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Albania: Passport Controversy Raising More Corruption Questions

Controversy over a tender to supply new passports to Albania is raising questions about widespread corruption in the government. Alban Bala of RFE/RL's Albanian Unit reports from Tirana.

Tirana, 5 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The controversy surrounding an order for new Albanian passports is being seen in the country as further evidence of the widespread corruption long believed to plague the bureaucracies of Tirana.

A U.S. firm, Euroget, is suing the Albanian Ministry of Public Order after the ministry last month awarded a contract for printing new passports to the German company Bundesdruckerei. The winning bid was reportedly $1.8 million in excess of four other offers, including one made by Euroget.

Last month, the U.S. Embassy in Tirana publicly protested the deal. And the British Embassy there has asked the Albanian government to improve the transparency of its public procurement processes after it says a British company was disqualified from the same passport bidding without a clear explanation.

David Landsman is the British ambassador in Tirana. He says he has spoken about the transparency issue with Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta, who he says was sympathetic.

"I talked to the prime minister too on occasions, and I know that the prime minister understands very well that one important area for reform and an important objective in the process towards Europeanization is transparency in public procurement. The point which I made to the press on a number of occasions before is that the rule of law is itself an important contributing factor towards economic development, as well as broader democratic development."

The chairman of Albania's Department for State Control, Mustafa Kercuku, says the passport scandal reveals the dimension of corruption in the country.

"The violation of the tender documentation procedures is not reflected in the documents, so the corruption is made 'underground.' So we cannot state how much money is being misappropriated through corruption. No institution in the country is capable of finding this out, not even the Department for State Control. This is why all state institutions should cooperate. We are looking for a broader cooperation, but so far it has been of a low profile."

Even the ruling Socialist Party recognizes the corruption problem. Former Albanian Prime Minister Ylli Bufi, a member of the Socialist Party, currently chairs the parliament's Economy and Finance Commission. He acknowledges that corruption is the government's biggest challenge.

"No doubt in Albania's economic life, dealing with corruption, smuggling [and] fiscal evasion is difficult and challenges the political majority to minimize these problems. We have no need to deny that these phenomena have important dimensions. They certainly require the commitment of all Albanian financial structures."

Vili Minarolli, a senior Albanian opposition official, says the Democratic Party has been denouncing corruption in Albania for years but says the opposition lacks the means to stop it.

"We are deeply concerned with the ongoing phenomenon of corruption that occurs in Albania, affecting its political status internationally as well as regarding the domestic economic situation, which ranks Albania among the poorest countries in the world. These moods set by the state deter investors and stymie opportunities for economic development. We have denounced several cases, but the opposition's opportunities are narrowing day by day."

Regarding the passport procurement scandal, Minister of Public Order Ilir Gjoni has so far refused to answer questions on the matter. No other officials in the ministry appear to be permitted to speak on the record without his permission.

The German company Bundesdruckerei has been linked to similar bidding controversies elsewhere in the Balkans. In Romania, the company won a contract to print a first batch of 50,000 passports last August. Its bid was reportedly almost double the next highest. Bundesdruckerei also was barred from Bosnia for not meeting contract terms, especially regarding the quality of new Bosnian passports.

No one answered telephone calls or e-mails at Bundesdruckerei's press office today.

Passports are one of the most popular items on Albania's black market. An Albanian emigrant living abroad can illegally purchase a new Albanian passport for between $500 and $1,000. But a foreigner trying to assume false Albanian citizenship has to pay between $3,000 and $5,000. Getting a new passport legally can take several months. Many blank passports were reportedly stolen from police stations during the anarchic unrest in Albania in 1997.

(NCA's Jolyon Naegele contributed to this report.)