By Jeffrey Donovan/Alban Bala
A top Italian magazine has accused Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano of involvement in a major cigarette-smuggling ring run with the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. Nano, who has heard such allegations before from his political rivals, says he will sue the magazine for libel. But as RFE/RL reports, the weekly "L'Espresso" is standing by its story, saying it is based purely on the findings of an Italian judicial investigation.
Prague/Tirana, 9 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Is the Godfather running Albania?
Just days after taking office, Albania's new prime minister has come under attack from a leading Italian magazine. The weekly "L'Espresso" accuses Fatos Nano of having ties to international organized-crime groups and involvement in a cigarette-smuggling ring with Naples-based mobsters.
Such accusations are hardly new for Nano, who recently began his fourth stint as prime minister of a country notorious for its black market and organized crime.
Earlier this year, Ilir Meta, the current deputy premier and foreign minister, launched a scathing attack on Nano, comparing him to Mafia boss Don Corleone in the film "The Godfather" and alleging his involvement in numerous shady business deals led by organized-crime figures.
Nano dismisses such talk. But last week's story -- published in a respected Western journal at a time when Albania is eager to improve its image in the eyes of NATO and the European Union -- appears to have struck a stronger chord with Nano than the attacks from his domestic rivals.
This week, Nano vehemently denied the magazine's allegations. He called them libelous and threatened to sue the article's three authors. Nano's spokesman, Aldrin Dalipi, made the following statement: "The prime minister has already contacted an attorney in Italy, who will file suit against the article's authors in accordance with Italian law. On this occasion, the prime minister expresses his strong confidence in the judicial institutions of the neighboring country to legally punish the perpetrators of this smear attempt."
The article, entitled "The Godfather of Albania," is based on transcripts -- now in the public domain -- of wiretapped phone conversations and documents provided by Italian investigators.
The article's editor, Antonio Carlucci, says Nano is not a defendant in the probe but that he is cited in the findings as an associate of the alleged Albanian and Italian mobsters whose activities are under investigation. "He [Nano] is totally free to [sue]. If he does, then we'll discuss in court whether we made a mistake or not. I don't believe we made a mistake." The article paints a dark picture of contemporary Albania. It alleges that political leaders work hand-in-hand with local mobsters as well as organized crime figures from Italy and Colombia. It says Albania's 10 main organized-crime families are among Europe's leading smugglers of narcotics.
Citing documents and photos from the investigation, the article accuses Nano of being involved in a cigarette-smuggling ring that was established last year by his alleged associates and mobsters from the Camorra crime organization based in the southern Italian port of Naples.
The article says that in January 2001, a group led by alleged Camorra boss Vincenzo Titta was greeted in Tirana by Hysen Shaou, who is described as a close associate of Nano's. In cars belonging to Nano, then chief of the Socialist Party, the Neapolitans were chauffeured to meetings at various government ministries as well as at Tirana's central police precinct.
The article says documents from the Italian investigation contain photos of the alleged gangsters in Nano's cars.
A wiretapped phone conversation is cited as evidence that an agreement on cigarette smuggling was sealed between the Italians and an Albanian group led by Shaou and Gaz Demi, a man described as Nano's acting partner in numerous shady business deals and Albania's leading cigarette smuggler. The pact allegedly arranged for cigarettes to be smuggled to Albania from Greece and then on to countries across the former Soviet bloc for a yearly turnover of some $200 million.
British American Tobacco (BAT) is a top cigarette seller in Albania. Its chief executive in the country, Csaba Muzsnay, says the Albanian government loses about $90 million a year in lost sales tax from contraband cigarettes.
The Albanian media have widely reported on the story in "L'Espresso," but not all observers take it at face value. Albert Rakipi is the director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies. He says the article "presents a distorted picture of the developments in Albania, its culture, its political situation, and the way the country is governed. And, in fact, this stereotype does not help relations between Albania and Italy."
Rakipi says he wonders why the story, which recounts events that allegedly took place more than a year and a half ago, was published now. Rakipi suspects that Italy may be unhappy with Nano because the prime minister has been a strong supporter of improving commercial and political ties with Greece, rather than Italy.
Carlucci of "L'Espresso" dismisses such talk. He says there was no hidden motive behind the story's publication. "The Neapolitan investigation was completed just a few weeks ago and its findings have been in the public domain for only the last 10 days. There is absolutely nothing strange about that."
Other analysts say that regardless of the latest accusations against Nano, corruption is a serious problem in Albania and authorities must confront it.
Andrea Stefani is director of IREX, an American organization that supports free media in Albania. He says: "I think this issue cannot be solved unless the Albanian judicial authorities become active independently and professionally. There is no other way out of this vicious circle for the Albanian state, which is stuck in a deep ethical stagnation that is reflected in a moral crisis affecting the whole population."
Nano is not the only Balkan leader to face smuggling allegations. Italian prosecutors in the southern city of Bari are investigating allegations that Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has been involved in smuggling cigarettes to Italy.
Nano, a veteran of postcommunist Albanian politics, became prime minister for the fourth time last month. In a sign of compromise among bickering factions of his own party, Nano's new cabinet includes many of his fiercest enemies, such as Meta.
After parliament voted in the government on 31 July, Nano told lawmakers that the key to stabilizing their chaotic country is to root out graft -- and smuggling.