ISSN 2330-717X

2021 Elections In Albania: Citizens Against The Mafia – OpEd

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On April 25, 2021, the tenth parliamentary elections since the democratic changes will take place in Albania. 

Once again the elections will be a confrontation between two leading coalitions. One is gathered around the Socialist Party (PS/S&D) and Prime Minister Edi Rama and the other is the opposition group led by the Democratic Party (PD/EPP) headed by Lulzim Basha, which includes the Movement for Socialist Integration (LSI) headed by Monika Kryemadhi.  Some minor political parties will also participate in the elections. 

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy believes that the party structure of the Socialist Party in the whole country is characterized by relatively poor communication with both party members and the electorate. This particularly applies to the local level. The communication is mainly intensified during the election campaigns. Furthermore, more counseling and transparency is required with respect to candidate lists. However, this would mean avoiding of nomination of candidates with a criminal record as representatives of the party[2].

In its report, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy from London noted that the Democratic Party has successfully transformed[3] its party leadership since 2013.

Eight years lost for Albania

After eight years at the helm of the Albanian government, according to the public opinion polls, Albanian voters are ready to send the current head of the Albanian Government and PS leader Edi Rama into political retirement. The atmosphere in Albania is in the spirit of the need to have a change of government. This is also confirmed by the recent public opinion polls, which indicate that 2/3 of the citizens of Albania support changes. 

Edi Rama and his Socialist Party (SP) came to power in 2013. At the time, both the citizens and the international public had great expectations from his arrival to power. 

Following Rama’s victory at the 2013 elections, the ranking of Albania with respect to money laundering significantly deteriorated. According to the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) list published by the Basel Institute of Governance[4], Albania lumps together with the countries with the highest risk of money laundering on the European continent. Similarly, the Moneyval initiative of the Council of Europe has established that the measures undertaken by the Albanian government in the fight against money laundering were inefficient and that the Albania needs to invest additional efforts in this respect. Furthermore, in March 2020 Albania was put under increased monitoring by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), that is the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in order to address deficiencies in its regimes related toAnti-Money Laundering (AML) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (CFT),[5] as a jurisdiction with strategic deficiencies. 

According to an in-depth analysis by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime[6], which was published in August 2020, in Tirana alone, in the period from 2017 to 2019 more than 1.6 billion Euros were laundered through the real estate sector. Furthermore, a study has shown that in the same period foreign currency reserves of the country had increased by 3.2 billion Euros. Specifically, from 6.7 ​​to 9.9 billion Euros. However, it seems that the official trade statistics cannot account for the reason behind such a significant increase, showing an increase of only €52 million in 2018, and a similar figure for 2019. Hence, it is difficult not to connect these high figures with the recent alarming increase in the production of cannabis in the country facilitated by the criminalized socialist ruling elite. It is shocking that apparently this “financial laissez-faire” related to the practice of money laundering, is applied in the public sphere as well. 

Over the last few years numerous economic initiatives faced international scrutiny and intensive supervision of the local opposition due to the fear of enormous corruption and money laundering. Establishment of a separate public agency for investments that would manage strategic multimillion investments was refuted and highly criticized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) because of the ambiguous legal framework that allows for unjust arrangements with private and public property. Furthermore, the European Commission has harshly denied the proposal for a multimillion fiscal amnesty, as it would benefit criminal profits and their entry into the official economy, and at the same time transform the country into a regional hub for money laundering. However, even if these two initiatives did not succeed, some others have. In example, Rama’s project of public-private partnership (PPP) worth one billion, which resulted in the increase of the public debt from 63% in 2013 to 95.7% by mid-2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the public debt, which now amounts to over 100%.

According to Eurostat data, Albania has achieved the highest PPP-GDP ratio in the European Union, which significantly differs from those of other European countries. Apparently, economists on both sides of the political spectrum believe that Rama’s public-private partnerships (PPP) constitute a serious threat to the financial stability of the country, as well as that many contracts are flagrant examples of abuses, corruption and money laundering. The PPP related to construction of the Milot-Balldren highway is worth €256 million, which is two times higher than the World Bank standard. The construction of the new National Theater, using the PPP model, was founded on an anti-constitutional law. Specifically, the benefiting company was chosen in advance with the aim of concealing a private real estate project worth 120 million Euros. Furthermore, the PPP for waste burning will cost €430 million, while the benefiting company is located abroad and owned by a 23-year old women unknown in the business community and with no experience or capital. Representatives of the civil society and opposition believe that the public-private partnerships are the model that Rama’s government uses not just for corruption purposes, but money laundering as well. The “silencing” of the media, the purchase of votes, the thievish and criminal state, the large-scale corruption…. If Rama is really the latest authoritarian ruler on the Balkans – all the listed this should result in international monitoring and pressure.

