Crunch time for Albania on judicial reforms

Crunch time for Albania on judicial reforms
The Socialist-led coalition holds 85 seats in the 140 seat parliament, meaning support from at least some opposition MPs will be required.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest July 20, 2016

Albanian MPs are due to vote on July 21 on a package of judicial reforms that, despite their popularity with ordinary Albanians, have been the subject of a long and acrimonious debate between Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government and the opposition Democratic Party. While the opposition seems to be softening, it is still not clear whether enough of its MPs will back the reforms to give Rama the required two-thirds majority in the critical vote.

Brussels has warned that Tirana’s hopes of progressing towards EU accession will be dashed if MPs do not back the proposed reforms on July 21. Conversely, a positive vote could result in EU leaders agreeing to launch accession talks at a summit in December.

Albania has a solid legal framework, but a history of political appointments to the judiciary has meant that in practice many criminals evade justice and there is no effective deterrent. For many years, high-profile criminals and suspects including politicians have been able to walk free in Albania, even when details of wrongdoing have been revealed by the local or international media. An overhaul of the judiciary is likely to result in past crimes being re-examined - one of the reasons for the high level of opposition.

The urgent need for reform was pointed out in the latest EU enlargement report, which says that, “The independence of the judiciary is enshrined in the constitution. However, in practice it is jeopardised by the highly politicised way in which High Court and Constitutional Court judges are appointed ... In principle, judges and prosecutors decide independently on individual cases. In practice, their independence is limited...”

Appointments within the judiciary have been one of the major sticking point during the negotiations between Rama and the opposition, although objections have been raised on numerous other points.

Both sides are now under intense international pressure to pass the reform package on July 21. At a meeting of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee on July 19, both EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and several MEPs said that Albania must pass the reforms if it wants to continue on its EU path. Hahn told MEPs that July 21 was the “last possible deadline” to pass the legislation, though they did discuss the possible alternative of a referendum in Albania, EurActiv reported. He also expressed disappointment with the infighting between government and opposition that has already delayed adoption of the reforms.

Several MEPs also stressed the importance of backing the reforms, including Slovenia’s Ivo Vaijl, who said Albanians must do whatever is possible to catch “the last train” on July 21, according to EurActiv.

MEPs have been firmly behind the reform package, which the parliament’s rapporteur on Albania Knut Fleckenstein previously described as “a very ambitious judiciary reform which will answer the most important concerns expressed by citizens and which will help to fight corruption in everyday life".

Negative consequences

There is also pressure from Washington. The US ambassador in Tirana, Donald Lu, implied there could be repercussions for individual Albanian MPs, saying that politicians who vote against the reforms on July 21 will face “negative consequences” from the US.

“I assure you that these consequences will be severe and long term,” Lu said in an address to the Albanian parliament on July 19.

Lu also singled out Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha, who he claimed had obstructed the process of finding a consensus on the reforms and had changed his objections to a draft agreement. “After 18 months of negotiations, they never came to an agreement? Why? Because it is clear that some of these politicians do not want a deal,” Lu said.

A two-thirds majority in the parliament is needed for the reforms to be passed. The ruling coalition led by Rama’s Socialist Party holds 85 seats in the 140 seat parliament, meaning support from at least some opposition MPs will be required.

Despite the lengthy and acrimonious debates, after a meeting with Basha and parliament speaker Ilir Meta on July 18, Rama expressed confidence that he would manage to secure the two-thirds majority.

In a very rare moment of unity, Basha also described the talks as “constructive”, adding that, “For us, this is an opportunity to successfully conclude the judicial reform.”

The apparent agreement was unexpected, as Basha had previously turned down a compromise proposal from US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, made during her visit to Tirana in an attempt to break the deadlock.

At the time, the Democratic Party, which said it agreed with most of Nuland’s proposal but could not accept her recommendation over the role of international experts.

Research has shown that despite the political manoeverings, almost all Albanians are in favour of judicial reform. A survey by Tirana-based think tank the Institute for Development and Research Alternatives (IDRA) found that 91% of respondents believe in the need for reform, even though many Albanians do not have detailed knowledge of the proposed changes.