Like many European nations that have seen the erosion of democratic norms and institutions, Albania faces a majority party that has curtailed media independence and horizontal accountability in the judiciary. Prime Minister Edi Rama, like his peers in Hungary and Poland, has been criticized as a bully and near-dictator. Yet unlike its European peers, the Albanian government’s anti-democratic efforts are aimed at protecting the powerful criminal organizations that dominate the country as much as they are aimed to secure the power of the ruling Socialist Party (PS). As Brussels considers Albania’s potential accession to the European Union, it would be well-advised to challenge the criminal apparatus that holds unprecedented covert political power.
A European Narco-state
Organized crime in Albania became widespread after the fall of communism in the 1990s, with the country now described as “the paradise for illegal trade” . Albanian criminal enterprise has become so successful that the Albanian mafia controls nearly the entire £5bn cocaine market in the UK. Albanian gangs now produce and distribute drugs across Europe, and funnel “huge amounts of cash into the country” which they use to exert unprecedented influence on the political system.
A 2014 European Commission Report found that the Albanian judicial system and elected officials are extremely susceptible to the influence of criminal groups . The Democratic Party opposition leader, Lulzim Basha, has accused the Socialists of being allied with crime bosses, saying “It is not the collusion of government and organised crime, it is a fusion.” And he is right. Crime is so entrenched in the Albanian government that when a law was passed in 2016 banning individuals with criminal convictions from holding office, 7% of MPs, five mayors and one minister were found to have a criminal past, with charges ranging from “drug trafficking to participation in prostitution rings” .
Albania’s elections fare even worse. A 2016-2019 EU-funded study found that 20.7% of Albanians were offered bribes in exchange for their votes, with the head of Albania’s Institute for Political Studies saying that “the role of criminal gangs in the 2018 election campaign was greater than the role of political parties.” A US State Department report has described Albania as the home of “rampant corruption, weak legal and government institutions and weak border controls.” This political situation set the stage for the recent slew of “stealth authoritarian” reforms pushed through by the PS, often under the guise of legitimate anti-corruption measures.
Democratic Erosion Through Stealth Authoritarian Tactics
Ozan Varol characterizes stealth authoritarianism as the “use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends” . Examples of this include the use of libel laws and lawsuits to create a culture of self-censorship and the use of so-called “democratic reforms” as cover to “deflect attention from anti-democratic practices” . Where the stealth authoritarian-tendencies of the Albanian Socialist Party diverge from Varol’s definition is that the “anti-democratic ends” they pursue aim not only to secure their own power, but also to secure the power of their political benefactors, namely criminal organizations.
The “Justice Reforms” of 2016 are a clear example of the stealth authoritarian approach of using “democratic reforms” to obfuscate anti-democratic practices. These reforms had the purported aim of cleaning up Albania’s notoriously corrupt justice system and replacing it with “an uncorrupted, independent judiciary beyond of political influence.” PM Rama has been very outspoken about his dislike of the justice system, referring to it as “the most dangerous criminal organization” in the country. While it is undoubtedly true that judges and prosecutors have allowed drug traffickers to operate with impunity, the reforms have resulted in a justice system “stripped of legitimacy, political support, and, most importantly, personnel,” effectively removing a potential source of horizontal accountability in the government.
In the area of media independence, Rama has taken even more aggressive action to eliminate criticism of his government and allies. In 2019, Albania’s parliament passed a controversial anti-defamation law which grants the state’s media authority “the power to fine and shutter online domestic and foreign media outlets – all without a court order.” In the past 2 years, an unprecedented 35 defamation lawsuits were filed by PM Rama, a majority of which are against opposition politicians, journalists and members of civil society.
These anti-democratic measures have most saliently been used to erode accountability mechanisms in the government, but they also have significant implications for the ability of criminal organizations to maintain their socio-economic dominance.
Democratic Erosion with Criminal Implications
The Justice Reforms ultimately did result in the dismissal of at least 80 judges with links to organized crime, but the newly hobbled justice system now has even fewer resources to serve as a check on criminal activity and government misconduct alike.
In the area of media freedom, libel laws have been used to censor investigations of criminal influence on politics, with Rama even suing a German newspaper for publishing audio recordings that showed a drug-trafficking ring pushing a preferred candidate into becoming a Socialist Party MP in 2017. This government censorship, combined with actual violence against journalists by criminal organizations, has resulted in unprecedented self-censorship by the media. A BIRN Albania study found that over half of surveyed journalists “often or sometimes avoided stories, with crime and politics being the biggest areas of avoidance.”
Together, the result is a self-reinforcing system of political & criminal power which maintains the existing antidemocratic social order. The ability of the government to protect the Albanian mafia means the mafia can continue to buy votes and funnel dark money to political campaigns in an extremely durable cycle of cronyism and anti-democratic measures. If the EU wishes to protect democracy in its home continent, it will need to use significant resources to combat the criminal organizations that play just as large a role in eroding Albania’s democracy as the would-be authoritarians they put in office. Allum, Felia, and Stan Gilmour. Handbook of Organised Crime and Politics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019. pp. 89  Ibid, pp. 90  Ibid, pp. 91  Varol, Ozan O. “Stealth authoritarianism.” Iowa L. Rev. 100 (2014); pp. 1684  Ibid, pp. 1686-1697
Hey Nicholas, interesting post! I have never considered the role of powerful criminal organizations in democratic erosion / stealth authoritarianism. In a lot of cases (like Argentina, Brazil, etc.), corruption of elites poses a major threat to the health of the state’s democracy, but it is usually sussed out individually and not through organized crime groups. I think it is worth considering how the situation compares to age of organized crime in the U.S. during the 20th century. Whether or not the U.S. was at that point or is today a healthy democracy is worthy of a whole other debate, but it seems that the state was able to combat the undemocratic ties between politics and the mob to a certain extent. So, should the disentanglement of crime and politics in Albania also take a state-led approach, or will this result in more “stealth authoritarian” tactics? Should the EU and other international institutions step in and play a bigger role? Would Albania give up enough sovereignty to let this happen? I feel like since Albania is currently awaiting on acceptance into the EU, the time for the EU to take action to promote a more legitimate democracy is now as it can use the extraction from crime as a condition to EU membership. Of course, the relationship between states and an international institution such as the EU is insanely complicated, so I know I am really aiming for best case scenario. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for future news on Albania’s situation now though!