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2020 Albania: Edi Rama takes Albania closer to Latin America not EU

On 28 November this year, Albania marked the 108th anniversary of its proclamation of independence from the Ottoman Empire. Ever since it became a sovereign and independent state Albania has been marking this day as the “Flag Day”, which symbolizes the unity of all the Albanians.

However, the situation in Albania is a far cry from any unity, and the country lumps together with politically unstable and underdeveloped European countries. 

Although it was expected that after 2013 and the arrival of Edi Rama, President of the Socialist Party (PS) and Tirana Mayor of many years, to power, the country would begin to flourish, just the opposite has happened. While in the first two years of his mandate as the prime minister some positive changes had been recorded, major shifts were subsequently made in the area of the blossoming of (organized) crime and corruption. 

The leading opposition parties, i.e. the Democratic Party (PD) led by Lulzim Basha and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) Monika Kryemadhi, have withdrawn and have not been participating in the work of the Albanian Parliament since February 2019. 

The opposition boycotted the illegal local elections[2] (30 June 2019), which were announced by Edi Rama’s regime and not the President of the Republic of Albania Ilir Meta. At these local elections, due to the boycott by the opposition, the turnout was at a level of only 22.96%, and the elected mayors had criminal records and had been sentenced for crimes. 

In the meantime, the political situation in the Albanian political corps has changed.  Former Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi was indicted by the Special Prosecutor’s Office at Kosovo and is now in the detention unit in The Hague because the indictment against him was confirmed by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC-SPO). Furthermore, his close ally and associate Milo Đukanović (DPS), President of Montenegro, lost the parliamentary elections and it is expected that he will be tried for the criminal offenses and war crimes that he had committed. Rama had publicly supported Đukanović at the recent parliamentary elections in Montenegro. The only recent success of Rama is that he had logistically supported his former advisor Zoran Milanović (SDP) in his campaign to become the President of the Republic of Croatia. However, this also raises the issue of funding of Milanović’s election campaign with “dirty” Albanian money. Nevertheless, this is just one piece of the regional political-criminal octopus.

Cannabisation of Albania as a tool for purchase of voters 
During Edi Rama’s first mandate as the prime minister (2014-2017), Albania became the main country for illegal production of cannabis, trade-in serious drugs, and human trafficking in Europe. This was confirmed by the EU, Europol[3], US State Department[4], and the United Nations[5]. It is believed that the illicit profit from drug trafficking is in the area of five billion Euros. In Italy alone, 30 tons of Albanian cannabis were seized in 2017 (election year), in comparison to 11.3 tons seized in 2015, which is a record with respect to the previous years. 

Following the publication of official wiretaps on 30 January 2019, it was revealed that dozens of Socialist Party (PS) representatives, PS Mayors, and other high ranking officials had been involved in cooperation with organized crime networks regarding the purchase of votes, intimidation of voters, forgery of documents and other criminal activities prior to and during the 2017 general elections. This provided clear evidence on collusion at a high level between the Socialist Party-led government and drug and human traffickers, which had facilitated the boom in production and trade in narcotics. 

The boom was a result of massive production of cannabis on plantations by Albanian organized crime networks, which in exchange for the support provided at the elections were given protection by political representatives and the police. On the basis of the Italian intercepted phone conversations, as well as final and binding decisions of Italian courts, two successive Ministers of Internal Affairs (PS), Saimir TahiriFatmir Xhafaj (both of which are also representatives in the Parliament) resigned from their position because of the involvement of their family members in drug trafficking with the direct support from the ministers. Italian prosecution cases show that parts of their profit were used for the purchase of votes. While Tahiri is currently in detention and has lost his mandate as a representative, Xhafaj is still active in politics. It needs to be reminded that the Socialist Party majority had initially refused to abolish Tahiri’s parliamentary immunity so that he could avoid prosecution. There are allegations indicating that Rama’s brother was connected with the organized criminal network, which had been sentenced for running the largest cocaine refinery in the Balkans. To this day not a single party official or renowned criminal has been arrested in relation to such accusations. 

Just like in the case of pressures on the media, the overall situation in Albania deteriorated from one year to another. The German Bild newspaper, Voice of America, and BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) conducted independent journalist investigations that revealed the existence of two prosecution cases – “Case 339” and “Case 184.” Case 339 is related to a dozen CDs containing intercepted phone conversations between the Avdyli gang and PS ministers, Durrës Mayor, representatives, and other senior officials. At the request of German authorities, the Avdyli gang was put under police surveillance in relation to the trafficking of serious drugs. The intercepted phone conversations have shown that the Avdyli gang has directly supported Socialist Party officials in the purchase of votes during the 2017 parliamentary elections and in return was awarded contracts at public tenders, as well as given impunity and political support for their criminal activities. Case 184 shows the same strategy of purchase of votes agreed between the PS representatives and the organized crime networks, which was extensively applied in the Dibër County and during partial local elections in 2016. Although the Avdyli gang was sentenced for its drug operations, the judicial system did not manage to respond to the elections-aspect of these cases.  At one point during the trial, the Prosecution invited the Election Commissioner to testify before the court. However, the Commissioner was already dead, and the Prosecution was not aware of that at the time… Have the criminals bribed the judicial system as well?

