Congressman Eliot Engel, who represents the Bronx and points north, is facing a tough challenge in tomorrow’s primary. His challenger, progressive Jamaal Bowman, has been endorsed by prominent Democrats from Elizabeth Warren to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortéz, and has raised a significant war chest in the course of the campaign.
Bowman has accused Engel, who is currently chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of pursuing pet foreign-policy issues at the expense of his district. That criticism misses the mark. Some 60,000 Albanians live in New York State, many in Engel’s district. What Engel has done is systematically put the interests of the Serbian breakaway province of Kosovo — which is majority Albanian — ahead of American interests. He has been richly rewarded.
Engel’s ties to Harry Bajraktari, a wealthy Kosovar Albanian who lives in New York, have come under particular scrutiny. Bajraktari has been among Engel’s top donors, and through the National Albanian American Council, which Bajraktari co-founded, has hosted Engel on numerous trips to Kosovo. Engel failed to declare real-estate holdings that he co-owns with Bajraktari in New York and has yet to repay a dubious “mortgage loan” of $125,000 he got from Bajraktari over a decade ago.
Members of Congress are allowed to receive such “gifts” from personal friends, but not if they use their office to advance the benefactor’s personal interests. And Bajraktari, who owns significant real estate in Kosovo as well as New York City, has benefited greatly from Engel’s lobbying on Kosovo’s behalf.
Serbian media often refer to Engel as Kosovo’s chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Engel was an early advocate of U.S. intervention in the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia, and later lobbied hard for the U.S. to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Since then, Engel has lobbied for the U.S. to help Kosovo build an army. The U.S. has opposed this, despite recognizing Kosovo’s independence, on the grounds that it could lead to renewed armed conflict in the region. More recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused Engel of inappropriate “pressure, intimidation and bullying” of U.S. diplomats over the issue of Kosovo.
The Trump administration has tried to mediate between Kosovo and Serbia to resolve outstanding issues. These include, most recently, a 100 percent tariff that Kosovo imposed on goods from Serbia, as well as ethnic Serbs currently living in Kosovo being prevented from visiting their churches. Earlier this year, the U.S. temporarily suspended one source of foreign aid to Kosovo to pressure Kosovo into lifting the tariffs and being more accommodating in negotiations. Engel has decried the administration’s approach as bullying, but the administration has at least partly succeeded; Kosovo has agreed to temporarily lift the tariff and the Serbs meet face-to-face under U.S. auspices.
Kosovo first imposed the tariff on Serbian goods to protest the Serbian government’s campaign to pressure countries that recognized Kosovo’s independence into reversing their positions. But recognizing Kosovo’s independence has proven problematic for those governments, particularly the U.S. Recognizing the unilateral independence of a breakaway province violates longstanding U.S. policy against forcible and unilateral changes in borders. Russia cited U.S. recognition of Kosovo as a key precedent for its own recognition of Crimea after that region broke away from Ukraine, and as a justification for its continued presence in the border provinces of Georgia.
Engel slammed the Trump administration’s mediation efforts, and in addition has called for the U.S. to sanction Serbia for its close ties to Russia, including arms purchases.
Albania and Kosovo are majority-Muslim, and Kosovo has been a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS, as the New York Times has reported. There are reportedly multiple ISIS training camps in Kosovo, and hundreds of Albanian Kosovars have joined ISIS. Some of this unfortunate proclivity has made it to the New York Albanian community; late last year, 26-year-old Bronx Albanian Sajmir Alimehmeti was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being found guilty of terror charges.
Engel is a hero in Kosovo. The government there has awarded him numerous honors, including his face on a stamp, and his name on a major boulevard. Whether New Yorkers have a reason to see Engel so positively is another story.