% of GDP
In 1990 Albania ended 44 years of xenophobic communist rule and established a multiparty democracy. The transition has proven difficult as corrupt governments have tried to deal with high unemployment, a dilapidated infrastructure, widespread
gangsterism, and disruptive political opponents. International observers judged local elections in 2000 to be acceptable and a step toward democratic development, but serious deficiencies remain to be corrected before the
2001 parliamentary elections
Update No: 074 - (19/06/03)
The Albanians are in a tough spot. Their republic is so remote barely anyone recognises its existence. It is actually a sizeable and interesting country. But this is not the usual view.
Post 9:11 profile
The events of the last few years have served their turn. The one thing that distinguishes them and puts them on the map of the West (if one defines this as Western Europe (the EU) and North America, plus Australasia) is that they have a majority Moslem population, 70% of the total.
One would expect them to be targets of Islamic fundamentalist agitation. Indeed they are, as is the Croat-Muslim Republic in the Bosnian Confederation next door. The fundamentalists come to Tirana, but to their profound regret. There is no government in Europe which is cooperating more fully with the Americans than the Albanian one, under premier Fatos Nano. Their counterparts in Washington are instantly informed when suspects from terrorist groups are in town.
The socialists in charge in Albania are doing well. A buoyant economy (albeit from a low base), a drive against corruption and gangsterism, a rapprochement with Serbia and new-found status in the world as a staunch ally against rogue regimes and terrorists, hence a virtual unofficial member of NATO.
Albania had a particularly baroque command-administrative system under communism, when its leader Enver Hoxha, was the most fanatical of Stalinists. He permitted no reforms or overtures to market economics, to speak of.
He died in April 1985 at the very threshold of the era of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union, the month after Gorbachev became first general secretary. He would have had no truck with Gorbachev and thought that Khrushchev was already an unmitigated disaster for the socialist cause. Indeed, even in China in 1952 on a visit to Mao Tse-Tung he 'smelt the revisionism in the air.' Mao was always warning of the ubiquity of the capitalist-roaders: Well, he and Hoxha have been proven absolutely right even despite the tyranny that both of them exercised.
Albania may have had the purest Stalinist regime in Europe into the 1980s; it also had, not by any accident, its poorest economy.
Coming in from the cold
Albania is now changing fast. Soon after the end of communism there in 1991-2 there was a disastrous flirtation with pyramid-financing scams, in which one-half of the population lost their savings by 1997. The centrist government under President Sali Berisha, in power since April 1992, lost in elections five years on to the Socialist party, the ex-communists. Its leaders were mainly in their early thirties or less, with only childhood memories of Hoxha's rule and with a determination to do better. The party's manifesto committed it to being modern and progressive, to democracy, social justice and economic reform.
As in Hungary, the ex-communists knew the ropes and were chastened at past misdemeanours which they wanted to live down. They have proved ardent exponents of reform. But then they were singularly lucky in their timing. The Kosovo War broke out in early 1999 and Albania fully cooperated with NATO forces and international aid bodies to deal with the huge refugee problem, as more than a quarter of a million Albanian Kosovars fled to refuge. The influx of Western money and resident aid agency operatives turned the economy around.
From 1999 onwards, GDP began to grow at 7-8% per annum, and at that with remarkably low inflation. The refugees have returned home; but the international community has not abandoned the small republic of three million. The possibility of a new civil war involving Albanians in Macedonia was clearly an important incentive to keeping Western interest going in nation-building in Albania.
The events since 9:11 in 2001 have seen the threat of civil war in Macedonia recede, and especially since the election there in September of a new government, including the main Albanian party under former rebel leader, Ali Ahmeli, which has abjured the use of force and not before time.
Since 9:11 the Albanians have been fully cooperative with the Americans in the anti-terrorist struggle. Tirana, capital of the one nation with a majority of Moslems in Europe, is an obvious haunt of Islamic militants, as is the Croat-Muslim Republic in Bosnia, where an international congress of such extremists from 50 countries was held on October 8th in Travnik with the stated aim of forging a united front against "American-Zionist aggression." The Albanian government has been will and able to hand over suspected terrorists among Islamicists in its territory to interogation in the US, whereas the Bosnian authorities under the International High Representative have paradoxically had their hands tied in this regard by the delicacy of the international operation in Bosnia. Albania is now a de facto part of NATO on the Adriatic's eastern shore, a fact that must have Hoxha turning over in his grave.
The long heritage of banditry and crime
The major problem in the Balkans and in the east of the Mediterranean generally, indeed in Italy at its centre, has been the nexus of corruption and organised crime. Communism in Albania, like fascism in Italy, put a temporary stop to it. But in the post-Hoxha epoch of communism, 1985-1991/2, the gangsters, or what might be more romantically be called the brigands or bandits, made a comeback in Albania, never having been fully eradicated, any more than were the mafia under Mussolini.