Analysts assess that Edi Rama’s regime has around two billion Euros at its disposal for the purchase of votes at the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on 25 April 2021. 

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Money laundering and record PPP level – state on the verge of bankruptcy 
Following Rama’s victory in 2013, the ranking of Albania with respect to money laundering significantly worsened. According to the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) list published by the Basel Institute of Governance[6], when it comes to money laundering Albania lumps together with the countries with the highest risk of money laundering on the European continent and is on a high (44th) position on the list. Furthermore, the Council of Europe[7], that is the Moneyval initiative, has established that the measures undertaken by the Albanian government in the fight against money laundering were inefficient and that the government needs to increase its future 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), after it had made a high-level political commitment to work with the FATF and Moneyval to strengthen the effectiveness of its regime of Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (CFT)[8] – as a jurisdiction with strategic deficiencies. However, what does this mean in practice?

According to a thorough analysis by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, which was published in August 2020[9], it appears that in the period from 2017 to 2019 in Tirana alone more than €1.6 billion worth of dirty money was laundered through the real estate sector. Furthermore, the analysis also indicated that in the same period the foreign exchange reserves in Albania increased by €3.2 billion, that is from €6.7 billion to €9.9 billion. 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, with a similar figure anticipated for 2019. The reason behind such high aforementioned figures can be found in the expansion of production and trade in cannabis in the country as a result of the criminalization of Rama’s ruling elite. It is shocking that 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 strong local opposition due to fear of 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, while Rama has turned the country into a regional hub for money laundering. However, even if these two initiatives do not succeed, some others have already succeeded. For example, Rama’s project of public-private partnership (PPP) worth one billion, which resulted in an increase of the public debt from 63% in 2013 to 95.7% in mid-2020.

According to Eurostat data, Albania has achieved the highest PPP-GDP ratio in the European Union.  As shown in the chart below, the Albanian ratio 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. Furthermore, many contracts are flagrant examples of abuses, corruption, and money laundering. The PPP related to the 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. Furthermore, the PPP for waste burning will cost €430 million, while the benefiting company is located abroad and owned by a 23-year old woman with no experience or capital. Representatives of the civil society and opposition believe that the public-private partnerships are the “ultimate” solution not just for corruption purposes, but money laundering as well. The “silencing” of the media, purchase of votes, thievish and criminal state, large-scale corruption…. Rama has factually become the latest authoritarian ruler in the Balkans – and this should result in international monitoring and pressure.
Ilir Meta prevented a civil war in Albania 
Albania is fortunate to have the most experienced Albanian politician Ilir Meta in the position of the President of the Republic of Albania, in the difficult period with which the country is faced during the rule of Edi Rama’s regime. President Meta did not fall for any of the provocations by Edi Rama’s regime. He did not even insist on local elections, which pursuant to the Constitution he had announced for 17 October, despite the fact that the illegal elections had been held on 30 June 2019. As a wise and experienced politician, President Meta attached much more importance to ensuring relative peace and stability, because he did not want to push the country into a civil war. Namely, ever since the introduction of the multiparty-system in 1997 Albania has been on the verge of a civil war or situations that could have caused large-scale violence. 

Analysts believe that bearing in mind the current situation in Albania and the nearing parliamentary elections, which are to take place on 25 April 2021, it is necessary to organize a nation-wide movement that would bring together a broad spectrum of political subjects, and primarily citizens of Albania, which should be headed by Ilir Meta, as the only person who at this point can defeat Edi Rama’s regime. While in normal circumstances it would be inappropriate for the President of Albania to head a nation-wide movement for toppling the regime, the current extraordinary circumstances demand that from Ilir Meta.

The departure of Rama’s regime- salvation for Albania 
Edi Rama had failed to fulfill the expectations of citizens of Albania. Instead of that, Albania has become the epicenter of European criminal activities, and particularly the production of and trade in drugs and human trafficking. The proceeds from such illegal activities are invested through “money laundering” in public-private partnerships, as a result of what Albania has the highest level of PPPs in Europe. 

