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In Trump's footsteps: Kushner's controversial Balkans deals

Rob Mudge
April 2, 2024

As Donald Trump gears up for another push at the US presidency, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is pursuing real estate deals in Serbia and Albania. The projects promise growth but face opposition.

Donald Trump sitting at his desk in the Oval Office with his son-in-law Jared Kushner standing next to him
Jared Kushner (right) is pursuing investment plans in the Balkans his father-in-law Donald Trump (left) had also shown an interest inImage: Anna Moneymaker / Pool via CNP /MediaPunch/picture alliance

One of Jared Kushner's planned ventures in the Balkans concerns the redevelopment of a site in Serbia's capital Belgrade, negotiations for which were started a decade ago by his father-in-law.

Two years before Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he put his feelers out, telling Serbian authorities that he was interested in building a luxury hotel and apartment complex on the site of the former headquarters of the Yugoslav army, the General Staff building, destroyed in 1999 by NATO's bombing campaigns.

Although that project fell through, Kushner, who was a senior White House official during Trump's tenure, has now reportedly reached a tentative arrangement with the Serbian government to forge ahead with the development project. According to the New York Times, which received a draft outline, the agreement, with a 99-year lease at no charge, would allow Kushner to build a luxury hotel, residential units, shops and a museum on the site.

Funding from Saudi Arabia

The funding for the project, amounting to around $500 million (€462 million), is expected to come from Kushner's investment firm, Miami-based Affinity Partners, which he set up after leaving the White House. And he doesn't appear to be short on funds. Since the end of Trump's presidency, it's estimated that he has secured $2 billion from Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, while sovereign wealth funds in the UAE and Qatar have plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into his firm.

Neither Affinity Partners nor Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund responded to DW's request for comment.

Kushner said recently that the negotiating parties had tentatively agreed to give the Serbian government 22% of the profits generated by the project.

President Aleksandar Vucic and his government argue that Belgrade must develop further and create business opportunities.

Milan Kovacevic, an economist and investment consultant, concurs that the city needs new capacities to accommodate the growth in population and tourism.

"Belgrade definitely needs hotels, including those of high quality, but they should be urbanistically positioned and built where they are needed," he told DW.

He also cautioned that "there should be a market" for an open and transparent bidding process. By giving exclusive bragging rights to just one investor, in this case, Jared Kushner, "too much is left to corruption and arbitrariness," said Kovacevic.

'Serbia is not a buffet, and Vucic is not a waiter'

Opposition politicians and experts are bemused by the interest in the development plans and even describe it as a scandal that must be prevented.

"Serbia is not a buffet, and Vucic is not a waiter. This is not his private property," said Aleksandar Jovanovic Cuta, leader of the movement Ecological Uprising.

"The same thing is happening with our natural resources, rivers, forests, minerals. Vucic is giving away everything of value without informing the people about the contracts and the benefit for the citizens of Serbia," he told DW.

25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia

Dorde Bobic, who was Belgrade's chief city architect two decades ago, is appalled by the planned projects. He says it smacks of arrogance to simply demolish the former General Staff headquarters to build some hotels, and "give away the most precious place" in the city to the "foreign force" that bombed Belgrade in 1999, and to "trade it for political or personal interests."

Jared Kushner's Albania project

Kushner recently announced on his social media platforms that he was "excited to share early design images for development projects that have been created for the Albanian coast." Prime Minister Edi Rama said his country was proud to welcome the projects.

However, the response from the environment community has been more reserved.

One of the sites in question is located in the Karaburun-Sazan Marine Park on Sazan island, a former military base. The other is on the Zvernec peninsula in southwestern Albania, which is part of the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape. This area where several hotels and villas would be built forms part of the Vlore community.

A threat to the environment

Albania's parliament recently approved an amendment to the country's law on protected areas. The bill essentially paves the way for the economic development of such protected areas, despite warnings from environmental experts.

"Law 21/2024 allows the construction of 5-star mega-resorts in protected areas. In addition, according to the decision of the National Territorial Council, the construction of almost any other project is allowed and there are no more red lines," Mirjan Topi, an ecologist at the Agricultural University of Tirana, told DW.

"The new changes in the law no longer protect nature and protected areas in Albania," he added. 

According to Topi, the amendment to the current law has been changed to facilitate Kushner's investments.

"It is very clear that the law has been predetermined because there is no other way to explain the rush of the parliamentary majority to adopt it. Before the law was [even] decreed by the president, concrete projects emerged," he said.

A boon for Albania's economy?

On the other side of the spectrum, the business community, particularly the tourism sector, sees economic benefits, albeit with caveats.

"I consider it a very positive investment, but only if it really is a touristic investment, if [there] are villas or units for accommodation," said Besnik Vathi, CEO of the Albanian Travel and Hospitality Service.

His concern is that the prospect of building residential villas would only benefit those who invest in them.

"After the sale, there is no income for Albanian tourism. [But] investing in hotels or accommodation units will bring revenue for Albania continuously," he told DW.

The local tourism sector and the wider economy, he said, would benefit from the creation of local jobs in Sazan and Zvernec.

What worries Vathi is the nature of the investment Kushner is pursuing and who will benefit most from it. 

"What I fear mostly is that we will experience the same situation with strategic investors, who are granted an area to develop tourism, and in the end, it turns out that only 20% of the entire surface is used for building a hotel and the rest goes for apartments or residential villas."

Notwithstanding whether Kushner's development plans in Albania and Serbia come to fruition, opposition to them is growing.

One group in Serbia has launched a petition against the projects. The group, Kreni-Promeni (Move-Change), said more than 10,000 people had signed the petition in less than 24 hours.

Elona Elezi in Albania and Nemanja Rujevic in Serbia contributed reporting for this piece.

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey

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