Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Erion Veliaj
Executive Director - MJAFT! (ENOUGH!) /Balkans Youth Link

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Mr. Chairman, Commission members, ladies, and gentlemen, thank you for inviting the MJAFT Civic Movement to address you today and for convening a hearing on the important and timely topic of advancing democracy in Albania when our country is preparing for a very crucial election season. It has been seven years since the last hearing was held by this Commission on the topic of democracy in Albania, and given the increasingly worrying allegations of government misconduct in its dealings with the media and civil society, as well as accusations of wide-spread official corruption, this hearing could not have come in a better time.



POLITICAL SITUATION

Since the early 1990’s, two parties have dominated the political scene in Albania, the former communist Labor Party renamed the Socialist Party (SP), and the Democratic Party (DP), the first party to emerge after pluralism was introduced. In reality, the scene is rather dominated by the two leaders of the respective parties Fatos Nano, currently the premier, and Sali Berisha of the DP. The first is known for his alleged corruption scandals and the second for his obstructionism.



Unfortunately, Albania belongs to the minority club of countries whose political scene is still dominated by the same two people who did so in the early 90’s. At this point of Albania’s development, all democratic principles are reduced to hollow rhetoric towards militants and propaganda ribbon-cutting. The population is exhausted from the barren and often petty political fighting. If there was one message all of our support base at home would unify behind, it would be to usher the peaceful exit of the old guard out of Albanian politics.



As you may well know, Albania is indeed a solid ally in the campaign against terrorism. I can testify that there is an overwhelming support from the Albanian population, mostly Muslim, for the United States throughout this effort, including the sending of our own soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq. You should bear in mind that Albanians at home and abroad would unconditionally support the US effort in a just cause under any government at home.

However, one point needs some clarification. Albania’s unconditional support for the international effort should in no way be translated into support for a political caste that other than being quick into touting the anti-terrorist horn is ruinous for its own country. These are the very same officials, whose failing policies are breeding ignorance and illiteracy in the country, factors which as we know too well can easily become a greenhouse for fundamentalism.



Often, US officials point out to Albania’s stability as a justification for accepting the political status quo. If this is an actual policy of the US Government, then time is certainly ripe to recommend a policy revision. Having studied in and having been shaped from the political tradition of the United States, I would be disappointed to learn that the temporary stability in Albania has a higher price than that of true democracy, and that support for the just cause against terrorism is reciprocated with support to a group actively ‘promoting’ state capture and intimidation of free media and civil society. Albania cannot be an effective partner in the war on terrorism if it loses its democratic values in the process. Just like the people of Israel, who heading out of bondage in Egypt rushed to slave themselves to an idol for lack of knowing no better than to be under bondage, the old Albanian caste knows no better than to slave to the old communist ways. I strongly recommend that the United States seek to adopt a policy that encourages the participation of young people into politics, as the only solid hope for democratic transformation and development.



ELECTIONS & PARLIAMENT

All of us in the MJAFT Movement believe in accountability in politics. But how can you make an elected official be accountable to his constituents when he does not need them to be reelected? How do you do that when the electoral process, the corner stone of representative democracy, is twisted?



Two thousand years ago Cesar, Emperor of Rome, got Mary and Joseph to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem for the registration of the population. Two thousand years later, in the age of computers, the Albanian Government cannot manage to complete such a simple task as is the registration of less than 3 million people. One can easily conclude that the issue is not a matter of ability but rather of lack of interest. At present, no parties in parliament have shown a real resolve in demanding that such thing happen.



For as long as people are not counted, all parties would try squeezing votes everywhere they have a strong election commissioner. Such behavior has become repetitive and expected in Albanian elections. Therefore, Albanian politics has shifted far from representing the interests of citizens to merely representing strictly personal or shallow party interests. Recent important votes in parliament have had outcomes contrary to the wish of most Albanians. These include the striking down of proposals to ban the import of unclassified waste in the country, legislation to compensate the former political prisoners, bills to recognize the case of the Chams (Albanian Muslims expelled from Greece during WWII) whose property was confiscated by the Greek government, and initiatives to ultimately settle the private property return legislation and numerous others. The rejection of these bills has certainly alienated the majority of the Albanian public.



The new electoral code has been hailed by most international organizations, and yet the last elections did not show any major improvement in the quality of elections. Local election commissions in the polling stations have created most of the problems that can be divided in two different categories: political and technical.



