Albania in crisis: Why has Europe turned a blind eye to the corruption that has poisoned a nation?

Short-term interest in political stability has been put above longer-term problems, writes Andrew Gumbel

The evidence amassed by Western intelligence agents of collusion by the Albanian government in criminal rackets will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the country and its lawless environment. What is surprising, however, is why the governments receiving the intelligence reports have chosen for the most part to turn a blind eye.

The allegations are very serious. Drugs, arms, contraband cigarettes - all are believed to have been handled by a company run openly by Albania's ruling Democratic Party, Shqiponja, while it was in operation. The company, which has also been accused of breaking the international embargo on oil sales to Serbia and Montenegro during the Bosnian war, by shipping oil across Lake Shkoder and by sea to Bar, was wound up in January 1996. But according to intelligence sources contacted by The Independent, its activities are continuing.

Agron Musaraj, Interior Minister until last May's general elections, was pressured out of his job, the intelligence sources say, because the United States, the only Western country twhich has taken a critical stance on Albania, told the government it suspected that he was masterminding the entire drugs racket.

During Mr Musaraj's tenure, the Albanian police made only one significant drugs haul, seizing about three kilos of heroin in February 1995. But sources within the police said at the time that this was only a small portion of a much larger shipment bound for Italy, the rest of which got away across the Adriatic unimpeded.

In the course of 1996 open allegations, considered credible by the intelligence community, surfaced in Albania that the Defence Minister, Safet Zhulali, had used his office to facilitate the transport of arms, oil and contraband cigarettes. He is still in office.

Now much suspicion is focused on Vefa Holdings, Albania's largest private company and the biggest of the country's pyramid schemes which is still in operation. Vefa's chairman, Vehbi Alimucaj, is a former army supplies manager who is accused of becoming rich by trafficking government armaments with the consent of the ruling order.

Why has the West put up with this behaviour, and allowed Albania to turn into a festering sore of criminality and potential destabilisation in what is already the most sensitive region in Europe? The reasons are far from clear but have to do with the international community's misplaced priorities in Albania, a fatal misreading of the nature of President Sali Berisha's government from an early stage and - to believe the intelligence sources - a certain degree of obstinacy and ignorance.

The West allowed itself to be dazzled by the achievements of President Berisha's first two years in office, during which the country was rescued from the brink of chaos and starvation, consumer goods flooded in, inflation was brought under control, the currency was stabilised and the promise of full amenities to outside investors beckoned.

During the recent Balkan wars, it was considered essential for Albania to remain peaceful, and refrain from stirring up trouble among the ethnic Albanian communities in the Serbian province of Kosovo and in Macedonia.

President Berisha was considered the right man for this job, and as a result his ever-deteriorating record on civil liberties, his gradual suppression of the opposition and the independent media, his purges of state institutions, including the judiciary, and his exclusion of more and more of his most talented former colleagues in the Democratic Party, were all overlooked.

In all the euphoria about double-digit growth rates, few bothered to notice that the revenue was almost all coming from criminal activity or artificial sources, such as foreign aid and remittances sent home by Albanians working abroad. For all the talk of free markets, foreign investors have been kept firmly out of Albania's clientelistic system and the country still has little in the way of a legitimate productive economy.

It was only in the run-up to the May 1996 elections that the international community began to worry about the deteriorating political and economic climate - partly, perhaps, because the war in Bosnia was over, and the security priorities had changed. The International Monetary Fund suspended its credit lines because of excessive pre-electoral public spending and initial concern about the sprouting pyramid schemes, and the United States, once President Berisha's greatest champion, began to issue more critical public statements.

In the wake of the blatantly rigged elections, the US refused to recognise the new parliament and issued its private warnings to the government about ministerial involvement in the drugs trade. A CIA report published last June is believed to have been very tough on Albania and grimly pessimistic about the prospects for the future.

This turnaround in US attitudes appears to have passed most of Europe by. During the summer, Italy and Germany, two of President Berisha's closest allies, actively lobbied for a special European Union agreement with Albania - thus opening new credit lines and conferring further legitimacy on the government. The proposal failed largely because at least some European countries had been sufficiently shocked by the rigged May elections to demand some progress on democratisation in return for further favours.

Even with the collapse of the pyramid schemes and the escalating spiral of violence now racking the country, some Europeans have failed to wake up to the gravity of the situation, persisting in the belief that economic and trading interests are best served by this government.

As recently as two weeks ago, diehard Berisha fans such as Leni Fischer, President of the Assembly of the Council of Europe, were issuing statements of support for the Democratic Party and echoing Albanian government rhetoric about "red terrorists" destabilising the country.

According to one intelligence source, politicians in his country have been so dogged in their attitude that they may not have bothered to read the alarming intelligence reports and indeed may not have even seen them because their underlings figured it was futile passing them on.

European diplomats in Tirana appear to have been equally cautious, failing to report back anything that might interfere with the deeply misguided notions about Albania still prevalent in Western capitals. It was a mistake, one that has already cost Albania dearly and which will come back to haunt Europe.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice