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Albania’s Parliamentary Election 2009: Is the European Dream at Risk?

By Enza Roberta Petrillo*

The European Union emerged from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s as a force that seemed capable of guaranteeing stability and peace in a part of the European continent perceived as a fracture-zone, an area of Europe known for its clashes.

Since 1991, Albania has radically changed, undergoing a complex transition period and a controversial process of institution-building. In contrast with countries like Serbia, Montenegro or Croatia, in Albania the power structures inherited from the Communist period were destroyed or swept away during the 1990s, especially during the explosion of violent conflict in 1997. These old and disintegrated structures were replaced during a long period of transition characterized by lawlessness, with a growing gap between the southern part of the country and the northern, and what the historian Ian Jeffries describes as a kind of “gangster land anarchy.”

Ever since the end of Communism, Albania has looked to the west. Hopeful and optimistic, the country has dreamed for almost twenty years of EU accession. At the beginning of this year, however, came the cold shower: Brussels denied the submission of EU candidature before the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 28.

Why are these elections so important for the young republic? Many analysts perceive them as a sort of watershed moment between the past and the future. These two dimensions might actually be two side of the same coin. Since 1991, the country has experienced five parliamentary electoral rounds; in 1991, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2005. Albania’s first-ever free parliamentary election witnessed a 97 per cent turn-out in the first round on 31 March. This electoral round was strongly contested because the opposition parties were disadvantaged by their recent formation and by the lack of political experience. The ruling Party of Labour of Albania (PLA) won 56 per cent of the votes cast in the first round, mainly thanks to its continuing hold on the Southern Tosk part of the country, and on the political behavior of the agriculture population, many of whom feared that the Democratic Party (DP) would help the big private landowners regain possession of most of the country’s agricultural land.

The new People’s assembly first met on 10 April. On 29 April, the parliament passed an interim constitutional law to modify the 1976 Constitution: Albania became “The Republic of Albania” in place of “The People’s Socialist Republic of Albania”, and the leading role of the PLA was abolished. Although this party was of leftist persuasion, the government program presented by the premier, Fatos Nano envisaged an extensive privatization and a rapid shift to a market economy. These measures were violently contested with strikes and protest movements that caused the resignation of Nano as Prime Minister, followed by the Interim “Government of National Stability” headed by Vilson Ahmeti, until March 1992.

Macro-economic measures, price liberalization, privatization of large state enterprises and the collapse of the agricultural system exemplify the larger context surrounding the Presidential Elections of March 1992. The response to this electoral round represents one of the focal element of the recent history of the country.

The election of the ex-Communist and DP leader Sali Berisha started off the post-communist new deal of the Albania. Since 1992 Berisha has been one the most controversial political representatives in Albanian political life. His political profile coincides with the recent history of his country. From Communism to radical anti-Communism, from the age of 16 Berisha has tried all political approaches, from nationalistic authoritarianism to liberalism.

At the beginning of his mandate, Berisha was charged with being authoritarian and, in November 1994, called a referendum on a new constitution which, if approved, would have granted powers to himself as president, including the right to nominate the prime minister, dismiss ministers at the suggestion of the premier, as well as to dismiss or arrest the chairman and the members of the constitutional court and the supreme court with the approval of Parliament. The referendum failed, however, and several ministers were replaced.

The hard-line view of Berisha was demonstrated by the “Law on Communist genocide,” passed in September 1995 with the aim of prohibiting to anyone who had been a member of the old PLA central committee or the Communist Parliament from participating in national or local elections and holding jobs in the media or judiciary.

The first victim of this law was Fatos Nano, the leader of the Socialist Party.

Several analysts and international organizations monitored the Parliamentary elections of May 1996. Opposition parties accused the DP of practicing intimidation and electoral manipulation. These elements were confirmed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which spoke out against the presence of armed individuals and unidentified persons inside polling stations who had an intimidating effect on voters and polling commission officials. The Democratic Party won the electoral round, however, despite the protests of the opposition and the OSCE. Behind this second waltz, several analysts saw the personal triumph of Sali Berisha.

In the first period of his mandate, Sali Berisha received strong support from Western countries, especially the USA. In 1993, Albania signed an accord on military cooperation with the USA and introduced the International Monetary Fund’s economic reforms. Foreign trade liberalization, flotation of the Lek, price liberalization and a wild expansion of the private sector contributed to creating the peculiar socio-political context of the pyramid schemes crisis and resulting popular insurgency of 1997.

The international press paid great attention to these fraudulent investment schemes, which paid out artificially high returns to early investors, using money paid in by subsequent investors. In this way, during the 1990s many Albanian companies became wholesome pyramid schemes, with no real assets. Unlike in many other countries, these schemes had direct political implications. Two-thirds of the Albanian population had invested in the pyramid schemes, through companies which were engaged in criminal activities.

