Albania government denies links to organised crime
Protesters say the government in Tirana has failed to crack down on criminal gangs.
Tirana, Albania – In a police storage facility just outside the Albanian capital, drugs are piling up to the rafters.
Inside the nondescript building, the scent of cocaine and cannabis is evident, produced by the tonnes of narcotics scattered over the floor and inside large metal closets. The storage units in this dusty building are full, so more bags of drugs are left in a stairwell.
While the sheer volume of narcotics confiscated from organised crime groups is impressive, the political discussion on this issue is even larger. Organised crime is a divisive issue in Albania.
Violent protests over allegations of vote-rigging have rocked the capital of Albania, a small Balkan country trying to become part of the European Union. Protesters attacked police and government buildings with Molotov cocktails, stones and fireworks.
Protesters say the government is not doing enough to fight organised crime, which they allege influenced the 2017 general elections in favour of the ruling party. The government rejects the allegations, noting the elections were certified by the international community.
“Unfortunately, everything is being polarized in Albania. Luckily, there are facts and figures,” Elisa Spiropali, minister of state for Parliament relations, told Al Jazeera.
“The fight against drugs is real and this government has delivered tangible results. According to Guardia di Finanza (police specialising in financial crime), the suspected area of cannabis plantations was 323.5 hectares in 2013, when today’s opposition was in power. Compare that to the reported 0.8 hectares in 2018.”
But the opposition is not buying it.
“The biggest problem is not corruption of institutions; this has always been a problem,” Gazment Bardhi, secretary-general of the Democratic Party, told Al Jazeera.
“It is the connection between organised crime and the government. These groups made a deal with the prime minister … This made us decide to leave the parliament.”
According to Bardhi, the upcoming local elections will not be held in an “atmosphere of calm”.
“There will be no elections because [Albanian Prime Minister] Edi Rama is unable to guarantee us elections or a normal voting day on 30th June,” he said.
The MPs who have relinquished their mandates are being replaced. “This is far from being an ideal situation, but the parliament is legitimate, and the government, as well,” said Luigi Soreca, the EU ambassador to Albania.
“We fully recognised the constitutional principle of right of assembly to express political positions. But we have at the same time condemned any form of violence in public protest.”
Asked about the threats of violence, the EU ambassador was clear.
“We hope that local elections will happen in an orderly fashion, in full application of the relevant laws. As has happened in the past, the EU will participate in the election monitoring, and we are confident that the competent authorities will apply the relevant national law in case individuals decide to break the law,” Soreca said.
The opposition, however, does not seem convinced. “We are working with our local party offices to create local elections structures that will operate in every voting centre and will make it impossible to organise farce elections,” said Bardhi.
“We are determined.”
‘Dust always settles’
The government’s Spiropali said the opposition was going about its dissent the wrong way.
“Attacking state institutions and the police with Molotov cocktails – along with the decision to leave the parliament and [make] public threats about the upcoming election – is absurd. This is not normal,” she said.
“In 2017, we gave the opposition everything they asked for after we brokered a political deal. The 2017 elections were certified by the OSCE and EU as free and fair, but they still continue with their ridiculous threats.
“Elections will happen in June. We are determined to guarantee law and order and offer Albanians their constitutional right to vote freely.”
Back in the drug-storage facility, one police officer, while locking away his multimillion-dollar booty, had one thing to add.
“The dust inside the storage gives me the biggest headache,” he said. “Don’t worry, in the end, the dust always settles.”