BALKAN BLOG: Drug trafficking scandal threatens to engulf Albanian government

BALKAN BLOG: Drug trafficking scandal threatens to engulf Albanian government
Albania's "marijuana mountain" Lazarat was the drug capital of Europe but Prime Minister Edi Rama aims to wipe out large-scale drug cultivation by the end of this year.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest October 25, 2017

Less than four months ago, Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government was overwhelmingly endorsed by Albanians in the June general election, hiking support among voters sufficiently to rule without a coalition partner and push ahead with ambitious anti-corruption and judicial reforms. Now Rama’s government has been embroiled in a drug trafficking scandal involving ex-interior minister Saimir Tahiri that threatens to derail the reforms needed for Tirana to advance towards EU accession. 

High level corruption, in particular involving narcotics, is a perennial problem in Albania, and one of the issues raised by EU foreign ministers in the early part of this decade as they repeatedly blocked Tirana’s applications for EU candidate status. Albania was finally approved as a prospective member of the bloc in 2014, after several failed attempts, but with the provision that it needed to step up the fight against corruption and organised crime. 

As in states across the Western Balkans, EU accession is the top priority in Albania, and opening its first negotiating chapters is the more immediate goal. With this in mind, Rama — in power since 2013 — has embarked upon wide reaching, anti-corruption reforms as well as a comprehensive overhaul of the judiciary in the last couple of years. Steps taken range from the 2015 campaign against the informal economy to an attempt to prevent Albanians from stealing electricity, which resulted in a drastic decline in the energy losses. Ahead of a critical meeting of EU foreign ministers to decide whether to accept Albania as a candidate country, Tirana also launched a military operation against the drug cultivators of Lazarat, known as Europe’s “marijuana mountain”, and Rama has since pledged to eradicate large-scale cannabis cultivation by the end of this year.

In the judicial sphere, the government has struggled to gain the backing it needed from the opposition Democratic Party to have key legislation adopted; the Democrats, who were in power in the years after the fall of communism, have more to lose from the ongoing efforts to overhaul the sector and remove corrupt judges and prosecutors. Still, with pressure from the EU and the US, the process has continued, and vetting bodies that will examine the histories of local judges and prosecutors are due to become operational this month. 

Criminal links revealed 

Now, however, revelations of links between Tahiri — a member of Rama’s Socialist Party and an ally of the prime minister — and drug traffickers operating in Italy pose a serious threat to the government, made worse by the efforts of Rama and Socialist MPs not to allow the immediate stripping of his parliamentary immunity. The party has now evicted Tahiri, and his immunity was lifted at a plenary session on October 25, but the opposition still says this was too little, too late. The parliament, where the Socialists have a majority, also voted against holding him in prison while the case is investigated. 

The Democrats have long accused Tahiri of links to drug smugglers; a fairly common accusation flung about in Albania where there are many connections between organised crime and politicians, and these are not limited to any one party. 

However, Tahiri’s criminal links were dramatically confirmed in early October when wiretapped conversations between Albanian drug smugglers active in Italy were published by the Italian media. They show two Albanians — suspected drug smugglers Moisi and Florian Habilaj who are distant cousins of Tahiri — discussing a conversation with a powerful Albanian politician, apparently Tahiri. 

In one conversation intercepted in December 2013, Moisi Habilaj comments to an associate, Sabaudin Celajt, that “He [Tahiri] has more than us”, while Sabaudin responded that he has only the name [in terms of fame and position], but he does not believe he had more money than themselves, Ora News reported quoting one of the transcripts. Moisi was also quoted as saying that Tahiri had made €5mn in one month. In another conversation, Habilaj said that “€30,000 should be given to Saimir”.

According to Italian investigators, Moisi Habilaj even arrived in Sicily, together with his collaborator Sabi Celaj, in an Audi car that once belonged to Tahiri.

However, the ex-minister has denied all the accusations, saying that the Habilajs are his distant cousins, and they used his name for their own ends. He reportedly added that he regretted selling the car to Habilaj four years earlier.