At the beginning of 1997, about one-third of all Albanian family lost their savings as a result of the pyramid schemes’s collapse. Violent protests, strikes, and spontaneous movements upset Tirana and Vlore. Troops authorized by the Parliament guarded roads and government buildings. Berisha chose to respond with an iron hand, and the opposition answered with the Forum of Democracy, an alliance created to persuade the government to set up a technical executive and then hold elections.

The increasing of political tension caused in Albania a radical change of the political and social discourse. Violence became prominent. Larger anti-government protests shattered Vlore. Berisha accused the opposition of fomenting the anarchy and the insurgency, ordering the arrests of opposition politicians and declaring a state of emergency. This phase marked the acme of Berisha’s regime and his point of no return, in the eyes of the international community. The European Union and Italy played the fundamental role in persuading the Albanian premier to accept a government of national reconciliation representing all political parties.

The fundamental year to remember for understanding the political transition of modern Albania is 1997. In March of that year, Bashkim Fino, leader of the Socialist Party, replaced Berisha as interim Prime Minister. The inflows of Albanian refugees to Italy made clear the multi-dimensionality of the crisis and the necessity of new elections. Under the monitoring of OSCE observers and the international peacekeeping force, the elections were carried out fairly successfully. Voters voted without intimidation, but OSCE observers also pointed out problems with the vote-counting process. The DP, with only 25 per cent of the votes and twenty-four seats, lost the elections yielding the government leadership to Fatos Nano.

From 1997 to 2005, the centre-left coalition had various government leaderships. The resignation of Nano as prime minister caused by his coalition’s division was followed by the centre-left coalition government headed by Pandeli Majko, until the parliamentary elections of June and July 2001. In those the Socialist Party won, obtaining 73 of 140 seats, and the second socialist government headed by Ilir Meta started. However, his was a short-term mandate: after a six-month dispute with Fatos Nano, Meta resigned. The national reform period came to a halt and a near total dependence on international and EU aid began.

Why, then, did the centre-left coalition implode? The primary cause of that alliance’s collapse was internal divisions. From 2002 to the parliamentary elections of 2005, Nano and Majko – who returned to the premiership in February 2002 – had personified the factional conflict within the Socialist Party of Albania. This barren political debate gave the dimension of a cultural and political gap between the parliamentary politics and the Albanian society. Political feuding between Nano, Meta and Berisha impeded Albania’s progress in social, political and economic reforms, stopping the country’s progress in negotiations with the EU.

After the first EU openings in March 2004, the European Commission accused Albania’s leaders of stopping the political reforms, also accusing opposition leader Sali Berisha of paralyzing parliament’s activities. The EU also criticized the country’s incapability to elaborate a strategy against organized crime and political and economic corruption.

Economic crisis, institutional transition, international relations and institutional reforms were the main themes of the parliamentary elections of July and August 2005. Thanks to an election campaign based on the promise to fight poverty, stimulate business and lower taxes, Berisha won the elections, becoming premier of the centre-right government. In 2005 thus began Berisha’s “New Deal,” a different political phase grounded on a collective dream: entrance into the EU.

This objective has represented an element of cohesion by which the entire country has agreed to move forward, especially regarding the reduction of illegal migratory flows to Italy and Greece. The European dream was fomented also by the EU decision of 2006 to sign off on a Stabilization and Association Agreement between Albania and EU. The condition to obtain the Accord were clear: functioning rule of law, protection of minority rights, harmonization of Albanian rule with EU legislation, a functioning market economy and the increasing of cooperation with the other Western Balkans countries.

Two years after these EU conditions were presented, what has happened to Albania? For his part, Sali Berisha seems to have chosen the 1990s revival theme, raising the rhetoric against the opposition, rather than addressing European Reformism. During the election campaign, he has accused the opposition of being tied to the Communist past.

On December 22, the parliament passed a controversial “lustration” law, which is expected to allow for the dismissal from public office of a wide range of officials who participated in “political processes” while serving in higher-level government positions under the communist regime, including judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers. The vague wording of the law gives the government free discretion in determining what “political processes” means, thereby allowing it considerable freedom in determining if an official should be dismissed from duty.

International observers, including the OSCE and COE, stridently criticized the law and expressed concern that the law would allow the government to assert undue political control over the judiciary, undermine due process, and circumvent constitutional protections provided to judges, members of parliament, and prosecutors. Furthermore, the law states that persons subject to the law cannot participate in its judicial examination. This places the court in direct conflict with the executive, as several members of the court were reported to fall within the scope of the law.