There is a striking anomaly here, from which lessons can be learned. The isolated and repressive governance of Albania under Hoxha had kept everyone, including the brigands, under wraps. It has been the opening up to the West which has given them a new lease of life.
Albania is one centre of a world-wide network of gangsterism, linking Central Asian heroin smugglers, Russian mafia and Balkan middlemen to Western Europe and the United States. There have been links with government figures and officialdom in the period since Hoxka's demise, that increased apace after the watershed of 1991-92.
The Albanian criminals present law enforcement agencies in Albania, and now in the EU and the wider world, with acute problems. One of the gravest is that the Albanian bandits are ruled by a code of honour that makes the Italian Mafia's omerta resemble a casual word of warning by comparison. The Kanun, or Code, goes back to the 15th century; it was codified by Leke Dukagjini, an Albanian prince who was a leading warrior in the unavailing struggle with the Ottoman Turks. It covers not only marriage, family law and property, but also above all matters of honour, under which a besa, or pledge, must never be broken.
The Kanun continued to regulate everyday life well into the 20th century. Blood feuds became an endemic occurrence, as clan members avenged in kind, the killing of any member of their clan, as an obligation creating a never-ending spiral of murder.
Hoxha's regime did the utmost to repress the Code, substituting loyalty of the party and to communism in its stead. But old habits die hard and the local party chieftans in the north and the east where the Kanun was strongest continued it in the guise of stern party loyalty.
With the demise of the old order in the 1989-92 period, old-style bandits in the mountains, whose lives and mores had changed little in 600 years, emerged into the open, with allies in local administrations, ready to break into more modern rackets. The opening up of the borders and the arrival of foreigners from Italy, from the other Balkan countries, and particularly from Turkey and Kurdistan, and from Russia and beyond gave them unprecedented scope for their talents. But to exercise these to the full required connivance by officialdom; hence a spectacular growth of corruption.
The campaign against corruption
One merit of Berisha's rule, with his Democratic Party of Albania in charge of government, was that it saw the commencement of an anti-corruption drive. During 1992-93 Ramiz Alia, Fatos Nano and other former communist leaders were placed under arrest and charged with corruption and the misuse of power. The Socialist Party of Albania (SPA) was at this time on the defensive, being politically isolated after its poor showing in 1991's parliamentary elections and continually damaged by the arrests and trials of its members for their actions under the communist regime. Nano, the SPA leader, was charged and found guilty of channelling large profits to providers of food aid by falsifying official documents during his brief term as premier in 1991. Former president, Ramiz Alia, was sentenced to nine years in prison for abuse of powers and violating the rights of citizens; while former premier Adil «arc was given a five-year term on similar counts, a sentence commuted for reasons of ill-health.
These events, however, did little to alleviate the deep public resentment at the scale of corruption in public life. Nor was it abated when Alia and 30 other political prisoners were released in an amnesty in a successful bid to obtain Albania's admission to the Council of Europe in 1995.
The flood of international aid since 1999 has seen a quantum leap in the scale of corruption and gangsterdom, as 'surplus' stores go missing. The gangsters, impeccable ex-communists to a man, have 'cleaner' political records than the old stalwarts of the SPA, not themselves averse to corruption when the opportunity arises, as we have seen. A parallel can be drawn here with the mafia in 1943-45, and in the immediate post-war years, in Italy when the Americans released them from the detention they had suffered under Mussolini and reinstated them in important local posts as staunch anti-fascists and anti-communists, which indeed they were. The role of American Italian mafiosi as 'honest GI brokers' on the ground was not unimportant here and helped to bequeath to postwar Italy its festering mafia problem.
The SPA leaders today are keen to eradicate the image of Albanian brigandage once and for all. Albania's chief prosecutor, Theodhori Sollaku, has addressed an appeal to lawmakers to approve bills that will effectively bring an end to suspicious wealth enjoyed by several businessmen and/or state officials. How effective the campaign would be, even if the bills are passed, depends on there being close cooperation between the police in both Albania and the EU, indeed beyond Europe too.
The bandits go abroad
Albanian gangsters are nothing, if not enterprising. Having survived the rigours of a totalitarian regime compared with which Brezhnevite Russia was a predator's picnic, they feel confident of besting anything the West has to put up against them in their line of business. Following in the wake of the Russian mafia, they are moving into Western Europe and beyond.
In towns and cities across the UK, the Albanians are taking over organised crime. UK Home secretary David Blunkett has warned that Europe's stability is being threatened by organised crime from the south east of Europe, above all from Albania. Their "organised criminals are more organised than we are," he bemoans.
