The gangster regime we fund

I want to thank all British taxpayers for their aid to my country - Albania's President Sali Berisha

Andrew Gumbel
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:53

The government of Albania, Europe's poorest nation, which is now teetering on the edge of anarchy, has been drug-smuggling, gun-running, sanctions-busting and money-laundering. Yet it is still enjoying the support of Western democracies, including Britain.

Frustrated intelligence sources, who have been vainly warning about what is in effect a gangster state, have shown The Independent detailed evidence of collusion by members of Albania's ruling Democratic Party, including government ministers, in an extraordinary range of crimes.

Classified documents have cir-culated in Western capitals for the last two years citing evidence of collusion and active participation by members of the ruling Democratic Party in drugs trafficking, illegal arms trading and, until the end of the war in Bosnia, large-scale sanctions-busting via oil sales to Serbia and Montenegro.

Yet the West, and Europe in particular, has pursued a policy of almost unconditional support for President Sali Berisha and his government. With the country now sliding into anarchy after the collapse of a series of shady pyramid investment schemes, the belief that Mr Berisha could provide stability in one corner of the Balkans has been shattered and the West must ask itself why it did not see the debacle coming.

"I find it amazing that nobody has blown the lid on what has been going on in Albania because it is truly mind-boggling," one intelligence source said. "We have been passing this stuff on but nobody in government wants to know."

Politicians in France, Germany and Italy have continued to praise Mr Berisha in public as a man committed to peace, free markets and the democratic process. Britain established full diplomatic relations with Albania last year. Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, visiting the capital, Tirana, made the charge d'affaires, Andrew Tesoriere, ambassador.

Mr Berisha paid effusive tribute to John Major during the Foreign Secretary's visit and declared: "I want to thank all British taxpayers for their aid to my country". Mr Berisha's Democratic Party is even allied to the Conservative Party through membership of the European Democratic Union, a grouping of centre-right parties.

But intelligence services from different countries have been reporting unambiguously that Albania has turned into a repressive one-party state, where corruption is rife at all levels and a largely gangster-based economy is under the strict clientelistic control of the ruling party.

Drugs barons from Kosovo, the Albanian-dominated region controlled by Serbia, operate in Albania with impunity, and much of the transportation of heroin and other drugs across Albania, from Macedonia and Greece en route to Italy, is believed to be organised by Shik, the state security police, in conjunction with police in the countries with which Albania shares a border. Intelligence agents are convinced the chain of command in the rackets goes all the way to the top and have had no hesitation in naming ministers in their reports. One minister suspected of direct involvement in running the drugs racket has been dropped from the government, but another accused of abusing his position to transport illicit goods is still in office.

During the war in Bosnia, the company that enjoyed a monopoly on the import and export of oil was run directly by the Democratic Party and chaired by its chief, Tritan Shehu, now the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

Intelligence sources further allege that Shqiponja, a company run openly by the DP, was used to run guns and drugs, and these rackets are continuing in other forms.

The pyramid schemes - the various pseudo-banks that succeeded in sucking in funds from almost every Albanian household with the promise of exorbitant interest payments before going bust - also have the government's fingerprints all over them. Two weeks ago, The Independent reported suspicions that the schemes were buoyed up by the influx of funds from organised crime and used for money-laundering.

The biggest of all the schemes, run by Albania's largest private company, Vefa Holdings, is identified closely with the government and has lavishly funded the DP's election campaigns. It is also under investigation in Italy for ties to the Mafias of Sicily, Calabria and Puglia.

For the first time this week, allegations of criminal activity behind the pyramid schemes has been aired in public by Western officials. Pier Luigi Vigna, Italy's chief anti-Mafia prosecutor, confirmed a report by a small business association that Italian-organised crime groups had sunk money into the schemes to raise start-up capital for new ventures. He noted that Albania had become a significant producer of marijuana and was dabbling in the cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine.

None of these allegations come as a surprise to ordinary Albanians who have long since lost faith in the decency of their political system and have relied on the endemic corruption in the country to haul themselves out of poverty through various private scams. If around one million people sank hard-won foreign currency into the pyramid schemes, it was partly on a calculated assumption that the government was underwriting the operations with dirty money.

President Berisha and his government have been deeply unpopular for more than two years as their reputation as champions of democracy and free markets has been tarnished by increasing repression against the political opposition, the independent media and the institutions of state, starting with the judiciary, which have been purged of anti-government voices.

General elections held last May were denounced at home and abroad as invalid because of widespread vote-rigging and intimidation witnessed by international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Albania has been a de facto one-party state ever since. Also, local elections held in October were almost certainly rigged.

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