5 June 2017

Can Albania be saved from narco-government?

By Besart Kadia

Freedom has been on the slide across the world for more than a decade. According to Freedom House’s latest report, “2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom” and that “populist and nationalist forces are making significant gains in democratic states.”

According to the report there are more than 100 countries in the world that are in between an authoritarian regime and a democracy. One such country is Albania, which has taken an unforeseen backwards step on the road to full-fledged democracy. Once the most isolated country in the world, Albania is now a candidate for EU membership.

However, EU candidacy obscures a less rosy picture. The latest moniker for the Balkan state – which has been labelled called anything from a pseudo-democracy to a post-communist or transition democracy –  is “narco-democracy”. The term signals a new and worrying twist in the country’s democratic development.

Freedom House has given Albania the same “partially free” status since the new Socialist Party came to power in 2013. According to Freedom House’s methodology, political rights and civil liberties all scored three out of seven. And things have got worse. Since then, the country has experienced a loss of confidence in democratic representation.

The 2015 local elections were held after shameless gerrymandering by the government. Thanks to the changes, the Socialist coalition won 74 per cent of the municipalities despite getting just 54 per cent of the popular vote. Freedom House reported that there was “pressure on voters by politicians, problems with election commission operations, and the improper use of government resources by the ruling coalition during campaigning.”

The opposition party, led by Lulzim Basha, boycotted the parliament for six months in 2015, stating that the government had promoted “narcotraffickers, pimps, even killers as Members of Parliament, Mayors and high-ranking government officials”. In most Western democracies, political parties check their candidates’ backstories, weeding out the less salubrious ones. However, in Albania a hotly contested Decriminalisation Law was needed, and finally adopted, in December 2015 to exclude people with criminal convictions from holding public office.

As a result, Socialist MP Arben Ndoka resigned, thanks to his previous conviction for human trafficking being made public by an Italian court. Belgian prosecutors have accused Mark Frroku, a Christian Democratic Party MP, currently in prison, of murdering another Albanian in Brussels in 1999. The Mayor of Kavaja, Elvis Rroshi, was removed as a result of the Decriminalisation Law because he had previously been convicted for group rape in Italy in 1995 and for drug trafficking in Switzerland. Such was the need for the Decriminalisation Law that in its first few months it exposed that “in the current governing majority 19 members of Parliament, seven mayors and over 400 other officials bear criminal records”.

How can Albanians institutions serve citizens if convicted criminals were allowed to slip through the net? On paper the country has passed some important reforms, including, most importantly, judicial reform. “These are all key priorities for Albania on its path towards integration into the European Union,” the EU’s Albania office said in a statement.

However, EU officials have failed to mention that the country has a drug problem so serious that even an independent judiciary would find it hard to solve the issue in the future.

Reports by the US State Department and Europol in 2016 show that today Albania is the largest producer of cannabis and the key gateway for heroin into Europe. Italy’s National Anti-Mafia Prosecutor, Franco Roberti, stated recently in Tirana that the quantity of drugs originated from Albania and seized in Italy has increased exponentially. Italian police seized 22 tons of cannabis in March 2017, compared to 21 tons between 2006-2012. The situation became so serious that Ylli Manjani, Albania’s former Minister of Justice, declared publicly that the army was needed in order to tackle the vast drug plantations. He was sacked a few months later.

In a “partially free” country, Albania’s drug traffickers find it increasingly easy to expand their zones of influence. CNN Greece reported that Klement Balili, the State Director for Road Transportation in the border city of Saranda, was in fact the head of an international drug trafficking organization. He has gone in hiding since and CNN reports that he has powerful political protection.

In this precarious political and economic environment, Albanians last year came second only to Syrians as asylum seekers in Germany and France. More than 42 per cent of the population live on less than $5 a day. Youth unemployment is more than 30 per cent and the country has fallen 11 places in the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index since the Socialist-led government came to power.

The only way for the opposition to resolve such an undemocratic was to take to the streets. And earlier this year, Albania was plunged into its most serious political crisis since 1991, which threatened to destabilise the country yet further.

For 90 days, starting on February 18, all parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties went on an uninterrupted protest, demanding the establishment of a caretaker government to prepare free and fair elections.

Encouragingly, this struggle paid off: the opposition will be in charge of six important ministries to oversee their work ahead of the elections later this month. But dismantling a narco-democracy will likely take more than one vote.

Besart Kadia is Executive Director of the Foundation for Economic Freedom