Friday, 12 April 2019

Political divisions widen in Albania as EU decision nears

Poverty, crime, corruption and political instability are testing the EU-aspiring country

 This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

The perception that Edi Rama’s socialist government has embraced special interests, and especially the illegal drug trade, is widespread in Albania. Two interior ministers have resigned under suspicion of taking bribes from organized crime. The opposition Democratic Party is refining that sentiment into political fuel.

Last month it walked out of parliament and took to the street, beginning a series of protests outside Rama’s office. On Thursday it is inaugurating a new practice of demonstrating outside parliament every time there is a debate.

“Amendments we proposed were voted down without discussion. Whenever ministers were called to report before parliamentary commissions, they declined,” Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha tells Al Jazeera. “Investigative committees never worked because contrary to the law they refused to submit evidence of investigations we initiated of collusion between organized crime and senior ministers, including the two former ministers of interior. And finally they even denied our right of parliamentary debate. So finally we just became a piece of a picture-perfect parliament with government and opposition, which was effectively a façade.”

Basha believes the socialists have used drug money to buy votes and effected “state capture” – complete control of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, which does not pursue high-profile corruption cases.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which helps monitor Albanian elections, did not like what it saw when Rama was elected to a second term in 2017. Special Co-ordinator Roberto Battelli said there had been “key procedural irregularities and omissions,” including, “inconsistent inking and verification procedures, instances of proxy and group voting, and interference by unauthorized party activists.” In everyday language this means voter intimidation, double ballot-casting and fraud. But all parties accepted the result and the European Union did not question it.

“Why are they complaining about vote-rigging two years later, and just before local elections?” says socialist chief whip Taulant Balla. “They need to resume their seats. In representative democracy, if you don’t represent, you lose your authority.”

Basha’s timing is not coincidental. The European Union is to announce whether it will start membership talks with Albania in June. A key criterion is whether Rama’s government will complete a judicial reform to root out corrupt judges and provide a balance to executive power.

Even the European Commission, which supports opening talks now, makes this conditional on judicial reforms that will put more serious criminals in jail.

“Albania remains the main source of cannabis herb trafficked to the European Union,” and, “is also considered a transit country for hard drugs such as

heroin and cocaine,” says the Commission’s latest report. “While there is an increasing number of offenders being arrested for drug trafficking, the number of final convictions remains negligible,” it continues, because indictments don’t target the top echelons of criminal organisations and most cases sent to the prosecutor’s office are dismissed or suspended.

If anything, crime figures suggest that the government may be losing the battle. Four years ago, more than half of serious crimes related to the production and cultivation of narcotics. That rose to two thirds in 2016 and almost three quarters in 2017.

Judicial reform was one of the campaign issues that propelled Rama to victory in 2013, but he did not seriously tackle it until close to his second term.

“We removed from the control of politicians appointments in the justice system,” says Balla. “From 2016 it ended that politicians appoint those who will investigate and imprison politicians. So there is no control from parliament or the government over the justice system.”

The socialists found more than a few rotten apples in the judicial barrel. A key part of the reform is the vetting of judges by checking their wealth against earnings. At least 17 senior judges did not pass the test. Some resigned when they received their summons to the vetting committee.

This molting has left Albania without a functioning Constitutional Court or a Supreme Court. Even though the socialists vow to rectify this by June, some question whether the delay wasn’t deliberate, as it gave the government a year-long window of unchallenged rule.

During this time it has issued executive orders without parliamentary or presidential approval. The most controversial of these placed 137 hectares of prime beachfront property under eminent domain, allowing the government to expropriate it for a fraction if its estimated $800mn-$1.5bn value.

The government says it is verifying the titles of hundreds of owners, mostly ethnic Greeks, who have come forth. Their legal challenges remain stuck in the semi-functional court system. But in the meantime the government has started handing the land to contractors. “Our main challenge remains the development of tourism. Big companies, from Germany, from Italy… cannot come to invest in Albania once they are not guaranteed for the property titles,” says Balla.

Basha says this is another example of the partisan economy. “What we have is a government that is plotting on a daily basis to take away private and public property and give it to a handful of oligarchs which are, effectively, predatory cronies of the government. They are taking these properties and developing them in shady deals, most probably involving money laundering from the recent spike in the drug trade.”

Basha says that such a government cannot be trusted to complete a judicial reform that, if done correctly, would lead to indictments among its ranks. He is calling on Rama to step down and allow a transitional government to pave the way for an early general election in the autumn.

The judiciary is not Rama’s only June headache. The Socialists also face a test of their popularity in local elections that month. They are plowing public money into large infrastructure works including roads, schools and hospitals. But there are signs that these are failing to impress people who cannot find a job.

Official unemployment stands at 13 percent despite four-percent growth on paper. Many of the 20,000 protesters that gathered in Tirana last Saturday were unemployed, and blame the government for it.

“My father has been jobless for six years,” says law student Luiz Peroli. “He has two university degrees and was director of a prison. The government wanted to get into the job people who made votes for the socialist party,” he says.

Per capita earnings, at under $5,000 a year, stand at 29 percent of the EU average. Albanians who went abroad now send $1.25bn dollars home in remittances – a tenth of GDP – and many more are trying to join their ranks, legally or illegally, rather than remain in a job market they consider politically slanted.

Partisan capture of the economy is not unique to Albania. If anything, it is the Balkan norm, ensuring that at any given moment, at least half of society suffers from discrimination from the state. But the Socialist Party may have breached the tacit understanding that it will not entirely disenfranchise the opposition economically and politically.

All parties support EU membership, but their estimation of Albania’s chances varies. “We know the EU will not open negotiations with a country that many European media call the Columbia of Europe,” says Basha. The socialist Taulant Balla takes the optimistic view. “As things are now, it is almost sure that with the continuation of these reforms we will get another positive report from the Commission.”


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