By Robert Hand
CSCE Staff Advisor
Emerging from self-imposed isolation and strict communist rule in the early 1990s, democratic and economic progress in Albania proved to be dramatic at the outset but fragile over time, vulnerable to instabilities caused by a dilapidated infrastructure, official corruption, organized crime and highly polarized politics. The situation became especially dire in 1997, when massive civil unrest followed the collapse of pyramid banking schemes. Part of the international response to this situation was the establishment of an OSCE Presence, or field mission, in Albania with a long-term mandate to put transition and reform back on track.
With parliamentary elections slated for the first half of 2005, the United States Helsinki Commission conducted a hearing on July 20, 2004 to assess the progress achieved seven years since the unrest and to identify impediments to further progress.
Ambassador Osmo Lipponen of Finland, at the time head of the OSCE Presence, served as the lead witness. Elaborating on the situation in Albania was a panel of experts, consisting of Nicholas C. Pano, Professor Emeritus of History at Western Illinois University; Erion Veliaj, Executive Director of the non-governmental youth organization MJAFT! (Enough!); Kreshnik Spahiu, Executive Director of the Citizen’s Advocacy Office and Chairperson for the Albanian Coalition Against Corruption; Fatmir Mediu, President of the Albanian Republican Party; and Edward Selami, a former Member of the Albanian Parliament now residing in the United States. The hearing concluded with testimony by the Albanian Ambassador to the United States, Fatos Tarifa.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) opened the hearing by emphasizing that Albania is a close friend of the United States and an ally in the pursuit of peace around the globe. “Albania’s support and cooperation during periods of regional conflict in the 1990s and in the dangerous world we face today must be acknowledged, and it is indeed greatly appreciated,” remarked Chairman Smith. Because of its close bond with Albania, the United States “wants to encourage Albania to succeed in its democratic transition and its economic recovery,” Smith said. “We owe it to the people of Albania to insist that steps be taken to tackle official corruption and combat organized crime.”
In a written statement, Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) elaborated on the priority which OSCE participating States must give to deal with crime and corruption, “which can sap prosperity from the individual, retard the opportunity for foreign trade and investment, and, ultimately, provide haven and comfort to international criminal elements, including terrorists.”
Ranking Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) also emphasized the importance of combating corruption and crime, adding that “adherence to the rule of law, manifested in professional law enforcement and an impartial judicial system, are critical if a country is to be genuinely democratic.”
Commissioners Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL), and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) also attended the hearing, along with Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY).
Crime and Corruption Are Significant Problems
While noting Albania’s progress, Ambassador Lipponen emphasized the country’s poorly functioning economy as the basis for much of its instability. “Despite the visible progress, Albania remains a country with significant socioeconomic challenges, which are the cause for a host of related problems ranging from illegal migration and smuggling to rampant corruption within the public administration and judicial sector,” Lipponen said. He listed these challenges as: a GDP per capita that is nearly the lowest in Europe and 30% below the European poverty level; an inadequate infrastructure; insufficient investment in the health and education sectors; and narrow economic growth that employs mostly unskilled labor with almost no long-term sustainability.
In the political sphere, corruption was identified by several witnesses as a pervasive problem. Fatmir Mediu stated that his colleagues were often “inept [and] unable to serve citizens, and at the same time overly capable in serving the illegal interests of a group of high-powered people.” He emphasized the government’s unwillingness to reform the economy because of the illegal benefits officials receive from monopolized sectors of the economy and stated that in order to hold power officials had the police “directly intervene in the election process by stuffing ballot boxes, detaining and torturing commissioners from the opposition and intimidating voters on the day of the elections.” Erion Veliaj concurred, pointing out that Albania lists 92 out of 133 countries on Transparency International’s 2003 corruption scales. Edward Selami encapsulated the situation, “It seems that the Albanian politicians forget to realize that as much as it is an honor to represent the people, you do have obligations and responsibilities to them and to the ideal of democracy.”
Chairman Smith responded to these accusations by questioning Albania’s ability to move forward under its current leadership. “It has always been my view that personnel equals policy. If the people who are the gatekeepers are something less than savory, how can progress and how can transparency, openness and hopefully good governance go forward?”
Special attention was given to Albania’s illegal trafficking problem. Commissioner Wolf stated that he found trafficking to be evident during his visit to Albania in 2003. While noting that the United States Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Person’s Report listed Albania as a “Tier Two” country and praised the country’s efforts and improvements, both he and Smith expressed great concern over the level of human trafficking that still takes place in Albania as well as the difficulties faced by trafficking victims who are stigmatized by society when they are able to return. Kreshnik Spahiu added that the Albanian justice system fails to punish traffickers because it is subject to organized crime rings. Mr. Veliaj corroborated these claims and included high officials among the facilitators, “State officials, from high police officials to directors of ports, with connections in the government, are involved in the organizing and trafficking of people.” Chairman Smith was particularly concerned by claims of official collusion in human trafficking.
