US ambassador to Kosovo hired by construction firm he lobbied for

  • The Guardian, Monday 14 April 2014 11.53 EDT
Christopher Dell with Kosovo PM
Christopher Dell with Kosovo PM Hashim Thaci in 2009. Dell took joined Bechtel when he finished his career at the State Department. Photo: Office of the Kosovo PM

A US ambassador to Kosovo, who lobbied for the construction of a $1bn road through the war-torn country, has taken up a post with the American construction giant that secured the lucrative contract.

Christopher Dell, a career diplomat nominated by Barack Obama to represent the US in Pristina, was employed by the Bechtel Corporation, which he helped win a contract to build a highway to neighbouring Albania.

Dell took on a role as an African country manager with Bechtel late last year, months after ending a three-decade career at the State Department.

His employment at Bechtel, America’s largest engineering and construction firm, has ignited a debate over the controversial road-building project, named the “Patriotic Highway”.

Pieter Feith, the senior EU diplomat in Kosovo when the contract was secured, criticised the way the US ambassador pushed through the deal, and has called for an inquiry. Feith accused Dell of withholding information about the Bechtel contract, and lobbying Kosovo to agree to what he describes as an ill-advised deal with a US company, which placed enormous pressure on the fledgling country’s budget.

It is routine for western ambassadors to push the business interests of companies from the countries they come from. But it is unusual for a former diplomat to land a job with a major corporation after using their sway to secure lucrative government contracts.

After he was appointed ambassador in 2009, Dell had huge influence in Kosovo, where the US is widely viewed as a supervising power and is feted for its role in securing independence for the tiny Balkan state. A statue of President Clinton adorns the capital, Pristina, and boulevards are named after George W Bush and other US officials.

As the International Civilian Representative in Kosovo between 2008 and 2012, Feith was the other major figure in the country, entrusted with wide-ranging powers by the US and EU, including the ability to overrule Kosovan officials. For several years, Feith and Dell served side by side, the two most senior foreign officials supervising Kosovo’s campaign for recognition as a sovereign state following the 1999 war.

At the time Dell was encouraging Kosovo’s government to sign the highway contract, Feith said he had grave concerns about awarding the enormous contract to a consortium consisting of Bechtel and its partner, Turkish firm Enka. Feith believed the deal risked undermining Pristina’s finances.

Feith said he clashed with Dell over the logic of an impoverished, nascent country undertaking such a huge infrastructure project, and instead argued that the money should be spent on tackling Kosovo’s unemployment rate, which stood at 40%.

Feith also said he asked to see details of the contract, which he believed was part of his mandate, but was denied access by the US embassy. “Information was withheld, and all of a sudden we were presented with a fait accompli of this contract being concluded and being a liability on the budget,” he told the Guardian.

The Bechtel-Enka deal was signed in April 2010, despite concerns from the IMF, the World Bank, EU diplomats, Feith, and the Kosovan government’s own legal adviser. Dell and the State Department declined requests for comment. Bechtel defended its employment of the former ambassador and said any suggestion that his appointment was improper was “unfair and offensive”.

But Andrea Capussela, who served as head of Feith’s economic department in Kosovo and was a vocal critic of the road-building scheme, said: “Ambassador Dell’s employment at Bechtel raises a rather serious question mark over the whole project.”

“This contract was irrational for Kosovo, and caused considerable damage to it,” he added. “The State Department would do well to investigate this.”

Feith declined to comment on Dell’s employment at Bechtel. However, he did say a wider inquiry into the probity of the highway deal was warranted, although he did not specify which organisation would conduct such an investigation.

“We have been involved in the fight against corruption in Kosovo, and anything that can help, ex-post, to clarify, elucidate or provide transparency about what has happened is beneficial for the future of the young state,” he said. “If there is an investigation, I would welcome it.”

The government in Pristina argues that the Patriotic Highway has connected northern Albania and Kosovo, replacing crumbling mountain roads with a four-lane highway, and will provide an economic injection into the region. However, critics point out that its costs have more than doubled from the original estimate.

The initial offer was to complete the Kosovo section of the highway for $555m (€400m). The price subsequently rose to $916m (€660m), to pay for 102km of road. In the end, the project cost $1.13bn (€820m) for what turned out be only a 77km stretch of highway. By comparison, Kosovo’s total government budget in 2012 was €1.5bn.

 

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Bechtel Delivers Second Stretch of the Kosovo Motorway Ahead of Schedule and Within Budget

Completion Marked With Launch of Motorway Safety Campaign

By Marketwired .  July 13, 2012 02:48 PM EDT

LONDON — (Marketwire) — 07/13/12 — Bechtel and its joint venture partner, Enka, have completed an additional 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) of the Kosovo motorway bringing the total distance completed to 26.4 miles (42.5 km). The new section, which opened today, connects to the stretch of motorway delivered in November 2011 which goes from Morinë at the border with Albania to Suhareka. The motorway now extends to the Dule interchange in Northern Kosovo. The latest stretch of motorway was built in less than a year, ahead of schedule and within budget.

“Each day we are getting closer to our dream of achieving the Kosovo motorway, thanks to Bechtel-Enka. The motorway is already making a huge difference to the lives of Kosovans with reduced journey times but people should drive safely too,” said Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi.

To mark the opening of the new motorway section, Bechtel and Enka, together with the Kosovo government, launched a new safety campaign along the Kosovo motorway with the slogan: “Yes to Safety, No to Speed.” The week-long campaign aims to encourage responsible driving on Kosovo’s first motorway and includes postcards and promotional cars along the route displaying the safety message.

“Safety is one of our core values. We hope our motorway safety awareness campaign will make drivers think twice about driving safely and not speeding on the new motorway,” said Mike Adams, president of Bechtel’s civil infrastructure unit.

When complete, the full 63.4-mile (102-km) motorway will extend from Morinë to the north of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, and will serve as the centerpiece of Kosovo’s national transport system, helping to promote trade and economic development in Kosovo and throughout the region. The motorway is scheduled for completion in 2013.

 

 

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