Politicians Bicker as Tirana Burns

Since the collapse of communism in Albania, corruption has evolved into a far-reaching problem within the government and Albanian society. In 1998, the World Bank ranked Albania the most corrupt country in Europe. Nearly half of Albanian citizens surveyed admitted to paying bribes. Two-thirds of public officials admitted that bribery was a common phenomenon in the country. Proponents of cleaner government say that the money lost from the Albanian economy through bribes could be put to better use. Albanian workers are among the worst paid in Europe. Official statistics put the unemployment rate at 16 percent, but independent estimates have put the figure as high as 25 percent. A severe energy shortage and dilapidated infrastructure cripple business and scare away foreign investors. So any governmental attempt to purge the country of corruption from the top down should be welcome news.

Yes, many Albanian commentators say, but only if the attempt is made in good faith. When a drive to curb corruption becomes subservient to political infighting, it loses credibility and efficacy.

The dispute between factions loyal to former Prime Minister Ilir Meta and those loyal to Fatos Nano, Chairman of the ruling Socialist Party (SP), has only intensified since Meta’s resignation on Jan. 29. After a seven hour-debate on March 18, the Albanian Parliament voted to ask President Rexhep Meidani to fire Prosecutor-General Arben Rapiki, for being, in the words of opposition representatives, "the protector corruption and crime." On March 25, Meidani formally dismissed Rakipi and nominated Theodhori Sollaku, who is currently the Albanian presidential adviser on judicial matters, to the post. The Parliament must now approve the nomination.

Rakipi has been under intense scrutiny since one his aides, Sokol Kociu, was arrested for alleged connections to a cocaine-smuggling cartel. Following the arrest, Albanian dailies ran photos of Rakipi with Kociu’s associates.

Nano and 28 of his supporters stormed out of the assembly in boycott of the vote, heightening the drama being played out between Nano and Meta’s factions within the SP. Speaking to reporters from the German news agency, Deutsche Presse-Argentur, Nano called the motion against Rakipi "antidemocratic and unconstitutional," and "an attack against the independent state institutions in Albania." On March 26,  35 representatives loyal to Nano said they would submit a motion to remove President Meidani from office within a few days for what they called his unconstitutional dismissal of Rakipi.  

Meta and SP members loyal to him are being investigated by Rakipi’s office. On Feb. 27 Rakipi had asked Parliament to allow him to prosecute Socialist MP Dritan Prifti, who had been Energy Minister in Meta’s government, for buying energy at inflated prices from friends in exchange for kickbacks, a particularly serious charge in light of Albania’s dire energy crisis.

Many Albanian observers saw Rakipi’s impending investigation of key members of Meta’s faction for corruption as the real reason behind the vote to remove him from office. In a March 20 editorial, independent Tirana newspaper, Koha Jone wrote, "e;Attacked from all sides and accused of things he did or did not do, Rakipi apparently fell in the fierce rush of dirty politics…. One political faction [loyal to Meta] was glad to see him go, and members of another [the opposition] rubbed their hands with glee. The few who opposed his removal or boycotted the Parliament have now forgotten [Rakipi]. Their leader, Fatos Nano, lost a parliamentary battle against two fronts: the opposition on one side, and his adversaries in the [SP] party on the other. This marriage of convenience, formed for this brief moment, may form again when necessary."

Tirana newspaper Dita likewise saw Rakipi’s removal as politically motivated, and feared that it had set a bad precedent: "Does Rakipi's dismissal… signal that everybody daring to investigate politicians will pay the same dear price?" the paper’s editors asked in a March 20 editorial. "If so, and if this is going to be the message informing the nature, position, and measure of the new attorney general's courage, then it could be well be said that Albanian politics has just committed suicide."

The Albanian press had mixed reactions to the latest feud within the SP. Tirana’s right-wing Albania supported Rakipi’s removal in its March 5 editorial. "[Rakipi’s] latest declarations were politically motivated, not motivated by a professional desire to prosecute crime," the paper’s editors wrote. "He is too closely connected to the infighting within the SP; he is ignoring his status as an independent and guarantor of… justice," they continued, citing Rakipi’s active support for Nano’s bid to take control of the SP and the government.

Tirana’s centrist Dita complained that neither SP faction was addressing the issues that really concern Albanians. In a March 5 editorial titled, "When the Best Defense Is… Self-defense," Dita’s editors wrote, "There are thousands of Albanians who do not relate at all to the internal conflicts of the Socialist Party, or to the serious allegations of corruption in the government’s purchase of power. The majority of Albanians demand transparency and justice in the ways the government manages their tax dollars. They do not want to know about the factions battling within the SP."

Rilindja Demokratike, the mouthpiece of the opposition Democratic Party, took exception with that argument. In its March 1 editorial, the newspaper accused Rakipi’s office of having forgotten its function as the protector of the law and of having become instead the protector of those who abuse it for political interests: "The… involvement of state leaders in [human and drug] trafficking and other criminal activities… seems to have sundered justice from its execution. As the institution responsible for executing justice, the investigating institution has… been transformed from the upholder of the law to the abuser of the law for political interests. At first sight, it looks as though the investigating agency began with the idea of starting a ‘clean hands’ operation. But looking beyond this bit of propaganda, we can see [Rakipi’s office] has been used in a one-sided and illegal way, not for the preservation of justice, but to pressure and eliminate rivals in the fight between factions of the SP." Faced with such a grim political situation, Koha Jone, in a March 5 editorial, asked, "Is There Any Light at the End of the Tunnel?" and found none. Koha Jone’s editors wrote that the only way to cure the government of its paralyzing infighting would be to dispense with the current government and start afresh.

Albanians increasingly blame the country’s problems on its lack of an effective political opposition. As the editors of Albania put it in the editorial from the March 8 edition, titled "Without Government, Without Opposition," "Albania has an opposition, some 52 deputies who speak and are paid on its behalf, dozens of political parties, papers, and officials…. All of these constitute the official opposition, the one that speaks when it is asked, that says what it thinks and that thinks differently from the government and makes this a politically pluralistic society. But Albania unfortunately lacks another opposition, that of an involved citizenry such as there is in Argentina—a citizenry that has the skills to ask for political and democratic compensation for the crises and the bad governance they have endured, an opposition that does not ask but turns down governments and presidents, an opposition that does not plead but demands respect for its rights."