Thursday, March 8, 2007

Albania and EUROPOL Sign Agreement on Organized Crime
Ioannis Michaletos and Stavros Markos
Athens, Greece, and Tirana, Albania
March 7, 2007

How widespread is corruption in Albania? Speaking at a news conference in Tirana on Oct. 14, Albanian President Alfred Moisiu refused to dismiss the country's attorney general, Theodhori Sollaku, accused by Prime Minister Sali Berisha of being linked to organized crime. Since the collapse of communism in the early 1990's, Albania has been the source of heavy trafficking to the European Union of illegal immigrants, prostitutes, drugs, and weapons. (Photo: Gent Shkullaku / AFP-Getty Images)

The Albanian Parliament recently approved a bill that promotes cooperation with EUROPOL in an effort to address the endemic phenomena of organized crime syndicates in the country. Based in The Hague, Netherlands, EUROPOL is—in a sense—the equivalent of the European Union's F.B.I. Over the years, it has dealt extensively with organized crime in Europe in the sectors of money laundering, connections with terrorism, and trafficking.

In the case of Albania, the European authority is very much concerned about the overall attention the state is paying to the all-pervading influence of crime networks within the country. A very interesting aspect is the existence of a well developed network within Albania that imports capital made by illegal trade—mostly narcotics and human trafficking—and then invests it in construction and finance. Albanian media has been busy exposing reports from abroad, such as one from the F.B.I., that highlight the ties between heads of organized crime and public figures of the state. These ties have the effect of hindering the efficiency of the state system in combating illegal activities of organized form.

Interestingly, during the recent municipal elections in Albania, the opposition party won largely because its campaign focused on the alleged ties between state officials and "Mafia capos" therefore relying on public sentiment that is heavily burdened by the inability of the state to protect its citizens and its own interests. The sectors in which corruption is more evident in Albania are the police, the tax service, and to a great extent the judiciary system, which is composed by very low paid public servants who have to deal with increased pressure from the crime barons.

The municipal elections were characterized by widespread rumors about the illegal capital flowing into the campaign coffers of various parties. Quite a few of the elected mayors were often accused of cooperating with criminal groups in order to secure their political survival. Also, there were many allegations of misconduct recorded by members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, albeit in a cautionary report. Furthermore, the issue of telecommunications surveillance of public officials is similarly related to the existence of a well-developed crime network that has sprung up across the country since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1991. What's more is the sheer size of the economic dynamism that organized crime is able to produce in this small Balkan state. According to Albanian economic reviews since 2003, legal investments average some 200 million euros, while illegally invested funds are in excess of 1 billion, a ratio of one to five.

Albania nowadays lacks a proper investment framework in finance and in its stock market. Albanian citizens are prey to groups that are financing outside the legal banking system, often with practices not far from racketeering. The booming construction sector is heavily involved in the money laundering industry and the livelihoods of thousands of workers literally depend on the continuation of this corrupted economic structure. According to Transparency International, 80 percent of the Albanian economy is a "parallel one"; for every 100 euros of documented capital, another 80 euros are never accounted for, most of it from organized crime activities.

Under the new agreement with Albania, EUROPOL expects to become more involved in accessing information on Albanian crime syndicates that are collaborating with other syndicates in Western Europe. According to the Terrorism Research Center in Washington, D.C., a previous agreement in effect since 2004 provided for the monitoring of important organized crime groups and of leads connecting Albanian citizens with Islamic terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden is said to have visited Tirana, the capital of Albania, at least twice, in 1994 and 1997, where he sought to create an Islamic network. To that end, bin Laden created the Arab-Albanian Bank and invested a capital of $11.4 million. After the 1998 bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, an extensive anti-terrorist operation in Albania resulted in the destruction of many cells that had recently been set up. To this day, Albania is constantly monitored by the F.B.I., the C.I.A., Interpol, and EUROPOL for "hybrid organizations," meaning the interrelation of organized crime and terrorism.

The actual agreement lays out a well-organized framework that will supposedly help put Albania on par with European norms, a prerequisite for accession negotiations with the European Union. More specifically, EUROPOL will create a network of criminologists and well-trained police officers nationwide to monitor organized crime activities and provide continuous and accurate information. Special attention will be paid to anti-narcotics operations. Human trafficking will be addressed, too, in order to battle an illegal industry responsible for one of the worst slave trades Europe has witnessed over the past two centuries.

The agreement between Albania and the European Union's law enforcement organization comes at a time when public opinion in the country is steadfast on accession into the European Union and NATO. It will be crucial for Tirana to show will and capability in addressing the hot issues of crime and corruption. The European Union has already expressed concern and the recent enlargement rush that increased the number of member states from 15 to 27 has weakened support for integrating the Western Balkans. For the European Union to impose stricter criteria relating to anti-corruption laws and standards over the coming years would come as no surprise.

Albania is reaching a critical point where it will have to deal with its chronic problems—decisively and swiftly. The ongoing negotiations over Kosovo, the absence of adherence to democratic processes, as the recent elections pointed out, and fervent nationalism is an explosive combination that could hinder the country's path to United Europe. Furthermore, the resurfacing of medieval practices like the one depicted in the "Kanoun scripture"* will most certainly handicap Albania's ability to fully conform to modern European security models. One hopes that during the coming years the cooperation between Albania and the security apparatus of the European Union—i.e., EUROPOL—will prove to be fruitful and assist the state in gaining back some of the credibility it has lost over the past 15 years.

* "Kanoun" comes from the Greek "canon." It concerns the rules of social conduct as laid down to the Albanian people by a Roman Catholic priest during the 15th century B.C. The rules depict meticulously the obligations of every male Albanian, and among other things include orders for vendettas and revenge. During most of the Communist era, the rules were rarely followed, but it has resurfaced, especially in Northern Albania. Moreover, "Kanoun" is steadily becoming the code of conduct for members of the organized crime groups that are paralyzing state security and creating a framework similar to that of Sicily in another era.

Ioannis Michaletos is a freelance writer who has written previously for Stavros Markos is a freelance journalist for newspapers and journals in Albania.

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