Stagnation of Democratic Transition
Ambassador Lipponen stressed the need for policies addressing the many problems presented at the hearing, but claimed the Albanian Government policies were seeking “to satisfy donors” more than being “used as tools to really solve the problems.” He noted that the level of polarization in politics has led to political conflict rather than a discussion of substantive issues, greatly hindering reform. He stressed that the upcoming elections were a high priority. “Albania must move toward having a normally functioning parliamentary system, beginning with undisputed elections conducted according to international standards, and a transparent, functioning administration in order to be able to manage its significant socioeconomic and rule of law problems,” he stated. “This needs to be supported by broadening civic participation in the governing process as corruption and lack of accountability have severely damaged the public’s trust in national authorities.”
Professor Nicholas Pano expounded on the importance of democratic progress being evident in the elections, specifically including updated voter registration lists; defined electoral district boundaries, and adequately trained polling officials. “To fail to meet the test of 2005 will dim the chances for timely admission to NATO and the European Union [and] those Albanian leaders who fail to meet their responsibilities in ensuring the success of the elections should be held accountable by the Albanian people and the international community.” Veliaj agreed, suggesting that the U.S. Congress react to a failure to meet the reforms.
Mr. Selami pointed out that no election in Albania since 1994 has been declared free and fair by the OSCE or the losing parties. He indicated that a large part of the problem lay in Albanian political culture. “[It is] a cultural tradition where political opponents are considered as personal enemies,” remarked Mr. Selami, claiming that such a perspective drains political will for reform and turns elections into “a life or death matter for political parties.” He emphasized the importance of developing an atmosphere of healthy political discourse in which the governing and opposition parties work together to strengthen democratic institutions.
Freedom of the media was also called into question. Mr. Veliaj claimed the government takes media outlets to court for fair criticism, telling the Commissioners of one incident during which the government sued a newspaper for publishing a government document revealing that the prime minister had granted himself five bonuses. “This shows the lack of tolerance in the Albanian Government for free speech,” Veliaj concluded.
An Official Response
Ambassador Tarifa sought to provide an understanding of the situation in Albania from the current government’s perspective. He alluded to the fact that Albanian citizens were levying such criticism against their government in an open congressional hearing as a positive sign for democracy. “These voices we heard speaking to you, they are the very sound of democracy in Albania.”
At the same time, Tarifa took issue with the remarks, claiming that progress in Albania in recent years has been extensive. “In barely 12 years starting with absolutely nothing but determination, Albania has built … a democracy.” He noted that, after five parliamentary elections and five country-wide local elections, Albania has “some success each time, and we have improved the process every time.” Tarifa also made it clear that the major parties in the parliament had agreed to implement the OSCE recommendations for improving the election process, and signed a protocol stipulating a timetable requiring the improvements be made before upcoming election.
Regarding charges of corruption, the Ambassador explained that Albania sought a quick transition but fell victim to “an ungoverned space arced between dictatorship and democracy. Before laws could be rewritten or the police could be reformed, the criminals rushed in.” Tarifa nevertheless made it clear that the government finds corruption unacceptable and is actively engaged in fighting it through trained police and intelligence officials, a new code of conduct for judges with strong enforcements, improved confiscation of criminal assets, and a new financial intelligence unit within the ministry of finance that seeks to prevent and combat money laundering. The Ambassador declined to respond specifically to a Freedom House report charging Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano with appointing to positions of responsibility individuals he had previously accused of corruption, which calls into question the credibility of the current government’s efforts, but he cited the praise offered by the OSCE, the United States Department of State, and the United Nations for its anti-trafficking efforts.
When asked to address concerns about freedom of the media, the Ambassador pointed out that Albania is still learning to live with a free media and the private media which has emerged since the fall of communism sometimes “relishes in gossip and personal character assassination,” and hides its ownership and funding sources. To this end, he pointed out that a parliamentary committee is drafting a new law on the media “to guarantee freedom and enforce actual transparency of funding.”
Reaction in Albania
Albanian media coverage of the hearing was extensive. Opposition leaders viewed the hearing as an indictment of the current Socialist government. Formal government responses stressed the progress which was noted at the hearing while acknowledging more needed to be done. Senior officials, however, were less circumspect in their own analyses of the hearing, with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Public Order in particular attempting to portray the comments of Ambassador Lipponen and other witnesses essentially as “anti-Albanian,” critical not of them and the government but of the country as a whole. Subsequent to this misrepresentation, government supporters accused the OSCE Presence of operating outside its mandate.
Given that the Helsinki Commission routinely reviews OSCE compliance by participating States in order to encourage positive change, the sharp reaction by Albanian Government officials may actually validate criticisms raised during the hearing.
An unofficial transcript of the hearing is available through the Helsinki Commission’s website site at http://www.csce.gov
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Andrew Lucius contributed to this article.