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Albania

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

Power Strategies Emerge Amidst Kosovo Turbulence

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service) – New information from regional intelligence sources, as well as open-source channels, indicates that cross-border militant activities on at least four fronts are among the new developments to watch in the aftermath of Kosovo’s independence declaration on February 17.

While world attention has focused mainly on the political and legalistic dimensions of the Kosovo Albanian government’s declared independence on February 17, other concurrent developments indicate that the main actors are taking steps to change the facts on the ground in the short term, or produce a long-term deterrent by hastily securing a presence across a widening geographical terrain.

In south Serbia’s Presevo Valley, home of a substantial Albanian population, the Serbian government has been boosting the presence of its security forces. According to Skopje daily Vecer, the Serbian army is completing Tsepotine Base, also known as the “Serbian Bondsteel’ (a reference to the US Camp Bondsteel not far across the border in Kosovo). Its strategic high position allows commanding views of Kosovo to the east and Macedonia, 5km to the south. Although planned for five years, various issues and disagreements between the ministries of defense and internal affairs slowed it down, reports Vecer. However, with the independence of Kosovo, completing the 35-hectare base has become a priority. The construction of such a large base in this strategic triangle indicates Serbia’s concern to keep the presently quiet Presevo Valley from blowing up as it did in 2000. Also, for Russia, reportedly interested in some sort of a military presence with the help of the Serbs, the location is again ideal. Vecer reports that Serbia currently has 16 smaller bases along the 92km-long administrative border with Kosovo.

New information from Kosovo itself also suggests present Russian cooperation, with the presence of small numbers of alleged Russian military trainers, in civilian garb, in the northern Kosovo towns of Leposavic and Mitrovica. Balkanalysis.com reported in late 2006 about the arrival here of Serbian special forces in civilian clothes, as a precaution in case of Albanian attacks. In 2006, it should be remembered, KFOR repopulated a disused base in the north of Kosovo, primarily to prevent Serbian troops from coming to the aid of their ethnic kin in case of any large-scale violence.

Two days after the Albanian’s independence declaration, Serb reservists and other agitators stormed and destroyed the nearby border post, gaining brief but important access into Kosovo before it was recovered by NATO troops. On February 27, Reuters reported that the Serb National Council in North Mitrovica had called for Russia “to return its KFOR contingent [in order to] to stabilize the situation in areas where Serbs are in the majority,” in the words of Council leader Milan Ivanovic. Although Russia had a small troop detachment in Kosovo from 1999-2003, it was deliberately not given its own sector equal to those of the other Great Powers, nor positioning in northern Kosovo. Now, it appears, Moscow will have in one way or another positioning in both northern Kosovo and the Presevo Valley.

Along with the attack on the UN border post in northern Kosovo on February 19, Serbian reservists have also made their presence felt on an eastern Kosovo border checkpoint. On February 25, rioting ensued at the Mutivode checkpoint, where 250 ex-serviceman from Medveda, KurˆšÃ–¬°umlija and Lebane clashed with Albanian KPS officers at the administrative boundary with Kosovo. The two sides hurled stones at one another, until the KPS used tear gas to dispel the Serbs. Strong winds, however, soon cleared the air for more conflict. “Tires were also set on fire, and the wind spread the blaze to both sides of the line,” reported B-92. “During the entire showdown between the demonstrators and the KPS, cordons of KFOR, on one, and Serbian MUP on the other side of the line, looked on without intervening.”

Serbs have begun other forms of symbolic protest within Kosovo. Serbian police employed within the KPS are threatening to trade in their uniforms for those of Serbia as soon as possible; on February 28, in line with Belgrade’s wide-ranging policies designed to reduce the ability of the self-declared state to function, Serbian KPS officers announced a general strike. The strike will create an interim period in which the officers can make a coordinated action. Even if the struggling UN mission, essentially ineffective north of the River Ibar, dismisses their rejection or tries to take stronger action, the departure of the token Serb presence would signal the end of any hopes for multi-ethnic law enforcement in Kosovo.