Unfree media, corruption, and a low standard of living of citizens are the true picture of Albania. The state does not function, which was best illustrated in the case of mitigation of the consequences of the devastating earthquake. Specifically, the state failed in this respect. Albania was also not well prepared for the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and is still at the bottom of the European ranking on how countries cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The European Parliament (EP) adopted a decision on 15 new conditions for commencement of accession talks between Albania and the EU. Rama has caused irreparable damage to Kosovo because with the launching of the story about the annexation of Kosovo to Albania the issue of international recognition of Kosovo has become “cemented” and pointless. Serbia benefited from such a development, as not only that there had been no new recognitions but several countries have actually withdrawn their recognition of Kosovo. Furthermore, Rama has destabilized the region with the talk of „great Albania“, in which he wittingly ignored the facts that Albania is a NATO member and that the architecture of the borders in the region had been finalized with the declaration of independence of Kosovo. Some other circles in the region that advocate similar ideas readily welcomed his idea about a “great Albania.” 

Edi Rama has his fingers in all kinds of things. He is also involved in the sale of IPKO telecom operator at Kosovo, which is owned by Slovenian Telecom. This is why in October 2020 he went for a private visit to Slovenia to discuss the issue with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša (SDS).

Edi Rama has become untrustworthy, as nobody trusts him anymore. He has betrayed the agreement brokered between the opposition and the government. 

On 5 June 2020, the EU, US, and UK ambassadors supported the political agreement between Rama’s ruling majority and the United Opposition in Albania. The agreed compromise was related to the election reform, which was one of the 15 EU criteria for opening of the negotiation process. However, on 30 July 2020 Edi Rama violated the agreement and unilaterally adopted modifications to the Constitution, which actually was no surprise. The aim of the adopted modifications is to lower the chances of the united opposition to win at the upcoming elections that will take place on 25 April 2021 by preventing the establishment of pre-election coalitions, while in Kosovo the election law prohibits an establishment of post-election coalitions. Due to the vacant positions in the Constitutional Court, the Albanian President Ilir Meta refused the appointments, thus respecting the opinion of the Venice Commission on their (un)constitutional character. European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi and other international officials invited Rama and his parliament to wait for the opinion of the Venice Commission.

On 21 October 2020, President Meta wrote to the Venice Commission with respect to Rama’s arbitrary constitutional modifications. European Commissioner Varhelyi applied diplomacy and justness in his attempt to help untie the political Gordian knot in this Western Balkan country. This was a welcome development considering his pro-Rama partisan predecessors, who can also be linked to corruption. However, the Director for Western Balkans in the European Commission, Genoveva Ruiz Calavera intervened with the Venice Commission and asked for Meta’s request to be rejected. Namely, her view was that the European Commission should recommend constitutional modifications and the Albanian Parliament abide by and act upon them. This would imperil the elections scheduled for 25 April 2021 and mirrors perfectly Rama’s public arguments.

Several members of the European Parliament wrote an open letter in which they expressed their utmost concerns and appealed on the Albanian authorities to wait for the opinion of the Venice Commission in order not to undermine the process of European integration  of their country into the EU. Rama continued his previously initiated actions and stated on 27 October 2020 that he shall reject such appeals and unilaterally proceed with the constitutional changes and modifications of the Election Law, as he did in the days that followed. 

Analysts believe that the assassination of the 25-years old young man Klodian Rasha by the Albanian police, which had triggered mass protests, demonstrates the full scale of the brutality of Rama’s regime. Edi Rama’s regime must become history. However, in the interest of peace and stability, it is important that such a thing is achieved by means of parliamentary elections, which have to be transparent, fair and just, and not be won through the purchase of votes from the “black funds” filled by dirty money from political-criminal-mafia deals. It is obvious that the current policy of Edi Rama takes Albania closer to Latin America, not the EU. After the departure of Gruevski, Thaçi and Đukanović, the time has come for the departure of Rama. 

Ljubljana/Tirana/Brussels/Washington, 19 December 2019                                                                             

Footnotes:
[1] IFIMES – The International Institute for the 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] OSCE: ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final report https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/1/f/429230_0.pdf
[3] Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA), European Union (Europol), 2018.
[4] International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, US State Department, March 2018.
[5] World Drug Report, United Nations Drug Office, 2017, 2018.
[6] Basel Institute AML index  https://baselgovernance.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/basel_aml_index_2020_web.pdf
[7] Council of Europe, 17 December 2018, Albania should step up its efforts to combat money laundering, https://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/-/albania-should-step-up-its-efforts-to-combat-money-laundering-says-council-of-europe-report
[8] 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
[9] 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
[10] EuroNews, 28 October, MEPs letter to PM Rama: Refrain from voting the amendments until the Venice Commission has spoken, https://euronews.al/en/daily-news/2020/10/28/meps-letter-to-pm-rama-refrain-from-voting-the-amendments-until-the-venice-commission-has-spoken

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