The newly elected prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama, has inherited a government and a country on the verge of financial and social collapse. The outgoing Democratic Party drained the state's finances dry, strengthened links between government and mafia, and created a state ruled by Democratic Party law. To quickly refill the country's depleted accounts and to attract much needed international investment, Rama has made combating corruption his top priority. But unless Rama is wearing a tight costume with a red cape, he will need immediate and sustained help from other governments. The US and EU, to which Albania aspires to join, must back up their complaints of corruption by getting actively involved. They must stop being sideline cheerleaders for good governance and join forces to cut the Albanian mafia's far-reaching tentacles.
Just how far do these tentacles stretch? Report after report link the country's political leaders and other elite to the narcotics trade, human trafficking, gambling, illegal construction, and illegal fuel adulteration. A host of judges, police officers, and journalists are on the payroll of one or more organized crime syndicates, evidence suggests. A U.S. embassy cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, detailed corruption on the highest level, calling Albania's leaders "Law Breakers Turned Law Makers." It is estimated that Albania is losing $300 million in tax revenues per year to illegal fuel adulteration alone.
To disentangle this knot, Rama needs help. Bold and sweeping reforms, if he goes that route, will require strong international backing and public criticism when the reforms slow down. Critical is constant monitoring to ensure that a new corrupt regime does not replace the old. The experience of western support for Misha Saakshvili in Georgia is relevant here; Saakshvili came to power on an anti-corruption pledge and was recently voted out of office due to the same type of abuse.
The U.S. and European governments have provided billions of dollars to aid Albania's democratic development since the fall of communism about 20 years ago. This included assisting the Albanian government in drafting anti-corruption policies and laws that, if enforced, should have ended corruption and put many elected officials behind bars. But both the international community and Albanians were united in their naïve expectation of the outcome. Albanians believed that, like any investor who seeks to protect the investment, the international community would have a more direct say in the future of the country. They pinned their hopes on the West, a sort of Super Friends League of Justice, committed to social justice and to end tyranny in the world, to punish elected leaders when they stepped out of line. Western governments, on the other hand, hoped for active Albanian citizens who would demand transparency and accountability from their government. Unfortunately, the Super Friends remained nothing more than comic book superheroes and Albanians were alternately silent or screaming about corruption depending on their political views. Top officials and mafia bosses, meanwhile, raked it in.
The new leader Edi Rama has expressed a willingness to fight corruption and organized crime. Europe and the U.S. should not take a wait-and-see approach but rather hold Rama to his commitment and join him by taking a proactive public position against the organized crime bosses. This means they must drive the effort by utilizing their law enforcement and intelligence bodies to help the Albanian government identify and prosecute mafia bosses and their supporters in and outside of government.
Albania does not need superheroes. It needs committed, law-abiding public servants and funding for government services that improve the livelihood of citizens. Unfortunately, this can only be achieved if Rama can free Albania from the grip of organized crime. This is possible with help from friends.