On February 27, KFOR sources indicated that British and Austro-German reserve battalions were being put on a heightened state of readiness and that the military mission was increasing its presence in the north. Some Albanians apparently intended to make preparations of their own. On February 21, the leader of the Albanian minority population of North Mitrovica, Adem Mripa, was arrested by KPS police. According to B-92, three Tromblon RPGs and several pieces of ammunition for sniper guns weapons were discovered in his house, in the ethnically mixed quarter of Bosniak Mahala. At the same time, “a bomb was found near a house owned by [Serbian resident] Jovan Ilic, which KFOR subsequently destroyed.” Serbs in the isolated enclaves of central and southern Kosovo are far more vulnerable. An eight-year-old girl was stoned in Ljiplan on February 23, Tanjug reported, while playing in her yard. Such attacks were a regular occurrence, the girl’s father told reporters.

The announced independence of Kosovo has taken on wider dimensions, however. Approximately 12 days ago, Balkanalysis.com has learned, Macedonia’s intelligence services became aware of the re-opening of training camps/rear bases in the Kukes area of northern Albania. These bases, located near the clan stronghold of Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, were where American and British military instructors trained Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers in safety for the 1998-99 campaign across the border in Kosovo. Reporters from Germany’s Spiegel in Kosovo, citing an Albanian paramilitary volunteer in the shadowy Albanian National Army, claim that the organization “takes orders from its head office in Tirana, Albania.” The ANA has recently stated its priority of monitoring the north of Kosovo and, if necessary, using force to prevent it from rejoining Serbia.

An expected complement to any Albanian irregular activity within Kosovo itself was likely to have been the paramilitary group destroyed in Macedonia’s “Operation Storm’ in November 2007. In the remote village of Brodec in the Sar Planina mountains above Tetovo, special police arrested or killed escaped criminals from Kosovo’s Dubrava Prison, and captured a sophisticated arsenal, sufficient for 650 men- for the moment at least neutralizing a major security threat before the anticipated secession decree in Kosovo to the north.

However, despite that coup, the Macedonian intelligence source stated that “very recently, we have received information that some small Albanian armed bands, 10-20 individuals or so in each, have re-entered Macedonian territory from Kosovo, in the Tetovo and Lipkovo regions- we are working on locating these groups before they can [become a threat]…  however, the border is very easy to be crossed in those places, and they can easily escape from one side to the other when necessary.”

Western Intelligence Services Focus on Albania’s Islamist Groups ahead of US Presidential Visit

By Christopher Deliso

With additional reporting from Albania by Stavros Markos

Tirana is swarming with American and British intelligence officers and Secret Service personnel ahead of American President George W. Bush’s June 10 visit to Albania. While such attention is standard procedure before any such trip anywhere in the world, specific local conditions are being factored in to the equation. According to published Albanian media sources and off-the-record testimony from Western intelligence officials, the US security detail, with support from the ever-faithful British MI6, is particularly keen to neutralize small Islamic fundamentalist organizations operating in the country. But a mysterious explosion near the US embassy on May 16 and two munitions seizures on May 30 have still not been attributed to any group.

In 1999, after the Kosovo intervention, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and President Clinton were both forced to cancel visits to Albania because of threats from a mostly Egyptian, but Saudi and bin Laden supported, terrorist cell that had entrenched itself in Albania during the early 1990’s. As will be seen, there remains great confusion regarding the circumstances of these cancellations and the foggy fate of one of Albania’s leading terrorist supporters during the 1990’s, Abdul Latif Saleh.

The Wider Context: A Complex Range of Turbulent Issues

On his trip, President Bush will also visit the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and Bulgaria. The main event underpinning the trip, the June 6-8 Group of Eight (G8) summit in Germany, promises to be a tense affair dominated by the final status of Kosovo. Two days later in Tirana, Bush will meet with Albanian President Alfred Moisiu and Prime Minister Sali Berisha. It is likely that the outcome of the G8 Summit, and whatever agreements can be reached behind the scenes there, will color the president’s public comments in Tirana- regardless of whatever packaged soundbytes his speechwriters have already prepared.

The president is visiting Europe at a particularly sensitive time. A proposed but highly unpopular missile shield in the Czech Republic s already bringing out protesters. While there will probably not be protests in “pro-American” Albania, the independence of Kosovo, and the showdown with Russia and Serbia that the West has forced with this policy adventure, looms large- as do concerns over lurking Islamist elements.

