Nations in Transit
Population: 3.2 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US$8,820
Source: The data above are drawn from The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2013.
* Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance, to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.
NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year.
Over the course of two decades of democratic transition, Albania has made some progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration, becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2009 and applying in the same year to join the European Union (EU).
In the fall of 2012, the European Commission gave the country’s stalled EU accession bid new momentum by recommending that Albania be granted candidate status. After two years of feuding, the two main political parties had recently cooperated in adopting important reform laws that required a parliamentary supermajority to pass, such as amendments to the civil and criminal codes, the electoral code, and a law on immunity for judges and legislators. However, due to continued partisan deadlock on three other key pieces of legislation, along with a lack of tangible results regarding the implementation of earlier legal reforms, the EU ultimately decided not to grant candidate status to Albania in 2012.
Interior Minister Bujar Nishani was elected president by the parliament on 11 June. He was endorsed by a simple majority of lawmakers from Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party (PD) and allied factions, without a consensual process or the cross-party support advocated by the EU and the international community. Nishani subsequently replaced a number of security and judicial officials who had clashed with the Berisha government.
Nationalistic rhetoric has become more common among political parties, especially on the right, generating objections in neighbouring countries as well as from Albania’s strategic international partners.
National Democratic Governance. Following the political and institutional conflicts of 2011, the year 2012 featured a consolidation of power by Berisha and the PD, which removed perceived opponents from key positions and replaced them with its own appointees. Despite making progress on some relevant legislative reforms, Albania was denied EU candidate status for the third year in a row. Overall economic indicators worsened as a result of troubled efforts to privatize key companies and weak foreign direct investment. A Czech firm that bought the formerly state-owned power distribution company threatened to leave the country due to financial problems, which it claimed were caused by Albanian authorities. Albania’s national democratic governance rating declines from 4.75 to 5.00.
Electoral Process. With the 2013 general elections approaching, the electoral code was amended with the consensus of both the PD and the opposition Socialist Party (PS), though smaller parties were not included in the negotiations. Few technical novelties were introduced, despite calls for reform by international bodies and the smaller parties. A new Central Election Committee was constituted, with members proposed by the PD and PS. However, several legal deadlines for preelection preparations were breached toward the end of the year, raising doubts about whether the voting could be conducted as scheduled. Albania’s electoral process rating remains unchanged at 4.25.
Civil Society. The civil society sector in Albania remains relatively weak in several respects, including organizational capacity, internal democratic governance, public trust, and influence in policymaking. The sector’s performance is also compromised by unclear tax and financial regulations, increasing challenges regarding financial sustainability, and poor cooperation and coordination among different groups. Civil society outside the capital remains especially underdeveloped. Labor unions are also weak, and both the authorities and private companies are typically hostile to organizing and collective-bargaining efforts. Nevertheless, there were some signs of a rise in civic activism during 2012, particularly on the rights of former political prisoners, the improvement of working conditions for miners, waste import policies, and the rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. Albania’s civil society rating remains unchanged at 3.00.
Independent Media. Freedom of expression is legally guaranteed and freely exercised in the country, though the media sector lacks both a clear legal framework and self-regulatory mechanisms. The number of media operators has increased along with internet penetration, but this has not automatically resulted in more diverse or high-quality content. Due to the more stable political environment in 2012, there were no major confrontations between the authorities and journalists. Legal changes early in the year abolished imprisonment as a penalty for criminal defamation, though the provision had rarely been used. The only international media group present in Albania, Germany’s WAZ, sold its stakes to a local partner in August and withdrew from the Albanian market. Albania’s independent media rating remains unchanged at 4.00.
Local Democratic Governance. Local governments are weak, fragmented, and subject to political manipulation by the central government, compromising their ability to function and provide basic services. The transfer of funds to local governments from the central budget continued to decline in 2012. Meanwhile, restrictive borrowing policies make it almost impossible for local governments to diversify their funding sources with loans. During 2012, the government enacted changes to budget legislation that allowed the Ministry of Finance to block financial transfers to already struggling local governments, creating a further check on local autonomy. Regional governments led by the political opposition suffered disproportionally from the resulting loss of funds. Albania’s rating for local democratic governance worsens from 3.25 to 3.50.
Judicial Framework and Independence. Albania’s judicial institutions continued to suffer from political pressure and interference in 2012. The general prosecutor, Ina Rama, was removed through a contentious legal interpretation on the length of her term, and a new one was appointed. Rama had repeatedly investigated senior government figures accused of corruption and other abuses, earning the enmity of the prime minister. Three out of nine members of the Constitutional Court have finished their mandates but are still holding office. Some legal reforms affecting the judicial system were approved by the parliament during the year, while other key laws are still pending. Enforcement of court decisions remains weak, particularly by state institutions. The motives and perpetrators behind the 2011 assassination of a judge in the city of Vlora were still unknown. Albania’s judicial framework and independence rating remains unchanged at 4.75.
