Kosovar Privatization and Business Ethics

Kosovar Privatization and Business Ethics - Kevin Suyo

Last month, dodging the crowds in the shade of high rises plastered with American flags and Hillary Clinton posters, one could have been forgiven for thinking this was a Fourth of July celebration in a New York suburb. Instead, it was Priština, the fast-growing capital of Kosovo, and its Statue of Liberty does not overlook Manhattan but a jagged highway connecting the city to the country's only international airport.

Now, it seems, former American officials are making their own journey to Priština. As the New York Times reported last week, independent Kosovo – a contemporary success story of Western mediation – now finds itself in the position of selling former state-owned enterprises to private interests. It’s a difficult task in any environment, surely, but especially so given the set of bidders, which includes funds run by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Special Envoy to the Balkans James Pardew, and former supreme commander of the NATO armed forces Wesley Clark.

In returning to the region, the old guard stands on a knife’s edge between ethical business development and dubious influence peddling. The interested parties are regional experts and no doubt practiced in the art of navigating the particular bureaucracy of the Balkans; given those credentials, it can be considered appropriate and economically efficient for them to spearhead private capital’s entry into the new Kosovar market. But critics contend that it encourages conflicts of interest and gives off the appearance of statesmen “cashing in” on the interventions of the past.

So when does historic expertise and a well-connected network cross the line into unprincipled advantage?  For one, when it threatens American credibility in a post-conflict zone. US foreign policy has largely moved past imperialistic maneuvers for private sector benefit, and the State Department has worked to avoid substantiating any new ‘blood-for-oil’-type charges of the type that defined the early years of the new millennium. Recent American successes – most notably in the response to the Arab Spring – have been predicated on limited intervention to build a bond of trust between the United States and the region in question.

It also crosses the line when it engineers a perverse incentive for future policymakers.  Government may be run as an institution, but decisions are made by individuals. A system in which top leadership finds a positive correlation between aggressive foreign policy and lucrative business opportunities could dangerously skew the behavior of government institutions.

Ethical standards of conduct for federal employees prohibit not only wrongdoing but also “the appearance of wrongdoing.” This standard, higher than that demanded of private citizens, acknowledges that members of the government represent not only themselves but the American people, and that their behavior can influence the success or failure of US initiatives. This holds doubly true for high-ranking officials, whose dealings – while not illegal – reflect even more powerfully on American integrity. The people they represented should expect them to honor that charge.

Kevin Suyo is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He lives and works in Washington, D.C.