The commissioners are highly politicized and every chance they get, they cheat. They are in close watch and they constantly receive orders from their political party headquarters. Most of the time, instructions to twist, ruin, or boycott the process have come from the party headquarters. Much of this has to be expected when the people who are running for office command the people judging the race. Most commissioners have little or no capacities and are poorly trained as their major selection criteria is not their expertise or professionalism but their militantism, and ability to cheat or at least secure they are not cheated on. As result, a vast number of technical problems arise. Commissioners don’t always know where the ballot boxes go and how they are to be sent there, how the protocols should be signed and how should the boxes be sealed. Such technical problems were one of the major reasons that the last local elections in Tirana where heavily contested.



In the voting registration process during the last election, political parties were awarded the right to register or un-register people without necessarily having the consent of the citizens to be (re)moved. This action has also lead to massive chaos during voting day and the aftermath has become a subject of public outcry, as noticed in the OSCE/OHDIR report.



It is rather obvious, that the fair political competition is sharply curtailed given this modus operandi. The current trend for competition has degenerated into an obscene race of people who can impose financial and/or criminal influence on the communities. One should not be surprised at the unethical inter-party race, as much of it has its roots in the lack of democracy within parties. Unlike others, the Socialist Party boasted a certain degree of competition amongst party ranks. As of last December much of that has now become obsolete, given the stage-management of that congress as observed by the Economist Intelligence Unit report.



The MJAFT Movement appeals to the US Congress to approve a resolution on Albania’s elections as soon as possible, calling for a politically ethical and technically sound process. It is important that the following benchmarks are met by December 2004:



1. Registration process completed in full

2. Lists updated with citizens’ consent

3. Commissions shifting from guaranteeing the parties’ right to collecting votes to the citizens’ right to vote and be accounted for.

If these conditions are not met, Albanians will continue to alienate themselves from the electoral process, as proven in last year’s election, in which participated less than 50 % of voters, an all-time low.



OFFICIAL CORRUPTION

As we speak, widespread corruption and organized crime continue to be serious threats to the stability and progress of the country. According to the 2003 Transparency International Corruptions Perceptions Index, Albania has a score of 2.5 out of 10 (where a country free of perceived corruption receives 10 points on the scale), ranking poorly 92nd out of 133 countries.



MJAFT was keen to applaud the passing of the “Law on Declaration and Control of Assets” for public and elected officials. With US Government backing this law, it had the potential to bring significant change in Albania’s corruption score. Instead, it experienced the fate of many such sound laws: it was poorly implemented.



Premier Nano was the first to declare receipts of gifts amounting to several hundred thousand dollars for a car and an illegally built apartment building. In response to allegations on the illegal financial sources of such ‘free lunches’, the Premier insisted the gifts came from companies such as Mercedes-Benz. While that company denied such involvement, the Albanian public witnessed another shameful chapter in mal-governance routine.



Many cabinet members have direct conflicts of interest with the private businesses they run on the side. This is the case for high officials that regulate telecommunication, agriculture, and food imports. The prime minister’s wife is often at the center of allegations for using public office to advance semi-legitimate business interests.



At this stage, the Albanian government desperately needs to correct its corruption record and the evident mode of ‘state capture’. Members of government should not accept gifts exceeding hundreds of thousands of dollars. There should be clear separations between an official’s public duties and his/her private enterprises. Those in violation of such measures, should be brought to justice with highest expediency, and should not exclude high-ranking officials.



Support to Albania due to its alliance with the anti-terrorist Coalition should not make up for the misdeeds at home. We are daily witnesses to how the image of the United States in Albania has suffered from US officials’ support - even though half-hearted - to a corrupt administration in Tirana. I was taught in this country’s schools and by this country’s representatives that good ethics are fundamental to a healthy political system, and thus, I urge you to not compromise these values when judging on the relationship with the Albanian government. In return, you shall have the support and gratitude of the Albanian people.



MEDIA & CIVIL SOCIETY

After a crisis in 1997 - triggered by the collapse of the so-called pyramid banking schemes - toppled Albania’s right-wing government, many hoped the new Socialist administration, unlike their predecessors, would not put pressure on the media and civic groups. In fact, in the last seven years of left-wing rule, pressure on the media has mounted only in the recent years. Today, Nano’s coalition government is almost routinely filing legal charges against publishers, journalists and civic groups. The recent multiple charges towards MP and Publisher of Koha Jone, Nikolle Lesi, for publishing official government decisions in which Premier Nano awarded himself 5 bonus salaries; the charges against Tema publisher Mero Baze for questioning the business activities of the Prime Minister’s wife; and the ongoing intimidation of Shekulli newspaper for having uncovered an illegal lucrative agreement to import unclassified waste into Albania are all sufficient evidence of the crack down on media. Additionally, charges against the MJAFT Movement for having peacefully and lawfully protested against the government’s decision to award the title and office of the ‘First Lady’ to the Premier’s wife, has shown the government’s lack of tolerance to freedom of expression.