Corruption. Although anticorruption efforts are a key component of Albania’s EU integration requirements, they continue to yield poor results due to a lack of political will and institutional enforcement. Citing insufficient evidence, the Supreme Court in January acquitted former deputy prime minister Ilir Meta of corruption charges, bringing an end to a notorious case that had set off violent opposition protests a year earlier. Later in the year, similar charges against former economy minister Dritan Prifti were also dropped. A scandal involving the forging of a university diploma for the son of an Italian politician revealed weak inspections in the country’s educational system. As evidence of impunity for high-level corruption mounts, Albania’s corruption rating declines from 5.00 to 5.25.
Outlook for 2013. The conduct of elections in past years has heavily affected political and institutional developments in the country. The existing hostile political climate and failure to progress in the EU integration process is a direct result of the disputed 2009 electoral process. The next general elections, scheduled for 23 June 2013, will be a crucial test for Albanian democracy and the functioning of core institutions. The recent increase in nationalist rhetoric could accelerate during the campaign. No other relevant developments are expected in the first half of the year, as the approaching elections will monopolize the public sphere. A new government will be mandated in September, when the new parliament begins its four-year term.
Following the political and institutional conflicts of 2011, the year 2012 featured a consolidation of power by Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his ruling Democratic Party (PD), which removed perceived opponents from key positions and replaced them with its own appointees.
The parliament functioned regularly and passed some relevant legislative reforms with the consent of both major political parties, partly overcoming the partisan gridlock of past years. The reforms addressed a number of the 12 key priorities set by the European Union (EU). However, this progress was not enough for the European Council to grant Albania candidate status. In December 2012, Albania’s application was denied for the third year in a row, mainly due to a lack of results from adopted legislation and the refusal of the opposition Socialist Party (PS) to pass the three remaining bills related to the EU priorities.
The election of Interior Minister Bujar Nishani of the PD for a five-year term as president on 11 June enabled the other important appointments later in the year. He was chosen by the parliamentary majority without the consensus or cross-party support advocated by the EU and the international community. The PD demonstrated a lack of political will to include the opposition in the selection process. At the same time, the opposition chose not to endorse the first two candidates proposed by the ruling coalition, who were not directly linked to the majority. As a result, the first three voting sessions, which required a qualified majority, failed. Nishani was elected during the fourth voting session, which required only a simple majority. As Albania is a parliamentary republic, the president has few executive powers, but he does have an important role in appointments to the judiciary and security services.
In August, Nishani dismissed Bahri Shaqiri as head of the State Information Service (SHISH), Albania’s intelligence agency. Since the president has no obligation to justify such decisions, no explanation was given. However, after the violent antigovernment protests of 21 January 2011, Prime Minister Sali Berisha had publicly accused Shaqiri of participating in a coup conspiracy with the opposition, then president Bamir Topi, and general prosecutor Ina Rama, among others. The new SHISH chief, Visho Ajazi Lika, had served as deputy minister of innovation in Berisha’s cabinet.
In the fall, Nishani also moved to appoint a new general prosecutor. The parliamentary majority claimed that Rama’s mandate expired in November 2012, five years after her appointment, while the opposition argued that her term ended in May 2013, five years after the revised law on the office, which replaced the life mandate with a five-year term, came into force. Rama’s predecessors were similarly discharged through speedy, unclear procedures, which the Constitutional Court had deemed unconstitutional, but no legal remedies had since been undertaken. Rama did not file a complaint in response to her dismissal when her replacement, Adriatik Llalla, was appointed by the president on 3 December.
The year 2012 marked the centennial of the establishment of the modern state of Albania. Many celebratory activities were organized in Albania and among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia. An increased level of nationalistic rhetoric adopted by some smaller political parties and organizations during 2012 had a spillover effect on mainstream parties and the government. Statements made by the prime minister during the centennial celebrations drew negative reactions from neighboring countries, with the representatives of Macedonia and Greece canceling their participation in the ceremonies. Albania has often been praised for having good relations with its neighbors, and such incidents could endanger the support of international partners.
The economic situation remained stable during 2012, although macroeconomic indicators worsened as a result of troubled efforts to privatize key companies and weak foreign direct investment. The privatization of the state oil company Albetrol was uncertain at year’s end, since the bidding consortium did not pay the financial guarantee before the required deadline. The formerly state-owned power distribution company bought by the Czech firm CEZ was suffering significant financial problems during the year. CEZ blamed its losses on low rates set by the Albanian Energy Regulation Authority (ERE) and the nonpayment of utility bills by Albanian government entities. Albania’s state-owned electricity producer, KESH, claimed that CEZ in turn had failed to pay it large sums of money during the year. ERE fined CEZ and was reviewing its distribution license. Given its large stake in the energy market, CEZ’s possible departure from Albania would require the intervention of the government and would have a negative effect on the state budget. Public debt was already high in 2012; Albania breached its public debt ceiling of 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) during the year. However, in December 2012 the parliament passed a government-proposed bill that abolished the legal threshold for public debt. In addition to the country’s existing financial difficulties, the measure was apparently motivated by the expectation of increased public spending ahead of the general elections scheduled for June 2013.
