Albania's Deep-Rooted Drug Problem Touches All Of Europe

Macedonian customs officers pose for the media with hundreds of packages of marijuana which were seized at a border crossing,
Macedonian customs officers pose for the media with hundreds of packages of marijuana which were seized at a border crossing, in Skopje, Macedonia, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Macedonian custom officers seized over 500 kilograms (1100 pounds) of marijuana at a Macedonian border crossing with neighboring Albania and detained the truck driver, police said. The marijuana, which is believed to have originated from Albania and destined for distribution in western Europe, has an estimated euro 3 million (US$ 3.8 million) street value. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Albania, a small country in southeastern Europe, has become the epicenter of the European drugs trade, especially marijuana. This should come as no surprise. With its extensive coastline along the Adriatic, this region of the Balkans has long been the trailhead for illicit goods, weapons and drugs hiking into the heart of Europe. This activity has bolstered the rise of organized crime and political corruption in a country that already faces many domestic challenges.

What makes the current situation unique are the allegations, especially coming from the opposition Democratic Party, that senior officials of the ruling Socialist Party are connected to or benefit from the drug trade. Prime Minister Edi Rama has been repeatedly accused of failing to do enough to stop Albania's role in Europe's drug trade. And Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri has even been accused of protecting--and even covering up for--those involved in the drug trade.

These allegations raise the question: What could possibly motivate Albania's governing elite to get tangled up in the murky world of organized crime and drug smuggling?

Perhaps they stand to gain personally. Maybe it's part of a larger plan to retain power. Albania suffers from political and economic corruption as much as, if not more than, the rest of the Balkans. Millions of dollars could buy off a lot of judges, journalists, and prosecutors and help secure electoral victory well into the future.

Whatever the motivation, something fishy is going on.

Earlier this month, an Italian pilot, Andrea Guidi, crash landed in a field north of Albania's capital of Tirana. At first Guidi claimed he was flying over Albania for recreational reasons. However, a journalist named Artan Hoxha claimed that the pilot had told prosecutors that he was checking out the terrain before returning 20 days later to pick up 200kg of cannabis. Considering the history of small aircraft being used to transport drugs out of Albania, this explanation seems plausible.

Soon authorities detained Mr. Hoxha, apparently for releasing sensitive information to the public. The plot thickened when the opposition Democratic Party suggested that the information that Mr. Hoxha shared was actually released by Interior Minister Tahiri as a ploy to "compromise the investigation" and cover-up the nefarious acts of the drug traffickers.

Earlier this year, Greek authorities accused the Albanian government of protecting and covering up for Klemend Balili, an Albanian businessman who served as a local administration official in the southern Albanian city of Saranda. Balili is suspected of financing a racket exporting marijuana from Albania to Western Europe. Again, Albania's opposition Democratic Party was quick to point out Mr. Balili's political connections and accused Tahiri of protecting the alleged kingpin. The government's inconsistency regarding what it is doing to put an end to Albania's drug problem is also sowing distrust. Last year Albanian authorities claimed to have destroyed 99.2 percent of the country's marijuana. This is fanciful. Already this year, police claim to have destroyed 1.7 million cannabis plants which apparently is three times the amount destroyed last year. The math doesn't add up.

In many ways a country like Albania is ripe for this sort of venality and illicit activity. It ranks 88th in the world in Transparency International's most recent Corruption Perceptions Index. And The Heritage Foundation's 2016 Index of Economic Freedom gave the country a "repressed" rating-- lowest rating possible in the category of corruption.

Even so, Albania has much to be proud of. The country became a full member of NATO in 2008, becoming only the second Muslim-majority nation in the alliance. In 2014 it became an official candidate to join the EU. For a country located in the turbulent, economically depressed and war torn Balkans region these are no mean feats.

But the level of corruption emanating from the political elite and the country's role in Europe's illegal drug trade--both occurring with the alleged complicity of senior government officials--should concern policymakers in Washington, D.C., and across Europe.

Not only is this unbecoming for a country aspiring to become a closer member of the Euro-Atlantic community, it runs the risk of further destabilizing an already volatile region.