Damaging accusations

Tahiri is no longer a member of Rama’s government; he was dismissed in the run-up to the election as part of an agreement with the Democrats to let non-party candidates take over some ministerial posts. The decision followed accusations from the Democrats that he had been involved in drug trafficking. But despite his expulsion from the ruling party, the Socialists will have to deal with the damaging claim made by the suspected drug traffickers that they believed Tahiri had used illegally-obtained money to finance the party’s election campaign.

This last revelation has threatened to bring down a serving minister, Energy Minister Damian Gjiknuri, who former prime minister Sali Berisha claimed had been filmed receiving money from Habilaj’s clan in the city of Vlore during the last election campaign, Albanian Daily News reported on October 23. (No footage of the alleged incident has yet surfaced.)

The Democrats, who were on the back foot after a crushing election defeat in June, are now capitalising on Rama’s failure to immediately condemn his former minister. 

After the scandal broke, on October 17, Rama urged the prosecution office to launch an investigation to check Tahiri’s possible criminal links. 

“We want the truth as soon as possible. What came out of the conversations is disgusting and shocking,” Rama said on his Facebook page.

However, he appeared lukewarm on taking action against the former minister, adding that, “I have known Tahiri for years and I have only words of support and encouragement for him as a person of good intentions, skills and integrity. But, Albania and Albanians today want and deserve to know the truth, only the truth and nothing but the truth.” 

This was seized upon by the opposition, who also slammed Socialist MPs for recommending that a decision on whether to strip Tahiri of his immunity be made at an upcoming plenary session of parliament rather than taking action straight away. 

The Democratic Party responded by accusing Rama of exerting pressure on judicial institutions to help Tahiri. “What is happening is that members of the [Socialist Party] in the parliamentary commission of mandates and immunity, under the order of Edi Rama, did not allow justice to function,” the party said in a statement on October 22. They made the further claim that “The truth is that Tahiri, with Rama's full knowledge and blessing, was the captain of the narcotics.” Prosecutors have also criticised Rama’s stance.

The first big fish? 

In a strongly worded speech to the local Magistrates School on October 2, US Ambassador Donald Lu called the country a “centre of organised crime activity”. Lu stressed that despite efforts to improve the situation, there had been “zero convictions, zero arrests, and zero prosecutions, of any big fish for organising, leading or financing drug trafficking organisations in 2016 and in 2015.”

“[U]ntil the big fish are arrested, prosecuted and go to jail, the cannabis will return, judges will be bribed, and government officials will be corrupted,” the ambassador commented. The opposition clearly hope that Tahiri will be the first ministerial level “big fish” to be brought to justice. 

Meanwhile, the growing scandal is not only likely to distract from the ongoing judicial reform process, it also tarnishes Albania’s recently improved reputation at a critical time; Rama is hoping to open the first EU negotiation chapters soon. 

In Brussels, crime, corruption and drugs are clearly the primary cause for concern where Albania is concerned. Following the accession of Bulgaria and Romania back in 2007, the EU has slowed down its engagement process in the last decade after many argued that the two countries had been insufficiently prepared. Both countries are now the subject of regular checks under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) that monitors progress in fighting corruption and (mainly in Bulgaria’s case) organised crime. 

This issue was highlighted in the latest annual enlargement report in November 2016. European Commission officials noted progress in judicial reform and fighting corruption, but warned that “More efforts are needed to tackle corruption at high level… Corruption remains prevalent in many areas and continues to be a serious problem.” Furthermore, it pointed out the low number of final convictions in organised crimes cases, and the lack of effective financial investigations related to organised criminal groups. 

Should the latest imbroglio lead to further delays on Albania’s long and winding path to EU accession, it will be a great disappointment in a country whose population are among the most enthusiastic of all the potential future members. A July Gallup poll showed that as many as 80% of Albanians want to join the EU.