Economic growth was weak, with real GDP shrinking by 0.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012. The return of migrant workers from Greece has affected the economy and businesses. Some improvements in the regulatory framework continued; the payment of company taxes was made easier through the abolition of the vehicle tax and the promotion of electronic tax filing. However, due to stagnation in many categories and better performance by other countries, Albania’s ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2013 actually worsened to 85, from 82 in the 2012 edition.
Property rights continue to be an issue of high concern for the country’s development. The government has adopted a formal strategy to address the problem, but efforts to produce concrete results have moved at a slow pace. The strategy acknowledges that because the financial cost of the process has not yet been determined, it cannot provide a clear timeframe for the full restitution of property rights. Moreover, the process, ongoing since 2006, of legalizing illegally occupied properties in exchange for a fee has financially burdened the state budget. In a recent adjudication, the European Court of Human Rights instructed the Albanian government to “reconsider increasing the cost-share borne by the legalization applicants to the extent that it would be capable of matching the financial compensation paid to former owners.”
The contentious 2009 elections led to more than two years of political deadlock, stalling overdue electoral reforms and exacerbating conflicts between state institutions. With general elections approaching in 2013, the urgency of election reform resurfaced and the two largest parties in parliament—the PD and the opposition PS—engaged in serious negotiations on revising the electoral code. The process was closely watched by the EU, which has established improving the country’s legislative framework to meet European standards as one of the 12 key priorities for Albania to receive candidate country status.
After several rounds of negotiations, the PD and PS reached an agreement on amendments to the electoral code in July. Although the changes were praised by the international community, smaller opposition parties complained that the amendments lacked broad consensus. Excluded from the negotiations, these parties met separately and prepared suggestions that they hoped the two biggest parties would consider, though these attempts usually proved unsuccessful. One of the proposals that was rejected by the PD and PS concerned the representation deficit of smaller parties in Albania’s regional proportional representation system, which favors the two major parties.
Ultimately, the existing electoral system remained largely unchanged, with the exception of a few technical novelties. The new code provides for the testing of two new electronic systems for voter identification and counting ballots in two regions during the next elections in 2013. Nevertheless, many of the key recommendations from local and international organizations were addressed, though some suggestions—such as shifting the control and administration of elections from the political parties to politically neutral bodies—were not integrated.
The parliament confirmed the election of a new Central Elections Commission (CEC) in October after missing the legal deadline set by the revised code. All CEC members were proposed by the two main parties. However, the head of the CEC, like his predecessor, is affiliated with the ruling Democratic Party. The former head of CEC, who was often accused by the opposition of biased decision-making, was appointed deputy minister of interior.
Other delays in preparing for the elections raised concerns about whether the voting would be conducted in accordance with international standards. The installation of new technologies planned for use in the elections got off to a late start, and the new CEC proved unable to implement changes to the distribution of mandates in the parliament based on population data provided from the Interior Ministry because opposition members of CEC objected to large discrepancies in the available data. The 2011 census results count less than 3 million citizens residing in the country, while the civil registry—from which voter lists are generated—registered around 4 million. Since Albanians living abroad are only able to vote inside Albania and there is no special register for expatriates, opposition parties claimed there were numerous opportunities for inaccuracies in the voter lists. After the CEC failed to achieve a qualified majority vote on the matter, the decision was referred to the Assembly, which decided to keep the same mandate assignment that was in place during the 2009 elections.
In the past, political parties largely disregarded gender quotas, despite the existence of financial penalties for violators. In 2012, a coalition of NGOs advocating for gender equality pushed for a firmer provision in the revised electoral law that would require a 30 percent female quota for candidate lists and increase fines for parties that do not comply.
For the first time in Albania, the CEC approved a request by citizens for a national referendum, but due to bureaucratic delays, the vote has been postponed until 2014. Initiated by a coalition of NGOs and activists called Alliance Against Waste Import, the referendum challenges several articles of a law approved by the government in November 2011 allowing the import of nonhazardous waste into the country for commercial processing. Proponents of the referendum complained that the CEC had pulled out all the stops to delay its implementation-- taking 17 days to process the initial request and surpassing the 90-day deadline for validating signatures. Although the CEC ultimately approved the request for the referendum in June, by the end of the year, the commission had yet to send to it to the Constitutional Court for approval. The court needs 60 days to review the request before it passes it to the president, who sets a date for the referendum within 45 days. Since the law prohibits referendums from occurring 6 months before or after an election, even if the CEC submits the request to the court in January 2013, the vote cannot take place until the following year. Activists criticized the CEC for arbitrarily delaying the referendum and compromising mechanisms of direct democracy enshrined in the electoral code, claiming the incident set a dangerous precedent.
The civil society sector in Albania continues to be weak and struggles to find public space in a highly politicized environment. Political infighting has dominated public debate and left little room for other actors to contribute to the country’s development. However, a wider range of civil society figures have become more active in demanding greater inclusion in the consultation process and in opposing government policies. There were some signs of a rise in civic activism during 2012, particularly on the rights of former political prisoners, the improvement of working conditions for miners, waste import policies, and the rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people.
