Capital Tirana
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 355
Mobile Codes 66,67,68,69
ccTLD .al
Currency Lek (1EUR = 138ALL)
Land Area 28,748 sq km
Population 2.98 million
Language Albanian
Major Religion Sunni and Bektashi Islam, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity

Security and Politics in Albania: A Limitation of Civil Liberties?

By Ioannis Michaletos and Stavros Markos*

The government in Tirana has, over the past few months, imposed new domestic security policies in order to curb an increase in criminal networks and their activities. At the same time, international bodies, namely the EU and NATO — entities which Albania wishes to join in the future — are worried about the country’s widespread corruption, and are pressuring Albania to reconstruct its judicial system so as to combat crime of all sorts.

The Albanian Parliament has thus enacted a series of remedial bills, which some analysts predict will lead to an infringement of democratic processes in the country. However, international aid to the security sphere in Albania has as a main target the curtailing of organized crime and terrorism, and not the imposition of a totalitarian state structure that would seek to emulate the Hoxha regime that dominated Albania during the Cold War years.

Of specific concern is the law for surveillance and electronic correspondence. This law was passed in 2005, due to pressure that Albania encountered from foreign agencies such as the CIA, MI6 and EUROPOL, which were reportedly concerned by the continued interrelation between organized crime and Islamic extremist within the state.

The attorney general of Albania, Theodori Solakou, has voiced his opinion by stating that any conducting of electronic surveillance will adhere to standards of basic human rights protection. However, this has not reassured the public, which fears massive eavesdropping by the government, a phenomenon long experienced in many other countries in the region and the wider world.

Here it is interesting to note that one of the major telecom operators in the country is AMC, an affiliate of the Greek state-controlled mobile provider, Cosmote. A possible scenario involving the Greek company and Albanian surveillance would of course be accusations made by Albanian politicians against Greece, claiming that this ownership would mean Greece would be the one controlling and benefiting from electronic surveillance of Albanians. The bilateral relations between the two states might be greatly hurt if such an incident involving AMC were to occur and become public, regardless of the actual law that provides this opportunity to the state. A similar incident in Greece with the company Vodafone — albeit in a different context — revealed the crucial role of mobile providers in modern-day eavesdropping.

On a related front, in summer 2006 the Albanian Parliament voted for an extreme resolution that called for the banning of speedboats operating from all Albanian Adriatic ports, a bill known as “the Berisha moratorium” after its most eager supporter, Prime Minister Sali Berisha.

This sweeping law prohibits the use of speedboats by any Albanian citizen, as such vessels had been used for almost two decades very extensively in contraband activities between Albania and Southern Italy, particularly narcotics and human trafficking. However, along with the actual criminal culprits, quite a few law-abiding Albanians were forced into unemployment because they lost vital sources of income that depended on tourism or fishing interests.

The real reason for the ban, however, was the visa/illegal immigration into Europe issue and the relations between Albania and the EU. A small detail usually left out from media coverage of the ban is that foreign-owned vessels are exempted from it, and also, as the BIRN Network comments, a lull in speedboat trafficking has occurred anyway, because the smugglers have returned to traditional means of transport such as bus and trucks.

Another notable development relating to state security is the creation of a port security and anti-terrorist force for the port of Durres. It has been initiated after an American report revealed that this particular Albanian city has one of the least safe ports in the world. The Albanian government promptly created a strong 78-man force to remedy this deficiency. It is likely that since amongst their duties is the protection of oil deposits and installations, the whole move is related to the proposed AMBO pipeline stretching from Burgas to Vlore and the prospect of Albania becoming a country of energy importance to Western Europe. Hence there is a clear need foe enhanced anti-terrorism forces and a modern security apparatus in the country.

Perhaps the real reason that Albania is implementing such harsh measures, measures that clearly impact on the everyday life of its citizens, is because of the enormous power of the organized crime groups entrenched in social and political life. During the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s, successive Albanian administrations profited from the oil smuggling that supported the embargo-afflicted republics of the then-Yugoslavia.

Another key factor was state and criminal involvement in the arming of Kosovo’s “liberation’ army, the UCK; the various –and often illegal– international interests that coalesced throughout the Balkans in the 1990’s ensured the dramatic expansion of organized crime.

Lastly, the presence of extremist Islamic elements from the early 1990’s on alerted the West to other potential perils. Bin Laden himself reportedly had visited Albania during the mid-1990’s, and Islamic groups directed by state security chief Bashkim Gazidede, during the first Berisha regime, operated under the pretext of charity funds and international relief organizations. Foremost among these was the al Qaeda-linked Egyptian Islamic Jihad, reportedly rolled up in CIA-directed actions in 1998. However, the arrest of other extremists and asset freezes of entities in Tirana owned by Saudi mogul Yassin al-Qadi, whose assets in the US were also frozen, after 9/11 pointed to a persistence of Islamic activity. At present, the foreign-funded Islamists have become quieter and more clever, operating through think-tanks and choosing to proceed through “converting’ mainstream Albanian Muslims to Saudi Wahhabism, particularly in poor rural areas.

