Albania is one of the smallest countries on the Balkan Peninsula, and this can be seen from the economic indicators of the country. The gross domestic product per capita according to the World Bank amounts to 6,492 dollars, while in Bulgaria it is 12,221 and in Croatia – 17,685 dollars. This value would be significantly higher, but Albania, like Bulgaria in the 1990s, cannot deal with criminal groups.
While this is not new information, the scale of the problem became clearer last month when local police dismantled more than 500 illegal surveillance cameras. Prosecutors say they were set up by gangs to monitor citizens and law enforcement. The investigation began after an explosive device went off near the home of a police officer in the northern Albanian city of Shkodra. Gangs have used remote-controlled cameras to monitor rivals and police movements to outwit law enforcement, a report by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network claims.
Albanian Organized Crime Groups (OCGs) have undergone significant development in recent years. In the past, they were known for growing marijuana and trafficking soft drugs, but now their activities have expanded to importing cocaine and heroin directly from Latin America and Asia. This illegal economy provides millions of euros that are laundered in Albania and the money is invested in luxury real estate on the Mediterranean coast.
“The world of crime is rising to a new level,” says former justice minister Aldo Bumci, a member of the opposition Democratic Party. He pointed to waterfront properties and luxury residential towers in Tirana as a destination for illicit cash. “Distribution networks are growing and so is money laundering… who can afford these apartments? Not ordinary Albanians,” he added to the Financial Times.
The savior is experiencing difficulties
Such a situation can be resolved only with cardinal measures taken at the state level. Populist promises to eradicate crime and the underground economy also paid off in Albania, bringing former basketball player and entertainer Edi Rama to power in 2013.
So far, the prime minister’s promises have not been kept, and even his former appointees are currently in prison for corruption and supporting the organized crime group. “The biggest damage is to the country’s international reputation. The prime minister was once a star of the international media,” Lutfi Dervishi, an independent political analyst and former executive director of Transparency International’s Albanian branch, told the Financial Times. He said Rama has handled multiple crises well, including the coronavirus pandemic, “but now, like a boomerang, he is suddenly in the limelight because of negative news.”
Scandals do haunt Rama. Last year, the government sparked controversial comments by offering a tax amnesty for the repatriation of undeclared income from abroad of up to €2 million. According to the opposition, this would allow high-income criminals to avoid regulatory scrutiny. The law is yet to be approved by parliament, although previous drafts have been criticized by the EU, where Albania is seeking to join.
This followed other scandals. Dervishi said Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for Albania had fallen “just down” since 2016. “This year, I’m keeping a running note of major corruption scandals. I’ve recorded over a dozen so far,” he said.
High-ranking members of Rama’s previous administrations have been implicated in drug deals. Former Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri was sentenced to prison for abuse of office for links to a drug trafficking group. Rama’s reputation abroad has also been tarnished by his contacts with an American law enforcement official accused of helping the Albanian leader hunt down political rivals. The US Department of Justice charged former FBI counterintelligence chief Charles McGonigal in January with violating US sanctions and engaging in money laundering by working for Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
A separate charge focused on McGonigal’s undeclared contacts with Rama, alleging that he performed paid services for the Albanians. McGonigal is accused of taking at least $225,000 from an Albanian intelligence officer and then passing information from Rama’s office to US authorities. They in turn launched an investigation into a US-based lobbyist working for the Albanian opposition.