Access to information represents a persistent challenge in Albania. The Ministry of Justice committed to amending the law “On the Right to Information for Official Documents” and the Ministry for Innovation and ICT pledged to draft a special law "On Notice and Consultation" in April 2012 that will regulate a structured consultation processes with a range of partners, including civil society actors and economic and social interest groups. However, both pieces of legislation were still in progress at the end of the year.
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have limited activity outside the capital. All CSOs must register at the Court of Tirana District, which complicates the activities of those organizations working in the regions. Networks of organizations are rare and largely inefficient. Overall, most organizations have limited interaction with the groups of society they strive to represent. Since the public still associates CSOs with compulsory activities organized under the communist regime, many Albanians refrain from engaging or supporting civil society activities. The state does not proactively encourage volunteering.
As the pool of international donors shrinks, financial sustainability is becoming an increasingly pressing issue for many CSOs. Organizations often follow donor-driven agendas and dedicate a large share of their capacities to grant-making rather than pursuing their own organizational goals. International donors have increasingly made their funding conditional on the receipt of co-support from central or local state institutions, reducing the ability of CSOs to remain impartial government watchdogs. Attempts to diversify funding through for-profit activities are also difficult because of a lack of legislative regulation and unclear taxing procedures. Albania lags behind other countries in the region in the creation of legislation for regulating charitable donations from individuals or companies. The state-funded Agency for the Support of Civil Society (ASCS) issued its fourth call for proposals in late 2012, and but organizations were only given two months to prepare their applications. The agency’s calls for proposals usually cover an eclectic range of priorities and the process of defining them is unclear. Funding is frequently awarded to unknown CSOs; watchdog organizations and movements campaigning against government policies are unlikely to receive support from the agency.
In 2012, there was a modest rise in civic activism related to environmental issues and LGBT rights. In spring 2012, the Alliance Against Waste Import raised public awareness about the adoption of a draft law on Integrated Waste Management that approved the import of nonhazardous waste. After state institutions were unresponsive to the groups advocacy efforts, the alliance presented over 60,000 signatures in support of a referendum to revoke the law to the Central Elections Committee, initiating procedures for a public vote on the issue. Amid counter protests from religious communities and public disapproval, LGBT organizations held several public rallies to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia on 17 May 2012.
In September, the Association of Former Politically Persecuted Persons (AFPPs) initiated a hunger strike, demanding monetary compensation for those imprisoned by the communist regime in accordance with accordingly with legislation passed in 2007. While several representatives of the international community visited the strikers to hear their grievances, the Albanian government appeared indifferent to the strike until October when two demonstrators set fire to themselves. A few weeks later, one of the men who committed self-immolation, Lirak Bejko, died from the resulting burns. The government accused the strikers of political motives and said the strike was being exploited by the opposition for political gain. On 17 October a court ruled the strike illegal and ordered the protesters to end the strike. The police proceeded to block off the area where the hunger strike was taking place, isolating the strikers from the public. Shortly after, on 22 October, the remaining AFPPs called off the strike without receiving the compensation demanded from the government.
Trade Unions in Albania are weak and nearly absent from the public sphere. Labor inspections are extremely rare and legal proceedings in defense of rights of workers and trade unions often take years to resolve. The government and private companies are generally hostile to trade unions, discouraging many workers from joining them. Key principles of social dialogue are frequently breached and unions are not actively involved in collective bargaining. During 2012, The Union of Mineworkers, one of the few truly active unions, fought energetically against government and private companies, demanding better pensions, salaries, and working conditions as well as proper application of the concession contract with the Albanian Chrome company, which was awarded after a hunger strike at the Bulqiza mine in 2011. In October 2012, two workers reportedly died at the mine due to unsafe conditions.
Freedom of expression is legally guaranteed and freely exercised in the country, though the media sector lacks both a clear legal framework and self-regulatory mechanisms. The number of media operators has increased along with internet penetration, but this has not automatically resulted in more diverse or higher-quality content. Due to the more stable political environment in 2012, there were no major confrontations between the authorities and journalists. Authorities dropped the controversial charges raised against four well-known journalists, whom the prime minister accused of attempting a coup d’état during the demonstrations of 21 January 2011.
Seven years after Prime Minister Fatos Nano committed to decriminalizing libel in 2005, defamation remains a criminal offense. However, Albanian authorities passed reforms to the civil and criminal codes in March and February 2012, abolishing prison time as a punishment and limiting the fines that may be imposed if charges are brought to court. In the last few years, fines have not been issued in defamation cases lodged by public officials. Defamation cases against journalists have been on the decline in recent years as politicians increasingly opt to sue their each other, rather than the media.