Analysts believe that the past eight years of the rule of Edi Rama and the Socialist Party are lost years for Albania, because majority of the promised political program has not been implemented, nor has Albania begun its accession talks with the EU, which clearly indicates that with Edi Rama at its helm the European future of Albania is not certain. 

Edi Rama’s anti-Kosovo policy 

For several years already the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has been using nationalist rhetoric  aimed at established of the so called “great Albania“. This has triggered reactions in the Albanian neighborhood, as well as concerns in the governments in the region and particularly the countries with an Albanian ethnic community. Specifically, the initial enthusiasm had disappeared and Edi Rama became the symbol of “cannabization of Albania” and the boom of organized crime and narco business. At the same time, Prime Minister Rama draws the attention of the public away from these issues by focusing on nationalism and nationalist rhetoric.

Namely, unification with Kosovo is publicly discussed in the public discourse. So far, the state of Albania did not have its own hegemonic project. However, in his last attempts to remain in power, Edi Rama has played the card of pan-Albanianism. Such a rhetoric damages Albanian national interests. 

Rama plays with the ideas about unification with Kosovo. In such a way he risks to challenge Serbia and reopen the Pandora’s Box of Balkan nationalisms. The nationalist card that Rama played disregarding the possible consequences in the region is a dangerous one. If the advocators of the idea of “great Albania” get a “carte blanche”, then requests for a “great Serbia”, “great Bulgaria” and “great Croatia”, would definitely follow. This could lead to new regional tensions and conflicts which could be even worse than the wars from the nineties of the last century in the Western Balkans region. 

The official Washington has warned the “political parties and leaders to concentrate on what is important, and that is the Euro-Atlantic integration” of Albania. As a NATO member, Albania has to forget all possible hegemonic projects, and the Constitution of Kosovo stipulates that it cannot unify with some other country. 

Rather than dealing with the so-called “great Albania”, the new government of Albania will have to create a better business ambience for investments by the private sector. Numerous property-legal relations are unresolved, introduction of the rule of law is at a low level, crime and corruption are widely spread and the infrastructure in the entire country is underdeveloped. 

According to analysts, Edi Rama is generally taking Albania in the wrong direction, primarily because of the poor economic conditions, which are reflected in the high level of unemployment, increase in living costs, as well as low incomes and pensions, which are insufficient for a dignified life. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has only further deepened the crisis and negatively reflected on the living standard. 

Analysts also believe that the Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti (LVV) is the only Kosovo leader who had exposed Edi Rama’s anti-Kosovo policy and publicly warned of it. Kurti also warned that that through his political actions Rama had informed the halting of the process of international recognition of the statehood of Kosovo.

Are Albanians the most criminalized people in Europe?

Using money, networks and the political connections established through the trade in cannabis, the Albanian criminal organization “advanced” to trade in heroin and cocaine. Currently, Albania “serves as a key gateway for heroin distribution throughout Europe[7]” and is the main transit corridor for trade in cocaine. 

Money laundering and penetration into the legal economy became the main activities of organized crime organizations. In 2017 and again in 2018, the State Department identified Albania as a “country of primary concern in respect of money laundering” and emphasized that „illicit proceeds are easily laundered, while the country remains at significant risk for money laundering due to rampant corruption and weak legal and government institutions”[8]. The Council of Europe confirmed that “the risks of money laundering remain high“, while the main threat for money laundering is formed by “criminal proceeds deriving from trafficking of narcotics, crimes in the customs and tax area (e.g. smuggling, tax evasion) and corruption[9]”. In Tirana, the poorest capital in Europe, relevant permits had been issued and construction of several luxurious skyscrapers has begun. This is a testimony of deep infiltration of illegal money from drug trafficking into the legal economy.

According to the US State Department, “Albania serves as a base of operations for regional organized crime organizations.[10]” An EU official stated that “Albania is no longer a hub of cultivation. It has become a center of investment, distribution and recruitment”.[11] By using Albania as an operational base and safe haven, the Albanian organized crime groups have become main players in drug trafficking in Europe[12]. According to Zoltán Nagy, Head of EU Drugs and Organised Crime Unit in the EUROPOL Operations Directoratethey are among the four main groups that control heroin trafficking in Europe. It is believed that these groups control markets in several European countries, including Great Britain[13] and Netherlands[14].

Albania remains a country of origin and a transit country for human trafficking, because “the Government of Albania does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”[15]. The Council of Europe has also expressed its concern that the current frameworks designed to stop human trafficking were not sufficient[16].

Corruption, particularly in the executive branch, is widely spread and omnipresent” and “remains a serious problem[17]”. According to the Transparency International[18] Index, Albania is among the most corrupted countries in Europe. There is also clear evidence showing that the state is a “hostage” of private and criminal interests. 

