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Albania: Despite Awareness In West And At Home, No End In Sight For Corruption

The international community is urging authorities in Albania to make a genuine commitment to fighting corruption, which is seen as the main threat to the future of Europe's second-poorest country (after Moldova). For the past three months, a local clearinghouse has been working with the backing of the U.S. Agency for International Development to help identify cases of corruption within Albania's state administration.

Tirana, 1 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Corruption is so widespread in Albania that when attorney Kreshnik Spahiu sought new phone lines for his Citizen's Advocacy Office -- a newly established non-governmental organization aimed at fighting government corruption -- the state telephone company asked him for a bribe.

Spahiu's organization, which works with support from the U.S. Embassy in Tirana and the U.S. international development agency USAID, now records an average of 10 new corruption cases a day. In the small flat where the advocacy office is located, the phones ring almost constantly.

The 39-year-old lawyer says he has been surprised by the wide scope of accusations and complaints he has processed since his office opened three months ago. Spahiu blames politics for the scale of corruption in Albania, and says it is time for authorities in the country to accept responsibility for the problem.

"According to the latest data from Interpol, 40 percent of all drug and prostitution trafficking in Europe goes through Albania -- making this country a bridge for the political and economic mafia," Spahiu says. "Responsibility for this state of affairs this should be identified not only in the judiciary, but in the political system as well."

Representatives of the international community in Albania have urged local authorities to better address the problem. Geert Ahrens, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's ambassador to Tirana, says an independent judiciary could help repair some of the damage caused by political corruption. But he says that remains a distant reality -- despite efforts like the Stabilization and Association Process for Southeastern Europe, which aims to help Albania integrate into EU structures through financial assistance and democracy-building.

"First of all, I do not think that anybody would pretend that there is no corruption in the Albanian judiciary. Just ask the people around here in the street. This is the concern of the international community and very important for the Stabilization and Association Process. This should be taken seriously and not dismissed," Ahrens says.

Nicholas Burns is the U.S. ambassador to NATO. On a visit to Tirana in February, he said that delays in implementing rule of law may prevent Albania the degree of Western integration necessary to succeed in its NATO entry bid. Albania is among the nine countries looking to receive an invitation to join the military alliance when it holds its summit in Prague this November.

Burns describes the kind of progress the West is hoping to see in Albania: "A commitment to the rule of law, to fighting against corruption, to upholding the importance of an independent and powerful judiciary, to fighting narcotics trafficking and -- we emphasize -- the important struggle against the trafficking of innocent women and children in the entire Balkan region. And I can ensure you that this is one of more important issues among a wide variety of issues that will be an important factor in the NATO process of selecting new members."

Sabri Godo, the founder of Albania's opposition Republican Party, co-chaired the commission responsible for drafting Albania's first postcommunist constitution in 1998. Godo says the absence of legitimate property rights makes corruption a chronic problem in Albania.

"It is clear for everyone that the area where corruption flourished most was private property. The so-called commissions for land restitution pulled off a robbery similar to that of the former Communist regime, distributing about 70 percent of the land to party activists and power-holders. The legal owners [of the land] have rarely had their former properties restituted, and when they have it is only on a very limited basis. This gives way to a lot of [property] speculation," Godo says.

Attorney Spahiu agrees, and he points to one of his cases as an example of the rampant abuse of private property in Albania. His client, Marketin Topallaj, is an architect who in 1996 won the right to reclaim a family plot in Tirana that in the interim had been occupied by a fuel company. After a series of hearings initiated by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, Topallaj was also granted the right to retain the fuel tanks on his property. Although the property was twice handed over to Topallaj by local justice officials, both times it was re-seized by armed police.

Topallaj, who says he sent his family away for fear their lives were in danger, describes the case: "The explanation is simple. With our property, the authorities are finalizing their exploitation of nearly all the production and distribution of the state fuel network, as well as maintaining relationships with importers and illegal monopolies."

Zef Preci was minister of the economy and privatization in 1999-2000 when the police forcibly occupied Topallaj's property. He says corruption is prevalent in nearly all branches of the state.

"If we detach the executive branch, I think Albania's justice system continues to be the most corrupt structure, followed -- as shown by research -- by the government and state-controlled structures," Preci says. "In my opinion, we should agree that corruption is behind the movements of all public funding."

Preci says that despite attention from the West and initiatives like Spahiu's Citizen's Advocacy Office, little has changed over the past five years in Albania, which he describes as "one of the most corrupt countries in Europe."