The financial viability of media in Albania relies heavily on the private funds of their owners and advertising revenues. Major media outlets, especially television channels and newspapers, are owned by construction or oil companies and generate unreliable advertisement revenues. Media depend on coveted advertising contracts from state institutions, which are typically awarded to media that provide favorable coverage of the government, leaving few truly independent outlets. In September, members of parliament from the opposition PS accused the Minister of Transport Sokol Olldashi of buying $800,000 in advertising space from a newspaper own by members of his own party and from other media closely linked with the government. In return, the Olldashi denounced the leader of the opposition, Edi Rama, for having bought ads in pro-opposition media when he was the Mayor of Tirana. The opposition filed a deposition with the prosecutor’s office to investigate the ministry’s officials on allegations of abuse of office.
Foreign investment in Albania’s media sector is weak. Until 2012, the German company WAZ was the only international media group with holdings in Albania. In 2010, WAZ's director Bodo Hombach announced that WAZ intended to withdraw from the Balkans, complaining that abuse of power and the collusion between governments and oligarchs had hampered the media group's business operations. WAZ finally sold its remaining 67 percent stake in Media Vizion in August, ending its business in the country.
The National Council of Radio and Television (NCRT) is the main body responsible for regulating public and private radio and television in Albania. As the members of the council are elected by the Assembly via a simple majority vote, the body is perceived as politically biased, leading media professionals and NGOs to demand the reform of the law regulating appointments to the council. The adoption of the law on Audiovisual Media Services, which will harmonize broadcasting regulations with European legislation, was delayed again in 2012 because members of parliament could not reach consensus on a formula for appointing members to the new regulatory bodies created under the new law. Albanian Radio and Television (ART) and the Albanian Telegraphic Agency (ATA) are the only public media in the country. Both maintain a strong bias in favor of the government. Politically charged content and outdated technology has reduced their popularity with the public, increasing their reliance on funding from the state budget.
Several media organizations and unions exist, but they have had little influence on working conditions, editorial freedom, or relations between journalists and media owners. A large majority of journalists work without formal contracts. The salaries of media workers are not standardized according to their roles and some media routinely delay the disbursement of payment to their employees. In 2012, the Albanian Union of Journalists staged a protest in support of the Albanian journalist Marin Mema, who was refused entry into neighboring Greece as a result of his investigative reports on the fate of ethnic Albanians expelled from Greece during World War II. South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) also expressed concerns calling for Greek authorities to investigate violations of the free movement of journalists committed by its border authorities, citing an incident in 2011 when a Macedonian journalist was also prevented from entering into the country.
In May 2012, the government adopted a new strategy for switching from analog to digital broadcasting as well as an action plan for its practical implementation. Although the digitization process began in 2004, subsequent deadlines were not met, making it impossible to complete the transfer by 2012 as originally planned. The new strategy resets the final deadline for June 2015. However, concerns about successfully completing the transfer by this date remain high as authorities have yet to start implementing the new strategy and resolving problems surrounding the unlicensed use of several frequencies by high-definition broadcasters remains an open question.
Investigative journalisms remains weak in Albania, though increased online and regional platforms have provided a new space for its development. According to the OSCE, an incomplete legal framework, ongoing financial difficulties for media owners, and political pressure as well as poor working conditions for journalists continue to thwart the growth of investigative reporting in Albania.
The legal framework for local government in Albania is based on the principles of democracy, decentralization, and autonomy. However, in reality, local governments are weak, fragmented, and subject to political manipulation by the central government. Continuous internal migration and emigration have left many local units with too few inhabitants and too little revenue to provide basic services. By 2012, most Albanian local governments were heavily in debt to the electricity supplier CEZ. The government responded to pressure from CEZ with legislation that further undermines local government autonomy.
Local government is divided into 373 directly elected local units made up of 65 municipalities in urban areas and 308 rural communes. The mayors of municipalities and communes are directly elected through a majority system, while their representative councils are elected through a proportional, closed-list system. A second layer of local government is made up of 12 largely powerless administrative units called qarku, or counties. Counties are governed by councils made up of representatives of communes and municipalities and their elected heads.
Financially, local administrative units find themselves increasingly dependent on the central government. Badly-needed infrastructure development depends on central government investment, which is determined through a grant application process with unclear criteria. A committee headed by the prime minister evaluates all applications, usually on the basis of party loyalty. Local authorities have no say in the amount or placement of central government investments.
According to a report by the United States Agency for International Development, the transfer of funds to Albania’s local governments from the central budget is declining, even relative to neighboring countries with comparable expenses and revenues. Meanwhile, restrictive borrowing policies make it extremely difficult for local governments to diversify their funding sources and reduce their dependence on the central government. The 2008 Law on Local Government Borrowing allows local governments to seek loans for financing infrastructure projects, but secondary legislation and more recent administrative regulations have effectively prevented them from doing so. In November 2012, the central government increased its own ability to borrow, removing an existing cap on national public debt.