Further, the president will hold meetings with the prime ministers of the three new candidate countries for NATO membership (Croatia, Albania and the Republic of Macedonia), something that has led Greek media to conjecture that the latter will receive an invitation to join NATO under its constitutional name- anathema for the Greeks, for whom the “Macedonian name issue” is returning as a hot political topic in advance of election season. In Albania itself, there have been several attacks by nationalists against Byzantine churches and Greek Orthodox Christians in the south.

A final issue is the legacy of America’s controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which lives on in Albania- the only country so far which has taken in prisoners discharged from the military facility. Most cannot return to their home countries, for fear of being tortured or killed. This was the case with the five Chinese Uighurs taken in by the Albanian government.

However, a recent BBC profile of ex-Guantanamo prisoners in Albania presents the daily reality of these de facto refugees in a highly unflattering light. A May 18 visit from the British media group to “the ramshackle refugee centre on the outskirts of Tirana” where eight Guantanamo “graduates” live mentioned the case of an Algerian who “cannot leave the country to be re-united with his familyˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¦ [nor] can they join him to live in Albania.” While the man, Abu Mohammed, is a trained doctor, not knowing the Albanian language he has little chance to find such work in the country. While Albania has presented its acceptance of the ex-prisoners as a gesture of help and support to its American patron, the mens’ lawyers and reports such as the BBC’s indicate that the country is being used more as a dumping ground for the unwanted “human trash” of the so-called “war on terror.’

Security Preparations

Along with the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo is one of the main issues to have angered Albania’s Islamist groups. Since some of these groups have shadowy foreign sponsors, the Americans are obviously taking no chances with security. On May 16, an explosion in a Tirana cafˆšÃ‰Â¬Â© located very close to the US Embassy injured one waitress. According to the Associated Press, “police are investigating who was responsible and what sort of device was used.”

Most recently, on May 30, “a plastic bag containing a few grams of explosives was found at 2 p.m. [in] a courtyard at the economics faculty of Tirana University, about 100 meters [from] the U.S. Embassy,” reported the IHT, adding that “half an hour later, a package containing 30 grams (1 ounce) of explosives was found at Mother Teresa Square, near the office of President Alfred Moisiu.”

While it cannot be proven, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that these were deliberate plants by the authorities made in order to scare citizens into accepting the draconian security measures that will be in place for Bush’s visit. Indeed, Tirana residents are likely to feel more than a little restricted. According to BIRN, the Albanian capital will be turned into “a high-security zone.” This apparently means “a complete shut down of traffic in the capital and rooftop snipers on every major building along the route of the Bush motorcadeˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¦ most residents of apartment blocks close to places Bush is expected to visit will be prohibited from appearing on their balconies.” For the record, the preparations are being made under direction of the US Secret Service by a working group headed by Deputy Premier Gazmend Oketa.

Most recently, the Albanian parliament passed an extraordinary law that allowed a select team of US troops to accompany Bush on his visit. The act, passed by the Albanian parliament’s Law and National Security Commission, applies only to Bush’s visit.

While the high level of security is usual practice for a presidential visit it, as well as the grenade explosion and explosives seizures, are at the same time somewhat at odds with the country’s reputation as a bastion of pro-Americanism.

Indeed, the extravagant security operation is being conducted with the awareness that Islamic extremists operating in Albania and neighboring Kosovo could pose a threat, despite numerous efforts to contain them. The borders with Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro remain porous and easily exploitable.

According to several security sources, Albania itself hosts a small fundamentalist Wahhabi community, funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It is this factor that, according to a former MI6 officer, led the British spy agency to double its presence in Albania in mid-2006. The former officer adds that with the election of French President Sarkozy, a ‘strong Europe’ conservative, we can expect the French DGSE to take a more robust role in the region as well, in coordination with the British.

Islamic Inroads

Further, the Albanian newspaper Shqip recently claimed that a “Wahhabi sect” active within the Islamic Community in Albania poses a threat as a potential supporter of terrorism in the future. As elsewhere in the Balkans, the report notes, Muslims in poor rural areas are taking monthly “salaries” in order to dress and behave in the Wahhabi fundamentalist way.