The European Union does not seem to appreciate this sort of political performance. Also, shadows enshroud these recent governmental acts. At the beginning of 2009, the US State Department declared in its 2008 Human Rights Report that “there were problems in some areas. During 2008 the government attempted to assert greater control over independent institutions such as the judiciary, the Office of the Prosecutor General, and the media. The government interfered in the ongoing investigation into the March 15 Gerdec arms depot explosion. Security forces abused prisoners and detainees and prison and pretrial detention conditions remained poor. Police corruption and impunity continued, as did discrimination against women, children, and minorities. While some progress was made toward combating human trafficking, it remained a problem.”

More than being on the road to implementation, EU standards seem to be further and further away. The Albanian Helsinki Committee and the Albanian Human Rights Group reported that police sometimes use excessive force or inhuman treatment. As reporting in the Human Right Report, police have frequently mistreated suspects at the time of arrest or initial detention. Roma, Balkan Egyptians, and homosexuals were particularly vulnerable to police abuse. The overall performance of law enforcement remained weak. Unprofessional behavior and corruption remained major impediments to the development of an effective civilian police force.

At the same time, the Ministry of Interior has started a new recruiting system with standardized procedures. In combination with the new system of police ranks, authorities expect this to improve the overall performance of the police. However, low salaries and widespread corruption throughout society made police corruption difficult to combat. However, the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption and, despite several arrests of high-level local and central government officials, corruption remained a major obstacle to meaningful reform and a serious problem.

*Enza Roberta Petrillo is an Italian research consultant on Balkan and East European Affairs, with a focus on institutional transition and social and human rights affairs. She has worked as a policy analyst for several research centers and international organizations and has collaborated as a freelance journalist with a number of newspapers, reviews and web-sites. She holds a master’s degree in Political Science and a PhD in Developmental Geography from the University L’Orientale of Naples.

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

By Christopher Deliso in Skopje

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  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 family… [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 cafe 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 motorcade… 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 Qaida 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.

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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 monitoring 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 Albanianstook 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.

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Globalizing, Terrorist-Linked Mafia Thrives in the Balkans

By Christopher Deliso

As if organized crime wasn’t already pervasive enough in the Balkans, there is now news that Colombian drug lords have established a beachhead in the region for their exports to Eastern European mafias.

Channel News Asia today quoted executive director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Antonio Maria Costa, who said that “…we have found settlements of Colombians in the Balkans, in Albania, in particular, for penetration through the Balkans into Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Russia.”

According to Costa, the “worrisome” thing about this phenomenon is that it reflects a major shift: the Colombians once used Spain as their point of import to Western Europe, but the new shift to the Balkans “…should be taken as an important signal that the market itself is changing.”

Naming cocaine as a rich man’s drug, Costa alludes to one of the reason for this shift: new pockets of wealth. With its increasing affluence (17 billionaires since the year 2000, whereas none had existed previous to that), Russia has become a great market for such fashionable narcotics.

From a smuggler’s point of view, the shift makes sense from another aspect. Borders are more amorphous in the east than in the west, the mafia more pervasive, crooked officials more easily bought.

It is not the global drug trade in and of itself that presents the most serious security problem, of course. It is rather the intersection of that industry with the terrorist one. And a key link in the chain remains the Balkans.

Earlier this month, the Italian police seized more than 100kg of explosives from the Calabrian mafia in a raid that also resulted in 12 arrests. The authorities “…believe the explosives to have come from the Balkans due to the cyrillic labels.”

Agenzia Giornalistica Italia last month quoted Italian Senator Maurizio Calvi on the “Colombian syndrome” in the Balkans. “The most worrying situation is [in] the Balkan area,” said Calvi, who described it as a “…transit corridor for sleeping terrorists, but above all crossroads for all the main illegal trafficking, from drugs to weapons, passing to human beings.”

The globalization of the trade was alluded to by magistrate Rosario Priore, who spoke of something called the “transmafia”- that is, a “…new trans-national mafia active in Europe and Italy.”

A year ago, respected military analyst Jane’s reported that “…organised criminals in the service of international terrorism are taking over the illicit trade in nuclear materials along the traditional Balkan smuggling route.”

Citing Russian, Serbian and US sources, Jane’s mentioned “…increased activity in the area by Islamic terrorists,” including Bosnia and (a bit further east) Moldova.

Jane’s cited an expert on arms trafficking, Scott Parrish of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, as saying the “traditional” east-west smuggling routes cross Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans, as well as Vladimir Orlov, a senior figure at Moscow’s Centre for Policy Studies, “…who at a specialist conference recently described an unsuccessful attempt by the Russian mafia to obtain weapons of mass destruction for foreign interests.”