In September 2012, the Albanian government rushed through a legislative amendment allowing the Ministry of Finance to block funding transfers from central to local government budgets. The law, which imposes yet another check on the autonomy of local government, was passed partly in order to address Albanian local governments’ unpaid utilities and mounting indebtedness to CEZ. The exact amount of their debt accumulated is a subject of some disputed between the government and CEZ, but the figure legally owed at year's end was 1.3 billion LEK ($13 million USD). At several points during the year, the ministry exercised this power when local government units failed to pay their utility bills. The ministry withheld funds usually allocated for local utilities and transferred them directly to electricity distributor CEZ. As a result, some already struggling local governments found themselves forced to downsize; some even threatened to close down temporarily, having no alternative sources of funding.
The transfer of water utilities to local governments, once touted as a positive example of decentralization, has also turned out to be very problematic. Beginning in 2007, the central government unilaterally assigned shared ownership of water utilities to local government units, despite these units’ reluctance to manage utility companies they knew were not financially viable. According to a 2011 report by the World Bank, responsibility for these utility companies is a major burden on local government, as very few of the companies can fully cover operation and maintenance costs out of their internal revenues. The lion’s share of local government debt to CEZ derives from water utilities.
Political forces continued to vie for control of local councils long after the May 2011 elections, hampering the normal functioning of local institutions. Political gridlock delayed or blocked several municipal councils from approving 2012 budgets. Conflicts between the opposition and ruling party are particularly prevalent in regional councils at the county level. Representatives of different political parties have switched sides, creating new majorities and replacing previously elected officials in a legally questionable manner. In Fier county, several court battles are ongoing, including one dispute between two would-be council leaders, neither of which recognizes the other’s authority. As regional councils have no real power, the struggles for their leadership appear to be merely an exercise in political muscle-flexing.
While the Albanian constitution provides the foundation for a well-functioning and independent judicial system, it has demonstrated chronic weaknesses resulting from political polarization and pressures, decreasing financial support, and the persistence of corruption. Albania’s judicial institutions continue to suffer from political pressure and interference in 2012 in appointments to the Supreme Court and the High Council and the controversial dismissal of the general prosecutor, who was known for going after high level officials on corruption charges.
Three out of nine members of the Constitutional Court have finished their mandates but are still holding office because parliament refused then president Bamir Topi’s proposals for new appointees. In response to a request from members of parliament, the Constitutional Court ruled in June 2011 that both the president and parliamentary assembly must agree on selection criteria for appointments to the Constitutional Court and High Court. In July, the Constitutional Court upheld the decision of the parliament to reject the nominees, ruling that it did not affect the president’s competencies. Following the judgment, Justice Petrit Plloci resigned from the court, citing his disagreement with the seemingly limitless extension of judges’ mandates. Plloci’s departure leaves only eight judges in the nine-seat court with the next round of appointments not scheduled until the spring of 2013. With cross-party support, the parliament finally approved the appointment of Justice Artan Zeneli to the last remaining vacancy on the Supreme Court in late July. Parliament’s refusal to approve Topi’s presidential nominees was one manifestation of the long political battle between the former president and Prime Minister Berisha that proved highly destructive for the functioning of Albanian institutions. A parliamentary committee began reviewing amendments in October that would introduce clear, merit-based criteria for approving appointments in line with EU recommendations, but these had not been adopted by year’s end.
In August, the former head of the Agency for the Restitution and Compensation of Property Elvis Cefa was appointed vice president of the High Council of Justice (HCJ), replacing Kreshnik Spahiu. Spahiu resigned in February after the ruling majority accused him of abuse of office and set up a parliamentary inquiry committee to investigate his allegedly illegal political activities in connection with a nationalistic organization. The general prosecutor, Ina Rama, was removed in November through a contentious legal interpretation on the length of her term. Former inspector general Adriatik Llalla was appointed as her replacement in December. Rama had repeatedly investigated senior government figures accused of corruption and other abuses, earning the enmity of the prime minister.
Some legal reforms affecting the judicial system were approved by the parliament during the year, despite frequent attempts from the opposition to block a qualified majority by abstaining from the vote. The constitution was amended through a qualified majority vote, limiting the immunity of high-level officials (including judges) and allowing for their investigation and criminal prosecution without prior authorization. Whether the change will lead to a greater number of investigations and convictions of top officials remains to be seen. As part of a bipartisan push to make progress on judicial reform, the parliament passed laws defining clear regulations for the National Judicial Conference, lawyers, and administrative courts. The latter provides for the establishment of a dedicated chamber for administrative cases at the Supreme Court, but hinges on the adoption of other reforms that were still pending at year’s end. The opposition has refused to provide the qualified majority for the remaining reforms until a court decision concerning the election of the Head of Council in Fier Qark has been executed.
The lack of adherence to legal deadlines has delayed the publication of court decisions for civil and criminal cases, which in some cases has led to grave consequences. In September, the head commissioner of Shijak was killed in the line of duty by a previous offender, who had been released on murder charges due to a judge’s failure to publish a decision in time for the prosecution to appeal the case. The judge was dismissed for neglecting to submit over 60 case files in a timely manner, and his trial on charges of abusing public office is ongoing.
No progress was made during the year in the investigation of the assassination of Skerdilajd Konomi, a judge known for his independence and professionalism, in the city of Vlora in 2011. Although the case is regarded as a top priority for both the prosecution and police, the motives and perpetrators behind the crime remain unknown. Konomi’s assassination was the second attempt on the life of a judge in the last two years and the first one to succeed.
A decision in the case related to the deadly explosion of an ammunition-dismantling factory in the village of Gërdec in March 2008 was delivered by a first instance court in March. Of the 29 people accused, 5 were given prison sentences of more than 5 years, while the others received lesser sentences or were acquitted. Families of those killed in the blast were angered by the withdrawal of murder charges against 3 of the defendants. Because the case has been dragged out for years, the detention periods were already exhausted by the end of the trail. Therefore, the indicted have been released until a final decision is delivered by a court of appeals.
The trial of four members of the Republican Guard for the shooting of four protestors during the events of 21 January 2011 is ongoing. Due to the complexity of the case and the weight of political pressure on investigators, the prosecutor’s office requested that the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States conduct scientific analysis of the evidence. A parliamentary inquiry committee that was established in 2011 by the parliamentary majority, but boycotted by the opposition has neither continued its investigation nor produced a report on the case. The international community has continuously called for a fair investigation and warned against undue political interference in the trail.
Corruption is widespread in many sectors in Albania, posing a major obstacle to the country’s development and democratization. Despite the fact that the EU considers fighting corruption a key priority for Albania’s integration, anticorruption efforts have yielded weak results due to a lack of political will and institutional enforcement. The implementation of Albania’s 2011–13 Anticorruption Action Plan continued in 2012 without proper monitoring or follow-up. The year witnessed acquittals in two extremely prominent cases of high-level corruption, demonstrating the inability of the judicial system to withstand political influence and punish graft. Albania’s ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2012 fell from 95 to 113, the lowest rating in Europe and far below other countries in the region.
Members of Albania’s Supreme Court are proposed by the president of the republic and appointed by a simple majority in parliament. The Supreme Court acts as a first instance court for high officials, including members of the national assembly. This arrangement allows the ruling majority to appoint judges unlikely to rule against them in corruption cases. In September, members of the national assembly finally reached cross-party consensus on a constitutional amendment limiting immunity for members of parliament and judges. However, the level of political influence on the judiciary remains such that it is difficult to predict the impact of the change. In December 2012 President Nishani replaced Prosecutor General Ina Rama, who had brought a number of corruption cases against senior government officials. A number of low-to-middle–ranking officials were arrested during the year, but no new top-level prosecutions had been initiated at year’s end.
In January 2012, citing a lack of evidence, the Supreme Court dismissed charges against Ilir Meta, who had resigned as deputy prime minister in 2011 after a video showed him discussing acts of corruption in connection with the tender on a hydropower plant. The video, which had been released to the media in January 2011 by a member of Meta’s own party, led to a major demonstration that ended in dozens of injuries and four deaths. On the eve of the Meta verdict, media reported that Prime Minister Berisha was having dinner at Meta’s home, in a show of support. The next day, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the authenticity of the incriminating video could not be verified, despite authentication reports by international experts. All charges against Meta were dropped.
In a parallel case against former economy minister Dritan Prifti, the court ruled in September that another incriminating video was inadmissible, leading prosecutors to drop the charges. Footage of Prifti apparently splitting a bribe with a colleague had been discovered by the prosecution in the process of authenticating Meta’s video (stored on the same computer). The dismissal of these two, widely publicized cases sent a signal that high-level officials are still above the law, even in the face of convincing evidence.
The culture of impunity in Albania is not confined to the government sphere or to public institutions. In spring, it was revealed that the son of prominent Italian politician Umberto Bossi had received a degree from the private Kristal University in Tirana without knowing the Albanian language or having attended any courses. The fraud was uncovered by Italian prosecutors, rather than as the result of an Albanian investigation, and the only employee of Kristal University charged with wrongdoing in an Albanian court was the university archivist, who had apparently forged the documents.
Poor transparency and access to information greatly complicate efforts to monitor corruption, though some progress in this area was visible in 2012. Efforts to enhance transparency through the development of e-government initiatives continued in 2012, but have yet to be finalized. The harmonization of data on investigations and attempts at improved institutional coordination constitute other positive developments. The Supreme State Audit agency played a more proactive role in inspections and corruption investigations during the year, bringing 40 criminal cases against 125 public administration officials in 2012—double the total number of charges brought between 2009 and 2011.
Gledia Gjipali is executive director of European Movement in Albania, a Tirana-based, nonprofit think tank dedicated to the democratization and European integration of the country.
 Besar Likmeta, “Albania opposition pans nomination of new spy chief,” Balkan Insight, 13 August 2012, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/albania-opposition-pans-nominations-of-new-spy-chief.
 Albanian Constitutional Court, “Vendim Nr. 76 Gjykates Kushtetuese” [Decision No. 76 of the Constitutional Court], 8 April 2002, http://www.alb-net.com/pipermail/albsa-info/2002-April/002898.html.
 “CEZ: Trouble in Albania,” Financial Times, 26 November 2012, http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/11/26/cez-trouble-in-albania/#axzz2FUxviuwf.
 The World Bank Group, South East Europe: Regular Economic Report No. 3 (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 18 December 2012), 23.
 “Albania,” Economist Intelligence Unit, August 2012, http://www.eiu.com/index.asp?layout=RKCountryVW3&country_id=880000288.
 The World Bank Group, Doing Business 2013 (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2013), 39, http://www.doingbusiness.org/~/media/GIAWB/Doing%20Business/Documents/Annual-Reports/English/DB13-full-report.pdf.
 Government of Albania Department of Strategy and Donor Coordination, Strategjia Ndërsektoriale: Reforma Në Fushën e Të Drejtave Të Pronësisë [Intersectorial Strategy: Reform in the Area of Property Rights] (Tirana: Government of Albania, 27 June 2012), http://www.dsdc.gov.al/dsdc/pub/strategjia_reforma_ne_fushe_e_te_drejtave_te_pronesise_1192_1.pdf.
 European Court of Human Rights, “Case of Manushaqe Puto and Others V. Albania,” 31 July 2012, paragraph 115, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng/pages/search.aspx?i=001-112529.
 “Albania Waste Referendum Ruling Outrages Greens,” Balkan Insight, 4 September 2012, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/albania-court-decision-on-referendum-raises-eyebrows.
 The Republic of Albania, Ministry for Innovation and ICT, Action Plan, Open Government Partnership Initiative, April 2012, pg. 4.
 United States Agency for International Development (USAID), 2011 Albania SCO Sustainability Index (Washington, DC: USAID, June 2012): 3.
 “Albanian court tells former political prisoners to end 26-day hunger strike over compensation,” FoxNews, 17 October 2012, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/10/17/albanian-court-tells-former-political-prisoners-to-end-26-day-hunger-strike/#ixzz2XMOsf78c.
 International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights: Albania (Brussels: ITUC, 2012), http://survey.ituc-csi.org/Albania.html?edition=336.
 “Two Miners Dead in the Accident at Bulqiza,” Albanian Screen, 29 October 2012, http://news.albanianscreen.tv/pages/news_detail/49751/ENG.
 “SP: Government, 800,000 USD for pro-government media,” Top Channel, 21 September 2012, http://www.top-channel.tv/english/artikull.php?id=7127.
 “WAZ sells stake in Albania’s Vizion Plus,” Balkan Insight, 23 august 2012, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/waz-sells-stake-in-albania-s-vizion-plus-tv.
 Ilda Londo, “Parliamentary Media Commission Completes Discussion of Audiovisual Media Services Bill,” IRIS Legal Observations of the European Audiovisual Observatory, March 2013, http://merlin.obs.coe.int/iris/2013/3/article8.en.html.
 European Commission, Albania 2012 Progress Report (Brussels: European Commission, 10 October 2012): 39, http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2012/package/al_rapport_2012_en.pdf.
 OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, “Economic, political interests and poor legal implementation hinder free press in Albania, says OSCE media freedom representative,” news release, 7 June 2012, http://www.osce.org/fom/91144.
 USAID Planning and Local Governance Project (PLGP), White Paper on Fiscal Decentralization in Albania (Washington, DC: USAID, 4 October 2012), XI, http://www.plgp.al/plgp/images/pdf-files/White%20Paper%20on%20Fiscal%20Decentralization%20-%20English%20-Final%20Oct4.pdf .
 Ibid, 60.
 The World Bank Group, Decentralization and Service Delivery in Albania: Governance in the Water Sector (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, August 2011), 8, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTALBANIA/Resources/Water_English.pdf.
 The Constitutional Court declared the end of three judges’ terms on 28 April 2010 and 24 May 2010. See Constitutional Court decision no. 41, dated 19 July 2012.
 Constitutional Court decision no. 41, dated 19 July 2012.
 The High Council of Justice is in charge of judicial appointments, performance evaluation and undertaking disciplinary measures for judges.
 High Council of Justice press release, dated 7 December 2012.
 European Commission, Albania 2012 Progress Report (Brussels: European Commission, 10 October 2012): 13, http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2012/package/al_rapport_2012_en.pdf.
 European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, “Ilir Meta acquitted from charges, opposition protests court ruling,” 18 January 2012, http://www.europeanforum.net/news/1324/ilir_meta_acquitted_from_charges_opposition_protests_court_ruling.
 Supreme Court, Decision, No. 8, dated 24 January 2012.
 Supreme Court, Decision, No. 6, dated 21 September 2012; and Besar Likmeta, “A specter is haunting the Balkans: the specter of corruption,” Foreign Policy, 6 December 2012, http://transitions.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/12 /06/a_specter_is_haunting_the_balkans_the_specter_of_corruption.
 Supreme State Audit, “Annual Report 2012,” December 2012.