However, the Islamic community allegedly does not have the authority to control extremists inside their society, “often claiming that this problem is an obligation of the Penal Code of the Albanian Constitution.” In January 2002, a senior Islamic Community offficial, Salih Tivari, was murdered by extremists after pledging to cut down foreign influence and funding within the Islamic Community.

A number of foreign Islamic charities, such as the “mainstream” Islamic Relief, still work in Albania under humanitarian pretexts. In neighboring Kosovo, Islamic relief has tried to become an economic, social and religious force in rural areas forgotten by the West such as Skenderaj (indeed, the charity itself describes “isolated mountain villages” as its speciality in Albania). The organization has field offices in interesting locations: Shkodra, a largely Catholic city in northern Albania; and Pogradec, a not especially religious town but one strategically located on Lake Ohrid near the Macedonian border. Macedonian security officials have noted that attempted penetration of foreign Islamist charities via Albania was carried out, unsuccessfully, in the past.

While the Lake Ohrid area is not regarded as a significant area for Islamic extremism, it has not stopped international sponsors from reinforcing the faith. In the small village of Lin on the northwest corner of the lake, for example, the United Arab Emirates built an impressive mosque — the Fakhira Harib el Khili Xhamija — in 2001.

In Shkodra, as elsewhere in Albania, religious fault lines are being exploited by both conservative Christian and Muslim groups. Tensions have risen with perceived provocations between Catholics and Muslims, as was the case when a cross was put up in Shkodra, and then mysteriously vandalized in January 2006. And, when civic leaders wanted to honor national hero Mother Teresa with a statue, three Muslim groups — the Association of Islamic Intellectuals, the Albanian Muslim Forum and the Association of Islamic Charities — publicly protested.

The former, a relatively new group which allegedly supports interfaith relations, declared that a statue of one of the world’s most renowned humanitarian figures would be a “provocation” to Muslims.

In November 2005, Muslim groups were further enraged when Albanian President Alfred Moisiu, speaking at the Oxford Union in England, declared that only a “shallow” sort of Islam exists in Albania, a country with allegedly much stronger and more durable Christian roots. The MFA and other Islamic groups condemned the president for “insulting Islam.”

Other issues, such as the building of churches and the previous debate over whether Albania should accept the discharged Guantanamo prisoners, have also provided great opportunity for rhetorical displays from such pressure groups, which are becoming increasingly vocal and active. As the rhetorical battle heats up, and the imminent independence of Kosovo dissolves the urgency of strictly nationalist mentalities, the animosities between Catholics, Muslims and occasionally Orthodox will only increase.

Final Puzzling Discrepancies

The Albanian intelligence service, the SHISH, operates under the direct orders of the Americans and, when deemed appropriate, the British. This was not always entirely the case. In fact, ironically, the reason why Islamic extremists entered the country in the first place was due to the former head of the spy agency, Bashkim Gazidede, a devout Islamist. During the early 1990’s, the SHISH was therefore both arresting foreign extremists under CIA orders and enabling others. When terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden himself visited Albania, it was under the pretext of subsidizing the desperately poor post-Communist country. Sali Berisha, then president, was happy to accept the help, even making Albania Europe’s only member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference- without gaining parliamentary approval.

According to Albanian security expert Damian Gjiknuri, Gazidede, a former chairman of the Islamic Intellectuals Association of Albania was in the early 1990’s “working around the clock receiving official delegations from the Arab world, hence deviating from the official duties and even compromising national security.” In 1997, after the corrupt pyramid schemes collapsed and brought total anarchy to the country, the Berisha government was toppled and Gazidede fled, in July 1997. Reportedly, he went to the Middle East and was later protected and employed by Turkey’s MIT intelligence service.

What happened subsequently is opaque. It was reported that the former spychief returned to Albania in December 2005, following Sali Berisha’s re-election, on a Turkish Airlines flight. However, a European security official claims that this “sighting” was of a body double, and that Gazidede really returned via ship, from Turkish-held North Cyprus. Neither account can be confirmed. Since May 2006, German and Albanian news reports have claimed that Gazidede was given a state job overseeing property issues, but is now in Rome for medical treatment. In any case, it seems that Gazidede is no longer in a position to cause mischief.

