The Strange Invincibility of Corruption in Albania

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by Fabian Zhilla

It’s ironic that every time a political party wins an election in Albania, it does so by vowing to fight corruption and strengthen the rule of law. A promise to fight corruption helped the right wing win in 2005, and the left wing win in 2013. Yet in Albania—despite becoming an EU accession candidate—corruption is alive and well.

Case in point: Only 22 months into the administration of the newly elected government, two ministers were accused of corruption that amounted to tens of millions of euros lost. The outrage surrounding such revelations is often brief, as corruption has become so routine. Lately, however, there have been attempts by civil society groups to highlight corruption and its manifestations. Recently, investigative journalists successfully unveiled some important corruption scandals, and the number of critics in both the press and on television is growing.

While social pressure to tackle corruption scandals might be short-lived, more and more, academics, civil society, and private citizens discuss the corroding effects of corruption on public life. Even though there are laws that prohibit conflicts of interest, it appears that high-profile officials—particularly in the executive and legislative branches—have escaped all accountability. Even after 25 years of democracy, no minister has ever been charged with corruption. The current government has proposed an expansive reform plan for the judiciary, which, according to the prime minister, will restore order in the courts and help eradicate corruption at all levels. But skeptics say that fighting corruption requires political will, not just legal reforms. Many are asking what’s stopping the prime minister from temporarily removing the ministers accused of wrongdoing, then reinstating them once the charges are cleared.

Nevertheless, judicial reform is a good first step, and civil society groups have been active in researching and reporting on corruption. Personally, I have been involved through my analysis of press coverage of judicial reforms and have commented freely, without consequence. I’m also participating in a long-term study of organized crime with the Open Society Foundation for Albania. This year we presented our first risk assessment in which we noted that corruption in the police, judiciary, and prosecution allows organized crime to challenge the state. Most of the findings have been well received by law enforcement agencies and incorporated into their strategies. This year we plan to explore the links between organized crime and political parties during elections.

We’re making strides, but corruption is still entrenched. While judicial reform is a promising step, it remains to be seen how extensively this reform will be implemented in practice, or whether it will simply be the same old rhetoric.

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