Scotland Yard estimate that Albanian gangs control about 75% of prostitution in Soho, London's red-light district. About three quarters of heroin coming from Afghanistan onto Britain's streets passes through Albanian hands. Albanians and Albanian Kosovars are said to be involved in extortion, gun-running and organised theft in the UK. They even plotted the abduction of Victoria Beckham, wife of the football star, David Beckham.
In the last year a similar pattern has been reported from Milan to the American Midwest, where Albanians are emerging as the aspirant superstars of crime to rival the Sicilian mafia, the Chinese triads and the Russian mob. However, there are signs that the Albanian gangs have over-reached themselves in taking on the Italian mafia in Milan, where they are being rolled back by a concerted onslaught with help from the police. Countries with weak local gangsters, such as the UK, offer them better long-term prospects.
In the soft niches of northern Europe the Albanians have inestimable advantages in their operations. UK police officers interrogating Albanian criminals are finding the code of silence almost impossible to crack. The Albanians have a safe homeland and a sizeable diaspora in the UK, just as the IRA has done in its time. Albania lies athwart one of the most lucrative drug-trafficking routes; their links to the Kosovo Liberation Army have provided a supply of weapons and they are always ready to use extreme violence.
It is hardly surprising that the UK government is moving towards tougher immigration practices, the closure of the Sangatte detention centre in Northern France being one. The Albanian government is giving full assistance to Scotland Yard and other EU police forces to combat the menace. Albania is now an evident part of Europe in bad times as well as good.
Russian official says firms interested in investing in Albania's energy sector
Deputy Minister of Finance of the Russian Federation, Aleksei Ulukajev, during talks held in Tirana with Albanian Minister of Economy, Arben Malaj, emphasized that Russian specialized companies have voiced interest in investing in the oil and power sectors in Albania, ATA News Agency has reported. Quoting Ministry of Economy sources, during this meeting, Minister Malaj assessed the boosting of cooperation with the Russian government and briefed Ulukajev on the general economic situation in the country, especially with regard to the progress of privatisation of several strategic sectors.
During the meeting of the Albanian-Russian Joint Commission for Economic, Technical-Scientific Cooperation, Ulukajev emphasized that "Russia is interested in the supervision of Port of Durres reconstruction, as well as in the participation in the reconstruction of several road networks." Moreover, this meeting between Albanian and Russian experts focused on the identification of cooperation possibilities in several fields, including encouragement of commercial exchanges and mutual investments, promotion of investments and exports, cooperation for the implementation of joint programmes and projects with the direct participation of Russian companies, as well as in the organization of fairs, business forums and many others.
Quoting Ministry of Finances sources, a substantial boost in commercial exchanges with Russia was noted over the last few years. These exchanges are envisaged to amount to 20m euro over the current year.
FOREIGN ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Slovenia, Albania interested in boosting economic cooperation
Slovenia would like to see a boost to economic cooperation with Albania and a higher trade turnover, it was said at the 30th May political consultations between the two countries in Tirana, the Slovene Foreign Ministry said, STA News Agency has reported.
It was agreed that the third session of the joint economic commission should take place in Tirana in September, and interest was shown by both sides in the exchange of contacts between the two countries' chambers of commerce.
Agreements on the avoidance of double taxation and on the international road transport of passengers and goods would also boost the cooperation.
Foreign Ministry State Secretary, Iztok Mirosic, who headed the Slovene delegation, proposed that an umbrella agreement in international development cooperation be signed, the ministry said.
Mirosic met Albanian Foreign Ministe, Ilir Meta, and his deputy Luan Hajdaraga..
According to the Foreign Ministry, cooperation is well under way in transport. Slovenia's Port of Koper has expressed an interest in cooperating with Albania's port of Durres.
Informing the Albanian official about Slovenia's progress in becoming an EU and NATO member, Mirosic stressed that the country supports Albania's EU integration as well as NATO's open-door policy. He expressed Slovenia's readiness to share its experience gained in the negotiating processes. Mirosic also hailed the decision of the Albanian government to abolish visas for Slovene citizens.
Bulgarian, Albanian transport ministers sign agreement
The development of transport and transport infrastructure and the opportunities for stepping up the construction of the pan-European Corridor VIII dominated the 13th June talks of Bulgarian Transport Ministe,r Plamen Petrov, and his Albanian counterpart, Spartak Poci, in Varna, the Transport Ministry said, BTA web site has reported.
Petrov and Poci signed a new intergovernmental agreement on commercial maritime navigation whereby the two countries undertake to provide access to their ports, berths and cargo handling equipment.
The two ministers also signed a declaration on stepping up construction of Corridor VIII where they call upon Italy to assist more actively in the implementation of key infrastructure sites along the route, in its capacity as coordinator of the project and in view of its future presidency of the EU. Petrov and Poci also exchanged information on the condition of their infrastructure and the plans for its improvement in the near future. They voiced fears that fund shortage might halt some major projects that are part of Corridor VIII, including the railway infrastructure projects in Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia.
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