Judicial Reforms In Albania Still Face Many Obstacles
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For a quarter century, American politicians and diplomats have been nudging, coaxing and occasionally bribing -- with grants and other forms of official aid -- little Albania to do what it needs to do to get free of its Stalinist past and, once and for all, emerge as a normal western nation. It’s nearly there but, as has so often been the case, there is a hitch.

Albania is on the brink of entering into negotiations for European Union accession. It has passed most of the EU’s tests for this -- political, institutional and economic reforms -- but one remains and it has now developed into a major political problem. This is judicial reform. 

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The current Socialist Party government came to power in to 2013 with a strong mandate to clean up the courts, removing corrupt judges and prosecutors. There was virtually universal agreement that this was essential. The European Commission made it clear that this was the one final hurdle standing in the way of accession negotiations. “Albania has fulfilled all other requirements for the initiation of the membership negotiations and the only requirement yet to be fulfilled is the implementation of this reform,” the Commission stated officially in November 2015. 

Eight months ago, the government introduced a draft reform plan. The plan was drafted by outside experts, in close consultation with EU and US legal authorities. It envisaged a process to vet the credentials and qualifications of all judges and prosecutors. 

Curiously, the center-right Democratic Party opposition was opposed, virtually from the start. Compromises were offered, including equal representation on the various bodies which would be established to oversee the new vetting and appointments system. As a consequence, the reform legislation was approved by the Albanian parliament in July, with opposition support.

But now the Democratic Party is opposed again and with its 50 percent representation on the reform bodies involved, it has been able to block any further progress. It is currently boycotting parliament itself. It has organized demonstrations and is now demanding that the government resign, despite scheduled new elections in the next few months.

It is, sadly, clear what is going on. The judges and prosecutors are fighting back. They don’t want to lose their status quo. 

“We know there are some individuals that don’t want this reform and we know why,” EU Ambassador Romana Vlahutin has said. “But justice will come, despite the repeated attempts to postpone it. There is no time to vote for a new draft and the actual one has our full support. The European future of Albania is more important that the future of some corrupted people.”

US Ambassador Donald Lu has been equally outspoken. Referring to the opposition DP, he said, “The majority has accepted all the proposals of the US and the EU, while the head of the DP has always made excuses that led to the rejection of the reform.”

Lu has come under attack for seeming to side with the governing Socialists over the DP. But Albania’s problems with a corrupt judicial system predate any of today’s players. Many of the current problems date back to 1993 when one of the first post-Communist governments removed about 80 percent of the nation’s judges from office. Suddenly facing a severe shortage of qualified lawyers, the government came up with an extraordinary response. It established a six-month law course. Candidates were supposed to be family members of political prisoners, victims of the former Communist regime. In fact, few were. Most proved to be the sons and daughters of the surviving elite. And remarkably, many later would wind up as judges. 

A long-term consequence has been judges living well beyond their publicly disclosed means, mobsters overlooked for prosecution and a political sub-culture reliant on a system which keeps them well protected. 

That poison pervades state administration and politics, and is what is behind the obstacles to the current reformist effort now by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government. He can’t even be certain about his political allies. Ilir Meta, the parliamentary speaker, is widely thought to be working behind the scenes against the reforms, though ostensibly a Rama ally. He recently defended Albania’s prosecutor-general for criticizing Amb. Lu, adding that Albania should not be supervised by foreigners. 

Nonetheless, “foreigners” are watching the situation closely. The US State Department pinpointed the implications of the situation just last week in its annual review of international human rights practices. “Impunity remained a problem,” the report for 2016 said of Albania. “Prosecution, and especially conviction, of officials who committed abuses was sporadic and inconsistent. Officials, politicians, judges, and those with powerful business interests often were able to avoid prosecution.”

Robert Carmona-Borjas (@CarmonaBorjas) is a lawyer, a writer, an academic and Founder of the 501(c)3 social enterprise, the Arcadia Foundation, which focuses on issues of international corruption. He has previously been on the faculty of American University in Washington DC and has taught at George Washington University.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.