“…What is at stake here? There are an estimated 1,350 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, enough for 40,000 nuclear weapons, stockpiled in Russia as well as in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and Uzbekistan – in addition to potentially lethal material suitable for use in ‘dirty bombs’.

Several criminal-controlled Russian companies operate transport companies, say Phil Williams and Paul Woessner of the Ridgway Centre for International Security Studies. They argue in a discussion paper (published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London) that the familiarity of criminal enterprises with export licensing and their ability to corrupt officials and hide illicit cargo in legal consignments could all assist nuclear smuggling.”

The US government has voiced concern over the possibility of terrorists and mafia groups collaborating. This week’s announcement that the FBI will open a branch office in Bulgaria is only the latest in a series of actions reflecting this concern. FBI attache in Athens, Robert Clifford, told Reuters that the new Sofia office will focus on “…terrorism, the trafficking of humans and weapons” besides more traditional types of organized crime.

While the Americans may indeed like to counter the threat, “non-state elements” in organized crime are pervasive in this part of the world. And, according to some informed sources, they have even infiltrated the bureaucracy of the most powerful nation on earth. In a recent interview with an FBI whistleblower, the Turkish-born Sibel Edmonds, repeated charges that her former department (translations) has been penetrated by an “intelligence group not linked to any government.” Her testimony conjures up a dizzying world of governmental intrigue and organized crime straight out of the pages of a Tom Clancy novel:

“…you have [a] network of people who obtain certain information and they take it out and sell it to… whomever would be the highest bidder. Then you have people who would be bringing into the country narcotics from the East, and their connections. [It] is only then that you really see the big picture.”

According to Ms. Edmonds, the complex and multi-faceted nature of the phenomenon is what makes it so intractable. “…There are certain points… where you have your drug related activities combined with money laundering and information laundering, converging with your terrorist activities.”

Indeed, just as the old state structures of the Cold War era have disintegrated, so to have the institutions that once presented relative safeguards against the proliferation of weapons technologies and security know-how. Nowadays, former KGB spies rent out their formidable talents and access to high-level governmental connections to “the highest bidder.”

The Washington Times, in alleging cooperation between bin Laden and the Russian mafia, added that former Soviet scientists might also be bought. “…At its height during the Cold War, the Soviet biological weapons program employed some 65,000 persons,” the newspaper reported. “U.S. officials have feared for years that some of the out-of-work biological weapons scientists would sell their expertise to terrorists like Bin Laden.”

The death of Albania’s Enver Hoxha opened up the country to the outside world, but also resulted in a new freedom of movement and operations for mafia operations that have, as in Russia and many other places, developed extensive ties with paramilitary and terrorist organizations. Back in 1999, George Szamuely quoted Jane’s and the German Federal Criminal Agency as attesting to the increasing control of the Albanian mafia, which at the time was believed to control up to 70 percent of Europe’s heroin trade. Three years later, KLA ties with Afghan and Pakistan poppy cultivators were still helping the Albanian mafia fund a “new arms race in the Balkans,” reported the Telegraph’s Christian Jennings.

Today, there are no guarantees that the US can even defend its own best interests, given the compromises it’s forced to make with “allies” of convenience. Sponsor the KLA in Kosovo, and be prepared to tolerate their mafia ties. Embellish a Muslim army in Bosnia with imported mujahedin, and allow states with questionable interests, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to develop a covert regional presence. Until 9/11, out of sight meant out of mind for Americans. Nowadays, fighting terrorism in the Balkans simultaneously means trying to reverse the damage caused by some of Bill Clinton’s more brilliant ideas.

In 2000, the Center for Peace in the Balkans cited one Michael Levine, a 25-year veteran of the DEA as declaring that there is “no question” about the CIA’s knowledge of the Albanian KLA’s drug ties. “…They (the CIA) protected them (the KLA) in every way they could. As long as the CIA is protecting the KLA, you’ve got major drug pipelines protected from any police investigation”

This detailed article, which goes on to detail the operations of Islamic terrorists in Albania and Kosovo during the 1990’s, quotes an anonymous congressional expert on drug trafficking issues as saying, “…there is no doubt that the KLA is a major trafficking organization… but we have a relationship with the KLA, and the administration doesn’t want to damage (its) reputation. We are partners.”

This unflattering reality has not gone away, despite the new realities of the post-9/11 world. As Sibel Edmonds attests, “…certain investigations were being quashed, let’s say per State Department’s request, because it would have affected certain foreign relations [or] affected certain business relations with foreign organizations.”

“…Intelligence is also gathered by certain semi-legitimate organizations –to be used for their activities,” continued Ms. Edmonds. “It really does not boil down to countries anymore… When you have activities involving a lot of money, you have people from different nations involved…. It can be categorized under organized crime, but on a very large scale.”

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