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Albania: Accusations Of Corruption And Money Laundering Against Ruling Socialists

In Albania, heated political rivalries are continuing to pose a threat to the country's vulnerable state institutions. Former Prime Minister Ilir Meta and his faction of the ruling Socialist Party are under investigation for alleged abuse of state authority. An opposition faction is attempting to impeach the country's prosecutor-general. And new accusations have emerged that Socialist Party Chairman Fatos Nano has attempted to organize money laundering on a massive scale.

Tirana, 8 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Dritan Prifti, a member of parliament and then Albania's energy minister, recently accused Socialist Party Chairman Fatos Nano of having attempted two years ago to launder some $1 billion, Prifti's political popularity evaporated overnight.

Prifti, who earlier served as chief of staff in the cabinet of former Prime Minister Ilir Meta before becoming energy minister, describes how Nano approached the cabinet with a request to approve a contract that Prifti says would have had the Albanian government acting as a front for a multimillion-dollar money-laundering operation.

"Finance Minister Anastas Angjeli and I gave [Nano] the same advice. We consulted the proper international institutions about the proposals, and we came to the decision not to grant Mr. Nano the 'privilege' of money laundering through the government of the Republic of Albania. Mr. Nano was mediating for an American group that wanted to engage in money laundering in Albania. I possess authentic American documents, and I am ready to make them public any time, in order to prove that this was a dirty bid."

Prifti's accusations did not go unnoticed. His remarks came as Albania's Prosecutor-General's Office requested that Prifti's parliamentary immunity be lifted to enable further investigations into claims of abuse of state authority. Prifti, the former director of the Albanian Electro-Energy Corporation, is the third senior official to be investigated for allegedly covering up state losses of some $57 million incurred through the import of electricity.

Ardian Visha, the spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office in Tirana, describes the nature of Prifti's alleged violations: "We have publicly reminded Mr. Prifti and everyone else that hiding such key data means committing the crime of 'non-confession,' covered by Article 300 of the Albanian Penal Code."

Angjeli and Prifti were among the ministers to lose their cabinet posts after Meta resigned as prime minister in January, saying Nano forced him to quit for refusing to support Nano's presidential bid this year. Prifti has called the prosecutor's move an act of revenge by Nano against him and other rivals within the Socialist Party -- most notably Meta, who has substantiated Prifti's accusations that Nano attempted to launder money through the government. Now, both Prifti and Meta may soon find themselves behind bars and their political careers cut short as prosecutors pursue their corruption investigations against both officials.

The ongoing rivalry between the Nano and Meta camps within the Socialist Party appear to be about more than just political power. Political observers in Tirana say that more light will be shed on the nature of the feud once the privatization of the state telecommunications company, AlbTelekom, gets under way and officials begin scrambling for control of the enterprise.

The leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Sali Berisha, says the close ties between state officials and large-scale organized crime, corruption, and trafficking have deeply weakened the Albanian public's trust in politics and state institutions. Berisha says a large number of politicians have been implicated in dubious affairs and calls for "speedy, reliable, and serious investigations" to be carried out. Furthermore, he stresses that parliamentary immunity should not stop the fight against corruption.

"Suspending a member of parliament's immunity for a criminal investigation -- on [criminal] grounds and not on political ones -- is a positive step in the right direction and a signal that members of parliament should spread in order to show their will to fight crime and be politically involved. Lifting immunity is limited by the criminal investigation, and of course this proposal [to lift immunity] does not include the arrest of the parliament member without the formal permission of parliament."

Parliament is expected to rule on lifting Prifti's immunity as early as next week, when the lawmaker is expected to return to Albania from Germany, where he is undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor.

Despite Berisha's apparent support for the case against Prifti, the opposition has called for the impeachment of Prosecutor-General Arben Rakipi. Berisha called on Rakipi to resign when the Socialist parliamentary whip Arben Malaj denounced a secret agreement between Meta and the opposition to proceed with the investigations against Prifti. Parliament is scheduled to discuss Rakipi's impeachment later this month (18 March).

Artan Hoxha is an independent analyst who heads the Institute for Contemporary Studies in Tirana. He says these events challenge Albania's weak state institutions while enabling improved public transparency.

"I don't consider it to be either a defining moment for the Albanian political elite or a sincere effort to that end. I would say that this conflicting moment is a result of unbalanced illicit interests within the [ruling] political class. In my opinion, Albania's institutions are dangerously threatened by informal, unlawful relations. For the institutions, it's hard to confront this problem."

The U.S. State Department's 2001 report about "Money Laundering and Financial Crimes" lists Albania as a "jurisdiction of concern." It also says, "Albania must undertake efforts to develop or enhance its anti-money-laundering regime."