Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje -
Albania has been trumpeting its success in the war on drugs, whose production and trafficking has posed a major problem for this poor Balkan country. However, despite good results in this war, which is a precondition for the country to further advance in its EU integration path, this is not the end of the problem.
On September 16, Albanian Interior Minister SaimirTahiri declared that 99.2% of cannabis grown in the country, about 690,000 plants spread over 44 hectares identified by aerial maps, had been destroyed so far this year – an indication, he said, of the police’s indisputable success.
Further evidence of progress against the drug lords came on September 22 when the Council of Europe’s monitoring body, MONEYVAL, removed Albania from a watchlist after the government was seen to have met international obligations in the field of prevention of money laundering and financing of terrorism, the country’s finance ministry said.
To illustrate how deep the roots of the drug industry had penetrated Albanian society, Tahiri noted that so far in 2015 disciplinary measures or criminal proceedings had been launched against over 720 police officers, including those arrested for cooperation with gangsters. “Our war on drugs began in our ranks with police officers, who work with cannabis growers and drug traffickers,” the minister said.
A stronghold stormed
Albania has been widely considered the leading supplier of cannabis in Europe and a major transit zone for other drugs like heroin and cocaine. According to a US State Department Narcotics Control Report, in 2012 Albanian police seized over 21 tonnes of marijuana destined for European markets, notably Greece and Italy, nearly double that in 2011. Heroin and cocaine discoveries also more than doubled over the same period, to 87.7 kilograms and 4.6 kg respectively.
And a study conducted by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in 2012 showed that Albania was among the “big five” in the world for marijuana production and exporting to Europe, along with Morocco, Afghanistan, Lebanon and South Africa.
The best known place for cannabis cultivation in Albania was Lazarat, a village in the south of the country, with population of over 3,000, some 30 kilometres away from the Greek border.
Video made by two Dutch youngsters during their trip in Albania less than two years ago showed the notorious village of Lazarat full of cannabis plants.“It’s not normal, really, a whole village full of weed! Crazy, really crazy! Plants 3m high or so,” they said. The two expressed happiness they could smoke there for free. Their video told about a whole family cutting plants or school children walking among them – a clear indication that the cultivation of cannabis was an important source of farmers' income in the village.
The police traditionally steered clear of Lazarat, but the real crackdown began in 2014 when 102 tonnes of marijuana and 550,000 cannabis plants with an estimated value of over €6bn was destroyed. Incidents and clampdowns still occur repeatedly in Lazarat. The last was in June when a policeman was killed and two others wounded during a patrol in the village, followed by a major-scale operation ending with the arrest of a dozen gangsters.
Lazarat was the “capital of marijuana”, but cannabis is also grown in other parts of the country, mainly in woods or in secluded mountainous areas. Reuters recently reported that there is believed to be little serious cannabis production in Lazarat any more, but that the region retains a reputation for defiance of law-enforcement authorities.
Lots of blame to go around
Interior Minister Tahiri also stressed that the fight against the illegal drug industry“is not over” and would continue. “Because this is the only way to make Albania safer, more worthy, where the law applies equally to all and where justice is according to the law not according to someone’s pocket,” Tahiri said.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Edi Rama, who has made one of his government’s priorities Albania’s accession to the EU and needed to show success in the drug war, was also quick to praise the efforts of the police.“What the police have done in the last two years is definitely a historic milestone for the rule of law in Albania,” Rama declared.
Rama, who assumed office in September 2013, also took the opportunity to aim a swipe at the opposition Democratic Party for its failure to deal with the problem during its eight years in power under former prime minister Sali Berisha, and for reputed connections with drug-related criminal activities.“Why did they do nothing in 2013, in 2012, in 2011, in 2010, to react and uproot this cancer from Albania’s body? Thus, the logic says they were from head to toe connected to the industry of this criminal activity,”Rama alleged.
Yet the crackdown will have wider consequences for some of Albania’s poorer regions and the economy as a whole, which Rama has conceded in not so many words. “There are billions and billions that until yesterday went somewhere, but not anymore as of today. This is an operation with colossal interests,” he said.
Destroying the crops will no doubt help cut off funds to violent criminal groups that operate in the country,“even if it will damage the economy in regions where prosperity has relied on marijuana production,” Foreign Policy notes. According to European Drug Enforcement Agency estimates, the illicit crop accounts for up to a third of Albania's GDP.
Then there is the question of how much this will advance Albania’s progress toward joining the EU, for which it became a so-called “candidate country” in 2014. Obviously, the current Socialist-led government wants to reshape the image of Albania into one of a peaceful, safe, EU-aspiring model in the Balkans.
"Demonstrating a clear will and proactive attitude in the fight against drugs, the government increases the support from the member states in the EU integrating process. In the last years the member states have [tended] to 'push the brakes' in this process, especially because of a lack of results in this area," Gledis Gjipali, director of the think-tank European Movement in Albania, tells bne IntelliNews.
According to Gjipali, this is not the end of the problem, as "being a transit country for several types of drugs, has allowed many criminal groups with Europe-wide connections to be active”.
He says the fight against organized crime, money laundering and drug trafficking will continue for many years and needs the continuous support of international partners, since Albanian state structures are still too weak to deal alone the pressure of criminal groups that are well financed with political connections.
The current fight against the informal economy in Albania will also help to decrease the opportunities for such criminal groups to gather wealth and influence, says Gjipali.
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