THE BLOG
12/21/2015 01:38 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2016

Albania: Ambassador Lu's Watch List

As a driving force behind Albania's judicial reforms, US Ambassador Donald Lu recently told a room full of judges that they were divided into two groups: those "who do their jobs honorably" and those "who are terribly corrupt." "If you look down now at your wrist and you have a watch that costs more than my car, you are probably a corrupt judge," he said. "I encourage you to leave this profession immediately. You may also be put in jail soon." Frustrated with Albania's leadership to combat corruption, the US has shifted its policies from backing strong leaders to strong laws, a welcome change many Albanians and internationals have been waiting for some time.

Twenty five years ago US Secretary of State James Baker became the first senior US official to visit Albania. Baker was welcomed with open arms by more than 300,000 Albanians; they lined the streets and literally kissed the car of their believed savior. After fifty years of harsh communist rule, most Albanians had lost confidence in their leaders and looked towards the West, in particular the United States, to do the one thing Albanians had never been able to do: hold their elected leaders accountable.

Unfortunately, the Americans and Europeans were more interested in preventing the Yugoslav conflict from spreading than in supporting good governance in Albania. Consequently, they looked the other way as the newly elected Democratic Party led by Sali Berisha took over the judiciary (which it still holds influence over today), muzzled the independent media, fired professors based on their political allegiance, took public-private partnerships to mean that elected officials get their cut, and used photo opportunities with US and European leaders as proof of western support for their style of rule.

Over the next 25 years, power has shifted between the country's two leading parties, the Socialists and the Democrats, while the parliament became a den of thieves. The Americans and Europeans called on each successive Albanian government to stop the corruption and political cronyism. Each successive government ignored the call. Many elected officials that went into public service with a Timex and modest apartment, came out sporting Cartier, Gucci, and villas in elite gated communities.

How did Albania become a kleptocracy? Some foreigners blame Albania's rundown civil society and the media for failing to hold the country's elected officials to account. Albanians blame American and European leaders for supporting their corrupt officials. A corrupt leader is a formidable opponent; a corrupt leader backed by Western powers is a Goliath. Albanians point to Sali Berisha, who, for many years, was the favorite son of the United States and Europe. They also point to Ilir Meta, current chairman of parliament and head of LSI, the ruling Socialist's coalition partner, who, during his earlier time as Berisha's coalition partner, was caught on video demanding kickbacks.

Not anymore, says US Ambassador Lu. Corruption will no longer be tolerated, at least not by the United States, which banned public officials implicated in corruption from qualifying for a US visa. Lu and the EU pushed the Albanian government and opposition party to adopt a law that prohibits individuals with criminal convictions from holding public office. Together with his European partners, is now tackling the biggest challenge to Albania's development: depoliticizing the country's judicial system. The proposed reforms would limit the role of politics in judicial appointments, oblige judges to disclose the source of their wealth, and strengthen the power of the General Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute corrupt judges.

What makes this new shift in policy by Washington unique is their support of institutions over individuals and the free rein they have given their ambassador to hold public officials accountable...publicly. With what appears to be genuine disregard for how Lu's open accusations position the embassy or influence his own alliances with political leaders, Lu's bullying-of-bullies are nothing short of refreshing. Unlike his two predecessors who had the impossible task of working with a strong headed Prime Minister Berisha, Lu has found a willing partner in Prime Minister Edi Rama. Rama has waged war on corruption by allowing citizens to anonymously record bribes on the government's online anti-corruption portal, cleaning up the police force, putting an end to fiscal evasion, and enforcing payment of electricity bills.

When asked by a journalist how he proposed to fight such widespread and embedded corruption, Ambassador Lu replied: "Corruption does not need to be fought by those who created it. Don't let the politicians control the anti-corruption initiative." When asked in a follow-up question who would do the fighting, Lu said: "You! And 3 million other Albanian citizens."

Twenty-five years ago, the Albanians that lined the streets to welcome Baker held signs that read: "Welcome, Mr. Baker. Albania has been waiting for you for 50 years." If US policy manages to transform the Albanian judiciary, Albanians may tweet: "Ambassador Lu, we have been waiting for you for 25 years."

Fron Nahzi specializes in international development. The views expressed here are his own.