A more perplexing disappearance has been that of Abdul Latif Saleh, once a major player on Tirana’s Islamic fundamentalist scene. This Jordanian radical employed by the Saudi government was also the business manager in Albania for Yassin al-Qadi, a Saudi tycoon was designated a terrorist sponsor by the US Treasury in October 2001. Although his American assets were frozen by the Bush administration, al Qadi’s web of business connections means he has not been touched abroad, and indeed his close connections with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan resulted in his exoneration in that country last year.

In the 1990’s, al-Qadi was one of the leading Arab investors in Albania. His 15-story business centers (they would be seized by the Albanian government in 2002) were known, ironically, as Tirana’s “Twin Towers.” Al-Qadi, the founder and chief investor in the terrorist fundraising charity, Muwafaq (“Blessed Relief’), was alleged by the US government to have laundered $10 million for bin Laden through his business interests and charities. Investigators would also claim that Abdul Latif Saleh, the 45-year-old general manager of al-Qadi’s construction company, sugar importing firm and medical center, had been given $600,000 by Osama bin Laden for terrorist cells in Albania.

In September 2005, a US Treasury announcement reiterated its claims about the Jordanian. “Saleh has multiple ties to al Qaida, ranging from the Al Haramain Foundation to Yasin Qadi to Usama bin Laden,” said Stuart Levey, the Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI). “This designation identifies him as a terrorist facilitator and ensures that he will no longer be able to operate unencumbered.”

What this actually meant remains unclear. If Saleh would not be allowed to operate”unencumbered,” would he still be allowed to operate at all, and if so, why? At the same time that US forces in Afghanistan were rounding up random dark-skinned individuals and sending them to Cuba, it was allowing well known terrorist supporters in Europe, such as Saleh, to vanish into thin air.

For example, on November 12, 1999, “following a tip-off from US security services,” Saleh was detained by the Albanian SHISH and was then mysteriously flown by the US “to an unknown country.” A Tirana newspaper claimed that the arrest was related to President Clinton’s upcoming visit to Kosovo. Nevertheless, Saleh was apparently released undamaged, since he was able to make it back to Albania to be expelled again in 2002. According to the US Treasury, Saleh’s last known address was in the United Arab Emirates. Various reports have since placed him everywhere from Yemen to Afghanistan to supporting Muslim extremists in Kosovo.

Why the US would allow a known terrorist supporter to ride off into the sunset, even as it was detaining hundreds of people whose connections to terrorism were tenuous to non-existent, is likely to remain an enigma; however, Saleh’s affiliation with Yassin al Qadi, a powerful mogul with substantial investments around the world and former clients such as the US military itself, may well have played a part in the hands-off approach. A source with close ties to the US intelligence establishment would not confirm the scenario, but conceded that “this possibility cannot be denied.”

On April 30, 2007 the UN Security Council issued a press release updating its information on Saleh. It did not present any new information regarding his whereabouts, but it did note that he had been given an Albanian passport on two occasions (March 8, 1993 and December 1, 1995). This seems to have come shortly after a Tirana newspaper published this information.

The press release also replaced the name of one of Saleh’s alleged terrorist affiliations — the Salafist Group for Call and Combat — with the renamed version of the same Algerian Wahhabi extremist group, The Organization of Al QaˆšÃ‰Â¬Ã˜da in the Islamic Maghreb. On April 11, 2007, the group claimed responsibility for an Algiers bombing that killed 24 and wounded 222. North African terrorist groups have been fingered almost unanimously by Western intelligence experts as the most dangerous new development for possible terrorist attacks in France or Spain.

Interestingly enough, the press release also replaced under its “other information” section the word “na” (not applicable) with “expelled from Albania in 1999”- thus ignoring the Albanian government’s subsequent expulsion of Saleh in 2002. This omission only casts further doubts on why the shadowy terrorist sponsor was allowed to escape Albania, at a time when the Clinton-pioneered “extraordinary renditions” policy was in full swing in that country.

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.

ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¦ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¦.

*Prolific Balkanalysis.com 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.