the black double-headed eagle that is the national symbol of Albania.
“It is terrible that Kosovo citizens don’t have the right to travel without visas in Europe, but the answer for that has to be sought in the highest state institutions,” Selim Pacolli said.
Asked about the fact so many of his relatives had received honorary Albanian citizenship, Behgjet Pacolli said: “My relatives have taken Albanian passports out of pride” and that “the absolute majority of them for logistical reasons also have European passports.”
BIRN was unable to confirm how many of the Pacolli relatives hold European passports and how many sought honorary citizenship of Albania ‘out of pride’.
Pacolli himself received honorary Albanian citizenship in April 2018. He also says he holds a Swiss passport.
In a statement, Mabetex told BIRN that it had “played a major role in developing the private sector of Albania in project development and employment in and out of the country” but did not respond to specific questions about the Divjaka development.
Nishani said that in roughly 80 per cent of cases involving Kosovars, citizenship was granted to footballers and that explained why there were so many in the last two to three years of his presidency, as Albania beefed up its team with Kosovars.
“Some of them were great sports people who couldn’t participate in international events because their Kosovo passport wasn’t recognised, others were various artists at the request of the Ministry of Culture,” Nishani told BIRN.
“Some were important politicians, representatives of state institutions, who couldn’t participate on behalf of Kosovo in important political activities because their passport often wasn’t recognised.”
“I am very proud of all the cases in which I granted Albanian citizenship to Albanians of Kosovo and I feel sorry that I couldn’t grant it to everyone that requested it, because our law unfortunately has some limitations,” he told BIRN.
Nishani denied the process lacked transparency, saying the procedures were clearly guaranteed under the constitution and the law. Asked if the system was being exploited by the powerful, Nishani replied: “If by “powerful people” you mean those who are members or representatives of the state institutions of Kosovo, then I think that if this helps their free movement to represent the state and people of Kosovo, then this is very good.”
BIRN tried to contact Endrit Thaci, the son of Kosovo President Thaci, via his Instagram account, which has almost 20,000 followers, but received no reply.
BIRN also did not receive responses from President Thaci or former Prime Minister Mustafa.
Besnik Mustafa, asked about his family, said they had “followed the legal procedure” and cited the fact they had previously held residence permits for Albania as grounds for obtaining citizenship. The Official Gazette, however, states clearly that both Isa Mustafa children received citizenship on the basis of ‘special merit.’
BIRN also tried to contact Aferdita Mustafa separately, via Facebook, but received no reply.
Donjeta Gashi, a spokesperson to Ramush Haradinaj, said the prime minister had received an Albanian passport on the decision of the Albanian government “to honour him” but did not comment on the decision to award his wife citizenship by “special merit”.
Nudging the process
In interviews with dozens of Kosovars who have been granted honorary citizenship of Albania or are in the process of applying, some said the power of personal relationships played a part.
While some said they had to have a supporting recommendation from a public institution, others got by without it. Many found the whole procedure baffling.
“I have heard of tens of cases in which Kosovo citizens have received citizenship in an expedited way – I find it [the process] inappropriate and without meritocracy,” wrote Alba Alishani, a Kosovo-born journalist and news anchor in the Albanian capital, Tirana, in response to questions from BIRN. She was in the process of applying on the basis of her journalistic work.
In 2010, Flamur Vezaj, an Albania-based journalist from Kosovo, asked the Albanian Ministry of Culture to recommend to the president that he be granted ‘special merit’ citizenship for his contribution to Albanian journalism. The ministry, he said, obliged.
But after five months without a response from the president’s office, Vezaj decided to nudge the process and asked through mutual friends to meet the general secretary of the presidency, the recently deceased Aleksander Flloko.
“I met him and asked for my proposal to be approved,” he told BIRN. “I believe if I hadn’t met him my case would have been archived.”
The President’s office said that it was unable to respond to the allegations given the death of Mr Flloko.