The larger Albanian public is more concerned, however, by the potential for state excess in terms of surveillance. The Albanian secret service has reportedly requested that the government enact a law by which all mobile phone subscribers would have a unique code, so as to be recognized instantly in case the state deems it necessary. Also, all telephone calls would be stored in a database for a period of three years, minimum.

Furthermore, Albania has recently received hi-tech electronic surveillance equipment from London, equipment that will assist in the enforcement of the nation-wide electronic monitor program.

Interestingly, there are some 1,000 people working under direction of the Albanian attorney general in this sensitive “Surveillance department,” an extraordinarily large number for one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe. The real fear of the Albanian citizens is, therefore, the perceived ability of the state to conduct a mass program of surveillance under the pretext of the “war against crime,” so as to subdue its political opponents and in general curtail democratic rights.

Recent historical experience has proved that the aforementioned confirm a clear and present danger. In 1993, similar equipment — from the USA — was used to illegally survey leaders of the Greek minority in Albania. During that period the Albanian courts condemned 5 leading members of the Greek organization “Omonoia” for charges relating to actions against the state. The decision forced Greece to intervene by vetoing economic assistance from the EU towards Albania, and in general complicated the bilateral relations between Athens and Tirana. According to German sources, Albania received surveillance equipment due to its vital role in expediting the Kosovo war, with direct assistance from Western intelligence agencies.

Today, the small Greek community in Albania remains fearful that its prominent members (politicians, journalists, NGO members, lawyers etc) could yet again become subjects of state “attention.’ According to Albanian media sources, the Albanian secret service is currently monitoring members of the Greek community because of their statements on the “North Epirus issue.” The border provinces between the two countries are referred to separately as “Epiros” by Greeks and “Chameria” by Albanians; both states claim historic and cultural contiguity upon the cross-border terrain.

The demands of the Greek minority members in Albania which are today causing concern with the Albanian authorities include having more say in the communal affairs and seeking ties with their brethren in Greece. According to statistics and unofficial estimations, some 2-10 percent of the Albanian population has Greek ancestry and the overall controversy around “North Epirus” is interrelated with the overall democratic process in the post-communist Albania.

A relatively recent strain in relations between both states occurred on November 1, 2005, when Greek President Karolos Papoulias left in haste from an official visit to Albania, when an event staged by Cham Albanians took place in the area where the Greek and Albanian President were about to meet. The Cham protests for repatriation of their former properties in Greece has never been accepted by the Greek government, since the former left Greece in 1944-45 because of reprisals from Greeks, due to the Albanians’ collaboration with the Axis forces under Hitler. Nevertheless this is an issue that is simmering and a prediction is that as long as Albanian nationalism is energizing the country, there could be major setbacks in the relations between the two states specifically because of that issue. Maps of “Greater Albania” and similar aims, surely add up to a diplomatic climate that is uncertain and needs to get the exact opposite signals, so that both countries can fully cooperate and enjoy better relations.

Furthermore, Attorney General Theodhori Sollaku stated during an institutional meeting that he had been obliged to deny numerous requests by the secret service and the police for mass surveillance. He also added that the total number of surveillance demands can be compared to that of the USA, which has a population 100 times greater than Albania’s. That fact alone, according to the attorney general, reveals a situation not suitable for a democratic state, as well as a clear violation of human rights protection in the country.

This issue could be linked with the conflict between the government of Berisha and Mr. Sollaku, in which both parties have become locked in a series of accusations and counter-accusations of corruption over the past year. In fact, the government tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the attorney general on corruption charges, with no effect however, due to serious opposition from other political figures, including the president of the Albanian Republic.

Such developments indicate that Albania today is in danger of enacting a process that will drift its way toward Europe and not vice-versa. Instead of crime fighting, the new laws could become a perfect fit for those seeking to exert a totalitarian approach to the modern political environment. Political parties, minorities, NGO and labor syndicates could be all become subject to surveillance from the central government. Albania is a country that until 1991 had one of the most isolated and totalitarian regimes in the world. The way forward that includes EU membership would not be served by a mentality of the old days, wrapped in a hi-tech package of electronic and signal intelligence. This new episode in Albanian affairs will certainly prove to be another difficult passage from democratic-political adolescence to maturity, with all the pains and struggles that this passage entails.


*Prolific contributor Ioannis Michaletos is an analyst covering economics, politics and security issues in Greece and the Balkan region with the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) in Athens.

Markos Stavros, born in 1965 in Vlore, Albania, is an award-winning investigative journalist in Tirana. He has worked with BBC Radio, Albanian Television TVS, France Television TF1, TF2, TV5, Italian Television RAI and more, specializing in Balkan organized crime.