However, direct pressure from the courts is only one of the pressures the media in Albania faces today. Given the poor economic state, the survival of 20 daily newspapers, together selling a total of only 60,000 copies, in a population of 3 million, is always a challenge. Given the absence of infrastructure, the Albanian press does not reach more than half of the country’s territory. And, there are no attempts by the government to stimulate public information to these parts of the population.
Many media outlets survive only from the advertising of government institutions or state-owned companies, such as Albtelecom and the Albanian Electrical Corporation. As these are monopolies, which hardly need advertisements, in reality the offer of advertising is a useful carrot, which the government uses in its dealings with the media to ensure favorable coverage.
When the press and civil society get too critical of the government’s wrongdoings, they are at minimum guaranteed ‘visits’ and intimidation from Financial Police and more recently the government even engages in all out campaigns to sabotage the financing of such media and civic groups.
While we applaud government’s efforts towards combating fiscal evasion, this undertaking should not turn into a means of intimidation for those who dare question public (and the more often private) state policies. They should be no excuse to ignore the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression. It is thus urgent, if not too late, that the government cease all efforts to intimidate the media and immediately halt its slander campaigns towards groups like MJAFT (ENOUGH) and others.



TRAFFICKING

A degree of success has been achieved in reducing the problem. One needs more time to evaluate real success. As the January 9, 2004 tragedy demonstrated (21 would-be illegal immigrants died off the Adriatic coast), the problem is still there and police forces are highly involved in such trafficking in levels of organizing and facilitating the process.



The matter became an issue of public outcry and a series of protests, which MJAFT lead in January. Since then, no serious prosecution work has been made on this issue demonstrating the high level of politically backed individuals involved in trafficking.
Fighting organized crime is a buzz word used for political leverage and international façade but no signs of a serious commitment to fight it and to break the ties of crime with politics, or the law enforcement institutions, have been visible so far. Hardly anyone has been prosecuted for such crimes and a number of police operations have failed due to information leakage by the authorities themselves. Much of the ‘catch’ the government parades as ‘organized crime’ would most likely qualify as ‘small fish’.



RULE OF LAW

According to Stabilization and Association Report for 2004 the Rule of Law in Albania remains deficient. Albanian law enforcement bodies do not yet guarantee consistent enforcement of the law, in accordance with international standards. The rule of law remains adversely affected by the weaknesses of the judicial system and public administration, as well as by organized crime and corruption.



Despite some limited improvements, the Albanian judicial system remains weak. The professional capacities of judges, prosecutors, judicial police and administrative staff remain limited, and infrastructures and equipment are inadequate. As a consequence, the overall performance of the judicial system is poor, as is its perception amongst the general public.



The overall lack of transparency and impartiality affects other important aspects of judicial operations including case management within prosecution offices and courts, and the assignment of cases to judges and prosecutors. Moreover, the courts do not regularly publish court decisions and the availability of those published is not sufficiently wide. The systematic publication of court sentences would increase transparency and contribute to decisions of higher quality.



However, the daunting challenge of the Albanian legal system is dealing with the issue of blood feuds, concerning the North of Albania and affecting more and more the rest of the country. Hundreds of families remain locked at home for fear of revenge killings, being deprived of basic human rights to movement, education, employment and over all the right to life itself. We can not be more firm when we seek of this Congress to exercise any and all pressure on the Albanian government on a solution for the lives of thousands under blood feuds. This middle-age scenario must cease NOW!



CONCLUSION

To conclude on a positive note, the Albanian society has been constantly developing. One cannot help but notice the positive change in people’s mentality, the will to work hard and become a dignified part of the Western civilization, where Albania naturally belongs. Unfortunately, the Albanian political elites have failed to take the leadership role in promoting this change. Instead, they have become a stumbling block for progress. Hardly any young Albanian looks up at any of our senior political figures as a role model. Youth have a hard time building visions and setting goals of pursuing a future and starting families in Albania. Failed politics have killed many hopes, visions and dreams of young people abroad, who aspire to return back to their country and contribute with the education they have received in the West.



Despite all these setbacks, please rest assured of our commitment to remain a strong advocate for the people of Albania. The mere fact of us being the voice of Albanian youth here today, brings great encouragement and rekindles hope for all of us.



As you consider acting upon these comments and recommendations, please bear in mind that cutting foreign assistance or disenchanting NATO and the EU from Albania, at this stage, harms the Albanian people more than it does irresponsible politicians. However, political support to any group should be based on their democratic performance rather than acts of political convenience.



For all your interest and commitment to advance democracy in Albania, on behalf of all Albanians here and abroad, I owe you much gratitude.