Analysts also believe that through their criminal actions, Edi Rama and individual Albanian political leaders have become a synonym for crime in international circles. In such a way they criminalize the entire Albanian people, whom some European circles are trying to present as the most criminalized nation in Europe -because of its political leaders. Because of the above, the upcoming parliamentary elections are an opportunity to elect new political leadership which will not have a “criminal mortgage”, that is be linked with criminals, so that the Albanians, as a nation, do not get unjustly stigmatized as the most criminalized people in Europe. 

Citizens against mafia

With the collapse of Enver Hoxha’s communist regime in 1991, the retrograde forces in Albania were defeated. Following the arrival of Edi Rama and his Socialist Party (PS), which has its roots in the former communist party of Albania, to power in 2013 these forces were revived through establishment of a new rigid regime. 

The mass protests involving up to 200,000 citizens, which took place prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, were a clear sign of distrust of Edi Rama’s government, which is continuously losing the support of citizens. 

In the complex situation, the opposition is acting in a state-building manner, because for it Albania is the top priority. The opposition headed by Lulzim Basha is a positive example of an opposition in the Western Balkans region. In an attempt to remain in power, Rama will try to spread the crisis from Albanian to the region, as well as the broader European area. Albanian President Ilir Meta has played a positive role in ensuring stability and peace.

However, of more serious concern are the cases of systemic corruption in which government institutions are abused for the purposes of increasing the wealth of small groups and individuals. In fact, over the past several years they have even created the legal prerequisites and used them to legalize corruption within the system. 

Analysts believe that citizens have demonstrated political maturity at the mass demonstrations by protesting peacefully and in a dignified manner against the hated regime of Edi Rama, who has attempted to stifle any form of civil disobedience and the right to protest. In fact, the citizens of Albani are the key factor that has confronted the mafia symbolized by Edi Rama and the upcoming elections are an opportunity for the citizens of Albania to “confront” the mafia and secure themselves a better future. 

Wave of political changes comes to Albania 

Following the democratic changes in North Macedonia, the defeat of Milo Đukanović and Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in Montenegro, the defeat of Hashim Thaci’s regime (PDK) in Kosovu and Bojko Borisov’s regime (Gerb) in Bulgaria, the wave of political changes is coming to Albania. The public opinion polls show that the majority of Albanian citizens are against the existing political establishment. 

Analysts ask why is Albania the poorest country in Europe when it has extraordinary potential for development and prosperity. The answer lies in irresponsible political elites, which had not managed to build a general social consensus without which there can be no progress of any state. The new government will need to normalize the political situation and relax the relations within the state, achieve a general consensus on key and strategic national interests and in such a way ensure unified supported of citizens for future general progress and development of both the country and the society.                                                                    

Footnotes:

[1] IFIMES – The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018.

[2] WFD Political Party Transparency in the Western Balkans (2020: 28), link: https://www.wfd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WFD_Political-Party-Transparency-in-the-Western-Balkans.pdf

[3] WFD Political Party Transparency in the Western Balkans (2020: 12), link: https://www.wfd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WFD_Political-Party-Transparency-in-the-Western-Balkans.pdf

[4] Basel Institute AML index  https://baselgovernance.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/basel_aml_index_2020_web.pdf 

[5] Jurisdictions under Increased Monitoring – 21 February 2020, http://www.fatf-gafi.org/publications/high-risk-and-other-monitored-jurisdictions/documents/increased-monitoring-february-2020.html

[6] Illicit financial flows, in Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia, August 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Illicit-Financial-Flows-in-Albania-Kosovo-and-North-Macedonia-Key-drivers-and-current-trends.pdf

[7] International Narcotics Control Report 2018, US State Department, March 2018.

[8] International Narcotics Control Report 2018, US State Department, March 2018.

[9] Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-terrorist Financing Measures – Albania Evaluation Report, Council of Europe, July 2018.

[10] International Narcotics Control Report 2018, US State Department, March 2018.

[11] “‘Colombia of Europe’: How tiny Albania became the continent’s drug trafficking headquarters”, The Independent (online), January 27, 2019.

[12] “European perspectives against emerging trends in illegal drug production and trafficking”, Regional Seminar, Georgia, 2018.

[13] National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organized Crime, National Crime Agency (UK), 2017.

[14] The Crime-Terror Nexus in the Netherlands, Crime Terror Nexus Project, 2018.

[15] Trafficking in Persons Report, US State Department, 2018.

[16] Report Concerning the Implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings by Albania—Second Evaluation Round, Council of Europe, June 2016.

[17] Albania Report on Human Rights Practices for 2018, US State Department, 2018.

[18] Corruption Perception Index 2018, Transparency International, 2020.

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IFIMES

IFIMES – International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN since 2018. IFIMES is also the publisher of the biannual international scientific journal European Perspectives. IFIMES gathers and selects various information and sources on key conflict areas in the world. The Institute analyses mutual relations among parties with an aim to promote the importance of reconciliation, early prevention/preventive diplomacy and disarmament/ confidence building measures in the regional or global conflict resolution of the existing conflicts and the role of preventive actions against new global disputes.

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